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These Jeepers Just Love Doing the Dirty Work : All in fun, Jeep Jamborees test off-road skills. Five will take place in California this year.

April 04, 1993|MICHAEL KONIK | Konik is a free-lance writer based in New York City.

SLADE, Ky. — This is a perfect place to take a large machine and run over things.

It's only a couple of hours outside Lexington's sprawling horse farms and mint-julep gentility, but it might as well be in another state, or wherever they shot the movie "Deliverance." Slade is hillbilly country, a place where the proprietor of the town's grocery store knows all of his customers by name, since, he confesses, "most of 'em are my cousins." It's a place where one of the big tourist attractions is "The Snake Pit" (admission: 50 cents), a dusty dirt pen containing half a dozen lethargic rattlers. It is, above all, a place where a person can commune with nature and his or her four-wheel-drive vehicle at the same time.

This mountainous, barely touched stretch of eastern Kentucky countryside is full of rocks, puddles and tree stumps, which, while of no consequence to most people, means a lot to Jeepers.

Jeepers are people who drive Jeeps. Actually, that is not entirely true. Many folks drive Jeeps. You can see them on the freeway, cruising to the office or taking their kids to the Little League game. These people like to keep their Jeep on the road and free of unsightly blemishes to the paint job. These people are not Jeepers. Jeepers prefer to punish their Jeeps, taking them places where any reasonable person would assume automobiles are not meant to go. Jeepers think a Jeep looks best when you cannot tell what color it is underneath all the mud.

That is why Slade, Ky., is, for a Jeeper, one of the best places in America to own a driver's license and, of course, a Jeep.

To consecrate the marriage of their high-performance vehicle to its surroundings, Jeep enthusiasts gather in weekend-long celebrations of horsepower called Jeep Jamborees.

Forty-one years ago, a group of off-road enthusiasts navigated the fabled Rubicon Trail nestled in the Sierra Nevada near Georgetown, Calif., in what would be the forerunner of today's jamborees. They are conducted at 29 sites in the U.S. and Canada, and nearly 4,500 people participate annually. But the Rubicon trip, known as the "Jeepers Jamboree," remains the granddaddy of meets. Following an old American Indian footpath, the Rubicon Trail has had no improvements over the years. Each of its treacherous nine miles is filled with boulders and huge slabs of granite, all of which must be crossed. Jamboree trail difficulty is expressed on a 1-to-10 scale. The Rubicon is a 10.

Jeep Jamborees, conducted April to November in a different scenic location nearly every week (the Black Hills, the Adirondacks, California's San Bernardino National Forest, the High Sierra Nevada), bring together several hundred motorheads in one dramatically beautiful place, where they can drive the same rough-hewn trails, eat the same down-home meals and talk about the same stuff--tires, winches, gear differentials--into the early morning hours. (This year's California offerings include the first-ever Big Bear Jeep Jamboree, April 16; the Lost Coast Jamboree, Eureka to Ft. Bragg, April 23; the Ghost Town Jamboree, South Lake Tahoe to Virginia City, Nev., April 30; the venerable Jeepers Jamboree, beginning in Georgetown July 22, and the second annual Pine Ridge Jamboree, at Shaver Lake in Central California, Aug. 20.)

It may come as a shock to some that many hundreds of otherwise average, well-adjusted citizens enjoy such weekends. People who own car dealerships and sell real estate and make executive decisions at Very Big Companies harbor secret Jeep fetishes. There's nothing they like better than tearing off the tie, taking off the top and playing in the mud with their grown-up toys. Sometimes they take the kids, too.

Some husband-wife teams share the driving responsibilities evenly; others designate wheel time based on the difficulty of the trails. And in some families Mom and the children are more or less serving as unofficial witnesses or video archivists at the fulfillment of Dad's off-road fantasies. In the interest of those who, like my mother, own a Jeep but are only marginally attracted to the idea of taking it off the pavement, most Jeep Jamborees have activities scheduled for the after-driving hours, as well--everything from pig roasts to clog-dancing performances. A jamboree is as much about socializing as it is burning out your clutch. A good portion of Jeepers stay at campgrounds; others opt for motels.

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