As kids, how many of you had a wide-brimmed hat and a six-shootin' cap gun that you wore proudly as you roamed the wild ranges of your backyard playing cowboys? Or better yet, maybe you actually got to live the hardy life in the saddle, roping and brandingcattle in the wild fields of the West? And now, how many times in your life have you had the chance to ride into town on the back of your trusty steed, with your gang of dirty roughneck friends and just have the most rootin' tootin' good time ever? Well, this year Ultimate Adventure took our wild band of 18 rough and weathered trail machines, with 34 cowboys and two cowgirls, down to the biggest state in the lower 48 where we wrassled some of the meanest dirt climbs, roughest rock ledges, and mud so nasty it would leave some of our gang sniveling like babies.
So what is the point of all the trails of tears? It's just the most important week of the year for us. The week the editors of 4-Wheel & Off-Road leave our cluttered desks behind to go get some quality dirt under the tires, and rather than go alone we round up a group of like-minded wheelers to go with us. By "like-minded" we mean folks not scared of living in the dirt, wrenching nightly to keep our battered rides on the trail, and wholeheartedly leaving the grueling daily grind behind for a seven-plus day trip where we can recharge our batteries in the most exhaustingly fun week of off-roading possible. Basically the office is closed, we've gone wheeling, and when we get back our clothes will stink and be infested with bugs. Don't you wish you were with us?
So it's 2007 and the name of the game is Big: big state, big tires, big Jeep, big fun in big mud, big dirt, and big rocks. Every year we organize our Ultimate Adventure trip to cover about 1,000 miles across three or four states, where we go wheeling every other day, and commute between trails on deserted backroads in our trail rigs. Not on trailers, and not in air conditioning, but rather behind the wheel of our sometimes barely legal 4x4s with mud-terrain tires whirring underneath and the noise and heat of rugged powerplants filling our ears and frying our feet.
This year we chose to visit just one state-one big state called Texas. You would think we would show up like lethal outlaws in these small towns, what with our big machines and dirty clothes from camping and wrenching every night, but the fact is we usually find some of the most hospitable local wheelers to help lead our troop to the local wheeling spots, and those folks from Texas were as fun-loving as any we've ever met. Never before has the weather been so great (though slightly warm and just a wee bit humid), the trails so fun (though by fun we mean brutal), and the people so welcoming (helpful, fun, and outfitted with some of the best Bar-b-que-ing skills in the nation). It was truly an unforgettable trip, and in case you were wondering, we'll be doing it again next summer to another part of the country, so fill out your application in next month's issue to join the gang.
Check in at Longview Driveshaft & 4x4, Longview, Texas
Just getting your truck done, getting packed, and getting there in one piece is as much an adventure as the trip itself. You'd think everyone would be completely prepared and not have any last-minute projects to do. We promise every year that this is the last year we'll be wrenching at check-in, though we're sure it will be the same next year, and the year after that, and the year after that.
First Blood... red dirt at Barnwell Mountain, Gilmer, Texas
The first trail day of Ultimate Adventure is similar to going to your high school prom. Everyone's a bit nervous as they're sitting in their freshly cleaned 4x4s, and since most of the group has never been on these trails before they feel especially uncomfortable wondering if they're gonna look like a total dork when they hit the dance floor. Lucky for us, we were under the guidance of the Texas Motorized Trail Coalition and the Jeeps of East Texas club, so we headed for some trails at the 1,800-acre Barnwell Mountain OHV recreation area just 5 miles north of Gilmer. Barnwell was a great trail day to get the UA gang warmed up and ready for a week of wheeling, and when we say "warmed up," we mean temps in the mid 90s with so much humidity you could practically swim to the trailhead. Now this forecast may sound bad, but it was actually pretty nice, at least compared to the entire month before when most of Texas was being flooded and folks were literally swimming to safety. Ultimate Adventure rolled into Texas and brought with it excellent weather from across the nation. Believe it or not, from the day we arrived the rains pretty much stopped, and though it was hot and humid, at least there were no unplanned deep water crossings.
Enough about the weather, let's get back to the trails of Barnwell. Imagine some deep ruts and giant V-notches with a plethora of steep climbs thrown in for good measure, then cover everything in deep red dirt and you get the idea of what we were looking at. Barnwell is an old iron ore mine which now offers nearly a hundred different trails for bikes, ATVs, and 4x4s rated from novice to extreme. Plus if you want to come for a weekend there are designated campgrounds, both primitive and outfitted with power and water. The park is great fun and though it's mostly dirt obstacles, that didn't mean there wasn't any carnage or rigs going dirty-side-up. In fact, the very first obstacle we hit, known as Twister, had more than one of our invited readers showing the crowd his rig's belly, and shortly thereafter our rookie feature editor busted out the taillight on that dang Ranger of his (he'll call it the Ultimate Danger Ranger, but that's mostly because it tried to self-destruct more than a couple times on this trip). The day was a great way to get the trucks and drivers ready for the week. Many of the forgotten last-minute things were discovered, like when one big truck sheared off almost all the wheel studs and another big Jeep had the stick shift literally come loose in the driver's hand on a particularly steep climb.
A big thank you goes to Cecil Derrick from Longview Driveshaft & 4x4, his team of local trail hands, and the Texas Motorized Trail Coaliton, who helped spot our drivers through the rough sections they were getting stuck on, and for feeding our troops both lunch and the first of a handful of excellent barbecue dinners we had during our visit in the Lone Star State. And of course Longview Driveshaft was open for business that night as UA attendees scuttled back to lick the fresh wounds and make final adjustments prior to Monday's 200-mile road trip.
Asphalt Wheeling from Longview to Huntsville
One of the unique features of Ultimate Adventure is that between every wheeling day there are a few hundred miles of on-the-road trail to cover. Since no trailers are allowed during the actual event, this means trail rigs on the street. Having survived Barnwell with only a few broken bits, we set off early Monday morning for Huntsville, Texas, roughly 200 miles away. Of course it's less than that if you drove straight there on the highways, but what's the fun in that? Pw has no interest in going straight to the next campground just to sit around waiting for the sun to set. Instead there are neat little backroads to explore, one-of-a-kind diners in every town to eat at, and gas stations to be overrun by hordes of lifted 4x4s looking for fuel, drinks, and whatever foodlike substances can be found. Plus did we mention that the boss is also quite fond of old Jeeps, and it's his personal calling to try and find every one hiding in the weeds along the untraveled bitumen of our great nation?
Now you might think that traveling 200 miles would take roughly 3 1/2 hours, but then you've most likely never been on Ultimate Adventure where 200 miles is an all-day expedition. You see, it's like this: We start the day with another drivers' meeting, but it's usually late since someone has overslept or is still up after an all-night wrenchfest fixing whatever was broken the day before. Then after everyone is packed, snacked, and fueled we finally line up and convoy out of town, waving to our new friends as we leave. Then barely out of town the group is hopelessly strung out across nine intersections waiting for the light to change, until eventually we stop along the way to regroup and see who's missing. It's about this point when someone's rig won't run quite right, or maybe a cooler needs to be strapped down again, or there's that one guy that must skip off into the bushes for just a second. Sooner or later we get back on the road only to get a message relayed from the back of the pack stating that someone had to pull over due to some unexplained mechanical issue. No worries, we're only going another 15 miles till a fuel stop where they can catch up. Of course the fuel stop involves 18 different rigs vying for the only pump in some small Texas town while the men's room has a line around the convenience store. The next thing you know Pw is back in his Jeep and the other Ultimate Adventurers are hustling from the store with armloads of beef jerky, energy drinks, and packets of cream-filled cakes. Again we're on the road, but before long the whole scenario happens again. However, along the way we cruise through neat little towns with one or less stoplight per municipality, and it's not unusual that when we do stop the locals come gawking like we're the traveling freak show. Of course everyone wants to check out the rigs and since it's about lunch time and someone is overheating again or another rig's electronic fuel injection is no longer injecting, we decide to regroup. Thus it is no wonder that we leave one town at 8 in the morning and it's nearly 12 hours later when we finally arrive just 200 miles away, exhausted and ready to set up camp, snap open a brew or two, and hit the sleeping bags. However our new hosts have prepared a welcoming meal which our group could never turn down, and being a hungry bunch we dive right in. Before long some of us wander off to check on the trucks and tighten any loose bolts so the next day on the trial will go smoothly. And that is one of the boring road days of UA.
Every year our trip is filled with pranksters, inside jokes, and people helping deflate each other's tires under the cover of darkness. However, one of the more recently initiated ceremonies of UA is the Pink Hat awards. These pink hats are awarded to the guys who somehow misunderstood the true meaning of UA, and for a day they get the honor of wearing a pink hat to remind them of their folly. It's not really a harsh punishment, but rather a way to poke fun at those who might show up late to UA, be caught running on road days with windows up and air conditioning on while the rest of us sweat, take a bypass rather than dunking their rigs in the deep mud holes, or maybe even sneaking into town in order to pressure-wash mud from the skin of their pretty 4x4. You see, UA is a test of our rugged adventure lifestyle, and if some of us have to suffer through it then gosh darn it we all should. Plus in some ways it could be an honor to get to wear a pink hat for a day, but mostly it's just a great way to poke fun at each other.
Muddy bottoms at General Sam's, Huntsville, Texas
The next stop on our Texas tour was General Sam's Off-Road Wilderness park outside of Huntsville. It was only our second trail day of the trip and Pw wasn't going to make it easy for any of us. The name of the game was mud, and not that dry stuff that falls off tires. No, we're talking grab your spoons cause it's a sloppy milkshake mud that will be filling your floorboards and gumming up your radiators. Now let's not put the mud buggy before the horse. First, a little bit about General Sam's. This 700-plus-acre park has over 40 miles of trails with everything from steep climbs and ragged twisty canyons to deep, deeper, and deepest mud-filled pits. If this is your kind of thing, then there is camping for both RVs and tents and after a day in the muck the showers and running water for rinsing off is a great treat. Now don't expect to meet a white-linen-suited General Sam as this park is named after the late Sam Houston, one of the first commanders of the Texas army and the first president of the Republic of Texas back in the 1830s. Instead, General Sam's is run by Denny Powell, a true southern gentleman who, with the help of some local off-roaders (The Texas Mud Mafia), showed us a great time in their dirty little park (and by "dirty" we mean only the muddy parts).
Our group of wheelers this year is from a wide range of backgrounds and states, but amazingly we didn't have anyone that was champin' at the bit for a good old mud hole. (Note to you readers that have built mud machines, maybe you should apply for UA next year so you can show those rockcrawler and trail guys how mud's supposed to be run.) However, even though no one is "required" to run every trail, a sure-fire way to get some harassment is if you wimp out and take the bypasses (if there are any) around any obstacles, whether they are big rockclimbs or deep sloppy mud pits. Needless to say the mud at General Sam's had some of our troop peeling out and our new mud tires hucking the slurry all over the place. The fact is that even though mud is a pain in the neck to clean up and very hard on vehicles, when you're deep in it and have the throttle pegged with all four tires spinning and you're just hoping that the hole isn't getting any deeper, mud can really be a ton of fun. Again our fearless leader Pw took us straight through the holes behind the local trail leader and even when his Jeep filled with nearly 6 inches of creamy chocolate malt, he just grinned and kept on truckin. By the end of the day we had rigs overheating, cameramen falling down in the slop trying to get photos, and a truly excellent time playing like pigs in the messy muck of General Sam's.