“You never have an idea of just how capable a car is until you have it on the track.” That might be all well and true, but it’s even more so for off-roading, and a recent weekend at Pennsylvania’s Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area is the perfect example of why, and how.
After months of planning, a wide assortment of members from the TacomaWorld forums met up in the coal hills of Shamokin for a long weekend of wheeling. The plan was relatively simple: congregate at an off-road park, and use our truck’s to their capabilities fullest. In practice though, it’s a bit more complicated, but without so much a a hiccup everything came together beautifully and the mid-November weekend came into view just as all of us were itching harder than ever to spend time in the woods.
Hit the jump to ride along on my, and the Stormtrooper 4Runner‘s most recent off-roading trip.
A five hour drive after work on Friday kicked off my weekend, sights set on to a super-cheap motel in the small town of Danville. After waking up to find only one upside-down-but-still-squirming bug on the bathroom floor, I made a quick stop for a highly nutritional breakfast with fellow white 4Runner owner/operator Kevin, then we trekked the half-hour drive southward to the weekend’s hosting location: the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area, a place I’ve been many times and was eager to return to.
Being among the first to arrive on a wheeling morning is new territory for me, but Kevin and I made a point of doing so in order to get a jump on the process of paying for a pass, airing down, and so on. The AOAA office supposedly opens at 9am; by 850 they had already given us wrist bands and cleared us for take-off. While airing down to trail PSI my dad, a veteran off-roader of 30+ years, arrived for his Saturday stint riding shotgun to my right, and as the other TW members pulled in we introduced ourselves and joked around in the light, chilling rain, then gathered into our groups and set out into the woods as the clock neared 930.
Team Nightmare, as my group was called, consisted of five trucks with drivers and rigs intent on running trails with blue and black difficulty levels. But as we were quickly reminded, bad weather has a serious affect on trail difficulty. With slick, rain-soaked rocks, blues quickly became blacks and even greens, the easiest level, became blues. It’s a war of man and machine vs gravity, with the latter seemingly exponentially more powerful than it is in dry conditions. Weather doesn’t get worse than it was on the Saturday. Not in my opinion, at least; I’d rather have snow. With torrential downpours and temperatures hovering at around whatever 2*C is (the Stromtrooper 4Runner only displays in metric), Saturday was truly a day of battling the elements.
AOAA’s west preserve is similar to its east in many ways, but since it closes at 2pm it’s just about mandatory to head straight into the west area upon leaving the parking lot. Less than five minutes on the dirt and we were climbing over tub-sized rocks, tires clawing for traction as we piloted our rigs away from trees and uphill on the extremely off-camber sections we were traversing. I got scared quickly and radioed to Lloyd who was behind me to verify I wasn’t near my tipping point, and he confirmed I was A-OK..for now. It’s always somewhat shocking to hit difficult trails during weather conditions that fall directly under the “seriously shitty” heading, but it’s doing so immediately upon entering the woods is an eye-opener and warms you up much quicker than would slowly building up as you go.
After completing the seriously off-camber first off-shoot we crossed paths with another group of Toyotas, the leader of which told Greg, our own front-runner, “It’s super hairy down there!” Of course, Greg responded to my questioning if we would head that way with a huge smile and a hearty, “Fuck yeah we are!”
A quick downhill led to a main blue trail on which a group of Jeeps were taking turns attempting– and failing– to spot each other up a gnarly rock obstacle. We passed them and continued on our way, following Greg’s lead. We wove our way towards an intersection and on this little descent the Stormtrooper 4Runner took a bit of a beating.
Lloyd saw it coming from his position behind me. Having spent ten- years off-roading an ATV on which you sit dead-center, I’m still working on acclimating myself to not being in the middle of my vehicle while on the trail. And so there I was, too far to the passenger side, when the evils of torrential rain and the truck’s not-insubstantial weight took it off a rock and towards a tree on the passenger side. Over the CB Lloyd’s voice crackled through, with “right rear!” being the only words I heard…and then, after a hearty crunching noise, his recommendation that I stop and pick up the section of fender trip that was ripped off by the tree I tagged. White plastic bodywork safely in the back of the 4Runner, we pointed deeper into the woods.
The going was rough. Every rock that would usually prove a grippy surface for tires was turned slippery by the cold and the wet. Our adventure was filled with nonstop spotting and continuous attempts to sneak the trucks down the trail that wanted to claim them as its own.
And then over the CB, Kevin radioed from the back: “Lloyd, I’m in trouble.” A distress call such as this would usually mean some sort of catastrophic failure, but luckily the circumstances were nowhere near such. Upon walking down to Kevin’s first-gen pickup the damage was blatantly obvious: the front driveshaft had slipped out, leaving him with a rear-wheel-drive vehicle at the bottom of a fairly steep, rocky climb. In under twenty minutes, less time than it took Lloyd to fire up his grille and cook us a delicious trail-side lunch (thanks again Lloyd!), Kevin had repaired his truck and returned it back to 4×4 status. With stiff suspension and a manual transmission, I give him big credit for wheeling it so well in such harsh conditions; repairing his own truck in such little time garners even more props.
Then it was back to business, snaking through the trees and doing our best to keep traction on the water-soaked rocks. Much time was spent on a trail on which the width of the space between trees was an issue for our mid-size trucks; a lot of backing up and multi-point turns were done out of necessity. I have no idea how a full-size or a full-width Jeep would manage.
Very soon after our lunch we came to a section that would cause many second looks: to the left, an off-camber approach to a difficult blue-level boulder-strewn downhill, to the right a genuinely tough black-level downhill with rocks the size of couches and a quick elevation change so steep that even descending it on foot proved treacherous. Up front Greg continued with his high-energy “I’m trying everything!” mojo and attacked the black-level option with gusto, and with very little spotting, and very much credit to his truck’s sliders and skids, he made it down in what seemed like no-time at all, entirely unscathed. Dan followed, having then seen what line works and what line doesn’t, and quickly made it to the bottom as well. Next was my turn, and not wanting to push the Stormtrooper beyond the capabilities of its armor with no full belly skid, I opted to take the blue path and, thanks to a ton of fantastic spotting from Lloyd, made it to the bottom in one piece. Lloyd then made it down the black path on his own with next-to no spotting, and Kevin bounced his lightweight, nimble truck down the black path right after.
It was at this point that we had to make a decision: where to go? We broke out the map and discussed. The west side technically closes at 2pm, and the likelihood of us making it back in time was “unlikely.” As such, we chose a (relatively) short, uneventful route directly back to the gate and made a beeline for it. On our way back we rounded a corner and came to a hill that, based on the angle of incline and decline and the height of the thing, was impossible to miss and almost comically out of place. After watching Lloyd pop over a log the size of his truck’s tires, Greg, of course, took the opportunity to try and make it over said hill but it snagged him right on the frame and left his truck high-centered twenty- feet up. With no luck pushing it off, it came to breaking out the tow strap and pulling Greg’s truck off its perch using Dan’s. Every willing vehicle/owner over the obstacle, we trudged onward.
Upon arriving around 300pm at the gate we found it locked and phoned the front office for someone to come let us back into the main grounds. Minutes later we were in the parking lot, Kevin loading his truck onto trailer for early departure and my dad hopping back into his own to head home himself.
A quick aside, and a thank you to my dad for joining me on this trip. Over the last ten-ish years our relationship strengthened through the ATV adventures we took together, and, thanks to my spine surgery and the recurring issues with his Polaris RZR as well as the increasing difficulty of using said vehicles given the decreasing number of legal areas, we’ve been sidelined from the quad world. Having him with me in the 4Runner on a different off-roading adventure, one that harkens back to those we took in his YJ Wrangler during my childhood, was something I will always hold with me as an incredible experience, one that felt full-circle fulfilling. Hopefully my dad will join us again on future trips, as I think he enjoyed it more than he will admit, and he knows that I thoroughly enjoyed having him there by my side.
Back to the trails. After being passively warned by a park staff member that the trails close at 4pm and it was already 315pm, we pointed towards the east preserve for the first time of the weekend and found the closest blue trails to the parking lot. With Greg still leading we found a short, ultra-steep uphill that then dipped down into a bowl of exposed rock, which has easily claimed the title as my favorite obstacle in all of AOAA. From there it was a rain-ridden upwards ascent over large rocks and through tight quarters in a series of 4-LO traction tests.
A few turns later we came to a T-intersection, one with a slick, muddy, abrupt rise to the right and a standard downhill to the left. Ever-willing to take a shot at something, Greg turned right and punched it. With wheels spinning in the muck he made it about three-quarters of the way to the top and then, not able to climb any further, began to slide back down; a light tap on the brakes sent his Tacoma sliding under full lock back down to where I was photographing from. With Dan and me laughing, Greg then demonstrated his exceptional three-point-turning skills and left us in the rain-sodden dust. After clearing ourselves out of the blue trail, we tested the depth of some of the very full mid pits, some of which crested the headlights, and did our best submarine impressions while trying to not laugh over the CB airwaves as Lloyd told us about his front-facing “underwater camera.”
It was then “all trucks to the campsite” as the trails were about to close for the day and there was a feast to set up. An unexpected and amazing part of the AOAA Last Bash weekend, a full-fledged potluck-style dinner was held by attending members for all to relish in. A big thanks to Lloyd for organizing this, as it was enjoyed by many and rounded out the day well while adding to the camaraderie. After plenty of food and enough shooting-the-shit to hold us over until the morning, those of us camping stayed put and those of us staying in the rented house drove the long 1.3 miles to our warm, comfortable, dry, bed-bearing place to sleep for the night. After some whiskey and casual talk we were informed that a fellow TW member named Joe would be coming by to use our tools and garage to fix his mis-alignment. He and his father arrived shortly thereafter, and an hour and a successful test-drive later, we called it a night.
Day two started off nice and early, with the bright shiny thing that was hidden by the clouds the day prior giving us positive energy for the first time all weekend. With most of our group having left Saturday night, Team Nightmare now consisted solely of myself and Lloyd; as such, we picked up another Kevin, Mark, Jim, and Jeremy, making our crew a full six trucks strong. Having the most experience in AOAA of our bunch, I took the lead and, not wanting to eat up time getting lost in the deep expanse of the west preserve, aimed us towards a fun trail in the east corridor: the BA.
We ran BA last time I was at AOAA and had an absolute blast doing so. With the rest of Team Nightmare never having done so, and with the sun shining brightly to give us good weather for exploration, I figured it would be a good place to start our Sunday. The BA starts off with a trail-exclusive dip down into a storm drain followed by a slightly upward crawl as your truck straddles the concrete V-notch. Here we found an unexpected roadblock in the group of trucks stopped ahead of us. The BA is a blue trail and, though not a terribly difficult one, it certainly has its challenging obstacles. I’ve seen multiple trucks get hung up on the exact same spot, and the BA can definitely prove troublesome for less modified rigs.
And that’s exactly what happened. Tony, the last rig in the group ahead of us, found himself in a bit of a pickle, his frame hung up on the same rock that has snagged other rigs in my presence in the past. Rock stacking got us nowhere except some added tire smoke and crushed fingers, so Lloyd broke out the winch and easily dragged Tony out of, or rather off, his predicament. Taco un-stuck, we navigated him past the trouble spot and then worked some of the other guys further on as we tried to keep both groups moving. The rest of BA was relatively uneventful aside from Tony finding further frustrations and crunching his cab and bed-side on a tree, but with some careful spotting we were able to get everyone through BA and to the trail-end intersection without any more trouble.
A quick pow-wow later and we were heading to our next section, the BA extension, which was a quick and fun little trail with a hard-looking cut-out that our group tackled with ease. Nothing to this point had caused any issue for Team Nightmare 2.0 which translated to good spirits for all, and we were moving along nicely when we started Muddy Shackle.
We made it about a quarter of the way through when relative disaster struck: Jim’s 4WD actuator stopped working, leaving him with a rear-drive truck and, with no rear recovery point and tires balled up with mud, no way of easily getting him off the trail, even though an escape route to the main green trail was less than fifty feet away. We pushed, pulled, tried everything; it still took an hour to get Jim’s Tacoma off Muddy Shackle. Finally he, and we, succeeded and Jeremy worked his Jeep through the escape route to follow Jim out.
With Jim and Jeremy safely heading home, the rest of our group continued over the rocks on the trail we had started a long while before. With very little trouble we made it through to the end, happily dipping through the sink-hole type pit and then blasting through the muddy ruts that caused so much trouble last time. We then faced another decision: most of our group wanted to hit the road to head home by 3pm-ish, but that wouldn’t leave enough time to really explore another blue trail with a safety net of time in the event of further issues.
Knowing we hadn’t gotten our fill of wheeling for the day, I brought the group over to run some of the blue trails close to the parking lot that we had run the day before, in hopes that it would be a little easier to play around and pick different lines sans-rain. We all had smiles as we blasted up the ultra-steep, short climb and down into the bowl on the other side, and being able to see out into the valley below made for quite the sight as we ran our last trail of the day.
As the clock crossed 2 we directed our crew of Toyotas back to the main lot, checked out, and congregated again in the campground where Lloyd heated up leftovers from the prior night on his trusty swingout-mounted grille. We ate, joked around, and poked fun at each other over delicious chili, all of us dreading our respective drives home away from the wonderland that is the woods and the time spent wheeling with friends. And then, just as abruptly as it started Saturday morning, the weekend was over. We double-checked our trucks, bid our farewells, and left the park to head back to our normal lives, minds basking in the glory that was the weekend at AOAA.
There’s just something special about a weekend off-roading with similarly-minded enthusiasts. For those who love it, it simply cannot be replicated elsewhere. It’s refreshing, rejuvenating, exhilarating, and a full-fledged spirit-booster all at the same time, and the AOAA Last Fall bash was every bit of every one of those descriptors. It was a great event enjoyed by many, and it speaks to the fun of it that some of us have already started talking about a Spring Bash. If that doesn’t reflect well on how enjoyable of a weekend it was, I don’t know what would.
Thanks to Dave for the idea for the event (and for organizing groups, etc.), Team Nightmare (in both variations) for an awesome time on the trail, Mark for putting the house together, and to Lloyd for getting the potluck together, etc. And a thank you to everyone who I met for being great people to hang out with, to become friends with, and especially to wheel with. I can’t wait for next time.