10 days to the crawl… 9 days to the crawl… 8 days to the crawl….
If you were on Facebook or the Southern Cruiser forums at Ih8mud.com over the months leading to the Southern Cruiser Crawl, you were inundated with pictures and reminders of the upcoming event at Hot Springs. Some of the reminders were inspiring and others were darn right frightening! It was obvious that this is a tight-knit group that like to have fun! This thing could go a lot of ways, as an outsider on his first trip, how would I fit in?
The Southern Cruiser Crawl is an annual event sponsored by Cottonland Cruisers, a TLCA chapter from Jackson Mississippi. The Crawl is 4 days of on-your-own trails in one of the premier Off Road parks in the south and 2 nights of official complimentary food and entertainment. There are plenty of non official eats and get-togethers to be found all over the camping area.
Chris Tolleson, a Cottonland senior member filled me on a little background: “The first 4 years were in Gray Rock, Alabama outside Birmingham. It was a much smaller park that was being slowly eaten away by limestone mining. We brought everything in water, generators and even built showers the last couple of years. The place had a pavilion with power and a water faucet“.
The Club had come over to Hot Springs ORV park (previously Superlift ORV) for the Razorback Ramble every June, and loved the park. They made the decision and moved the crawl to Hot Springs. Hot Springs ORV is 1250 acres of winding trails through the hills and knobs of Arkansas. It’s filled with scenic views, a full canopy of trees and plenty of rocks of different sizes and shapes.
SCC has grown over the years from a club group of 15 trucks to a record crowd of 130 trucks for this years crawl;. Drivers range from beginner to expert and the trucks break up into several categories: Old FJ’s, FJ’s turned buggies, New FJ Cruisers and other classic and modern Toyota Trucks.
I arrived on Thursday morning for the first day of registration. While checking in, I chatted with a few guys. Nearly the first guy I met, Tim from Tennessee, said he had heard that a few of us were coming down from Illinois. He welcomed me and introduced me to his co-pilot, his young daughter. We agreed to meet up out on the trails. I decided to grab a map and ride a few 1 and 2 diamond trails “solo” to get a feel for the place.
I am relatively new to off road events. Other than FJ Summit 8 earlier in the year, I have never done anything like this. FJ Summit 8 was a blast! While there, I met a couple guys of Cottonland Cruiser guys who said, “Come down to the Southern Cruiser Crawl in October”. After spending 3 days in the mountains of Colorado finding out what my 2010 4Runner Trail Edition could do, I was sold.
To be fair, the events are on different ends of the spectrum. FJ Summit is hours and hours of driving with moderate to difficult challenges based on your pre-selected route. Its also a scenic journey that makes you want to stop every ten minutes to take pictures. The Southern Cruiser Crawl can be minute by minute challenges that will change on a dime as you choose paths with variable difficulties. If you want to see what your truck can do, and be surrounded by like minded Toyota aficionados, SCC has you covered. The Hot Springs ORV Park is a giant pile of Arkansas rocks that have been carved into all variety of terrains.
After rolling out with my map, I got five minutes down the road to find 2 guys walking the trail. “Thats odd” I thought, “nobody walks in an Off Road Park!” Turns out these guys (from Moline, hours from me back in Pekin IL), who were here not much longer than I, had rolled their old 4Runner. In the back of
my mind, I am thinking “I’m screwed”. If people are already rolling their trucks on the first morning, I have overestimated my chances of surviving the weekend in my 4Runner. The guys who I picked up had not been driving much longer than I that morning, hit a bad spot on Squids Juant, and rolled their first-gen 4Runner. It now lie on its roof with no chance of movement without help. I am not equipped with a winch (Dont judge me! Second event!) and was not familiar with the trail they were stuck on… I offered to give them a ride back to base camp.
It was luck or fate that I ran into a crowd of FJ Cruisers headed our way from home base. I told them the situation, and they were totally willing to help out. The FJ group were from the Louisiana Landcreweser club. This was not their first rodeo at SCC. Bart, the official navigator of LLC led us up a bypass on the hill to find a good spot for winching the old 4Runner off its back. After about 30 minutes of setting up and turning the truck over, another FJ40 buggy showed up to tow the old Runner back to the parking lot.
At this point, I have seen more action in 1 hour at SCC than I thought I might see in a weekend! I had not even completed a trail yet and got to be witness to a recovery. I asked the guys if it would be cool if I followed their caravan that day. Bart, the guide of the group nervously said yes. This was a blessing for me, I didn’t know anyone and was now had an wince of paranoia in my brain from witnessing the recovery.
I followed the guys on Brandons Run and Buckhorn North. I was now running trails that were 3 and 4 diamond “rated” just by tailing these guys. My nearly stock 4Runner was doing everything the well-accessorized FJ’s were attempting. At one point, I was offered a bypass after the truck in front of me could not make it up a slope… Huh? Not even a shot at it? I hollered that I wanted to give it a shot, and Bart and the gang got in position to guide me up. My truck made it… Pretty handily. I was impressed and I think everyone was just a little surprised that the 4Runner could manage to keep up.
I later found out from Bart that he is always a little leery about taking strangers along on a tour if they have not witnessed the driver before. The potential for injury or vehicle damage is greatly increased when you misjudge the ability of someone on the trail. Its not an insult if someone asks your experience level out on the trails, its just a way to help measure the skill level in the group.
One perk of this event that was talked about on the forums, but not
fully realized by myself was the food. On Thursday, LLC prepared huge pot of homemade Jambalaya. I soaked in the intoxicating aromas of all the ingredients as they stirred them into the giant cast iron pot. After being tortured for 2 hours, I finally got a taste. It was worth the wait!
Friday night the Bayou State Land Cruisers served up an authentic Gumbo that they were working on all day. Served over a bowl of rice, it was amazing! I think everyone, I mean everyone stopped what they were doing for this. It was also a great opportunity to see the mass of enthusiasts all in once place talking about trucks, trails and memories of events past. This felt like a giant family reunion!
Its worth mentioning that I also had a bit of home cooking when I was offered some homemade Crawfish Étouffée. I also tried some Boudin, its sausage that is stuffed with seasoned rice and grilled. (Thanks Jason, Kevin and Jonas) The Étouffée and Boudin were enough to make me rethink my whole existence in Central Illinois!
Friday night also had a scheduled musical act stop in to play some country goodness. Jason Eady is a full blown record making/touring artist with a complete band, not just some local guys playing cover songs! I’m not even a country fan, but anytime you have a guy on stage with a steel guitar in his lap… Its worth listening! We were presented with music on the same caliber as the food served that night.
Thursday night it had rained buckets! I was in my tent moving my cot when I developed a leak at 11PM. I was then up all night thinking that Friday might just be a soup of water and mud. This made me slightly nervous. This next morning my friend was showing up with his stock 1982 FJ40. We have been working on restoring this truck for a year, an this was going to be its maiden voyage off-roading.
Apparently Arkansas deals with water like a duck deals with it on the back. Its gone in minutes. Even with over an inch of rain falling the previous night, the rocks and gravel of the trails dried out and were ready for the earliest adventurers Friday morning.
That morning my friend Mike arrived at the park with his 1982 FJ40. To this point, the truck has only seen country roads and driven around Central Illinois. We thought this event might be a good place to see what it can do. Besides… If it breaks down here, we have pretty good odds that someone will be able to help fix it or tow it out!
We took the FJ40 on the Tex Windor trail. Its a combination of 1 and 2 diamond trails. We lumped this little truck into the same group as the FJ Cruisers from the day before. Everyone was gracious and patient, but the 40 kept up nicely. Mike tried to get the 40 to climb a rock pile as part of the trail, but it was too much without any kind of differential locks or longer travel in the suspension. We took the bypass.
One thing you hear a lot when trailing with new Toyota trucks is “Do you have your A-Trac on?”. Newer trucks spoil you and make it look so easy! The 82 is a stick and never had the option to be fitted with the tech we find so necessary today. Climbing into that truck after driving a modern vehicle is like taking a trip in a time machine. Supportive seats, air conditioning, cameras on the nose all seem like luxuries of the rich after spending a hour in the 82 FJ40. I imagine if the guys in the buggies on a nearby trail had heard us yelling about A-Trac, they would have been snickering about who the real 4X4 guys are!
We were laughing and having a blast in that 82 every-time we crossed ANY terrain feature. When you drive an old vehicle like that, you are really “one” with the truck. You cannot cheat the slopes of Arkansas hills by flipping on some extra features built into your truck. You have to pick good lines and not kill the engine as you are creeping uphill!
The 40 was a noble steed. She did her job and proved a worthy trail crawler. This truck and every 40 are a testament to solid engineering and quality craftsmanship. Toyota has a reputation for excellence in off-road vehicles, and the 40 is the basis for that.
We did a few more runs with the 2010 4Runner, even a night run. Amazingly, when we did Rubicon Ridge… We spent almost 2 hours out of the trail without seeing another soul. This was nice, as I had expected that a park like this would have us running over other groups left and right. The trail was beautiful, and made me rethink everything I thought about venues outside the mountains.
When we left SCC, we had made new friends, learned more about our trucks and became more inspired to hit more of these type events. We were already looking forward to FJ Summit 9, but now have Mardi Crawl and any number of other events in the meantime till then.
After seeing the camaraderie among the other clubs and owners, it was obvious what we needed to do after leaving. We need a club like this! We will be looking to spread the word to more Illinois Toyota truck owners with the hopes of getting our own club together. There are trails and events all over the central states, though not as big, still worthy of us checking out with our Toyota’s.
If you go:
Expect lots of Southern Hospitality, Laughter, Great Food and a ton of rocky trails that vary from beginner to expert.
The ORV Park is a great place to camp and make your home during the event. The CLC provided free dinner and musical entertainment 2 nights and If you imbibe too much of that hospitality, you don’t have far to walk!
Hot Springs Arkansas is a pretty decent sized town with shopping, scenic national park grounds and lots of restaurants. Unlike some rural ORV parks, you are not separated from civilization.
One big contradiction to the above statement is the Cell coverage at the park. I have ATT, but I heard folks on other carriers complain about signal. Some even ran to the top of the ridges to get a signal. If that’s important to you, try the KOA or stay nearer to Hot Springs.
Bring food and drink to share and you will probably get some in return.
A lunch truck is on hand for your food needs during the day.
The park office has tons of supplies if you forget something at home. Shampoo to winches!
Bonus tip: When someone tells you to line up behind the diesel FJ60 for a run… Its basically a way of hazing a rookie wheeler!
Authors note: I have completely aware that this article has a Penthouse Forums vibe to it. (So I have been told, I wouldn’t know anything about that!). In other words, it feels like an excited kid that just got to do some amazing things that never seemed possible. It is a unique opportunity in this day and age when you can be this excited mentally and physically. With all the digital entertainment and our on demand lifestyle, something as salt of the earth as driving a truck over loose rocks brings back senses and feelings that have been atrophied by lack of use. I will try to be more professional and less personal on the next event, but its gonna be hard to resist! Eric
Link to the dropbox with all pictures: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/ti4dm69qhgfivp7/AACC-LYiNK0ZLfwSBw-AP6S6a?dl=0
Special Thanks to:
Fort’s Toyota and their trail team. www.toyota-pekin.com
Endless Horizon Expedition Outfitters. www.endlesshorizonoutfitters.com
Extreme Para. http://www.extremepara.com/