Words by Andy Lilienthal; photos by Mercedes Lilienthal
As we work on The PDXJ (project ’01 Jeep Cherokee), we’ve had an outpouring of support and help to get it upgraded, maintained, and well, fixed. Whether it’s the crew from ARB USA, the team at Nitro Gear & Axle, Jason from Outlaw Xpeditions, or our friends who give us their time and assistance, there’s been lots of help. These companies and people were instrumental in getting The PDXJ ready for its first big trip. And it made it there (and back), but not without the kindness of strangers, a semi truck, and the amazing Jeep community.
If you’ll remember, this Jeep used to belong to my father, and it was a total creampuff. It never left Oregon or Washington, rarely saw 4WD, and was babied most of its life. On top of that, it didn’t get driven much over the last few years, and it’s at that mileage where stuff needs to be replaced. Unfortunately, some of that fixing and replacing happened on the Jeep’s first major trip, which would take us from Portland, Oregon to Las Vegas for the Jp Dirt ‘N Drive and end up at Easter Jeep Safari in Moab.
Day 1: Uneventful; Mostly
The first day of our trip was uneventful, other than a very leaky new RotopaX gas can. We’d filled it in Oakridge, Oregon and it leaked all the way down to wherever-we-were, California—all over our new JCR rear bumper, the tailgate, and our rear LED lights. And, of course, we didn’t discover the leak until after we had filled the Jeep’s tank, so we ended up donating two gallons of fuel to a woman working at the filling station. Despite the fact we emptied the gas can, it dribbled all the way down to our first stop in Fernley, Nevada. We were worried the gasoline might ruin the powdercoating, so when we stopped for the night, we picked up a degreaser, a cleaner, and hoped for the best. (FYI, RotopaX delivered a new can to me in Moab under warranty).
Other than our gas leakage, we were very happy that The PDXJ ran great. No issues. Overall, life is good.
Day 2: The Second Day, The First Big Problem
Have you ever been driving in your vehicle and smelled something burning or heard something clanging and thought—”gee, I hope that’s not my vehicle“? Well, 884 miles into our trek to Las Vegas to start the Jp Dirt ‘N Drive, we smelled and heard something. Something awful. We pulled into the Amargosa Rest Area, some 88 miles outside of Vegas, and popped the hood. I could hear the air conditioning compressor making some racket and smelling like burnt metal. Funny, I had just been talking to a co-worker about the A/C unit and how I needed to recharge it. I actually bought a recharge kit, but it was sitting on my desk in Portland—of course. Mercedes and I decided that when we got to Vegas we’d hit up an auto parts store and recharge the system. Well, we didn’t make it that far. The video below will explain why.
Shit. Now what?
I call my master-mechanic co-worker, Chad. He says I’ll need to pull the compressor’s pulley off. It’s not hard to do, but I’ll need a puller. Well that isn’t going to happen. Suddenly, a teal colored Peterbilt 379 with a long, empty flatbed trailer pulls up. The truck driver gets out of his rig and walks over.
“You guys OK?” asked the truck driver. I tell my co-worker to hold on for a moment.
“Well, sorta. The A/C compressor clutch is hosed up,” I reply. He says he’s got a ’96 Jeep Cherokee at home that’s built up like a rock crawler. He asks us to start the engine up again. We fire up the 4.0-liter engine, which creates quite a racket and sends more metal shards flying. He motions to shut it off.
“Well, your A/C compressor is definitely going out. I just came from Reno and don’t have a load on the trailer, so we can load your Jeep up, take it to my shop and we’ll throw a new compressor in.”
We quickly assess the situation.
Option 1: We say “no thanks,” call AAA for a tow into Vegas, have the truck dropped off at the casino, which will have a couple hundred Jeepers. Hopefully, we can fix the Jeep sometime between now and the end of the day tomorrow. But we’re supposed to set up a vendor booth. Side note: We have zero experience with air conditioning systems.
Option 2: Trust in the kindness of strangers, hop into a semi truck with someone we don’t know, go to their house where they say they can fix this Jeep, and pray we don’t get murdered by a total stranger.
We decided to give option 2 a chance. We hopped into the trucker’s big rig (our first time in an 18-wheeler), and headed towards his shop which was just outside of Vegas. I tell my co-worker what’s going on. I also tell him if he doesn’t hear from us by the end of the night, he should inform the authorities.
It turns out this good Samaritan, a truck driver named Daron, was super nice and more than helpful—and he was a Jeeper. He had a really nice place with a huge shop. And when I say huge, I mean you could probably drive an entire tractor-trailer into it. Sure enough, there was his XJ in the driveway along with a ’66 GTO project, an excavator, and his dogs—a super-sweet pitbull and a one-eyed “pirate” dachshund. (How’s that for a mix of pets?) We unload the Jeep and start tearing into the A/C system.
Daron is a total gearhead, has a hell of a shop, and is quite the mechanic. I’m pretty sure he has every tool ever created. Now mind you, it’s something like 3pm. We take out the compressor and decide that, while we’re at it, we should replace the serpentine belt, drier, and lines; flush the system; and recharge it. Off to O’Reilly Auto Parts. Not only did Daron drive, but he had a discount that saved us some cash.
We chatted on the way to and from the shop. I told him I was extremely thankful for his help. He said it’s almost like an unwritten Jeeper’s code to help those who’ve broken down—you don’t just leave people behind. And I know it’s not just a Jeep thing, but it’s a great thing. It made me think about how I’ve treated others in need, how others had treated me, and how I will treat others in the future. We arrive back at his shop, parts in hand.
We keep working and working. It’s about 9pm and his wife, Joy, calls out and asks if we’re OK with chicken for dinner. Now wait a minute: We’re picked up a by a good Samaritan. He’s offering to fix our Jeep. Now his wife is going to cook us dinner? The Cherokee gods were definitely looking down on us and smiling. And somewhat ironically, the semi truck that took us here was the exact same color as The Teal Terror, our beloved Suzuki Sidekick we had sold in December. Mercedes was even wearing her necklace she made from the Terror’s fender. Fate? Maybe my dad was looking down on us. After all, this was his Jeep …
After a great meal, we resumed working at about 10pm. The Cherokee fought us all the way until the end. Hard-to-disconnect clips. Missing o-rings. Leaky fittings. It was getting really late. I told Daron that as long as the pulley on the compressor turned, we’d be fine. However, he insisted that he get the job done right and get the system recharged. We couldn’t say no.
At 1:00am, the system was holding a vacuum, it took refrigerant, and the A/C blew air colder than the Arctic. Daron and Joy didn’t ask for a single thing. Faith in humanity restored. After exchanging contact info and saying our goodbyes, we set off to check into our hotel for the night, humbled by the kindness of strangers. But that was just the beginning …
Day 2: Them’s the brakes. No, really.
The next day we got up early, washed the Jeep, and set up our booth at the show at Sam’s Town Hotel and Gambling Hall in Vegas. We had quite a story to tell about how we got picked up by a trucker, had our A/C fixed, and were sent on our way better than we started—and even got dinner. Truly grateful, we told everyone. The show went great, we met a ton of people, and after it was done, we headed out to get food and fuel for the first leg of the Jp Dirt ‘N Drive.
We picked up sandwiches and water at the grocery store, and headed to the gas station, already looking forward to getting a good night’s sleep. All of a sudden, the Jeep started pulling hard to the left. I stabbed the brakes, and it then darted to the right. Then the all-too-familiar smell of burning brake pads wafted into the cabin. Shit. No—double shit. We pull into a parking lot and I get out. The driver’s side front wheel is hotter than hell and that, in conjunction with the burning brake smell, can only mean one thing: the front caliper is locked up. Fuck me—really?
It’s now about 7:30pm and almost totally dark. We decide we need to just get back to the hotel parking lot. We figure we’ll probably miss the first day of the Dirt ‘N Drive as we repair our brakes somewhere in Vegas the next day. I’m trying not the freak the fuck out; Mercedes is doing her best the calm me.
We pull into the dedicated section of the casino parking lot reserved for our Jeep group, brakes a stinkin’. Several other Jeepers were hanging out in the parking lot enjoying a couple of beers and they come over.
“What’s going on guys?” One of them asks.
“Damn brake caliper is locked up. Wheel is hot as hell and it stinks.”
“Well, that’s an easy fix; it’s just a couple of bolts. Let’s just fix it,” says a rather tall gentleman who was there on behalf of General Tire.
“Really?” I say in disbelief. He reaffirms it’s an easy fix. Tyler from Bleepin’ Jeep was also happy to assist too. We’re yet again stunned by the support from strangers.
“I have all the tools; it’s like four bolts.” says the tall guy. Turns out he’s a full-time wrench—a master technician in Spokane.
I couldn’t believe it. This dude, Jeff, had his own shop in Spokane and was down helping out with the Dirt ‘N Drive. Incredible. Before heading to O’Reilly, which happens to be open until 11pm in Vegas (!), we had a couple of beers and a granola bar for “dinner.”
Another Jeeper with an XJ, Brady, who was in from Amarillo, TX with his father, took me to O’Reilly in his XJ on 35s for a new brake caliper and some DOT3 fluid. After our parts run, Jeff, Tyler, and a few other people ended up getting the brake fixed. A quick test drive later, and we were ready to go for the first day of the Dirt ‘N Drive. It was truly amazing. Faith in humanity restored, yet again. It was, however, after midnight. But, as my dad used to say—you can sleep when you’re dead.
The PDXJ did great all the way to Moab, but it was only because of the extraordinary support from the Jeep community. All the good deeds didn’t stop there. Even in Moab when we had some further issues, we had people laying under the Jeep helping to diagnose noises, people joining in on impromptu wrenching sessions, and strangers offering assistance to replace parts in a hotel parking lot in the middle of the afternoon during Easter Jeep Safari.
We can’t say enough for the community and help we got during the Jp Dirt ‘N Drive and Easter Jeep Safari. We’re totally grateful, humbled, and proud to be a part of such an amazing group of people. We can’t tell you how impressed we were with the kindness, selflessness, and willingness to help, even from total and utter strangers. It’s a great reminder for us to be kinder to each other in general, and not just when your 4×4 breaks down.