NJLR James Bay Road Expedition: Day 2

Today would be the first day of new territory on the trip – heading north from Gatineau to Matagami, the town in the Baie-James region of Quebec that’s the southern terminus of the James Bay Road. The plan was to roll out of the hotel at 7:00 AM, with about eight hours and 400 miles of driving ahead of us.

The plan was to make it to Val d’Or around mid-day, to get lunch and provisions. The drive is about five hours, including a remote 157-mile leg through the La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve. We killed most of the bottle of Fireball the night before, so the alcohol stores had to be replenished, and we needed to get some snacks. Of course, the night before, I couldn’t wait for some of my Canadian favorites – when we went to fuel up the trucks, I picked up a bag of All-Dressed Ruffles and another of Ketchup Lay’s. Canada comes second only to the United Kingdom when it comes to glorious potato chip/crisp flavors.

I rolled out of bed about 6:20 AM, jumped in the shower, put my stuff in the LR3, and walked the few hundred meters down the road to the Tim Hortons for a coffee, maple glazed donut, and Sausage B.E.L.T. Down here in Gatineau, there’s probably more English spoken due to the proximity to Ottawa, so I haven’t had the courage to totally go full-bore French. I have enough pidgin French to get by – I’ve done it in France and Quebec before – but down here “parlez-vous Anglais?” still nets me an Anglophone staffer to place an order with. The goal for today was to get more into speaking French as we head north, without falling back on my native tongue.

We headed west a bit on QC-5 and then north on QC-105, which winds along the Gatineau River’s western shore. The road was full of twisties, passing a vista reminiscent of some parts of upstate New York or Vermont. (Makes sense, I guess, since we’re topographically nearby.) The view changed from ravines to small villages as we wound north, with a smattering of trailer parks and farms in the mix. If it wasn’t so cold and potentially icy, and we didn’t have a chunky LR3 that was close to its maximum GVWR, this road could be seriously fun. The sun started to rise, slowly over a gloomy, grey sky. The snow cover built up as we headed further north. The first snow we saw sticking was a dusting at Syracuse, but here we were closing in on a foot of snowpack. Cows wandered past picturesque rustic barns hoof-deep in it.

At Kazabazua, a sort of misty rain came down. A decent-sized town, it had a few bars, a Benjamin Moore paint store, and a few signs for a horse pull competition. Just south of Maniwaki, we drove past the burnt-out remains of a house or barn, a few cops sitting in the driveway with some police tape. Instantly, my overactive brain started wondering what’s going on, and I got a bit of a vibe of a scene in Louise Penny’s Three Pines mystery novels.

 

 

We stopped at Maniwaki to re-Timmy, and change seats. Milosz and I swapped, with me taking some time with Jarek and Konrad and him hanging out with Bogdan and Ewa a bit. The ridiculous plushiness of the Rangie was a nice change, though honestly as the LR3 has heated rear seat bottoms, it’s not like it was much of a struggle.

We headed into the La Vendredye refuge around 10:00 AM, fog starting to close in as a cold drizzle fell on the windscreen of the Rangie. A sign on the roadside signaled 56km to fuel, with what looked like just four waysides on the road to Val d’Or. The various rest areas were shut tight for winter, the parking lots piled in snow. Moose-aware signs (“prudence!”) showed up on the side of the road. A tractor-trailer started riding our rear bumper, a risky move in the weather – and we had nowhere to go with a line of cars ahead of us. Roadside rock walls had turned into waterfalls of ice.

 

 

The road to Val d’Or got snowier and snowier, with a flurry reducing visibility. Val d’Or was a veritable oasis after a long stretch of nothingness. The first introduction was a line of car dealerships, followed by a centre-ville, where we stopped at the IGA for provisions.

I have a thing for foreign supermarkets, as do a few others in the expedition party, so this was an experience. The beer section was particularly interesting. It was packed with craft brews, but almost none of them were familiar – at that scale, breweries just can’t deal with exporting, I guess. Instead, there were hundreds of unknown Canadian beers, many in 330mL cans.

 

As a Tragically Hip fan, this amused me.

 

 

After about a half hour of provisioning, we headed to get gas, where the pump attendant was fascinated by our American-ness and was excited to buy an American $5, $10, and $20 bill off of us for his currency collection. We filled up with a snow flurry surrounding us and the bells of the Catholic church echoing through town.

 

The gas attendant shows Bogdan some of his foreign currency collection.

 

From here, the highway cut through the outskirts of Amos, the seat of the Catholic Diocese of Amos (which serves this Northern Quebec region), with the Cathédrale Sainte-Thérèse-d’Avila dominating the skyline. The road north cut through flat farmland, before turning into the seemingly-uninhabited thick forest. The road started getting slick, and Jarek did a brake test on the Rangie, with minimal impact. Smooth motions and spacing became the name of the game.

All of the rest areas on the road are closed this time of year, so it seems like the way to handle this function is in the classical outdoors manner; easier, of course, for guys. All day, we’ve passed people pulled over at the roadside taking care of business. It’s kind of funny to see people relatively cavalier about it, by requirement. We pulled over the convoy a few times for a pee break and to check the trucks. While I’m used to these kinds of inspection pauses driving an almost-26-year-old Discovery 1, at this point neither the LR3 or L322 are brand-new either.

 

 

The road is actively plowed, and we passed a number of trucks plowing and laying down salt. There are also lots of tractor-trailers carrying fuel and other supplies to the communities on the JBR. Also, considering we were convinced we needed full-tilt-boogie overland trucks for this trip, there’s a lot of Ford Focuses and Mazdas up here. (Mazdas seem significantly more popular in Canada than the USA.)

It got dark in the 4:00 PM hour, but the temperatures so far haven’t been as cold as we’d expected…they’re hovering around freezing, -2 Centigrade at the lowest so far. I’m hoping it’s colder when we hit the JBR tomorrow because I have a lot of cold-weather gear I bought for this trip. (Though, it’ll get plenty of use at the Maine Winter Romp in February.)

We got to Matagami around 5:30 PM, checked into the hotel, and found out that all of the restaurants in town are closed until January 6th. The options: snacks from the Esso, or snacks from Shell. Katie and I went to Shell, then Esso. Here are some things we found.

 

Back at the hotel, we made dinner on the camp stoves in lieu of a restaurant, or some of us just ate prepacked things. I had a very sad salad kit from Val d’Or, eaten with a titanium Snow Peak fork for some class. Jarek, Konrad, and Milosz went for soup in a can, while Bodgan went for Unibroue beer and cheese.

 

We ended the night with a driver’s meeting in Carl’s and my room, planning our assault on the JBR tomorrow. Tomorrow’s the big day: THE James Bay Road. We saw the big sign at the start today at the turnoff to Matagami, and it’s already hard to believe — it’s time! It’ll be 387 miles to Radisson, with a whole lotta nada in between. I can’t wait!

 

 

 

NJLR James Bay Road Expedition: Day 1

Sleep didn’t come easy; it never does when you’re excited about a trip. By 6:00 AM I was awake and getting ready for the day. The last things went in the bag as I finished using them, and then I paced the house waiting for the expedition party to arrive.

Bogdan and Ewa came first, and we started loading my stuff in the LR3. Jarek, Konrad, and Milosz pulled in a few minutes later, and we caught up while I showed Jarek my latest projects in the garage. Will and Katie showed up in the Jeep to fill out the expedition party, and after a lot of rearranging of luggage to insert Carl and me into the vehicles, we took some pre-departure photos and rolled out.

 

The expedition party prepares for departure.

 

We went to grab a Starbucks, but apparently I don’t know what stores are in which strip mall in the town I’ve lived in for thirty years, so we just got on I-78 west towards Pennsylvania. We messed around testing the radios as we headed west across the farmlands of Hunterdon County. We were across the Delaware by 9:15 AM and hooked north on PA-33 to I-80 and I-380.

The drive north was pretty quick. We burned some time on an extended tour of one exit’s various gas stations and restaurants, but other than that we kept a solid pace. After a bit more of that cheap American fuel, we crossed the border around 3:30 PM at the Thousand Islands Bridge. The line was only a few cars deep, the procedures were relatively simple, and then we were headed east on ON-401 and north on ON-417 towards Ottawa.

 

 

We came into Ottawa in the dark, and at some point, Will and Katie separated from us; we took a scenic (but not really, because darkness) tour of Ottawa while they took the fast roads to Gatineau. We met up at the front desk of the motel, where they were in the process of checking us in. Keys in hand, we unloaded the trucks, that sense of excitement in the air that comes with the first day of an adventure.

 

 

We headed to dinner at The Prescott, a landmark in Ottawa since 1934. It’s been the home of the Ottawa Valley Land Rovers’ monthly social for decades, so I wanted to see what it was like. Our friend Dixon Kenner, a long-time OVLR member who spends a lot of time in New Jersey, joined us for dinner. We spent a few hours over drinks and food discussing everything under the sun.

 

 

Back at the hotel, we spent a while planning the day ahead, before solving the problems of the world over a bottle of Fireball.

 

 

Tomorrow it’s off to Matagami, the southern end of the James Bay Road, via Val d’Or. It’s another 400 miles or so, via remote roads through La Verendrye Wildlife Reserve. Morning comes early ’round here.

NJLR James Bay Road Expedition: Day 0

There are certain trips that loom large in off-roaders’ collective dreams. Maybe it’s that trip to Moab, or that Pan-American expedition, or that African safari you saw in Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom decades ago. They’re the trips that linger over campfires and long days in the garage, fermented over beers and scotches across the years.

For my New Jersey Land Rovers group, that trip is the James Bay Road. A thread running north in Quebec, it serves the hydro-electric projects that provide power to a large swath of eastern North America. Built in the 1970s across ancestral Cree land, today it links the town of Matagami to the village of Radisson, 620 kilometers/385 miles to the north. It is one of the most remote places you can drive to in eastern North America.

Many have dreamed of the James Bay Road, or JBR. Our dreams had an extra layer, though: winter. Winter in Northern Quebec is unforgiving — temperatures in Fahrenheit start with a negative symbol and are usually double digits. A handful of Land Rover acquaintances have driven the JBR in summer; a select few have done it in winter.

Wikimedia Commons photo of the old sign at the start of the JBR. By P199 – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=615154

Thus, winter on the JBR has haunted our conversations for over a decade. We’ve almost pulled the trigger on this trip a few times, but never completely. In 2016, my friends Barbara and Jarek moved from New Jersey to Florida. We almost drove it on the way to their last northern residents’ Maine Winter Romp. Then Jarek and I discussed it this year as part of our “Mark IV Grand Tour,” when he delivered a 2015 Range Rover from New Jersey to Florida via the Eastern Seaboard. But it never happened.

This year, Barb and Jarek are coming north to visit family in New Jersey for Christmas, and from that seed, our date with destiny on the JBR grew. Jarek’s overlanding vehicle of choice right now is a 2011 Range Rover Supercharged, a 510-horsepower beast of a thing that’s already done three round-trips up the Eastern Seaboard this year. The JBR is paved, and even so it’s proven itself in an off-road jaunt we took to Uwharrie National Forest in September. The dreams always involved his “Medium Duty Expedition Vehicle” 1995 Discovery, but dreams adapt. He and his son Milosz would make this pilgrimage north in the Range Rover.

Next to sign up was our friends Bogdan and Ewa in their 2005 LR3, a veteran of many cross-country trips. I met up with them far away once already this year, in fact; I was in Moab with my friend Max and some of his friends from Atlanta, and we rendezvoused. Bogdan also has extensive winter travel experience, another benefit.

We made concessions to purity with Will and Kate, who are the life of the party at many NJLR events. Will’s ex-military Series III, a paintless wonder dubbed “the Battlewagon,” was not in shape for this trip, in that a 74-horsepower 2.25-liter engine could not keep up the pace with the modern V8s in the Range Rover and LR3. So, in the interest of having their excellent company in the party, while maintaining pace, we conceded for them to take Katie’s daily driver, a 2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee. It may well be the impure beast that saves us all at some point.

Shotgunning we are three more. Myself, because Duncan is in no state for this trip on this notice, and Butler is still…well, horribly behind schedule. (Who knew restoring a complex mid-1990s luxury SUV would take so long when you have other things going on in life?) Carl’s Discovery 1 needed work, and life got in the way with such short notice. No matter, his good humor and skills as a professional medic were valuable. Jarek’s friend Konrad from Florida rounded out the expedition party, adding new blood and experience with modern vehicles via his career as a BMW technician.

The Route

Over the next week, we will traverse 13 degrees of latitude and 2,500 miles. We will go from New Jersey to Ottawa, then to the northern town of Matagami. From there, we take the James Bay Road, a 385-mile journey with one stop at the halfway point — the creatively-named “Km 381.” We will spend some time at the northern terminus of Radisson, exploring the Cree communities up there and the Hydro projects. Then we reverse the route, coming to America again via Montreal for the New Year on the St. Lawrence.

The JBR is fully-paved, though it’s also snowy and icy. Hydro is the main reason for its existence, but there’s also plenty of truckers to be aware of. There’s just one fuel stop — the aforementioned Km 381.

Logistics

Wikimedia Commons photo of the JBR in winter.By Zulborg – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8320715

Usually, this is a camping crowd, but not at these temperatures. We’re getting hotels in every town along the way. None of them are the Four Seasons, but they’ll all do.

The three vehicles have all been serviced in the past few weeks. We’re running mud+snow or snow tires on all of them. The Jeep has a block heater; the two Land Rovers don’t since it’s extremely complex to install them in an AJ-V8. We’ll see how we do; temperatures are not as cold as we thought they’d be in the current forecast.

As for food, all of the villages we’re visiting have restaurants, and we’ll probably do dinner there. Breakfasts will be at the hotels; lunch on the road. With a bit over eight hours of daylight every day, we have to keep pace.

Preparations

I’ve been keeping our UPS and FedEx delivery crew even busier than usual this time of year. The weather in Northern Quebec is cold. The only question is how cold. I expect to have temps below -10F at some point in the trip, either day or night.

I’ll be taking photos on three cameras on this trip, using digital and film. Digital will be my usual Nikon D800. With film, I’ll have my Nikon N8008, my standby for the past year as I got into film. I also acquired an N90s last week, for the steep sum of $34. As my friend Quentin put it, the N8008 is “the best manual focus camera Nikon ever made,” because its primitive autofocus is very loud and largely useless. The N90s will offer a second body, better AF (it’s very snappy), and the ability to shoot two film stocks at once. I’ve been shooting Ektachrome E100 lately, but the landscapes here and low light beg experimentation. I’ll be using Portra 400 in the N90s and Tri-X 400 in the N8008.

Other than that, I’ve done a lot of shopping for warm weather gear. Extreme cold is one of the few circumstances my outdoors wardrobe isn’t equipped for. I’m hoping this is one of the last trips where I have a big gear spend beforehand that nears the cost of the trip itself!

We ride at dawn on Boxing Day, destination: Canada. I’ll try to keep the live blog up as much as I can along the way.

Mother Country Trail 2018, Day 1: Go West, and Grow Up with the Country

Map of Day 1 of the Mother Country Trail Roadtrip

“Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.”
-Horace Greeley, 1865 (alleged)

Day 1: 21 April 2018
Begin: Warren Township, New Jersey
End: Moline, Illinois
Mileage: 925 miles

Yes, these blogs are coming over a year after this trip ended. But as time marched on, I realized how much of an influence this journey had on me. I still think about it daily, in detail, and it ended up changing my life in many ways. It changed my confidence, my goals, and my direction in the Land Rover community. Since I think about these details so much, I can almost wholly recreate the trip from memory in the summer of 2019, as much as a writing exercise as anything. So here we are, a year later, heading across America in the spring of 2018 in a 24-year-old Land Rover Discovery.

***

Long story short, I ended up leaving New Jersey a day later than planned (Saturday 21 April at sunrise, not Friday 20 April after work) and was doing things on the Discovery until the very last minute, buttoning up what had been a down-to-the-wire rebuild. I had put the transfer box back in just a few days prior; the interior still wasn’t fully reassembled. I still hadn’t replaced the rear turn signal that had melted off the bumper when I improperly installed my new Magnaflow exhaust, but I didn’t have time to find one, either. My friend Randy from the Mendo list ended up grabbing me one from a Pick and Pull in Southern California, where Discovery 1s still live and die with some regularity.

The dash was strung with wires: CB radio, GPS (my Garmin GPSMAP 62st that I use for geocaching), cell phone dock, XM radio. Everything was powered through a series of USB hubs and cables, with 12V extension lines where needed. I’d like to get a more elegant setup put together at some point, but it seems that something always comes up that prevents me from getting to the “fun stuff” with the truck.

 

Disco 1 Dash

 

It was time to go.

After a frenzy of packing and throwing anything I thought I might need in the truck (including just about every jacket I own), I pulled out of the driveway at 6:00 AM on Saturday. I was still a bit nervous that I’d done some repair wrong, or missed some issue, or that the things I cobbled together half-assed would fail. I had thousands of miles and a continent ahead. The first goal was to transit New Jersey and cross the Delaware, hoping that the 35 miles or so of I-78 would shake down any major issues.

 

D1 ready to leave!

 

At 6:53 AM, I crossed the first hurdle; the brand-new Pennsylvania welcome sign loomed over heavy construction on the Interstate 78 Toll Bridge. Now to just make it to Ohio, and perhaps I’d be home free. My dad figured that I’d have any catastrophic breakdowns between New Jersey and Ohio. Either I’d be on a tow truck home from Pennsylvania, or I’d make it to the Pacific Ocean.

 

 

After an early morning Wawa sandwich — my last grasp at the East Coast for two weeks — I headed west with the new day. I had one ear to any issues that might crop up as I wound through the Alleghenies. A few bon voyage phone calls along the way from friends helped with my anxiety, as I listened for every potential catastrophic failure. The copy of the promotional CD The Rhythm of the Road: Freelander Road Music I found on eBay that came with Land Rover Freelanders as a stereo test disc helped, too. It’s a wonderfully period collection of 2000s era music — basic pop and indie music that fit that vehicle and that time. I checked the oil, coolant, and transmission fluid every hundred miles or so, just to make sure it was all tickety-boo. Overall, the truck seemed to hold. My anxiety began to melt away.

 

The Rhythm of the Road: Freelander Road Music CD

 

I-80 wound west and became the Ohio Turnpike around 1:15 PM. By 6:00 PM I’d hit the Indiana state line. not bad for twelve cautious hours in an untested vehicle. At 7:15 PM, I was gazing out at the Discovery from a Burger King in a rest area on the Indiana Turnpike. Somehow, I’d already covered over 700 miles without even really noticing it. I looked at a map. I was feeling pretty good, considering how long I’d been on the road. The Disco was settling into a nice, smooth highway mode, and I was easily pulling 70-80mph. And…I’d gain an hour in Chicagoland when I crossed into Central Time. The Mississippi River was a little over 200 miles away. Well, that’d be a tidy and symbolic distance to cover in a day.

 

Burger King dinner, Indiana rest area

 

I got on the Hilton Honors app, booked the Hampton Inn at the Moline, Illinois airport, filled up the Disco, and headed west.

9:00 PM EDT became 8:00 PM CDT at the edge of The Region, the Chicago suburbs of Indiana which are the only parts of the state on Central Time, as they’re so tied to the Chicago economy. I crossed into Illinois at 8:30 PM CDT. Blaring the music of the just-deceased Avicii on the radio, I wove the Disco through late-night traffic. I-80 turned into the Tri-State Tollway, the western reaches of the EZPass system, and then at Joliet I was spit out into the Illinois countryside.

 

 

At 11:00 PM, I arrived at the Hampton Inn in Moline. I had 925 miles under my belt since I had left New Jersey 18 hours earlier. I peeked out the window at a quiet Quad Cities Airport, a lonely American Airlines CRJ-200 waiting on the apron for the morning flight, and konked out on the bed.

 

Disco at hotel parking lot in Moline

Bringing Home Butler: My New 1994 Range Rover Classic County LWB

My Land Rover friends have been wrapped in the drama of Spenny, my rusty 1993 Range Rover County LWB, for the past five years. Spenny was my first car, a de facto replacement for the 1994 Discovery my parents bought new and planned to give me when I turned 16 in 2006. In late 2005, it got totalled in a Nor’Easter by a massive tree limb. I bought Spenny from another Land Rover enthusiast in Arlington, Virginia, towed him back to New Jersey, and put 50,000 miles of adventures on him from 2007 to 2015. Then like all Land Rovers of that era, he got quite rusty.

So, I sourced Duncan, my 1994 Discovery, as a “stopgap” car so I could take time to fix Spenny. A project himself, I spent months changing head gaskets, replacing bushings, and rewiring. Then I learned that buying cars that had been off the road for five years took a lot of work to drive again. So I spent a lot of time and money making it a pretty nice driver. Then I really liked the Discovery. I daily drove it. I drove it to rallies. I drove it to California. And Spenny sat.

Earlier this summer I tried to revive Spenny, but the rust was really, really bad. So I decided to source a rust-free body in the South to do a body swap. My friend Max Thomason found me one at his Land Rover shop in Atlanta, a 1994 County LWB. Black on the outside (sprayed over the original Montpelier red), with a rare-ish black leather interior, it was actually a pretty decent truck. It was supposed to have engine issues, but nobody was that sure. It had been sold to the shop in 2013 or so and used as a parts truck, but 98% of it was there. We struck a deal, I bought it for $500 with a title, and I booked a flight to Atlanta.

At some point, I realized that this rust-free body I planned to swap onto Spenny’s chassis…would also have a rust-free chassis. So, I decided that I’d just fix up the new one and make it the Spenny replacement second truck. Of course, for this new project, I could have probably picked a better base vehicle, but I was locked into this one at this point, and besides, I do love me a good Land Rover Reborn project. So here I am again…fixing up a truck that has been off the road for five years.

I stopped stripping out Spenny’s interior with the old plans to rebuild him and decided instead that I would transfer what was needed to the new truck, then strip Spenny down to a rolling chassis to be slowly tinkered with for some sort of future hybrid trail truck project. Duncan will need some work after the new Rangie is revived since I never totally finished that rebuild, so that was also a goal of the project. It’s tough when the truck is your daily driver; you can’t just let a project sit in the driveway and tinker with it when you feel like it, or you are never going anywhere. For example, I need to repair or replace all the door latches and lock actuators, but I can’t really drive without a latch!

Friday 7 September came, and my dad drove me to Newark Airport after work. I flew a Delta MD-88 down to Atlanta, fulfilling one of my AvGeek bucket list items. (More on that in a separate aviation-focused post.)

 

MD88 N932DL at Gate at EWR

 

Well, a quick video. The cool thing about the MD-88 is the old school low-bypass Pratt & Whitney JT8D engines, with a distinct sound you rarely hear these days. For AvGeeks, this is a cool thing, and we actually WANT to be in seat 33E next to the engines. Delta plans to retire the MD-88 fleet around 2020. Since I fly United most of the time out of EWR, this trip to Delta’s Atlanta superhub and MD-88 base was a good time to get this trip in. (It gets good around 1:50.)

 

 

It was a pretty quick flight down to ATL, and I passed it reading Chris Scott’s Desert Travels: Motorcycle Travels in the Sahara and West Africa. Scott’s various works on West Africa are favorites right now, since I have a bit of a dream to ship Duncan to England and replicate the Paris-Dakar Rally route. (This must include an early-morning run through Paris along the route of C’etait un Rendezvous.)

Max picked me up in his LR3, and we picked up burgers and beers at Grindhouse Killer Burgers. It’s a local chain, mostly in Atlanta with a few other Georgia locations, and the double Apache Style and a pitcher hit the spot. Terminal B at EWR has almost no food (compared to the cornucopia that is Terminal C), and all I had on the plane was a few of Delta’s iconic Biscoff cookies, so I was about to pass out.

 

Exterior View of Killer Burgers in Atlanta, Georgia

 

We headed back to Max’s house, kibitzed a bit, and checked out his Series III 109″, which he’s had since 1999. It’s an ex-MOD left-hand-drive vehicle. It may have also been used in one of the Reverend Billy Graham’s Crusades, according to previous owner lore. He and I have been looking into it a bit, and apparently, the Reverend broadcast a 1989 sermon from London to Africa via satellite, after which recordings were brought to remote villages. It’s possible this truck was one of those used to transport these recordings across Africa in “Mission 89.” More research is needed.

 

My friend Max's Series 3 Land Rover 109 Inch Station Wagon

 

I slept for a few hours, then we were up early to start the day. First off, though, a proper Southern brekkie at Home Grown, an Atlanta restaurant near Max’s house with some of the best chicken and biscuits I’ve ever had. Okay, actually, the only chicken and biscuits I’ve ever had. Still, it was one of the most epic breakfasts I’ve ever had, and I’m from New Jersey, home of Taylor Ham/Pork Roll.

 

Chicken and Biscuits at Home Grown restaurant in Atlanta

 

We picked the Penske truck and trailer up, which took about a half hour, and then headed across the center of Atlanta to the place where I was picking the truck up. Max had dealt with the paperwork, and the shop was closed, so it was already hauled outside the fence yesterday. I had him drive the Penske across the city’s notorious Downtown Connector, the stretch of I-75/85 that has some of the worst traffic in the country. It wasn’t bad early on Saturday morning, but I still took the chance to try out his LR3 in chase, briefly rethinking my choices in second vehicles.

And there it was: my glorious new truck. My third Rover of my own, fifth in my family. All there in its revived parts truck glory.

 

The first view of Butler, my new Range Rover Classic, before we load him on the trailer

 

Time was short, so we hooked the Rangie up to the LR3 and hauled it on, since the truck doesn’t run. This involved shackles, confusion, and using cell phones on speakerphone as walkie-talkies. Then, with a few test drives around the block, I was off, driving a box truck AND a trailer for the first time ever.

 

Picture of Butler loaded on the trailer

 

I didn’t have much time for social calls, but my timing was such that I could stop off to see my friends Jen and Greg, former members of my curling club who had just moved to the Atlanta area, without messing up my timeline (because a man’s gotta eat anyway!). We had a blast catching up — I really, really miss having them back at Plainfield.

 

Picture of me with my friends Greg and Jen with Butler

 

And so began…the schlep. First, South Carolina hit, and so Butler left Georgia, one seriously lucky former parts truck.

 

Picture of Butler with the South Carolina welcome sign

 

I had to swing by the BMW factory in Spartanburg, to get a picture with the sign. There was a cop protecting a DOT worker doing some lawn mowing, but he was nonplussed that I parked my giant truck right in front of the entrance.

 

Picture of Butler with the entrance sign to the BMW factory in South Carolina

 

I made it to Gastonia, North Carolina that night, after a lot of slow driving — I’m just not used to how wide a box truck is, the slow speed hauling a car behind it, and tracking the whole package together. It’s even tougher at night! I parked across six spots and crashed in my room until it was time to hit the road again.

 

Picture of Butler on trailer at Hampton Inn in Gastonia, North Carolina

 

The next day was a slog home. I had to get from Charlotte to New Jersey in time to sleep and go to work tomorrow. On paper, it’s not a bad drive, a bit over 600 miles. But the remnants of Tropical Storm Gordon were coming over Virginia and Pennsylvania, and after a calm ride through North Carolina, the rains started to pour somewhere around Roanoke, Virginia. Most of the day was a slog, going slow with the heavy, unwieldy load. As I got closer to Pennsylvania, it just got worse. The one highlight was crossing the Mason-Dixon Line, officially making Butler a Northern Truck.

 

Screenshot of my weather app on my phone showing remnants of Tropical Storm Gordon

 

Picture of Butler at a rainy rest area in Virginia

 

 

Pennsylvania was a slog, with rough roads — as I say, “Under Construction Since 1776.” Every joint in the road clattered the entire assembly, and I was sure I was either going to break the trailer in half or lose the Rangie.

Finally, around 10 PM, I pulled into the driveway. Too wiped to deal with anything, I left the whole Penske assembly (which I had through Thursday anyway) to deal with later and headed off to bed to go to work. Of course, with my luck, I ended up with strep throat when I woke up, so I spent most of the week working from home, feeling too crappy to work on the truck.

And so now, I have a fleet of three. It is only going briefly look like this, though. The old RRC LWB, Spenny, goes to a friend’s house soon, where I’m going to cut it down to a rolling chassis for a Range Rover Classic-styled off-road trail rig project. But I have to admit it’s pretty swank having three classic British luxury cars…all built between 22 February 1993 and 6 May 1994.

 

My full Land Rover fleet in my driveway. Duncan, my Discovery 1; Spenny, my 1993 Range Rover; and Butler, my 1994 Range Rover.

 

By the way, where’s the name Butler come from? Well, of course, that famous fictitious Georgian, Rhett Butler. I figured that Gone with the Wind was a good source for a name, especially as I’ve enjoyed visiting the Margaret Mitchell House several times over the years going to Atlanta for book industry conferences. My trucks tend to be male, contrary to the norm, and it was between Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes. Rhett is a bit rough around the edges, Ashley meant saying “Ashley, but it’s a guy” too much, and Wilkes has too much reference to the Wilks Brothers who created the Land Rover — Spenny was already named after Range Rover designer Spen King, and I wanted to go another way. So I figured Butler was a good name, and went well with the classy black-on-black color scheme and general Range Rover swankiness.

Now it’s the project of reviving a parts truck with unknown issues. I will be going through every inch of this truck the next few months, refining and improving and rebuilding. If getting the Discovery ready for the California trip was the Bachelor’s in Rovers, this is the Masters. As for the Ph.D., that’ll be whatever I do with Spenny! Keep an eye out for future blogs here on all these projects for sure.

Mother Country Trail 2018, Day T-30: Sealing the Deal, Part 1

Snow fell on New Jersey again, but this time it didn’t seem to match the forecast in a good way, not a bad one. A few inches certainly accumulated, but it hasn’t matched the fury of a few weeks ago. So, with electricity powering the lights, heater and stereo in the garage, it was time to dive back into the case.

First I sealed the rear housing with The Right Stuff. I got it in a 5 oz. caulk gun package, which makes it a lot easier to dispense. Then the bolts were torqued and I attached the front housing.

Once I had the front housing attached, I continued through the order of operations in the manual. Now, the manual is designed for use in a dealer service bay setting, I assume with a full set of factory tools, parts, and components on hand. One of these components is a core plug that goes in the end of the differential lock shaft. I’m pretty OCD about this stuff, but even that is a bit beyond my level of detail. I smacked and torqued the front housing on only to see the error of doing things “in order.”

So, off the front housing came, and I rebuilt the diff lock selector fork to spec. At this point, the old Right Stuff, which now had to be cleaned off to re-attach the housing, hadn’t even dried yet, so I decided to wrap for the night and deal with it tomorrow when it would be easier to clean off.

This is how I felt after all this.

The good thing is, at this point, if I have no further issues, I think this can be sealed up tomorrow, and I can turn to the transmission fixes over the next few days. On the one hand, I’m stressing the timeline; on the other, I’m looking at the list, and this is the biggest chunk. There’s a lot of transmission work as part of this, which is new territory for me, but after that’s done and the bottom of the truck is buttoned up, what should be left is a lot less dirty and a lot less intense. At some point, I’ll also get into interior prep for the journey, which is the fun part! I have to start thinking up what to do there so my dad and I can fire up the Walker-Turner in a few weeks and fab up a sleeping/storage setup. At some point I want to fab up a really nice semi-permanent setup, but before I make that investment I think it’s a good idea to experiment with a few ideas and see what works in the field.

We’re just over four weeks, but everything is fine.

Soundtrack: Dire Straits, Brothers in Arms; Green Day, American Idiot

Mother Country Trail 2018, Day T-31: I Think I Can

With no curling this weekend, I really dove into the Disco. Today is a month even to go, and it’s starting to feel a bit real.  I’m leaving on the 20th, and it was the 20th today.

Thus the pace quickens. I’d like to do some kind of test run at least two weekends before. I’m considering two Rover events — one in Quebec, one in Virginia — and a few more likely ~600 mile weekend runs. I may tinker with the National Park Service unit map and see if I can plot out how to knock off a few new ones in a weekend trip, especially because doing things like that regularly in this truck is part of the goal of this project.

I decided the primary goal this weekend was to remove the old transfer case, transfer the necessary items to the new transfer case, and get the new transfer case fully assembled and sealed with the combined components. This was partially accomplished within the traditional bounds of “the weekend.” So, into the garage Duncan went again, for at least a week of driveline surgery.

First, it was time to drop the exhaust, and this is where I found out that my exhaust patch from a few weeks ago was, in fact, the snake oil I thought it was. I figured this had probably happened when I drove on the Interstate for the first time and it got very noticably louder, but a visual confirmed it.

And so disassembly began. First I dropped the swaybar to allow the Y-pipe to come out, then once the exhaust was down (easy as I’d already undone all the problem fasteners a few weeks ago), it was on to one of my least favourite jobs on a Rover, disconnecting propshafts. Thanks to the one tool that every Land Rover owner should have, it was way easier than it could be, but still took almost an hour to do both. Finally, they were both down, the necessary bolts retained, and it was onward.

Thanks to the modification I did last year to the centre console, replacing the rivets holding the covers for the transmission and transfer case shifters in place with rivnuts and screws, I made quick work of exposing the shift linkage. I was happy to see the lithium grease in the shifter pivot assembly somewhat holding up after a year, though I will renew it when I put this all back together, and pack in a bit more overflow!

Next was the centre removable crossmember under the transmission. This can be a notorious right royal PITA. It took me about 45 minutes to get the eight bolts off, and I had to cut one off with the die grinder, so I guess I should figure out what size that was and call up McMaster Carr. Then it was some smacks with the sledgehammer, spread the frame with the Big Red hydraulic ram, and it came off, to expose this horrifying sight underneath. Certainly the truck will already require some welding when I get home, but since this is covered with the crossmember, which bridges this hole and inherently stabilises it, I’m going to pretend it isn’t there until the Summer of Bodywork commences on arrival at home.

The final act of Saturday was pulling the handbrake drum off the back and removing the rear output flange; it’s quite frankly nicer than the one on the Q box, so I’ll probably reuse it (especially as it has nice zinc coated Grade 8 bolts that I put on!). At this point, I started to see just how grimy thousands of miles of gear oil spraying everywhere can be. On the plus side, this must have helped to mitigate some rust that otherwise might have been. After everything’s together (by which time the string of Nor’Easters hitting us “should” have stopped), I’ll powerwash it all heavily.

I tucked it in for Saturday, got to bed at midnight, and planned a continuation of activities for Sunday. The Fitzgerald family had tacos for dinner on St. Patrick’s Day, having realised after decades that we don’t really love corned beef and cabbage.

Sunday it was back to work, and time to disconnect the box. I undid the shifter linkage completely, removed the input gears, loosened all of the bolts securing the transfer box to the transmission, and detached the transfer case mount bracket from the chassis. At this point, I looked at all of this and decided that I am a man of little upper body strength, and perhaps it might be worth it to pony up for a transmission jack, instead of using what my friend Rob called “the sea otter procedure.” So, it was off to Harbor Freight, land of cheap tools that might kill you, but you’re only using them once so you’ll take the risk to save a few bucks. Forty-five minutes later, I returned from Harbor Freight (the former Saturn of Green Brook, with the service department hours still posted on the side door) with a lighter wallet and the relative guarantee I wouldn’t be tapping my ER deductible for caving my chest in.

I detached everything, and had my dad come and supervise from the top while I wiggled the case off the bolts. This went great until I hung up on the stud on the top right. In retrospect, I should have removed the rubber transfer case mount and its bracket from the case, as I ended up wedging it against the chassis. But it was getting late, I was wiped, and I had laid waste to my body today, so I washed up and left it for later.

Monday I went to the office, and had a bit of discomfort with some more repetitive copy-paste coding things, having wrecked my hand over the weekend. I got home late and couldn’t get too much on the truck, unfortunately.

But I was pretty excited, because my bulk pack of Powerspark Red distriutor rotors came from England. The current crop of Genuine Land Rover distributor rotors is, in a word, crap, so this company has stepped in with an aftermarket replacement. I personally don’t need them right now, but I’ll carry them with me across, as a few Mendonites are looking to tinker with ignition issues and have called dibs. They have had some good reviews with their earlier products for other British marques.

Tuesday, I decided that I needed to motivate myself more to get this done, so into the garage again. I decided that part of my alignment issue was that I was trying to drag the case out with the rubber mount and bracket dragging on the chassis. But…I was in a Catch-22, because the nuts for the mount had been on there for a while, and were attached to a very flexible bit of rubber, keeping me from being able to apply the necessary torque to liberate them.

The transmission jack was helpful, but the transfer box is mounted at an angle, so it didn’t totally fit on the flat jack plate. The service manual directed the dealership to fabricate an elaborate, angeled bracket to remove them, but I can’t weld yet, and I don’t think it’d mate to my jack, so my dad and I fabbed something up on his pre-WWII Walker-Turner table saw.

I took this outside, but it didn’t help. Finally, I felt the energy of despair and rage build me and I gave a Herculian shove as my dad stood above through the hatch prising the case from the transmission. And then, we were free of the input shaft, and I lowered the old case in glory!

With the driveshafts, transfer case, and exhaust gone, there’s so much space for activities!

Now to the next step: finishing the build of the new Q box. I now have the old box down and can pillage everyhing I need from it. I started tidying the mating surfaces with 400-grit wet/dry sandpaper and brake cleaner. Tomorrow, assuming the latest Nor’Easter doesn’t send us back into refuge across town at our friend’s house, I’ll start sealing it up.

 

Soundtrack:

Saturday, 17 March: Donna the Buffalo, Live from the American Ballroom; Skinny Lister, Forge & Flagon; N.W.A., Straight Outta Compton.

Sunday, 18 March: Culture Club, Colour by Numbers; Elton John, Too Low for Zero.

Tuesday, 20 March: Billy Joel, The Stranger

Mother Country Trail 2018, Day T-36: Out-Putting

The electricity now restored and civilization restored to the homestead, it was time to really crank up the action.

Unfortunately, Tuesday was lost to a pretty massive migraine. On Wednesday, I decided it might be a good idea to print out the LT230Q repair manual at the office, and look at it on paper, instead of on my phone. When I started really leafing through it, I realized there was a sort of order of operations I was only half following, so I decided to jump on the bandwagon, better late than never.

First up was disassembling the front output housing completely. I took the flange off using one of my favorite tricks — 30mm socket on an impact gun, nevermind the special flange grabbing tool mentioned in the manual — and pulled the various internals in the prescribed order of operations.

Next was measuring tolerances and cleaning things up. It probably wasn’t necessary to measure the width of the openings in the finger of the high-low mechanism, especially since the truck this came out of was apparently a street truck, but why not?

Next up was replacing the output seal. The old one probably didn’t need replacing, but I wanted to do it. I pulled the old with a seal puller, and greased up the new one.

As I was doing this, I realized I actually already had had one on hand. A few years ago I was going to redo the rear output seal because of what I thought was a leak, and I bought a pattern flange from Bearmach via LRDirect. I never used it, but I thought I’d take a peek at the seal and compare and contrast. I was very disappointed in it, and also in the flange (Bearmach has really upped their game in the past few years, and has become a huge North American community supporter, so they may well be better now), so I decided that the Bearmach flange had a perfect life as a flange seating tool, since I don’t have the $1,000 of official service tools to do this job exactly as per the manual!

It was now time for the most basic beginning of the reassembly process. I picked up Loctite 290 on Amazon, the factory spec item, unavailable at my local hardware store. It’s the “wicking grade” stuff, and green, and it’s way, way thinner than the usual red or blue stuff I use. Little things like this I think are worth the spend to do these jobs you don’t want to do again unnecessarily! I just used it on the set screw for the finger of the high-low housing, but even that little bit gave me a sense of accomplishment.

At some point, in the middle of a trippy Grateful Dead jam, I looked at my phone and realized it was 1:00 AM. Since I had work in the morning, I packed it in and headed to bed, which was a bit of a waste of productive time for this insomniac as I wasn’t asleep until 3:00 AM.

Thursday night, against my better health interests, it was back to the garage to disassemble the rear housing. I am not disassembling the center differential or touching anything that involves bearings, races, or preloads, as much as that’s possible. I do have an ambition to get an Ashcroft ATB center diff next year, so I figure I’ll do bearings when I rebuild the case again to install that.

I wrapped up about 11:30 PM, having gotten to the stage of test fitting the front output housing. At this point, the box has to get set aside, and I have to get the truck into the garage on Friday to begin the fortnight or so of major work underneath. I need to pull a few things off of the old transfer case, so it’s time to get dirty and upside down. I’m going to miss working on the bench…

This weekend is extremely ambitious. I have no curling plans — we have a women’s bonspiel at my club — so I have two full days to just work. The goal is to take 500-mile round shakedown run the weekend of 7-8 April, so I have to get cracking.

Soundtrack:

14 March: A combination of 1970s and 1980s hits, starting with Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” at full volume and ending with Lennon’s “Watching the Wheels”

15 March: City Kids Feel the Beat, on recommendation of Bruce Fowler

Mother Country Trail 2018, Day T-39: Unplugged

All was set. Wednesday afternoon, a large order from Atlantic British, facilitated by the inimitable Eric “Extension 231” Riston, was to arrive by FedEx. New exhaust, new transmission and transfer case parts, a new door latch — the final major spend of the pre-trip project.

At the same time, a Nor’Easter was to arrive, dumping some snow on us. My figuring was that we’d get some snow, but as the packages arrived around 1PM, I remained optimistic that it wouldn’t be too bad. There were no trees down, and really not that much snow compared to the forecast, so I took a photo, put it on Instagram, took the packages inside, and went back to working from home.

I noticed the snow coming sideways at some point, and realized that my dad was making a lot of noise for a long time with the snowblower outside. But I didn’t think too much of it — I was deep in a few major, time-sensitive projects. Then I looked outside, and…wow. There was going on two feet of thick, heavy snow that had fallen in just a few hours.

As the storm started tapering down, I thought that we might have gotten lucky and kept our power through the wind and falling trees. I felt lucky, grateful. Then, at 5:30 PM, just as I hit send on an email, the lights went out.

Now, after Hurricane Sandy, a lot of people installed whole-house natural gas generators, but we never got around to it. Fortunately, our family friend Cathy, who lives across town, did. And so, we encamped to her house and her fabulously decorated guest rooms as refugees for four days.

This, clearly, impeded progress on the trip prep repairs. And so, my transfer case sat there half rebuilt, my small parts from Rovers North for it sitting next to the collection of new Atlantic British acquisitions. And so I waited, as the days to go ticked to less than 40.

Tonight, with the power back, I took the opportunity to get back in the garage and get to work on the intermediate shaft. On the LT230Q, the shaft is sleeved by a collapsible spacer, which I bought a new one of from Rovers North. The staked nut on the end of the shaft was sort of tight, the only rusty fastener I’ve really encountered on this box, so it’s also getting replaced. I got some assistance from my dad to hold the box down with a clamp and his arm while I cranked with the breaker bar and 30mm socket, and slowly it came off. Then I removed the aligning plate and drifted the shaft out with a brass drift. We looped some baling wire around the intermediate gears to keep them from dropping (as per overhaul manual spec) and slid the shaft out, then removed the gears and bearings carefully.

First, I cleaned everything with a brass wire brush. Next, I replaced the O-rings in the kit I got from AB, coating them in a moly lube, and then cleaned things up for the rest of the night. Each of the bolt holes needs to be cleaned out of old Loctite, especially as some of them go through right into the main chamber of the case. Tomorrow, I have some cans of The Right Stuff coming for the sealing — after reading up, this seems the best solution for this situation. From there, I’ll begin the reassembly process tomorrow.

There’s a lot of time to compensate for — I lost three work nights and two very valuable weekend days. I’m getting a little nervous about the timescale, but just diving in tonight helped me out a lot there.

Soundtrack: Skinny Lister, “Down on Deptford Broadway.” I’m usually listening to something in the garage or on the road so I thought I’d add a touch and mention it in the blogs.

Mother Country Trail 2018, Day T-45: A Transfer of Goals

This weekend I started diving into the LT230Q box I picked up two weeks ago in Connecticut. This is one of the core repairs for the Discovery for the trip. Mine is leaky, groany, and unrefined.

Since I’d far rather not have my car resemble a retirement community Hooters tagline, I’ve started rebuilding the new box with new seals. I ordered a gasket kit from Eric “Extension 231” Riston at Atlantic British, as well as some Hylomar Blue. Then I read online and saw that these items are not suggested for the later LT230s, which were assembled with an RTV-like sealant. Because I spent money on gaskets and opened the package, I’m considering doing the gaskets on the covers that may need removal on the trail, and use Permatex Aviation Gasket Maker on the other surfaces (output housings and PTO covers).

Of course, the Internet being the Internet, every time I read things about sealants, I enter a deep phase of self-doubt. Then I ask friends, and they all give me different answers. I am locked into a mental battle of who I trust more. Finally, I decided to settle on the Aviation Gasket Maker. For now. Someone mentioned using silk thread to assist it in sealing. I never thought I’d maybe have to go to Fabricland to get Rover repair materiel.

I disassembled the box, which I think has been disassembled before. The bolts, while all correct in size, are of two different flange styles. No big deal really, except for my OCD. Everything looks good inside, and the quieter gears and cross-drilled input gears will be a boon for longevity and comfort.

It took most of Saturday to tear the box down, and most of Sunday to clean it up. But no matter, I was jamming out in the garage to a mix of Bowie, Paul Simon, and some of the K-Pop I’ve gotten curious about thanks to PyeongChang 2018. Working on the trucks is extremely therapeutic for me, so I don’t really mind taking the time. That said, I’m looking forward to the Disco being a solid daily driver, and getting that therapy out of the Range Rover this summer.

I’m trying to use as many of the seals and gaskets and O-rings in the kit as I can, in the camps of “not doing this again” and “getting my money’s worth.” I even replaced the O-rings in the CDL selector, and measured the fingers with calipers to confirm they were inside of factory spec. This is again really because I’m OCD, and I’m convinced that that .001″ is a life-and-death kind of thing.

Tomorrow, I get a new staked nut and collapsible spacer from Rovers North to redo the O-rings on the intermediate shaft, and I hope to get that done and move on to completing the project by the end of the work week. I have a birthday drinks night on Friday and curling on Saturday, and then the hope is that Sunday I pull the car into the work bay of the garage and start on the major underpinnings rebuild. (Sorry Mother, two more weeks in the driveway, but I’m “sure” I’ll be “done” taking your garage over after this for the “long term.”)

This is the crunch. I want March to be about sorting driveline, April about details and comfort. The driveline stuff has driven me insane since I got the truck, and it’s core to the whole concept of the trip. I’m fine driving 16-hour days, but it’s so much easier to do so without a little rumble freaking me out in the back of my head. I’d rather spend those hours listening to podcasts, talking to friends on the phone, and coming up with ideas for novels.

I’m starting to freak out a tiny bit about the timeline. Hitting 45 days is a bit of a milestone. I know that tomorrow at the office, I’ll send invoices that’ll get paid on time while I’m away. Little things that start to make you think…it’s closer than I thought. (Of course, taking two weeks off at a small business has led to some planning already going into place, thus the mindset.)

Coming soon are some large parts orders, a new pack of work T-shirts, and a lot of sealant of all flavours.