We stood around the breakfast truck and sipped our coffee while we watched the first Jeeps pick up their lunch bags and rumble up the trail -- the Rubicon Trail that is. There were some very impressive vehicles, clearly capable of the challenge ahead. To my surprise though, there was also a good number of what looked like nearly bone-stock TJs and YJs. I wondered if they really knew what they were driving into. The Jeepers Jamboree is considered the oldest, toughest, and largest organized event of its type in the world. On a 1 to 10 scale of difficulty, it's a 10. This was the 53rd Annual Jeepers Jamboree, and the vehicles that filed past did say Jeep on the hood, so of course they were suited for this event, right? Hmm?
We were riding with Jim Piatt, owner and inventor of the HoodLift for Jeeps. His '84 CJ-7 was as well set up as any on the road, with custom air suspension designed to work with a Rubicon Express long-arm kit, ARB lockers front and rear, Dana 44 axles with disc brakes all around, and 35-inch Goodyear MT/R tires mounted on aluminum beadlocked rims. A fuel-injected Chevrolet 350 turned a 700R4 overdrive automatic tranny and Advance Adapters 3.8 transfer case. Of course, Jim had an R&M Hot Water Shower and a Premier Power Welder with a 110-volt outlet.
In addition to being a highly accomplished four-wheeler -- winner of the Top Truck Challenge in 1993 and a judge of that event for several years -- Jim also knew the trail. It was dusk when we crossed the dam at Loon Lake. Jim aired down the MT/Rs, set his air suspension to "trail," flipped on the arsenal of PIAAs, and gracefully maneuvered through the apparently impossible labyrinth of boulders and differential-snagging rocks otherwise known as the Gate Keeper. It had been a few years since I had been over the Rubicon, and my thoughts as we entered the first obstacle were something like, "Holy #@*$!!! You can't drive through this!"
As we watched the nearly stock Jeeps roll by the breakfast wagon the next morning, I wondered if some first-timers would have the same reaction. It was interesting to see the changes in vehicles over the years. Certainly the engineered suspensions have made the trail more manageable. Lockers of some sort keep more traction to the ground.
By getting through The Gate Keeper the previous evening, we had avoided the huge backup, as one by one, participants were pushed, shoved, and winched through the maze. The rock rollers were kept busy. There was no place to pass here, so it doesn't do much good to have a super crawler if the guy in front of you has open diffs and poor clearance. You simply wait. Things break and people get hung up.
Maybe waiting isn't so bad. It gave folks a chance to get to know each other and look around. We wound our way across the glacial carved slabs called Granite Bowl. We traversed Devils Postpile, motored by Spider Lake, and took a lunch break at Buck Island Lake. Trail spotters and rock rollers were positioned at every difficult stretch, and much to my surprise, it seemed everyone made it to camp before dark.
While Jim had driven the Rubicon many times, he had never been on a Jeepers Jamboree. We figured that with the bulk of 500 people behind us, we'd get a good campsite for the weekend. We were right -- sort of.
The Rubicon Valley is as spectacular a place as any in the Sierras. The crystal-clear stream runs through the valley, creating numerous waterfalls and pools. Our camp was an easy Frisbee toss from one of the nicer swimming holes, and we set up our tents on the glacial polished granite (thank God for Therm-a-Rest sleeping pads!). Then the inevitable started to happen. Hordes, and I do mean hordes, of Jeepers started to straggle in, tired and dusty from hours of wheeling and waiting. Every possible square foot of the slab rock that was even close to flat or level became a campsite.
Then the music started. I suppose the Turtle Expedition camps in too many quiet places to truly appreciate four different boom boxes playing four different songs at the same time. This was major party time, and you either had to like it or get out of town. In the morning we moved downstream to a quiet camp by the river with others who wanted to soak in the tranquility of the valley. Mind you, "quiet" is a relative term. The helicopters started coming in low at about 6:30 a.m.
The party was nonstop. Many participants see each other only once a year, so there was a great feeling of old friends reuniting. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner brought most everyone to the main camp area, and the band entertained late into the night, both for those who would dance, and others just watching.
During the day, there was time to explore. We found the perfect waterfall to stand under next to a warm shelf of granite. Most people seemed content to just set their chairs in the cool water and relax with friends. There were equipment displays at the main camp from companies like PIAA, Dynatrac, HoodLift, Power Tank, Extreme Off-Road, and Marlin Crawler. George Wheeldon, a local geologist and Rubicon expert, gave an interesting seminar on the area.
By Sunday, we had all gained at least five pounds as we motored up infamous Cadillac Hill and out to Tahoma on the shores of Lake Tahoe. We aired up tires and continued to the Homewood Mountain Resort where a final barbecue feast awaited us.
If you love four-wheeling, great food, gor-geous scenery, and the camaraderie that comes with enjoying it all with a few hundred of like mind, sign up for next year's Jeepers Jamboree soon. The roster is filling up as you read.