by Jessica Chasse
I am currently in the rebuilding stage of my offroad journey and have been for the past few years. I have been wheeling a 2005 Jeep TJ Unlimited (LJ) Rubicon named Clarence. His name makes sense once you see pictures and learn a little more about me and the type of wheeling I prefer. Clarence is mostly stock, suspension-wise but inside the cabin is another story and once you read my tale, you'll see why I refused to build him or even hit dirt with him until he had an upgraded interior, at least as far as safety was concerned.
I had been very fortunate in my my offroad experience until 8/28/2016 when my offroad life/perspective changed. I purchased my first Jeep, a 1997 TJ Sport on September 10th, 2013. I was searching on Craigslist for several weeks when I found "the one" - I fell in love with the gunmetal pearl color and there were 2 posted for sale, one with full doors and one with half doors. As a child of the eighties who grew up playing with Barbies and reading the "Sweet Valley High" series of books, the choice was clear (at least to me), Jeeps = half doors so I reached out to the seller and within hours, I had my very own dream Jeep! The Jeep was on 33s and had BFG All Terrains, both checked off the boxes for what I was looking for in a Jeep.
I lurked on a local forum for nearly 5 months until I saw a posting about an annual memorial newbie run. I signed up for the forum, posted at 8:45pm that I would like to go on the run scheduled for 9am the next day with a note I'd check in the morning to see if I was added then went to bed. The next morning, I saw the post that I had been added and headed out to what turned out to be a life changing event.
Up until 1/18/2014, I had only explored the forest roads around Payson, AZ with my dad teaching me how to drive a stick shift on dirt roads and exploring the sandy washes/trails around my home in Maricopa, AZ. The memorial run was Box Canyon in Florence Junction, AZ and was my first taste of rock crawling. I was terrified when I saw the rock ledge/waterfall near the end of the trail and wondered how exactly I was supposed to drive my Jeep up what appeared to be a rock dead end. A kind gentleman, with a rig very similar to mine, let me climb in to his passenger seat to experience it first before attempting to drive it. Although still terrified, those spotting the newbies did a great job and I made it up the waterfall without stalling! I was hooked, from then on, I signed up for any trail my Jeep was capable of running and spent as much time as I could behind the wheel to increase the all important AIST (@$$ in seat time) factor that helps develop your skills as an offroader.
My Jeep was nameless for over a year until about an hour after running the Black Canyon City Overlook trail. While enjoying time with friends (and pie!) at Rock Springs Cafe, I realized my Jeep was the little Jeep that could. My friends were all running JKs or JKUs with at least 35in tires and here was this little TJ, open/open on 33s, keeping up. A little Google/Wikipedia search and she had a name - Tillie, after the train in the movie "The Little Engine That Could" - another favorite from my childhood. My grandparents used to read that book to my sister and I when we were little. Although the train in the book does not have a name and I had never seen the movie, it was fate and my Jeep was christened "Tillie Jane" (I had to give her a middle name, since she was a TJ and her first name started with T!).
Tillie gave me a little scare while camping over Memorial Day weekend 2015 in the Sedona area and leading an all lady drivers run on Soldier's Pass. We discovered her track bar bracket was separating from the rear axle. Thanks to great friends, ratchet straps, and a convenient Whole Foods parking lot for the "trail" repair, I made it back to camp. Friends went back to Phoenix to get one of their welders and bring it to their family's cabin in Munds Park. After breaking camp, we slowly convoyed the short expanse of the I-17 from Schnebly Hill Rd to Munds Park. Tillie's trackbar bracket was re-welded to bracket and I decided it was time for her to be built.
July 2015 was her transformation from a 3in budget (i.e. springs/shocks only and transfer case drop) to a 4.5in longarm kit with a new rear axle (Dana 44 out of a non-Rubicon LJ), slip yoke eliminator, Tom Woods rear driveshaft with ARBs front/rear, regear to 4.88, and BFG 35in KM2s. Upgraded steering soon followed (7075 T6 Aluminum) and hydroassist not long after (PSC kit).
With the new build came harder trails, Tillie and I even made it to Moab in April, 2016. A group of us rented a house and ran as many moderate trails in Moab as we could - Hells Revenge, Fins N Things, 7 Mile Rim, Kane Creek Canyon, Top of the World, and Poison Spider (at night). We didn't do anything too extreme because we only had enough room on trailers for 3 rigs and I drove to and from Moab after wheeling for 5 days.
It was after our annual club run, returning from Crown King the "front way" that disaster struck. The road was washed out in places from recent rains and sections were washboarded. Somewhere between Cleator and Bumblebee, the trackbar bracket on Tillie's "new" rear axle started to shear. It was in a curve in the road where I realized we were in trouble, she was squirrelly, and not in that "normal, short wheel base" way. I didn't have too much time to react (probably 1-2 seconds) and I realized staying on the road and potential hitting the rock face on the left was preferable to rolling down the ravine to my right so I made sure at the last moment, while I still had control of the vehicle, my wheel was turned slightly left. I still do not know exactly what happened because it was at that point I closed my eyes - I had taken my sunglasses off earlier and as I've told people - what happened next is something you can't "unsee." I hit hard on the drivers side and "pirouetted" on my front bumper, we came to a rest on the passenger side. Thankfully, I had a DOM sport cage installed years earlier by a local offroad shop, before Tillie's build - it is what saved my life and lives of my dogs.
I still love to offroad and rock crawl but it is far harder to wheel on 31s than 35s - tire placement is a lot more of a factor now than it used to be! I am dreaming of Clarence's build but am in no hurry to start it, as I learned from Tillie, it can all end in the blink of an eye and I have no interest in tempting fate by doing too much too soon.
So here I am, relearning how to wheel with a new(ish) rig and acquiring new skills. Clarence has Tillie's 3in springs in the front and a 2in puck lift in the rear. I have installed a Currie Anti-Rock in the front and recently replaced the stock dif covers with aftermarket ones when I serviced the differentials. His interior is sporting suspension seats and 5 point harnesses in the front, a removable rear harness bar and a DOM sport cage "plus" - he is a the embodiment of not judging a book by it's cover, the inside of the Jeep does not match the outside!
Safety first is the foundation of his build and when he grows up, he will be a beast!
Posted by: Dulcy Rojas