This is How We Will Roll
Having decided that we would embark on this road trip en route to Panama, and having rejected the idea of taking one of our Audis, we began to consider what kind of vehicle we wanted to drive. Studying postings by Overlanders revealed a stunning array of exotic vehicles selected for this massive road trip. There are Overlanders on bicycle and motorcycle, in motor homes and in antique cars, in modified ancient VW (and similar vans), in trucks, in SUVs and in contraptions referred to as “Global Expedition vehicles,” which are like motor-homes on steroids. Much as Roque, like many men, might secretly pine away for the testosterone-charged Earth Cruiser or something similar, I waited for his fiscal prudence and common sense to kick in (since expedition vehicles start at a whopping $175,000+) so that we could talk about something a tad more affordable and, for me, easier to climb into.
Overlanders use all kinds of vehicles (ambulance conversion anyone?) and many seem to favor older-model Toyota Highlanders (ca. 1980’s) apparently due to the early generation Hilux truck body on which the Highlander was built. As you can see, I read enough to sound like I know what I am talking about but frankly, this is all way beyond me and I was NOT enticed to start looking on Craig’s List for 30 year old trucks with which to take this trip.
Knowing that one of the reasons for planning this road trip is to be able to transport trip essentials as well as starter-home items for Panama, we started to pay attention to nearly every SUV we saw. We figured we needed a comfortable ride since our butts will be in the saddle for thousands of miles over the course of the trip. We also figured we needed something that could be our primary vehicle in Panama — which meant being aware that larger vehicles might be difficult to park in some locations. Anticipating that some of the roads on which we will travel may be rough and/or rutted, we believed we needed something with decent road clearance, preferably a 4-wheel drive and something small enough that it would fit on local roads. We also knew that we needed something with sufficient cargo space to carry all of the stuff we would need for the road trip and for settling in Panama. We didn’t want anything ostentatious, or anything that screamed “I’M AMERICAN,” and we wanted to make sure that we could fairly reliably obtain spare parts and service throughout the trip. And we sure didn’t want anything that would guzzle gas, despite the recent low gasoline prices here in the US.
We considered towing a trailer of some sort but I was concerned about security and envisioned a clever person with a pair of large bolt cutters or some other gizmo severing my trailer from my vehicle (I think that I am still having PTSD after thieves cut our bike rack WITH bikes from our car on our cross country road trip in 2013). I was also concerned about hauling a trailer for thousands of miles and what that might do to both fuel consumption as well as wear and tear on the transmission and brakes on the vehicle. So, we decided that we needed to do without hauling anything on the back of our vehicle.
On a trip to Shenandoah National Park last Columbus Day, we admired several SUVs on a parking lot alongside the hiking trail we were using one day, among which was a Ford Explorer Sport Trac, which was a Ford Explorer equipped with a truck bed in back — sort of the SUV version of an El Camino. It looked really promising and we thought we might check them out.
Sadly, we learned not long after this short-lived epiphany, that Ford no longer makes the Explorer Sport Trac but we thought we might look for one used. And, fortuitously, on our trip home from Shenandoah that weekend, we happened upon a Ford dealership and thought we would stop to check out used Sport Tracs. While this particular dealer did not have any on the lot, the salesman told us that a Chevy Avalanche was a similar vehicle and still in production so we thought we would check that out. And there, on the corner of the lot, looked to be another similar vehicle which turned out to be a Nissan Frontier Pro-4x.
The Pro 4-x, we learned, is a standard Nissan Frontier truck but with a bunch of heavy duty, off-road options. So, we test drove it and liked it. And kept it in mind as we researched Avalanches (way too big) and other trucks. We knew Nissans were plentiful in Central America and figured that they would be relatively easy to service outside the US, would be reliable and affordable. It was neither too big nor too small. It was high enough off the ground to clear ruts and standing water and rugged enough to navigate roads in less-than-perfect condition. With a crew cab, we could accommodate at least 4 and while without passengers, could pack the back seat with additional cargo. Add a camper top to the truck bed and we could then pack the bed with Panama-destined items and then, for the duration of the road trip, use other cargo space (back seat, roof rack, etc.) for our road trip gear. And it was comfortable.
Decision made, we casually looked for Pro-4x’s and earlier than expected, became the proud new owners of one in January — just in time, I’m delighted to report, to use it during the blizzard of 2016 (and it performed admirably!). Given its performance in the snow, we are pretty sure that it will muscle through ruts, rough roads, standing water and other potential obstacles we envision along our way. And equipped with a navigation system including maps of Mexico and Central America, we hope that we can navigate from point to point without having to fret about available wifi or paper maps. ——
Bubbe and Abuelo will now embrace new frontiers in their new Frontier.