Bethel, Maine: Some call it Maine's most beautiful mountain village. This rural town's website will tell you that Bethel, nestled at the base of Paradise Hill with the Androscoggin River running through it, is "just this side of paradise." But thousands of Jeepers over the past 20 years would tell you that this western Maine recreation destination has some of the best four wheeling in the country and that Jeep Jamboree USA's annual Bethel trail rides are not simply a boost to the local economy, but comprise an event that has formed friendships, bonded families, and created a lifestyle.
We showed up for the 20th anniversary Maine Mountains Jamboree last fall, along with 249 Jeepers (motoring 132 Jeep vehicles), who lined up at the start of the 21/2-day-long event for the traditional parade through town-a veritable drive-by of Jeep history, with Cherokees, CJs, YJs, JKs, TJs, Rubicons, Patriots, Commanders, Commandos, Grand Cherokees and an impressive collection of Willys models, including an M38A-1. Participants hailed from 15 states and Canada-many of them old-timers who are familiar with the gnarly mix of Maine-woods wheelin' over rocks, boulders, and granite ledges, and where mud bogs, stream crossings, and stumps challenge even seasoned off-road drivers on trails dubbed Rock 'N' Roll, Granite Crossing, Stone Wall, Sherwood Forest, and Sunday River.
One of the favorite trails is the Chili Trail, led by trail guides Scott and Janet Everett. To give you an example of the Jamboree's local flavor (literally), after a morning of water crossings, rocks, and a log bridge, you're rewarded with a hot lunch of chili and homemade baked goods served by Scott's parents Dave and Mary Everett at their mountaintop home, which has a spectacular view of the surrounding region.
"The Maine Jamboree is one of our all-time favorites," said Mark Smith, founder of the Jeep Jamboree program that has brought thousands of Jeepers together each year. Smith was an initiating member of the Jeepers Jamboree, which was held in 1953 along California's famed and rugged Rubicon Trail. Today, there are more than 30 Jeep Jamboree USA events that take place in a variety of locations throughout the country each year. "I love this Jamboree because it's held at the peak of the fall colors, has great coordinators that run it, has fireworks the first night, and is capped-off with a lobster dinner on the final evening at the wonderful Bethel Inn Resort," enthused Smith, referring to the award-winning inn that is the formal headquarters of the Jamboree. Owned by Smith's friends Dick and Gretchen Razor, the quintessential New England inn is a four-season resort, with 158 guest rooms and luxury townhouses.
"It's been great to be here for the 20th anniversary, seeing the reaction of people and seeing old friends like Lee Rogers, Doug and Jodi Wilson, Geoff and Julie Gaudreau," said Smith, naming a few of the organizers and friends who have been on the trails with him over the past two decades. "Some of the people here are the same, but we're an older and more mature crowd of Jeepers now, and Jamborees are held more as a family event than they were in the past. There is the great camaraderie of those who go from one event to another," said the octogenarian, who also pointed out that one of the changes is that, "Today's Jeep vehicles are newer, more efficient, and more comfortable."
Innkeeper Dick Razor met Mark Smith in 1981, when Razor drove the Rubicon Trail on a Jeepers Jamboree. "I met the legend, when I was working with Jeep advertising. Mark was the conscience of Jeep; I discovered this incredible man, who was creating the appeal of Jeeps," explained Razor. "Mark became the face of Jeep advertising-even if you didn't know how to put your Jeep in four-wheel drive, you loved the idea. Geographically, Maine is a perfect place for a Jamboree, so we spent two to three years pre-scouting back in the mid-'80s, and then it took off. There are so many interested people here; they make it successful," said Razor.