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Looking Back While Moving Forward

by Sheryl Johnson

Sheryl-Johnson-Ladies-Offroad-Challenge1The first Jeep I drove belonged to my best friend’s brother. The top and doors were off, it was a typical Central Oregon summer evening when the temperature drops 30 degrees as soon as the sun sets, and some friends on the other side of town were having a party. We had just graduated from high school and we totally believed that driving a Jeep to the party would convince the boys we were interested in that we were cool. My friend was house-sitting for her brother and he told us we could take his brand-new Wrangler for a drive. It was a manual, and she never got the hang of a clutch, so I eagerly hopped behind the wheel, happy to take that challenge off her hands!

Sheryl-Johnson-Ladies-Offroad-Challenge1The thing I remember most clearly about that night in 1989 was the wind whipping through our hair, the Milky Way shimmering above us, the heater on full blast, and freezing our tails off! I don’t even remember the names of the boys we were trying to impress. I just remember the freedom I felt driving that night. I swore I was going to buy a Jeep. A love affair had begun.

Sheryl-Johnson-Ladies-Offroad-Challenge1As it so often does, life took a variety of turns… I didn’t buy Bianca the Jeep until 23 years later. I often stared longingly at the Jeep dealership as I drove by, imagining myself gassing up and heading into the hills to take the roads less traveled.

Sheryl-Johnson-Ladies-Offroad-Challenge1The day I bought her, I hung a daisy air freshener from the rear view mirror. Daisies have always been my favorite flower, and everything about my Jeep felt fresh and new like a white Shasta daisy. This was a new start, a new adventure, and I couldn’t wait to hit the road with my new wheels. I finally had my dream vehicle!

Sheryl-Johnson-Ladies-Offroad-Challenge1When I went to test drive my Jeep, I knew immediately that she was coming home with me that day. I have never felt so comfortable behind a wheel. There’s an energy that fires up when you turn the ignition, an undercurrent of adventure. Even running errands is more fun with the top off!

Sheryl-Johnson-Ladies-Offroad-Challenge1That cute little daisy cheerfully greeted me every time I climbed in and turned the ignition. Who could be unhappy driving a Jeep?

Well… sometimes life throws you some curves, you know? A year or so after I got the Jeep, my chocolate lab, Porter, was getting too arthritic to jump in. I had a step on the hitch and had to help lift him in and out when we went on our adventures to the dog park, the river, or more frequently, the veterinarian. On a sunny Saturday in June 2013, Porter and I left the house after he had a particularly tough night and headed to the emergency vet. Hours later, after he crossed the rainbow bridge, I got in the Jeep alone, hung his collar on the rear view mirror and cried my eyes out.

Sheryl-Johnson-Ladies-Offroad-Challenge1It took me a year and a half to take his collar off the mirror. He was the best dog, and I missed taking him on adventures in the Jeep. But that collar reminded me every day of his gentle spirit and his love for the water and playing in the woods. It was my way of keeping the ol’ sweetie with me.

Sheryl-Johnson-Ladies-Offroad-Challenge1In February 2015, I was visiting friends in Bend for Valentine’s Day. Local students had created and hung hearts from all the trees in downtown. I picked one and hung it on Bianca’s rear view mirror. It has a tag on it that says, “All you need is love,” and that sentiment felt perfectly right for that time in my life. I was friends with a man who lived across the country, and we were both trying to figure out if there was something more than friendship brewing. That weekend, I knew that I was starting to feel sparks, and that I was going to have to trust my heart to take a leap of faith. Later in 2015, I flew across the country to meet him, and fell hood over axle in love.

Sheryl-Johnson-Ladies-Offroad-Challenge1We had so much in common: a love of coffee, sarcasm, and Jeeps. Finally, there was someone who “got me” and didn’t roll his eyes when I pulled up my favorite website to look at Jeep parts or take the newest parts catalog to read in the bathtub.

When the challenges of a long-distance romance and loving a man with post-traumatic stress disorder felt overwhelming, I would see that heart hanging on the mirror and tell myself that love was all we needed, and to trust that the details would work themselves out. Sun-faded and wind-whipped, that heart and I hung by a thread for the longest time. I finally removed it in May 2019, as that chapter in my life has ended, and I’m ready to start a new one.

Owning a Jeep has been an empowering and fun experience for me. I may not have much off-road experience, but I love getting the Jeep dirty and exploring this beautiful country, as well as adding modifications to make her my own. Bianca has carried me and my gear to rodeos, campsites, daily trips to the dog park with Wrangler the puppy (he has 4-paw drive) and visiting friends all around the West Coast.

My favorite weekend of the year happens in August. We head over the Cascade Mountains, camp next to the Deschutes river, shed the top and doors and enjoy the Maupin sun and whitewater. The smell of the pines, junipers, sage and dirt of Central Oregon will always feel like home. One of the best parts of the weekend is that it’s usually when the Perseid meteor shower is at its peak. After it gets dark, we lie out under the stars and watch for shooting stars to wish on.

This year, I have a lot of wishes for those stars. I’m starting to really define and focus on my off-road dreams and goals. I am reaching higher than ever before! Competing in the Rebelle Rally is a huge one on my list, along with making the pilgrimage to Moab for Easter Jeep Safari. I plan to do both of those in the next few years. Taking part in the Ladies Off-road Challenge seems like the perfect start to that journey.

Today, I made a new token for my rear view mirror. It seems appropriate that when you’re shooting for the stars, you should always keep them in your sights. I’m looking forward to seeing where they take me!

Sheryl-Johnson-Ladies-Offroad-Challenge1

Posted by: Dulcy Rojas

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