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Home on the Highway - Part 1

Written by  Phillip Jones
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First gen 4Runner South American Adventure - Toyota 4Runner Magazine

In 2011, James Hart and Lauren Neel took off from San Francisco and headed south of the border seeking adventure in their 1st generation 4Runner. TCT Magazine interviewed them about their fantastic journey. This is the first of a 2-part series.

Tell us about your 4Runner, what terrain you’ve encountered, and any breakdowns.

Our home is a 1987 Toyota 4Runner SR5 with the 4-cylinder 22RE and W56 manual transmission. Odometer shows 285K miles. It has seen a lot of crazy times. I bought the 4Runner from a 17 year-old high school kid who confessed to spending most of the time beating it up around the mountains of Northern California, and trying to jump off snowbanks.

It is equipped with 31x10.5x15 BFG A/T tires on basic steel rims. I upgraded the stock sagged-out leaf-spring suspension to an Old Man Emu 2.5-inch HD spring kit and shocks. I replaced the original motor with a newer rebuild before we left the States. My good friends from AnySeven Offroad Fabrication in San Leandro, CA did most of the install work and added sliders, bumper, and a custom rear-swing out for my water/fuel jerry cans. We pulled out the entire interior, and rear of the cockpit. We constructed a basic plywood platform for storage and threw in a cheap Ikea futon mattress for a bed.

We purposely seek out tough terrain. The PanAmerican highway is a decently paved route, you could drive from Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina (the end of the road) in a VW Beetle if you wanted to (plenty of people have done so). We like taking the backroads, dirt tracks, and 4x4 routes.

We got stuck axle-deep in the Salt Flats in the middle of nowhere Peru, slid across frozen mountain tops of Colorado, and dug into the sugar sand beaches in Mexico. We once tried to drive up a Volcano in Nicaragua via an old cattle-route, filled with giant boulders. About half-way up, we ran into a rancher running his cattle. He was wondering what in the hell these crazy Americans in a Toyota were up to. When we told him we wanted to drive to the top, he said it has never before been done, but he sure wanted to see us try. He climbed down off his horse and helped us pick the best lines. He even stacked stones for the climb!

I love this truck. It is lightweight and equipped with dependable Toyota 4WD. We can go pretty much anywhere we want and if we get stuck, just get out the shovel and start digging. We are pretty good at self-extraction nowadays.

We have had a few breakdowns. Once climbing a mountain pass in Honduras the throttle cable gave out and broke in two, and the pedal went straight to the floor. We were in a construction zone and blocking the only lane of traffic. Impatient buses, cars, taxis, and construction equipment were piling up on both sides of the lane with our 4Runner stuck in the middle. We finally got it pushed out of the way and started troubleshooting. In Latin America, every male is a “mechanic” and they always wants to help you with your troubles. Soon, the entire construction site ensemble gathered around our truck offering suggestions.

When the foreman showed up, he assessed the situation and suggested we leave the truck and he would take us up into the next town where he thought we could find a cable. We jump into this stranger’s pickup truck and rode in to town. The mechanic there didn’t have it, so we tried the next town, and the next after that. Eventually we realized we were going to need to go to the “big city” to find it. Problem was, the city was three hours away. We thanked the foreman for his help and asked if he could call us a taxi. He said “nonsense” and spent the entire day with us driving and hunting down a cable.

We were all working hard sweating our butts off searching everywhere in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the Murder Capital of the world. Not the best place to be hanging around all day. At last we finally found one and all hugged and celebrated in the middle of the junkyard. By the end of the day when we were all fixed up, I went to pay the man for his time, gas, and trouble. He refused simply stating “Today I help you, tomorrow you help someone else.” We drove away in awe of the sheer good-will and nature of this man. We encountered other helpful people like him time and time again in Latin America.

When and where was this adventure initiated?

We started in November 2011 from San Francisco, CA. First, we traveled across the United States to Florida, then back to Texas into Mexico, down into Guatemala, all through Central America and into Panama. The PanAmerican highway runs all the way from Alaska to Argentina without interruption, it is one of the longest “contiguous” highways in the world, except for a small problem called the Darien Gap, which is a 70-mile long strip of wild jungle and mountains that separates Central and South America. This is the area where Panama and Colombia connect. No road has ever been built here. It is home to drug runners, Colombian rebel fighting forces, jaguars, and all kinds of fun deadly reptiles. The only way around the gap is by sea. You have to load your truck into a shipping container at the port in Panama, put it on a giant cargo ship, cross your fingers, and hope it makes to the other side in Colombia. We got lucky and 3 weeks later, we had our truck back and were now in South America. From there we traveled south into Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Argentina where we hit the end of the road sometime in early 2013. Once at the bottom of the continent, we did a little celebratory dance, popped some champagne, then turned around and started heading north.

What areas would you deem as your most memorable destinations and experiences?

We have seen so much incredible things on our trip, it is difficult to nail it down to “most memorable.” In Chile we traveled for days with our friends from Adventure Americas along a 4x4 route far up into a remote section of the Andes Mountains. We discovered a huge Volcano-ringed lake, dotted with steaming hot springs and hundreds of pink Flamingos. At 16,000 feet it was freezing cold and snowing, but we stripped down to underwear, busted out the wine, and had one of the greatest swims of our live in those hot springs. As the sun set it turned the valley into beautiful shades of pink/purple, it was a surreal experience taking it all in. The volcanos, the steam rising off the hot springs, all while pink flamingos flocked just a few yards away. Then the night sky turned into a blanket of stars, the Milky Way as bright as I have ever seen.

We enjoyed bobbing around on a 17-foot homemade “Panga” boat off the shore of Baja, Mexico while  thousands of Grey whales and their new born babies roll, breach, and play around us.  We watched as the sun was rising over the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal surrounded by a sea of uninterrupted rainforest filled with the wild hoots of howler monkeys.

Then there was the thrill of hunting down a cheap engagement ring while my girlfriend shopped for groceries next door. We do not get much time apart, so it was a rush job! The even bigger thrill of asking her to marry me when we finally reached the end of the road in Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia. So what do you do when you find a beautiful lady who puts up with your crap, enjoys sitting 3 inches apart from you every day for 1.5 years, and accompanies you to the ends of the earth? Marry her of course!

Sharing a meal, sharing a drink, sharing a story with the hundreds of friends we made along the way. There are so many memories and a lifetime of stories.

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