Retro Ramble: Part I

Retro Ramble was born of a desire to have an event specific to the awesome vehicles of the 1980’s. Relic Run caters to those who have a fondness for 1970’s and earlier vehicles, but the 80’s and their particular strain of uniqueness were intentionally left out of that.

So finally, after five years of Relic Running, the vehicles of the ‘80’s roared to life on a early June afternoon. It was a small, but relatively eclectic group for the first outing. Kurt with his rare in the US ’86 BJ74 Toyota Land Cruiser, Mike in his supped up ’84 FJ60 Cruiser, Spencer and his two kids in his ’83 Mitsubishi Turbo Diesel Pickup, and me in my beloved ’86 Samurai.

So a little background here is necessary I feel. The vehicle you see above is in many ways a lifelong labor of love. For automotive enthusiasts, they’ll get it, for others perhaps not. It’s square, slow, rusty, loud, bouncy, antiquated… the antitheses of what many feel exemplifies beauty. But to me, it’s everything I love. You see, my dad came home with a Samurai in the spring of 1990 and though I was still mourning the loss of his 1976 Renault 5, I was immediately smitten with the Samurai. And then came the 4-wheeling. From the first trip to the dunes, to the picnics in the mountains, and then conquering trials in Moab. My dad’s Samurai was unstoppable. Mix all that in with long nights in the driveway putting on a lift, swapping in transfer case gears and lockers, and you quickly have a recipe to make a young boy obsessed.

By the time I turned 16 I was determined to own a Samurai of my own. So when I found an ’86 hardtop in the classifieds, it was game on. That was June of 1999. Fast forward 15 years and I still have it. It’s been through several iterations, different lifts, two motors, a new front clip; but it’s still my Samurai.

After several years of chasing down gremlins associated with an EFI swap, I finally got it running solidly in time to participate in the inaugural Retro Ramble. And I couldn’t have been happier. My Isuzu Trooper has become the primary vehicle for backcountry exploration. And compared to the Samurai, it’s luxurious; but to get the Samurai back out on a trip just made me giddy.

So our little band met up in Delle along I-80 before venturing along the dusty, silty, Dead Cow Point Road (yes, that’s really it’s name) squeezed between the Lakeside Mountains and the Great Salt Lake. Our ultimate destination, the Lakeside Cave and the 1980’s.

The soft sand of Dead Cow Point Road eventually dumps you off on the main road between the Union Pacific quarry at Lakeside and I-80. This road also happens to pierce the United States Air Force’s Utah Test and Training Range for a dozen miles or so. As you enter the range, and every few miles there are large, imposing signs warning you not to stop for any reason. Not to leave the road for fear for unexploded ordnance. We abided diligently, with the Samurai happily zooming along the smooth dirt road until we came over the final rise and dipped into the dark, almost dystopian scene that is the Lakeside quarry. The mountainside stripped of all vegetation, industrial equipment in various stages of repair strewn about. And empty. I’ve been through Lakeside a dozen times, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen anyone actually working there. It’s eerie, but that can be said about much of the area west of the Great Salt Lake.

We eventually found our way through the quarry and to the cave west of it. As the sun slowly dipped into the warm spring night, we settled in for an evening of chatting around the fire, delicious burnt end’s provided by Spence and a reading of the inaugural Retro Ramble newspaper!

The early morning sun roused us all excitedly to get the day underway. Our plan was simple, a quick breakfast and then blast down the Transcontinental Railroad grade to the Hogup Pumping Station and then north to the City of Rocks in southern Idaho.

I led the group out along the railroad grade, cruising along enjoying the stark vistas across the salt flats and reveling in how well the Samurai was running. And then… I lost all power. I quickly pulled over at a wide spot on the grade and hopped out.

I immediately suspected my EFI gremlins had returned, but after pulling the air box out and seeing the milky residue inside, I knew it was something more sinister. By this time Kurt, Mike and Spence had caught up. Kurt’s cool head and mechanical expertise immediately suspected a blown head gasket, which would explain the mixing of oil and coolant along with the sudden loss of power. Mike and Spence volunteered to make the drive all the way back into Tooele for a new gasket while Kurt and I tore the head off.

We managed to get the head torn down in about an hour, which gave us plenty of time to relax.

At least we can clam this; few people have probably spent several hours on the side of the Union Pacific railroad grade who didn’t work on it. Not sure if I would recommend it for your next romantic vacation destination, but certainly unique.

After about two hours, Mike and Spence returned with a brand new head gasket and we set about buttoning the whole thing back up. I was in a chipper mood as we tightened the last bolts on the valve cover and started to refill the motor with oil and coolant. Right up to the point that we realized that the coolant just kept on going in and eventually finding its way back out the oil check tube. What we were faced with was a cracked block, and the Samurai, which had performed so admirably just a few hours earlier, was out for the count.

Dejected, I threw a strap to the back of Kurt’s Cruiser and we proceeded to tow the Samurai back to Delle while Mike and Spence continued along the railroad grade to Lucin.

Once Kurt and I arrived at Delle I managed to get ahold of our friend Bryson to utilize his trailer and get me the rest of the way to Salt Lake. As we sat there in Delle waiting, Kurt, who was less than 24 hours away from hopping on a plane to enjoy the adventure of a lifetime driving around Terra de Fuego, was in his typical high spirits. “Its all part of the fun.” He said. I can’t tell you how many times in my life Kurt has lifted me out of the doldrums with his damnable positive attitude. He’s truly one of the happiest guys I know, and I feel fortunate to have found myself, once again, in a shitty situation with him telling me to buck up and look on the bright side.

Bryson got to Delle with his truck and trailer around 5pm and we loaded the Samurai up, wished Kurt luck in the southern hemisphere and headed back on the highway to Salt Lake. Bryson, also one of those damn happy people, encouraged me to look on the bright side and roll with the punches. So by the time we got to my parents house (the default storage location for my non-running Samurai) I was feeling pretty good about myself.

After thanking Bryson for the tow, my dad hurried me back to my place so I could swap vehicles for my 1994 Isuzu Trooper and begin the third phase of this adventure. In the space of an hour I was back on I-80 heading west again, fast. I’ve been told I’m a fast driver. I blame being raised on healthy doses of Formula 1, Le Mans, and WRC. All of which came in handy as I blasted along I-80, stopping at the Speedway gas station just long enough to top off my tank before heading north along TL Bar Ranch Road to Lucin.

I flew along the miserable washboardy road, drifting around corners in a way that would have made Stig Blomqvist proud; and generally rallying as fast as I could along the 50 miles between I-80 and Lucin. Finally, I reached my destination around 11pm, much to Mike’s surprise. Apparently, both he and Spence figured that I wouldn’t show up until the morning. I proved them wrong as I pulled into the Lucin “parking lot” to find Mike cheering my arrival.

After standing around chatting about Mike’s much more leisurely day for a few minutes, my allergies from the towering cottonwood trees got the best of me and I climbed into the passenger seat, threw a sheet over my head and drifted pleasantly to sleep.

Aside from the train roaring by several times through the night, I slept quite well and awoke in the morning refreshed from the previous days travails. The wind had kicked up and was fortunately blowing the pollen from the cottonwood trees away from our camp, which afforded Mike an I a chance to go wander around the old ghost town of Lucin for a bit. An interesting place, for sure. Built to serve as a watering point for train heading to and just finishing making the journey over the Great Salt Lake causeway, it was eventually made redundant as locomotives switched from steam power to diesel. Mostly abandoned by the mid-1930’s, it was finally cleaned out in the 1950’s. All that’s left are a few foundations and an impressive artificial lake fed by a spring.

After wandering for a bit, we returned to camp to find Spence and his kids out of their tent and enjoying a light breakfast. We consulted our maps and planned out our journey for the day, which would eventually find us at the City of Rocks in southern Idaho. After packing our gear, which for Spence in his tiny Mitsubishi was quite the game of Tetris, I led our group north to the small town of Grouse Creek.

Grouse Creek is an anomaly. A small farming community that is not only not a ghost town in the making, but actually growing! After bombing along the arrow straight gravel road all the way from Lucin we hit pavement at the outskirts of town and found our way to the general store at the heart of the town. The chipper proprietor of the shop talked enthusiastically about her little corner of Utah as we looked over the well-stocked shelves.

We availed ourselves to a few items and a couple tanks of gas before we decided to head to the north edge of town to check out the cemetery.

I’ve always found that the best way to get an understanding of a town’s history is to make a stop to the cemetery. Grouse Creek was settled by polygamous Mormons (surprise, I know!) so lots of graves of large families with one patriarch. Lots of Pioneers that had made the trek across the pains were there, with the oldest dates of birth being from the late 18th century! Quite amazing.

In the peace and quite of the cemetery we pulled out the trusty Benchmark and plotted out a few roads to explore east of town. There was one big loop that looked most appealing, so we headed out past several well-appointed farmhouses and through big fields until we found our road and began to slowly climb up from the valley floor.

As we ascended you could start to see smoke off in the distance. As we continued on the road, we kept getting closer and closer to the smoke.

Eventually we found a Chevy pickup parked in a field, but no one around. The smoke was getting thicker and we cautiously continued along the road until we saw the actual flames in the brush close by, at which point we wisely decided to turn around and head back down to the main road. Judging from the fact that there were no news reports about a fire around Grouse Creek, I assume that this was a prescribed burn of sorts.

Back on the main road we continued north into the Goose Creek Mountains. Having never been into this part of the state before, I was stunned by the vast beauty of the mountains. Rolling green hills accented by patches of brown and red all reaching for the fluffy clouds and bright blue sky. We stood atop one of the passes for a while and just took it all in.

As hard as it may be for us in the 21st century to believe, for most of its history the United States was still what we would now consider a “developing country”. Mostly rural with a few urban centers. The vast majority of the population lived in small towns like Grouse Creek. That all started to change around 100 years ago and there was a dramatic migration to urban centers. But there is an interesting period right around the turn of the 20th century where the population was still largely dispersed, but transportation was allowing for people to travel great distances in relatively short periods of time. In order to accommodate this, local and state governments built impressive road networks to connect everyone. As the migration to urban centers accelerated these roads began to see less use, then the national highway system was established in the late 1920’s, bypassing many of these towns, and finally the Interstate highways being built starting in the 50’s sealed the fate for many of the small towns and roads that connected them. Sad, yes, but for us backcountry explorers, this has left us with tens of thousands of roads to traverse and all sorts of “modern” ruins to find, such as this bridge over the Raft River:

Which stands as a testament to how much traffic this seemingly lonely dirt road once saw.

Several hours of winding our way through the Goose and Grouse Creek Mountains eventually found us in the town of Almo, Idaho, the gateway to City of Rocks National Reserve. We stopped into the old farmhouse in town that serves as the Ranger Station to find out about camping in the Reserve. We had been advised by a reliable source that we could just show up and get a spot without much issue. That turned out to be far from the truth! The Rangers informed us that all campsites within the Reserve were booked solid every weekend from Memorial Day to Labor Day. But we were told in the National Forest just outside of the Reserve we could camp without the need for a permit wherever we wanted. Being the hearty, self-sufficient explorers that we where, that worked out just fine for us. We hopped back into our vehicles and made our way through to the Reserves western edge and the up the forest access road. And up. And up. All the way to 10,000 feet when we finally crossed into the Sawtooth National Forest. We took the first spur road and immediately found a clearing that surpassed any and all of the prepared campsites within the Reserve. We quickly went about setting up for the most radical night of Retro Ramble. What made it so rad, you ask? Megaplex Sawtooth, that’s what!

Since we were “back” in the 1980’s, it was only appropriate to have a movie night. So we set up our screen, backed up Mike’s Cruiser and connected a VCR to his 3000w inverter and got set up to watch one of the towering classics of the era, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Mix that with an absolutely amazing potluck of ribs and steak, and it was basically a perfect night in the mountains.

We woke the next day, packed up for the last time and made our way back down into the Reserve to do a little hiking. Now, I have heard people talk about City of Rocks in the past, but I had never really known what it was all about. Maybe a small grouping of rocks, an interesting outcropping, a place where people trekking west in the 19th century had stopped and given it a peculiar name. How about all of the above and more? It is truly a spectacular natural wonder of rock formations packed into a very small area. It is well worth the journey.

We hiked around at a couple of the upper sites for a while before we made our way to a rock that pioneers had written their names on.

At this point, Spencer and his kids decided it was time to take off and get back home at a reasonable hour. Mike and I bid them adieu before we too said goodbye to the City of Rocks and headed back into the town of Almo for a quick lunch.

One of my favorite things about exploring is finding diners and other quirky eating establishments in small towns. Almo did not disappoint with Rock City, a restaurant/gift shop/beer store that serves up a mean pizza. As Mike and I sat on the patio enjoying the afternoon sun we waxed poetical about the adventures of the past few days, both good and bad, and discussed our plans for Retro Ramble: Part II. If you think Part one sounded fun, Part II totally tubular!

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Posted in Northern Utah, Photography, Retro Ramble, Trip Reports