by Jillian White
As I write this, today marks 143 days since my car accident. 143 days since my world was abruptly slammed into, turned upside down a few times, and left in pieces on the side of a Nevada interstate.
It was 12:11am. My partner, my dog, and I were heading to off-road through Baja Mexico for a 10-day overland excursion. We had my “Gold Nugget” 4Runner packed to the max with camp gear and donations for an orphanage in Mexico. Suddenly, there was a car heading directly at us on the freeway and there was nothing we could do to avoid collision. We crashed and time slowed down. The front wheels came off the ground and we started rolling 3 times. Mid-air, I remember thinking there’s no way we could survive a 150 mph rollover collision. I full-heartedly believed that I had used up all of my 9 lives, and this was it. The airbags deployed and 1/25th of a second later I felt my fingers dislocate and fracture. The mixture of talcum powder and burned explosives filled my lungs. Glass shards and desert dust entered the car, and then finally we slid to a stop.
My Gold Nugget 4Runner gave his life to save mine. Miraculously, we survived and I was left with this “Now What?” empty feeling. Now what? What’s next? Who am I without my beloved Gold Nugget 4Runner? Perhaps a part of me would have much rather died in the accident than be in my own skin and deal with my new life and injuries. At the time, I didn’t feel grateful I survived—I felt angry. Angry that a man took a bunch of drugs, didn’t sleep, had a fight with his wife, and got on the freeway driving the wrong way. I was devastated that my treasured 4Runner that I had put 260,000 miles on and finally built was now murdered in a tow yard. I was left with flashbacks from the car accident replaying in my mind everyday, the inability to drive, crushing anxiety, and a bruised, broken body I no longer recognized.
This is not my entire off-roading journey. Let’s rewind to 18 years ago…
When I was 10, my parents took our family shopping. We drove all over San Francisco Bay Area and test drove new sedans, vans, and trucks. I remember my mom kept saying that nothing we drove that day compared to her white 1985 Toyota 4Runner. Unfortunately, new 4Runners were quite expensive back then and they were out of our price range. Nonetheless, my mom insisted that we “just look” at a 4Runner…naturally we ended up buying a brand new 2001 Limited Gold Toyota 4Runner! And oh boy, it was an exciting day! It had the latest and greatest bells and whistles cars had at the time. Guys—it even had seat warmers, or “BeeDubyas” for Butt Warmers! I thought it was the greatest adventure-mobile ever created. We named it the “Gold Nugget”.
As a family, we drove all across the states camping, skiing, and taking gravel roads to pretty destinations. Escaping the city and getting outside was a top priority. From an early age, I learned to love the outdoors and find peace being in nature. I’m lucky my family valued roaming the Earth and adventuring in the wilderness.
I first took a vehicle off-road when I was 16. And nope, it was not the Gold Nugget. It was a white Chevy Blazer with a camo print top. That truck was AWESOME. It had a deep rumble, squeaky parts, and made big obstacles seem like a piece of cake. We found pretty much the only wide-open land in the Bay Area—Canyon, CA in between the Oakland and Berkeley hills. We had a blast taking trucks out on fire trails. Once we hit the fire trails, only lifted trucks could catch up with us and we could escape the real world. I’d say this is where I first realized off-roading in the outdoors brought me great happiness. Eventually, my parents’ finally passed the Gold Nugget down to me, and then I moved out to Utah. As I left for Utah, my Dad said, “You have ALL you need—Your bags, your dog, and the Gold Nugget!”
Utah has been so very good to me. I moved not knowing a single soul in the state. I found the 3rd Generation 4Runner Facebook group and met people who were part of Utah Toyota Off-Road (UTOR) group. A few years ago, I decided to set up an off-roading meet up at a local spot, and let me tell you, it was so awkward. I was the only girl and I was completely out of my comfort zone! The terrain was much harder than I anticipated, and I left feeling like a total dummy. I definitely left that meet up with a bruised ego.
Thankfully, through these online groups I was able to find the most supportive, helpful, and incredible people I could ever ask for in my life. I went on a few trips with them and pushed myself way out of my comfort zone. I doubted myself, worried about whether or not I was welcome on group trips, worried about how I sometimes held up the group when I needed spotting, and stressed about not knowing how to fix things. A few special people helped me grow immensely and were so kind to me in some of my worst moments. I’m telling you—my overlanding friends are saints. They didn’t even leave me when I had to literally pull over on the side of a difficult trail and take a “pee break walk” because I needed to cry like a baby. Getting better at off-roading and picking lines takes time and practice. They encouraged me to not give up on my off-roading journey. One of the things they told me that stuck with me the most is: “What matters most is that you SHOW UP! Simple as that, just keep showing up.”
Throughout the last few years, I’ve explored thousands of miles of desert red rocks, snow covered mountains, sandy beaches, and salt flats. As a group, we have traveled all across multiple states and even to other countries. I continue to learn about map skills, survival skills, how to stock the right tools, first aid, and general off-road etiquette. Most importantly, I was introduced to morning cinnamon rolls cooked fresh in a Camp Chef Oven! My body and mind crave the open road and I spend my days at home planning my next adventure. Off-roading to remote destinations helps me find peace and happiness. I cherish the nights we have spent around a campfire after days of off-roading in remote areas. I am so lucky to be able to go on trips with my off-road family. Grateful doesn’t even cover how privileged I am to have these amazing people in my life sharing off-roading journeys with me.
About a year ago, I started getting more involved in public land use issues. I completed trainings through Utah DNR State Parks and Recreation OHV Program and became a Trail Host. I have loved learning about Tread Lightly through courses and regularly educate the public about responsible land use. I have really enjoyed working towards keeping multiuse routes open to the public. Recently, I was added to the board for UTOR, and I helped put on the UTOR Bountiful “B” Cleanup Day.
Before our planned Baja Mexico trip, I finally pulled the trigger and started really building my 4Runner. With the help of my partner and friends, I learned how to put on a lift, tires, a roof top tent, rock sliders, etc. I would still be rockin’ my stock 4Runner (with running boards!) on trails if it weren’t for my incredible group of off-roading, camping, and overlanding friends who are willing to take time out of their days to help me. The build was almost complete before Mexico, and unfortunately, I never got to test out the Gold Nugget before our accident.
I have been going through a sort of rebirth in the last 143 days, albeit a painful one. I’m supposed to share my off-roading journey and it is hard to admit that I am not at all where I want to be on that journey. It crushes my soul and breaks my heart to know that a car accident has caused me to be fearful of even being in vehicles. I’m trying to be kind to myself throughout this process. Baby steps! Sometimes you just have to dust the airbag powder off, get your hand fixed up, and get back in the driver’s seat.
I’m happy to say that my off-road journey is NOT over. I recently purchased a new truck. I found my unicorn truck—another 2001 Limited Gold Toyota 4Runner! He is appropriately named “Gold Nugget 2.0” and I have already started the new build. Things are looking up and my off-road journey is far from over!
Posted by: Dulcy Rojas