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.

coronado bridge

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


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:

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The Problem With Bucket Lists


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.


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

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.



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!!!!!)





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


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.



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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What’s In a Name?

As we consider undertaking the first leg of our Land Cruiser trip, which is to San Diego, I’m actually a bit apprehensive, since my lovely wife, Ellen, has not met our Land Cruiser, and therefore, we cannot officially name him. In our family, we are convinced that each and every vehicle has a name, and they cannot perform at their best until we discover that name.  We know, for a fact, that he is male, because every female whose ridden in him or seen him universally agree that he is.

Today, as we drove him around, exploring the Phoenix area (aka getting lost and then working to get un-lost, on purpose), I started to get back into “the zone” of trekking around Afghanistan in “Magic Carpet”, the 2008 Type 76 that kept me and my friends safe during my time there. The view over the hood, while negotiating traffic on roads, highways, and even a few mild trails, with its unique angular boxiness, is highly reminiscent of flying the “Magic Carpet”, and I was taken back to that place and time.

The majority of the times we went on our trips, we passed the Kabul Zoo. One of my favorite stories to come out of that country is that of Marjan, the heroic one-eyed lion, who killed a Taliban fighter who was torturing the zoo animals, and who was blinded and disfigured after being attacked with a hand grenade. Marjan survived after being left for dead, and survived for five years, only dying after the American invasion in 2012.


I don’t know if I’m trying to borrow fame, or toughness, but I’ve become increasingly fond of the name since learning the story back in 2009. I would love for this new vehicle to be a “Marjan”. It is a Land Cruiser, after all, and they are famous for their toughness and durability. And this ride most definitely has character. We have decided to call it “Marjan” until Ellen has a chance to meet him. At that time, we will decide.

We did a full day’s work today, but during short breaks, I started cleaning up the car. the ash tray was packed, and even jammed full of ancient cigarettes, which I dumped out and then thoroughly cleaned the ash tray. All the windows gave up what seemed like several pounds of soot and grease residue, to enable our view. Marjan’s interior is deluxe and leather, so both front seats have been ravaged by the Arizona sun, with the passenger seat being possibly savable but the driver’s seat being gone, so I bought a cheap Wal-Mart seat cover for the driver’s side, and started attempting to restore the passenger seat.


As I started scrubbing the dash, the “genuine simulated wood panel plastic” started to disintegrate, so I started just peeling it off, only to discover that the standard Toyota surface was right under it. So that stuff is most definitely gone next chance I get, if only to get it clean and to eliminate an eyesore.

The rest of the afternoon we proceeded to try to get lost on purpose, and to somehow find our way back to the apartment. The point of this is to discover things we wouldn’t have attempted find on purpose. It’s one of my favorite ways of becoming familiar with an area. We found an outlet mall with Prada, Gucci and Dolce & Gabana products. And then we found an Indian reservation, where we almost ran over the puppy of Janiece’s dreams when it darted out in front of us, but fortunately we stopped in time.

We also found a cute little farmers’ market, which had a few interesting products, as well as a a folk singer in a chamois shirt with a Mercedes ball cap. Irony was observed.


Finally, we turned home, and noticed that we had a moon roof. When we attempted to open the moon roof, we discovered that the speed shield was actually being held on by the moon roof being closed. For a moment, it was if our vehicle was disintegrating around us in the middle of suburban Phoenix rush hour. Janiece reached outside the car and held on to the shield to keep it from tearing off completely and losing it, damaging it or the moon roof, or having it fly into traffic and injuring someone.


Luckily, though, we were able to pull off the highway and remove the offending shield which was still partially attached, and threw it in the back of the car.

A funny thing has happened in the last couple of days: When we first picked up the vehicle, some small things did not work. None of the locks in the doors worked electrically, for instance, but required manual manipulation. As we’ve been driving the vehicle around, though, the locks started working again, one at a time, through continued use.

It’s interesting that I also started taking CrossFit classes this week and am noticing the same thing with my body. My lower body has been terribly injured on several occasions, but the instructor at Scorpion CrossFit has been working with me this week; in such a short time, I am now able to do a deep squat for the first time in my life. Seems like Marjan the Land Cruiser and I are going through similar issues, and at the same time.

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Finally Got The Land Cruiser!!!

I went to bed last night, excited at the prospect of picking my new to me Land Cruiser from the shop. Remember, I had never seen this car first hand prior to buying it, and it went to the shop prior to me seeing it as well. So, I expected to awake early, eager to go pick up the truck *sometime* that morning. Instead, I was awakened at 3 am by “Killer” the dog who I am sharing an apartment with while I’m here, who seems to forget that I am here, so feels compelled to growl and bark at me loudly at night, as if I were an intruder. I finally got back to sleep, and woke up early, sore from the day before CrossFit, and still excited enough about finally laying my paws on the Land Cruiser.


The place where I’m staying only has Wi Fi by the pool, so I got dressed, ran down with all my gear, and got ready to get some work done. I got online and set up my work area just like I wanted it and then felt a strong call of nature, which often happens first thing in the morning. So I leave my stuff near the pool, go out the security gate and head to the public facilities. Once everything was “taken care of”, I went back to the pool and scanned my card at the gate. Gate didn’t open. I then noticed that it was 6 am and that the sign clearly said that the pool opened at 8. Poop. Lucky for me, I am adventurous and fairly athletic, so I quickly made short work of the 8 foot fence around the pool, and got back to my spot, where I furtively started work. After working for four hours, my work’s website crashed an burned, losing all my work for the last three days.

I was rescued by a call from Interstate Auto, the shop I had entrusted with my new ride. Mary, the woman who works at the front desk was happy to inform me that my new ride was ready. I was delirious with joy and anticipation, so Janiece put me in the car and drove me to the dealership, where we paid for the work which they managed to accomplish at much less than the first estimate.

A word here about Interstate Auto in Chandler Arizona. I picked them because they had a 5 star Yelp rating, and during an initial conversation with them, I discovered that the Land Cruiser I was stalking was routinely being maintained there. The mechanic, Keith, was very open in his opinion of the car, so I chose to hire him to replace the duff transfer case and look it over.

Upon picking the car up, we had the usual nervousness of driving an old new car. Of course, within a quarter mile, the check engine light came on. Everything was running copacetic, so I didn’t think much of it, but after buying my usual survival pack, which consisted of a gallon of water, oil, antifreeze, farm jack, 8,000 lb come-along, tow strap, metric wrench and socket set, 12 volt air compressor, and flashlight, I drove back to the mechanic, who used his OBD II to find that the O2 sensor heater was toast. He cleared the fault, but sent me on the way. I’ll be fixing that sooner or later, but it’s not that important right now.

I also bought a spare tire. Seems as if someone had misplaced the old one. And I don’t think there is much harder to find than a spare tire for a 1996 Land Cruiser.

So, filled with euphoria and barbecue from Rudy’s on W. Chandler Boulevard, we decided to do some ad hoc 4 wheeling around Apache Junction, where I’ve heard there is a plethora of off road trails. Once we drove out there, we quickly discovered that finding a good off road trail is not as easy as it seems. After spending most of our time finding dead end after restricted roadway, we finally gave up and found some off road looking place to pose fake pictures that looked like we got off road. The good news is that we managed to get on gravel and were able to try out the new transfer case, which worked great.


The only place we could go off road; everything worked brilliantly.


Only cool people go “off-roading” in dance shoes.


We rushed back to Chandler, just in time for a workout, a delicious meal, some jacuzzi and more work. We need to go out Saturday with good directions, and to do some semi-serious 4 wheeling.

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Pleased to meetcha, Phoenix!

On Friday, my trip started out way too early and my lovely bride took me to the airport at 3:45 am. We originally planned on stopping at Dunkin’ Donuts on our way, just as they opened for some fresh, hot donuts, but unfortunately, I dithered at home, which made us a few minutes late. So we went straight to the airport where Ellen dropped me off. Breakfast at the airport consisted of heart healthy English muffin with turkey sausage, egg white as a sandwich. Flavor free as well as heart healthy. I guess.

I changed planes in the Denver airport, which is always a cool waypoint. For those that aren’t familiar, Denver airport has a very interesting aircraft museum in the terminals. My favorite airplane hangs in terminal B, an Alexander Eaglerock. This aircraft played a cameo role in the Ernest K. Gann book, “The Aviator” as one of the search aircraft that overflew he stranded aviator and his passenger because it had poor visibility due to the odd shaped lower wing. To me, this aircraft typifies the biplane era, and I always thought it had a cool look.

On the Denver to Phoenix leg of the flight, I was engaged in conversation by several of my fellow travelers. Turns out many of my fellow seat mates were on a trip, from Iowa, to purchase or pick up a car. I had the sudden realization that I have become a stereotype. And that stereotype is of the “Iowan who comes to Arizona to get a rust free car.” But since Land Cruisers are so cool (along with bow ties and fezzes) I decided I was superior to my fellow Iowans in desperate search of low mileage cream puffs.

I was picked up at the airport by my friend and colleague, Janiece Marquez, who is the owner of Stable Outcomes, a company that devotes itself to waging peace in conflict areas through providing sustainable infrastructure, political and military solutions. I met Janiece in Afghanistan in 2011, when she was attached to a Special Forces team in Eastern Afghanistan. She’s a small woman, but one of the most impressive individuals I’ve ever met. Besides owning Stable Outcomes, she has been a professional-level Salsa dancer and speaks fluent Pashto and Spanish. She’s also incredibly fit, and one of the first things she did was to take me to a CrossFit gym, where she proceeded to destroy me, physically.

We also dropped by some relatives who have the good fortune to live in Phoenix. They have a really cool house in a good neighborhood, and I really enjoyed seeing them again, and getting to see their house for the first time.

After that, we drove to the shop where the Land Cruiser was dropped off, hoping it would be ready, but got there after they closed. Since we were there, I looked the car over, and it’s pretty much in the condition I’d hoped. Rust free, with just enough “ugly” to justify the low price. The transfer case was missing, which means the mechanic didn’t have time to get to it, so I’ll need to wait for Monday to find out what’s going on with it. That means more time to enjoy the pleasures of Phoenix. Unfortunately, the spare tire was missing as well, which means I need to find a junkyard and get another one, before we do any serious driving.

As expected, the underside of the car was solid and rust free. I really need to clean it up and shoot some paint on it before driving it up to Iowa to swim in salt and other rust inducing lovely things.

I’d planned on removing the running boards as well as the plastic body accents, which is a good thing, since they are both a bit ugly and falling off. I have no clue what Toyota was thinking when they put them on. A series 80 Land Cruiser is a work vehicle, and no amount of dressing it up changes that fact.

It has one ding and scrape on the passenger side, which will seem some body work and filler prior to painting it blue.

The interior was a bit worse than I initially thought; I will need to reupholster the two front seats and the interior carpet will need steam cleaning before I can decide whether to reuse it.

After checking out the car, we did some work. The cool thing about my work, is that I can do it anywhere. So since the internet worked best by the pool, we carpe’d that diem. The weather was amazing, frankly.

We eventually gave up on work, then hit the hot tub and watched the Iowa State Men’s Basketball team beat Kansas. I’m a life long Iowa State fan, and in my younger days used to help coordinate the pre-game ceremonies for both basketball and football games. We then ended the day with an amazing steak barbecue. While I was slightly disappointed in not being able to have the Land Cruiser for this weekend, (the Phoenix area has some truly amazing 4×4 trails) it was really cool to meet up with relatives and to spend the remainder of the time working and and just hanging out with Janiece. Hopefully when the mechanic’s shop opens tomorrow morning, they’ll have some good news.

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