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story.lead_photo.caption Keith Bryant/The Weekly Vista Justin Brunje stands with his 1985 AMC Eagle wagon.

Most cars keep to the pavement most of the time, maybe rolling down the odd dirt road or parking on a grass lot.

One Bella Vistan spends his free time rolling through water and over surprisingly large rocks in his 33-year-old station wagon.

Justin Brunje, of Bella Vista, is a self-taught mechanic and at least a little bit of an automotive enthusiast, driving one of his dream cars -- the somewhat humble four-wheel-drive 1985 AMC Eagle wagon -- every day and on trails when he can. He's had the car about a year, he said, and recently started off-road driving.

He's been rolling with Rough & Flexy Off Road, a group primarily organized via Facebook that was started by Pea Ridge resident Brian Brenner and his wife Renee Brenner, both Jeep enthusiasts.

It's very slow, technical driving, Brian Brenner said, but it's a good time.

"Being outdoors, the excitement of taking a vehicle where most people don't think you can take one. It's kind of an adrenaline rush," he said. "You have to learn how to read the terrain and know where to put your tires."

It's important to learn how not to get hung up, he said, but drivers also have to unlearn some things from the street. For instance, he said, descending a particularly steep hill, one might need to stay off his brakes or even accelerate to avoid weighting the nose and flipping end-over-end.

He's taken a lot of people out, he said, and several have never wanted to hit the trail again -- though others start putting a rig together quickly after.

"It's not for everybody," Brenner said. "It does get a little scary at times."

Brunje said he's always appreciated the utilitarian nature of all-terrain vehicles and, many years ago, an Eagle was what got him interested in cars. His best friend growing up lived on a farm, he said, and he had a great time working out on the farm with him.

They had a handful of vehicles on the farm, he said, including an old Jeep Wagoneer with a plow and a blue-on-white Eagle wagon much like the one he has today, aside from the color and rust.

"It was rusted to crap," he said.

But despite its appearance, he said, the car was a force to be reckoned with -- even pulling a truck out of the mud on one occasion. Brunje said he's been meaning to get one ever since.

"It just amazed me seeing this station wagon going all the places ... off-road vehicles would go," he said. "That thing was unstoppable."

Over the years, Brunje said he was more attracted to fast cars, driving a '95 front-wheel-drive Cadillac with a cammed small block Chevy engine that, thanks to all the weight on its drive wheels, could launch in a hurry.

Another time, he helped a friend cram a V8 into an RX-7, which he said became terrifying anywhere over about 50 miles per hour.

But more recently, he said, his priorities have changed. He was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a rare genetic disorder that reduces peripheral and night vision and could ultimately render him blind.

With fond memories of that rusty old wagon, Brunje decided to go for it while he still could.

It's been a good car, he said, without all the electronics to worry about like one might find in a more contemporary car, and relatively easy-to-source parts because it shares some innards with the CJ7 Jeep which still has a strong following. The long-term goal, he said, is to get the car close to showroom condition and keep it clean and stock.

It's even made a little bit of money for him, he said, recently showing up on set for an upcoming episode of crime drama True Detective.

And beyond that, it's been surprisingly capable off road, despite being a mostly unmodified example with open differentials, no low-range and fairly basic street tires.

It's been fun, he said, and he's learned a lot about what the car can and can't do, as well as his own limits. The car's weakest link, he said, is the longer wheelbase, which makes it hard to clear some obstacles a Jeep could clear without much drama.

He primarily sticks to climbing rocks and other obstacles, he said, in part because he doesn't have a winch to yank the wagon out if it gets stuck in a mud pit and because mud is a lot of hassle to clean off the underside of the car.

But most importantly, he said, even as eyesight starts to become an issue, this might still be something he can do behind the wheel. Off-road driving, he said, often involves driving to features and obstacles and stopping, at which point a spotter gets out and directs the driver inch-by-inch.

If he has a good spotter and someone handles the transit from feature to feature, Brunje said he will still be able to slip behind the wheel on a trail.

"I can't get on a track, I can't haul ass," Brunje said. "But off-roading? I can do this with my eyes closed."

General News on 05/30/2018

Print Headline: Bella Vistan drives through the woods

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