Charting Life’s Ups And Downs With An FJ62 Land Cruiser And A Dog Named Hank
Photography by John Montesi
An improbable two bicycle wrecks in a span of four months left me reeling and far off the tracks I intended to be on. It also provided me a strange and violent dose of reality that perhaps reawakened some latent dreams resting far too deep inside of me. That series of events led to a trip halfway across the country to pick up a Land Cruiser with my dog, Hank, and my mountain bike as travel companions.
Many people speak about “car guys” and “truck guys” as if there is a fundamental duality that separates the two. That your enjoyment is limited to a certain four-wheeled niche, not an all-encompassing pursuit of hilarity on rubber. Sending a 911’s ass-end towards a stunningly deep drainage ditch in West Virginia at sixty miles per hour is quite similar to hearing a Land Cruiser’s crawling gears whine as it slides over wet, muddy rocks deep in the Ozark National Forest—that is, if you have a penchant for watching special machinery narrowly avoid catastrophe.
Of course, such heart-pounding moments are the exception to the rule. Most of our time is spent in the in-between, loping along on quiet streets or humming down the highway. We view vehicular capability as a catalyst for the imagination, the mere possession of ability as a virtue and value, even when those muscles are rarely flexed.
Then again, theory and practice are different things. For instance, in theory, I shouldn’t have been sitting on top of my Toyota Land Cruiser parked on a beach in Maine while snow coated much of the surrounding area. In practice, I simply backed up enough to engage 4WD and built up enough speed for it to crawl and clamor its way over a deep snowbank and a shorter set of rocks meant to discourage the average crossover from getting stuck in the soupy sand beyond, then parked at such an angle that Hank and I could sit on the roof and watch the sun set over the ocean and across the other side of North America.
These are the transcendental moments that give life its color and cars their outsized stature in some of our lives. Despite Hank’s mild protest every time I hoisted him to the roof before joining him, once we were both up there, the views and the serenity granted to us by that vantage point were priceless.
Getting to these simple, perfect moments entails countless hours of slog and mundanity and enough radio silence that you find yourself switching the telescoping radio antenna up and down just to watch a piece of machinery do its job hypnotically well. And getting to the point that has you piloting a dream car through the deserted roads of Mount Desert Island in the wintertime usually involves a far rockier path than the one to the unnamed beach I was enjoying.
Over time, life deals us its share of successes and failures at a rate and proportion that we will never understand. In so many ways, the best strategy is to relinquish all sense of control and enjoy the ride. And in certain, small ways, we can the take control back sometimes, just long enough to recharge ourselves and absorb the unknown with something resembling aplomb. In other ways, the world hits us with so much force that all we can do is rebuild and relearn with the tools at our disposal.
Sometimes those tools come from inside us, and sometimes we need some outside help. The Land Cruiser is one of the best examples of the latter. The Toyota FJ62 makes no bones about its intended mission: it will get you anywhere, at roughly the same speed no matter the surface, in surprising comfort and with steadfast dignity. It is a genial conversation starter, especially at rural gas stations under cover of darkness while the fluorescent pump lighting reflects harshly off the snow drifts in every direction.
The entire Land Cruiser family carries a certain cachet among casual and passionate fans alike. It is equal parts regal and approachable, familiar and noteworthy. It ingratiates itself with drivers of domestic trucks and foreign sports cars and everyone in between: it is a truly democratic method of transportation.
In Western Massachusetts and Southern Ohio, I hear that I’m driving an onlooker’s dream truck while they gas up a sedan that costs three times as much. In Scranton, Pennsylvania I slipped into a parallel parking spot on a town square, with the Cruiser waiting as dutifully as the Catahoula in the passenger seat while I sought hot coffee on a bitingly cold day.
It is a vehicle that never tires of the miles—whether they are consumed by the dozen or hundreds—at highway speed all the way down to what is aptly called “crawling.” At this point in my motoring career, I thought I understood the notion of a momentum car well enough, but the Land Cruiser brings something new to the equation. On the hilly highways of Appalachia, it is best to build momentum on the downhill so as to make it uphill before the semis in the right lane run you off the road, and in the snowy, muddy forest service roads of Vermont and New Hampshire, a steady momentum is essential to maintaining forward progress at all.
The chaos of urban driving always seems to trigger some strain of PTSD in me, however slight it usually is. The same could be said of riding a bicycle on roads that are shared with drivers increasingly incensed by the congestion they are up against every day. While the bliss of a smooth and serpentine backroad will always be my first love, there is something elemental about escaping to the woods. The FJ is a willing accomplice in such endeavors, whether the entire day will be spent driving or it simply allows for a much more remote jumping off point for a hike or bike ride.
From Acadia National Park to the White Mountains to the Hoosier National Forest and on through the Ozark Mountains, I found an entirely new world, sometimes just off the very same roads I’d discovered in the Porsche some months prior.
The in-between has been both kind and harsh to me, so the same towns were often seen in a new light thanks to changes of seasons and life experiences. And while so many decreasing-radius turns and undulating two-lanes begged for a proper sports car, the seemingly endless dirt double-track that lines the landscape called me to push the 4WD button on the dash and bomb towards the wooded mysteries that surround Americas byways. The Cruiser may be most at home coated in dirt and hidden somewhere off the beaten path, but it provides its own level of amusement on-road is well. It is mechanical and engaging even when progress is slow; its sun visor warning labels about center of gravity and delayed responses are well-warranted, though more because of how easy it is to drive along a bit over the suggested speed than because it is some precariously lumbering truck.
It’s easy to sit slouched in the driver’s seat as you might in an overstuffed reading chair at home, taking a commanding view of the surrounding scenery while cruising comfortably across the country. It isn’t until the going gets really rough that you’re forced to sit upright and point the truck with precision between boulders and straight through mud pits.
And it is these low-speed, high-stakes situations which seem to provide my favorite thrills these days. After the aforementioned series of bike wrecks threatened to rob me of my ability to enjoy anything that unfolds on pavement, mountain bike rides and hikes with my dog have served as stand-ins for the old, intense road assaults that made endorphins flow with every mile of progress. And so it is that trucks too can expand our universe and sense of possibility, and perhaps provide another form of treatment for the same ailments that the whole hobby seems to speak to. There is camaraderie, mechanical poetry, tactile thrills, and the ability to unplug from overstimulation in a focused manner. There are steel panels that would never be approved by today’s accounting departments, and an uncommon commitment to making machines last far longer than they ought to if a manufacturer hopes to keep selling new cars.
And yet, strangely, those traits are precisely what help sell cars. More importantly, they’re the traits that create legends which surpass the sum of their parts and seem to generate more passionate followings with every passing day.
The Land Cruiser has its own distinct handwriting with which to record memories in vivid detail and render every moment unforgettable. I can still taste the air where I first stopped to watch ice floes race silently through harbors; can still feel the crunch through the steering as I drove through the deep snowbanks in Popham Beach State Park; can still see with utter clarity the way its silhouette stood out amongst the row of cars in front of my friend’s condo in Columbus. Memory has been a difficult subject for me since being hit by a car, but strangely, cars also help heal it. Meditating on back roads and clamoring down double track to quiet places makes it easy for me to understand what matters and even easier to create memories that won’t fade into the fuzz of stress or daily life or an aging and unreliable brain.
This is where technical superiority and comfort lose out to the intangible but universal sense of “special,” where shortcomings define us as much as our strengths, where the tradeoffs and decisions engineers made decades ago are alive and well, still writing stories in our lives and tugging at our heartstrings with as much acuity as ever.
There is no good place to rest your left arm while driving a 60-Series Land Cruiser. Until you roll down the window and realize that the belt line is perfectly positioned for your forearm, which I remain convinced was a conscious choice by the truck’s designers. With a country song on the radio, an arm on the door, and a dog in the passenger seat, one of the most universal symbols for a peaceful, easy feeling comes vividly to life. The leaf springs and solid axles and lazy straight six that render it unstoppable also demand that you slow down and abandon all hope of chasing an ETA, and instead focus on the immutable pleasure of forward progress.
I spent several weeks up north, bundled up 24 hours a day, while nighttime lows dipped into the single digits, and high temperatures still hung below freezing. Even then, I kept the windows down and the heat turned up as often as I could. There’s no better place for the driver’s arm, which creates a trickle-down effect that toughens you by association. Soon, I came to cherish the cognitive dissonance of frosted left fingers and roasted right ones. Hank didn’t seem to mind at all, his droopy face blowing gladly in the wind whether we were in Maine or Missouri.
I learn something from Hank and from the steady old Cruiser most every day. They teach me patience and unwavering joy no matter the circumstances. They love getting muddy, and don’t really care when they get a bath (in fact, they’d prefer that we simply skip all baths I think). They are both overjoyed simply accompanying me wherever I’m going—around the corner or across the country. Both prefer quiet and expansive places, but neither balks when we’re forced back into the confines of city life. They simply blend in and accept the kind and curious words of passersby.
Now I am back in Texas, letting the two of them continue to goad me towards rough roads and quiet corners wherever they may be. I spend my evenings trying to decide on the perfect setup for our upcoming trek to Alaska, which is the second thing on my Must Do in 2017 list (adopting Hank was the first). In this way, the Toyota Land Cruiser inspires as many dreams and as much forward progress as every sports car I admired in my youth. And with its penchant for getting muddy and plowing over obstacles, it makes me laugh as much as the poor pickup trucks I grew up abusing with my high school friends. The only difference is that I no longer regard it as a guilty pleasure.