Sometimes the soul just calls for a good old-fashioned road trip. Having just picked up two Steve McQueen photo/bios (McQueen, and McQueen’s Machines), I was inspired, not just by the details of the amazing cars of the consummate cool cat, but the stories of his impromptu dashes across California in some of Italy and Germany’s finest.
While not as exotic, I channeled my inner-McQueen and felt that the often tweaked 1997 Land Rover Defender 90 that I have owned since new, was now worthy of a trek of it’s own. Having only driven as far as LA-SF-LA in the Defender, what I was about to embark on could have proven to be uncomfortable, daunting, definitely loud, but necessary. I’ve had the Defender apart in so many stages of tweak and undress, that I figured—saving some internal combustion disaster, I could figure out anything that could go wrong, or at least get in touch with someone who could.
Recent updates have included the addition of a new 4.6L LR motor, built by Nigel at British Eurotech, the fiendishly complicated installation of a Safety Devices full external roll cage by Rob Phillips, and the already detailed full Dynamat and carpet treatment of 2009.
The plan was to head from LA to Sedona, AZ in day one, explore Sedona, then head to the Grand Canyon, and from there, to Vegas and home.
With two Pelican cases grafted to the Garvin basket on the roof, the trip to Sedona started off easy, without the increased wind noise I was expecting. Taking Hwy 40, mirroring Route 66 as much as possible, things got heavy after dinner as I left Kingman, AZ. Light snow got heavy around Williams, AZ and by 11pm, it was nearly full white out conditions, complete with jackknifed big rigs, unplowed interstate, and 40 MPH top speed. Like many urban Defender owners, I hadn’t ever locked the Diff on the Defender, and with a solid clunk I was moving as the only vehicle for 50+ miles of snowy roadway. I have newfound respect for the Defender, as we cruised down a very twisty Hwy 89A into Sedona, arriving after 330am.
With the Defender now thoroughly coated in mud, salt and grime, street cred was high as we explored some of the knee high mud bogs on some of Sedona’s famous jeep trails, we tried Soldier Pass. With “fear of breaking something” the only thing holding me back, I continued to be impressed by the Defender’s nimble footing in pretty hairy conditions. The dirt parking lot at San Onofre State Beach is as far off road as the Defender had previously been.
From there it was a bit of a backtrack, under clear skies this time, heading to the Grand Canyon from Sedona. With lots of snow and ice in and around the canyon, hiking was as gnarly as the ride to Sedona, but the clear skies and single digit temps made for beautiful vistas. After two days at the Canyon, with the Defender unmoved, and the El Tovar Hotel as base camp, it was time to head to Vegas, via the Hoover Dam and the Skywalk—a glass shelf that you can walk on out over the canyon—close to Hoover Dam than the South Rim where we were.
As I loaded the roof back up, and got in to leave, the beast wouldn’t start, and what I guessed was a faulty ignition, with no Land Rover dealer within 250 miles. With a degree of indignity, I had the Defender towed back to Williams, where I found Alfredo at Sandoval Auto Repair, who within 2 hours, was able to jump fuses and get the Defender back on the road, headed to Vegas.
The tow, and Williams detour meant that the Skywalk was an impossibility on this trip, and while the Defender is quirky and prone to issues, that’s what a road trip is all about. If I had done this in a modern sedan, I wouldn’t have made it to Sedona, wouldn’t have mud bogged there, met Alfredo, eaten at The Pine Country Restaurant, or had the respect of the 4X4 crowd as I rolled into Vegas.
Family road trips were LA-SF-LA when I was a kid, and in the McQueen book, there’s a shot of SM in Carmel in front of the same little Italian deli where we would always pick up sourdough bread, cheese, salami, and pine nuts to eat in the car on the way up/back.
My trip was as cathartic as I had hoped.
Clear head, great views, and without a radio from Williams back to LA, time to think creatively about the figurative road that lies ahead.