Get Low, Get Low, Don’t Blow UP!

So when your dash is lit up like a christmas tree, with twinkling lights blinking at you, silently screaming warnings of imminent vehicular death; and you’re just getting started on a two-thousand mile road-trip into the deep Rocky Mountains; what do You do?

Just wondering, cause you’re about to read what I did in this situation last weekend while on vacation with Lindsay and Roxy and the Trooper.

It’s something I thought you may enjoy 🙂

How do you prepare for a long roadtrip? Do you plan out each mile? Each night’s location to stay and all the points of interest you’d like to see along the way?

Lindsay and I did that. We checked out maps, and ideas, looking at areas in Colorado we wanted to see. But, after she went to bed, many nights I wasted another 30 minutes (or more) staring at Craigslist, and pining away for rugged 4×4 SUV’s.

As I’ve mentioned before, something excites me about having a locked and loaded fully capable off-road machine that can take you anywhere you want to go, paved road or no. I got a taste of this on my 6,000 mile roadtrip of 2010. I never ventured far off the highway, but would’ve loved to.

Back then, the Trooper and Roxy and Cousin Nick and I drove all over the U.S. when that vehicle was still operating near peak condition. That trip was hard on it however, and since then it’s hinted at bigger issues.

Like how the Transmission makes a funny jumping motion at certain speeds. Like how you can go online and read about Isuzu Trooper Transmission Nightmare, and read 20 pages of comments from owners of this car speaking their frustrations at trying to get this issue fixed. How it has cost owners thousands to try to nail down the problem. Like the sorta reasons that may want to spook you from taking a truck like this way out West and up the side of the Rocky Mountains.

In my world, the transmission issue is just as real. I have worked on it with the help of friends and family, and it has kept on functioning almost normally for the last two years.

So, although I pined away, clicking thru pages on Craigslist of 4runners, FJ’s, Landcruisers and Jeeps, It was all fantasy. I had the option of the old Trooper or no Colorado camping for us.

We decided to take my truck, and take our chances. So some of my trip research included looking for new(er) tires, so that maybe we could drive on some backroads out there too. To explore beyond the paved.

Purchasing new tires? That didn’t happen either.

Okay, same ol Truck, same ol tires (street). At least I did get a couple yay-hoo farm-kids to look it over, give it an oil change and double-check important stuff like fluids and brakes.

Finally, we were off!

Loaded up with our snacks, a cooler, tent, bedding, clothes and a Dog, I can’t describe how excited I was to be headed West again that Wednesday morning.

We had driven several happy hours, avoiding I-70 and were having a jolly ol’ time…

Until “Check Trans” started blinking at me near Atwood, KS. (The check engine light likes to come on often, and was already glowing, just for extra effect)

This is very far from home. This is not a fun light to look at while you’re on a roadtrip.

The car seemed to be acting normally, so we drove on. Athough, with a heightened sense of worry, fear and annoyance…

That night in Denver, among cute kiddos and friends, we pulled the battery cables for awhile to reset things, although it didn’t work.

The next day, stopping at a parts store, I was able to reset the computer with a borrowed scanner. The code showed “transmission component slipping”… and well… we headed up to the mountains anyway. And I was hopefull 🙂

The dash was dark again out on 285 leaving Denver, oh, for about 10 miles.

That’s when things got steeper.

It was hot.

We were driving up a mountain.

This is tougher driving for any car’s ‘components’, but everyone seemed to zipping by, while my poor machine was struggling.

My fears all came rushing back. Along with the dash lights too. And an A/T Fluid light and a yucky smell. Pulling off the road, into a gas station, I was not having fun anymore.

Ahhh, what if this thing blows up before we even really get out of town? What if we have to get a tow, to some random garage? What if it costs waaay more than the car is worth? I just wanted to have a fun weekend in the mountains!

So there went my mind. I was losing it. Yes, Lindsay and I had made agreements ahead of time, that if this happened, we had a backup plan. But I really didn’t want to have to go car shopping for a beater just to get us home, after we hadn’t even camped out one night!

After a junky cup of coffee, and a break to let the car cool down, we tentatively headed back out on the road.

This time, I decided to drive it differently. Instead of keeping up with traffic, I decided to drive my own pace. Instead of using cruise control, I decided to drive it manually, shifting it intentionally and (again) more slowly.

Even with the lights warning me, the truck seemed to respond better to this. We still weren’t sure how far it would go however; how long it could last…

So we adjusted our plans. We mentally shortened the length our drive. We were open to closer campsites than our original destination: Ouray, “The Switzerland of America”.

I babied the Trooper, I slowed everything down. I got present in feeling how the motor and tranny were doing on the steep climbing grades of the mountain passes…

And it seemed to be functioning fine actually.

Longer and longer through day. Mile after mountainous mile, it kept on going, and not acting any worse for the wear. Although the menacing blinky lights nagged on.

We had driven far enough even, that Ouray was looking like a possibility again. Of course we were a little behind schedule because of the slower speed, but not much. Really, it was  only my anxiety about problems that were a problem.

That night, at the rushing river’s edge, in the very deep bottom of the steep-sided Black Canyon of the Gunnison, I pulled the battery cables again. This time for the whole night. And we enjoyed our first campout.

The next day, the dash lights were extinguished. Yay!

And we climbed right up and out of that canyon, slowly, deliberately, and without issue.

After a huge breakfast in Montrose, we made our way to Ouray.

We enjoyed a challenging hike around the town, on the Perimeter Trail. Then Lindsay, Roxy and I had plenty of time to check out our first ever 4×4 backroad.

We checked the book, the brochures and maps, we found one we liked, and headed up to Yankee Boy Basin.


Up and out of town, the dirt road through the woods led us spiraling higher. Along narrow shelves, rocky overhangs, along streams and past mining towns, it became really fun.

The road finally turned into a trail, and switching into 4-wheel drive, we roared up and over, we crept down and around. Rocks were obstacles, big drop-offs to the side, It was a BLAST!

Overall I was re-living my youth in a Stomper of my own. With my love at my side shooting pics, with Roxy in the back;  I said,  “Lindsay, I’m Happy.”

According to the literature, the trail got really tough at the top. So we stopped at Twin Falls, and looked around. I hobbled on aching knees from our hike. I enjoyed scenery not often experienced by the mass of tourists down in town.

That night, in the hot tub at the KOA, we discussed our next move. We wanted to head back east, and there is a road through the mountains over to Lake City; the Alpine Loop.

With the car problems we’d had, this is not the kinda place you want to have a breakdown. But hey, we’re adventurous.

Uh, except that my vehicle is stock. The tires are street tread and not new. The roads we’re looking at, are not on the same ‘easy level’ of the Yankee Boy Basin road. (Remember, we’d turned around before it got tough)

When driving around Ouray, you find plenty of reasons to think that you’ll need a jacked-up rock-crawler rolling on 35’s to drive off-road here… It seems everyone in town has a Jeep, and those that don’t, drive FJ Cruisers that cost as much at 5 or 6 of my cars, at least.

So that next morning, we asked the friendly KOA staff about our idea to take the Alpine Loop to Lake City.

The manager, David, and a couple locals were very helpful.

First, I brought to them our plan. Then pointed over to our car. I started to say that I didn’t have a lifted truck with gnarly tires or rock sliders, and he stopped me.

“I rent stock Jeeps”, he said. “If you take it slow, you can make it. You might want to have Lindsay get out once in awhile to show you where to put your tires. You won’t tear up your vehicle. Go up there and have fun! Go see things that 99.9% of the world will never see!”

This was after he’d recommended we take Engineer Road. A road that all the literature said was too hard for stock vehicles.

The other guy chimed in: “This road will be Much rougher than the one you took before, up to Yankee Boy. Just so you know. But you can do it. Troopers are Very Capable.”


How fun is THAT!! Getting this advice from these local experts, I was fortified with confidence!

We left Ouray that morning with excitement for the day ahead.

As we pulled off the highway 550, and into a small lot at the base of Engineer Road, I was laughing inside. I remember passing this place two years ago. Thinking I’d come back someday with a Big Badd 4×4 ready to tackle the mountain, and here I was with the Troop.

Two kids on dirtbikes took off in front of us. I pulled the front end up to what seemed like a too steep ramp full of boulders, the smallest of which where soccer ball size.

With the knowing that our recommendation came from a trusted source, we locked it into 4-Lo and climbed.

Smooth bounces, cracking rocks, hood and pines and sky. At barely 2000 rpm, the motor just chugged us up that ‘road’. Yes, it was rough. Heck yes! Only a few switchbacks in, and Linds had to get out to guide me through tricky spots. At one point, I’d picked too wide a line, and had to back up, to the edge of the cliff, to repoint myself over a massive boulder-top that I’d tried to go around.

I’m telling you, THIS is Livin!!

Several times through the day, people in lifted four-door rental Jeeps came up behind us. We were moving slower, and let them pass. They were less carefully rolling over the rocks, they were Stompin’ at a higher speed of crawl. But, I was proud that we didn’t see another stock vehicle on that road all day long.

If it weren’t for the advice from the guys at camp, we’d have never dared to try this road.

After we made it into “The Loop”, we passed Mineral Point, and took a side-road, actually a trail, probably an ATV Trail, that had me really puckered up at times. When we dropped into the descending switchbacks, with half a car length to make the turn, I saw the next obstacle was a two foot straight drop. The scraping didn’t hurt a thing, but did add to the drama of the moment.

We eventually made it up and over Cinnamon Pass. Out on the blacktop again, we drove south through Creede and along the Rio Grande. That night we stayed at Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Another 11 long hours in the car the next day, and we all three made it home with tons of vivid memories, and a hankerin’ to get back out there soon.

The dash lights never did blink again like they had. The car never gave us trouble even with the abuse we put it through in the mountains. We’d learned to drive it, the way it needed to be driven.

So what’s the point of all this?? I’ve had plenty of times in life where the dash lights are blinking. Times where I’m seeing all the negatives in my mind of what could happen. I know we all live in fear of the ‘what-if’s’ at some point.

Just like life, in order to move forward, we didn’t have any option in the moment, but to slow down. To adjust our expectations. To get deliberate and intentional, and kick off the cruise control.

When we do this, we may find out, not only that we’re going to make it along okay, but that we’ll find our true fit, our true specialty and calling. When we intersect the point in the road that our skills shine, and we leave the 99.9% of the world behind, it’s a Fantastic feeling.

I hope today, for you, that you find something to slow down for. Something important enough to you, to shift into low gear and climb up and over and through.

I promise, when you do, the view will be spectacular!


Aaron Nichols

3 thoughts on “Get Low, Get Low, Don’t Blow UP!

  1. I always love how you tell funny & interesting real-life stories – then turn them into a great analogy for living a better, weirder, wonderfuller life!!
    And what a timely story…as we drive this ’95 Winnebago-Warrior motorhome cross-country. From Woodland Park, CO to Gallup, NM to Franklin, TN – and back home again. This ol’ girl doesn’t like to take the upgrades too fast either, and she definitely doesn’t like cruise-control! Just read Kevin your post, as he impatiently tries to push her along, eager to get home after a full month away. Such a good reminder for us – to slow down – take a deep breath, and let this ol’ ‘Warrior’ girl carry us home!

    • Teri!! I’m so glad to hear from you! Glad you got a kick out of this. But even more elated and amazed that your home escaped the fires! WOW!!! And it came so close! We did have you guys in our prayers around here 🙂

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