The Owner of That Famously Stuck Jeep Wrangler Finally Speaks

How on earth did he get up there? You’re about to find out.

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The Owner of That Famously Stuck Jeep Wrangler Finally Speaks © The Owner of That Famously Stuck Jeep Wrangler Finally Speaks

What a week for stuck Jeeps. As if it wasn't crazy enough that the world's most famous abandoned Jeep Wrangler was found in an impossible spot on a ridgeline bike trail in southern California, it was then retrieved by a daring, diehard group of off-roaders who didn't need no helicopter—but only after Ford of all companies stepped in with a real rescue offer as a jab at Jeep. There's only one question that still needs to be answered. How the hell did the Wrangler get up there in the first place?

Wonder no more. The Drive has the answer after tracking down and speaking with Car Internet's most buzzed-about missing man this week: the Jeep's owner, a local man named Ricky Barba. As you might've guessed, it all started with an ill-advised joyride to show off his rig. But there's no way Barba could've known his misadventure would end up garnered nationwide attention from news stations, social media users and even corporate bigwigs.

And yes, what Barba did was dumb, incredibly dangerous, and wildly irresponsible. He could've easily died up there, or someone could've lost their life in the recovery effort. And we're not even talking about the damage done to the bike trail, or the potential to start a brush fire at the height of fire season. Do not off-road by yourselves, after dark, in a place where it's not allowed. Barba is incredibly lucky that he and his Jeep are still in one piece. There are saints out there in the constellation of off-road recovery Facebook groups, but you can't count on them to save your bacon.

Anyway, the way Barba tells it, the whole thing started around a barbecue grill. He and his brother had dinner Sunday night, after which they decided around to go for a short off-road drive in Barba's Wrangler around 7 p.m. A crucial detail is that sunset is at 6:45 p.m. in Los Angeles these days—wheeling alone is never a great idea, and that's triply true after dark. Still, the brothers took off for a nearby recreational area in the wrinkled hills just south of Loma Linda, California, where he said they'd made memories with their late father years before.

Another key point relayed by Barba: He wasn't driving. It was apparently his brother behind the wheel.

"So, [my brother] had never driven a Jeep," Ricky explained. "He was like 'Let me drive your Jeep' because I've been trying to get him to buy one, so that's how it started."

An eager off-road newbie, a darkening sky, and someone else's Jeep. You can see where this is going.

Now, this area is a network of rolling hills—"mountains" is overstating it, though there are definitely some long, steep dropoffs in places—along the south edge of the San Bernardino Valley, and it's a hotspot for off-roaders. However, past a certain point it's not fit for four-wheeling. A network of backroads winds from one side to the other, changing in elevation and winnowing down to single-track hiking and biking trails like Razor Ridge, where the Jeep eventually became terribly and utterly stuck.

Even though Barba and his brother had been there before, the clock wasn't on their side this time. It was really getting dark, and a series of wrong turns landed them on one narrow trail after another. Unlike them at the time, you can probably see where this is going.

"We ended up driving farther and farther and farther, and he liked the way it handled so he'd say 'Let me try this, let me try this.'"

Despite what the photos might lead you to believe, the Barba brothers didn't make it that far. According to Jorgie Maldonado, a member of the Jalados 4x4 group that successfully recovered the Jeep, it was only 15 minutes from the dirt road in nearby Reche Canyon to the stuck Wrangler. The consequences were clear, though they could've been much worse.

Another clarification from Barba is that he and his brother initially made it across that knife-edged ridge in the now-famous photo. But when they got to the other side, they couldn't see over the crest and decided to try and back up. If your head is spinning right now, you're not alone

"How we crossed it, I don't know. Obviously, we're talking about heights, there was no moon, there were no lights. Only our headlights," Barba told us. 

It was during that doomed attempt to reverse back across the ridge that they veered off the narrow path to the east, putting the passenger side—where Barba was sitting—on a downhill slant.

"We were able to jump out and he was able to put it in park. If we would've went down, we would've been dead."

The thing is, though, Barba says he did fall down, which made the situation even more complicated.

"I fell off the cliff, [my brother] called 9-1-1 for them to come and rescue me at that point, [but] that didn't happen. But they had all my brother's information—his name, his date of birth." Note: That's apparently how Ford got in touch with Barba in the first place—the automaker reached out to the police department who then directed a spokesperson to him, resulting in the ambiguous offer to retrieve his Jeep.

Finally, they ditched the Wrangler and left the area in the wee hours of Monday morning. Ricky claims they returned in the following days to secure the rig, which explains why later photos show a strap around its front bumper tied to a stake in the ground.

It's now been two days since the Jeep was yanked off the trail and no fines have been issued to either Ricky or his brother. They might even get out of it for free as the Jalados 4x4 group removed the truck as a favor. Coming from a point where hiring a helicopter pilot seemed like the only option, this has turned into a best-case scenario for both Barbas. Especially considering they easily could have died on Sunday night.

And for the rest of us, we got one of the more entertaining automotive stories of 2020. Win win?

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