The compulsion that comes with owning an off-road rig

By Jayson Jacoby May 07, 2010 01:00 am

The thing about owning a four-wheel drive rig is that without even trying you can get into situations that you would avoid like the hantavirus if you owned a lesser vehicle.

Many of these situations, sadly, involve a significant risk of multiple fractures.

The current crop of off-roaders, I’ll concede, is somewhat less malignant in certain ways than its predecessors.

Computer-controlled nannies such as traction control and anti-lock brakes can extricate clumsy drivers from predicaments that would have left their forebears high-centered on somebody’s front porch.

As a result, four-by-fours, if they can’t actually defy physics, can temporarily stun it with a sharp blow to the chin.

They can also, to put the matter in less pleasant terms, get you into a mess which no stack of microprocessors can make right.

The kind of mess that might well earn you a role on one of those cable shows with names that start with “World’s Most Amazing” and end with an exclamation point.

(And, incidentally, earn you a ride to the emergency room.)

This is a frighteningly easy thing to accomplish, too.

Basically all you have to do is shift the transfer case into low range, a task which these days, in most models, requires scarcely more effort than changing the volume on an iPod.

(I own a Toyota FJ Cruiser, which, though amply equipped with silicon chips, is something of a traditionalist; its transfer case is controlled by a plain old lever that demands a substantial tug to summon the low gears.)

What’s especially insidious about this, though, is how strongly the temptation can exert itself even on reasonably sane people who would never consider, say, bungee jumping from the Space Needle.

People like, for instance, me.

I’m no daredevil.

Well, one time I poured in twice as much laundry soap as was suggested on the bottle.

But I was really worried until the washer ended its cycle. And I’ve never quite trusted the machine since.

Nothing, though, strains my instinctive apprehension quite so much as seeing a steep hill or some other intimidating obstacle when I’m driving my Toyota.

The urge to give it a run nags me with the relentless zeal of a three-year-old who has been denied a second ice cream cone.

By way of a recent example, a couple weekends ago we spent the night at my wife’s parents’ cabin on Brownlee Reservoir.

On Saturday afternoon I went hiking on a road that follows the spine of the ridge between Douglas and Little Deacon creeks.

To describe this road as merely steep is to insult its topography.

By steep I mean that if this ridge were covered with snow, and you hauled Lindsey Vonn up to the top in a helicopter, she’d pause before heading down.

Anyway, I clambered up the road for a couple of miles, wheezing in an asthmatic way most of the time, and then crept cautiously back to the River Road, where I had parked my father-in-law’s ATV.

All the while, though, I was thinking about the Toyota, which was parked back at the cabin, a couple miles upriver.

The desire to pit the FJ Cruiser and its locking rear differential against that precipitous slope tussled with my inherent trepidation in a mental bout that left me, the unwitting referee, feeling rather woozy.

I didn’t go back.

I might have done it had I driven the Cruiser rather than riding the four-wheeler.

At the least I would have sat in the driver’s seat for a few minutes, my right hand resting lightly on the transfer case shifter.

Thinking it over, you know.

Plotting my line up the first pitch, figuring how to avoid this rut and that rock, anything that could disturb the fragile gravitational balance needed to keep all four tires planted.

Two nights later, after I was awakened by a wind gust that tossed a plastic lawn chair against the side of the house, I got to thinking again about the road.

I lay there, fidgeting, for most of an hour.

This compulsion — and the only other suitable word is obsession — irks me largely because, like many compulsions, it seems to me tinged with insanity.

There is at any rate nothing reasonable about losing sleep over a road not driven.

At least other items of unfinished business, the reminders of which occasionally plague my rest periods, are necessary, or anyway useful.

Sometimes I waste 20 minutes mentally editing a paragraph that waylaid me at the office, for instance.

But that’s work, good honest toil that needs not apologize for its intrusions.

Other times I’ll interrupt an afternoon nap with the vexing reminder that I’ve got to replace the lawn mower blade or get the oil changed.

Driving up some old goat path down on the Brownlee breaks, by contrast, is an inherently worthless exercise.

Yet I still want to do it.

This irrational need has little to do with the Cruiser and a whole lot to do with me.

I have no doubt the rig can handle the hill.

I have in fact driven it over terrain at least as steep — and in some cases considerably more rock-infested.

But I haven’t driven this particular road. And although that shouldn’t matter a whit — and wouldn’t, were I capable of perpetually rational thought — it does matter.

Because, see, I have this four-wheel drive, and, well, it has a rear locker and a 46:1 crawl ratio.

That, ultimately, is the curse of owning a rig like the FJ Cruiser.

It’s like the friend who’s forever trying to entice you into some silly and potentially dangerous stunt.

Those friends are fun sometimes.

But cars, no matter how attached to them we become, aren’t friends.

My Toyota doesn’t care if it plunges down a thousand-foot slope. The only thing it’s going to shed during such an ordeal is oil and anti-freeze.

But I’m lubricated by blood, and it’s contained by a thin, vulnerable membrane rather than stout steel.

Also, I don’t have comprehensive coverage.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.