Adventure Wagons Ho!

Adventure Wagons Ho!

August 1st, 2013 by Andy Johns in Local Regional News

According to the cliché, life is about the journey rather than the destination. So maybe that's why outdoor enthusiasts in the Chattanooga area have such a strong connection to the vehicles that take them on those journeys.

The cars, trucks, motorcycles, vans and SUVs they depend on usually get the worst part of the deal-from minor insults like red clay on the floor mats and scratches from branches on too-narrow dirt roads, to trip-busting injuries like broken axles.

Yet just about every time the climbers, paddlers, hikers, cavers or campers begin a trip, their faithful ride is there waiting to take them on their next great adventure.

Joey Fenstemaker's 1997 Land Rover Defender 90 LE

Joey Fenstemaker

Location: Decatur, Tennessee

Vehicle: 1997 Land Rover Defender 90 LE

Mileage: 111,000 miles

"You can have it up ready to go in less than five minutes. And it's got a cool factor, too."

Many people view Land Rovers as luxury vehicles for cruising around town in style-too pricey to get dirty on the trails.

Joey Fenstemaker isn't one of those people. "I bought it to use it," he says of his 1997 Land Rover Defender 90 LE. "I don't particularly want to get a dent or scratch on it, but it happens."

Despite the fact that the Defender is one of only 300 LE models ever produced, Fenstemaker has rigged his with a rooftop tent, winch, heavy duty off road parts and mini-fridge. "Usually whenever you break a factory part you're going to replace it with an aftermarket part that is stronger than the original," he says.

But of all the accessories, it's the tent that gets most of the attention. Though originally designed to keep Australian and African safari party members above the snakes, bugs and nocturnal predators, Fenstemaker says his Hannibal rooftop tent is equally at home in the Rockies or Southern Appalachians.

"I'm six-five and two guys my size can fit in it," he says. "It stays cool in the summer and nice in the winter. You can have it up ready to go in less than five minutes. And it's got a cool factor, too."

He's taken his Rover to Colorado eight times, Utah once and all over the Southeast. Together, they've been through at least one "situation" involving a tree, a boulder and help from two winches to get out. Fenstemaker, who works in the service department at Mountain View Ford, has also broken two axles and a CV joint on the Rover, but he says that goes with the territory.

"If you get somewhere that's hardcore, you're going to break something," he explains.

Kyle Guthrie's 1981 Custom Vanagon

Kyle Guthrie

Location: Ringgold

Vehicle: 1981 Custom Vanagon

Mileage: 275,000 miles

"It's no speed demon, but I tell people it's got windows so you can go slow and look around."

Sometimes there's just no time to wait. Kyle Guthrie was so excited to take his new custom-made "stretch" VW Vanagon on an adventure to Florida that he didn't take time to test the newly built vehicle before hitting the road. All he knew about the van, which was made from welding together two Vanagons into one, was that it would shift to first gear and appeared to be holding together.

"We literally took off to Tampa while the welds were still warm," he said. Once they miraculously got to the Sunshine State, where they planned to camp and go to a VW show, they began to worry about rust on the bare metal exposed from the body work. So they wrapped the new seam in duct tape and hung a sign in the window that read: "You can do anything with duct tape."

"It was a hit," he remembers. "I had people come up to me and ask 'Is that really held together by duct tape?'"

Ten years later, he's finally primed over the seam, but the 20-foot-long van is still attracting plenty of attention, which Guthrie seems to enjoy. "I've definitely met some really great, wonderful people that I don't think I would have met if I had a standard Vanagon," he says. The bus, which has taken him as far as Wisconsin, is made for camping, with an electric seat that folds into a bed, in addition to one of the Vanagon's trademark pop-up sleeping compartments in the roof.

But with a 1.6-liter, 65-horsepower motor, it doesn't get from campsite to campsite quickly.

"There's motorcycles with bigger engines," Guthrie says. "The factory (motor) powered Vanagon is one of the slowest vehicles ever made. It's no speed demon, but I tell people it's got windows so you can go slow and look around. If you want to go fast, buy an airplane ticket."

But after all of the good times, Guthrie is planning to put his ride up for sale, with plans to make a new, even longer version. "I'm going to miss it, but I've got to make another one," he says.

Bob Britt's 2000 Ford Ranger

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Bob Britt

Location: Red Bank

Vehicle: 2000 Ford Ranger

Mileage: 106,000 miles

"I just leave my sleeping gear in there, so I'm ready to go."

Normally, having someone give you a free truck would be a great thing. But for whitewater canoeist Bob Britt, the gift was bittersweet.

His longtime paddling buddy Ralph Anderson gave him his 2000 Ford Ranger when Anderson started losing a five-year battle with prostate cancer.This past spring, four months after giving the truck to Britt, Anderson died.

"He always kind of treated me like a son," says Britt, who met Anderson through the Tennessee Valley Canoe Club. "He insisted on me having that truck. He was just that kind of guy."

The Ranger had taken Anderson, Britt and their canoes to almost every major whitewater river in the South, from the Gauley and the New River to the Chattooga, Ocoee and Tellico.

"He said it's a river vehicle and I want it to stay a river vehicle," Britt remembers his friend instructing. "I told him I'd honor his wishes and take it paddling."

Anderson had decorated the truck with a dozen stickers from rivers and outfitters as far away as Maine, so Britt, a graphic designer, made one more for the collection that reads: In memory of Ralph "Firewalker" Anderson. Firewalker was a nickname Anderson picked up when his failed attempt at a practical joke on fellow paddlers left him sprawling into the fire pit during one camping trip. "I always thought those (memorial stickers) were kind of corny," Britt says. "But Ralph gave me the truck so I thought it needed to be a memorial to him."

It's a rolling memorial that can sleep at least one person and carry enough gear for a multi-day river trip. "We've had as many as four canoes up there," Britt explains, pointing at the rooftop rack.

Often times, Britt leaves at least one canoe on the truck's rack-just in case the creeks rise or work ends early.

"You've got four hours of daylight after work," he says. And if he runs out of daylight, the truck can accommodate. Under the camper top in the bed, Anderson built a custom sleeping cot that has given both he and now Britt plenty of restful nights.

"I just leave my sleeping gear in there, so I'm ready to go," Britt says.

Kyle McPheeters in his 1995 Ford Explorer 4x4

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Kyle McPheeters

Location: Red Bank

Vehicle: 1995 Ford Explorer 4x4

Mileage: 146,000 miles

"My climbing pack is in there just in case we want to go climbing right after work."

Early on, signs indicated there might be a special connection between Kyle McPheeters and his Ford Explorer. According to the SUV's VIN code, they were born on the same date-McPheeters in 1985 and the truck in 1995.

Now, 18 years after his parents bought it, the hand-me-down SUV has been with McPheeters as he learned to drive, went off to college, moved to Chattanooga and now faithfully carries him and his climbing buddies to crags around North Georgia and East Tennessee. "More of my life than not, it's been around," he says. "It's been around for 18 years."

When it was still a family vehicle, the Explorer carried the McPheeters clan from their home in Metro Atlanta to Connecticut, Michigan and around the Southeast. Once McPheeters took the then eight-year-old Explorer to college, he started making a few modifications to the truck, which is one of the most common vehicles in the United States. Between then and now he's made dozens of changes to the Ford, including 6 inches of lift, extra lighting in the grill and re-gearing the axles. "There's so many (Explorers) that looked just like it, I had to do something to make it look like mine and not my mom's car," he says.

That time spent tinkering is part of what he says strengthened the bond between he and his ride. "You spend so much of your life in your car and so much time and effort has been spent on it, that I think you have that connection," McPheeters explains. "I'll keep it forever. I just fix it as stuff wears out."

But the most important accessory is usually in the trunk, whether a mountain bike or climbing gear. "My climbing pack is in there just in case we want to go climbing right after work," he says.

Jeff Williams' custom teardrop camping trailer

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Jeff Williams

Location: Signal Mountain

Vehicle: Custom teardrop camping trailer

Mileage: 0 miles

"It's no frills camping. It's one step above a tent."

Rather than opt for a 40-foot whale of an RV to do his camping, Jeff Williams decided on a much smaller model, with some family significance. The Signal Mountain resident is in the final stages of building his custom-made teardrop camper, modeled after the two his grandfather hand built 60 years ago.

"I thought about restoring his camper," Williams says. "I just decided I will build my own. His camper was completely built with nails and wood." Williams' retro styled trailer is less than 10 feet long and weighs less than 1,000 pounds which is exactly the way Williams wants it. "Part of the appeal of the teardrop trailer is people say they are cute," he says. "As you get bigger, you lose some of that."

Due to the camper's size, there is little room for creature comforts. It's primarily a bed, with a little foldout kitchen area. "It's no frills camping," he says. "It's one step above a tent."

The top speed for the trailer is about 30 to 45 miles per hour, because that was about the top speed for cars in the pre-interstate days when teardrops were first in vogue. But speed won't be an issue for a while because he doesn't have any long-distance trips planned. The only trip on the horizon will be just 90 minutes away to a campground at Weiss Lake in Alabama. "Something that's homemade like this I think I need to test it out locally first," he says.

In addition to appreciating his grandfather's handy work, the project taught Williams a lot about craftsmanship, materials and planning. "I'll know more for the next one and I do want to build a next one," he explains.

Kevin Smith's 1967 VW custom "Bedbug" camp trailer

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Kevin Smith

Location: Sand Mountain, Alabama

Vehicle : 1967 VW custom "Bedbug" camp trailer

Mileage: Unknown

"It will pull as far as you want to pull it. Anytime you need a dry place to sleep, just drag it along with you."

Nobody wants a bed bug. That is, except for Kevin Smith.

"It's definitely unique, that's why I had to have it," the Sand Mountain resident says of his new camp trailer. Smith recently bought a converted VW Beetle from Ringgold resident William Ellis who had rescued the car from a junkyard and turned it into a camper. It was Ellis who nicknamed the trailer the "Bedbug."

"It was sad to sell, but it was good to sell it to someone who will appreciate it," Ellis says. The camper kept Ellis warm and dry. Smith has plans to take the Bedbug to some of the same sites on camping trips to Chester Frost, Tellico Plains and Sloppy Floyd State Ps, especially on fly fishing trips. "It's ideal for going up to Tellico Plains and fishing for trout," he says. "It will pull as far as you want to pull it. Anytime you need a dry place to sleep, just drag it along with you."

But Ellis has warned Smith that the trailer attracts plenty of attention. "Everywhere I go, no matter if I pull up to a grocery store or a restaurant or a campsite, I usually had four or five people looking at it and taking pictures," Ellis recalls.

Most of the inquisitors ask about the interior space, which Ellis says can fit anyone up to six-feet, five-inches tall. "If you take the seats out and everything, there's a lot of room in a Beetle," Ellis says.

The space, air conditioner and custom memory foam mattress will be plenty of creature comforts for Smith, who is five-nine.

"I've got plenty of room," he says.