Project ZJ: My First Deer and the Follies of a 21-Year-Old Jeep

It’s been a while since my last update to the Project ZJ. We installed a new suspension and took it off-roading through Tahuya ORV last summer and it spent most of the fall plugged into a battery tender while my Dodge Durango gets driven more since the independent front suspension and 5.7-liter HEMI gives it better road manners.

My project ZJ going through an easy trail at Tahuya ORV.

I still try to drive the Jeep a few miles each week, but yesterday I had to make a trip to Omak, WA. The pass conditions were clear, but I wanted peace of mind from the new suspension and excellent Yokohama Geolander A/T-S tires, just in case we decided to go play in the snow or if the weather took a turn for the worse.

The drive through I-90 and the Snoqualmie pass was very unnerving with the amount of wind present. Jeep’s aren’t exactly known for aerodynamics and the ZJ felt like driving a brick through the wind—the whole car would sway, the windshield wipers looked like they were ready to fly off, but we made it to Omak without any issues.

It was the drive back when the fun really started. After leaving Omak and heading towards Wenatchee, my passengers yelled “DEER!” and lo behold, there’s a deer in the middle of the road. Luckily, retrofitting projectors with HIDs was one of the first things I upgraded on the Jeep, so I had time to react. My immediate reaction was to turn the wheel and punch the gas to try and outrun it.

There was a loud thump and I came to a stop in a field adjacent to the shoulder of the road. The car was still running, and angry flashing lights came on the dash, so I shut off the car and got out to assess the damage. My reaction to the situation resulted in losing the driver-side mirror, it came off and we found it on the other side of the road, a little bit of Plasti Dip came off the side of the front bumper and there was a dent on the rear wheel arch.

Overall, there wasn’t much damage. The alternative could’ve been worse if I slammed on the brakes, hit the deer and possibly get rear ended. The kind couple behind us stopped to check on us and helped look for the deer, which ran off before we could find it.

But that wasn’t all that happened on our adventure. We continued our way back to Kent, WA and made it to the I-90 to highway 18 interchange and hit another snag. As I tried to give the car a little gas to pass a semi before going up Tiger Mountain, there was a loud clang and bad noises. We pulled off into a pull-off to assess the damage – the exhaust from the cat back was dangling in place by the O2 sensor cable.

The catalytic converter was old, rusty and the engine and transmission movement when I tried to punch the gas pedal must’ve caused it to break completely through. We figured we’d try to limp it back home, but didn’t get very far before it started dragging. Our attempts to remove the exhaust failed, because we couldn’t get it through the rear axle without jacking up the car.

Ultimately, my dad previously ran a dual 8-gauge power cable from the battery for his boat winch. I disconnected the cable previously, so it wasn’t hot. We managed to use the power cable to keep the exhaust from dragging and limped it back to Kent, luckily. While at my in-law’s house, I got large zip ties and zip-tied the exhaust to the transfer case and made it back home to Tacoma without any issues.

Lessons learned

 Throughout the whole trip, the one thing I learned is to always keep duct tape and giant zip ties in the car. I had a set of tools in the car, but it wasn’t enough to unbolt the exhaust or temporarily repair the side mirror. So, I need to make a trip to Harbor Freight soon.

Moving on

Accidents happen and old cars break, there’s not much you can do about it. But, this trip has taught me to love my Jeep even more. The thing is an indestructible tank and I absolutely love it. There’s always room for upgrades so I’ll seize this accident and breakdown as an opportunity to make it even better. The rear quarter panel dent is quite annoying, but a set of Bushwhacker fender flares could hide it / remove it while giving me more clearance for a set of 33” Yokohama Geolandar mud-terrains while the broken exhaust leaves room for an upgrade to a higher-flow and throatier Magnaflow setup …

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