(This story was originally published on the now-defunct JeepWave.com.)
Back in the days of my youth, before the internet and GoPros and streaming videos, before social media, before Starbucks and Nirvana and the proliferation of ready-to-go pizza, before we had cable TV or CDs, back when rotary phones where the only way to make a call and you still needed to jump out of the truck to lock the hubs, and electronically disconnected sway bars would have sounded like alien technology, Jeeps were still awesome. They’ve actually been awesome for a long time, but the ‘80s were when I was growing up and my dad had a red 1971 CJ5.
For those that don’t know me, I have an atrocious memory. While my wife can recite lines from a play she was in as a preschooler, I’m lucky enough to remember to put on pants in the morning. Every now and then, however, bits and pieces of my childhood, fragments, I guess you’d call them, flash by the back of my eyes. Often times the ones that do involve that old Jeep. Like when we were cruising up Whitneyville Road in the soft top and I wondered what would happen if I opened the door. Guess what happened? It opens. Wasn’t expecting that. Or when I rode with dad down to Battle Creek to pick up the white hardtop, which made winter driving a bit more pleasant.
Then there were the 7 wooded acres my parents bought on which to build the log house (yeah, my dad built a 4,000 sqft house in the ‘80s, too). A two-track carved out for dumping junk into a secluded gulley was our way into the forest, and from there we could make it into a grassy field at the bottom of a ravine. When going up into the woods, in any direction, there were deer trails to follow; or we could just weave our way through pine trees and brush and a few rocks.
The west slope, opposite of where our house would eventually be constructed, was pretty steep. Years of a mostly undisturbed forest floor meant dead trees and fallen pine needles and leaves made for a pretty slick terrain, even in the best of weather. In fact, my brothers and sisters and I would go sledding down the hills year-round! The trees kind of lined up in pretty even rows and columns, and we’d slalom between them before crashing through the brush at the bottom of the hill, into the valley floor.
While plotting and planning his build, my dad would take his red CJ5 into these woods all the time. The Jeep was unstoppable; small enough to fit through tight spots and strong enough to never get stuck. Especially with the winch it had on the front.
My dad and my uncle Steve, my mom’s brother, were close to the same age. Both grew up on farms, and both were just good at building stuff. When they were in their late teens-early twenties they chopped up a couple of VW Beetles and turned them into dune buggies. Dad has always been super pragmatic: While uncle Steve put on giant tires that looked awesome, my dad chose skinnier tires that were better for the farmed dirt and snow they’d play around in. “I could go places Steve could never dream of going with his buggy” is a line I always remember. Anyways, they had the same kind of dynamic with their 4x4s. Dad had his small but sturdy CJ5 on narrow tires with big lugs, and Steve had a big v8 powered Chevy truck.
Which leads to the last memory. On the steeper side of the valley, there was one place with a natural path with enough room to drive straight up it. If I remember correctly, there were a few people there, other family members just along for a nice ride through the woods, but my dad and my uncle got to that incline and couldn’t help but challenge each other. My mom jumped out of the Jeep. I think I probably got out with her. She wasn’t about to be part of this climb. Dad went first. Me, with my limited understanding of what center of gravity meant, was half certain that the Jeep was going to flip backward end over end. But the CJ5 made it look easy. No drama. Then followed the truck, but it just couldn’t get the traction it needed to overcome the steep grade. So dad flipped the Jeep around, hooked the winch to the truck, and “helped” it up!
I can’t remember what happened next. I wanna say they were gonna try to continue a trail from the top of the ravine, but I don’t think anything past that was quite as excited as the climb.
Even as the years began to show on the red CJ5, and other vehicles, like a rad AMC Eagle, took its place on the road, it found use. As the log house went up it provided utility bombing around the land, and once the super long dirt driveway went in it found life as a plow truck to clear snow in the winter. Eventually dad gave it to a friend who needed transportation and it was refreshed a bit before seeing road duty.
And it never stopped being awesome.