The Godfather of Rockcrawling
"I must be a slow learner," says Mark Smith through his slow drawl, "I'm still doing the Jeeper's Jamboree 50 years later. To realize that it's still going on, and that it's grown the way it has, well, that's just beyond imagination."
Fifty years ago, Smith was at the wheel of his military-surplus Jeep, for which he'd just paid $500--in 1951, a whole lot of money. He was exploring the old roads and trails around Georgetown, California, a tiny relic of a town that against all odds remains a leftover of California's remarkable '49er Gold Rush era. And in doing that exploration, it can be argued, Smith invented the sport of rockcrawling--and maybe, recreational Jeeping.
The War II Jeep didn't last long--in 1952, Smith bought a CJ-3A, and he used that for years as he crawled the Sierras. The primary object of his exploration was the Rubicon Trail, which exists in part because of a stagecoach called the Rubicon Flier. This coach ran between the hotel in Rubicon Springs and Tahoe between about 1888 and 1908. The hotel, Smith says, was built in the 1880s, and collapsed from the force of the Sierra winters in 1953. Where there was a hotel and a stagecoach, there had to be roads. There were, and those roads now make up the trails used by the Jeeper's Jamboree.
Smith is quick to point out however, that the old roads were pretty civilized affairs. He says, "It was cobblestone, and using it, you could go from the Springs to Lake Tahoe in about two hours." These days, using Cadillac Trail, that same trip takes three to four hours.
Interestingly, about three years ago Smith found the old Rubicon Flier stored in a nearby Gold Rush burg called Fiddletown. It was complete and in great shape, and he bought it. The Godfather of Rockcrawling is happy about that, but he's less happy about what the Rubicon Trail has become.
He says, "The Rubicon is undoubtedly the most famous 4x4 drive trail in the world. These days it's much more difficult than it used to be, and a lot of that is because of vandalism." Smith's stake in the Rubicon is a real one--he and a group of investors bought the property that holds the Rubicon Springs in 1985. These days, what was a beautiful but primitive campsite holds a caretaker's cabin plus several semi-permanent buildings used for cooking, feeding and watering the crowds that come through on the Jamboree trips.
"It's all been very rewarding," says Smith. "What was a hobby turned out to be a lifestyle and a profession. And my daughter Jill runs Jeep Jamboree U.S.A., and my son Greg runs the trail. We all work with Jeep, and have done so through its ownership by Willys, Kaiser, AMC, Renault, Chrysler and now DaimlerChrysler."
But will the Rubicon Trail display the longevity of the Jeep vehicles built to run it? "I think so," Smith says. "We're working with the Forest Service to make it a designated trail, with maintenance from the state's Green Sticker fund. Then law enforcement will be able to patrol it and make sure that people either stay on the trail or get arrested. A group of six of us own about half the trail. We plan to deed the right-of-way to El Dorado County, and we'll do the same over our private land. But we're not gonna deed anything unless we know we have the trail we want, including some of the alternates. We're working together to keep the Rubicon, and make this one of the best 4x4 trails in the world."