More Archeological Large Scale Theft

In prior posts, I’ve talked about the problems of antiquities and the sale of antiquities in war zones. The good folks over at the Wall Street Journal have written an excellent piece on what a “no win” situation this can be.

http://www.wsj.com/articles/syrian-monuments-men-race-to-protect-antiquities-as-looting-bankrolls-terror-1423615241?mod=WSJ_hp_RightTopStories

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Finished With Engines, Shore Leave For All Hands

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So, as you can see by my photo above, my hare-brained, hair-raising adventure to the Southwest United States is over and largely successful. Marjan the Series 80 Land Cruiser is safely ensconced in the garage, and I’m already working off issues caused by 19 years of on-again, off-again maintenance

The last phase of my journey, after being rescued by the great people in Mesa, was extremely anti-climactic. I left in the afternoon and made it to Lordsburg, New Mexico. Completely ironically, I stayed in the exact same hotel where a co-worker and I stayed back in 2012, while we were conducting cultural training to a SEAL team prior to going overseas. As part of our time here, I picked and ate a prickly pear. It tasted so good, I convinced her to eat some as well.

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The pain subsequent to this was intense and nearly unbearable. Prickly pear thorns are completely un-noticeable going in, but while they are under the skin, it’s awful. I’m pretty sure she forgave me almost immediately, as we are still friends. I still haven’t forgiven myself, though.

The high point of Lordsburg is Ramona’s Cafe. A cafe that is literally in a junkyard and home to the best Mexican food I’ve ever eaten.

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The flavors in this food are amazing and completely suck me in. I admit to being indifferent to Mexican food before this. Since that time I’ve made an effort to become more acquainted with the style.

Leaving Lordsburg, my suspension started making bad noises again, and Marjan developed a shimmy. My heart sunk to my feet and I pulled over. I looked everything over, didn’t see anything wrong and started moving again, and it started AGAIN! Frustrated, I pulled off the interstate onto a dirt road beside it, and magically, the noise and shaking stopped. Note to self: if your Land Cruiser ever starts to make a funny sound/vibration in the suspension, make sure to check if you’re driving in New Mexico, because if you are, it’s probably New Mexico roads, not your Land Cruiser.

The sun came up as I crossed the Texas border in the most spectacular way. I’d picked up a Janis Joplin CD the night before, and she started singing about “Me and Bobby McGee” as this came into view:

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I pulled over onto another dirt road shortly after that in order to take a break and get a picture in this fantastic light.

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Of course, I was there for about 30 seconds before being surrounded by Border Patrol agents. Here I was, near the Mexican border, in a multi-passenger All Wheel Drive vehicle, by myself during the early dawn. After a short conversation, I decided maybe I needed to get moving.

I picked up my sister in Iowa Park, Texas, and after a quick rest, we drove the remaining distance.

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Kansas is one of the most beautiful states to drive through. Breathtaking.

Upon reflection, I realize everything I got from this trip.

I met some amazing people, tied together by their hobby of off-roading Toyota Land Cruisers, and their desire to help others.

I was reunited with a friend, who I had alienated before. As I mentioned briefly, immediately after we had fought, I went into a downward spiral of depression and self-imposed solitude, that took my mind directly to darkness and despair. Meeting her again has reignited my desire to become part of the outside world again.

My friend introduced me to CrossFit. I thought I knew about it earlier, and kind of made fun of CrossFitters when it seemed funny. But during a trip to a couple CrossFit gyms, the coaches there identified that the IT bands in my legs were frozen; a condition that has partially crippled me since I was 6 years old. In only three sessions, they helped me release those muscles, and my legs seem to be straightened, almost overnight. Truth be told, I’d adapted to this deformation, and they now hurt more than ever, but I have full range of motion for the first time in over 45 years.

I’m going to stop there about my disability. I have concealed it for a long time. I hadn’t mentioned it before, and I plan on writing it as one of my next blog entries.

And in the end, I now have the coolest car in the world in my garage. When I was first crippled, I spent all my time reading, especially National Geographic magazine. And ever since I could remember, I wanted a Toyota Land Cruiser, because all of my childhood heroes drove one. When I was issued one in Afghanistan, I was over the moon.

And now I have Marjan.

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What “Good Guys” Look Like

I debated for awhile about making a technical, jargony post about how Marjan was fixed since my last entry, but I’ve changed my mind; This blog post is not about how to fix a Land Cruiser, but about what “Good Guys” look like.

In movies, the Good Guy once wore a white hat, shining armor, or possibly a badge or a fedora. As our tastes become more “sophisticated” the Good Guy is often an anti-hero who is dark and brooding, and possibly felonious. Or maybe our society has become too jaded to even acknowledge/admit that there is such a thing as simplistic as a “Good Guy”.

I’d like to sound off right now and say that’s absolute bullshit.

I know some Good Guys. The Good Guys pull your butt out of depression and help you live life again without becoming a hermit, for instance.

Janiece

And some Good Guys will open up their shops, tie up their single maintenance bay for four days, work over the weekend, and charge you a pittance for their own parts in order to make sure you will get back on the road. And in the process they will tutor you in a new vehicle to maximize your safety, success and enjoyment. And obtw, all their cool friends will drop in to meet you, tell stories and to lend a hand.

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Kevin and John, busting their butts as I watch on and learn

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“Rosy daDonor”, who sacrificed her front axle assembly so Marjan can live

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The new axle assembly, looking smart

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All the cool kids showed up in Land Cruisers. Thanks to IH8MUD!

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New axle going in

Needless to say, I am humbled at how they all took me in, an uninformed stranger, and went way above and beyond to fix my problem, and then showed me true friendship in the process. Marjan is now one happy Land Cruiser, and my journey goes on.

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Ethics, Competence and the Art of Land Cruiser Maintenance

On the way from SD

As I described in my last piece, Marjan the Toyota Land Cruiser started making horrible noises while climbing the Coronado Bridge.

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For anyone who doesn’t know this bridge, it’s a horrific place to break down. Over 200 feet tall and 4 km long, with very little place to pull over in a break down. So I gritted my teeth and drove through the Armageddon noises coming from the front of the car.

So, we pulled over and waited for AAA to arrive. The AAA driver offered to take me to a friend’s garage, but it was 8 miles away from our hotel and we declined. We decided to go to “Griffin’s Auto Repair” which is located in Little Italy, mere blocks away from where we were staying.

Our mistake.

I am usually the first guy to give businesses second chances and understand that people, even mechanics, make mistakes sometime. But what happened next passes from “mistake” to “criminal negligence” and may even constitute “fraud”.

First of all, the problem with Marjan was a Birfield Joint that exploded. While I’m tempted to get all “science-y” about it, you can Google it if you’d like. Basically Birfield Joints make it so Land Cruisers can both drive and steer with the front wheels as well as the back.

A Birfield joint usually costs about $700 in parts and $300-$500 in labor and 3-5 hours of time to replace. Griffin’s Auto Repair charged me $2400 for the job and took three days to do it.

I understand high property values, customers who are “stuck” and why some mechanics may charge a premium. And I would’ve gladly paid it to escape San Diego with a sound car. But 300 miles out of San Diego, Marjan gave up the ghost again. AAA again came to the rescue, and towed me to Chandler, Arizona, where I have friends and family I can stay with.

This was late Friday night, so Saturday morning I desperately started looking for a shop that was open. The Super Bowl is in Phoenix this weekend, for the few that were open were full of cars.

Kevin's Shop
Kevin’s Shop – Real Land Cruiser territory!

So, then, just when it looked darkest, the internet came to my rescue. A terrific group of Land Cruiser enthusiasts on an forum called IH8Mud responded to my plaintive calls for help and hooked me up with a wonderful pair of gentlemen, Kevin and John, who are also known as “Tools R Us” and “inkpot” on the forum. These guys gave up their Saturday to tear the botched repair job apart, and not only fixed it, but documented the negligence of the Griffin’s Auto Repair shop and taught me what “right” looked like.

The first thing we found was that many bolts were too small, and were merely put into the holes to make it look like there was a bolt in it. They came right out by pulling them.

Of course, some bolts were just missing completely and one was broken off inside the assembly.

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The above picture shows broken off/missing stud. One of four that holds the front wheel on the car.

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The above picture shows the part Griffin’s replaced. He charged me $1400, which is roughly twice the retail price of a premium part; what it is is a cheap, Chinese knockoff that I could buy on ebay for $200. This is also supposed to be full of grease. The only grease in it is the small, toothpaste sized dab you see near the hole in the hub. He charged me $32 for that dab of grease, which is apparently accidently placed there, since it doesn’t actually affect the joint. The bronze looking bit was supposed to be driven into the spindle. You’ll notice it’s just sitting there, since it was too small for the spindle.

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This piece is supposed to be perfectly smooth. It’s not smooth because the “mechanic” at Griffin’s put it in a metal vice and destroyed it while working on it. The marks are 1/8″ deep and it destroyed the seal behind it while I drove it.

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Here’s the “new” bronze bushing, all torn up from being run dry and not being installed correctly. We ended up epoxying into the spindle just to get it going.

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My next step was to dispute the charge on my credit card. After that, I shared a depressive Chianti and pizza with Janiece and then sat in the hot tub until it was all better.

Monday I’ll have Kevin and John check it out again, and order more parts so hopefully I can get heading back to Iowa by mid-week. I’d ask you to wish me luck, but after these guys help me out I doubt I’ll need luck. I’ll have a competent Land Cruiser, maintained correctly, instead.

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The Road to San Diego… And Bust

San Diego

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After a week of working in Phoenix and shaking down the Land Cruiser for reliability, we were ready to head to San Diego. Just like in Afghanistan, I was wheel man and my work partner was on line. When we were in Kabul or other major city, we’d use commercial “dongles” which would pick up the 3G that was somewhat available there. Outside of cities, I had a portable satellite dish that looked like a small brief case, but opened up to provide pretty solid connectivity.

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Our first stop was some unnamed garden spot, which frankly, kind of spooked both of us. Some homeless guy was walking across the Arizona desert and arrived about the time I was walking back to the truck. There was a half consumed bottle of orange soda sitting on the ground in front of the run down gas station, which he took a hit on before heading into the gas station. The smell of him was a physical thing as I passed him. I recorded Janiece’s reaction to his appearance.

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Our next stop was for fuel. A word about Toyota Land Cruisers; They are not designed for fuel economy. We got the advertised 14 mpg or possibly better on the trip, but it is what it is. At the fuel stop, we saw one of the many Mexican restaurants you see in the Southwest, and it was amazing.

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I used to manage restaurants. I was completely impressed by the fresh ingredients and the excellent preparation of our meal. The only prior prepared item in our meals was the refried beans. And we shared a date shake which knocked both of our socks off.

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The trip from Phoenix to San Diego covers about every type of landscape possible. From scrub to desert, to verdant fields of fresh fruit and vegetables.

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I was really worried about crossing the Mojave, but it was cold and rainy the whole way.

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The pass immediately before entering the San Diego Valley is not of anything earthly. It’s reminiscent of pictures sent back from Mars, frankly.

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After the required 5 hours or so, we finally arrived in San Diego. The hotel is in the “Little Italy” portion of downtown, just off the waterfront. Funny thing; just diagonal from the hotel was a tall office building surrounding a house that looked uncannily like the little house from the movie “Up!”.

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Once we’d finished some work, we headed out to Coronado Beach for some sun, and unfortunately, a small disaster. Just as we drove over the towering Coronado bridge, all hell broke loose from our front end. We parked the car and called a mechanic. Turns out we’d broken something called a “Birfeld Joint”. That’s the thing that makes a Land Cruiser a Land Cruiser and not some other lesser form of Trek vehicle. Basically it’s a ball with gears inside it in the front axle which allows the front wheels to both steer and have power.

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It’s good that we found the problem near the hotel, but bad in that getting a competent mechanic in a large city tends to be an expensive affair. We are now stuck here for an additional day, but there is lots of work to do, and San Diego is a pleasant place to do it.

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My Daughter’s Online Portfolio

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For those that have read this blog, you’ll know that I spend a lot of time away from home, usually in places that are not garden spots by any means. People in my line of work tend to stay or become single and very few of them have kids. There is a good reason for that.

I admit freely that the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan came at a horrible time for my family. My daughters were both in their teen years, and while part of our time we spent together, as a family, living in Europe, most of it I spent away from them, so that my lovely bride was burdened with not only living without me, but she was effectively raising them by herself.

Let me tell you, that woman who puts up with me on a full time basis does great work raising daughters. We have two strong, creative and interesting people just now heading out into the world to make their own way.

Which brings me to the reason for this post. My eldest daughter, who graduated with a B.A. in Graphic Design from Iowa State University in May 2014, spent the last six months traveling with Up With People, around the world. She visited some pretty cool places, including Cuba, before the President announced regularization of relations there.

Now that she is back, she has found a starter job, but is looking to fulfill her dream of being an experimental graphic designer as she works. So without further ado, I introduce her online portfolio:

http://kelanices.wix.com/portfolio?fb_ref=Default

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The Problem With Bucket Lists

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Based on our last, aborted attempt to find the Apache Trail, we did research and found that it wasn’t OFF the road we were driving up and down to find it, it WAS the road we were driving up and down to find it. All we really needed to do was to stay on highway 88 off Interstate 60, and it turns into a fascinating little easy off-road trail. AZOffRoading rates it as an “easy” trail.

On the way out to Apache Junction, Janiece and I started one of those meandering conversations about philosophy that tend to produce some of our better ideas. Since I’ve taken most of my friends on trips in “The Magic Carpet” my Land Cruiser in Afghanistan, I confided in her that I was finally fulfilling the goal of doing some off roading with her in a Land Cruiser. This led to a conversation about how we both don’t agree with the concept of “bucket lists”.

While bucket lists are popular, we listed reasons for and against them.

For:

1. Provides concrete goals
2. A form of harmless fantasy

Against:
1. Limits you
2. Changes your path
3. Limited by your personal context

Instead of a limited, deductive form of living life and achieving goals, we seek to use an inductive form of life. Our goals change throughout our lives, and we’ve both discovered that the best experiences we’ve ever had happened either by chance, or disguised as personal obstacles or tragedy.

The conversation ended just in time to take the exit to Arizona Highway 88 and to set out on this small adventure.

We saw quite a parade of cars driving out to the various recreation areas along the paved portion of the trail. Some of them were horribly ridiculous for the rough nature of even the pavement. A Ferrari 360 Mondial, a Porsche 959 and several new Corvettes were among the parade along the road.

While we were still on the pavement portion of the trail, I decided to try out Marjan off road. We found a hill with an established track, so we took the chance and headed up the hill. We made it to the top, where there was a convenient posing rock, and we took full advantage of it to get super cheesy.

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We climbed past several beautiful mountain lakes, up some fantastic valley views, when we broke out on top of a ridge, where the blacktop finally ended. At the first set of wash boards, we saw a hipster with a Smart car looking like he figured out Smart cars are not meant to navigate dirt.

At the first switchback, the two lane gravel track quickly transitions to one late dirt. At the second switchback, the trail drops away several hundred feet just inches on the off-side of the trail. At this moment, Janiece tells me she is not entirely comfortable with heights. (UNDERSTATEMENT ALERT!!!!!)

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Well.

Unfortunately, it’s a single lane, with two way traffic, and no possible turnaround points for miles.

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But Janiece is nothing if not tough, so she not only guts it out, but continues to take pictures of the gorgeous scenery.

We finally get to the bottom of the valley, where there is a place wide enough to turn around, and then we do so, but only after taking in the incredible vistas of this place.

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The trip back is relatively uneventful; on the way up, we noticed a likely interesting off-trail path. Once we got back to it, we briefly debated taking it, and I decided to go for it. The first bit was a short stone staircase, and once I got down halfway I realized that a bit of ham was necessary.

stone staircase

Unfortunately, our time ran out before we could really go anywhere on this part off the trail, so we found a wide flat spot, got turned around and headed back. I was elated at how well things went. This is why Land Cruisers are special. We took a completely stock, 20 year old vehicle off road into some moderately challenging situations and came out of it with zero damage or modifications. The drive train just continued to purr effortlessly.

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