Wine Tastings and Camping

Our campsite had a beautiful view of the Texas sunset.

Our latest adventure took us out of the local area and ended up being one of the best weekend trips we’ve had in a very long time (even before the COVID days). We started the day by stopping at a local Kroger and buying some fresh vegetables and meat to make dinner and breakfast with in the morning. My wife took a 2 lbs flank steak and marinated it with lime and spices in a ziploc bag. We then drove to three wineries on our way to the Hidden Falls Adventure Park in Marble Falls, TX.

Crossing the bridge at Saddlehorn Winery.

After tasting and buying some delicious wines, we ended up at Hidden Falls and drove out to the primitive campsites. They were closer together than we’d have expected, but there was enough space around us to still feel alone. There was a lot of noise from the 4 wheeler’s, but it’s to be expected at an adventure park. It was actually a lot of fun watching kids enjoy themselves while their parents worked hard to keep the fun going.

I took out the drone and got some neat aerial shots of us, our campsite, and the Gunship.

We were rewarded for marinating the meat all day with some of the most tender fajitas I’ve ever eaten. Sherry brought some Paleo tortillas and made grilled mushrooms with onions and green pepper which rounded out the fajita tacos perfectly. Then, as a surprise, she took some Fredericksburg peaches we purchased on our way to the park and made a cobbler with our dutch oven that turned out perfectly!

The fire was relaxing cobbler was delicious!

After doing the dishes, we sat and enjoyed the fire and the beautiful sunset for a while which led to a beautiful and clear starry night. Being able to see stars we cannot see at home brought back lots of memories to both of us. We even saw a satellite pass overhead!

The Gunship got quite dusty, but that’s okay. It is a visible sing that we had some fun!

The sleeping arrangements were good. We have good air mattresses, but I had a bit of a hump on the ground which made my sleeping position a little uncomfortable. I made it through the night, but my back was a bit sore. It made me look forward to the rooftop tent we purchased being delivered.

The tent worked perfectly. The Biolite Fire Pit really made starting a fire easy.

The morning brought us a little bit of a drizzle and light rain, but fortunately, it blew past us within about 20 minutes. We had a nice drive home through the rolling hills and countryside. My wife admitted to me that she had more fun camping than she thought she would, and she is really looking forward to our big fall trip of overlanding up to Idaho and back down again.

The view West from 200 feet above our campsite.
Our campsite from the air. The Waterport mounted on the rear passenger side made cleanup of pots and pans a breeze!

Yakima Slim Shady Awning Review

Having a lovely lunch on Matagorda Beach on the Texas Gulf Coast.

For Christmas in 2019, my wife purchased a Yakima Slim Shady awning for me. It was a gift I had asked for, and she told me that while she thought it was silly and wasn’t quite sure how I would use it, she knew I wanted it, so she bought it anyway. Fast-forward three months, and we have been using the Slim Shady awning nearly every weekend and she’s admitted to me that she loves it and the utility it provides our vehicle during our day trips. An added bonus: during the COVID-19 lockdown and with restaurants only being open for pick-up, we have used the awning at the side of a lake close to her office where we take our to-go orders along with a camp table and two chairs. It’s provided some of the nicest and relaxing lunches we’ve had in a long time.

Lunch near a pump jack at Lake Somerville in Texas.

What I like

Right out of the box, I was able to mount this to my 2020 4Runner TRD Pro without problems. However, when I changed from the OEM roof basket to a Sherpa Equipment Company Crestone full-length rack, I had to purchase an adapter/mount from Sherpa. Fortunately, it works great, and mounts the awning very close and firm to the rack.

The material of the Slim Shady awning is very light and durable. It provides good shade and is waterproof. The legs are easy to pull out and lock into place, and the side supports are equally easy to use.

The Yakima Slim Shady tucks up nice and compact.

When the Slim Shady awning is tucked up in it’s protective case, it lives up to its name: Slim. It doesn’t produce any additional wind noise (which was a fear of my wife’s since it’s mounted on the passenger side), and it doesn’t rattle, shake, or produce any additional sound, for that matter. The case is waterproof, and has been doing a great job of protecting the awning inside.

Lunch with my kids and their significant others while socially distancing at Bucky’s.

The area it covers is good. We were able to fit five of us under it for a meal on Mother’s Day parked in the Bucky’s parking lot (to social distance).

What I Don’t Like

It was hard to find something I don’t like about this awning, because so far, it’s been a solid performer and has allowed us to have shade in some very sunny weather and has provided us protection while having some of the most enjoyable moments this year. The thing I don’t like is very minor, and probably something every awning suffers from: setup can be tricky for one person, especially in the wind. It’s not impossible, and it’s not insurmountable. It’s just tricky. I have found that leaving the table out while I put it away makes folding the legs and guide lines in much easier.

Why the Yakima Slim Shady

It’s not because I’m an Eminem fan (I like the guy, and he’s very smart, but I’m more of an alt-rock guy, truth be told). The reasons I chose the Yakima Slim Shady are:

  • Solid reviews. I do a lot of research before I buy anything, and the Yakima awnings receive some solid feedback.
  • Durability. Based on reviews and the personal experiences of people I know with awnings, the Yakima awnings hold up well. In my experience over the past two months of solid use, it’s been doing great. I’ll update in the future with any issues, if they pop up.
  • Slim and unobtrusive when rolled up. This was a big deal for me. I didn’t want anything that had to be mounted up too high on the rack, or that stuck out too far from the side. The 4Runner is a medium-sized SUV, and I have seen some awnings that stick out much farther.
  • Price/value. The Yakima Slim Shady awning is very affordable. I felt that it was one of the best deals in awnings for the 4Runner.
  • Functional. I fly RC planes, and often at the flying field, the tables under the shade are all taken up by other pilots who got to the field before me. Now, I can setup my own awning, table, and chair, and have shade to protect me and my planes.
  • Not proprietary. The Yakima Slim Shady awning will work with just about any roof rack system out there. I went from OEM to Sherpa Equipment Company without any issues at all.
A couple of my planes under the awning a few weeks ago.

Final Thoughts

Of all the mods and add-ons I’ve put on my 4Runner, this is probably tied for the one I use and enjoy the most. My wife would argue it’s the best item on my 4Runner, but I’d remind her that it works exceptionally well with the Sherpa Equipment Company Crestone roof rack. It’s almost as if they were meant to be together.

If you want a solidly made, dependable, useful, and easy to use awning for your 4WD or Overlanding vehicle, you can’t go wrong with the Yakima Slim Shady. I highly recommend it.

Parked literally feet from the water. It was an amazing experience. It was very windy this day, and the awning held up admirably.

Quick Morning Flights

My own self-contained hangar and support station.

This morning, I went out for a few flights with my RC planes. It’s been a long time since I last flew them, and the mandatory shutdown orders due to COVID-19 have kept our field closed until this past weekend. That was welcome news, and flying RC planes is a very socially distant activity.

When I got out to the field, there was no one else out there. I immediately setup and found that I’d left all my charged batteries at home. No problem! I had my solar generator (fully charged) and battery chargers along with some batteries that needed charging, so I pulled out a chair (not in the photo) and sat down while two batteries charged. Once complete, I flew the P-47D Thunderbolt (the plane on the table) for two full flights. The first takeoff was ugly in the crosswind, but the landing was as smooth as ever and very nice. I wish I’d have brought my Osmo Action camera with me to get it all on video!

The second takeoff was very nice (I remembered how to take off in a crosswind) and the second flight was very pleasurable as well. I finished off the day’s flying with a greased landing (which is to say, very smooth).

The stars of the show today were the Yakima Slim Shady awning and the aluminum table that my wife bought recently. It’s the Portal Outdoor Folding Portable Picnic Camping Table (wow! What a long name!). It sets up fast and easy, and is very sturdy. You can’t use it to stand on, but for a camping/picnic/RC hangar table, it’s perfect!

Adventures aren’t always off-road or in a campground. Sometimes, you find it down the street at your local RC flying field.


“Didn’t the Audi get Better Gas Mileage?”

It feels more common as a 4Runner driver than it did being an Audi driver.

I was talking to a friend the other day about my transition from owning an Audi A4 (an incredible, fine automobile with comfort, style, and amazing road handling) to owning a Toyota 4Runner. I told him that while there are things I really liked about the Audi, I absolutely adore the 4Runner. “But didn’t the Audi get better gas mileage?” he asked.


If what you’re after is good gas mileage, then you’re missing the point of a 4Runner. It’s about the capabilities, not the fuel economy. Some are quick to point out that there are other SUV’s out there that get better gas mileage, and it’s true. However, I challenge any of those vehicles to be as capable, long-lasting, and have better aftermarket support than the 4Runner. Oh, and we won’t go into which vehicles hold their value over time better.

You see, owning and driving a 4Runner really is a lifestyle choice. It’s also not the least expensive choice. My 4Runner cost more than my top of the line Audi A4 and is more capable in varied environments. Well, except for handling corners at high speeds and acceleration, that is.

You don’t buy a 4Runner if you want fuel efficiency. You buy a 4Runner when your life is about exploring, adventure, and being prepared for anything life throws at you. For me, it’s the perfect vehicle.

A photo from our most recent adventure to Lake Livingston, TX.

Making the Best of it

Our lunch spot for the day.

Sometimes, adventures don’t turn out the way you planned. Sometimes, whole new adventures appear when one slips away. That happened to us this weekend. We set out to go to a National Forest in Huntsville that was reported to be open (including a phone call to them confirming their being open) to ride our mountain bikes. There are lots of trails and wooded areas we were looking forward to riding through.

When we arrived, however, we found the gate chained. Not to be deterred, we drove down the road some more and found another park, but this one was closed for day-use and restricted to RV overnight use only. Running out of options, we found a boat launch that had a nice long wooded road that we were able to set up our lunch at. We opened up the awning, pulled out our food, and had a lovely time looking at Lake Livingston and watching some people catch fish. I rode my bike for just a little bit to stretch my legs, but the day’s trip turned more into driving than riding bikes.

The awning is getting a lot of use!

The highlight of the trip for me wasn’t the beautiful and scenic views or listening to the birds chirp. It was when my wife told me on our way back home that when I first told her I wanted to get a 4Runner to go off-roading and do overlanding, she was skeptical and wasn’t enthusiastic about it. She said she preferred hotels and wine trails over the outdoors. But then COVID-19 changed everything, and the types of places she likes to go to were unavailable, yet she still wanted to get out of the house. She said that the 4Runner has really opened up the world to us, and it allowed us to go out and do things we otherwise would have been unable to do. She is now enthusiastic about picnics, camping, off-reading, and she even bought two Tucktec kayaks for us!

I knew I’d enjoy having a 4Runner, but I didn’t realize how dramatically it would change our view on adventuring and how my wife and I spend our spare time together. I am looking forward to going on wine trails and staying at bed and breakfasts in the future, but now we also have the option of camping, going off-road, and seeing things that wouldn’t be possible in the old sedan.


Off-Road Adventures: Matagorda Beach, Texas

This photo makes it look like I’m on a sliver of land, but it wasn’t nearly this perilous.

This past weekend, my wife and I took some time to get out of the house and socially distance in the Gunship (our 4Runner). We drove from Houston down to Galveston and then went West along the coast until Freeport. From there, we went inland and then back down toward Matagorda. Once there, we went to a public-access beach area that was open and allowing vehicles to drive on the sand. This gave me an opportunity to put the Gunship into 4WD (4-Hi) and go through some soft sand. I didn’t air down, and fortunately I didn’t need to. The sand was soft and I did have to make sure to keep momentum and speed up, but the 4Runner made it through without nary an issue.

My feet were in the water to get this photo; we were very close to the inlet.

We ended up stopping for a picnic lunch close to an inlet to the inland waterway that extends along the entire Gulf Coast and then up the East Coast. The weather was very windy, and I was worried that our Yakima Slim Shady awning wouldn’t be able to handle it, but I was wrong. I was able to use the anchors (long tent poles) that came with the awning and they held in the sand just fine.

These cattle provided a soundtrack to our lunch.

Our lunch was delicious, and the views were amazing. We watched a herd of cattle on Matagorda Island, just across the inlet, wandering, mooing, and even getting into the water to cool themselves. We watched a squall line pass to the North of us, and fortunately miss us with its downpour. After eating our lunch, we drove straight up back to Houston. I then took time to wash the Gunship off and make sure that all the salty sand was off the underside while cleaning off the 400+ dead “Love Bugs” from the front-facing surfaces of the vehicle. I made it just in time; drops of rain started falling the moment I pulled the Gunship into the garage.

Texas weather sometimes provides some beautiful sky for photos.

This is the second time I’ve been able to take the 4Runner out and get off-road, and it was thoroughly enjoyable. Even my wife, who was rather skeptical of going off-roading and of me getting a 4WD vehicle, has admitted she’s enjoying our adventures. I look forward to far more as more parks open and we return to a semblance of normalcy after the COVID-19 pandemic winds down.


X-Bull Recovery Board Mounting System

Gunship with the X-Bull recovery boards mounted on the Sherpa Equipment Co. Crestone roof rack.

My son gave me some X-Bull Recovery Boards (also known as Recovery Tracks) for Christmas, and I was very happy and grateful to receive them. I plan on doing a lot of four-wheeling and overlanding, and I want to be prepared for soft ground. Recovery boards help get you unstuck quickly. The problem with these recovery boards, however, is that it’s impossible to find any mounting system for them. There are lots of folks online who have found ways to make their own mounts, but they are, frankly, not nearly as professional looking or sturdy as I’d like for my vehicle.

I was talking to my son about the lack of mounting solutions when he remembered that his best friend from junior high school’s family owned a hot rod custom shop nearby. He contacted his friend who told us to come on by.

Some of Bruce’s private collection of classic hot rods.

We drove to Bruce’s Rod Shop in Spring, TX where we met with Danny who gave us a tour of the shop, the showroom, and the facilities. We got to see many really net hot rods including one that was stolen by Bonnie and Clyde during their robbery spree through East Texas.

This Ford was stolen by Bonnie and Clyde and used in a bank robbery.

After the tour, Danny asked me what exactly I was looking for. I showed him the X-Bull recovery boards and the mounting holes. I showed him the mount that I purchased that turned out to not work due to the bolts not lining up with the holes in the board, and he said, “Give me a few minutes.” He disappeared into his office and within about 5 minutes came back out with a sheet of paper with a printed image of a mount on it. “Will this do?” I said, “Absolutely!” He told me to come back Monday afternoon and he’d have them done for me.

Monday afternoon came, and I drove over to Bruce’s Rod Shop. Danny was just finishing up the first mount. It was amazing. I then got to watch the second mount being made in the CNC machine, milled from a solid piece of half-inch thick aluminum. Once he was done with both, I paid for mine and went home to mount it to my Sherpa Equipment Co. Crestone rack.

I ended up mounting them on the driver’s side rear portion of the roof rack. In this location, it will be easy to get to by standing on the Shrockworks rock slider and up onto the driver’s side rear tire. They screwed in very easily and the boards mounted flawlessly. They are on the rack very solidly, and I have no worries about them moving or coming loose. Oh, and they look great, too!

Danny at Bruce’s Rod Shop told me that he can make these for anyone interested. He can customize it as necessary for different boards, different bolts, etc. Give him a call at 281-376-5932. Please tell him E.J. (me) sent you.


How to Up Your Grocery Game with Rago Fabrications and S-Biners

When I installed the Rago Fabrications shelf into the back of my 4Runner, I wanted to find something to replicate the functionality of the grocery hooks I had in the back of my Audi and VW Passat before it. These hooks would pop out of the top of the trunk and hold bags to keep them from rolling around on the way home from the store.

The cargo area of my 4Runner with the Rago Fabrication panels and shelf installed.

The Rago Fabrications shelf is a great item to organize the back area of the 4Runner, and it attaches easily to the Rago Storage panels on either side of the cargo area. I attached my shelf a little lower than the instructions specify, but that’s the beauty of the system; you can raise or lower the shelf as needed (it’s not a quick process, but it is relatively easy). However, I didn’t want to install the shelf so low that it would negatively impact the usable space of the cargo area, but I wanted to have some kind of hook to hang grocery bags from.

The S-Biner.

I thought of using carabiners, but settled on the S-Biner. The S-Biner is a perfect fit for easily putting plastic bags onto while hanging from the Rago shelf. It keeps the bags from rolling around, while leaving the floor of the cargo area available for the heavier items that won’t roll around or be damaged if they do.

Provisions for two weeks fit in nicely with S-Biners and the Rago Fabrications storage system.

We kid about our “Mall crawlers,” but most vehicles are used as daily drivers, only going off-road for 10% of their operational time (or less). Most of us will find ourselves getting groceries more often than on a trail, and while it’s cool to make our vehicles more capable off-road, it’s also important to make our vehicles more capable of their daily duties. This is one small modification that improves our vehicles for daily use as well as Overlanding. The S-Biners can be used for hanging other small bags and items from the Rago Fabrications shelf. They are quick and easy to use, and they are very strong.

The one down-side of using S-Biners with plastic shopping bags, however, is that there is a small indentation on the inside of the body of the S-Biner which allows the clip to lock in which always catches on the plastic bag handles when I try to remove them. I think that if these were solid, it would make taking bags off the clips much easier, but I do understand why they are designed this way. I may modify my S-Biners to get rid of these cuts, but I haven’t thought much yet about how I will do this.

All in all, the Rago Fabrications shelf coupled with the S-Biners makes for an ultra-useful modification to the cargo area of any 4Runner.


Sherpa Equipment Co. Crestone Roof Rack

It finally happened: the Crestone roof rack I ordered from Sherpa Equipment Co. arrived on Monday! I put it mostly together (front, middle, and rear cross bars only to make it easier to lift and maneuver) and with my son’s help, we got it mounted to the roof of my 4Runner.

Gunship on the grass for a beauty shot.

The build itself was very easy and straight-forward. The directions (available at Sherpa Equipment Co.’s website) are easily downloaded and printed, and as long as you follow the directions, it will assemble quickly and easily.

If you’re like me, however, and gloss over some key points that are clearly made in the directions, you will make mounting it more difficult on yourself. You see, I missed an important note about the front and back mounts being different, and I had reversed them on one side. I stood there scratching my head wondering what was wrong when my son asked me if I was sure I put the right mounts in the right location. He read the directions and wanted to make sure I read them, too. I told him that I did read them, but he was incredulous that I paid attention when reading, so he double-checked my work and found the error. Once corrected, the rack was mounted to the roof of Gunship within 5 minutes.

After the rack was mounted on the roof, I installed the remaining cross bars evenly spaced and left the cross bar that would be placed over the moon roof off until I need it. It wouldn’t hinder the operation of the moon roof at all, but I just prefer the clearer view.

My 4Runner, “Gunship,” with the awning mounted firmly.

Two days later, the awning mounts from Sherpa Equipment Co. arrived, and I quickly mounted my Yakima Slim Shady awning to the passenger side of Gunship. My wife, who has been somewhat skeptical about how fun this 4Runner could be, immediately said we should go for a picnic this weekend under the awning somewhere out in the country where we can be socially distanced and out in the open. She also said she likes the look of the rack on Gunship better than the OEM roof rack. I can’t agree more.

From the front. Such a pretty rig.

The Crestone rack is made specifically for 5th Generation 4Runners, and is all-aluminum with stainless steel hardware. I opted for the all-black bolts and hardware, and I really like how it looks. The construction is very sturdy. The cuts are clean, and the powder coating of the side and front wind deflector is very good.

Why the Sherpa Equipment Co. Crestone Roof Rack?

There are lots of other roof racks to consider, and I spent weeks researching all the available options out there and settled on the Sherpa Equipment Co. Crestone for the following reasons:

  • Quality and reputation. Everything I’ve read, seen, and heard about Sherpa Equipment Co. praised the craftsmanship and quality of their product.
  • Configurable mounting via slots for mounting cross bars. This is unique to the Crestone from Sherpa Equipment Co., and was actually a very strong selling point for me.
  • Solid construction. The sides are thicker than most, and even has handles cut into the sides to help climb up on the rock sliders or rear tire to get stuff on or off the rack.
  • No-drill full rack. There are no modifications necessary to the vehicle, and it uses the factory mounting points.
  • Rubber mounting to the roof has better waterproofing than alternatives.
  • Upgradeable. If I decide to get a light bar or lights later, it’s very easy to add a different wind deflector with cut-outs available from Sherpa Equipment Co.

Final Thoughts

Of all the racks available on the market, I personally believe that the Crestone roof rack from Sherpa Equipment Co. is an excellent value, is structurally well-designed, well-built, and looks great. It’s configurability and modularity makes it adapt to any load situation you can throw at it without having to make painful and permanent modifications to your rig. While I didn’t factor cost into my decision, it’s reasonably priced, and in-line with the competition. However, with it’s superior features, I feel that it’s a bargain at its price.

I hate shooting photos on cloudy days. The sky looks so boring.


From Sherpa Equipment Co.‘s website:



Accessorizing the 4Runner

My 2020 Army Green 4Runner TRD Pro in the driveway.

I realized today that while some of the changes I’m making to the Gunship can be considered mods, most are just accessories. So, in a sense, I’m accessorizing.

I ordered a ladder from Baja Racks, and it will arrive next week. I will be out of town, so the mounting of it will have to wait until next weekend. I also received a bottle jack last night which promptly went into the back of the rig.

As I was putting the bottle jack in, I realized just how many accessories I’ve purchased for the Gunship and I haven’t listed, so I’m in the process of creating a page on my blog where I will list all the mods, accessories, and supplies that I’ve purchased and links to them. I might even get creative and make an image map with clickable locations (like on the rock sliders, the hatch ladder, roof rack, etc).

So, what accessories are on your 4Runner or off-roader? What accessories are you looking at getting?