Rookies on the Rubicon• WCXC
Loon Lake trailhead and amazing overflow sluice (trail starts beyond the shack) Photos: Caleb Knight and Jeremy Knight. Story editing: Nik Schulz

This is an multi-part post written by Jeremy Knight about his first time on the Rubicon.

Rookies on the Rubicon, Part 2

Loon Lake Trailhead

As the day grew closer, I continued my internet research and Erik sent me YouTube clips. I could tell that he was having second thoughts. Some of the video was daunting: people breaking things, people rolling over and doing major vehicle damage, people getting hopelessly stuck. What were we thinking? Did we really have any business doing this sort of thing? Or would we be like hikers on Everest, wearing tennis shoes and looking really foolish while begging for a piggyback ride to safety?

One thing I noticed in the videos was that nobody was driving an FJ. They were all Jeeps, mostly modified Rubicon’s, or buggies, but no FJs. Well, there was one video in which a guy in an FJ tried to clear a nasty rock shelf and ripped his entire rear bumper off. I tried to ignore that one, it almost looked deliberate. I finally found a blog called Last Great Road Trip that told a story of a group of FJs that successfully went through during the 2013 Rubithon event, a sort of Jamboree for Toyotas. Unfortunately they were all highly-modified with long-travel kits, 35s, and re-geared axles. To top it off, they were guided by some guy named “Woodie” who apparently knew all of the trail’s rocks by name. Only one of them escaped without body damage.

Body damage is another topic that I’ve thought about quite a bit. My rig is pretty nice. It’s a 2008 Toyota FJ Cruiser Trail Teams limited edition, and it’s the nicest vehicle I’ve ever owned. I really like it. That said, I have always bragged that it was a trail queen, not a garage queen so, for something like the Rubicon, I was “willing to accept some body damage.” It would be a “Merit Badge” of sorts, something that held the memory of a struggle and an achievement, kind of an off-road conversation piece. Now though I was reevaluating that idea, while acknowledging, of course, that it would be hard to control. After all, body damage is the result of errors or accidents. You don’t choose the length of the scratch or the size of the dent. My boasts were beginning to haunt me.

One of the things that I read in Last Great Road Trip was that people were using tube doors. These helped with visibility. Being able to lean out and see where your tire was placed seemed to me to be very beneficial, not to mention that it also replaced about six square feet of nice-shiny-white sheet metal on each side of the rig. At least I could choose to not have my body damage there! So I picked up some used tube doors and Josh, my oldest son, and copilot on this trip, helped me install them.

Rookies on the Rubicon• WCXC
My tube doors

Final plans and preparations for the trip came together quickly. I had to swap out a front half-shaft due to a CV boot I had torn driving Utah’s Fiftymile Bench road on my roundabout wander to the Expo last May. In doing so, I discovered that the NAPA replacement shaft CV boots lock-up with the suspension at full travel. So I had to buy a rebuilt shaft and replace it again the day before we left. “Good Practice,” I told myself—I might need to do a swap on the trail. (I carry a spare shaft and the 35mm socket required to replace it, along with a spare tie rod)

Josh and I were going to leave on Wednesday after work, drive as long as we could, and hopefully make it as far as Eugene before we’d have to stop. We’d sleep in the roof top tent at a rest area, then get up as early as possible so we could make time and get to the Loon Lake trailhead by 4:30pm on Thursday. There we would meet Erik and his son Caleb, who would be coming from a family camping trip near Tahoe. Our timing would allow us to start the trail “out of phase” with the crowds and spend the first night camping just before the Little Sluice Box, which we were going to bypass. All of this was part of our “stress reduction plan.”

By Tuesday night we were packed. I stowed the kitchen box in the back, and my nice, aluminum, Worthington propane cylinder in its bracket on the roof, along with the Maggiolina. I also packed two Snow Peak tables (one big, one small), some nice REI reclining chairs, and an awning. The fridge was packed with beer and tri-tip, which of course meant bringing the Snow Peak folding fireplace to ensure proper grilling and campfire stories. It had been many years since Erik and I had shared a campfire, one of our favorite things to do.

Of course there were also tools and spares, compressors, extension lines, and Hi-Lifts, recovery gear, and cameras, and Go-Pros, and, and, and. It really added up. I think fear is a major driver when it comes to my packing habits. “I might need an axe, or a crow bar, or a single jack,” I’ll think. “It might rain. And I think I’ll need a pair of boots too. What about the grill?” My inner voice of potential regret at not having “just the right thing” drives me to pack like a gypsy. Do I need to be that self-sufficient for an extended weekend? But pack like a hoarder I do. All the while my rig gets closer and closer to the ground.

Driving the first night, we discovered one of the tube doors’ limitations on long trips. Your brain’s subliminal subroutine, of reaching for the button and rolling up the window, kicks in several hundred times before you teach it that it can no longer be done. Fortunately I brought along earmuffs to deal with the howl of the KM-2s, and Josh took my advice to pack a warmer jacket. And a rain jacket. Because it rained—and we got wet. Passing big rigs was especially drenching.

A fatiguing journey behind us, we arrived at 4:15pm, on Thursday afternoon, at the Loon Lake, the Rubicon trailhead. I didn’t like what I saw. A bunch of rough-looking characters, alongside their beat-up rigs, jacked to the sky, looked at me like I was on a Sunday drive in the family Wagonmaster. Gonna show the kids where the Rube-E-con Trail is and then head back to McDonalds for dinner. GULP!

We found Erik and Caleb down by the trailhead shack, both shaking their heads with that deer-in-the-headlights look. I could tell that they were having a serious talk. It turns out that they had just been hassled by a buggy driver who told Erik that he “sure has pretty wheels”.

Rookies on the Rubicon• WCXC
Erik's "pretty wheels"

I was floored by how tricked-out his rig looked—holy crap! I was in big trouble! What was I thinking? His tires were huge. This was serious business. I was going to destroy my rig and Jennifer (my wife) was going to kill me. Or a least say that she had previously informed me that I was an idiot (the true meaning of “I told you so”).

Rookies on the Rubicon• WCXC 
The reason for my feelings of vehicular inadequacy

Masking my anxiety, I opened the fridge and we had a beer. Once that took effect, I said. “There’s no way I’m going to drive a thousand miles and leave without body damage!”

Next, Part 3 -> Little Sluice

Rookies on the Rubicon, Part 1, The Ground Rules
Rookies on the Rubicon, Part 2, Loon Lake Trailhead
Rookies on the Rubicon, Part 3, Little Sluice
Rookies on the Rubicon, Part 4, Buck Island Lake to Martini Tree
Rookies on the Rubicon, Part 5, Midnight Buggies at Martini Tree
Rookies on the Rubicon, Part 6, The Big Sluice
Rookies on the Rubicon, Part 7, Cadillac Hill

Expedition Portal: Rookies on the Rubicon