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Thread: COOPER DISCOVERER: Middle-earth by Montero...with Four Kids

  1. #1
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    Smile COOPER DISCOVERER: Middle-earth by Montero...with Four Kids

    Middle-earth by Montero...with Four Kids
    The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia
    April 26-30, 2016

    Are they too young? Are they too many? Kids are a difficult variable in the "adventuring by vehicle" equation. Typically you throw two adults in a four-wheel drive with a paper map and a free weekend and you've got a sure recipe for a good time. Toss a kid or two in there and your math skills better be, well, let's just say above average. More planning, less freedom, whining proportional to age, and bathroom breaks squared...not to mention the financials of the whole thing, the real world numbers that we all use real math to deal with. It's an inverse relationship: more kids means less money, and nobody's pretending that our shared hobby of exploring the world by internal combustion is cheap. So what does this equation look like when you're married with four kids? And what does it look like when those four kids are all five and under? Are they too young? Are they too many? I haven't done any advanced mathematics since high school, and that was more years ago than I have fingers to count on. Are we seriously considering this? Well...


    It's a bug, like the flu I guess. Growing up outside meant I'd had my fair share of run-ins with camping, hiking, Scouts, hunting and fishing, etc. It was in my blood already, probably from birth. Things got a little more complicated after leaving home for college, since an '84 AMC XJ left with me. Four-wheel drive's disease had a slow onset, flaring up whenever something would break or become annoying. The only cure we know is to upgrade, though that only aggravates the condition. Slowly this new affliction began mingling with the latent love for nature, and long before I'd heard the term "Overland" I was already infected. But when this superbug finally began to manifest its familiar symptoms I was already happily married, happily fathering four sons. How do you fit intense vehicular wanderlust and a family of six into a Jeep that's in a thousand pieces...on a rice-and-beans budget? Our math problem is also kind of a health problem, and maybe a bit of a mental problem. But uncommon problems require less traveled solutions. And for my wife and me those solutions would be found in Middle-earth by way of a Mitsubishi.

    It Began with the Forging of the Rings


    Tolkien is a familiar voice around our home. In addition to at least one mega-Middle-earth movie marathon around Christmas, there's always some allusion or hint of these stories around the house. I have always appreciated Tolkien's approach to story-telling, seeing mythical fairy stories as a means of more seriously appreciating the real world, that real story we're all a part of. Rather than stealing one's attention away, good stories should be a catalyst for a heightened appreciation of the realness of things. Colors more vivid, smells richer, moments deeper. This is why I've purposefully chosen to bring Tolkien's mythology into my home, that I might help my children see, hear, taste, and feel the world they are a part of in indelible ways. Many would say the same things of travel and of adventure.

    It became easy to see the balancing effect Tolkien's stories could then have on my "adventuring by vehicle" equation, if only I could find something to elicit the kids' interest and assuage the wife's worries. I found my bridge in the forging of seven rings while at work (note that the picture only has six, haha...math be hard). With all seven rings in hand I set off to plant the seeds of adventure in my boys, done in the re-watching of the Fellowship of the Ring's introduction. They heard for the hundreth time Lady Galadriel say:

    Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
    Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
    Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
    One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne

    Movie paused I asked the boys, "Whatever happened to the seven dwarf rings?" An honest "I dunno" is about all I would expect out of these preschoolers, but when I came home the following day with a cryptic map I claimed to have found hidden in the library, I knew I had their interest. All of it. My wife was even a little curious, though she had an idea of what I was up to due to the adult conversations we had been having about this whole crazy thing. Smiling, she grabbed the camera and helped get the kids out the door. We were about to go on an adventure, and though it would start a mere stone's throw from our home, it would quickly expand to misty mountains, distant shores, magical waterfalls, and fearsome frontiers. But first we had to find the rings.


    In what was the closest thing to an Elven forest I could find on the way home from work, assuming the elves in question were low-life drunken litterbugs due to the beer bottles strewn everywhere, I hid a small treasure cache. Map in hand I went home, rounded up the excited brood, and returned to what was in fact an old Civil War battlefield. After a short hike, a little amateur cartography, and a big "it's over there" hint from daddy my boys stumbled onto the biggest haul they'd ever come across under a tree...if you don't count Christmas. Again, I have four boys, and they have all self-identified as one of the Ninja Turtles very naturally, so they immediately knew which chest was meant for them. Inside they found all the gadgets and gizmos they'd need for the trip ahead: compasses, flashlights, Jr. Ranger badges they'd earned last year, ponchos (for armor, as will become important later), and other random stuff I'd dug out of my "outdoors chest" in the attic.


    The little guy, our one-year old, needed a little help opening his. That's why I intentionally hid the seven dwarven rings inside his Mikey chest. It allowed the excitement to build up, kinda like the moment you whip out that last big present on Christmas morning to a room full of wide-eyed "Oh my gosh! There's more!?" expressions. When the boys laid eyes on those re-purposed and spray-painted chain links, letting out an overjoyed "IT'S THE RINGS!", I'm sure every drunken elf in a half-mile's radius was roused from his stupor. As far as my young hobbit boys were concerned, they had just come into possession of all the necessary ingredients for an adventure...well, except that they didn't know what to do with these accursed golden things.

    That's where the maps came in. Along with each chest came a piece of a large map illustrating our intended route, and highlighting a number of important landmarks along the way. In the most Tolkien-like way I could, I explained that this quest intended us to destroy these seven rings, six by being cast into the torrents of magical waterfalls, and the seventh by being taken to the summit of Sharp Top Mountain. With my wife's gracious support I had planned out a five-day, 500-mile adventure by vehicle trip through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. She had taken care of all the food planning, clothes packing, and general keep-the-kids-alive type stuff, while I busied myself with maps, trip reports, decades-old camping gear, and one other all-important piece of equipment...our new to us '03 Mitsubishi Montero.

    Blue Ridge Mountains or Bust (...Please Don't Bust, Mr. Montero)

    I told myself once that I'd never let myself become a "previous owner." I've always seen owning a car as a commitment, something kinda like marriage that's only supposed to be broken by death. My first car was literally a part of my family. That '84 Cherokee I rode off to college in had been in my family for three generations, bought brand new by my grandmother mere months after I was born. She passed it on to my father, where it would become our adventure-mobile as I grew up. When he passed it on to me it felt natural, meant-to-be. I loved that silver piece of crap for all the right reasons, it was a conduit of shared memories. Family memories. It was a part of our story. When it finally died a few years after I got married it was a no-brainer what we'd replace it with. It was among the first XJs to roll of the assembly line, and the silver 2001 I bought was one of the last. But this new Jeep had something my '84 AMC did not, an unknown previous owner.

    I never considered my dad or grandmother previous owners. They were family, and though there was a change of name on the title, there was never a gap in Rimmer ownership. So what do I consider a "previous owner". Well, let's just say that they're affectionately known on internet forums the world over by the acronym "PO", and I'm sure if an "s" got tacked on there by mistake there would be no squiggly red line underneath. From my experience they're the people who forget to mention the bank lien on the title, or the check engine light that they cleared before your test drive, or the minor accident hidden from CarFax that irreparably damaged the steering knuckle, or the fact that they forgot to change the oil...every single service interval, or installed bling electronics but couldn't afford a roll of electrical tape...(I could go on ad infinitum). I'm sure they're not all like this, but I've dealt with three in my lifetime, and without exception they've been bad experiences.

    I bring this up for two reasons. First, we've got more kids than a Jeep Cherokee can (legally) transport. In addition, it has been undergoing a several seasons long Tim the Toolman Taylor style garage restoration, currently sitting on two wheels with a seized engine. It's out of the current consideration. Second, remember the inverse relationship in the equation...more kids, less money. The "less money" means that I'll never escape the reaches of the PO when it comes to the vehicle portion of the problem. The previous owner is an unwanted, but necessary evil in my "adventuring by vehicle" formula. It also means that the used vehicle I want probably won't be the vehicle I get. There's gonna have to be some compromises made. Basically put, I need something that seats six, goes reliably off-road, and isn't subject to the Toyota Tax. So, after months of researching and searching I decided to take a chance and rescue a black and tan Mitsubishi Montero from an unintentionally abusive previous owner.

    My wife was not immediately taken in with the Japanese ogre, probably for good reason, ahem, reasons: It leaked every fluid, everywhere. Transfer case stuck in AWD. Tires sounded like they were rolling howler monkey cages. Interior, just gross. Electrical gremlins, aplenty. Like I said, it was abused. I tried to pull the Jesus angle on her saying that kinda like how Jesus adopted us when we were all messed up and broken I could likewise adopt this thing in its unsaintly state. Jesus is fixing us, we'll fix the Montero. "But you're not mechanical Jesus," came the apt reply. I love my wife. She patiently and supportively let me roll in the pig pen of a decision I had made, me doing what I could to make the best of a not so great starting position. Brakes, tires, fluids, transfer case repair, a few modest but necessary upgrades, and a plethora of annoyances later I assured her that we were ready to go.


    The morning following our battlefield treasure hunt was our scheduled departure time. Overnight rain meant loading the roof rack had to wait until morning, and then morning rain meant it had to happen regardless. The weather forecast had made a sudden and ominous turn in the days before our scheduled setting off. Heavy thunderstorms were predicted in the areas we'd be venturing. It's hard to describe what I was feeling that morning as I lugged our gear onto the roof of the ogre in the early drizzle. Apprehension, sure, I mean I was taking my four young boys five hundred miles into bad weather with an untested truck on dirt roads that would be outside the reach of even Verizon's over-hyped towers. It was easy, natural to think of all the what-if's and holy crap situations. It was obvious who would get the blame for this going bust, not just from my family but also anyone who might catch wind of our failed venture, our reckless...no MY reckless ambitions. "What were you thinking? Why'd you want to do that?" These seem like they'd be rational questions from rational people that I don't think would be impressed with me spouting off about wanderlust and blaming Tolkien.

    I ran into the house to grab a roll of painter's tape, the blue stuff, and a black marker. Finding a small strip of center console, right behind the coffee cups, I stretched a piece across it, scribbling two words for my wife and me to remind each other throughout this trip into the unknown. It's hard to imagine anything more wasteful than worry. Won't change the weather forecast. Won't make the Montero bulletproof. Surely won't get rid of these accursed rings. Worry was there, but worry is dumb. Beyond the apprehension I'd say there was also something like eagerness, an impatient longing to just go do something indifferent to the circumstances and hindrances. The more the Montero took on our burdens the more resolved I was to hit the road and find out what it had in store for us. I wanted to put things to the test, to find them out: the Montero, myself, our family's abilities and limits. That Amelia Earhart saying "Adventure is worthwhile in itself"...yeah, let's test that too. Bet she didn't say that in an airplane with four kids in the back!


    So with four kids loaded in, fridge filled to the brim, gear strapped down, and seven golden rings safely stored away we finally set off. We pounded the interstate, plowing through the rain all the way to Rockfish Gap and the entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway. I said to everyone, "Now the real adventure begins." We rolled to a stop. Left would go to the Skyline Parkway of Shenandoah, right down the BRP to our first camping stop. I hit the indicator, and as I look down to see the right arrow flashing I notice three other lights flashing too. Hmm? "What are these three warning lights for? Oh, wonderful. It's the Check Engine, ABS Warning, and Traction Control lights, nothing too important," says the sarcastic side of the keyboarder's brain. My eyes look right, meeting my wife's, who with a smile reads me the note on the blue tape, "Choose Joy." I love my wife. It's gonna be a great trip.


    More to come..."This tale grew in the telling, until it became a history of the Great War of the Ring and included many glimpses of the yet more ancient history that preceded it." - Tolkien, in the Preface to LOTR
    Last edited by haolepinoy; 07-27-2017 at 04:59 PM. Reason: Repairing broken picture links.

  2. #2
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  3. #3
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    I was hoping to finish up writing this story before our next trip, but it'll have to wait until we get back. See you next week.

  4. #4
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    Your wife sounds like mine. Can't wait to read the rest. Great to see another Christian family exploring creation.
    2007 Jeep JKU-35s, Racked, Locked TOY
    2005 Toyota Tundra-285s DC limited 4wd DAILY/towpig
    2013 Toyota highlander

  5. #5
    Yes, I'm looking forward to this as well. I'm a fellow Virginian with a few kids of my own, so I'm interested to see where you go!

  6. #6
    Fantastic writing!! Subscribed.

    Sent from my SM-G903W using Tapatalk

  7. #7
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    Great story! Looking forward to more!
    2006 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited (LJ) - Rock Crawler
    1994 Montero SR - Overland Rig

  8. #8
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    Default The 2nd Portion

    “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story.” - C.S. Lewis

    Fool of a Took!

    This little hobbit guy named Peregrin Took once said, “The closer we are to danger, the farther we are from harm.” Wise ol' Treebeard, who happened to be carrying the young hobbit, responded with a puzzled, “Hmm. That doesn't make sense to me. But then, you are very small.” I think that if I were to have had a similar conversation with my Montero at this point in our trip (in my head of course, cuz only Shia Labeouf actually talks to his car...and he's crazy) it might have gone down similarly. “What the, um...seriously?! You do see these warning lights, right?” But like Pippin I assumed it would be the last thing our adversaries would expect, so south we went, seven rings in hand.

    On the more adult side of things, thank God I didn't have the same conversation with Gandalf the Grey. As I turned the Montero right, commencing our south-bound journey, he probably would have gotten all shouty with me, saying something to the effect of “Fool of a Took! At least go to AutoZone and read the blasted MIL codes!” Alas, he was not there to suggest something so rational, and besides, by our first stop the warning lights had gone away on their own (fortunately never to return all trip). Magic, I guess.


    ARB Doesn't Sell Imagination

    There was something “magical” about the weather as well, though not the benevolent kind. As mentioned earlier we were passing through various stages of rain, from thunderstorms to heavy fog to light drizzle, all ever-changing. My well-laid plans, schedules, and agendas were already in jeopardy by the first stop at the Humpback Rocks. The prospect of lightning and slick rocks made our original plan to hike up these impressive cliffs a no-go. A shame too, since the boys were eager to see their trip's first dragon, the Humpback Rock Dragon. Terrible wyrm, that one. We could just catch a glimpse of the granite beast's jagged outline from the old Appalachian farm we'd stopped at. I'd have to come up with a different use for him that was more in keeping with the weather. If only there were a tool for that...I'm pretty sure ARB doesn't sell imagination, but every adventurer needs it (dare I say more than a 4wd).

    The imagination is one of God's greater gifts to men. I love to see it at work in my boys, even my youngest who's not even talking yet. Every evening when I get home as soon as I pull off my boots, he’s climbing into them. But his imagination has him climbing into a world that he isn't yet ready for, isn't yet able to understand. For a brief moment he's a man, a working man like his dad. I love that he sees it, and he wants it, and that the imagination opens up the door for him to experience it long before his little feet are ready to fill those boots. All my boys have it in spades, and they get it from me I guess. Tolkien called it the faculty of the “sub-creator”, whereby men make and shape worlds all their own. With proper use, and some careful guidance, it may even help them become men that find joy in making and shaping the real world someday.


    As it pertains to adventuring, imagination is indeed something every adventurer needs, and fortunately already has to some degree. It's that extra ingredient to quick-thinking that adds a smile to whatever solutions or detours you cook up. Almost anybody can solve a problem, but it takes some imagination to have fun doing it. And we needed some smiles at this point...or maybe something terrifying. Trolls are scary...


    We walked around this recreated Appalachian farm for a little while, making sure to knock on every door in the village. Strangely nobody answered, nor did we see anyone around. I asked the boys, “Where is everybody? You don’t think maybe they’ve been kidnapped do you?” My oldest picked up the magic right away, enthusiastically shouting, “Trolls!” Sure as I can spit I bet the bad weather had brought the trolls down out of the mountains, hauling off the imaginary farmers to only-dad-knows-where. That’s something we’d have to look into tomorrow. For now though we needed to find camp before the weather got any worse.

    Paper Maps FTW

    In planning for this trip I’d purchased a few of the Nat. Geo. Trails Illustrated topo maps. Map #789 in particular was perfect for helping me find our way off the Blue Ridge Parkway and onto the dirt roads hidden from the Google Maps travelers. The goal was to snake back and forth across the blacktop, staying off of it as much as possible. SR814 took us down to our first base camp, downstream from the Crabtree Falls.


    Because it was so early in the season we had the entire campground to ourselves, save a few Appalachian Trail hikers. The boys ran around while my wife cooked dinner (deer steak tacos) and I set up camp...side note: if anybody from one of them nifty roof top tent or camping trailer manufacturers reads this just know that my family is an advertiser’s dream sponsorship. You’d sell millions of them thingies if people saw my kids in them. Shameless, I know, but setting up camp for six when the kids are too young to help sucks. Haha, anyways…

    Putting Saruman On Blast

    A brief break in the weather coupled with the extra hour of daylight (remember this was in March, right after daylight savings) meant we had a little more time to kill, and maybe a window to destroy our first ring. Since our basecamp was a stone’s throw from the Crabtree Falls we scurried over. Here’s where a little silver lining dawned on us...while the heavy rains and mist would normally make for poor camping conditions, for an adventure centered around destroying dwarven rings in waterfalls you couldn’t ask for better. All the waterfalls would be at their grandest, and Crabtree did not disappoint. It also meant we’d have everything to ourselves, which isn’t too shabby either (popular sites here in the East can get pretty crowded).

    In the twilight hour one of my boys cast the first ring into the flood. It was now official. The white wizard Saruman had been chosen as our primary nemesis and scapegoat for any troubles we’d encounter during this trip, and we just put him on blast. One down, six to go. We headed back to camp for some rest, for tomorrow would be a big day, hopefully beginning with a rescue mission.

    Last edited by haolepinoy; 07-27-2017 at 06:24 PM. Reason: Repairing broken picture links.

  9. #9
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    Great stuff!

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    Default The 3rd Portion


    The Rescue Mission

    The kidnappers’ trail was easy to pick up the following morning, drawing our party north into the Big Levels Wildlife Management Area off the Coal Road. Trash was everywhere, and my oldest discovered a few clear signs of struggle. We were hot on their tails, and they knew it. For the farmers’ sakes we needed to press on despite the Wizard’s poison ivy being everywhere, not to mention the faint smell of fire on the air. This were no campfire aroma though...best I could guess, it reeked of dragon breath...or a controlled Forestry Service burn (which it was). Yet there was a more pressing issue demanding our immediate attention this late morning…SECOND BREAKFAST!


    These hobbit boys, like any army, move on their bellies, and our Montero is therefore a rolling cafeteria most days. Food, drink, and even an easily deployable picnic blanket are a must for any trip, even somewhere as simple as the grocery store. I’d reckon that even if we were to forget to pack a snack, despite my best attempts to keep the Montero halfway clean inside, I’m sure these halflings could live at least a day or two off all the Cheerios and Ritz crackers fallen down between the seats. Parents of the world, can I get a witness?

    After filling up our bellies I walked the boys around a little and tried to fill their minds and hearts full of disgust. I couldn’t believe all the trash we saw everywhere. We filled a plastic bag, but honestly could have spent the day picking up the rubbish left behind. Nasty trolls, these, but my junior rangers were learning why we need to tread lightly. One day they’ll be daddies, and their children will need a place open for them to dream, play, and wonder. Right before setting off we found a small salamander, almost as if he came out to tell the kids thank you for picking up.

    A Bald Mountain Full of Trolls

    The trolls were not so thankful, and our pursuit led them to take a much tougher path than the Coal Road we were on. In their attempts to shake us they scurried up the Bald Mountain Jeep Trail (Forest Road 162). I guess they didn’t notice that we’d brought our seven-time Dakar Rally-winning off road ogre equipped with its fancy all-terrain battle boots and Mitsubishi Active Skid Traction Control II (some kinda elven magic from Japan that’s supposed to be super great). I looked over to my clearly apprehensive wife and asked, “Are we ready for this?” An enthusiastic smile from her and I was shifting into 4H. A quick look back to the boys with the same question. They all brandished their water guns with gritty resolve. Let’s go rescue these farmers.


    A quick note about trolls for anyone unfamiliar with how things work in Middle-earth. They’re not exactly overfond of direct sunlight seeing as how it tends to turn them into stone. And wouldn’t you know it, this morning the sky was blue as a robin’s egg, and our trolls were therefore hard as rocks. Being a Jeep trail meant that these trolls were everywhere. Small ones, flat ones, large ones, and fat ones. As the Montero rolled over most the boys picked off the stragglers through the windows. It was a merry, bumpy affair, unless of course you were a troll.


    The rusted remains of previous adventurers were hung from the trees in an attempt to shake our courage, and with that failed they flooded the road at certain portions. “No snorkel, no follow us!” was their twisted logic...I guess they spent too much time reading “To Snorkel or Not To Snorkel” forum posts on ExPo, haha. Cautiously we pressed through, slowly making pursuit as if we were the Dread Pirate Roberts. Though only ten miles long, when you’re bouncing around at two to three miles per hour the trail seems to go on and on and on and...unfortunately some in our party fell victim to this trick. Then again, maybe it was the IFS/IRS combo.


    Hours into our pursuit we finally came upon an obstacle worthy of serving as our trolls, a pair of large rocks blocking the trail. For anybody that’s never been down this road we found this to be the only rock-crawler type obstacle of the whole trail. Everything else was easy and stock-friendly (unless you’re driving a stock minivan or something ridiculous like that). Alone with a car full of kids, and being a novice off-roader, we tactically took the bypass (trolls weren’t expecting that, haha). Flanking the fiends we pounced upon them from the rear with our water guns. Trolls vanquished, farmers freed. Rescue mission accomplished...right?


    Yet, before we could celebrate too much we began to notice a change in the air. The blue skies that had lent us so much good fortune with the trolls was filling with the voice of a grieved sorcerer. Fog from Saruman and the rumble of distant thunder. Time to get back to basecamp before the weather broke for the worse, though we were forgetting an even more pressing matter directly at hand...ELEVENSES! Hobbit boys gotta eat.

    Last edited by haolepinoy; 07-27-2017 at 08:21 PM. Reason: Repairing broken picture links.

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