It got worse: Deep in the Sierra Nevadas, at a time of high fire danger--indeed, during a time when fires were scouring the forests of Arizona, Colorado and parts of California not far from where we were, people were setting off explosions so big that at night, their concussions rattled the valley and their flashes illuminated the walls of the canyon in which Rubicon Springs, our campsite, was located. Against this context, it's pretty easy to see why the environmental community is outraged over the treatment Rubicon Trail receives.
And it's easy to see why Harold Pietschmann, a respected area wheeler who teaches four-wheel driving skills on the trail, says on his Web site (www.rubicon-trail.com), "Can the Rubicon Trail be saved? Will recreational four-wheeling survive? I don't think so. If we only talk about education of four-wheelers--we will still be talking when all trails are closed. The Rubicon acts like a highly visible barometer. Looking at the daily increasing devastation and destruction on the Rubicon Trail, one can only come to the conclusion that everyone from Tread Lightly! (to) local clubs to four-wheel-drive associations have failed...to make the four-wheeling community a respectable group. Blaming a 'few bad apples' but looking the other way when the yahoos tear up the trails will get us all thrown out."
Indeed, if the forces arrayed against four-wheeling wanted to gather evidence of the irresponsibility of at least some four-wheelers, they would only have needed to bring their cameras and notebooks along on the 50th anniversary of the Jeeper's Jamboree. None of this, mind you, is to be taken as a reflection on most of the participants, and certainly not on the organizers of the trip--though we're forced to wonder if jamming 800 vehicles over the Rubicon on a single long weekend, or participating in a trip that large on an individual basis, as we did, can be seen as appropriate stewardship of this resource. Mostly, people behaved, and the trip itself was carefully organized from start to finish, from the moment elaborate sack lunches were thrust upon participants at the trip's start in Georgetown, through the teams of Rubicon Rock Rollers positioned to help participants through the many obstacles, through the meals, dinner music, and country-and-western band, to the lunch at the end.
Let's not forget the trail itself. When Mark Smith first ran the Rubicon in 1951, it was, he remembers, mostly a cobblestone road. He says, "You could do the whole thing in a day." Today, you still could do the whole thing in a day. But you'd have to be a glutton for punishment, and the day would be a very long one, indeed. For if the trail is very scenic, it also is very rough, with an endless supply of sharp, gnarly rock obstacles. From Georgetown to Rubicon Springs, with several long stops, we were on the trail for 11 hours.
Says Smith, "It's much more difficult than it ever used to be. A lot of that's because of vandalism, people rolling big rocks down in the trail. That's done by a bunch of jerks--irresponsible punks. Also causing a lot of severe damage are the extreme machines, and vehicles that are too wide for the trail, such as Hummers, that hook onto boulders and roll them down into the trail."
Oddly, two of the trail's most famous obstacles, the Little Sluicebox, and the Big Sluicebox, provide a study in contrast. The Little Sluice, as it's called, always was tough. But it was driveable. Today it's almost impassable. Explains Smith, "In the Little Sluice, these idiots have pulled great big rocks down and blocked it off. It takes these extreme machines a day to get through there. The guys sit there drinking beer and encouraging the others to crash on through and break their vehicles."
So Little Sluice is blocked off, and the trail takes a bypass. Big Sluice, that heart-in-your-throat downhill that's studded with Jeep-sized rocks and lined by boulders on one side and a cliff on the other--well, that seemed tamer than I'd ever seen it. Hey, none of it's easy, and as I constantly reminded myself, this trail changes every year, not only because of the attentions it gets from various rock rollers, but also because of the incredibly severe winters that descend upon the Sierra Nevadas.
Indeed, it may ultimately be the cleansing effects of those winters that help save the Rubicon, if indeed it is to be saved at all. For as trashed as the trail may become by the onset of winter, you can bet that by the time the snow has melted the following summer, the nightmare effects of a summer's use has been scrubbed away and the trail once again is pristine--pristine enough for Jeepers to dust off their rigs, pack up their tents and coolers, and head out for Rubicon Springs. For sure, we'll do it again, though maybe not with a trip quite this large. But whether this trip, indeed, this trail, will actually survive a second 50 years--or another 25, or even another 10--clearly remains to be seen.
You think Jeepers aren't a dedicated bunch? Frank Vierra, of Los Banos, California, is so
Once you're in camp and relaxed, the next thing you do is play in the water. These campers