We were about a half-mile up an old wagon track, winding our way up over a rocky bluff, when it happened.
The sun was high in the sky. I had the windows down. The stereo was blasting Tom Petty. And I was on my inaugural overlanding trip in my 2020 Jeep Gladiator. My good buddy Devin in his Tacoma was following me up the track. Life was good.
Suddenly, a large metallic clang rang out — the sound of metal on dry, hard-packed terra firma. Slightly stunned, I realized my truck was no longer moving forward but rather teetering left. As the dust and truck had settled, I realized I had dropped my Jeep’s left front wheel into a ditch. I was instantly grateful my recovery gear was close at hand and not buried somewhere in the back like it usually was.
Devin and I had been navigating our way across a swath of BLM land in Central Oregon not far from the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. We were en route to an old cabin we’d spotted on the map when I put the wheel into a sizable — but virtually hidden — split in the earth.
I had been carefully looking uphill, out the right hand side of my windshield. Coming up the trail, I noticed a creek cut across the track. Keen to ensure I was crossing through it at an appropriate angle, I completely missed the portion to my left that had totally washed out. To my defense, the angle of the hill and some sagebrush obscured chasm from my vantage point. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Fortunately, the truck wasn’t going anywhere; it wasn’t falling any further into the small crevasse that spread out to my left. Unfortunately, however, the truck wasn’t going anywhere. Even with the lockers on I was not going anywhere. I was stuck. Winching forward wasn’t an option — that would have made matters worse. I would need to be yanked out backward.
Devin grabbed my snatch strap from my Gear Pod installed on the right side of the Leitner Designs ASC FORGED rack mounted on the Gladiator’s bed. He pulled my truck out with his Tacoma, laughing all the while.
I can’t blame him for laughing. There are few sights more enjoyable for a Toyota driver than a stuck Jeep. And I’d know; before this trip, I’d been a Toyota driver for years.
Back on all four tires, I inspected the truck. I hadn’t damaged anything (except my ego). I tossed the strap back in the Gear Pod and we continued up the ancient track.
We dodged boulders and wickedly sharp tree branches meanwhile keeping our eyes peeled for hidden trenches. Devin and I summited and descended a half a dozen rolling hills before losing sight of any trace of the fast-fading wagon trail. When it eventually petered out, we stood in front of our trucks and surveyed the landscape around us.
The light grew dimmer with every minute and each additional hill we put between us and the horizon. Everything was slowly bathed in a grey-blue hue, as the quickly darkening blue sky gave way to increasing cloud cover. Realizing we’d be foolish to continue in low light, given the fact I’d missed a crevasse in the bright light of the day, we decided to make camp for the night.
This was my first overland adventure in my new Jeep truck, which replaced my aging 1999 Toyota Land Cruiser. Typically, setting up for camp required a great deal of unpacking, as all my gear was carefully Tetris’d into the back of my Cruiser.
In stark contrast, snagging just the evening essentials from my Leitner Gear Pod XL was a cinch. In it, I had strategically stowed my kitchen gear, bedding, and other nighttime essentials.
Physics had dictated the packing order in my Cruiser. In my Jeep, thanks to the Leitner rack, frequency of use was now the deciding factor in my packing scheme.
While Devin unpacked his rig and prepped the camp kitchen (he’s the designated chef on our excursions), I built a fire. That night, we dined on too much chicken curry and sipped on bourbon and wearily stared into the fire, reliving the day’s events quietly in our minds.
Going from an SUV overland rig to a pickup truck afforded me lots of opportunities for novel gear storage solutions. Unlike an SUV, which has a finite amount of space in the rear cargo area, a truck has blue sky above its bed. This allows for a myriad of cargo-holding possibilities.
In penciling out my build, a few must-haves were top of mind. I knew I wanted to mount water and fuel cans and recovery tools. I also intended to top it off with my rooftop tent. From there, I was open.
Although there are lots of options that fit that bill, in my eyes there was one clear standout: the Leitner Designs ASC FORGED rack. I immediately homed in on it because of its versatility, strength, and clever design.
More than an aesthetically pleasing design, the Leitner Forged was created to support popular accessories — ones from outside the Leitner Design portfolio. I appreciate that rather than try to create its own brand-specific ecosystem of accessories, Leitner developed solutions to include on its racks add-ons popular in the overlanding space, including RotopaX, MAXTRAX, and WaterPORT, to name a few.
When I ordered my Leitner rack, I added on the Gear Pod XL, standard Gear Pod, and two universal mounting plates on which I mounted water and fuel RotopaX. I also picked out the Leitner rooftop tent brackets as well as some light brackets.
With everything strapped to and stowed away in my Leitner rack, I felt I was ready for whatever the trip could throw at us. I was right, but I certainly wasn’t expecting what we’d encounter.
On day four of our overland adventure, somewhere deep in some BLM land in eastern Oregon, Devin and I rounded a bend and spotted a smoldering forest fire down a steep embankment off the right side of the trail. We slowed our trucks as we approached in order to survey the scene.
“Do you think that’s accidental?” Devin asked, his voice crackling through the radio.
“Yeah, probably,” I replied, as I brought my Jeep to a halt.
We dived out of our trucks and grabbed our gear. I popped open the Gear Pod and snagged my fire extinguisher. I ran to the other side of the truck and unclipped my shovel.
We both jumped down the steep silty slope and began tossing soil on the fire with our shovels. Immediately the smoke intensified, as we blotted out flames. I intermittently paused to spray the larger flames with my extinguisher further filling the air.
Our impromptu fire fighting continued like this for several minutes. As the smoke and extinguisher clouds drifted away, I noticed from over my right shoulder a dark-red Nissan hardbody pickup truck had pulled up behind our trucks. A haggard, old woodsman in tattered overalls that covered a faded green flannel shirt, climbed out of the truck and sauntered over to the edge of the embankment — maybe 40 feet from Devin and me.
He watched us without saying a word. After a few moments, I paused, looked at him and said, “Howdy.”
“Howdy,” he grumbled in return. “You know, I just started that fire … and I don’t care where it go!” his tone transitioned from grumble to shout mid-sentence.
Devin and I paused. We stared at the woodsman. It was then I noticed that blood was pouring out of his nose and down his grey, scraggly beard. With that ominous proclamation ringing in my ears, the realization of just how far away we were from anyone else — aside from the bleeding and increasingly agitated woodsman — struck me.
Without saying a word to one another, Devin and I both turned heels and hurriedly ascended the hill. I stowed my extinguisher and shovel, climbed into my Jeep, and took off. Devin was right behind me.
The remainder of the trip was relatively uneventful. Devin and I encountered a couple downed trees blocking our path during the week-long trek. I made quick work of them with my chainsaw, which — you guessed it — I stowed in my Gear Pod XL. We used these opportunities to both clear the track but also replenish our firewood stockpiles.
This adventure was my first overland trip in my Jeep. I was struck with both its comfort and capability. Moreover, I was surprised by the serenity of the experience.
In my Land Cruisers, overland trips were loud. The suspension squeaked, trim pieces rattled, and my gear clamored as it was tossed around on rough terrain. It was a constant cacophony of sound. In stark contrast, my Gladiator and the gear affixed to my Leitner rack were virtually silent — shockingly so, in fact. I hadn’t expected it to be so buttoned-down. I was pleasantly surprised.
For years I had bristled at the notion of a pickup truck overland vehicle. The chief reason behind this point of view was I thought enclosed 4×4 SUVs were superior gear-haulers. The introduction of the Gladiator and the rise of clever racks like those from Leitner pushed me over the edge and forced me to dip my toe back into the truck market.
After this trip, I’m glad I did. And I can’t wait for the adventures that lie ahead.
Header image credit: Nick Jaynes @nickjaynes