Back when I was bouncing over Rocky Mountain off-road trails in my VW bug, I sneered at actual Jeeps. And when I headed out across the desert in my Dodge van, I (almost) never missed having four-wheel drive. But once we settled down and became respectable big-city folks with a well-paying job and two little kids, we just had to have a genuine 4×4 SUV. And we were hardly the only ones; the Great American Yuppie SUV Epoch was getting under way, and we were right the at the vanguard. But unlike so many of the shiny new SUVs coursing the freeways, our Cherokee saw plenty of genuine off-road action. A bit too much so, on at least one occasion.
When we were first married, Stephanie and I would jump in the van and head for the woods or desert every weekend. But when the two rug-rats appeared, it wasn’t so easy anymore. More weekends were now spent at the park, zoo or beach. Turns out there’s nothing like feeling trapped in the city to make you a sucker for the scale-the-Himalayas SUV marketing fantasy.
Initially, I was infatuated with the idea of an International Scout, then available with a turbocharged Nissan diesel engine. But it was way too gnarly for Stephanie to take seriously as a kiddie-taxi in Santa Monica. And back then, she and the kids practically lived on the 405 freeway. Not for the first time in my life, fantasy outstripped practical reality.
But Detroit was reading our minds; they launched a wave of civilized cute-utes just when we were becoming bank-able. In 1984, a Ford dealer leased us a fresh-as-a-filly Bronco II for six months, in exchange for TV ads. Within ten blocks of handover, I was ready to take it back.
Driving the Bronco was like riding a unicycle; staying upright was a constant struggle, or at least it felt that way. The combination of a short 94” wheelbase, swing-axle front suspension and a high center of gravity turned out to be… challenging (deadly for others). As a practiced unicyclist, I eventually got the hang of keeping the Bronco upright, but I was never fond of vertigo.
After six months, I sent the lil’ Bronc back home, hopefully to grow up. But Stephanie loved the Bronco, and was bitten by SUV-fever. So we checked out the newly-released Jeep Cherokee (XJ). One short test drive and– predictably enough–we bought it on the spot. Compared to the Bronco, the Cherokee handled like a Ferrari. And perhaps the biggest single advantage: the Cherokee was the only one of the bunch with four doors; with two kids, that alone was more than enough reason. There weren’t exactly many to chose from that day, since they were mostly flying off the lot.
We ended up buying this copper-brown metallic Pioneer (seen here some ten years later), fully loaded with the V6, automatic, full-time Selec-Trac, A/C, and a raft of overpriced convenience doo-dads. I had them switch the alloys with those from an XJ Wagoneer; this more understated style reminded me a bit of those on a Range Rover. It all came to some $16k or more; a pretty good chunk of change ($35k adjusted). And we took a loan, the only time in my life I ever did that to buy a car. I have a very powerful aversion to monthly payments, especially when the interest rate is double digit, as they inevitably where at that particular moment in history.
Though launched four years after John Travolta’s hard hat days and honky-tonk nights, the Cherokee was the fuse that led directly to the explosion of four-wheeled Urban Cowboys, or more correctly, cowgirls. Virtually overnight, our West LA Montessori preschool parking lot was full of Mommy-piloted Cherokees. That part of town in that city does tend to be at the leading edge of every automotive fad.
Stephanie drove the Jeep during the week, but on the weekends, it was time to see what it could do. I never got into serious four-wheeling, ours always stayed bone-stock. But we did start heading out into the rugged mountains and deserts north of Los Angeles more often again on weekends, and hunted down jeep trails. Off-roading is exhilarating; I can see why folks get hooked. And we took long rambling trips throughout California, and the whole West, getting as close to lost as possible. I always carried detailed maps that showed unimproved roads and trails, to get off the highway whenever possible. Usually, there weren’t any “consequences.” But we sure came close, at least once.
We were heading towards Bryce Canyon National Park from the south, after visiting Zion NP. The only roads into Bryce are from the north (Hw.12); it was going to be a long trip. I had a Gazetteer-type map with all the back roads, which indicated a faint line, from the south, along Podunk Creek, no less. Good enough for me. It was spring break, and we worked our way higher and higher into exquisitely pristine back country. We finally arrived at a remote spot where the gravel road ended and there were a couple of log cabins. The only inhabitant were an older couple who pointed out where the jeep trail over the mountain ridge into Bryce started. They didn’t know if it was passable yet, but did say they thought someone had headed up there a couple of days ago and didn’t come back, so maybe it was doable. Or maybe they were dead up there somewhere. Or maybe they were driving something a bit more capable than our stock Cherokee. Or maybe they had a winch and a few other essential items.
It was already the middle of the afternoon. We’d come a long way already, and I was invested. So we started up the steep rough road along Podunk Creek. Sure enough as we got higher, we encountered a snow drift across the trail in the in the shadows of a curve. This was the moment of decision: back down, or….gun it!
That was the just the first of numerous such snow drifts, and they only got larger as we worked our way higher. Each drift I came to, I rationalized that backing down the steep narrow trail was riskier than keeping up our momentum through the soft banks. So I kept the hammer down and maintained enough momentum to crash through them. We had no sleeping bags, shovel, fire-starter, or winch, and just some snacks. But we did have two little kids who thought the ride was very amusing. I didn’t stop sweating bullets until we reached the top, and arrived in the Park.
Of course, most of the Jeep’s miles were racked up a bit less eventfully, bombing down the freeways of LA, or the endless red dirt back roads of Navajo Country, or wherever our ramblings took us. But Podunk Creek was the Cherokee’s shining moment, if not Stephanie’s.
In 1992, we bought a Dodge Grand Caravan, after out belated third child was born. I was going to sell the Cherokee, but then other major life-altering events overtook us (another chapter to come). Jumping ahead a bit, I sold my company car, and the Jeep became my wheels. And then we moved to Oregon.
Oregon is a back-roads paradise. The boys and I took full advantage of our new-found freedom. We’d “get lost” in the high desert and mountains for weeks at a time. On one of our first long trips exploring exploring Eastern Oregon, son Edward got lots of wheel time; he was in sixth grade at the time, and he took to it instantly. I even let him drive on the smaller highways, until we approached the edge of one of the infrequent towns. I didn’t want to take too much of a risk.
So many memories of those first few years in Oregon; the caves, the remote mountain-top camping spots, the sand dunes, Crack-In-The-Ground; Steens, Blue Mountains, Wollawa, the beaches…if I was given “state-arrest”, I’d pick Oregon. And the Cherokee opened them up for us, even the most remote spots.
And the hot springs too, of course. Nothing like finding a hot bath waiting for you on a chilly starless night after bouncing down a deeply-rutted path for twenty miles, wondering if the map really was right about its location, in the middle of absolute nowhere except a few cattle. It was worth it, even if the wind threatened to tear down our tent that night.
Official campgrounds? What are those? Much of Oregon’s woods, deserts and mountains are National Forest or BLM lands, which means you’re free to make your own campground. Well, we do own it.
Although it spent much of its early years pounding the freeways of LA, in its latter years in Oregon, the Cherokee finally found its highest calling. And it never let us down, at least when it counted.
That’s hardly to say that it didn’t have its shares of issues. I remember a number of annoying trips to the dealer in the early years; small niggling stuff. And later, there were a few breakdowns, but always close to home. The transfer case died a couple miles out of town. And one time, on a ski trip, as we pulled up to the CHP’s chain/AWD enforcement stop, I flipped the little Selec-Trac lever into 4WD, and nothing happened. We had to drive back to the nearest town to buy chains! An ignoble moment indeed. It turned out that a little cotter pin underneath that lever had dropped out; if I’d known, I could have fixed it with a piece of wire. Oh well.
Speaking of quality control back then: From day one, I couldn’t figure out why the Cherokee felt noticeably slower than the Bronco II, which had the same size engine and horsepower. I’d had the same 2.8 V6 in my Skylark, and in that car, it had some genuine semblance of urge. In the Cherokee, the same engine just felt like it wasn’t properly awake.
When it was maybe ten years old, I was changing the air filter, and on a whim, I decided to check the throttle linkage. I pulled on the cable, but the throttle didn’t open all the way. The damn linkage hadn’t been installed right! I adjusted it, and in its old age, the Cherokee suddenly felt much sprightlier, with the throttle plate finally opening all the way. I consoled myself with the gas I’d saved all those years.
Speaking of, our (throttled) Cherokee still averaged only about 14-16 mpg. I babied it once on a trip, and managed 19. So much for that light unibody…but then that carburated V6 backed by the Chrysler Torque-Flite transmission just wasn’t nearly as efficient as a modern power train would be today.
After 15 years and almost 200k miles, the Cherokee began to show the effects of a hard life well spent. But the body was still in good shape, it still felt pretty solid, and right to the end, it was happy drifting on Oregon’s endless gravel logging roads. And I still got a decent price for it; Cherokees were always in demand.
We finally replaced it in 2000 with a new Subaru Forester. It did most everything the Cherokee did, except for the more extreme mountain-goat off-roading. But by then, I had that mostly out of my system. The Forester was actually roomier inside, rode better, was much faster, drastically more reliable, and got 50% better fuel economy. And in adjusted terms, it was much cheaper to buy too ($18k in 2000). The march of progress is unstoppable. And so was the Cherokee, in its time.