Air Spring Day
After an overnight stay at Escapees North Ranch in Congress, Arizona (a judicious stop to shower, do laundry, take on water and get rid of trash for $7.50), I made my way to Nichols AutoFab in Prescott to have some air springs installed on the rear suspension of the Mighty Furd. Recommended by my Four Wheel Camper dealer Adventure Trailer, AutoFab has a shop and a couple of bays packed into what is the most claustrophobic hole in the wall mixed-use shop mall I’ve ever seen. The limited parking lot for the group was claustrophobic for the Mighty Furd, anyway.
Prescott is an interesting town nestled within the Prescott National Forest at an elevation of 5,600′, measured at whatever point they consider this burg’s nexus to be. The general landscape for the town is challenging, requiring either that the roads follow valleys or paths along forested hillsides, or that massive walls be built beside the newer multi-lane roads to keep back the earth and rock that they short-cut through. With a population of just 40,000 people, the terrain turns the city into a genuine sprawler, each home and business finding a niche where it can exist. The old downtown is an inviting (and popular) place to wander through, which I did not have the opportunity to do because of my service appointment and the lack of any street parking suitable for the Intrepid. The town gives off an interesting vibe, and a significant number of the people who chose to live here seem to be oriented toward the outdoors and outdoor activities.
Nichols AutoFab is who Adventure Trailer uses to do what it can’t or doesn’t have the time for. They seem to me to be a competitor for off-roading equipment and installations, but AutoFab goes much deeper into it. They do differentials and other drivetrain and more radical suspension work, plus fabrication work as extensive as needed. The owner – a hands-on guy with one other mechanic – had scheduled me in on the day before he was planning to close the shop and have a 3-day vacation requiring two days of travel time. And due to delayed or incorrect shipments on other work in progress, I think he was sensing the harbinger of doom on his escape plans. But in yeoman style, he and his cohort broke out the Firestone air spring kit and started in. It was a comfort to me that they consistently pored over the installation instructions, since brackets, specific washers and fasteners make these more of a challenge than you’d assume. Running on ego on the install is likely to result in significant problems. It’s not a bad installation – this kit is even the no-drill version – but you only want to do this once.
The kit as supplied mounts a couple of rubber bladders that push the axle tubes away from the chassis above. The bracketry is such that each end of the bladder is fastened firmly to its mount. This can overextend and ruin the air spring when the vehicle is lifted by its frame, or rough terrain causes one wheel to drop fully. The suspension generally has more travel available than the air spring can accommodate. Given the cost of the kit and installation – something I don’t care to repeat – AutoFab offered a special lower mount which isn’t a mount at all – it’s a shallow cup that the untethered lower end of the air bag can nestle into under load.
The end of the bag is always in there pushing – until the suspension is fully extended, in which case the bag stays with the frame above. When things get better, back into the dish it goes. Clever. This is one of those items you hope never comes into play, but if it does even once, you just saved a kaboodle of money. There’s one spot crossing a dry wash in Chino Valley just north of here that I went through last year, and by the looks of it, it managed to get nearly full range out of the rear axle. There’s an air valve line to monitor pressure in each bag, and AutoFab mounted those on either side of the license plate cutout/ bumper step, where I’m not too likely to step on them.
At any rate, the Mighty Furd is now level again, the aim of the headlights is correct, there’s significantly more ground clearance under the cargo box, and a slight vagueness in the steering is gone. Predictably, the effective raise in rear spring rates magnifies most types of bumps slightly. Not so predictably, it smooths others. I haven’t yet figured out the pattern.
Once I got out of the shop, I headed south to find a camping spot in what’s called the Marapai area. This is within the Prescott Valley Basin, which limits camping in such areas to 7 days, and camping is limited to designated campsites only. This being a Wednesday, I figured that some of its sites would be open. Wrong. They were all occupied but one, and that one was tilted enough to make a week’s stay a nuisance. The deal breaker for that one was that there was a very nice young couple camping directly across from it in another numbered site. They had a very large dog which did not bark as I idled past on the way in. Yay! However, it did start forward and the man beside it immediately grabbed its collar and pulled back. I saw no leash or rope. Fabulous. That would be a fun week of exploring on foot or by bike. Yes, there is signage that the county leash laws are enforced, but locals indicate the level of enforcement.
So confident was I of finding a workable spot here that I’d arranged no Plan B alternate. It being the end of the day, I cracked out my iPad with it’s interactive maps of Prescott National Forest, and continued on south through a very early settlement nestled in the climbing woods called Ponderosa Park. No sprawling homes here! Its twenty shacks to a sardine can, given the rugged terrain, and they’re proud to be where they are. It’s like vacation cottages out away from it all, and yet they’re maybe 3 miles from Prescott. At the south end, a graded dirt road is carved into the sides of low mountains, with no guard rails along the edges of the dirt drop-offs. The Intrepid’s total weight kept going through my mind on this stretch, mainly since the beautiful scenery made it very easy to get too close for comfort to the unsupported edge. Very pretty, mind you, but I was hoping another vehicle would not come from the opposite direction.
My MVUM map indicated that FS97b allowed conventional dispersed camping. Someone was camping at a pull-off at the start of it, so I eased on down a narrow and somewhat steep, rocky descent. There was a water crossing at the bottom of it, so I got out to check depth and the surface at the bottom. Very shallow, pebbles over what may well have been concrete. Still, I flicked the Ford into 4WD just in case it was just silty mud, and the system didn’t respond. Hmm. Indicator lights are supposed to confirm whatever you set the dash knob to, because it’s a vacuum-operated system. Options? This was a very narrow area, and I doubt I’d have the traction to back up the steep hill in rear-wheel drive. In for a penny, in for a pound. I stepped back out and rotated a knob on each front hub to manually lock it. Both were reluctant to turn. Back inside, I set the knob back into 4WD, and eased the Mighty Furd through its first adventurous water crossing. Two things made it odd. First, after I rolled a few feet, the indicator lights suddenly popped back to life. If it wants to hunt for splines first, this is the first time it’s let on. Second, judging by the wet tires, the water hadn’t been much over an inch deep. High Adventure!! I set the front hubs back to automatic, and the knobs were freer this time. Lights normal. The system hasn’t been used in quite a while, I guess.
97b is quite a trail. Picture a rough, narrow trail winding up, down and around steep, thickly wooded hills. Water either crosses or runs down the trail at several points, so this is no place to go during monsoon season. It’s also no place to go without high clearance and 4WD, just to be safe. A few of the loose-rock climbs up from low spots threatened to lose traction in 2WD, and that’s with a heavy load over my rear tires. As is common with most MVUM trails marked as being open to dispersed camping, places to pull off and camp – workable or not – are far and few between. I idled in way too far for my taste, which is still only a small fraction of 97b’s total length, before I came across a narrow spur to the right. It’s a bit tight for something as large as the Intrepid, but I made it work. This stubby offshoot bends and actually climbs up past me to what’s left of a small concrete slab where a shack once was. I know that not because of my spidey senses, but because a few decayed remnants of the structure still lay where they had been blown off to the side, in the trees.
If you like isolated campsites where few go, this is the place. Going in blind so late in the day, it felt like quite the adventure, since although it’s not a nasty trail, it does plunge and twist a lot as it occasionally presents its obstacles to negotiate. And there isn’t the width for two vehicles to pass. The fear is that at some point, it will turn into a Jeep trail, as the Marapai camp road does. It’s a fun drive, but I’m much further down the rough trail than I’m comfortable with. There’s some vague line between very secluded and stupidly remote that traveling solo begs an answer to. It’s very secluded when you are able to stay the week and then return back to the starting point in order to continue on with your travels. It’s stupidly remote when the starter decides it has closed the curtain on its service life, and there you are. The cellphone says “no service”, and the Jetpack cellular data gizmo shows one bar out of five. How I’m getting data and am able to post this is a mystery to me, except that unless I prop the Jetpack on top of a tall drinking glass and a measuring cup to get it almost even with the camper’s flexible walls, there is no Internet at all, period.
I’d planned a week here, but the jury is still out on whether I’ll stick it out. Overall, the thick forest is such a nice change of pace from the usual scrub desert that I’d prefer to stay put. Thanks to meds, I’m finding out what people with low blood pressure have to live with, which, with this up-and-down terrain at this moderate elevation, gives constant tiredness a new basement. However, I’m here, it’s a nice spot with just enough sun to percolate the solar, and the propane furnace works great at enforcing a minimum temperature at night. It’s just 70 or so during the day, which is just a touch over my fav outdoor temperature to be active in.
Geez Doug – this is more adventure than I’d be comfortable with. Bully for you making it! View is worth it tho.
Well, this is why I have reservations about improvising with a sizable, solo rig. Late in the day, mystery trail, very few places along the way that allow a turn around, no immediate references handy for other areas to try. I won the gamble with a decent campsite, though the return trip remains. What is a day’s fun in a group can pose unacceptable risks running solo, especially for a physically compromised driver in an older vehicle that’s not well-suited for more challenging obstacles. I’m not comfortable with the distance in, but given the mix of circumstances, I may as well take advantage of what I was looking for. And learn: When doing this type of thing, always have a Plan B.
“There’s some vague line between very secluded and stupidly remote that traveling solo begs an answer to…”
Very well said, Doug. This is the absolute crux of the matter for me, for sure. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wrestled with this….frankly, lacking unlimited funds for lengthy off-road tows, I’ve insisted to myself that I MUST change my ways. I’ve vowed, repeatedly, to limit the search for a good site to a reasonable distance from pavement.
But what’s reasonable? It varies every time. So, were you riding with me, you might hear me say aloud–the better to convince myself?–“Dawn, stop, turn around, stop, stop, STOP!!” The lure of what may be around the next bend is horribly hard to resist. I’m like the bear who went over the mountain, I guess, because I seem to be driven to see what I can see.
I’m working on it, though.
I hear ya, sister. We should set up a recovery group that meets once a week, and share phone numbers so we can call when we’re on trails looking for campsites…and are losing control. “Boy, I can’t decide if this trail is more fun or unsettling, but it would be a shame to turn around here if a great campsite was just a short distance more. Maybe just a little further. After all, I’ve already put 45 minutes into this. That looks pretty interesting, up there. Might be another place big enough to turn around closer by…”
Thanks to you, I’m just starting to realize that I apparently have this addictive problem that throws a wrench into “risk management”. 🙂
Airbags are a great idea. I’ve seen other Jeep JKUs install them when carrying heavy loads rather than pick a spring that would compromise off-road capability in favor of carrying capacity.
As for the vacuum system for the hub engagement, in general all four-wheel drive systems work better when moving along at 3mph or faster. I don’t know about the Mighty Furd, but you can probably engage 4-Hi up to 50 or 60MPH. Low range is trickier, you want to be moving at between 1-3mph when you make the shift.
My JK’s system is an old hand operated affair that is a little tricky to time, but you’ll know for sure what more you are in.
Hope the air springs serve you well.
Welcome, Tobias! Thanks for the reminder to go back and read the Furd’s manual. You’re right about 4WD-High. In my case for 4WD-Low they want it stationary and in Neutral, foot on the brake. If it doesn’t go in, let it roll a bit and repeat. In real life, it will probably shift while barely rolling, as long as the brake pedal is depressed, which is what I assume happened in my case – though I was back in drive at the moment. Might have to do with the front hubs already being manually engaged. Automatic hubs are a convenience item for poor traction conditions, but are a bad idea for fording deep water since they will try to suck water into the hubs. As far as I’m aware, there’s no workaround that still retains the functionality of the original system. So be pleased that your Jeep has manual hubs, should you develop an overly-adventurous or foolhardy spirit over time.
As for airbags, I should be using replacement springs since the load won’t change. But, I prefer them to other solutions for cost effectiveness, plus I favor my persistent delusion that some day, I may be able to be out for the 7-8 months without needing a cargo box. Sure. Like that will ever happen…
Actually Jeep Wranglers don’t have locking hubs at all. The front drove shaft disconnects at the transfer case. It makes for a simpler axle and removes a failure point. Apparently installing manual locking hubs can save you ~ 1 mpg.
Wow! I’m surprised that they sell them that way, but it does lower the price a lot. And since diffs and joints last a lot longer than they used to, it’s not a rebuild expense that the first owner is likely to see. Considering that hubs that can be disengaged are more breakage-prone anyway, you’re right – perhaps times have changed and old-school ain’t always so great after all!
We used to go through Prescott once or twice a year on the way to California. The two routes from there to Yarnell vary by traffic and when there’s snow on the highway. We like the back route through Skull Valley for either condition. For an extra adventure get off I-17 to the southeast of Prescott and head for Prescott by way of Cleator and Bumblebee. It used to be a four- wheel drive road with some narrow spots. The most surprising thing are the old houses back in there, the huge trees, and the somewhat spooky residents protecting their mining operations. The road comes out on the south side of Prescott. Another route out of Skull Valley takes you via a hideously rough road to an old mine facility with a flood of cold, clear water pouring out of a pipe we could stand under on a hotter-than-heck day. Lots of great memories between Prescott and Congress. By the way, the land at the foot of Yarnell Grsde is public land. We’ve camped there many times. Did you see the painted frog rock?
Looks like I need a guided tour! I’ve been on the Skull Valley route with my TT, and have heard of the 4WD road you mention, as I think it’s one of the recommended and rated trails in a book I have. As you have proven, wandering about can be very good! Thanks!