Harold is Off Again. But this time he went 'wheeling on his own. On June 1, 2011, the four-wheel-drive community lost one of its own when Harold Charles Off lost his battle to pancreatic cancer. Harold was a pioneer in the sport of four-wheeling. A true, soft-spoken gentleman, Harold was always there to lend a wrenching hand, give a spot, encourage a fellow competitor, or share his beloved Farmington trails - and then serve ice cream from the back of one of his well known pink Scramblers at the end of a long day.
Originally from Alamosa, Colorado, the Off family moved to Farmington, New Mexico, in the early 1960s and started Truck & Auto Dismantlers. Young Harold cut his early 'wheeling teeth with the family hunting Jeep on trails in Colorado and Chokecherry Canyon near Farmington. A born modifier and innovator, Harold, by the mid '60s, had improved the Jeep with a flathead Ford V-8 procured from the family business. Throughout his life, Harold would find economical ways to improve a Jeep's performance, using parts the everyday guy could find in a wrecking yard without breaking the bank. His popular Navajo Brake System was developed along these lines.
In 1966 Harold married his high school sweetheart, Phyllis Downs, and, while serving in the National Guard, pursued his automotive interests by taking over the family dismantling business. He further honed his skills at making “something out of nothing” by building successful drag racers from bits found in his wrecking yard. The off-road bug was there, too, with a succession of Jeep CJs that allowed Harold and Phyllis to introduce their growing family to the fun of four-wheeling. The Chokecherry Canyon area just outside of the Farmington city limits was their play area of choice, and children Brett, Cody, and Amy remember family picnics and learning to drive among the deep canyons and huge rocks that define this area.
Off Again Grows
As the 1980s went by, Harold found more and more of his business gravitating toward the 4x4 world. By 1990 it was time for a change and the business name became Off Again 4x4. The business continued to grow with son Cody and son-in-law Shane Spellbring coming on board to lend their talents. Many well known, brand name aftermarket products joined the salvage engines, trannys, T-cases, and axles available to the Off Again customer. Technicians were (and still are) waiting in the service bays to install the parts or were/are available on the phone to help the do-it-yourselfer. Throughout it all, Harold never lost sight of the enthusiast who was trying to build his rig on a budget. He was always eager to share his knowledge of what fits and what works when mixing and matching used parts.
With his easy-going way and helpful personality, Harold Off made a lot of friends worldwide in the 4x4 hobby. By the end of the 1990s he was one of a small gang of 'wheelers who were pushing the envelope in the budding sport of rock crawling. The early competitions in Farmington and Las Cruces, New Mexico, found him competing against his buddies in his familiar white and pink Jeep Scrambler.
Throughout the '90s, this growing band had been comparing articulation and traction ideas and 'wheeling together throughout the southwest. When organized competitions first appeared, these guys were the first to sign up. Early events were just a continuation of the 'wheeling we had already been doing, they just added cones and stopwatches. Harold was one hell of a driver and a formidable competitor but he never lost his core. He was first and always a helpful friend and fellow inventor, just along for the ride as the sport grew. While some guys sunk their soul into competing, others remained recreational enthusiasts, in it for the fun of it. Harold was one of these guys.
The Rat Pack
It was 2003 in Moab, Utah, when a group of his 'wheeling buddies walked into the Moab Diner for breakfast. The place was busy and they had to wait for a table. The waitress commented that Harold looked like Frank Sinatra. Everyone laughed and joked that yeah, Harold was old Blue Eyes and they were the Rat Pack. When the table was ready, the waitress paged Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, and the rest is history. The name immediately stuck and from then on, Harold's closest 'wheeling pals were known as the Rat Pack. The Rat Pack has gotten together several times a year ever since to 'wheel the best and toughest trails the western United States has to offer. Traveling for sometimes weeks at a time, living in plush motor homes, and towing extremely modified “Jeeps,” this band of forever friends has done it all, taking their Jeep-bodied rigs where only buggies belong.
When Harold, the undisputed leader of the 'Pack, was diagnosed with cancer in December 2010, it hit everyone hard. One of Harold's last wishes was to 'wheel as long as he could with his Rat Pack. He got a lot of trails in during the final months of his life, including the Southwest 4WD Association's Chile Challenge in Las Cruces and, once again, he led the infamous Superlift “Bunny Run” in Moab during Easter Jeep Safari 2011, despite being in obvious pain. This was to be his last trip. The pink Scramblers were parked and we all mourned the loss of a dear friend.
In his hometown of Farmington the local 4x4 club, The Cliffhangers, felt a memorial trail, to be named "Harold's Highway," and located in the Chokecherry Canyon area outside Farmington, would be a fitting tribute to the man. Harold loved these radical, cliff strewn boulder fields and canyons and had 'wheeled them for most of his life. He was instrumental in the creation of many of the crazier “wall climbs,” and was a force that put Farmington on the map for early rock crawling competitions; events that gave the place its reputation for insane vertical climbs.
Three men — Jerry Edgar, Stanley Steele, and Jim Peterson — were responsible for the creation of Harold's Highway. They spent a good deal of their free time during the summer and fall of 2011 piecing together three old existing trails, which included special stages of old ARCA courses, into the new trail. The entire trail is set within one square mile and features about 28 obstacles. It is an excellent example of what can be done with a very small area of land if it consists of the right terrain. This one square mile can easily entertain a group of 50-plus Jeeps for an entire day.
Like most places that become popular 4x4 destinations, the Chokecherry Canyon area has been the focus of many anti off-road recreation groups trying to shut it down. The Cliffhangers and others have fought long and hard, working with the BLM to keep the area open. The new Harold's Highway trail is located on land designated by New Mexico law as “open area” as opposed to land designated as “limited use.” In open areas the club can make new trails, thus allowing them to link the three old trails together. In limited use areas one must stay on established, BLM recognized trails.
The new trail was ready in late September 2011 and the club held a dedication ceremony at the trailhead on Sunday, October 2. Special invitees included Phyllis Off and the entire Off family, along with all the members of the Rat Pack, who were asked to be the first rigs to 'wheel the new trail. Jerry Edger led the group in his 4-wheel-steer buggy while Stanley Steele, in his pink cap, seemed to be everywhere helping to spot the drivers over all the yet unnamed obstacles.
Check out the photos of this challenging new trail, which is now open to all. If you've never 'wheeled Farmington, you owe it to yourself to head to northwestern New Mexico. Stop by Off Again 4X4 and get directions to some of the most challenging 'wheeling you'll ever do. And don't forget about clubs like The Cliffhangers, and fellows like Harold Off who have made our sport even better. Rest in peace, Harold. Hope the trails up there are as good as the ones you left us.