If you were to ask us, "How was Florida?" We would have to respond with big smiles and say, "The foliage was beautiful. There was frost. It was wet and muddy. An axle broke, and a truck rolled over."
Now, without a reference to any cartoon characters, oranges, or sun-drenched beaches, you might have guessed that we're not talking about that popular East Coast winter getaway farther south. We are referring to this year's Jeep Jamboree in the lovely hide-away location of Charlemont, Massachusetts.
If you have not had the chance of attending a Jeep Jamboree event, please try to make room in your schedule next season. The people we got to meet made the event exciting and pleasant.
Charlemont, Massachusetts, is a two- to three-hour drive west of Boston, depending on what you're driving and whether or not you have a top and doors. The Charlemont area is a great destination for a weekend trip. Besides the cool country and the beautiful rivers, there is one unique feature that was definitely a bonus: a state park with cabins. Yes, we must admit it; we did not lay down in the dirt like the tough guys of our youth. We slept nice and cozy in a tiny log cabin for hire.
The hoards of Jeepers began to amass early on a frosty Friday morning. The folks who were lucky enough to have hardtops got a chance to chuckle at the brave souls scraping off ice - not off the outside but off the inside of their windshields. An icy driver seat was not an uncommon sight among the topless Willys that morning.
All of us had registered at the Charlemont Inn. It hadn't been hard to find this spot because the parking lot had been filled to the brink with every Jeep product ever conceived. Our little Land Rover looked a bit out of place - soon to become the butt of many jokes. This was going to be fun.
Just like all the drivers, we were faced with a decision: What trail should we take? There were several options to choose from, but only having time to explore one trail, we had to see for ourselves what all the hullabaloo was about. We had to check out Old Florida Road and put our names on the list.
Outside, the Jeep horde began to work its way down to the local fairground. This provided a large, grassy area for all the Jeeps to stretch out and line up behind their respective colored flags.
A stake and a flag marked the line for each trail. Directly behind each stake was parked a trail leader. The Old Florida Road trail was going to be headed by a battle-tested, springover CJ-7. The monster V-8 had supposedly delivered its owner over hill and dale for the past 13 years, and, remarkably, the truck looked no worse for the wear.
If you enjoy Jeeps, this was a great place to be. Nearly every type of Jeep was represented, from Willys to CJs and TJs. There was even a Grand Cherokee whose body had been scratched and repainted so many times, the owner decided to Rhino-line each side.
Jamborees are great fun for a lot of reasons. Our favorite part, besides meeting new off-road enthusiasts, is that we get a chance to check out what other people are doing. It's great to see other options and other products that are out there. We always walk away with a new trick or a different way of doing something.
Our trail looked just right - not too many vehicles and a good cross section of models and skill levels. It's safe to say that the most interesting vehicle of our group was the Black Rat. The Rat, as they call it, is an old, bone-stock Wagoneer whose owners dismembered it by removing the roof behind the front seats, and then loosely remodeled the rear to resemble a pickup.
Charlemont is situated in the wilds of western Massachusetts. The area is known for its fly-fishing, white-water rafting, and, to 'wheelers, the legendary Old Florida Road, which is still considered an active right-of-way by the town of Florida, Massachusetts. Although the road is not maintained, the Florida powers-that-be have, for the time, allowed recreational motor vehicles access to the area.
This is one of those cases where the off-road community will have to take care to preserve what it has. To date, this trail, similar to so many others, lies in a delicate state of flux. It has been allowed to remain open because of the diligence of the local clubs. If we remain vigilant, we will be able to enjoy trails such as these well into the future.
If you have been to Moab in the West, or done Tellico or Paragon in the East, you might just bumble over Old Florida Road on a dry day and wonder what the fuss was about. But as the activists close down even our own backyards and tickets are being flung out left and right under the power lines, there are fewer and fewer places to drop a truck into Low range. For Massachusetts, Old Florida Road is a nice, mellow, quasi-challenging trail with some exceptional scenery.
We entered Old Florida Road from the south side. The trailhead is easy to find, and directions can be had on the Internet. As the trail begins, smaller rocks and subtle outcroppings demand slow, patient driving. Stock rigs and those with small lifts will find some easy, enjoyable maneuvering and a place to test out their flex.
Two or so miles up the trail we found the first big obstacle: a diagonal crag and a two-foot step. It is a great obstacle because it is challenging enough for the veterans to have some fun, and mild enough for the first-timers to get a feel for the capabilities of their rigs.
The trail continued to wind upward, giving way to smaller and then larger outcroppings. Around midday, we came to the most challenging problem on the trail. It was a large, uneven, two-layered granite step preceded by an eroded pit to one side. The right was walled by middle-aged saplings, while the left threw up a harsh, multi-tiered wall that was just the right width to defeat a TJ wheelbase.
Our trail leader had chosen to take the group up the steeper but less slippery side. Most vehicles took two or three attempts to get up the rock. The obstacle provided a safe yet hairy, off-camber ride for Jeep owners who put their trust in both their Jeeps and the spotters. Many drivers held onto quiet smiles as the lockers underneath, which they were so desperately waiting to try out, stealthily pulled them right to the top. The timid, or less locked, had the fortune of riding up the wall on the hook, but these were few and far between.
From here, Old Florida Road proved an easy, deep-woods experience until we got to our favorite part - the mud. Depending on what the weather has been doing the week before, the wetness of the trail will vary. But, we were lucky to find a couple of nice water crossings. Everyone likes a water crossing, and this day was no different.
The mud was just right - not too sticky, not too deep, just enough to provide some outback adventure. Everyone made it across the water with little difficulty. Well, everyone except the Black Rat. It seemed that its luck had finally run out and had to take the hook. It was a good end to a good day. We stopped for a bit and joked about our run, and then headed back to the Charlemont Inn. Our only regret was having missed the group the following day. Had we been there, we would have heard that all-familiar axle snap. And if we'd had our cameras, we would've captured the coveted rollover shot. Oh well.
All in all, this year's Massachusetts Jamboree went very well. The event staff was great, and the program was organized superbly. Kudos to Greg Davis of Jeep Jamboree USA and his Massachusetts crew.