We all learned in school, "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." Later, we learned, "In 1903, the Brothers Wright, built a plane to be first in flight." After that, "In 1969, on-top a rocket, Armstrong came home with a moon rock in his pocket." Someday, our great-grandchildren will learn, "In 2063, Mr. Zephram Cochrane, went faster than light to meet a Vulcan." OK, we have 50 years to work on a better rhyme, but you get the idea. We are explorers and travelers. For now, the average person is stuck exploring the hunk of rock third out from a giant ball of burning gas at the center of our solar system. By space standards, traveling around it is nothing, but on wheels, even a trip halfway across one of its landmasses is an adventure.
Ram sent over a concept truck built to showcase the best the company currently offers and tease some ideas that might be coming in the next few years. It's called the Long Hauler and, aside from the premium interior bits, performance upgrades, and exterior badging, its real party trick is being able to carry 170 gallons of diesel fuel spread out among three separate tanks. The gargantuan cruiser is based on a Ram 5500 frame with a custom Megacab and a fifth-wheel-specific tailgate. From a distance, the average person won't realize it is anything more than a big dually. On closer inspection, however, you can't help but notice the 24-foot overall length and a separate box sandwiched between the bed and the cab.
As the name might suggest, the idea of the Long Hauler is to cover great -- almost astronomical -- distances in comfort and with minimal stopping. We set out on a trek with a starting point, but no real destination. We would discover what covering huge swathes of land reveals about this truck's abilities and scientifically determine if road food is better when the restaurant choice isn't determined by a fuel gauge.
Our story begins in Roswell, New Mexico, the heart of the American Southwest and a geek mecca. The epicenter of Roswell's current reason for being is the International UFO Museum, Research Center and Gift Emporium. Located in the heart of this sleepy desert town, it houses the compendium of non-classified human knowledge that relates to the incident that happened during a thunderstorm one night in July 1947. Newspaper clippings, documents, photographs, and artistic renderings line the walls of this theatre turned intergalactic shrine. The story of the crash, discovery, and cover-up unfolds before visitors' eyes -- as long as they're walking through the museum counter-clockwise. A clockwise stroll might lead one to think our government started a PR campaign to raise awareness about a group of sick aliens trying to fly home in a shiny balloon before finally realizing what they needed was a spaceship.
While we don't know what crashed that night, we have several stories corroborating what happened after. This is what we know, as close to fact as is possible through the distorted lens of time: A rancher by the name of Mac Brazel was making the rounds of the property he managed after a fierce storm the previous night. Sad to say, eyewitness accounts are a bit cloudy, but he is believed to have said something to the effect of, "I came up the ridge overlooking the clearing where all the sheep normally graze. I looked down into the empty gully where stood a single sheep. It was clear something had scared the flock out of it." Mac's investigation turned up the wreckage of what he believed to be a flying alien disc.
Brazel first reported his findings to Chaves County Sherriff George Wilcox, who passed the information on to Major Jesse Marcel, an intelligence officer with the 509th Bomber Group. Within four days, the Army had issued a press release on the AP News Wire announcing they had recovered the wreckage of a flying saucer. That release was rescinded the following day and the now-famous weather balloon story was released under the orders of Brigadier General Roger Ramey, commander of the 8th Air Force. The wreckage was reportedly flown out of the area during the following week on B-29 Bomber flights and, for several weeks following the event, witnesses were visited by military officers and the United States Secret Service. Walt Whitmore Sr., owner of the local radio station, was even threatened by the FCC over an interview with Brazel. It is hard to believe this much attention would have been given to a simple weather balloon crash.
It took nearly three hours but we had learned all we were going to learn at the UFO Museum. We had also bought all our corporate credit cards would allow us to buy in the gift shop. It was time to head out into the field to search for real hard evidence. The first stop, an eight-story brick fortress simply labeled "Petroleum Building," was right around the corner. On the first floor of this desert monolith sits Big D's Downtown Dive, which we found abuzz with activity. While the turkey sandwich and cheesesteak were amazing, the object of suspicion turned out be the best shrimp tacos this side of Baja. As Californians, we are taco experts, and finding big, plump juicy fried crustacean in the middle of the desert is not normal. Is it alien activity or just a government experiment in matter transportation? We also discovered a piece of information crucial for our alien investigation. Although no mystery is solved, this is marked down as an early success.
After lunch, we filled the truck in Roswell in preparation for a drive with an uncertain destination. Luckily, with 170 gallons of liquid energy sitting behind us, we knew we could make it just about anywhere short of Magrathea. Our first fueling experience with the big Ram was an exercise in patience. The truck still has the standard 22-gallon fuel tank beneath the bed and the mid tank, sandwiched between the cab and bed, holds an additional 38 gallons. The third tank, the polished diamond-plate box in the bed, carries a whopping 110 gallons. We were only 100 gallons down, not even 60 percent of our total capacity, but we still raised eyebrows at the local Gas and Snack.
A half hour and $500 later, we headed east on State Route 246 into the high desert plains surrounding Roswell. We had heard from a local source at Big D's about a dirt road marked simply with a mailbox roughly 60 miles away by country highway. The Long Hauler was surprisingly laid back on the small two-lane ribbon of a road. It settled into a cruise tracking easily between the lane markers just inches off of each rear tire.
Out here, the scenery was breathtaking and suddenly I understood why my European friends wax romantic over the thought of driving a pickup truck across this uniquely American landscape. The sky opened up and the land rolled on in a matte painting of the open road. Even with GPS, air-conditioning, and a Costco-size box of organic granola bars, it was tough to not feel like a pioneer forging ahead, throwing caution to the wind.
The mailbox stood off the road like a pessimistic hitchhiker. Sure enough, next to the mailbox was a rusted and weathered gate. Luckily, it was open and we took this as an invitation to explore. The dirt road was wider than the highway and, in places, better groomed. It was smooth for the most part, showing only the occasional claw marks of rain water that falls hard but not often. The Long Hauler's custom air suspension was stiff and, over rougher sections, cruised more comfortably at 50 mph than 15. Even with a 197-inch wheelbase and 12,000 pounds of mass, it felt nervous over washboard sections as though it was having some trouble staying planted. With an onboard compressor and the ability to bleed air out at will, the suspension self-adjusts for angle and ride height. I wished I could dial in different damping and spring rates to change ride and handling.
After 20 minutes, we arrived at another gate. A faded sign led us to believe that this was private land and we may or may not be welcome. We found what we believed was the Ranch where Brazel worked. It was a good distance off the dirt road and we weren't sure if it was occupied or not. We continued driving and eventually came upon what we were told is a natural gas compressor station...with a runway. The high-tech facility looked brand new and straight out of a SYFY Channel monster movie about a secret base in the middle of New Mexico where three curious automotive journalists in a giant truck disappeared, never to be seen again. We didn't want to stick around too long for fear of the chupacabra that would surely escape the secret facility.
A quick review of our notes told us we must be close. We uses the Hauler's navigation to try and figure out exactly where we were, but if there really is a place called nowhere, we were in the middle of it. As a storm began to roll in, we decided it was time to snap some photos and get out before the rain started and darkness made it even harder to find our way. We picked a spot at random, a gully bisected by a dirt road. As we started mulling around to get the shots, we realized we weren't standing on a hill; it was a crater. The rock on the near side was smashed into small shards while the opposite side was sheared up, as if something very large were trying to pry the land open.
Ranch fields are usually filled with various pieces of stuff and bits that have fallen off machinery. This area was perfectly clean. Nothing was around here but nature, although it didn't look like the animals were too keen on this particular spot. The clouds were filling in whatever sky we could see around us and suddenly it looked like someone had draped a gray hood over the world. We had our photos and we were convinced something bigger than a balloon had made that divot.
The trip back to the pavement seemed much shorter than on the way in. The ride was more relaxed, or maybe it was us. The truck settled into a groove. It seemed to dance instead of bounce down the road. We passed the mailbox on the way out with a feeling of accomplishment. The light was just about gone as we headed out onto the highway.
This is a concept truck, and occasionally it acts like it. There are three gauges mounted above the center console with lighting matched to the rest of the interior. All three gauges are lit independently, and by that I mean they seem to turn on and off individually and at random. Normally, something like this isn't a cause for alarm, but when traveling through one of the darkest areas of the world in an area famous for alien activity, flashing electronics are a bit off-putting.
We drove for four hours without abduction until we reached Albuquerque. Our fuel gauges, one in the dash for the stock tank and a digital readout in the center console bin for each auxiliary tank, barely showed any sign of movement. We stopped at a gas station, but it was for us, not the truck.
In the morning, we headed to K&I Diner for breakfast and encountered our first real issue with the Long Hauler's size. Although the small building was surrounded by cable TV trucks, cop cars, and various large work vehicles - all signs of good food -- we had trouble finding a place to fit our behemoth. It was too wide for parallel parking in the narrow alley to the side of the building and too long for most of the spots in the parking lot. What would normally be a three-point turn in a regular-length dually mutated into a 27-point turn nearly pinballing between police cruisers and bucket trucks. The two backup cameras, one in the third brake light normally used for lining up the gooseneck and the other in the traditional spot, kept us from crushing other diners' rides. We ended up using a neighboring business' lot whose owner has luckily decided to sleep in. Once parked, we found some of the best breakfast anywhere. I'm pretty sure you could eat a work boot if it were covered in New Mexico chili sauce, but just to be safe, I had the sauce over eggs and tortillas.
In what might best be described as a food coma, we headed down Interstate 25 to Socorro. By this point, we'd made ourselves fully at home in the Mega Cab. The two front seats are obviously all about piloting and navigation. Although this is basically the interior from a Long Horn, it feels a bit different. The leather is nicer, and the cabin feels more spacious. Both front seats are heated and cooled. They offer firm yet supportive comfort for hour upon hour of highway driving. The rear seats are turned into a mobile office and pantry. With four power outlets, 2 110V AC and 2 12V DC, we could plug in our electronics. The center-mounted fridge is ideal for drinks and pudding cups.
At Socorro we headed due west on Highway 60 in search of one our planets biggest pieces of exploration equipment. In the middle of the desert, away from the electronic noise and signal saturation of big cities, stands the VLA, or Very Large Array. No one ever claimed astrophysicists were a creative bunch. The VLA uses 27 radio antennas to watch the skies for signs of ET phoning us. Each dish is 82 feet in diameter and weighs 230 tons. The Long hauler is rated for towing right around 9 tons, but I'm convinced we could get one of these things moving with the 610 lb-ft of torque and 305 hp we have on tap. Stopping it might be a different story. Unfortunately, the scientists were too busy doing science to be bothered with our experiment. Ram says the GCWR is roughly 30,000 pounds, and we know the truck weighs in at a massive 12,000 pounds on full tanks. Still, I wonder if we had a shot.
After seeing such a giant manmade object, our next stop was equally as impressive, although made by the universe. There is a hole in the middle of the Arizona desert. I'd like to think it was made by Mjolnir impact, but it was apparently made when a meteorite 162 feet in length impacted the earth at an estimated 26,000 mph. The crater is nearly a mile across and 550 feet deep. Besides having several observation spots around the crater, the upper deck of the visitor center also offers a spot to check out the landscape, which happily includes the parking lot. We couldn't help but notice several people below checking out our truck. People will do a quick double take and then slowly approach it to take in the scale. Once they wrap their mind around the truck's physical enormity, they become curious about details. The 19.5-inch Alcoa wheels are straight from the commercial parts shelf and are always an attention getter with truck fans (your average person just sees shiny wheels). After that, the Zombie bar and vented hood always get a point and appreciative nod. Last, the observant member of the group will notice the middle tank and make guesses as to its purpose.
After letting the truck show off for its admirers, we decided we needed a picture with the crater and set out to find access around the opposite side. While looking at puzzles and postcards with aerial photography in the gift shop, we determined a few fire roads could get us where we needed to be. We found another well-manicured dirt road, but this time, the surface was loose and dusty. As we got around the opposite side of the crater, the terrain became more challenging. These roads are meant for jeeps, which are roughly the width of one of the Long Hauler's seats. There are a few sections that are quite literally carved through hills or outcroppings. The big fenders squeaked through, but just. Even over loose rocks, the Long Hauler crawled right up inclines using nothing but the four rear tires. Our biggest concern was how we were going to turn this thing around if the trail stops. We arrived at a point that offered a giant cleared area, perfect for turning around if needed, and headed up on foot. At the top, right at the edge of the crater, was an absolutely perfect clearing. We could not have asked for more. OK, we could have asked for the trail leading up to the perfect spot to not be washed out.
After extremely careful pacing off, measuring with arms stretched out, we determined the rear tires were farther apart than my wingspan fingertip to fingertip plus our photographer's fingertip to roughly other shoulder. We were forced to stare at what could have been and then headed back down the crater and on to the next stop.
Sedona is now a giant strip mall of New Age crystal shops, hemp clothing boutiques, and time-share salesmen. In the past, it was known as a center of strange events involving unexplained abductions, a glowing landscape, and eerie lights in the night sky. While most of the UFO business has dried up, one still remains. The Red Planet Diner continues to serve those seeking alien knowledge and cheeseburgers, rather than balance their chakra over steamed tofu. As the giant platter of piled nachos touched down on the table, my subconscious muttered, "This means something." Our waiter, we will call him Alien Stu to protect him from the government, gave us a run down on local alien happenings and drew a map to a sure-fire spot to meet aliens. He then explained how the big-headed astronauts are not friendly and how he never leaves home without his gun. He also warned us not to believe anything we see, whether a hiker needing help or our own grandmother -- shoot first and ask questions later. We decided to pass on an area that might be filled with armed people inclined to shoot then ask, so we headed out of town before getting assaulted by alien fighters thinking of us as spies or by cactus huggers hating us for driving the biggest truck they have ever seen.
We took the back roads out of Sedona and got maybe the biggest surprise of the trip. Winding through the high-altitude pine forests and mesas, we quickly found ourselves right on the bumpers of slower-moving cars. Although roughly the size and weight of a tour bus, with slow inputs and careful line selection, the Long Hauler can be hustled along quite easily. It obviously understeers near the limit, but keep the tires right on the edge of adhesion and it moves along with the speed of a midsize SUV. The stiff suspension keeps body roll to a minimum and the mass up front keeps itself centered between the wheels. Steering is understandably slow, but the rack's movements are linear and predictable. There really is a part of me that would like to get this thing on a racetrack. A very big racetrack with sweeping turns. I remember the last Long Horn I was in being good, but I don't remember it being this enjoyable.
Once my passengers had recovered from motion sickness, we were well on our way to Nevada -- another hot bed of unexplained activity. At the border, we stopped for photos at Hoover Dam. Historically known as one of mankind's great engineering achievements, it is more recently famous for being the home of Megatron in Michael Bay's tragic reimagining of a near-sacred cartoon for children of the '80s. Instead of giant sentient outer-space robots, we encountered tourists; but not just run-of-the-mill Midwesterners -- European tourists. A group of Germans were particularly curious about the Ram and looked at it half with envy and half with bemusement for American excess. A group of Italians were absolutely smitten with the Long Hauler. One man, a mountain guide in the Alps, currently drives a Toyota Hilux, a huge truck by European standards. He asked if he could check out our truck and before we knew it, he was posing for photos in the bed and on the running board. If Ram is looking for a European market analysis, we can guarantee at least one definite sale.
After a brief stop in Las Vegas for pizza, we continued toward what we decided would be the ultimate goal: Area 51. In the middle of the Nevada desert is the most publicized secret base everyone has ever heard of. To get to the hidden, super-secret aircraft development and alien dissection center, take the 15 north out of Vegas, take the 93 North fork, travel roughly 83 miles, and take a left on the world-famous Extraterrestrial Highway. We stopped at the "Alien Research Center" right off the 375. If you are looking for alien or sci-fi souvenirs on your way to or from Area 51, this is the place to stop. They have everything from Alien Tequila to "Star Trek" and even "Futurama" paraphernalia. There is another alien-themed spot on the other side of Area 51 in Rachel, but we had such a bad experience, I would recommend skipping it all together.
The secret to finding the nonexistent base is to look for another mailbox. Off the side of the highway is a dirt road that appears to lead back into the mountains (it does). The road is flat and dusty, so there is no sneaking up on this place. As we drove through the yucca trees and brush, we got the feeling we were being watched -- this place is allegedly guarded by Special Forces types that would prefer to kill you with their bare hands than win a free lifetime supply of ice cream. We decided that approaching the gate as lost tourists would be the best course of action. We continued down the dirt road formulating our story about looking for Uncle Arthur's cabin and eventually came across more signs. There was absolutely no confusion about whether or not they wanted us going past them. The Raptor sitting on the ridge staring down at us also made us think they were probably serious.
We decided we couldn't leave without at least one photo, so we turned the truck around ready to run if necessary. We took one shot, then another, then another. Before we knew it, I was standing in front of a sign forbidding any sort of photography posing with an inflatable alien. Sometimes, my job is very surreal.
After almost an hour of hamming it up at the most deadly serious spot on the planet, we figured we'd probably overstayed out welcome. Rumor has it that all the double-secret alien stuff has moved to yet another unknown location somewhere near Whitesands, New Mexico. Still, Area 51 has an aura about it. It might not have alien spacecraft or little green men running around, but there is certainly something going on there. Is it top-secret hypersonic aircraft? Are they testing future weapons? Are there hangars dedicated to making Area 51 T-shirts and postcards to sell to tourists that fund what's going on at the new secret base? We don't know for sure.
We ended up fueling in Tonopah, Nevada, putting a total of 1268 miles on one tank of gas. The pump eventually stopped at just over 113 gallons, which put our fuel economy at 11.2 mpg. In theory, if you were a bit more careful with your fuel usage, avoiding off-road and traffic, you might squeeze 2000 miles out of a single fill-up. That means you could make it to the moon on just 120 tanks. Of course, you would need to build a road first.
I did a 500-mile road trip in that previously-mentioned Laramie Long Horn and felt beat up and exhausted at the end of the trip. Either the Long Hauler beat my will into submission or it really is a great cruising vessel. It might be tough to park at some hotels and certainly is tight in restaurant parking lots; it doesn't get the greatest mileage, but giant fuel tanks make up for that if you can afford to fill them. You may not find the answers to universal mysteries, but the Long hauler will take you as far as you want to go.
Just one of the Long-Hauler's talents is being able to tow extremely heavy objects. On a separate trip, we hung a 2100-pound Fiat race car off the back and towed it for 400 miles between the Snow Ball Rally in Sacramento to its garage in Long Beach. The Ram barely felt the extra weight, and fuel economy remained unchanged. And having a trailer attached makes people a little more understanding when the truck takes up an entire corner of a parking lot.
Concept to Dealership
The Long-Hauler was built as a design study, but most of the technology could easily be transferred over to the production line. Here's a quick list of what we would like to see.
TANK SANDWICH: You can pick long bed or short bed. Why not have a Long-Hauler bed that provides an additional 20 to 30 gallons of fuel capacity? It could work with either gas- or diesel-powered trucks and with the auxiliary pump system like the Long-Hauler's, owners wouldn't have to keep it filled.
BIG-RIG ROLLERS: Although the commercial-grade tires contribute to the Long-Hauler's rough ride, we love the look of the 19.5-inch aluminum wheels. Maybe if they catch on, tire manufacturers could start supplying something specific to this sort of use.
LESS IS MORE: Owners might want to pick their own fifth-wheel or gooseneck hardware to mount in the bed, but the cut-out tailgate would be a nice alternative to removing it.
PUMP IT UP: While being able to dump or level the truck is nice, a system that would integrate some of the height and ride adjustment, similar to systems on luxury cars, would be a welcome addition.
|2012 Ram 5500 Long-Hauler Concept|
|BASE PRICE || Out of this world|
|PRICE AS TESTED||N/A|
|LAYOUT|| Front engine, 4WD, 4-pass, 4-door pickup|
turbodiesel OHV 24-valve I-6 |
|TRANSMISSION || 6-speed automatic|
|WHEELBASE || 197.4 in|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT || 288.0 x 96.4 x 79.1 in|
|CURB WEIGHT|| 12,020 lb (55/45%)|
|GVWR|| 19,500 lb*|
|PAYLOAD CAPACITY|| 7,480 lb*|
|TOWING CAPACITY|| 18,000 lbs*|
|0-60 MPH || 13.2 sec|
|QUARTER MILE|| 19.0 sec @ 71.0 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH || 151 ft|
|EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON || Not rated|
|ON SALE IN U.S. || Never|
|*Ram 5500 GVWR: 19,500 lb PAYLOAD: 10,675 lb TOWING CAP: 21,000 lb|