Over the past months, my thirst for a truck has been impossible to satisfy. I had been eyeing Monteros for the most part, with searches for Isuzu Troopers and the occasional Jeep Cherokee taking up extra tabs in my web browser. A Land Cruiser, and more specifically, an F60/62, was more of a pipe dream, typically demanding prices far beyond what I wanted to spend. However, an early-morning search presented one hell of a truck: an ’88 FJ62 that was everything I could dream of. I hit the bank, and two hours later, it was mine. Now, two weeks later, the itch to hit the trails and put the mule to work has made the wait for the weekend longer than ever. On Sunday, we set plans: climb to Santiago Peak, the high, distant peak in the photo below, 5600 feet above the Pacific Ocean.
My girlfriend, Emily, was quick to jump at the chance to be the day’s co-pilot, and our friend Khalil joined along; we loaded up the FJ62 with food, drinks, tools, parts, and a spare tire, just in case. Joining us for the climb in an LC100 of his own was Ben Massey, his girlfriend Christina, and friend Adam. It was set to be a day of fun, friends, photos, and a good shake-down run for my new purchase.
It was only minutes into the climb before we were all enamored with the views from the mountainside. The long drive to the trail’s start was still above the tops of surrounding hills. Early parts of the trail were simple in terrain, with mounds, bumps, and dips here and there, but calm overall in comparison to the later portion. From the trail’s start, it was a 13-mile drive to the top.
The terrain and landscape changed every mile or two, sometimes imitating desert roads, and other times sinking us into the forest beneath the trees. We scratched our heads, knowing that at some point years ago, something had to carve these trails; an undertaking that had to be monumental in comparison to the climb of our own. Later parts of the trail did however allow us to push the trucks a bit harder, testing both articulation and traction. Neither truck faced even a single issue, short of test climbs up a loose, sandy wall, just for kicks.
Santiago Peak eventually began to grow closer, but the distance and terrain between us and our goal seemed far further than what the GPS suggested. The trails grew steeper, and thus more exciting. More than half of the day was spent perched on cliff sides, with nothing preventing certain death, should one stomp the accelerator instead of the brake. Massive careening hillsides offered nothing in the way of safety to stop a rolling truck. Still, it was part of the excitement, and the paths were more than well-established.
Lake Elsinore, Southern California’s largest natural freshwater lake, came into view as we rounded the backside of the mountain. It was just a puddle amongst the landscape. Eventually, we came upon the trail’s split. We had been travelling along the Main Divide Trail, and breaking off was the Indian Truck Trail, a 5-mile, smoother descent that we’d be taking on our way down, to shorten the trip. Ahead of us was the last leg of the trail, which climbed to the peak. We stopped for a short while to take in the view, drink some water, and snap photos, of course.
It was only another hour until we reached the summit – a moment worthy of celebration. Our hard work had paid off, and my FJ62 had yet to leave me stranded on a mountainside trail. From the peak, we were able to see all the way out to the ocean, roughly 25 miles west. We could also see off into the Californian Inland Empire, all of Orange County, and even Los Angeles. We ate a late lunch, with the sunset rushing towards us. Neither of our trucks were equipped with auxiliary lighting, so Ben and I felt it was important to get off the mountain before darkness set in.
Ben had evening plans, and after ensuring we were set, he took off on his own, scrambling down the mountain trail as quickly as possible. We trailed, slower in our pace thanks to the age of my truck and its old, stock suspension which translates small rocks into giant boulders, although our slower pace did allow for photos on our way down. Emily, Khalil, and I began the descent, taking turns driving to enjoy the somewhat smoother trails. We had 3 hours to make it down before headlights would be a requirement.
The setting sun lit the hilltops and shaded the valleys, making for a picturesque and sublime Sunday afternoon. The colors of the trees and the fading sun made it all but impossible not to stop every quarter mile for photos. As we neared the half-way point, we made our final stops, capturing the Land Cruiser in its dusty, dirty glory. I was proud of it for having made the trip unscathed and unbroken, although it was hardly taxing, relative to other trails. Still, I find a new sense of confidence in the old boy; it’s ready to go anywhere and everywhere. The list of mods I’m dreaming of is growing already.
As the sun dropped beyond the horizon and the sky turned gold, we reached the end of the trail. Even now, a full day later, it’s hard to wipe the smile from our faces. Talks of the next trip are already starting, and here’s hoping it’s longer, tougher, and more strenuous than before. The climb to Santiago Peak alone was reason enough to justify the purchase of my FJ62, and now I’m more eager than ever before to put the truck to work, doing what it was built to do. In the mean time, I’ll have to figure out how to clean the fine yellow silt from every nook and cranny imaginable.