After just a few minutes talking with Joe Turcotte, two things become immediately clear.

One: He loves Toyota Land Cruisers.

“He’s literally been obsessed,” said his wife, Anna. “He probably spends two or three hours a day on this Land Cruiser blog.”

Two: He has developed a seemingly Zen-like tolerance for governmental red tape.

This week, his capacity for calm in the face of bureaucratic adversity was put to a Kafkaesque test when his fledgling business of importing and fixing up old Land Cruisers almost died on a New Jersey dock – all because of a few scraps of wood.

After seven months of wrangling with a Nicaraguan fixer and spending more money than he’d like to admit, two clean, running Land Cruisers – one built in 1985 and the other in 1986 – were finally strapped into a cargo container bound for Maine, via Newark, New Jersey. It was supposed to be the seed of a niche business geared toward people like himself. Turcotte would import hard-to-find Land Cruisers, fix them up and sell them.

A few measly pieces of wood, which were used to chock the Land Cruisers’ wheels during shipment, almost put the brakes on his dream.


Turcotte, 31, has lusted after the vehicles since he was a teenager, enthralled by their sturdy design and reputation for reliability. Making his vehicular passion into a full-time pursuit remained a far-off idea until 2008, when he visited Nicaragua.

“It was like Land Cruiser heaven,” Turcotte said. “Every make, every model, every shape you could possibly imagine.”

The legendary Toyota off-road vehicles have been in production since the early 1950s, and Toyota has produced a dizzying array of versions, but not all were imported into the United States.

And while the production of Land Cruisers continues today, their design has shifted away from the spartan, utilitarian models of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s toward an Americanized version full of creature comforts, more at home in a grocery store parking lot than the trying environs of the scorched Australian outback or a Panamanian jungle.

The earlier designs, which resemble original military Jeeps, are sought after by collectors, who are willing to pay handsome sums for clean, original examples. Fully restored versions can command $100,000 or more.

The single container with two Land Cruisers that Turcotte bought for several thousand dollars apiece – he spent several thousand more on shipping – was his first step toward his dream.


But when the container was selected for extra scrutiny by U.S. customs officials, it wasn’t the vehicles they found objectionable.

Wedged under each wheel was a scrap of innocuous wood, shoved there by someone worried about the cars shifting during transit.

Wood, like almost anything else brought into the United States, must meet strict import standards. Foreign lumber used as packing material must be fumigated or heat-treated to kill any insects lurking inside that could invade a non-native environment, according to federal regulations. These wood scraps were of an undetermined origin and not affixed with the proper markings indicating they were safe, according to federal regulations.

The entire container, Land Cruisers and wood scraps, would have to be shipped back to Nicaragua, all at Turcotte’s expense, customs officials told him.


There was one problem. Nicaragua does not allow the importation of vehicles older than 20 years. Turcotte’s Land Cruisers were considered imports, and suddenly rendered contraband in their country of origin.

Frantic, he called his wife.

“I’m thinking I’m going to get this juicy piece of family gossip,” she said. Nope – it was about the Land Cruisers.

Anna Turcotte called her father, who suggested she try calling elected officials. Then they remembered a family connection to Maine U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree.

“One of my parents’ old friends from when they were in their 20s was Chellie Pingree’s campaign manager,” Anna Turcotte said.

Her father called the campaign manager, the campaign manager called Pingree and the congresswoman called her staff.

A staffer called the port of Newark and “strongly urged (customs officials) to do the reasonable thing,” a Pingree spokesman said.

“I understand the need to protect against invasive species, but this was crazy,” Pingree said in a written statement.


A compromise was worked out.

Turcotte would have to pay for a professional steam-cleaning of the vehicles to eradicate any dirt left over from their Central American homeland.

Customs agreed to separate the offending wood scraps, weighing no more than 10 pounds in all, from the rest of the container. Instead of burning them in a barrel in Newark or some similar easy solution, customs demanded that Turcotte ship the wood back to Nicaragua, which has turned into a separate headache.

It turns out, he said, “there’s a lot involved in exporting wood.”

Amazingly, the ordeal has only strengthened Turcotte’s resolve to import Land Cruisers.

“I want to do this again,” he said. “I feel like the next time around it’s going to be easier.”

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