No phones. No GPS. No interstates. No modern-day modifications.
Those are the rules of the Epic Willys Adventure, yet the men in charge at Eau Claire company Max-Bilt Off Road and Mfg., the event’s founder, have no worries.
“It’s just being able to let go of everything that’s going on,” said Phil Norvold, the company’s owner. “When you’re out there in the middle of nowhere, the only thing that matters is the next mile.”
And there will be many, many miles. Starting July 28, 14 antique flat-fender jeeps will travel for approximately two weeks along the Continental Divide between the Canadian and Mexican borders, camping at stops along the way.
This route will take the vehicles, almost entirely unrestored, roughly 2,000 miles through the mountains on back roads, embarking at Kalispell, Mont., and ending in El Paso, Texas.
The participating vehicles, which include two trucks and two wagons, are between 62 and 72 years old, Norvold said.
“For me it’s definitely a time-travel thing,” Norvold said of why he enjoys working with these old-fashioned jeeps. “This was an old service truck in St. Paul, Minn., so somebody relied on that every day, then all of a sudden it’s completely abandoned, for what in their eyes was going to be forever ... and that’s what, for me, makes it super cool — to say, ‘Alright, little buddy, let’s get you fixed up. We’re going to go on the road trip of a lifetime.’”
Because of their age, however, everything — routine fuel stops to flat-tire replacement to emergency maintenance work— takes time. Especially when the vehicles top out at 50 to 55 mph.
The first Epic Willys Adventure was in 2016, which aligned with the 75-year anniversary of the Jeep brand. At that time, only 14 people and eight Willys jeeps were involved. The average speed throughout the duration of the trip was 36 mph.
Norvold said after all of the setbacks then, he realized there really wasn’t any reason to push forward so much. The fun of it is in the journey itself.
“It’s no fun to try to get to where you’re going, get to where you’re going, get to where you’re going,” Norvold said. “And then when you get there, you’re like, ‘Oh. Well, we did it. Now what?’”
Shortly after takeoff from Eau Claire two years ago, one of the jeeps broke down in front of Patrick Peterson’s house. Peterson helped the adventurers with repairs and saw them off. But he said he built friendships with the Max-Bilt crew that have only grown since.
Now Peterson, who is the owner of Bad Axe Productions in Holmen, will participate in this year’s trip as part of a production crew that will capture footage along the way.
The crew is the one exception to the no-technology rule. They’ll still be required to ride in a period-correct vehicle, thus experiencing the same conditions as their subjects, but because they’ll have cameras and drones to charge, they’ll be allowed more leeway when it comes to powering up. Social media will be updated at night so those interested in tracking the convoy’s progress can do so.
In the end, Peterson said he’s hoping to produce a four-part documentary series for Netflix or the History Channel.
“We’re hoping to get the overall picture of the Northwoods lifestyle,” Peterson said, noting it will be easy to capture the Midwest demeanor when it comes to solving problems and dealing with the stress of the trip. “With all the breakdowns, there’s going to be drama. You don’t have to script it. It’s naturally going to happen on this kind of adventure.”
Peterson said the documentary will focus on the story of the trip itself but will also include aspects of small-town America, including the stories told by other people along the way.
New lease on life
For this summer’s edition of the journey, the number of Willys has nearly doubled. Around 30 jeep-lovers will participate, and while most of them come from the Eau Claire area, some are from Wyoming and some from Pennsylvania.
Adam Schultz, Max-Bilt’s shop manager, said they’ve been preparing for this trip since the last one ended. Repairs on the jeeps have been taking place a couple of days a week over the last five months. This past month, however, has been crunch time, with the Max-Bilt crew working on the Willys every spare moment they have.
The reward for Schultz is in fixing and re-purposing things — like these Willys — that aren’t supposed to work. Both he and Norvold agreed there’s something gratifying about breathing new life into vehicles that have been abandoned or forgotten about.
Schultz is also hoping to redeem himself on this year’s expedition.
“I’m looking forward to having my jeep complete the trip,” he said, recalling the fact that his vehicle’s engine blew up last time, leaving him as a passenger rather than a driver.
As for what Norvold’s looking forward to? “Cruising, seeing the sights, enjoying the fruits of our labor ... laughing at the fact that we made a bunch of plans and none of them mattered.”
The end of the journey will find the drivers and their passengers at a celebration at a Texas Advanced Auto Parts store. There, they will draw the raffle winner of a vintage jeep. Not only will this person win the Willys, their victory also grants them a spot on the 2020 Epic Willys Adventure, which will feature an entirely new route.
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