Big Bear And Highland Off-Road’s New 4Runner

 

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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.

Awesome.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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:


 

Underhood/Drivetrain

3.4L V6

Auto Trans

4WD w/ factory E-locker

K&N high flow drop-in filter

Hayden 678 Trans Cooler (Radiator Bypass)

Suspension/Tires

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)

Exterior

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)

 

 

“When Will I Learn?”

Trucks, especially old trucks are made differently. They’re stout and built to take a beating.  Up until the ’90s there wasn’t such a thing as a luxury truck.  King Ranch and Denali editions weren’t a thing. Trucks were basic, honest, machines made for getting the job done.

Old Ford F100s are iconic work trucks. It doesn’t matter which side of the argument youre on, F100s are beasts, along with other old trucks, and don’t give in to breakdowns too easily.

Check out Steve’s old Fords for a prime example of built Ford Tough:


 

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I suppose my story really begins with Bob Chandler, Jim Kramer, and Bigfoot. I can remember watching VHS tapes that my grandparents would get by mail of monster trucks running other cars over with reckless abandon back in the days when in order to participate in the sport, you just needed a truck, a big block V8, some big tires, a mullet and a set of brass testicles that were hard-pressed to fit into the high-waisted jeans of the early ’90s. I was hooked.

 
Throughout my early life, my parents insisted that cars were appliances and drove mostly Toyotas that were, above all else, disposable. When one broke, they would get just enough of it fixed to hum the next few thousand miles in relative comfort and reliability. My grandfather stoked the fire that would culminate in my beater, but I’m getting ahead of myself. He tried and failed to sell his truck, and thus it was handed down to me: a white 1988 Ford Bronco II with a 2.9 liter V6 and a 5 speed made by Mitsubishi. (Not Mazda. They made the 4 speeds.) That truck is for another e-mail story.
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I eventually gave that truck away with nearly 300k miles on the clock to my brother in law, who needed a winter beater, and the Bronco still ran nearly perfectly.
 
I mourned for that truck. It had given me my first taste of freedom, my first wrenching experiences, some of my first…intimate and special memories with young ladies who were kind enough to have them with me.
 
While in my sackcloth and covered in my ashes, I stumbled upon it: a 1965 F100 with a big block. My beloved and long-suffering bride gave me the green light, and we went to pick it up for $600, and the ad promised that it ran! It was no Bigfoot, but it shared some of the same DNA, which was good enough for me.
 
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We lived and worked at a little conference center in Idyllwild, CA, and the truck was in East LA county. Off of Euclid, I think. So we drove the hundred or so miles to the house, and the truck was BAD. loose steering, terrifying brakes and a transmission that was present, but maybe not great. I was thoroughly in love. Money exchanged hands and we had just enough time to hit the DMV before–steam.
 
Steam?
 
Lots of steam. Goddamn it.
 
So I decide that since I still have some cash in my pocket, I would hoof it to the nearest parts house and see if they had a radiator in stock. And some tools, maybe. No luck. no radiator shop was open, and no parts house had a radiator. I sent my wife home in the other car while I waited for a tow truck. 100-mile tows with AAA are an awesome idea, by the way. An AWESOME idea.
 
So the tow truck got there and he loaded the truck up and the drive home was uneventful, until we went to unload it. The conference center has a baseball field, or did then, and it was really the only level place on the whole property, so the tow guy drives onto it, hangs a left toward a retaining wall, and begins to unload it toward the edge of the field, and the lower retaining wall, which is about a six foot drop.
 
Remember the scary brakes? Well, the truck had not moved in more years than was disclosed, and the wheel cylinders had apparently rotted. As soon as the truck was on the ground, rolling, the tow guy realized that the brakes were nonexistent.
 
I had not, to that point, ever heard the pall on a parking gear make that grunt-scream noise that they do when you try to slam an automatic transmission into park while at speed in reverse. The Effey stopped just short of the drop, and the driver got out, looked at me, and simply said, “That thing ain’t got NO brakes.” and then had me sign the paperwork and off he went.
 
The next chance I got, I tore into the truck. I found an improperly made aftermarket aluminum radiator, which I gleefully jammed into the truck in a super sketchy manner just to get it moving, which I did, up to the shop at the center, where I fixed a minor rust hole that bothered me, got it fired up, and reversed downhill.
 
Oh yeah, brakes.
 
BAM! I rolled into a stump, put it in drive, and found a level spot to coast to a stop again. Luckily, my ancestor of the god Bigfoot had been equipped with the thickest, heaviest rear bumper I have ever seen and it was fine.
 
At that point, life happened and the conference center and we (being my wife and me) underwent a…how did Gweneth put it? A conscientious uncoupling? We did that and decided to head back to our hometown, Modesto, CA. I rebuilt the brakes, bled everything, and test drove the still-unproven mystery FE-powered hunk of shit a few miles. It worked! It had an exhaust leak that made it sound like a broken tractor, I had vice grips to open the doors from the inside and I still couldn’t tell if I could trust the temperature gauge, but we loaded it to the gills with possessions and pointed downhill.
 
It made it 28 glorious, V8 powered miles before I realized that it was starting from a stop awfully slowly. And over-revving when I tried to get to highway speeds. And not going into Park. The Cruise-O-Matic was stuck in second gear.
 
I found a shop that generously let me park the truck while we made our way back to Modesto and made what turned out to be the dumbest plan I have ever come up with.
 
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“Wanna go on a road trip?”
 
The six words that no man in their mid-20s can resist. It was two weeks before we got everything together. It was me, one of my best friends, a rented flatbed trailer, and a 1990 Chevy 1500 single cab, short bed. The wheelbase was important for reasons that will become obvious shortly.
 
See, rental trailers are designed to work with as many applications and in as many situations as possible. It’s why they have surge brakes equipped, which are basically manual drum brakes with the brake pedal integrated into the tongue of the trailer. As stress is applied by the weight of the trailer to the tow vehicle, it compresses the push rod much like your foot would on a brake pedal and engages the brakes at a pressure consistent with the force at which it is compressing. Slick, right?
 
Well, a funny thing happens when there is a leak in that system: You now have about 5 inches of play in and out on the tongue of the trailer, and about an inch side-to-side, which is…well, it’s not great.
 
We had decided to cannonball straight to Banning, CA, made it to the shop with the F100 just in time to thank the owner and load the truck onto the trailer and get to our hotel for the night. Neither of us could sleep, so we decided a couple of hours later to just go for it.
 
The I-10 at 4 AM is strangely serene. The I-10 also has a long, gentle downgrade that you wouldn’t notice at all if you didn’t have a trailer with no brakes, a 4000 pound truck on it, and six inches of play in the tongue.
 
We were doing 55 when the trailer rear-ended us the first time.
 
“Dude, I don’t think the brakes are working on that trailer.”
 
Josh slowed to 40.
 
The trailer hit us again, hard, and the back end of the tow vehicle wobbled, so he applied just a little bit of throttle to straighten out. He backed out of it at 50, and the trailer caught up again.
 
BAM.
 
The Chevy held straight.
 
BAM.
 
“Not sure if I can hold another one.”
 
BAM
 
I looked over at him and said “Nope,” just in time for 8 tires to break traction seemingly all at once as the trailer pit-maneuvered the Chevy, sending it and the trailer spinning toward the guard rail. I have no idea how we were between clusters of traffic, but we were, and we were sitting, stalled out, across 3 lanes. Josh slammed the truck into park, started the truck, and gunned it into the dirt.

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“I am NOT towing that thing another mile.”
 
So we pushed the Ford off the trailer and spent the next hour with jumper cables trying to start it. Pro-tip: If you’re going to try to start a vehicle in gear, don’t have a manual choke. In 40 degree weather. With the back wheels on the ground.
 
The big block finally sputtered to life and I just gassed the bastard down the highway when I found another cool feature! Intermittent headlights! They blinked off and on at random intervals just long enough for me to find my way off the freeway and onto a side street, where I stopped, let the truck die and called Josh to tell him where I was.
 
We were 100 miles from Barstow. Remember those AAA tows?
 
I found another place to dump the truck for another week while we sorted insurance with the rental company, who paid out more than the Chevy was worth without so much as a question when we showed them the empty master cylinder, and I went back with another tow vehicle and another rented trailer to get the truck, which this time, came quietly.
 
I replaced the transmission, added some speed parts and drove it daily for 3 years, back and forth from Fresno, Turlock, and still drove it when I got hired on at Gallo Winery.
 
Then came the end of the ’65.
 
I had been out and about running errands and such when my wife called and told me she was headed out to work soon and would like to see me for a few minutes before she did.
 
I drove home, parked on the curb, and chatted with her.
 
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“Did someone just hit your truck?”
 
It sounded like a forklift backing into a train of trailers at the winery, so the sound didn’t even make me flinch. I pulled one of the blinds down to glance at where I had parked, and the truck was gone.
 
I ran to the door, as though speed would make any difference at that point, and saw it: my truck against the big tree in my front yard with a Toyota buried in the back, still running.
 
I went out and asked the old lady driving “Are you okay?”
 
“…I saw a bird…”
 
“Do you know what just happened?”
 
“It swooped down from a roof over there, and…oh, did I hit your truck?”
 
I saw a pill bottle rolling around on the floorboard. “Yep.”
 
“Oh, dear, I’ll just drive home and get my insurance. I live just around the corner.”
 
“Nope. You’re staying here.” I reached in, shut the Toyota off, and called 911 to let them know to send an ambulance and police.
 
The truck looked like an accordion. I ended up saving the engine, which turned out to be a 390, the radiator and the horn button. the rest went to the local pick-a-part.
 
That engine currently resides in my new beater–a 1972 F100! This time with a short bed and way more rust!
 
God, when will I learn?

Do Your Homework

 If there’s one thing that I’ve learned over the years, it’s “do your homework.” Not only does it get you through school, but it also helps when working on old beaters in crusty junkyards.  It’s also how I learned the hard way that a Nissan 300zx MAF doesn’t work on a 280zx (I was young and stupid back then).

“Do your homework” was also the main theme in mechanic’s school too.  I remember sitting in on my first day of training at BMW, being handed 3 very filled 3″ binders full of curriculum and was told that we had to know that stuff in 9 weeks.  After laughing, the instructor reassured us that we wouldn’t know everything in those binders and led us into a makeshift computer lab.

“If you only learn one thing these 9 weeks, learn how find the information,” came out of his mouth.  I was floored.  Weren’t Bimmer techs supposed to know everything. Wasn’t I supposed to come out of this bavarian boot camp with some type of encyclopedic knowledge of the 3-Series? Wrong.

You were supposed to know how to find the information fast.  You were supposed to know how to do your homework. So, before you try swapping a z31 Nissan MAF onto a S130 Datsun, or a 2.2l head onto a 2.5 head, do your homework.

In the meantime, Here’s Joe’s Dodge Murder Missile:


So first up is my truck, 1995 Dodge Dakota, 2.5l I4, AX15 5-speed manual, 2wd short bed short cab sport, whose long list of options include 6 spoke alloy wheels….and that’s pretty much it haha

It wasn’t always a ragged, old bastard of a truck though, my best friend got it from his dad in high school with only 60k on the clock and was incredibly clean back then, of course, a couple of teenage rednecks from Hazel Park fixed that pretty quick.

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Plenty of air time, amateur rally, and grossly overloading the poor thing we managed to blow a head gasket, got halfway done with a 318 swap, said screw that with these bush-era gas prices, and rebuilt the 4-banger.

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Oh yeah, and we accidentally put a 2.2 head on a 2.5, the super high compression motor ran great til it smashed all the valves out of itself.  Remember kids, just because the hood on the car in the junkyard you’re pulling a cylinder head off of says it has the same motor as your truck, doesn’t mean that’s the hood that came on that car from the factory.

It did manage to pull a camper trailer with only 3 cylinders, though, so kudos little guy

Aside from us abusing the poor thing (and accidentally installing the wrong parts) it’s been a pretty solid ride mechanically, it’s got just shy of 200k on it now, and the body is pretty rusty but it’s a Michigan daily so, that happens.

3 cylinder heads, 1 short block, a rear end, and a fuel pump are all the major work I’ve helped with or done myself over the 13 years I’ve been around the truck, I’ve had it for, I want to say 6 years now and the only things I’ve done since then have been brakes, wheel bearings, a top end rebuild and a new fuel pump and starter.

I did drive it around for about a month with no bed after doing the fuel pump, went like hell with that weight reduction, little bouncy though.
 

Sadly, the old girl has been down with electrical issues since last June, no idea what’s wrong but Chrysler wasn’t exactly renowned for their high-quality electronics in the 90’s so who knows what manner of awful I’m in for getting it back on the road.

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Heap Of A Jeep

Jeeps are like the Chickenpox.  Its seems as if everyone has owned one (or a mid-90s Corolla) and everyone gets the chicken pox. unlike the ‘pox though you don’t just a get a Jeep once. Most people suffer from multiple Jeep infections sometime of various mutations (Cherokee, Wagoneer, Comanche) throughout their lifetime.

I used to think of Jeeps as rugged almost indestructible vehicle when i was a tot, but after befriending Jeepers and reading several of your submissions it seems otherwise. I’m sure most of them are great vehicles, but I’m not sure they would have the kinds of stories their beater brothers have.  You gotta love a Jeep!

This week’s Beater Feature comes all the way from Rockford IL. Tom works at a Jeep dealership, so naturally he has a Jeep. This one is a bit special. It’s pretty , not a rust bucket, but somehow keep breaking on him! If you’re anywhere near Rockford Illinois stop by Andersen Jeep and check out his heap of a Jeep:

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“My name is Tom Perrin and I come from Rockford Illinois. I drive a 1997 Jeep Wrangler TJ that was purchased about a year ago with more rust than paint. This isn’t my first Wrangler, not even my first TJ. Call it a midlife crisis, call it reliving my youth, call it whatever you want. This Jeep stuck out to me on my quest for a daily wrangler. It was ugly, cheap, and pumped full of miles. What’s under the hood will make just about any Jeep owner cry, but I love it. The AMC based 150 cubic inch 4-banger that kinda can. Reliable, simple as all get out, and makes the most annoying sounds, especially at idle.

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My first car, a YJ wrangler, was also equipped with this iron paperweight, but it still got me around. As of most Jeeps of this era, she is a project. Cooling system has been upgraded a bit, 4in Skyjacker lift, some random “heavy duty” AutoZone clutch, 31in Cooper mud tires (yeah, I know), 1-ton steering components from Spicer, and a few other stuff tucked under the triple bedliner coated frame. No mid-life crisis is complete with a nice audio system. Kenwood head unit, overhead speakers, compact subwoofer and amplifier in the “trunk”, along with a 301 piece mechanic’s tool set just in case.

 

Since I’ve had her, and after sitting for 3 years prior, she has had her fair share of breakdowns. One of which was the water pump which let go on the coldest day of the year. Nothing like being stranded at 11pm at a gas station waiting for my very understanding girlfriend. After a fun day with our son, we thought a little missing adventure was in order. Well, being instantly sunk up to the headlights literally 6 feet off of the road wasn’t a fun time. $200 tow bill and way too many embarrassing pictures later, we finally got her out. I love my Heep of a Jeep and our family will continue to love her forever. This one’s a keeper. Well worth every penny.”

 

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Desk To Glory

Keep Up With Desk To Glory

If you’ve liked us on Facebook, you know that we’re huge fans of Ash and Rich at Desk To Glory.  We’ve posted a bunch of their stuff over the last several months.  They drive a little red Toyota all over North, Central, and South America.

They’ve just finished their trek to the bottom of South America in Ushuaia and are now getting ready to make a journey across their home country of Canada. We’ve been talking to them for a while now, more out of fascination and encouragement than anything else. We would’ve asked them some questions but it seems Petrolicious beat us to it. Check out their full interview with Petrolicious and if there’s any popcorn left here’s a quick video of Ash Rich and Little Red doing their thing.

Also, be sure to keep up with their build thread on Expedition Portal.

While your at it check them out at Desk To Glory (go buy a shirt or a sticker!)

Desk to Glory from KOYO on Vimeo.