I'd only been working at this magazine for a couple of months, as a copy editor in those days, when the Tech Editor knocked on my office door one Friday afternoon and tossed me a set of keys, a clipboard, and a log book. This was many years ago, when we still put the magazine together with glue, rollers, and linotype.
"Here's your vehicle. Meet here Monday," the editor said to me.
"This is for . . . what again?" I asked.
"Four Wheeler of the Year, remember?"
"Uh, yeah," I replied, recalling some mention of the event but not fully aware that I'd be invited to participate. I was the new kid on the staff and only a copy editor to boot, which to me meant my job was staying in the office and editing stories, not test-driving trucks in the boonies for a week. That was for the big kids.
"Cool. Where we going?" I asked.
"Directions are in the logbook. Mostly around Big Bear, then up to Dumont, down to Jawbone, maybe out to Kelso if we have enough time. You've done this before, right?"
Up to then, the sum and total of my off-road experiences had been a handful of trips through the lower Mojave-Joshua Tree and the like-in my '71 VW hippievan. I'd flogged it in the dirt as far as its 50hp of air-cooled ruggedness could take me-but needless to say, I was not, as Granny King would've said, quite the grizzled old-timer-not even close.
But hey, why let a little inexperience get in the way? So blatantly lying, I said, "Sure, I've been there, lots of times." (How to get ahead in publishing: Always be ready to make up a good story, even if you're not sure how it will end.)
The next Monday the staff assembled our multi-truck caravan in the company parking lot, and within a short time we were airing down and locking the hubs (like I said, it was a long time ago) at the head of the Crab Flats trail near Big Bear. This was the kind of trail I had only hiked on before-steep, rutted, very rocky in places, and with a fairly deep stream crossing thrown in-but, casting heed to the winds, I hoisted myself into a two-tone Bronco XLT and clanked the lever into 4-Lo. I figured that for the short term my best course of action was to follow the tracks of the guy in front of me, to mimic his line and do what he did. That way, if I got stuck, I could always blame him. At least that was my reasoning at the time.
For the next three hours, that's what I did. Luckily, the "guy" piloting the rig in front of me for most of the afternoon happened to be an editor named Jimmy Nylund, who was the most experienced (and by far the most skilled) off-road driver on the staff. So thanks to the best four-wheel driving instructor I could have asked for, I managed to traverse the trail without betraying my rookie status. Shortly afterward, driving to our hotel, inhaling the scent of pine needles and watching the sunset rippling across the surface of Lake Arrowhead, I thought to myself, "This could be a very cool way to make a living."
Thus began my love/hate relationship with Four Wheeler of the Year. It's been going strong for over 20 years now.
What do I love about it? For starters, it gives me the opportunity to stay abreast of the latest four-wheel drive and suspension technologies, which in recent years have only grown more clever and sophisticated-and occasionally more befuddling, to the computer-challenged. So whether you're a geek or a gear head (or a bit of both), there's always something new to be learned each year.
The week also gives me a chance to share some quality time with the entire staff. When you've got one editor in the Midwest, another one in northern California, and a publisher who spends most of his time in O.C., we don't spend nearly as much time together as you might think, and the camaraderie we enjoy when we're out for the week is a welcome respite from the solitude that accompanies the writer's trade. Also of importance, after running this test for so many years, is that we've managed to discover just about every good locals-only taqueria and barbecue joint south of Lone Pine, so at least we dine like princes after our long days in the desert. Finally, getting to play hooky in the backcountry for a week, and getting paid for it, is a form of delinquency that never gets old.
What do I hate? Well, the process of obtaining permits from the various government agencies is often slow, cumbersome, and more expensive by the year. (To be fair, the Feds move like greased lightning compared to the state of California.) Sidewall punctures, a rarity in the old days, are almost to be expected in multiples each year now, and the realization that you've run out of spares when you're 20 miles away from the nearest paved road isn't exactly reassuring. (Ironically, we had no flats this year.) Of course, I'm not a rookie on the trail anymore, so when I screw up in a vehicle and get stuck (which almost never happens, uh huh), scapegoating is not an option. (Okay, I do it anyway, but nobody listens.)
Regardless, it's hard to feel stressed out for very long when you're out enjoying some of the most scenic countryside in the western U.S., far from the workaday noise of commuting and cellphones, and sharing the experience with good friends. Even with the occasional headaches it brings, I still love this annual vehicle test, and I always hate it when it comes to an end.