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by Chuque Henry

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I made the two-hour journey from Lincoln to Tuttle Creek with my Jeep buddy Ben "Obi-Wan" Hollingsworth at 7:00 am on Saturday, May 2nd. The weather was supposed to be overcast, so I was running with the full top and doors, which I was quick to take off as the day heated up. I signed up with the medium trails group, hoping to move up to the hard group after lunch. I made it out to the trails but my vehicle was making a terrible racket. I rolled under the front to discover my nylock nut had come off the bottom of my left front shock, leaving the shock loose inside the spring. The plan was to limp carefully through the trails, repairing the offending shock at lunch, but when I would articulate the front very much, the spring would threaten to come out! I carefully worked my way back to town and had the problem repaired by lunch. I had some making up to do!

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The Defender started really showing its stuff in the afternoon. The group I was with had been really anxious to see the D90 in action, and they were excited to see that I was going to run trails with them after all. I was hoping not to let them down. I did have the advantage of greater clearance over many of the vehicles, but I was lacking in experience. Here's a picture of my good friend Justin and I crawling across a gully and finding I could hang a wheel pretty far down. I haven't put on my Safari Gard drop kit yet, so I'm hoping I can get it to reach even a little further next time. After getting a little more sure of the suspension, I began to tackle some of the other, more difficult obstacles. I stuck with my medium group, but there were plenty of opportunities to try difficult stuff with all the optional obstacles. The Rover never missed a beat and was really making up for the depressing (and embarrassing) morning. I even took on a two-foot rock step with our tailgunner, Billy. I was sure it would cause me to hit bottom, so I let Billy go first. After watching him slam against his leaf shackles and off his gas tank I decided on a different, safer line. I nervously crawled my front end off a lower point that was only about mid-calf high instead of mid-thigh. I was waiting for the crunch of limestone against my frame, but with Ben guiding me, I pleasantly surprised to find I had made it off safely without so much as a rub. I wish I had taken more photos, but I was having so much fun driving that the pictures were almost an afterthought.

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The hardest trail at the Tuttle Creek ORV area is probably Driveshaft. I snapped this photo of a Jeep working its way up the hill. We heard over the CB that his clutch was failing so he had to back down. I didn't go up it this day, but the last time I was out there I braved it--not knowing what I was getting into. Like all off-road photos, the picture doesn't even begin to show how steep this hill really was. It was layered with loose rock and random boulders that range from basketball to spare tire sized. It all adds up to a surprisingly difficult trail for the Midwest. The day I went up, a Jeep slipped on the loose shale and ended up rolling, end over end, to the bottom. Luckily, no one was hurt, but it goes to show just how tough this trail is. The trail reaches its hardest point right about 3/4 of the way up, giving you some last minute thrills.

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Here's a shot of Ben working his way up a trail that was a good example of what you will find on the medium trails. The first time I was out, this is the first trail I came across while feeling my way around on my own. I pulled up to this trail and was terrified by the decline. I was at the top of the trail, and it was so steep that I couldn't even see down it. I quickly threw the Defender in reverse and scampered away from the edge. "That couldn't possibly be intended for vehicles to take," I thought. Well, it was. Now that I have a little experience under my belt and have learned the capabilities of my truck, trails like these are quite tame. I'm so glad that areas like this exist for people like me to use. Few things are as exhilarating as tackling a new trail that previously would have sent me scrambling for safety. Justin went with me on this trip, and I think he was experiencing some of the same feelings I had my first time out. "Don't worry," I assured him, "by the end of the day these trails will seem easy." "Yeah right," was the look on his face. But, by the end of the day, he was talking about bringing out his Nissan Pathfinder--I knew he would. If you've never been four-wheeling before, it's fantastic fun. I'm going to go again when I get a chance.

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One of the more interesting obstacles of the day was the crossing of a shallow creek, followed by a very steep embankment on the other side. The sudden increase in approach angle required a slow approach for most vehicles, and the water made it slick. This was going to be fun. Our leader made through without much fuss, his combination of no rear overhang and good tires made for just slight spinning. He was able to carry momentum into the climb, which was essential. The Cherokees had too poor a departure angle to get a real run at it, and none were equipped with mud tires. With a bit of spinning all , all the Jeeps were making it through, and our two beater trucks were not to be outdone. Dredging the bottom of the creek with their rear bumpers, they managed to place their big meats on the dry top of the hill while the rears were still in the water! I guess that would be one advantage to a long wheel base! Well, it was my turn. I had watched everyone else go through and came to this conclusion. I didn't have mud tires, so I was destined to spin. But I had a really good approach angle, so I could afford to get on it a little on the approach. I decided on LOW 2nd and punched it just before my front wheels hit the opposite bank. I was not really prepared for the result. Instead of losing speed on the slippery hill, it catapulted up the side like a Patriot missile. In the picture, you are seeing the start of the launch before the rear tires finished the job of sending me straight into the air. All Justin and I could see was sky, and I knew we were heading for the trees. I clamped down on the brakes and waited to regain contact with the earth. We had an amazingly soft landing and slid to within inches of a tree. Everyone (including Justin and I) was stunned. Amid thunderous applause, I declined the offers to repeat the performance. I was so happy to not have broken anything that all I could do was grin!

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The only other problem I had all day was with overheating. We noticed that the fan seemed to have very little resistance. We made the decision that the fan clutch had gone out, and I would just replace it with an electric fan. I was wanting to do that anyway, and now I had an excuse. We made use of the D90's quick-release hood, and tossed it in the back, finishing the rest of the trails without incident. Nothing attracts attention like running trails with your hood off. I think people naturally assume you have something trick under the hood that you are trying to show off. The majority of the spectators were disappointed in the very average looking 3.9 liter V8, but a few thought the aluminum engine looked cool! All in all, it was a fantastic day of off-roading, and I can't wait to go back. If you live anywhere near Lincoln, Nebraska, give me a call and we'll go down sometime. There is something for everyone at Tuttle Creek, it's free, and it's a great place to learn your off-road skills.

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