On the fifth of February, three Broncos set out from Hammertown in Johnson Valley, California. In the lead, a ‘91 XLT carrying me and two other Bronco Nation members wound through the crazy King of the Hammers traffic to get out of the valley and onto Old Woman Springs Road. We had to keep our speed around 45-50 mph since the ’72 Bronco following us was a bit unstable at higher speeds. We had done our preliminary checks on the vehicles prior to rolling out, but I was still nervous about the ’72 making it to our final destination, a hilltop about 10 miles from Hammertown, as the drone flies. Our route would be closer to 30 miles since we had to avoid the race loop for King of the Hammers.
About ten minutes down the road, the third Bronco, a 2021 Area 51 First Edition 2-Door blew by us and passed out of sight within a minute or two. The driver, Vaughn Gittin Jr, knew the route we planned to take and apparently didn’t feel like being third in line. Understandable for a racer that ended up in the top ten in the King of the Hammers race the next day. For now, he seemed to be doing just fine without a V8. In fairness, he had Loren Healy, 2-time King of the Hammers champ, as well as the Ford Bronco Brand Manager and consummate gear head, Esteban Plaza-Jennings in the Bronco with him. Both of whom probably had some other things to do that day.
Once we left the pavement, we met Vaughn waiting at a crossroads. Our caravan of three turned onto a broad, graded dirt road and then onto a bumpier desert trail that threw the ’91 around a bit. Bronco follower and photographer Cooper Pierce, who was riding in the back seat of the ’91, radioed back to the ’72 to see how they were doing. Mike Clouds, president of the Lonestar Early Bronco Club, and thus affectionately known around the Bronco side of Hammertown as Texas Mike, radioed back that she was doing just fine. I was glad to hear it, but the tougher part of the trail was still to come. Mike’s passenger, Jake Gertsch of MontanaBroncos on Instagram, cracked a joke about the ’72 having a better chance of getting where we were going than the ’91. At the helm of the XLT, the trail boss for our expedition, Blake Torgersen, aka Bronco Nation forum moderator Torgsurv, just smiled, refusing to be baited by the light ribbing of his Bronco.
The end goal of our trail ride requires some explanation for the uninitiated. But avid followers of Bronco Nation (and those who read the title of this article) will have already guessed where we were headed.
On January 1st 2021, Blake made the first recorded enthusiast ascent, in a Bronco, to a special hilltop in Johnson Valley. We wrote an article about his adventure, and he provided some additional background in a forum post that you can find here. Torgsurv named the spot “Bronco Knoll” in his posts, but what he did not know was that 2021 Bronco test units were already quite familiar with the trail. They had been running a loop, known as the “Mountain Loop” to the testing engineers, for quite a while. According to Vaughn and Loren who had worked directly with the engineering team as external testers for the Bronco, the team had fallen in love with the view from the top of the Mountain Loop and had taken to calling it “Bronco Vista”. The engineers enjoyed the spot so much that they stamped the coordinates in the trim of the sport tubes of the Bronco. Utah.Bronco photographed the coordinates at an event in Arizona in December and posted the picture to the Bronco Nation Forums. Blake, a surveyor by profession saw the post and decided to drive to the mysterious location.
With Blake’s permission, we at Bronco Nation wrote up the story on January 5th, including the name Blake had given the spot in his forum posts. He and I also started talking in a forum DM, and eventually Blake suggested that we commission a survey monument for the site, a monument that wouldn’t have any impact on the environment but would mark the spot with the name. This struck me as a great idea. It’s important for communities to have shared places and lore, and this seemed like a great way to memorialize a cool story while also providing a pilgrimage spot for the Nation. We agreed to move forward and Blake got the monument produced.
Fast forwarding to our trail ride, I hopped out of the truck as we got closer to the top of the hill. We were taking photos of the Broncos on the trail and I wanted to crest the hill on foot. Blake pulled to the top of the hill first and dismounted to see how the other Broncos were doing. To no one’s surprise, the 2021 Bronco First Edition was not challenged by the trail at all and more or less pranced up the last section. The ‘72, hubs locked, Texas Mike at the wheel, and shifted into 4-low, didn’t have much issue either.
After some initial enjoyment of the view, the small group of Bronco people huddled to talk about what we were going to film. Vaughn and Loren filmed a short intro giving the history of the place and then had Blake join them on camera to talk about his first trip to Bronco Knoll and about the survey monument. He did a great job, putting in a concise and articulate appeal to future visitors of the Knoll to leave as little trace as possible.
Then came the best part of the day. Blake brought out the monument. We first drove in a steel pipe, taking turns with the sledgehammer. The rest of us were put to shame by Loren, who has worked in oil fields professionally, in addition to conquering the Sledgehammer trail at King of the Hammers multiple times a year. After the steel pipe was driven in, we drove the internal barbs out of the pipe to lock it in place. Finally, we slammed the monument into the pipe with a neoprene hammer, a compression fit securing the brass plaque to the steel tube now anchored in the rocky top of Bronco Knoll. The plaque is engraved with the coordinates found on the sport tubes of the 2021 Bronco, the name “Bronco Knoll”, and “Bronco Nation 2021”.
With the monument installed, we lingered at the summit for another 45 min or so. Blake brought out some fancy surveying equipment to take a hyper-accurate reading of exactly where the monument is. Loren, Mike, and Jake discussed doing a trail ride to Bronco Knoll each year as part of the King of the Hammers festivities. Coop continued taking great pictures and Vaughn headed down the road with Esteban to film a Sittin’ with Gittin segment for his YouTube channel.
Finally, it was time to head back to Hammertown. The whole experience was a highlight of our time in Johnson Valley and of my time with the Bronco Nation. The cairn that Blake set up on his initial ascent is still there, and we each added a rock to the pile. Next year, we hope to head back to Bronco Knoll with as many members of the Nation as can make it. Those who haven’t been before can add their rock to the cairn, we’ll pick up any trash that’s been left on the summit and take in the Bronco Vista that we’ve earned together. We can’t wait.