Living Up To The Name: Driving My Toyota Land Cruiser From Texas To Alaska, Part 1
Photography by John Montesi
Much is made of the importance of the journey, not just the destination. This is perhaps the ultimate apology for classic cars, which do precisely zero measurable things better than their modern successors, yet somehow possess a draw and character impossible to recreate with current technology and assembly techniques. I recently drove my old Toyota from Texas to Alaska partly to reinforce this notion, and as the miles added up I was forced to face this messy truth in its entirety.
The Land Cruiser is an icon of design. A name synonymous with superfluous capability and Toyota reliability. It, along with many of Toyota’s other trucks, take the notion of dependability and make it an exploratory virtue instead of a bland attribute known to dutifully shuttle millions of commuters worldwide. With robust underpinnings, a lazy, under-stressed engine, and components that can often be repaired with duct tape, a paperclip, and a twelve millimeter wrench, it delivers on its promise of getting you wherever you’re going. It drinks gasoline like a lost desert explorer chugs water when they return to civilization, but once quenched, it’s happy to roam like the ambling cattle that share so many open ranges with the glorious gravel roads that bisect the heart of the United States. Its fans understand that its constraints are part of the charm, that driving slowly is a practice in meditation, and that gas is far cheaper than new parts or the cost getting truly stranded off the beaten path when they’re suddenly required at the least opportune of times.
All of this conspires to make transcontinental travel an exercise in new philosophy, in new friends, in seeing new sights even amid familiar regions. You must stay in the right lane and keep the windows down, people will be drawn into conversation with you, other Land Cruiser fanatics will gladly turn wrenches and chew fat while your dogs frolic, and every intriguing, unpaved path must be followed until your curiosity is satisfied.
Early in my journey, rolling northwestward into the Texas panhandle, the landscape opens up and flattens. The first opportunities to cover ground away from pavement present themselves as massive single-lane arteries between fields of cotton and corn. The highway speed limits are often higher than the maximum speed of a fully-loaded FJ62, especially if there’s one of the region’s seemingly constant crosswinds blowing. The famous Texas red dirt colors every inch that isn’t paved or irrigated, and eventually coats everything else that’s exposed to the elements. People are kind and think nothing of driving an old truck a long ways—indeed it is the norm here—and they ask more about fuel mileage or the number on the odometer than what kind it is or where they can get one. And while the license plate is still in or near its home state, there isn’t much noteworthy or unusual here about a big truck loaded down with gear and bicycles.
In the big parts of the country, where the horizon appears so far away as to be unreachable and towns are dozens of miles apart, state lines are somewhat vague and often seem to encourage clusters of towns in unusual succession. Where Texas silently meets New Mexico for instance, the town of Texline encourages its neighbors to follow its lead, to not shutter its 19th century brick buildings and splendid Main Street Southwestern Art Deco theaters. Here, cars that might be celebrated on internet sites like this one are kept running out of necessity rather than kitsch, and it is entirely reasonable to leave the engine running and the air conditioning on full blast for the dog while you grab a coffee necessary to propel you across yet more expansive acreage. Indeed, most manmade objects have a longer shelf life in the small towns of the high desert than they would elsewhere. They settle into pleasant, muted-colors faded by sun, and then face relatively little environmental stress for the remainder of their long service lives; even coated in red dirt from backroad jaunts, the Land Cruiser is a bit too shiny for the bleached surroundings of towns like Clayton, New Mexico. To say nothing of the occasional Escalade or top-trim Silverado that rolls in from the region’s massive ranches en route to a hub like Amarillo or Clovis.
After fueling up with regular unleaded and black coffee in Clayton, an hour on a high-speed state highway felt discouragingly fast. I had my sights set on central Colorado, but I also knew no part of me nor the Cruiser was up for a day of white-knuckle straight-line driving through roaring winds and the nervous whine of strained RPM. It is far too easy to dismiss the grasslands of the southwest as monotonous and boring if you blitz across the path of least resistance instead of inspecting them. I passed a couple of enticing gravel roads because they snuck up with minimal warning, and even semis were hot on my heels as I sauntered through the morning sun, but finally I saw a trail early enough to slow down, and I signaled and turned right towards the seemingly endless plains punctuated only by hints of plateaus in the distance.
The first mile revealed plenty of depth, but not much life. At slower speeds and a more intimate scale, the nuanced colors of grasses and wrinkles in the rolling hills reveal an ombré that otherwise renders bleak and uniform at 85mph. Weathered barbed wire fences poetically interrupted the horizon, and my dog Hank detected a cornucopia of new smells that implied a rich secret life in the hills between the Kiowa and Rita Blanca National Grasslands. The defining borders of such spaces are political, but nature seems not to discriminate. The occasional settlement broke up the waves of billowing grasses, and finally we rounded a corner that revealed the splendor I’d expected once the highway fell out of earshot. A wild pronghorn antelope studied the Cruiser carefully before resuming its early morning graze, and down the way, cattle sent Hank into an ecstatic frenzy. We soon found the rest of the pronghorn, and behind them an eagle and a prairie dog worked out their differences eye-to-eye.
I tried a few different roads that pointing in the cardinal direction I wanted to go, though most of them eventually ended in fences or fizzled out into fields with no discernible tire tracks. Finally, I was able to zoom into enough detail on a map to find a viable option for returning to the highway by way of a dozen more miles of gravel. Those twenty or so miles covered at crawling pace flew by far faster than the ensuing hundreds at highway speed. Every vehicle has an intended use case, and the FJ prefers cruising the grasslands to hurtling down the highway at its maximum velocity. So, I felt called to oblige it as often as possible.
Of course, there are times when a car’s intended use makes it a frustrating partner. The sheer geographical reality ahead of us meant that for every glorious gravel road jaunt there were untold hours of pounding out miles along the highways and byways that connect the vast American Southwest. The tires roar, the engine strains against crosswinds and speed limits that test its aerodynamics, and it guzzles gasoline in the most literal sense. And yet, it never refused to start or wavered in its commitment to getting me there. It is under-stressed and overbuilt, which makes it a reassuring steed out in all this openness. Before software could imitate hardware, machines were built to simply work, and in the case of the Land Cruiser, they were also built to be easily repaired with office supplies and a basic 12mm wrench.
Once the seemingly limitless grasslands gave way to abrupt mountains, Hank and I found ourselves endlessly tempted by the paths and trails that seem to jut off of the twisty two-lanes everywhere in the Rockies. The same day that began near Texline was now filled with intriguing trails high in the mountains, pointless double-track that shot upward towards the peaks of so many jagged points. In spite of all the detours, time zones were in our favor, so I rolled in to the day’s end a mere few hours behind my conservative estimate. We spent a long weekend exploring the Roaring Fork River Valley in Colorado, chasing trout and compulsively turning up gravel roads that often proved little more than epic, state-maintained driveways for a house or two.
Visceral trucks like this one turn every opportunity to engage four-wheel drive into an addictive rush—the sensation of clawing tires and the whirring sound of its straight-six pulling calmly against three tons of steel and the tickling of the body’s internal inclinometer. Above all, there is the curiosity: these are not quite roads, but they’ve clearly been passed before and are passable still by the right machinery. Something inside of me longs to know where each and every one of them goes, or at least what’s around the first few bends, all just because I can. Rubber meets scree and mud in the places where human progress and the untamable forces of nature collide in stalemate. The result is brief, intense bursts of adrenaline and dusty but fresh air.
Tune in soon for the next piece of this journey, which will see me and Hank descending the Rockies into the red flat sands of Utah.