Bethel, Maine: Some call it Maine's most beautiful mountain village. This rural town's website will tell you that Bethel, nestled at the base of Paradise Hill with the Androscoggin River running through it, is "just this side of paradise." But thousands of Jeepers over the past 20 years would tell you that this western Maine recreation destination has some of the best four wheeling in the country and that Jeep Jamboree USA's annual Bethel trail rides are not simply a boost to the local economy, but comprise an event that has formed friendships, bonded families, and created a lifestyle.
We showed up for the 20th anniversary Maine Mountains Jamboree last fall, along with 249 Jeepers (motoring 132 Jeep vehicles), who lined up at the start of the 21/2-day-long event for the traditional parade through town-a veritable drive-by of Jeep history, with Cherokees, CJs, YJs, JKs, TJs, Rubicons, Patriots, Commanders, Commandos, Grand Cherokees and an impressive collection of Willys models, including an M38A-1. Participants hailed from 15 states and Canada-many of them old-timers who are familiar with the gnarly mix of Maine-woods wheelin' over rocks, boulders, and granite ledges, and where mud bogs, stream crossings, and stumps challenge even seasoned off-road drivers on trails dubbed Rock 'N' Roll, Granite Crossing, Stone Wall, Sherwood Forest, and Sunday River.
One of the favorite trails is the Chili Trail, led by trail guides Scott and Janet Everett. To give you an example of the Jamboree's local flavor (literally), after a morning of water crossings, rocks, and a log bridge, you're rewarded with a hot lunch of chili and homemade baked goods served by Scott's parents Dave and Mary Everett at their mountaintop home, which has a spectacular view of the surrounding region.
"The Maine Jamboree is one of our all-time favorites," said Mark Smith, founder of the Jeep Jamboree program that has brought thousands of Jeepers together each year. Smith was an initiating member of the Jeepers Jamboree, which was held in 1953 along California's famed and rugged Rubicon Trail. Today, there are more than 30 Jeep Jamboree USA events that take place in a variety of locations throughout the country each year. "I love this Jamboree because it's held at the peak of the fall colors, has great coordinators that run it, has fireworks the first night, and is capped-off with a lobster dinner on the final evening at the wonderful Bethel Inn Resort," enthused Smith, referring to the award-winning inn that is the formal headquarters of the Jamboree. Owned by Smith's friends Dick and Gretchen Razor, the quintessential New England inn is a four-season resort, with 158 guest rooms and luxury townhouses.
"It's been great to be here for the 20th anniversary, seeing the reaction of people and seeing old friends like Lee Rogers, Doug and Jodi Wilson, Geoff and Julie Gaudreau," said Smith, naming a few of the organizers and friends who have been on the trails with him over the past two decades. "Some of the people here are the same, but we're an older and more mature crowd of Jeepers now, and Jamborees are held more as a family event than they were in the past. There is the great camaraderie of those who go from one event to another," said the octogenarian, who also pointed out that one of the changes is that, "Today's Jeep vehicles are newer, more efficient, and more comfortable."
Innkeeper Dick Razor met Mark Smith in 1981, when Razor drove the Rubicon Trail on a Jeepers Jamboree. "I met the legend, when I was working with Jeep advertising. Mark was the conscience of Jeep; I discovered this incredible man, who was creating the appeal of Jeeps," explained Razor. "Mark became the face of Jeep advertising-even if you didn't know how to put your Jeep in four-wheel drive, you loved the idea. Geographically, Maine is a perfect place for a Jamboree, so we spent two to three years pre-scouting back in the mid-'80s, and then it took off. There are so many interested people here; they make it successful," said Razor.
"When I met Mark, I didn't own a Jeep," said Geoff Gaudreau, one of the "pre-scouters" and early event organizers who helped Smith on the jeep trails for many years. "I had my 17th Bronco because I raced them, but after meeting Mark, I went out and bought a '51 Willys and hauled it home in three or four pieces and constructed it." Gaudreau, along with his wife Julie, owns and operates Gaudreau's Repair in Bethel, which specializes in Jeeps and 4x4s. "It was great to come back for the 20th Anniversary Jamboree. One of the biggest changes is that every trail we used the first five years doesn't exist any longer, but what's the same is this Jamboree is always full. Another huge difference is the vehicles used to be all 'built,' and now many are bought and accessorized." Gaudreau has built hundreds of Jeeps over the last 20 years and has close to 200 Jeeps on the grounds of his shop.
Official trailmaster Doug Wilson and his wife Jodi are the only remaining founding members of the Western Maine Mountains Jeep Club that now hosts this Jamboree. "We are still a strong, family-oriented Jeep club, with close to 50 families," said Doug Wilson, who drives a CJ-3B, and who negotiates the use of trails with local landowners. "One hundred percent of our trails are on private land, and we've worked hard to develop good relationships with the landowners."
"We were so fortunate to have Mark celebrate the 20th anniversary of this Jamboree with us, as he is the 'cause' of this whole thing; the Jeep Jamboree experience has changed a lot of people's lives-it's created memories for club members and created memories for families. A lot of people wouldn't have ever met if it wasn't for Mark Smith," said Wilson, whose children grew up on Maine's 4x4 trails and who now help out with the Jamborees as well.
"What I love is the camaraderie between everybody," said Jodi Wilson, who assists with guiding and trail fixes when needed. "It's like a family out on the trails. This year was so celebratory, especially with Mark and Irene Smith here, along with many other good friends who came for this year's event. What I like the most is being able to help others out on the trail."
"The people change, but some have been here the whole time," said Dave Aho, president of the Western Maine Mountains Jeep Club. "The biggest change? In the past, there were a lot of 'home-made' vehicles. Today, it's production vehicles, built-on big Jeeps-and people have a lot more money. I also think people understand a whole lot more about what we do and that we are having fun, but we are also taking care of the trails."
You could drive through the picturesque and rural village of Bethel that sits astride the Androscoggin River-where Brooks Brothers sells pliers and wrenches, Victoria's Secret is a chocolate raspberry dessert, and the Timberland Outlet is an exit for logging trucks-and never know that Mark Smith, Dick Razor, the Gaudreaus, the Wilsons, Dave Aho, and others have played such an important role in a pastime and an industry loved by so many.
"Bethel is the perfect place to come-we call it paradise," said innkeeper Razor. And so do all who come to experience the autumn splendor in the deep woods of Maine's western mountains along miles of 4x4 trails.
Jeep Jamboree USA
Off-Road Hall of Fame and Explorers Club member Mark Smith is the founder of Jeep Jamborees-the famed series of off-road weekends that combines outdoors adventure, fun-loving people and families, and their Jeep 4x4s (either rentals or their own) in scenic and challenging venues across North America. Smith started the events in 1953 with the inaugural Jeep Jamboree across the Sierra Nevada by way of the old Rubicon Trail, and it is now recognized worldwide. Willys-Overland, the original manufacturer of Jeep vehicles, became involved in 1954. The tradition continues with Chrysler's Jeep division, which supports Smith's program today. The fall 21st Maine Mountains Jeep Jamboree will be held September 30 to October 2, 2010.