One of motoring's ironies is that only 5 percent of sport-utility vehicles are taken off-road. To many owners these all-terrain conveyances are nothing more than trendy lifestyle accessories. But to the participants of the Jeepers Jamboree, driving the Jeep is an art.
Jeeps venture from the pavement at about twice the rate of all sport-utilities. But even at 10 percent, they're underused. That's a pity, for even the plushest Grand Cherokee is highly capable in the harshest terrain. In fact, Chrysler President Robert Lutz has decreed that every Jeep vehicle must be able to run the torturous Rubicon Trail.
Lutz could hardly pick a tougher proving ground. Traversing 70 miles of scenic vistas, boulder-strewn gullies, and semi-suicidal descents, the trek through California's Sierra Nevada Mountains is a mecca for serious off-roading. It's the site of the original Jeepers Jamboree and the model for a cavalcade of off-road Jeep trips nationwide.
These events attract thousands, from trail-hardened veterans in jacked-up CJs to families in shiny Cherokees getting their first taste of off-road driving. They demonstrate not only the go-anywhere tenacity of a Jeep but the camaraderie this special vehicle can inspire.
Jeep, of course, was born to the backwoods. Its original military parameters were for a light troop transport that could defeat the most inhospitable geography. Even before World War II had ended, its peacetime commercial and recreational possibilities were being plotted.
In 1944, Willys-Overland built several prototypes of civilian Jeeps, and by August 1945, the first CJs were proving their mettle all over the United States. They were used for everything from farm vehicles to personnel carriers. They transported sportsmen into the field and even performed public services.
As early as 1946, a group of jeep owners in remote Bountiful, Utah, had turned Sunday excursions up and down the winding mountain roads of the Wasatch Range into a valuable community resource.
Given certain limited powers of policing, the group became known as the "Official Bountiful City Jeep Posse." Consisting of 27 jeeps and 54 men, the posse evacuated the injured from a mountainside plane crash, organized search parties for missing persons, and served as mounted game wardens. Its most important function was to rush in firefighters during the first critical hours of a forest fire.
The February 1948 issue of Popular Mechanics described the posse's attempt to cut a road up a mountain, providing a vivid account of the little 4 x 4's stoutness:
"The lead jeep started up the steep incline and at one of the dangerous spots it got out of control. The driver leaped to safety, but the car rolled down the slope like an awkward snowball. It turned over 20 times by actual count before landing upside down, suspended in some trees. It took ten men to get it back up the cliff.
"Once back on its four wheels the rugged jeep went back to town under its own power! To be sure, it needed a new windshield, some new headlights and a few dents had to be pounded out of the body, but it was ready for the next attempt the following Sunday."
Similar excursions were being played out anywhere the road ended and adventure began. Learn about the Rubicon Trail on the next page.
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The original Rubicon trek was in 1952. Mark Smith, Ken Collins, and a group of their friends -- most of them members of the Georgetown Divide Rotary Club -- organized it to bring outside dollars into the region's depressed economy. The route was based on a path blazed by Native Americans and later used by stagecoaches.
A test run by four Jeep Universals and 12 men was followed in August 1953 by the first Jeepers Jamboree. It attracted 150 participants in 55 jeeps. They skirted the shores of picture-postcard Lake Chiquita, scraped their way down the "Big Sluice," camped overnight at lush Rubicon Springs, then bounced on to magnificent Lake Tahoe.
Even from the beginning, men and women of all ages took part. There was Dan Bassi, who had been a stage driver along the Rubicon Trail back in 1904, and Beatrice Luce, of Georgetown, who admitted to being "past seventy." Some of the machines were old-timers, too. Several Jeeps were of World War II vintage, and one was a Model MA -- one of the original 1940 Willys pilot vehicles. That MA is today the centerpiece of the Jeepers Jamboree Museum in Georgetown.
The annual four-day Rubicon trip was an instant success. By 1974, organizers were forced to set a limit of 400 vehicles and 1,500 people. Demand sparked a second Rubicon trip (for up to 200 vehicles), and the two events are now held each year in July and August. Participants come from all over the world.
The Rubicon Trail itself crosses private land held by 20 separate property owners. Rubicon Springs in fact has been purchased by Smith and some of his associates to be maintained in its natural state. The route is open to any 4WD vehicle-weather permitting-and the Jeep Division of Chrysler makes regular use of it as a testing ground. The original Jeepers Jamboree is now an independent corporation with exclusive rights to the "Jeepers Jamboree" name. It opens its runs to Jeeps and to the older, smaller Toyota Land Cruisers and British Land Rovers that were Jeep's only contemporaries in the early days of the Rubicon.
In the late 1980s, the Jeepers Jamboree concept was applied to events in other states under a separate entity called Jeep Jamboree USA. (Jeep Jamboree USA is a division of Mark A. Smith Off-Roading Inc. and is underwritten by the Jeep Division of Chrysler Corporation.) Get details on Jeep Jamboree USA on the next page.
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Jeep Jamboree USA
Today, 25 of these three-day Jeep Jamboree USA events are held in 21 states. They take place from February through October and are strictly limited to Jeep vehicles. Events on the 1994 calendar included the Red River Jamboree in New Mexico, the Mohawk Trail Jamboree in Massachusetts, and the Ghost Town Jamboree in Nevada. Each attracts an average of 100 Jeeps and roughly 500 participants, half of whom are first-timers.
Both the Jeepers Jamboree and the Jeep Jamboree USA events charge fees, which include meals but not lodging. The full four-day Rubicon trip, for example, costs $235 per person, while the shorter Jeep Jamboree USA events cost $160 per adult, less for children.
Some Jeepers, particularly those with easy access to off-road running, avoid these mass excursions. Their main objection is that moving large numbers of Jeeps through the wilderness dictates too many compromises, including some bumper-to-bumper running -- an incongruous sight when you're miles from civilization.
Granted, a lone Jeep pounding through the brush, as if in some TV commercial, is a uniquely satisfying image. And officials in selected areas, such as the region around Telluride, Colorado, actively promote unorganized four-wheeling on mountain trails.
But with ever-tighter controls on public and private lands, Jamborees are the only way many Jeep owners get to experience their vehicles off-road. Indeed, as the San Jose Mercury News' Bob Scheid reported from the Rubicon Trail, "The ability of these vehicles to proceed where common sense shouts 'impassable!' is astounding to the city-bred driver."
Jamboree officials grade off-road trails by degree of difficulty on an ascending scale from one to 10. Most trails fall in the four to eight range. Some Jeep Jamboree USA routes earn a nine. But the Rubicon Trail proudly lays claim to the only 10 rating.
Standard practice on Jeep Jamboree USA trips is to make available several trails of varying difficulty. The assemblage is divided into caravans of 50 or so Jeeps. Progress along the route is usually steady until the group comes upon an obstacle: Say it must descend a gully, ford a creek, then scramble up the adjoining slope. Jeepers queue up, take on the challenge one by one, then stop again to wait for the rest of the group. There can be lots of waiting. But that's time to talk Jeep or to wander over and offer encouragement as each member of the caravan tackles the obstacle.
Driving through these obstacles requires the knowledge of some Jeepers rules and tricks, which you can learn about on the following page.
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Jeepers Rules and Tricks
Regardless of how free-form or how structured the off-road experience, there are Jeepers rules and tricks that apply equally.
Some are simple, such as anticipating a four-wheel-drive situation and engaging four-wheel drive before you get stuck. Others are not as obvious. For instance, drivers should grip the steering wheel with thumbs outside the rim. Do otherwise and the steering wheel's spokes could do some painful damage as the wheel reacts to the impact of hitting a log or rock.
Even mildly undulating terrain provides an education in the value of ground clearance and suspension travel. Cherokees and Grand Cherokees get along surprisingly well just as they come from the factory, though lowering tire pressure to 22 psi helps the tread to flex and grip outcroppings.
By comparison, Wranglers and CJs, with their shorter wheelbases, more-modest ground clearance, and relatively limited suspension travel, can benefit from larger non-stock tires and suspension lifts. One trick is to disconnect the Wrangler's front roll bar, which frees the suspension to accommodate widely different side-to-side elevations. Aftermarket locking differentials and winches are useful, and tow hooks are required on all trails with a rating of four or higher.
Engine modifications are rare. Most off-roading is done at a strolling pace, and even Jeeps with four-cylinder engines have enough torque to ascend most any slope. The keys are traction and gearing -- and not just for going uphill. Few automotive sensations rival shifting a Jeep into first gear, setting the transfer case in low range, and trusting against all instinct as the machine noses easily down a grade too steep to walk. Experienced Jeepers know to stay off the brakes in such situations-and to rarely use the clutch.
"Jeeping well is a fine art," Pete Lyons wrote in Car and Driver after his first Rubicon. "First of all, speed has no place on this sort of trail. You must maintain what I've started calling the Jeepers Creep. You just chug-chug along in the lowest gear available, usually keeping your foot completely off the gas. . . . You open the throttle for quick little bursts of torque to surmount a boulder. If you're driving a manual transmission, you are not supposed to use the clutch -- too much risk of burning it out. Even if the engine dies, you're supposed to restart in gear, without declutching. It's hard to remember that in a crisis."
Helping Jamboree participants remember such dictums is the job of official volunteers familiar with each trail. Their on-sight advice about gear selection or exactly where to place the tires to avoid hanging up on that boulder is priceless data to neophytes and veterans alike.
AutoWeek's Wes Raynal, poised to drive a Wrangler through a New York stream on the Adirondack jamboree, got this counsel from a trail volunteer: "just take it slow, try not to let the water hit the base of the windshield. And don't worry about those scraping noises."
"Yeah, right," thought Raynal. "As it turned out," he said, "we made it across the pond with no problems."
On the next page, learn about an obstacle of the Rubicon trail called the Sluice.
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There is satisfaction to be found in more sedate off-roading exercises, as well, and Jeepers appreciate gliding gently down a forest path beneath a canopy of leaves -- especially in an open CJ or Wrangler. If there is one spot that embodies the challenge, exhilaration, and spectacle of true Jeeping, it is a section of the Rubicon known as the "Big Sluice."
The Sluice is actually a dried waterfall, a chute-like descent amid pitiless granite boulders -- with a dangerous 45-degree turn thrown in for good measure. It is only 30 to 40 yards long, but it can seem to stretch for miles. One driver negotiating it paused to glance at his inclinometers. His Wrangler was tilted left 35 degrees and tipped forward 55 degrees.
"Those who've driven the Sluice insist it's the worst single trail open to vehicles they've ever seen," declared Mark Williams in Four Wheeler magazine. "The margin for error is very small, and for those who don't give the terrain the respect it demands, the winch cable waits...
"On a hillside next to the run," Williams wrote, "where the granite provides bare spots in between the scrub, people sit [after already having done their time on the rocks] and prepare to watch the next victim. . . . [They're] calling, pointing, cheering, supporting . . . all watching the vehicle directly below negotiate the tricky boulders and sharp drops. The towering trees provide shade and cool breezes, but it seems that every driver who passes through breaks a sweat in the first few moments."
"The ideal Jeep would have a hinge in the middle for this section," observed Car and Driver's Pete Lyons.
The Sluice is the exclamation point to a 7.5-mile leg of the Rubicon that can take up to 14 hours to traverse. Veterans say the average speed is minus two mph. But the Sluice also is the last hurdle before encampment at Rubicon Springs, which represents another powerful symbol of Jeeping: The party.
Hoedowns here are legendary, and set a standard other Jamborees have yet to match. They've been that way from the start.
Before the very first Rubicon trip, organizers got hold of an old World War II weapons carrier and hauled in enough pine decking to build a 16 x 32-foot dance pavilion, complete with a shiny linoleum floor. In the second year, a piano was brought in. Lashed to the back of a Jeep truck, the instrument was rather dreadfully out of tune by the time it arrived at Rubicon Springs. "But it didn't seem to matter," organizer Collins recalled, "because no one else was in tune, anyway!"
Rubicon Jeepers expect unexpected entertainment. Some years there are bluegrass musicians. Serenading the encampment on one occasion were the Twelve Singing Nuns of St. Celeia's Chorale. Another year, a Scottish bagpipe band came marching out of the brush.
And to replace the out-of-tune spinet, a Hughes 500D helicopter has lately set down a shiny black concert grand, complete with classical pianist. (The chopper always is on standby in case of medical emergency.) In 1974 two participants -- Charles Donahue and Susann Marie Bernard -- were married in a ceremony held at Rubicon Springs.
Great food is another Rubicon tradition. Steaks, chicken, and fish are helicoptered in and grilled over coals. The typical trip's menu includes 2.6 tons of meat, 1,094 dozen eggs, 500 pounds of pancake mix with 60 gallons of syrup, 1,500 ears of corn, 35,000 slices of bread, 255 pounds of butter, and 150 pounds of coffee. Included among the supplies, by official calculation, is 9.4 miles of toilet paper.
Food and festivities offer a respite from the rigors of the Rubicon. Some Jeep adventures offer no such reprieve.
In 1978, Smith, Collins, and some of their colleagues undertook what Smith brands the ultimate Jeep trip, a 21,000-mile odyssey from Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America, to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.
Two years of intense planning preceded the Expedicion de las Americas. Five new CJ-7s were battle tested on the Rubicon Trail, then shipped south to begin the ordeal.
The journey consumed four months. While eking out a trail through dense South American forests, the Jeepers lived off the land, eating alligator, Iguana, Scarlet McCaws, and whatever else could be shot, trapped, or hooked.
Between Panama and Colombia they encountered a nearly impenetrable 250-mile expanse of jungle and swamp. "It was 10 times longer and 10 times rougher than the Rubicon," Smith said. "On an average day we would make two to three miles. One day we worked for nine hours and only moved 500 feet."
Within this leg was the 110-mile Darien Gap. It had been crossed only once before by vehicles, when a 1972 British Army expedition did it with 250 men. It took the British 100 days, and eight Colombian Marines were lost. The Jeepers' crossing was made by 14 North Americans, three Colombians, and 25 Indians. It took 30 days. There were no casualties.
The only modifications to the CJ-7s on the Expedicion de las Americas CJs were the addition of winches, extra lighting, brush guards, and carriages to carry provisions and cans of extra fuel. Even the tires were close to stock size, at a modest 31 x 11.5 R15, and were fitted without suspension modifications.
Adventures like this seem at odds with the notion that relatively few Jeeps venture off-road. Those that do, however, seem to wear their mud and dents like badges of honor. And their drivers tend to sport a certain smile and walk. Some lifestyle. Some accessory.
Find out more about the Jeeper's lifestyle with details on Camp Jeep and Jeep 101 on the next page.
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Camp Jeep and Jeep 101
Recently, DaimlerChrysler Corporation has been using off-road Jeep events as a promotional and marketing tool. Camp Jeep and Jeep 101 are two such examples. The experience has been eye-opening both to newly converted Jeep buyers and longtime DaimlerChrysler employees.
"There's no way I'm going over this boulder." That's what Lou Bitonti kept thinking when he attended a Jeep Jamboree on the Rubicon Trail, in the early 1990s. Recently assigned to Jeep Division, Bitonti enjoyed the experience enough to start thinking about a new event. He came up with Camp Jeep.
Dating back to 1953, the Jeep Jamborees were "probably the first owner loyalty programs," recalled Bitonti, now senior manager of Jeep brand global marketing. Camp Jeep, which began in 1995, was expected to expand the off-roading experience to an even broader audience of loyal owners.
"We know who we are," Bitonti said in an interview, and what the Jeep brand means. While deciding what Camp Jeep would consist of, they kept asking themselves one important question: "Is this something Jeep can do?" Is it appropriate for the Jeep experience?
Initially set up at Camp Hale, Colorado, which had been the headquarters of the 10th Mountain Division during World War II, Camp Jeep consisted of 25 trails, color-coded by difficulty like ski runs. Seeking to provide a "peak experience," organizers sought ways to "take somebody out of the comfort zone," so that person accomplishes more than he or she would have thought possible. Blending fun and education, participants learn to drive safely off-road.
Driving isn't the only outdoor activity. Each day could include hiking, biking mountain climbing, crafts, mountain boarding. Photographers from National Geographic might show camera bugs how to shoot in a professional manner. Organizers are always trying something new. In 2000, Camp Jeep had remote-control airplanes as well as a sizable group of historic Jeeps.
"Anybody who comes to Camp Jeep should be able to participate in 70 percent of the activities," Bitonti advised. "When that baby closes at 6 o'clock, they're exhausted."
Now taking place at Charlottesville, Virginia, Camp Jeep is very family oriented. Among the more than 8,000 people who attended the three-day event in 2000, a thousand were under 10 years of age. In the evenings, Camp Jeep has featured such entertainers as Kenny Loggins and Sheryl Crow.
For DaimlerChrysler Corporation, Camp Jeep has been an "opportunity to meet with the owners, one-on-one," Bitonti said. Engineering Roundtables are the first events people sign up for when they make plans to attend. "We teach them as much as we can," Bitonti added, noting that it's necessary to explain exactly why engineers came up with this suspension, or that steering gear. Only Jeep owners are invited to attend.
Not long after Camp Jeep got underway, the company came up with Jeep 101. instead of inviting people to the canyons, they would bring the canyons -- or at least, a smaller-scale representation of them -- to urban areas around the country. Drivers in this program would have a trainer in the car. Off-road courses are "safe but also somewhat challenging," Bitonti said.
Invited to Jeep 101 are owners who are coming out of leases, or have had their vehicles longer than three years. Owners of competitive vehicles are also invited to attend. Jeep 101 has been fully attended in each of the dozen or so cities where it's held each year.
DaimlerChrysler Group also participates now, setting up a mini proving ground for the company's regular passenger cars. DaimlerChrysler also continues to host more than 30 two-day Jeep Jamborees each year, at various off-roading sites in North America.