by Leigh Ann Lane
Okay, full disclosure; I used to be. I was whipping around in a cute little red Mercedes when my life changed dramatically. No, I wasn’t in a car accident...that came later. On the way home from the grocery store one Saturday in 2013, my husband turned into an empty bank parking lot. “What are you doing?” I asked in what I’m sure was an exasperated tone. It was a hot day and we had frozen food melting in the back seat. “You said you wanted to look at this Jeep,” he responded, ignoring my tone. Following his line of site, I saw a bright red two-door Jeep sitting in the corner of the parking lot.
I had never seen this Jeep before and most certainly had never said I wanted to look at it, but nonetheless, I was intrigued. It screamed “fun,” and red was definitely my color, so we called the owner and made an appointment to drive it. The moment I sat in the driver’s seat, I knew I had to have a Jeep. This little two-door number felt too small, so off we went to the Jeep dealership.
Allow me to introduce “Pepper,” a sparkling new 2013 Deep Crystal Cherry Red Sahara JKU with caramel colored heated leather seats, remote start, and every option available. Wipe that smirk off your face, I was a Mercedes lady, remember? Pepper needed a few upgrades. I had my heart set on some fancy wheels and chrome tube fenders. Yes, you read it right…chrome tube fenders on a JKU! To this day, I thank the kind offroad shop owner who gently steered me away from ruining my JKU with chrome tube fenders.
Three days later, I returned to the shop to pick her up. I pulled in the parking lot and there sat Pepper in all her glory. I was awe-struck. It’s amazing the transformation a budget lift, Fuel wheels and a bull bar will do. She was the most beautiful vehicle I’d ever seen. But she was so much more than beautiful. She was powerful, demanding respect. She gave me a new confidence, an identity. She was a source of conversation, which was extremely helpful to me as a shy person. Pepper instigated a major transformation in my life.
My first trail experience with Pepper was a “Day in the Dirt” with a local Jeep club. My sister, two of my college friends, and I took off on our first “offroad” adventure in a topless Pepper. The sun was hot, Oklahoma red dirt was flying everywhere, and by the end of the ride we looked like red Oompah-Loompahs. Every inch of us was covered in red dirt. And we had the time of our lives! We spent the day with a friendly group of people we’d never met. This is when I learned that a Jeep, or any other offroad vehicle, comes with a built-in set of friends.
My first “real” offroad adventure was renting a Moab-ready rig from Nena Barlow in Sedona. My heart pounded as my husband coached me through trails that looked like the Grand Canyon walls from my inexperienced driver’s seat vantage point. I was amazed at what that rig could do. And even more amazed at what I could do! I learned to pick a line around hefty boulders and let the Jeep do the work. My husband later commented that he’d never seen me grin as big as when I was behind the wheel on those trails!
I don’t know if you’ve ever had something consume your thoughts to the point of going crazy, but a few months after buying Pepper, I was awakened by a dream. Actually, it didn’t even qualify as a dream because it was merely a short scene of a young woman standing in the dark outside of the home of my childhood best friend. She was gazing upon a man standing shirtless in the window. His tousled hair, scruffy face, broad chest and thick bulky arms would make anyone stare, but that’s not what caught her eye. She could tell, even in the dark, that he was heartbroken…desperate. She watched him, motionless so as not to reveal herself.
For weeks, this dream or scene was all I could think about. I honestly considered seeing a counselor because I thought I was losing my mind. As it swirled through my head non-stop, I began to build a story around it. A movie! I could write a movie about it! I had to get this story out or I was going to burst. But I had no idea how to write a movie and seriously, the odds of it actually becoming a movie were minuscule. But I could write a novel. Well, at least it seemed more achievable than writing a movie script. I’d never dreamed of or even thought about writing a novel, but I had to do it. I had to tell this story.
I spent the next three months reading books about how to write a novel. Once I began to write, the story flowed from my fingers. Writer’s block was never an issue. Because of Pepper’s influence, the main character’s’ Jeep became a supporting character, giving her courage, as Pepper had.
About a year into writing my novel, I started social media accounts in preparation for the book launch. It wasn’t long before I realized (justified) that for marketing and social media purposes, I needed (wanted) a lime green Jeep, since the Jeep in my novel was a Gecko. My college friend who had accompanied me on the Day of the Dirt event was ecstatic to take Pepper off my hands. Pepper continues to change her life today.
Allow me to introduce Grasshopper. After much searching for the limited Gecko color, I found Grasshopper, a 2013 JKU Sahara with fewer bells and whistles. While Pepper had started my transformation, Grasshopper hurled me forward.
My first outing with Grasshopper was a mudding event. Two couples that I didn’t know took me under their wings and led me along the trails. They coaxed me into doing donuts in a big mud pit. It was exhilarating! A photo dear to my heart captures the look of accomplishment on my face as I hopped out of Grasshopper afterwards. I tried something new and now had four new friends! I will always remember their kindness in showing me the ropes and letting me join in their fun. I will also never go mudding again because although the fun is tremendous, the clean-up is unbearable. They didn’t bother telling me that!
I gained many offroad friends through social media, many who have become as close as family. A small group of Twitter friends and I started a group called The Jeep Mafia. As one of the first Jeep-themed groups on Twitter, The Jeep Mafia took off like a rocket. We had no idea what we were doing or why we were doing it, but today, The Jeep Mafia is easily one of the most influential Jeep groups on Social Media, and I consider the moderators who run it some of my closest friends.
Scrolling through social media in early 2016, I ran across the Ladies’ Co-Driver Challenge. It sounded intriguing, but I knew I had no shot whatsoever. I stewed over it for several days. Much of it was social media based, and I had that going on, so I only hoped that when Charlene said “no offroad experience required,” she meant it. I bit the bullet and submitted my application, wrote my story, sent my photos, and tackled the social media challenge.
I still remember the exact spot where I was standing in a department store when I realized it was time for Charlene to announce the Top 10 finalists. I hurriedly located the Facebook live broadcast. When I heard Charlene announce my name, my heart literally stopped beating for a moment. I was in! I don’t know how or why, but I was in! While I’d wanted to go to the Top 10 Weekend with all my heart, I hadn’t allowed myself to hope that I would be picked as a finalist, and just like that…I was in! I was going to the Top 10 Weekend!
My elation was quickly squashed. Knots twisted in my stomach as I began viewing the other finalists’ stories and photos. After the sixth or seventh one, I snapped shut the cover of my iPad. I couldn’t bear to see another video of a contestant performing wheeling stunts that I’d never imagined possible. How on earth did I get selected? I was easily old enough to be the mother of many of the other finalists, and my wheeling experience ranked an abysmal “one” compared to their astounding “ten.”
There wasn’t much I could do about my lack of wheeling experience, but in an effort to gain some confidence, I prepared myself as much as possible for the other challenges that would be in Rally Venture, the only winning event I could possibly be considered for. I spent two weeks honing my skills at kayaking, indoor rock climbing, shooting skeet, and geocaching. My goal wasn’t to win, but simply to avoid embarrassing myself. As it turned out, I hadn’t guessed well at what the weekend challenges might be, but I had a lot of fun preparing!
I made a startling discovery the very first evening we arrived for the Top 10 Weekend. As we bonded and shared, I learned that every single finalist had brought her own carry-on bag full of self-doubt. Every single lady thought she was unqualified to be there! This opened my eyes that regardless of how experienced or talented or beautiful you are, self-doubt will sneak in and try to thwart you.
The Top 10 Weekend was a life-changing event. Without giving away any details of the super-secret event, I will simply say that Charlene welcomed us in a huge way and treated us like royalty the entire weekend. Encouragement, laughter, cheering, consideration, sharing, and pure unbridled girlfriend time abounded the entire weekend. Ten complete strangers with various backgrounds, talents, dreams, insecurities, and a common love of offroading came together from all parts of the country, and left as life-long friends.
Rolling off of the Top 10 weekend, I felt powerful, hopeful, and happy. I was in top physical shape, my book was in the final editing phase, and I was enjoying the friendships I’d built in the offroad community.
Three months later, the rollercoaster of my life plummeted from the crest of the hill to the bottom of the track when my mother passed away unexpectedly. Nothing can prepare you for the loss your heart feels when your mother leaves this earth. What kept me afloat was the amazing support of my Twitter friends. Their outpouring of love was amazing. They sent cards, flowers, and messages. My heart was full when I saw that many of them had changed their Twitter avi to a candle on the day of my mother’s funeral. The offroading community bond is stronger than any I’ve experienced.
My roller coaster hadn’t hit bottom yet. Six months later, on Memorial Day, I took Grasshopper on a Sunday drive. I drove to a nearby small town and took photos of her next to farm animals, covered bridges, oil rigs, and anything interesting I ran across. Those photos are dear to my heart because on the way home, a young lady turned left in front of me on the highway. The impact at 55 miles per hour bent Grasshopper’s frame in two places, rendering her a total loss. Had I still been a “Mercedes lady,” the impact might have cost me my life.
In a period of six months, I lost my mother, nephew, stepfather, my mother’s beloved pet, and my precious Grasshopper. My mother was my biggest supporter. Grasshopper was my strength.
My husband immediately started looking for a new Jeep. He knew it was the only thing that could help me start climbing up again.
Allow me to introduce Hyper Hopper, a very basic 2016 JKU Sport. I didn’t instantly fall in love with her like I did with Pepper and Grasshopper. For whatever reason, I just couldn’t “feel” her. She was a stranger. It wasn’t her fault. Living up to Grasshopper was a challenge. Grasshopper had transformed me. She was a character in my book. She was my baby.
But Hyper Hopper gently persisted. Her build was much bigger and entirely different than Grasshopper’s. An Offroad shop wanted to display her in a 4x4 show, plus my offroading skills and desires had increased, so we balanced “pretty” with “bad-assery.” She slowly melted my heart and now I am totally in love with her. She has taken me on more advanced offroad trips, introduced me to even more offroad friends, and makes me feel happy and powerful once again.
Six years ago, I was a quiet Mercedes-driving lady with a few close friends. Today, I’m a Jeep-driving lady with friends stretched across the nation who feed my soul daily. I’m a Ladies’ Offroad Top 10 Finalist and SEMA event winner. I’m considered a social media influencer. I’ve written a 5-star rated novel. I drive a bad-ass Jeep that helps me meet new people. I scare myself on trails and love it. I have events to attend, stories to tell, and a zest for life. Offroading has changed my life, and I owe it all to that little red Jeep in the bank parking lot that whispered to my husband, “Look at me.”
Posted by: Dulcy Rojas