Gold on the Rubicon
Trust us, there is nothing on the planet quite like a Jeeper's Jamboree trip over the famed Rubicon Trail in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains. Because you're deep in the mountains, at elevations well in excess of 5,000 feet, the sky is cerulean blue and colors display an intensity rarely seen down in the lower elevations, where light and color are filtered through thousands of feet of atmosphere, dust and pollution.
The Rubicon Trail is, in short, a paradise. Or maybe it's paradise lost. And the Jeeper's Jamboree is a dream trip. Or maybe it's a nightmare. It's hard to know because these days, the trail is a troubled one, having become a focal point between at least three groups--traditional wheelers, outlaw wheelers and, naturally, the environmental community. Add into that mix the U.S. Forest Service and various law-enforcement agencies--the latter with their work cut out for them. It's on this trip that competing visions of how this trail should be used can bubble to the surface.
We found ourselves confronting these competing visions as guests at the 50th running of the Jeeper's Jamboree, the trip's golden anniversary. This year is also Four Wheeler's 40th anniversary, and on this, our own anniversary year, we couldn't resist the allure of the 50th Jamboree. So we went along.
The Rubicon is a very busy trail, with lots of traffic over it all summer long. Traffic in the winter, too, when the really hard-bitten claim they slog through the snow over a trail that is difficult in the driest and warmest of times. You don't need to be in an organized trip to do this trail, or to see traffic. But it's for sure that if you are on an organized trip, you will see traffic. For that reason, when in the past we've done such trips, we've taken the Jeep Jamboree, a smaller trip. The Jeeper's Jamboree, the grandfather of such trips, and the one celebrating its golden anniversary this year, is far larger. How big was it? According to the rough official count, about 800 vehicles, carrying two, and sometimes three or four occupants, were on this trip, carrying so many people that over the trip's course, approximately 18,000 sets of silverware were issued by the Jamboree kitchen for the trip's eight meals per participant--which works out to 2,250 people. By contrast, the Jeep Jamboree usually features about 100 vehicles.
Also, this trip was--uh, raucous. "It's a more low-key crowd on the Jeep Jamboree," explained Marcella Kenny, of Jeeper's Jamboree. "The big trip is more rowdy--the small trip is people that don't want to party as much as the first trip."
What happened this year during the Jeeper's 50th included lots of great 'wheeling. But along with the 'wheeling, we also encountered incredibly poor stewardship of the land, with people cutting the trail and splashing through wetland areas in which they had no business being. We encountered surprising use of alcohol and drugs. At 9 a.m., just two hours out of Georgetown on the way to Rubicon Springs, the Jeep behind us contained three 'wheelers who already were drinking beer and smoking a joint. Once in camp, we heard the most vile language imaginable, and saw 'wheelers wearing t-shirts that also carried rude language. Loud music, played on into the wee hours of the night, shattered the peace of this beautiful spot. So did the sounds of exhausts, as drunks 'wheeled camp. So did the nasty blossoms of unburied toilet paper in the brush around camp--sometimes within sight of the portable toilets that dot the Rubicon Springs camping area, indicating that some folks don't have the sanitary sense of a house cat. It was people behaving badly, suggestions that culture, decency and basic manners are in decline--at least this day, on this trip.