Believe it or not, I am not huddled away in the back of a shop or junkyard somewhere smearing my greasy fingers across an old keyboard when I type these posts out. Believe it or not, I do have friends. These friends live all over America. Most of them are still mechanics while the other half are teachers (weird I know).
I’d been begging one of these friends to come out to Orlando and visit for about 4yrs until I finally bit the bullet, bought a plane ticket and flew out to see him for a weekend. The second I stepped out of Sand Diego Int. Airport’s sliding doors I got a call from Mike saying he was a bit late.
After a quick lunch in Carlsbad, we grabbed all the extra pizza and headed northbound to Big Bear, CA to test out Mike’s newest build for his venture, Highland Off-Road. It’s a pretty basic 4Runner build. Nothing too special, just everything that’s functional and not over the top.
Mike hasn’t had this project for too long so it hasn’t had a chance to get crazy yet. Mike has made a point over his last couple builds not make anything “too shiny.” His builds are an exercise of function. The vehicles are modified just enough to get the job done. No more, and certainly no less.
The truck was certainly a comfortable commute. The tires weren’t loud on the 2hr trip up to the mountain and despite those 35″ tires and V6 power, it got decent enough gas mileage.
We got to the mountain, found our spot and set up camp. A task made easier due to the sleeping space in the truck and the insta-tent we had. I threw my gear into the tent and turned in for the night.
Nighttime temps had gotten down to the high 30’s, which is cold for a Florida bred guy like myself. I woke up at first light to find I had burrito’d myself in my sleeping bag (50* rated) with some warm and comfy Patagonia Flannel and an old hoodie I still carry around from the racing days. Breakfast was leftover cold pizza. Normally I wouldn’t have devoured day old pizza that had been sitting out in the open, but with air that dry and refrigerator like temps all through the night I figured we’d be fine.
We hopped in the truck and headed into town to refill on gas for the day and grab some water before hitting the trails. We started off at the top of Gold Mountain. A truly beautiful vista parked next to an old mine shaft that overlooks parts of the Baldwin Dry Lake and the Eastern parts of Big Bear Lake. This also served as the perfect spot for us to air down for the upcoming trails.
We followed the initial trails into the lush brown, yellows and gold mountains. The pines underbrush that hasn’t been burned out was a drastic but welcome change to the evergreen Florida landscape I’m used to. Wildlife was scarce but the occasional eagle or hawk was visible floating on the updrafts.
The easy highlight of our day driving the trails was venturing a new peak. The trail was short but not altogether technical. There was some crawling over the boulders but nothing that the ‘Yota couldn’t handle. Mike and I eventually made it up the short but steep trail to the peak of the mountain and some more incredible views overlooking Lucerne Valley.
The rest of the trip for that day was fairly easy going. We had planned to attend what was supposed to be a small Oktoberfest celebration in town that evening, but more on that later. We made a short stop at Holcomb Valley to walk around and explore on foot an old panner’s homestead. Mike shared a story about how one of the trees easily visible from across the valley was once used fo hangings and various executions back in the day. The tree stuck right out. Its scraggly and almost dead look stood out from the others in the valley.
Our break in Holcomb was done. We navigated our way back out of the mountain and into town for the night’s Oktoberfest celebration. Mind you we weren’t sure what was going to happen at this party of sorts. It takes place in the middle of nowhere in a small community center and there were loads of elderly people manning the ticket booths and gate. At best we figured it wouldn’t be much more than a large church picnic. We were sorely mistaken.
Once inside and after our first round of beers, we discovered what can only be described as Beerfest. There were hundreds of people stuffed into this small community center. All of them eating and drinking like the world was going to end. In the center there was an announcer, what we were told was an “authentic German band,” and various games. Some of these games involved beer steins and ping-pong balls, others involved logs and saws. It was a madhouse.
Once the beers loosened our spirits up a bit Mike and I decided dancing was a good thing to do. We found the nearest group of seemingly eligible women, grabbed them by the hand and proceeded to spin around long enough that we couldn’t tell if it was the beer or the women that were making our heads spin. As it turns out The Cupid Shuffle and Chicken Dance are the only dances that everyone, young or old, can do. They’re universal dances.
Brats, potatoes, good beer, and lots of loud music and singing made for a pretty crazy night inside. The party had shown us that strange things -good things- happen in strange places. We stumbled back to the Toyota, Mike handed me the keys and we made our way back into the mountain to sleep off “Jaeger Hour”. Now, I’m not the most competent off-roader, but the truck made things a breeze in the dark. The bespoke lights that Mike had equipped this truck with fought back the darkness and gave even a novice like me the confidence to venture into the wilderness at midnight. Every rock, every twig was illuminated. I could see everything I was about to crawl over and because of that, I’m sure, we made it back to camp in time to fall onto our sleeping mats and be lulled to sleep by the tinnitus in our heads.
Sun-up. Cotton mouth. Puffy eyes. We had had fun last night. We had finished off what was left of the old pizza at this point and had to go into town for breakfast. A little diner in downtown Big Bear called to us as we drove by. It felt every bit the ski resort diner that it was for this ski resort town. Old pictures of the mountain on the walls. Old skis and sleds hung up for decoration. The food on the menu couldn’t escape this theme. Mike order a coffee and OJ and something called “The Avalanche.” This dish was your basic breakfast staples; eggs, bacon, sausage, home fries, and biscuits all smothered in sawmill gravy.
I had a coffee, black as I usually do, an OJ, and the steak and eggs. They had apparently run out of steak, so the ver nice waitress put in an order for 2 pork chops instead. Lucky me. After wolfing down our weight in breakfast food and hot coffee we climbed back in the rig and made for the hills. This day’s trip would take us up the south side of the lake. A scenic departure from the dry yellows, golds, and browns from the day before. He was right. It was alpine!
Tall pine trees and evergreen underbrush made for some picturesque trialing that day. As the temperature dropped, the fog rolled in and the rain started everything just seemed to get better. We rolled out onto a cliff face with a view of the valley some 1000′ feet or more below; with clouds rolling beneath us took a moment and breathed in the absolute beauty of this place.
The rest of the trip is probably best in pictures, really. Along with the alpine forests the lower portions of the mountain forests were decked out in reds and yellows rivaling even the Northeast during prime leak peeking season. With the steady drizzle giving a welcome respite to the dust and dampening the roads everything seemed to shimmer in autumnal light. Cold blue roads and warm colored trees really made for a beautiful backdrop for my last day in the mountains.
The drive back felt every bit as long as 2 hours could be. The sky was overcast and the once enchanting weather from up on the mountain became dismal and gloomy. Mike and I were tired and worn out from Oktoberfesting and offroading in Big Bear for the weekend. The silence gave time to reflect on the weekend. The damp atmosphere, always welcomed in parched SoCal, the same that made the orange leave glow was now depressing and cold. It wasn’t until that evening, reflecting over ice cold beer and tacos on the water that our exhausted spirits had lifted. There really is nothing quite like a cold one after a long weekend eating pizza and driving around hot, dry, and dusty trails.
The weekend was absolutely perfect. The truck handled everything from low speed crawling to high sped interstate cruising like a champ. Toyota’s are known for their reliability and this one doesn’t disappoint. It still ran strong without a hiccup or cough. Every morning she started right up with no hesitation. Not every 250k mi build can boast that. Highland’s newest project 4Runner already looks solid. It is no trailer or show queen. It’s driven every day. It beat on every chance it can get. I can’t wait to see what Highland puts out next.
Specs And Pics:
4WD w/ factory E-locker
K&N high flow drop-in filter
Hayden 678 Trans Cooler (Radiator Bypass)
Tundra Front coils sitting on 4Runner Bilstein 5100’s set on lowest notch – 2″ lift
OME 891 Rear coils paired with 4Runner Bilstein 5100’s – 2.5-3″ lift
Custom Sonoran Steel Rear Bump Stops
Wheelers Off-Road Front Super Bumps for 2nd Gen Tacoma
ProComp Wheels – 8″ wide (possibly for sale)
Cooper ST MAXX 315/75/16 (Full set of 5)
Custom Front Bumper
4″ square stock connecting rear frame rails for “custom rear bumper”
3 Highland Off-Road 9″ LED lights ( 2 fog lenses, 1 spot lens)
Trimmed firewall back
Trimmed front fenders up 2″
OEM ground clearance mod ( removed running boards)