The Essential Hardshell – October 2002

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By Will Wills

The hardest part about getting a trail ride together is getting people to come. You’ve got dirt in Ohio and I’ve got dirt in Indiana so why don’t we all stay home and mind our own dirt. It’s because of the people. If you’re like me, you have to risk the trails alone most of the time because if you had to rely on someone else, you might as well take up lawn darts instead. So when I heard TRS was going to be holding an event within a day’s drive of my house, I put my tow strap and overnight gear in my truck and got ready to roll.

     My grandmother was born in Breathitt County, Kentucky in 1902 and left during prohibition. The stories we heard as kids left me with a vague impression of tarpaper shacks, corn whiskey and gunfights with the Revenue Service. Mix that up with some good trails to ride on and you might have the recipe for a good weekend.

     I left my house at 4am Saturday morning and nine o’clock found me rolling down Kentucky Highway 476, following Troublesome Creek into Hardshell. The wide creek bed had only a small amount of water in it at the time of my visit but there are hints that make me think it can pack a punch when it feels like it. Of course, in spite of its intermittent wrath, the creek can’t budge the tough honest people that populate its banks. For instance, many houses built along the opposing bank of the creek rely on high-hanging cable and plank bridges to allow residents access to the road. A clear eye to see the problem and a straight answer to solve it: the essential Kentuckian. Not the least among these is our land-owner and event host Sparkz.

     The first TRS forum user on the scene that morning, I find Sparkz in a wooden crate with a pig. In my minds eye I was expecting a hillbilly. What I got was a guy from Chicago. Sparkz is the kind of guy that you meet for the first time and he already seems familiar enough that you don’t feel the need to introduce yourself. He keeps a humorous running dialogue going and seems to know something about everything, especially pigs. To him, practicality is paramount, and to back this up, his Ranger has Super Swampers, a Camburg suspension, and…well, a utility bed! But the main topic of our discussion, besides the pig, was the land.

     Situated on 821 acres stretching over Breathitt and Perry counties, it is comprised of fabulously steep hills, plunging valleys and rocky creek beds: a trail riders dream. Problem is; there are no trails.

     This land has been in Sparkz family for around 200 years. Apparently it was owned by various relatives and slowly gathered up by Sparkz’ dad to prevent its loss. Over the years it has supported his family with farms, logging and even coal mining. Like many areas of the country, people have had to move from their historic homes and find other means of support. This has left previously used trails overgrown and eroded from years of neglect. It was the reconstruction of these trails that interested this TRS expedition.

     After a half-hour of chatting, the roar of Jim Oaks’ TRS-1 announced the arrival of the rest of the crew. We walked out to meet Jim and the other forum users. Assembled around their vehicles were: PT_Ranger_V8 and his souped-up full-size Bronco; RedRiverRanger with his straight-axled, 4.0 powered Ranger; 84project2wdranger and his wife in their 4×4 F150; 97_4X4 with his recently lifted 4.0 5-speed auto Ranger; and Big_Truckin90, who was riding along having left his 1990 4.0 powered 2wd Ranger at the hotel. After a flurry of introductions and adjustments we formed up in a column, the four Rangers and one Bronco, and headed for the woods.

     The first hill out of Sparkz’ clearing was a steep grassy climb. The Rangers all made it without problems but the Bronco, owing to a hub problem, discharged its passengers who set out on foot to catch up. At the first stop, we broke up into groups and went on a recon to survey the terrain. It was at this point that I began to get an idea of how good this trail was going to be once it was in place.

The trucks rest after the first climb while the drivers recon ahead in search of surmountable terrain

     The hills are grimly steep. In many places you are almost on all fours trying to climb up. The soil is basically loam and its very hard for tires to get a bite. There are several draws coming down off the crest of the hill making it impossible to avoid some amount of off-camber climbing. The foliage is very dense and it was apparent that we were going to be doing some serious cutting to make a trail. It was not going to be easy finding a way to the crest of the hill.

     After getting back down to our trucks we found what looked to be a previous years path which was already grown up and followed it about a third of the way up the hill. At that point we had to either shoot straight up this hill that would stymie a mountain goat or hang left and chop our way through a few hundred yards of jungle and hope we could find another easier slope further down the hill. Well, we already knew Jim was going to at least try it, so we got out of the way to watch.

     Well, he didn’t make it but he made a good go at it. About half way up his tires lost traction in the deep soil and he came to a halt with all four spinning. With some remark about finding a set of AG tires, he moved aside and let RedRiverRanger make an attempt.

     Red River is merciless when it comes to four-wheeling his truck, I’ll have to say that. He made it about as far as Jim did and when his truck came to a stop he kept his foot in it. The front axle went into this hammering oscillation and I felt certain a shower of parts was going to come next. It didn’t and he eventually relented. I think he would have liked to have gotten a much longer run at it and tried it again, but there were a couple other vehicles in the way and, as Sparkz said, we were out to make a trail that almost anyone could use, not just the extreme trucks. It was time to get down to some serious trail cutting.

Red River Ranger shows off the ground clearance afforded by a straight axle and 35’s while snaking his way along the newly cleared bottom stretch

     After another recon we got to it and cut a trail along what could have been an old mule path. With one crew at either end we set off toward each other with chainsaws and pruning snips. In keeping with our environmentally friendly policy, we tried to avoid cutting anything substantial, making our route miss bigger trees where possible. This made for a somewhat technical piece of trail as there were large rocks and side-slopes that came close to trees. We got it done and then Jim brought his truck down it to see if it would fit.

The TRS crew hacks there way through the brush along the lower trail

     Everything was going well until he got to a turn that was too tight and decided that we needed to remove a tree to make it fit. We started cutting, but then it became clear that it was going to fall where it wanted, and where it wanted was right on top of TRS-1. We got it stopped by shoving it up against another tree and Jim was able to move his truck out of the way. The rest of the trail checked out ok and we made it to the end of the clear section. Now there was nowhere to go, but up.

     We were all standing at the end of the line trying to figure out which way to go when it suddenly became clear that there was no other route but the most direct. The slope here wasn’t as steep as the earlier one, but it was steep enough, and it also had a bend in it near the top that was impossible to avoid. We cleared the path and Jim got lined up for his historic attempt.

     He made it up the first and longest stretch without trouble, but that turn makes you bleed off momentum and his lack of traction caught up with him a few feet from the top. With him holding the truck on the hill we rigged up the winch and he was up in a moment. Apparently this had been a long-standing goal of his and he had finally made it. If he had been equipped with MT tires it would have been a cinch, as RedRiverRanger soon proved coming up soon after without assistance. Later, 97_4X4 also came up the hill with TRS-1 winching his truck the last few feet. He had good tires, but was attempting the trail with open axles. I did not attempt the hill. Eventually we would have to make the long decent down the steeper section and I didn’t think I would have enough traction coming down with my street tires.

Under PT_Ranger_V8’s guidance, Jim Oaks’ TRS1 becomes the first vehicle to reach the crest in many years.

     The rest of the route was simple, but hard work. There was an old path running along the crest of the hill that eventually ended up at the trail we could not climb. It was just a matter of clearing the growth from this old path in order to connect the two slopes. Along the crest run 97_4X4 caught some body damage from a passing tree but I avenged the dented door skin with my chainsaw. By now it was beginning to rain and there was some concern about coming down safely. We got it done and eventually everyone made the descent.

With the bank still holding the title, 97_4x4 puts his Ranger through the paces on its first trail ride

     Back at Sparkz’ house we met up with Bobby Walters who, without even bringing his truck, had come down with his wife and a friend to work on Sparkz’ roof. After chatting with Bobby and Company for a bit, we continued on to the assembly area. By the time we got everything loaded back up it was dark and raining.

     The convoy to Hazard was slow due to the rain and fog. Once there, we went our separate ways to get cleaned up and later met at Applebee’s for a decent meal and conversation. By the time I made it back to my room I was ready to hit the rack having been up since 4am.

     Every time you leave the trail its pretty common to think you hear some new clanks and bangs that weren’t there before. Thus I took my time getting back to Indiana and it gave me time to reflect on the weekend. One thing about this trip that separates it from most others is the dedication of the people that showed up.

     Its easy to fit in with a group like this because everyone has the same thing on their mind: four-wheeling. Everyone knows why everyone else is here: they want to have a nice place to wheel and some great people to wheel with. Whatever barriers might exist between two people on the street are gone here because the universal language of the four-wheeler bridges the gap. But now that it is over, was it worth it? For me, it was. I got everything I went down there for.

     I went to talk to people that share my interest. I went to see other trucks in action in order to make mine more capable. I went to try my truck out on new terrain. But mostly, I went because it feels so good to get back home after a trail ride with the old truck still in one piece.

Showing that a stock truck can get along pretty well too, Will’s Ranger sneaks under some branches


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As a Ford Ranger enthusiast who enjoys modifying my Ford Rangers for off-road use, I quickly discovered that there wasn’t any websites dedicated to the subject. So in 1999, I created What started as my own personal desire to help other Ford Ranger owners, has grown into a wealth of online information from numerous contributors. 20-years later, my commitment to the Ford Ranger, and the Ford Ranger community, is as strong as ever.