The Anxious Land Rover Owner

Despite the amazing friends, incredible adventures and technical education my Land Rovers have given me for almost a quarter century, I sometimes think that I’d be much better served if my parents bought a Land Cruiser instead of a Discovery in 1994. I’m an extremely anxious person, with some strong OCD traits. A truck that can always break down randomly — and has on me — is a challenge to these personality characteristics/flaws. It’s also been a bit therapeutic over the years to go through these incidents.

As I’ve been working through these issues, both as it relates to Land Rovers and my life in general, I thought it might be good to write up some things I’ve figured out that have helped make it easier to balance my love for these British pieces of crap with my personal issues. Going through these things gives me a feeling of control over the vehicle and the situation that calms my nerves a lot.

1 — Know Your Truck’s Systems

I don’t mean just how to make the heater work. Know how the thing is put together. Read the service manual when you aren’t fixing anything. Understand how the axles go together, how the driveline works. Read up on message boards and find out about common issues you may encounter. The more of a knowledge base you have about the function of the vehicle, the more you might be able to sense what that clunk or squeak is…and whether it’s critical, or normal considering what the vehicle is going through. Also, remember that these things are trucks, and until the 2000s, Land Rovers still used driveline components derived from decades before.

2 — Read, but Not Too Much

The worst thing I can do when I’m worked up about an issue is read technical forums. The worst situation for this is when you’re looking at going against factory spec for some installation technique or part. I can drive myself into a complete anxiety attack over what sealant or gasket to use on a stub axle. Once you know enough about these materials, you can take a few ideas from people and make an educated decision on what to use. Eventually, just pick one. If it becomes a total mess, you can change it later, probably.

3 — Keep Your Truck in Shape

The best thing to do is keep on top of preventive maintenance. This really has two benefits for me; it of course keeps the truck in tip-top shape, and it also gives me a feeling of control over its state. I change my gear oils and grease my U-joints more than most people, and I’m always “that guy” that changes his coolant and brake fluid every two years like the manual says you should. I stick to Genuine or OEM parts whenever possible; even if it has no benefit, the perceived benefit  (as long as the price difference is not unreasonable) is worth the placebo effect.

4 — Have a Support Group

I have a few Land Rover friends who I know I can always vent my anxieties to. I think sometimes it gets a bit old, but they’re good friends and they deal with it in stride, and I reciprocate. Having someone else who knows the situation you’re in, with a little more level a head, is a great asset to tell you that RTV is fine for the stub axles and put the damn thing on already.

5 — Take Care of Yourself on the Road

The biggest “risk” for a breakdown being a major issue is on a roadtrip — the whole reason you have the Land Rover. I’ve been through plenty of roadside mishaps, and none of them are fun in the moment, even if they make great stories. One of the things I’ve found, at least, is that I can eat like crap on the road very quickly. Gas station convenience stores tempt me with Red Bulls and Milky Ways, and a Burger King seems like a great dinner choice. But that burger never sits right with me, and a Red Bull is great until you get a sugar crash about an hour later. Eating more balanced meals helps keep your mood stable. Bring snacks from home, and either eat as healthy as you can at the services, or try eating local — still a crapshoot, but sometimes the food is better for you.

6 — Get Top-Tier AAA Membership

Not the middle one with the 100-mile tows, get whatever the top-of-the-crop option is in your region. In the Mid-Atlantic here, it’s one with one 200-mile tow per year, and 100-mile tows for the rest. I upgraded to Premier from Plus a few years ago when I broke down about 150 miles from home in Eastern Connecticut. If I’d had the 200-miler, I could have gotten the truck home for free in one shot. Instead, it became a bit of a production shuttling it across the Tri-State area. AAA is great, but many of the tow services charge for extra mileage (in that case, $5/mile). That would have racked up to a few hundred dollars that I didn’t have at that point; the small upcharge to Premier would have been a different story. Not having to worry about that kind of expense helps when you’re already in the stress of a breakdown.

7 — Carry Lots of Tools and Spares

This applies to everyone, but a good repair cache is a valuable thing. Make sure you have proper sealants; extra hardware, gaskets and seals for anything you have spares of; and all the major fluids for the truck (oil/gear oil/brake fluid/ATF/grease). A basic electrical kit with spare wire is valuable too. If you break down and can’t fix the issue with what’s on hand in the truck, add that to your kit when you get home if it’s a reasonable carry. I also carry major spare parts for the Discovery that can at least let me stumble on, and again I add these as needed to the cache after a breakdown.

8 — Avoid Rush Hour if Possible

I really, really like night driving — as in, my favourite time on the highway is either 4AM departures or 2 AM hauls. I like to time it to avoid most of the traffic, and at that time of night in more remote areas, traffic is very thin. You do have truckers hauling ass, and you do have an increased risk of drunk drivers, so there is a tradeoff. Also, make sure your headlamps are in good shape and are bright (uprated if need be), as that really helps with fatigue. I’ve also found that if my prescription for my glasses is ready for a recheck, things can get a little wonky and blurry after the rest of the day.

9 — Do a Thorough Pre-Trip Check

I’m refining this technique for the upcoming big trip, but at the minimum check the basics. I think the best pre-trip checklist is on TeriAnn Wakeman’s Expedition Land Rover page, and it’s the one I use for every trip as a base. (Her book, The Essential Guide to Overland Travel in the United States and Canada, also has a lot of very useful and thorough prep resources.) For the Mother Country Trail trip, I plan on also doing little things like checking the torque on all the suspension components…little things. It probably won’t be an issue, but if you want to spend a night in the garage before a major trip, it’s not the worst thing.

10 — Shotgunning Can Be Okay

There’s times that I just haven’t been able to pull repairs off in time to get the truck safely to an event. In June 2017, even after weeks of heavy work on the Discovery, I broke down 80 miles into the trip to the Ottawa Valley Land Rovers Birthday Party in Ontario. I got towed home, and after a half hour of despondency, went to the local Enterprise branch and rented a Nissan Frontier with rights to drive to Canada. It was the best $275 I ever spent; I still got to spend the weekend with my friends, and I just jumped in their truck to do the wheeling. Some events have gotten so big that shotgunning is good to control congestion on the trail. As long as you don’t become a mooch, split the fuel, and share any driving the driver may ask you to, most of your friends should be okay with this every now and then. One day, these being Land Rovers, you may have to reciprocate for them.

11 — Enjoy the Journey

If you’ve done everything you’ve done before the trip to prepare your vehicle, have everything you need to fix most issues on the road, and feel confident, get in the damn truck and drive. The situation is as much in your control as it can be, and you have contingencies for everything else. It’s a Land Rover; it creates its own campfire stories. As long as you are prepared to tackle the situation mentally, physically, and with the right tools, you can turn a major disaster into a manageable one.

The Next Adventure: The Mother Country Trail

Driving across the country solo is something that’s been on my list most of my life. In middle school and high school I’d plot routes out in Microsoft Streets and Trips and flip through atlases and National Park Unigrid brochures, linking together the highlights of the nation. In 2006, my family loaded up our trusty Yukon XL and drove out on I-70 for a week in Colorado, a place our family has made many memories on fly-drive trips. As fantastic a trip as that was, though, there was still a quarter of the journey to the coast left.

For the past eleven years, I’ve been driving Land Rovers from the early 1990s, trucks which in my case never seem to work quite right. I’ve never had one that was reliable enough to do 7,000 miles in one shot. That has hopefully changed, however; after three years, I think that my 1994 Discovery is going to be ready, with a three-month final push.

There is always a goal, of course. Last April, I really enjoyed flying out to the Mendo_Recce rally in Northern California, meeting people I’ve talked to online every day for years. It’s cemented itself on my annual events list.

As I thought over that trip in the months after, I thought of how driving myself to Mendo 2018 from New Jersey be a perfect way to set a goal to get my truck fixed up, finally.

So, I’ve devised the journey for late April 2018, dubbed “The Mother Country Trail.”

My route will take me across the East and Great Plains to Colorado, where at Denver I’ll jump off the Interstates and hit the Blue Highways, winding across the Rockies and into Moab, Utah. There, I have a booking to drive the White Rim Road in Canyonlands National Park, considered one of the top off-road trails in the country for scenery. After three days on the trail, it’s across Nevada and the Sierras to Mendocino National Forest and the event. Afterwards, the plan is to head south down the spine of California to the Mojave Road, then perhaps some poking around in Arizona before heading home via I-40.

The name “Mother Country Trail” has two origins. The Trail part comes from the Emigrant Trails and Westward Expansion Trails that the route will trace part of; the California Trail, the Old Spanish Trail, the Mormon Trail, and the Oregon Trail. Parts of the journey will be directly in the footsteps of John Fremont, Kit Carson, and Jedeidah Smith.

“Mother Country” comes from my aviation hobby. In 1973, United Airlines began an ad campaign to promote their extensive coast-to-coast network. In 1972, they’d had a very successful ad campaign using Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” so successful that the Guthrie estate wanted twice the royalties for 1973. Looking for an alternative in the same vein, their ad agency commissioned a jingle called “Mother Country,” and had Bonnie Koloc, a folk singer from Chicago, sing it for the commercials.

The lyrics (see them in full here) begin with a verse that I think sums up the ethos of this trip pretty well:

Have you seen the other side
of where you live?
Don’t you know this great big land
has got so much to give? 
Mother Country’s got 
her arms open wide.
Don’t let your good land 
pass you by.

 

 

After many years of poking around the world in various ways, it’s now time to undertake a serious exploration of the homeland.

I’ll detail some of the preparations here during the run up to departure in April, especially as some things might warrant some technical write-ups for the Land Rover crowd, and I plan to blog from the road.

2017: Year in Review

Here we are, 31 December 2017. This was a good year for me, one of the better ones I’ve had, to be honest. This morning, I sat at the counter at the Time to Eat Diner in Bridgewater, NJ, and reflected on the Top 10 adventures of the year over a Greek omelette. They reflect a year where I accomplished a lot of goals, both with travel and life.

1) Upper deck on a 747, United UA927 FRA-SFO. Riding in the bubble of the Queen of the Skies was a childhood dream of mine. Thanks to frequent flier miles, I was able to do it right before United retired their fleet, taking with it with my chance to cash in from my primary program for a guaranteed upstairs seat. By far the best 12 hours I’ve ever spent on a plane, so far.

2) The lighthouses of Ouesseant, France. One of the best days of my 18-year lighthousing career was exploring the famous wave-swept lights of Finistère by land and sea with Iasure and Loic, my AirBnB hosts. They went above and beyond to make the pilgrimage to one of the world’s lighthouse hotspots very, very special. I was starting to burn out on lighthouses a bit, and sitting at night watching the immense beam of the Creac’h flood my room in their guest house reinvigorated the passion.

3) Flying out to the Mendo_Recce Land Rover rally in Mendocino NF, California. Having been an active member of the Mendo email list for years now, it was such a blast to finally put so many faces to names and explore a new part of the country. I really, really hit it off with a few people especially and have enjoyed building up those friendships. I also got to spend a full weekend flying out and driving up with my friend Ben, who was a founding member of the list in 1994 when he lived in California, and who now lives a half hour away from me in New Jersey.

4) As an example of those new friendships, I had an awesome time ending the September #JumboJourney in Portland, exploring back roads of Oregon for three days with my Mendo friend Nathan in his Range Rover. It was so cool to explore a new part of the country with someone whose travel style I totally resonated with.

5) Part of that journey was finding the location of the Original Stash, the first-ever geocache placed in 2000. It’s a pilgrimage for all geocachers, and I’m glad to have that on my “permanent record.” This year was a year I came to peace with my new geocaching style, which is “find what I want and skip the crappy ones.” I let a lot of pressure off of how I play the game, stopped caring about the numbers, and played it the way I really want to — exploring new places. I only found about 40 this year, but all of them were worth it.

6) The eclipse from Cashiers, North Carolina. I flew down to spend a few days with my aunt at her house in the Blue Ridge Mountains. We missed viewing totality directly by fifteen seconds in a shift in the clouds just before it began, but we got part of the experience in the darkness and sensory changes, and got to spend a few days one-on-one, which we’ve never had the chance to do.

7) Visiting my friends Barb and Jarek in Florida for my birthday. Having one of the mainstays of my New Jersey Land Rover family move a thousand miles away has been really tough this year; we’ve kept in touch constantly via phone and Internet, but it’s not the same as spending many weekend days popping in at their house 20 minutes away. We had an awesome weekend with warm weather just when I was getting down on winter up here, and an awesome birthday celebration.

8) The Land Rover Mid-Atlantic Rally in Virginia. The Mid-Atlantic has been on my Rover Bucket List for years, and although it wasn’t the same as the MARs of legend in the 90s and early 2000s, it was still fun — especially as aforementioned new Floridians came to join some of our New Jersey contingent. Also fun was the drive home from Blacksburg, Virginia…by way of Marietta, Ohio and Somerset County, Pennsylvania. I saw the steamboat W.P. Snyder, took in some National Park Service units (including the immensely moving Flight 93 National Memorial), and traversed West Virginia in a driving rain. I took two days to get home on complete whim, with absolutely no plans and what became a totally illogical itinerary, The only reason I was able to do that with the Discovery is because of a LOT of hard work, blood, sweat and tears that I poured into it since buying it as a bit of a barn find three years ago. Crossing the Ohio River felt like a major accomplishment.

9) I did 5,600 miles in the Disco between September and now, going to Land Rover events across the East. In addition to the MAR, I did the All Metal Dash, the annual Guy Fawkes Rally, and the Robesonia Trials. I did a ton of driving around locally as well, all with a confidence I haven’t had from a car in years. It still needs work, especially as I plan to drive it to California for Mendo in April, but there’s been so much progress.

10) One of the best Rover trips of the year was actually the one I didn’t take a Rover on. After busting my ass to prepare for the Ottawa Valley Land Rovers Birthday Party in Ontario, buttoning the truck up after weeks of work the night before, I broke down with a fuel pump issue 88 miles into the trip to Canada. Determined to still spend the weekend with my friends, I unloaded the tow truck and headed down to the local Enterprise outlet to hire a Nissan Frontier for the weekend. I didn’t have a Land Rover at the event, but I got to be with my friends, and that was really the most important part.

Here’s to many adventures in 2018, and may they top these, and may it be a healthy and happy year for all!

The Trials and Tribulations of a Land Rover Owner, Part One

The first thing the new owner of an older Land Rover will learn is that breakdowns are always to be expected at the point where you have finally become totally confident about the state of your vehicle. You learn this lesson very, very quickly. After a few years, the underlying anxiety that accompanies any road trip becomes a part of your psyche, and you throw a bottle of Xanax or whatever in the center console and be done with it.

The second thing you learn is that most things in an old Land Rover are possible to bodge together again with some basic tools and knowledge, and possibly some RTV sealant. By “basic tools,” I mean the three large Husky tool bags I keep in the back of my Discovery, plus the crate of extra fluids, plus the spare parts artfully placed throughout the vehicle. (Upper coolant hose under the driver’s seat, spare serpentine belt next to the atlas behind the back seat, spare radiator cap in the glove box.)

And this is where my latest Trials and Tribulations — the first of this blog column — began.

A few weeks ago, I was heading to the Ottawa Valley Land Rovers‘ 33rd Annual Birthday Party rally, one of the biggest and oldest Land Rover events on the East Coast. With the goal of exploring some parts of the Ontarian side of the St. Lawrence Seaway, I rolled out of the house at 3 AM, streaming BBC Merseyside on TuneIn to track the returns of the Brexit referendum. By Scranton, David Cameron had resigned, the sun was rising, and everything on the Disco was feeling pretty tickety boo. I hit Syracuse at rush hour, headed up I-81, and just south of Watertown, decided to fill the truck up with some sweet ethanol-free 91 octane petrol that we’re not allowed to have in the good ol’ Garden State.

The ungrateful bastard rewarded this gift by not starting. Shit.

I flicked the key; the solenoid in the starter clicked once, the fuel pump’s familiar two-second startup buzz was absent. I thus realized two things: one, I should swap out the fuel pump I wanted to swap out anyway; and two, my friends were coming up to the same event from Connecticut via Albany, and I should probably get in touch with them to rendezvous if needed.

I was thus sat front of a gas pump at a moderately busy Sunoco station, taking the entirety of my camping gear out of the back of the truck and laying it out on the forecourt so I could access the fuel pump in the tank, and somehow the entire patronage of the station was entirely nonplussed, oblivious to the old green truck with the New Jersey plates expelling its contents out of its rear.

Someone finally noticed me, helped me push the truck onto the side of the station, and in a move that forever cements him on the good side of my Rover Karma Book, offered me a lift to the NAPA a mile away to score a new fuel pump.

These things would never happen Downstate.

I scored a Delphi fuel pump to serve the purposes of the famous Land Rover/General Motors pump swap, and nothing more. This will become important later and was quite bone-headed.

Back at the truck, I proceeded to remove the entirety of my fuel pump from the tank, feeling not that bad about spilling some of the fuel, because it’s a bloody gas station, and I’m quite proud of myself because I’m a New Jerseyite and I didn’t spill any this time at the pump like I always do because we don’t do this shit ourselves. On speakerphone with some friends, which I don’t think you’re supposed to do either but whatever, I got it done and in, and it still didn’t start.

I directed my friends to rendezvous, and regretted not buying that damn wire. I fiddled for about an hour, until my friends arrived in a glorious convoy. One of them went to purchase the wire so we could hot wire the fuel pump. The starter solenoid seemed to have also gone decidedly wonky, causing part of these issues, so we jumped the solenoid with my jump leads and headed northward to a fantastic event, where I alas played it safe and didn’t wheel the truck, because no way was I jumping that solenoid if I stalled in a river. We tinkered some over the weekend, but nothing we hypothesized seemed to actually work, except for our theory of “let’s drink for now and worry about it later.”

20160625_065757
The extent of Duncan’s Canadian fun.

And thus, with a hot wired fuel pump and a starter that works sometimes on its own and sometimes by crawling under with the jump leads and being careful to not scald yourself on the exhaust, I go into the third lesson of a Land Rover owner.

Lesson Three: because these things break down so frequently, and because they’re so bog easy to repair, once you have some kind of workaround to fix things you sometimes become incredibly complacent with things like your convoluted starting procedure that includes connecting something submerged in a 23-gallon tank of waiting explosion to a live battery of waiting fire, and consider using jump leads to start your car without involving another car totally fine and acceptable.

Complacency in action.
Complacency in action.

So I drove around town with said complacency, and felt so damn confident with my vehicle’s bodged together state that I decided, I shall take this vehicle off roading with my friends in Vermont two weekends after the Ottawa adventure, having put minimal effort into fixing anything.

This is the source of the Fitzgerald Corollary, which is that whenever I take my trucks on any trip with other Land Rovers, they get incredibly antisocial and decide to expound all their grief and woes of any degree into one gloriously large and dramatic breakdown. The lead-in hint was an expulsion of coolant from the expansion tank at a rest area in New York, as I ironically sat waiting for my friend Jarek’s Mercedes-Benz OM617-powered Disovery to cool down from a sustained 70mph highway run. And then to make it worse, I found myself on a hill climb into a crazy trail in Southern Vermont, with a truck that has now compounded all of its issues into a fit of stalling and cutting out whenever asked to perform between 700rpm and 1800rpm on an incline, requiring immense group effort and use of tow straps to coax it to the top of said complex hill climb, until such point as I jumped in at the top of the hill and drove it down the other side with the CD changer spinning and the truck performing near enough perfectly. The only issue was that the speedometer wasn’t working, due to the Vehicle Speed Sensor that has not worked since December, and the absence of which has caused minimal issue for 5,000 miles of driving since then. That may or may not have still been a cause of the trail issues; jury’s out.

Disco Woe on the Thruway.
Disco Woe on the Thruway.

To make matters more fun is another tenet, the one of “just because you think you engineered something better than everyone else ever has does does not mean it is.” In my case, I learnt that my method of dealing with a seized center differential lock lever was brilliant and convenient in the driveway, but beggared second-degree burns when implemented in the wild, which I have the scars to prove such on the back of my left hand and back of my right arm.

And so, I got to that point of caving to all of the lessons and tenets, and realized We Have Issues and headed home early to solve my woes, by way of my friend Eric Riston in Albany who sells parts for Atlantic British and will help you with your woes as much as he helped me with mine if you call him there on extension 231.

At a Land Rover Holy Land, Atlantic British in Clifton Park, NY.
At a Land Rover Holy Land, Atlantic British in Clifton Park, NY.

Because I have found that I do not need to drive this truck during the week, since I carpool to work and get home too late to actually have a life, I’ve parked it in the driveway the past two weeks and have done heavy tinkering on it at night. Although I’ve done tons of work on this truck lately, I did purchase it as a sort of step above a barn find in Vermont, having been off the road approximately five years. It’s structurally in quite good condition considering its age and location, but there’s lots of little stuff still to keep on top of to get it in the great shape it has potential to be in.

The results of said tinkering? To be figured out Friday night, when Duncan comes out again for yet another rally — fortunately, closer to home.