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June 2012 Dr. Vern

Posted in Features on June 1, 2012
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Contributors: Dr. Vern

It happened again. Despite my best intentions, my willpower wasn’t strong enough. I’ve got this overpowering obsession I can’t always resist. No, I didn’t buy another Jeep recently, not that I remember. I should double-check my garage in case I’d been sleep-surfing again, but I’m already heading off on a tangent. My compulsion, the one I was powerless to resist, was that I bought yet another book about ghost towns and lost treasure.

A guy can dream, right? Somewhere out there are buried treasures just waiting to be discovered. While many stories about hidden loot are simply tall tales, some are well documented. Back in the day, banks weren’t always trusted or even available, so it wasn’t uncommon to bury one’s fortune for safekeeping after striking it rich. That’s where my Jeep and I enter the picture. Somebody might eventually find these forgotten treasures, so it may as well be me. I realize the odds are slim I’ll ever find one of those buried caches, but when have I ever listened to reason? Still, whenever I’m poking around some ghost town or old mining camp, inevitably I ask myself, “Where would I have buried my loot?”

There’s a different type of treasure that’s more common and much easier to find. Over the years, equipment was sometimes abandoned by loggers, miners, etc. For example, my neck of the woods was heavily logged decades ago. With no good roads available, flumes and rail lines had been built to move the harvest. Although most traces are long gone, I’ve found all sorts of tantalizing clues left behind by an earlier generation. Some forest roads were built on old logging railroad grades, so they are prime hunting grounds. Compared to other trails, converted railroad grades stand out quite readily, much like a magazine editor at a rocket science symposium. The reason they stand out is because they are fairly boring and don’t have much character. Just so there’s no confusion, I’m back to talking about railroad grades, which tended to be flatter and straighter than other trails.

Since nobody really listens to me anyway, I’ll mention one pipe dream that involves another way to combine a Jeep and an old railroad. Back in the ’40s and ’50s, there was a company that modified Jeep wagons and pickups for railroad use. The wagons were modified even further, with four doors instead of the original two. With very few ever produced in this country, trying to find one of these railroad Jeeps is like searching for the Holy Grail. These rigs rode directly on the tracks, with drop-down guide wheels to keep the tires centered on top of the rails. When not on the tracks, the guide wheels would retract for normal travel. While up on the tracks, the guide wheels took care of directional duties, so the steering wheel had no effect on where the vehicle is heading. Now that I think about it, that last part isn’t really much different than the regular steering on my Jeeps.

I think traveling directly on the train tracks would be a blast. Please understand that I’ve driven my Jeep through some pretty exhilarating places, both good and bad. I’ve stumbled onto trails with such a high pucker factor I didn’t need a seat belt. From the wheel of my Jeep, I’ve seen scenery so magnificent, I almost forgot I should breath. None of these situations, however, would compare to the surreal thrill I’d probably experience blasting along the railroad tracks. Since I don’t own one of these rare Jeeps yet, I haven’t formally asked, but I suspect an active railroad would tend to frown upon me going for a joyride on their mainline. From a practical standpoint, I’d have to purchase an entire abandoned railroad to make sure I’d have a place to drive, which would in turn run up the total cost of ownership. Sure, it would be expensive, but at least I could finally say I had a Jeep that handled as if on rails.

Back to the real world, the gentle grades of former railroad lines certainly don’t make the most exciting Jeep trails. This brings us to an interesting observation about two main groups of off-roaders. One group seems to be primarily interested in their destination, be it a backwoods fishing hole, camping spot, or in my case, whatever treasures I might find along the trail itself. The vehicle is merely a means to an end, and my comrades and I generally follow the simplest route. The second group seems to be mainly interested in the off-road capabilities of their rigs, and will go out of the way to find the most difficult route, or even spend their time just playing on obstacles.

As an enlightened gentleman, I’m not the type to make fun of those different from me, but it would be helpful to label the two camps. In the spirit of inclusiveness, I’ve carefully chosen neutral, non-judgmental names for these two opposing groups. For those like myself, quite content to explore the far reaches of the wilderness, “Carry On to the Outer Limits” is an apt moniker which can conveniently be shortened to COOL. For those whose idea of a good time is to spend an afternoon endlessly driving back and forth over the same pile of rocks, let’s go with “Motorized Off-Road Obstacle Navigator”, or moron. I should sell bumper stickers, but there may not be much of a market. If you have a Jeep obviously built for rockcrawling, there’s no point in adding the corresponding bumper sticker.

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