It had all the excitement of a gold rush. Hundreds of Jeeps were lined up in the small High Sierras town of Georgetown, California. There were new models, old models, bone-stock versions, and highly modified versions. There were even the new breed of rockcrawlers. Everywhere you looked on the four-block-long, double-wide main street, there were Jeepers.
Sitting behind the wheel of a fresh-off-the-assembly-line '03 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, we realized that few in this crowd of hundreds had laid eyes on this brand-new model in sheetmetal form and that many had longed to have an up-close-and-personal encounter with this latest addition to the Jeep stable. After all, it comes standard with all the capabilities of a pack mule. It was so new that when we picked it up in Reno, it only had 26 miles on the odometer, and the breath of the factory still permeated its canvas-topped body. The Jeep division of DaimlerChrysler has long prided itself on the promise that all of its vehicles are "Rubicon-capable," and this new addition, with its Dana 44 axles front and rear, air lockers front and rear, and 31-inch Goodyear tires, had been christened with the Rubicon moniker for good reason.
As we packed up our lunch, we couldn't help but think of the ill-fated Donner party, whose end came many winters ago on a trail that runs parallel to the Rubicon track. This lunch would have bought the Donners a week, we figured. Now, as we headed off to the legendary 4x4 trail in this off-road lover's dream vehicle, I remembered a quip made a few year's ago by a Chrysler executive as we downed a cold beer in the golden meadows of Rubicon Springs. "If the Donners had driven a Jeep, they would have been just another family," he postulated.
This was actually the second time we were climbing into the comfortable seat of the Rubicon Jeep. The first was in Moab, Utah, during Easter Jeep Safari a few months earlier. It had been pure eye candy in a town that worships Jeeps and four-wheeling, and it performed flawlessly in the slick rock canyons, crawling in and out of weather-carved tubs and gullies with the skill of a mountain goat.
The Rubicon Trail experience was a bit different, though, and therefore much more fun. This new Jeep's confidence-inspiring 4:1 T-case gears delighted us just as they had in Moab. In the High Sierras, we were able to motor along at a crawl speed that felt like 4WD cruise control. When needed, a slight blip of the throttle or more steady pressure with the right boot when ascending rock slabs and large boulders worked like a charm. Engine compression on the downhills made braking unnecessary most of the time.
Unlike Moab, however, with its slick rock terrain and reasonably flat, graded backcountry roads, the Rubicon is a minefield of rocks of every size and shape known to man, and we found that it doesn't always work to follow the leader. In our case, the small group we were traveling with had lifted Jeeps with far greater ground clearance than the Rubicon's 10 inches. We also discovered that the skidplate, designed to protect the Rubicon's most vulnerable parts, would get hung up occasionally if we took the line of the others in really technical areas. This problem, however, can be easily fixed.
The nearly flawless Rubicon showed us only one fault on this excursion. After a substantial water crossing that left the brakes soaking wet, we began the last downhill stretch into Rubicon Springs. The terrain here is very steep and rugged and required riding the brakes even while in four-wheel-drive Low. This combination triggered a counter-reaction in engine management that increased the idle speed. This explanation came straight from the mouth of a Jeep executive who reported this to us later in the evening around the campfire.
After two days of R-and-R in a camp that included eating enormous quantities of food, soaking in the Rubicon Springs, telling Jeep stories, and healing our bodies from the rigorous trip into the valley - the Rubicon Jeep makes it better, but don't ever think it's easy - we made the trek out and back to civilization.
You would have thought that with nearly 3,000 Jeepers, we would have had company, but most were staying for another night of revelry. Not to worry, though. We had the new Rubicon under our belt! Up Cadillac Hill and over small, large, and numerous boulders we climbed with nary a hitch. We took a long moment at the overlook to glance at the backcountry we were leaving behind. This backcountry area is a true gold mine, and we realized we had struck it rich driving the all-new Rubicon to the 50th anniversary of the Jeepers Jamboree.