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.
It got worse: Deep in the Sierra Nevadas, at a time of high fire danger--indeed, during a time when fires were scouring the forests of Arizona, Colorado and parts of California not far from where we were, people were setting off explosions so big that at night, their concussions rattled the valley and their flashes illuminated the walls of the canyon in which Rubicon Springs, our campsite, was located. Against this context, it's pretty easy to see why the environmental community is outraged over the treatment Rubicon Trail receives.
And it's easy to see why Harold Pietschmann, a respected area wheeler who teaches four-wheel driving skills on the trail, says on his Web site (www.rubicon-trail.com), "Can the Rubicon Trail be saved? Will recreational four-wheeling survive? I don't think so. If we only talk about education of four-wheelers--we will still be talking when all trails are closed. The Rubicon acts like a highly visible barometer. Looking at the daily increasing devastation and destruction on the Rubicon Trail, one can only come to the conclusion that everyone from Tread Lightly! (to) local clubs to four-wheel-drive associations have failed...to make the four-wheeling community a respectable group. Blaming a 'few bad apples' but looking the other way when the yahoos tear up the trails will get us all thrown out."
Indeed, if the forces arrayed against four-wheeling wanted to gather evidence of the irresponsibility of at least some four-wheelers, they would only have needed to bring their cameras and notebooks along on the 50th anniversary of the Jeeper's Jamboree. None of this, mind you, is to be taken as a reflection on most of the participants, and certainly not on the organizers of the trip--though we're forced to wonder if jamming 800 vehicles over the Rubicon on a single long weekend, or participating in a trip that large on an individual basis, as we did, can be seen as appropriate stewardship of this resource. Mostly, people behaved, and the trip itself was carefully organized from start to finish, from the moment elaborate sack lunches were thrust upon participants at the trip's start in Georgetown, through the teams of Rubicon Rock Rollers positioned to help participants through the many obstacles, through the meals, dinner music, and country-and-western band, to the lunch at the end.
Let's not forget the trail itself. When Mark Smith first ran the Rubicon in 1951, it was, he remembers, mostly a cobblestone road. He says, "You could do the whole thing in a day." Today, you still could do the whole thing in a day. But you'd have to be a glutton for punishment, and the day would be a very long one, indeed. For if the trail is very scenic, it also is very rough, with an endless supply of sharp, gnarly rock obstacles. From Georgetown to Rubicon Springs, with several long stops, we were on the trail for 11 hours.
Says Smith, "It's much more difficult than it ever used to be. A lot of that's because of vandalism, people rolling big rocks down in the trail. That's done by a bunch of jerks--irresponsible punks. Also causing a lot of severe damage are the extreme machines, and vehicles that are too wide for the trail, such as Hummers, that hook onto boulders and roll them down into the trail."
Oddly, two of the trail's most famous obstacles, the Little Sluicebox, and the Big Sluicebox, provide a study in contrast. The Little Sluice, as it's called, always was tough. But it was driveable. Today it's almost impassable. Explains Smith, "In the Little Sluice, these idiots have pulled great big rocks down and blocked it off. It takes these extreme machines a day to get through there. The guys sit there drinking beer and encouraging the others to crash on through and break their vehicles."
So Little Sluice is blocked off, and the trail takes a bypass. Big Sluice, that heart-in-your-throat downhill that's studded with Jeep-sized rocks and lined by boulders on one side and a cliff on the other--well, that seemed tamer than I'd ever seen it. Hey, none of it's easy, and as I constantly reminded myself, this trail changes every year, not only because of the attentions it gets from various rock rollers, but also because of the incredibly severe winters that descend upon the Sierra Nevadas.
Indeed, it may ultimately be the cleansing effects of those winters that help save the Rubicon, if indeed it is to be saved at all. For as trashed as the trail may become by the onset of winter, you can bet that by the time the snow has melted the following summer, the nightmare effects of a summer's use has been scrubbed away and the trail once again is pristine--pristine enough for Jeepers to dust off their rigs, pack up their tents and coolers, and head out for Rubicon Springs. For sure, we'll do it again, though maybe not with a trip quite this large. But whether this trip, indeed, this trail, will actually survive a second 50 years--or another 25, or even another 10--clearly remains to be seen.
The Godfather of Rockcrawling
"I must be a slow learner," says Mark Smith through his slow drawl, "I'm still doing the Jeeper's Jamboree 50 years later. To realize that it's still going on, and that it's grown the way it has, well, that's just beyond imagination."
Fifty years ago, Smith was at the wheel of his military-surplus Jeep, for which he'd just paid $500--in 1951, a whole lot of money. He was exploring the old roads and trails around Georgetown, California, a tiny relic of a town that against all odds remains a leftover of California's remarkable '49er Gold Rush era. And in doing that exploration, it can be argued, Smith invented the sport of rockcrawling--and maybe, recreational Jeeping.
The War II Jeep didn't last long--in 1952, Smith bought a CJ-3A, and he used that for years as he crawled the Sierras. The primary object of his exploration was the Rubicon Trail, which exists in part because of a stagecoach called the Rubicon Flier. This coach ran between the hotel in Rubicon Springs and Tahoe between about 1888 and 1908. The hotel, Smith says, was built in the 1880s, and collapsed from the force of the Sierra winters in 1953. Where there was a hotel and a stagecoach, there had to be roads. There were, and those roads now make up the trails used by the Jeeper's Jamboree.
Smith is quick to point out however, that the old roads were pretty civilized affairs. He says, "It was cobblestone, and using it, you could go from the Springs to Lake Tahoe in about two hours." These days, using Cadillac Trail, that same trip takes three to four hours.
Interestingly, about three years ago Smith found the old Rubicon Flier stored in a nearby Gold Rush burg called Fiddletown. It was complete and in great shape, and he bought it. The Godfather of Rockcrawling is happy about that, but he's less happy about what the Rubicon Trail has become.
He says, "The Rubicon is undoubtedly the most famous 4x4 drive trail in the world. These days it's much more difficult than it used to be, and a lot of that is because of vandalism." Smith's stake in the Rubicon is a real one--he and a group of investors bought the property that holds the Rubicon Springs in 1985. These days, what was a beautiful but primitive campsite holds a caretaker's cabin plus several semi-permanent buildings used for cooking, feeding and watering the crowds that come through on the Jamboree trips.
"It's all been very rewarding," says Smith. "What was a hobby turned out to be a lifestyle and a profession. And my daughter Jill runs Jeep Jamboree U.S.A., and my son Greg runs the trail. We all work with Jeep, and have done so through its ownership by Willys, Kaiser, AMC, Renault, Chrysler and now DaimlerChrysler."
But will the Rubicon Trail display the longevity of the Jeep vehicles built to run it? "I think so," Smith says. "We're working with the Forest Service to make it a designated trail, with maintenance from the state's Green Sticker fund. Then law enforcement will be able to patrol it and make sure that people either stay on the trail or get arrested. A group of six of us own about half the trail. We plan to deed the right-of-way to El Dorado County, and we'll do the same over our private land. But we're not gonna deed anything unless we know we have the trail we want, including some of the alternates. We're working together to keep the Rubicon, and make this one of the best 4x4 trails in the world."