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Confessions Of A Flatlander In The Mountains

Confessions Of A Flatlander In The Mountains

Editor: Eric Bewley Story/Photo: Mike Benjamin

Coco beach, FL -I have been reading this forum for a while and decided to buy a ’95 Tracker tin top to do some moderate off roading and to tow behind my motor home. To give you some background, I live on the beach in Florida, not your normal off road heaven. If you can find a place, it is usually flat and sandy. 

I took my stock Tracker and went to the Ocala National Forest, where a mountain can be up to 30 feet high. The Tracker was great, never got stuck and went through where Jeeps got stuck. But this was not the real world of off roading. I had purchased the off road guides for Colorado and dreamed of great adventures. First, I read all I could on this forum about what I could modify without getting too radical. I first built a safari rack for the roof. 

I then went to the local steel supply and bought a 4X8 sheet of 1/8” steel. The forklift just plopped it on top of my new rack and I drove home where I realized that I do not have a forklift to get it off. A 4X8 sheet of 1/8” steel is heavy and awkward, but I finally got it off and started to cut it up to make skid plates, bumpers and rock rails. Front skid plate, belly pan and rock rails

I also made a front differential strap and added an eight thousand pound winch to the front and a two thousand pound winch in the rear.

The front end was quite heavy so I installed a 1 ½ inch lift spacer. I noticed that in Florida when off roading there were always branches hitting the front end, so I installed a “Roo Bar” on the front. It must work really well because I have not seen a kangaroo since I installed it. 

The only duties that came close to using the potential of the Tracker was after hurricanes to clear tress and brush using the winches. I had been using the stock tires up to this point and for my trip out west I moved up to 29 inch tires from the stock 27 inch. My speedometer now read correctly although I noticed my acceleration was slower than before, but still livable. I did not go for lockers or huge tires as I did not want to break anything, I figured the winches would get me out of a bad situation. I made a rack for the hi-lift jack.

I made a box for the rear to hold tools, computer and other junk and was ready to attack the mountains. built in tool box, shelf on the right holds the computer, with rear door locked everything is secure

I don’t know how well the Tracker will do off road, but now it looks like someone who knows some stuff about off-roading is driving (scientific term is “poser”). My girlfriend, Jeanette, and I towed the Tracker behind the motor home to Colorado the first of June and stayed at her brother’s cabin at ten thousand feet on the west side of Pike’s Peak.

This is where we found out the hard way that we have something in Florida that they don’t make in Colorado. It is called air. Not only could we not breathe, but the Tracker had no power. This is not to say we did not appreciate Colorado, we especially liked the fact someone turned on the outside air conditioner for the summer. The first road we decided to tackle was Pike’s Peak. I had watched racers going up it since I was a little kid and figured my racing and rally school background would get a great workout. Well, first of all they are trying to pave the whole thing, second they are trying to do it when I am trying to drive up it. Third, they allow slow people in front of me and finally, the Tracker has no power. The higher I go, the slower I go, no hanging the tail out, no rooster tails. Finally we get to dirt and I shift to four wheel low and we make it to the top. I wish now that I had put in the two wheel drive low option. Now the trip down is a different story, I can use two wheel high which means handbrake and pendulum turns. The Tracker has got to be one of the great rotational vehicles when pivoting around it’s center. Talk about tight turns. Talk about a girlfriend who doesn’t appreciate the delicacy of maintaining a carefully crafted slide next to a thousand foot drop off. 

So I am actually having fun passing slow tourists and road graders when I get black flagged. They actually have a guy with an infrared thermometer that checks your brakes to make sure they are not overheated. I tried to explain that I would be not needing brakes as I would be sideways through most of the turns. That did not go over well and was banished to the parking lot for fifteen minutes. I think Jeanette must have slipped him some money. 

Next we tried some trails on the property we were staying at. I was amazed how well the Tracker would tackle any where any other vehicle had been. I am a flatlander. I would look at the road and think we won’t make that and the Tracker would just go right through it. 

I got out the off road guide and looked up trails in our area starting with the easy ones first. We decided on the Rampart road starting in the Garden of the Gods (this flatlander needed the blessing of some deity). This was a dirt washboard (did I say washboard) road, that the guide said was only 25 miles or so. In Florida a 25 mile road takes 25 minutes, in the mountains 5 miles may take 5 hours. In Florida something comes out and grades most dirt roads every week or so, something graded this road sometime in this century or the last. After about 8 miles of bone jarring vibration I finally figure out that the extra air in the tires I put in Florida to get extra gas mileage was probably not necessary on a dirt road at 10,000 feet. I let out 15 lbs of air. Jeanette appreciates the softer ride and notes that maybe my brain is starting to work after a week with no oxygen. 

These roads provide gorgeous views and turns. In Florida, since it is flat, almost all roads are straight with a ninety degree turn at the end, kind of boring. Since I can’t hike more than three feet without feeling like the guy lying in the wagon in a New Orleans funeral parade, the Tracker is a great way to see the mountains. This is fun. Next on the list of easy roads was Shelf road and Phantom Canyon road south of Cripple Creek. These roads are based on old railroad beds and are quite consistent on their grades. Going down Shelf the Tracker does quite well in two wheel drive and going up Phantom Canyon I use four wheel low. The only problem is in four wheel low the Tracker plows with power through the turns. 

Back at our cabin it decides to rain quite heavily for a couple of days. In the mountains, rain means erosion and road means riverbed. The locals describe the roadbeds as made of decomposed granite, which sounds like this is a place Noah should have come to avoid building a boat. But, no, this stuff which is so hard when it is dry turns to millions of little road workers making big holes and moving big rocks in the way of ignorant flatlanders (me). My half mile driveway looks like the Grand Canyon, but my neighbors don’t seem to notice and drive on up the driveway like this happens all the time. I take the Tracker on the driveway and it doesn’t even phase it, this four wheel drive stuff really works.

We are now into our third week living at altitude and can actually hike more than four feet so we head to Breckenridge to a hike up some falls someone tells us about. Their directions are, “Drive as far as you can up the road past the parking lots to the end.” Sounds simple until we get to the road, someone miss marked a riverbed and called it a road. So we are driving up this riverbed and come to a parking lot, (which I find quite interesting that riverbeds have parking lots) then we pass a second parking lot with a steep hill after it. I look at the hill and think the parking lot looks good. As we are walking up this hill a Toyota pickup comes up this riverbed like it was a road, so I asked him how far it was to the end of the riverbed. “Well,” he says the road goes another mile and half and ends in a parking lot”. We hike back to the Tracker and the Tracker drives right up the hill like it was made for it At the end it gets really steep and rocky and at the end is a parking lot full of four wheel drive vehicles and now my Tracker. I am stoked, I am here with the lifted, big tire trucks.

Now Jeanette wants to go to the Broad more Hotel for lunch in Colorado springs. I check the guides and figure we can take the Gold Camp road through the mountains as I am getting braver and on the way back, take the Mount Baldy turnoff and go up that road. Lunch is expensive, but I am thinking about our offroad adventure. The GPS guided us to the turnoff from the Gold Camp road. The GPS shows the road is only six miles, so I figure this will only take a half an hour or so. This road (riverbed) is the worst one yet, Jeanette hits her head on the window twice until I show her the grab handle. Now most passengers when things get hairy, scream and holler or pummel you just when you are trying to save their bacon. Not my girlfriend, she falls into the best category, she can’t say a word, scream or move when scared. She didn’t do much for the next four hours. So here is two flatlanders in a Tracker on a road, all alone, on a road that looks like no one has driven in years. The GPS says the road ends and it is scared and wants to go back to Florida. The road is so narrow we can’t turn around and by now we realize we are not going to make it to the top of Mount Baldy and back down before it gets dark. The GPS street atlas is not doing any good so I switch to the topographic program (this actually sounds like I know what I am doing) which shows a forest service road shortcut back to the Gold Camp road. I mean this road had a forest service number on it so it must be OK. Just because it is on the map and in GPS doesn’t mean it is a road. We started down this riverbed that was so steep I figured we would never get back so we were committed to this course. All the other roads we were on were like super highways compared to this one. At one point I asked Jeanette to get out and walk up a hill as I didn’t think we would make it. She stepped out and disappeared when she fell out of the Tracker. 

When you are on steep inclines and rocks, sometimes there is no earth under the car. In Florida the earth is always right there where you put your feet. Now she looks before getting out. This section was steeper and rockier than anything we had ever tried. I gunned it and tried to remember all the things I read about rock crawling, momentum, axles breaking and kept thinking about someday someone finding a skeleton in a perfectly good Tracker.

It just went up the hill bouncing from boulder to boulder like it was made for it. I don’t even remember hitting skid plates. This shortcut was about three miles long and took two hours. I would stop and scout out the riverbed (road) ahead and then look behind me and think, “Well. We can’t go back.” The GPS was no help it just showed us next to bigfoot and grizzly bears and kept saying “We are all going to die”. Finally we came up to the reservoir road except it wasn’t on the same planet we were on. It was in a parallel universe about 500 hundred feet below us. The road (riverbed) didn’t switchback its way down, it just went straight down with a big “V” cut in the middle. It was going to get dark soon and I certainly was not going to go back. “Where is the road?” asked Jeanette. “Right in front of us.” I say. She says, “If there was water running down it, it would be called a waterfall.” I said “Do you want out?” “Why” she says. “If you die, the bigfoot, grizzlies and mountain lions are going to get me.” So I ease over the edge and start a landslide mixed in with just enough traction to keep us heading down and in a few seconds we are on the nice washboard dirt road heading back home. Jeanette says she doesn’t want to do that road again. I agree, at least not until some other vehicles go with us. The Tracker definitely proved it can go places we don’t want to go to.

I guess you can get carried away with this big tire thing

Our next rip was to the Suzuki dealer in Colorado Springs to test drive a new 2006 Grand Vitara. I wanted to see how much power a new one had compared to my ’95. Boy what a difference, a lot more power and more room which I need (my other car is MR2 Turbo). Then I had a terrible experience driving my Tracker. I was at a stoplight next to a UPS truck and the road ahead merged into one lane. The scene was set, the light changed. Both vehicles lurched ahead and the UPS truck beat me in a drag race. I knew I had it floored, I don’t know if the UPS driver had it floored. I have won and lost at many stoplight grand prix, but that one will stay with me for a long time.

Yes, we have bears in Florida, but I have never seen one on the beach

We drove over to Aspen, had lunch and walked around he art galleries. On the way back I said “Let’s go over Mosquito Pass.” Jeanette says, “Is it like the other road?” “No” I say, “It is on the regular map and is a state road.” The state road people did not have enough oxygen when they were handing out state road numbers. “It is the highest pass in the country that you can drive through and you can take photos of wildflowers and yellow bellied marmots.” I could see a Unimog coming down the road so we stopped and took photos of wildflowers. Just as the Unimog got to us he blew a tire. A bad sign I thought. So we started up the road (also known as the place where boulders reside), I don’t know how people with regular sized vehicles get up these roads. The boulders were huge, but in every case the Tracker was narrow enough to squeak by either on the mountain side or the “if we slip here we die” side. This trail was also a quiet one for Jeanette, what she didn’t know was near the top, I had it floored in four wheel low in first gear and was slowing down. About a quarter of mile from the top it started to level out and we picked up a little more speed and crested the top to the cheers of several yellow bellied marmots who gladly posed for photos. 

I was so glad to make it to the top (yellow bellied marmots are off to the left cheering)

The road down was just as bad if not worse, but by now I had the utmost confidence in the Tracker to go places I shouldn’t be. Sign post reads route “3”

Now that we are back in Florida there are several observations I can make. First, we sure were lucky. Second, the Tracker is an unbelievable off road machine. Mine had a lot of protection put on it, but basically it is a stock drive train with slightly larger tires and it went everywhere with no problems. 




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One comment

  1. Great blog about your trip and it caught my attention as I have recently purchased a Zook Grand Vitara and have been musing over what I can do to it. My Jeanette (who is called Roswitha) is sick of climbing up into the Jeep Cherokee and begged me to get something else. Have made some mods already including bash plates underneath and I am just hoping I can keep going to my usual haunts.

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