OLD HAT. Not to me, it isn’t

The story of a classic US 4×4 trail in a classic US 4×4 vehicle.

The Mohave Road Trail must be old hat to most US 4×4 nuts. But not to me, it’s not.

People who know me will tell you that my number one passion is crossing deserts in a 4×4. Then they will say that my second passion must be the 4x4s themselves. They would be right. And what better way is there to indulge these than by combining them in a not so familiar country? I’ve been to the US eight times now, I think, but on only one other occasion did I venture into the wilderness. This time, driving a vehicle born and modified in the US, I was determined to do the wilderness properly in the five days I had available.

So, in May this year (2015), after attending Overland Expo West in the rain and snow, I headed for sunny California in the driver seat of a Ford E-Series with a full-spec Sportsmobile 4×4 conversion.

And what a surprise it all was.

Firstly, the van seems the ideal way to enjoy the vast distances and varying weather conditions in the US. Not just a Ford truck with some bits bolted on, it is a thoroughly tested and developed customisation. It turns a dreary delivery van into a truly awesome piece of off road gear. Its major components have been either heavily modified or, in many cases, replaced with newly designed hardware.

I loved it, despite its bulk and thirst. I loved that I could cruise all day in effortless comfort on the Interstate, and then clamber nonchalantly over rocky crags. I loved the fact that when it snowed, I could be really comfortable inside.

Some may say I’m getting soft. To which I reply: why shouldn’t one be comfortable if you can? Is it really necessary to suffer the outdoors to enjoy the outdoors?

The off-road ability of this Sportsmoble is genuinely outstanding. I mean, really good. Its width and sheer size seem to have little or no affect on its ability to climb and grip.

Its transfer gearbox is unusual, and is one component not adapted from the existing Ford gearbox. This is a simpler, lighter and considerably stronger unit. They tossed out the chain drive design, a component built into transfer cases to reduce cost, because it has no other advantages. The wonderful old-fashioned-shift-with-a-stick transfer box they replaced it with allows front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, or four-wheel drive. The rear diff has a limited-slip system and the front, a pneumatic locker. It drives solid axles on leaf springs, with Fox dampers on all four. These make the ride surprisingly stable. I expected it to lurch about like a drunken bison. But no. Off road it does take a bit of getting used to, mainly because of the height above the ground and the width, which for us Europeans is a bit like taxiing a Boeing. It was altogether a big surprise.

My only significant criticism is the van’s thirst. Its 6,8L V10 petrol engine is no slouch, but the consumption is heavy by any standards. Range is okay, but that’s because the replacement tank is over 45 gallons (about 170L).

So what did I think of the trail itself? Magnificent. Some of the terrain reminded me of the deserts of Northern Cape in South Africa, and southern Namibia. Other parts were refreshingly new. I was touched by something very specific, though. Around the world, challenging passages and tough trails that require a bit of effort are often marked with a traveler’s pile, usually a pile of rocks where one places a stone in symbolic gratitude for the trail’s gifts.

The Mohave Road has two such places. One is indeed a pile of rocks—with a twist. It bears a plaque, the words of which can only be shared with those that have been there. But it was the other ‘pile’ that touched me the most. The Mohave Road Post Box, indicated by a flagpole and a weatherproof box, was, in my experience, unique and very special. Travellers are encouraged to sign the visitor’s book and leave a gift. On the day I visited, people had left water bottles, a tin of snuff, a few books, even a can of Red Bull, and some strange ornaments. There is also a tip jar. It was crammed with some quite large bills.

“Only in America,” I smiled to myself. What an apt phrase that is.

Following the trend of all great classics, the video I made is my classic style! I don’t take things overly seriously, enjoy the wonders of nature, the environment, and in this case a healthy dollop of American eccentricity. I loved every minute of it.