What's your rite of passage when winter is over and spring fills the air? Some head for the beaches. Others take their motorcycles out for a spin. For those of us who love four wheeling, it's time to hit the trail with our friends or family, and one of the best ways to do that is to sign up for one of the 32 events for 2009 sponsored by Jeep Jamboree USA. With locations spread throughout the U.S., this Jeep adventure company provides guided tours along some of the best trail networks in the country, timed for climate and local beauty, with entrance to pristine backcountry areas that are often limited-access, or inaccessible to others.
The Texas Spur Jeep Jamboree's spring event, held in early April, is timed to capture the splendor in the heart of Texas Hill Country, with cactus and bluebonnets in bloom, as the native live oaks leaf out in shades of lime and emerald--and also to provide a wide variety of wheelin' that can range from dirt track and sandy, dry wash to moderate-to-nearly-extreme rock climb, in Llano County (pronounced Lan-o by the locals), located two hours north of San Antonio and an hour and a half northwest of Austin. Jamboree trail guides are on-hand to instruct attendees, who can range from newbies to expert drivers, with rigs that can range from stock-from-the showroom-floor models to military trucks and home-built rock crawlers--all with a Jeep pedigree.
This year's fourth annual Texas Spur spring event drew 247 participants, driving 133 Jeeps, and hailing from 15 states to the small city of Llano, located on the banks of the Llano River. This popular Jamboree was organized by locals Tony and Nancy Winkler who, along with their local trail guides, have dozens of years of 'wheeling experience and are at-the-ready to dish out true Texas hospitality, and was sold out shortly after it was listed online earlier this year.
Today, Llano is called the Deer Capital of Texas, with the density of deer in the Llano Basin pegged as the highest in the nation. It's here, nestled among granite domes, live oaks, and rolling hills that Roy and Pitie Inks have made their 2,500-acre ranch home, where they raise Angus cattle, offer exotic hunting (for black buck antelope, Barbary and Mouflon sheep, and white-tail and axis deer), and allow Jamboree participants to explore a circuit of more than ten miles of trails twice a year. Many of the trails spiral around and ascend Watch Mountain's 300-foot wall of granite.
Once part of the Comanche frontier, the Inks Ranch was deeded as a part of a Texas land grant giving 23,000 acres to Roy Inks' relatives, who settled and ranched this rugged and rolling tract when the nearby town of Llano was largely a frontier trading post. The land grant given to Inks' family originally included Enchanted Rock, a massive dome of solid granite that can be seen from the Jeep trails, once you've ascended Watch Mountain. It's easy to see why Enchanted Rock was once famed in Indian legends and used as a lookout and rallying point: it's now a State Park, of 640 acres and the 500-foot-tall dome. Along with other nearby historic towns and landmarks, some listed in the National Historic Registry, it attracts many visitors to the region.
Today known for tourism, the Texas Hill Country was declared "the No. 1 vacation spot in the nation" by the New York Times, in 2008. Reflecting the origins of the pioneers who first settled the area, the region has a fusion of Spanish, Mexican, German, Swiss, Austrian, Alsatian, and Czech influences in food, drink, and atmosphere. The local area has also now become a wine-growing area as well.
Although I've been four wheeling a number of times in the Texas Hill Country, on trail events or evaluating new 4x4 models, I went to clear the winter cobwebs from my head and to see why this event has become a sell-out over the past few years, with a second Texas Spur Jamboree now offered in the fall each year. What did I learn? This Jamboree offers some of the best and varied rockcrawling trails in the region, with majestic panoramic vistas. Plus, it draws a great cast of characters who love the hobby and sport of four wheeling, many of whom are at the ready to provide a trailside fix of your vehicle, if needed, and to fill your heart with stories about Jeeps and wheelin' to fill in the downtime when winter next comes your way.
The Jeep Jamboree USA
Off-Road Hall of Fame and Explorers Club member Mark A. Smith is the founder of Jeep Jamborees--off-road weekends that combine outdoors adventure, fun-loving people and families, and their Jeep 4x4s (either rentals or their own). Smith started the events in 1953 with the inaugural Jeep Jamboree across the Sierra Nevada Mountains, by way of the old Rubicon Trail. Willys Motors, original manufacturer of Jeep vehicles, became involved in 1954, a tradition carried on by Chrysler's Jeep division that supports Smith's program, now recognized throughout the globe. For information on all 2009 Jamboree events, contact Jeep Jamboree USA, 530/333-4777, www.jeepjamboreeusa.com.
Buggy Building On A Budget
There are a number of ways to build a true rock crawling rig, but Texas Spur Jamboree trail boss Larry Lancaster's story is one of the best and brightest. Lancaster, who says he lives with his family between "Comfort and Welfare", two Texas towns situated next to each other north of San Antonio, is a true McGyver. If you meet up with this tall, amiable Texan out on the trail, you'll find him guiding others over difficult obstacles, working on a trail fix on someone's vehicle that rolled or broke a part, or smiling from the saddle of his lofty home-built Jeep crawler that rides high on its 42-inches of rubber.
Lancaster spent two years looking for parts for his specialized machine. They came from every imaginable source, but his finished product cost a reasonable $8,500 to build and accommodates Lancaster's hobbies of four-wheeling and rockcrawling. His crawler started with the frame of an old CJ-7 that had a rotted rear end, a fiberglass Jeep tub, and seats and a winch from his old CJ-5. Equipping his Jeep with a small-block Chevy and matching tranny from a junkyard, complete with harness, an old-style EFI and throttle body, he purchased an Atlas II transfer case and added Dana 60 axles from an early-'70s Dodge 1-ton truck. Next were a hydraulic steering orbital valve from a John Deere mower, garnered from a tractor salvage; old-style H1 wheels from a military truck; used springs from a Ford Astro van; an aluminum radiator from eBay; and an ARB Air Locker and pump at a garage sale.
"The rollcage was the most expensive part of the build, because it's DOM and I didn't want to compromise on safety," explained Lancaster, who uses water in his IROK tires to help keep his tall rig grounded on steep and extreme trails. When Lancaster isn't on the trail, he innovates at his company, Diverse Enterprises, manufacturing and marketing a silicon polymer used for soil and plant treatment for organically-grown foods. Lancaster spends 15 to 20 weekends a year on the trail and enjoys many different off-road playgrounds, but he especially like the trails of New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah, as well as Texas, where he helps out with the two Texas Spur Jeep Jamborees each year. If you see Lancaster on the trail, jump into the passenger seat--you'll enjoy the ride.