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Off-Roading Mecca at a Crossroads

Recreation: The king of four-wheeler trails, the Rubicon, is so popular that its future is at risk.


LOON LAKE, Calif. — To Shad Sarti, there is no more fitting celebration of American freedom than riding his customized 625-horsepower Toyota monster truck on the Rubicon Trail.

A Caltrans highway line striper from Redding, Sarti, 29, was here at the High Sierra trail head for his ninth consecutive Fourth of July weekend.

"There is nothing more American than four-wheeling," said Sarti, "and nowhere more American than the Rubicon."

The Halloween death mask was already in place on the spare-tire rack. Sarti's wife Renee, 23, unfurled the Confederate flag to fly above the cab. When Renee stripped to her swimsuit, a checklist posted on the back of Sarti's truck trailer was complete: "Beer. Bad Ass Trucks. American Pride. Women Wearing Bikinis."

To some, the Independence Day weekend may mean tall ships in Boston Harbor, a parade on Main Street or fireworks over a darkened baseball diamond. But the Sartis and hundreds of others find the essence of America with an annual pilgrimage to one of the nation's most famous four-wheel trails.

"This is Christmas in the summer for four-wheelers," said Will Coelho, 22, who was with friends from Walnut Creek. "You can be as loud as you want here and drink as much as you want."

The rugged dirt path from the western Sierra Nevada to Lake Tahoe is holy ground for the millions of Americans who enjoy off-road driving. By day's end Sunday, 2,000 to 3,000 people are expected to have lumbered and careened on some part of the 22-mile pathway that has earned a "most difficult" Class-10 rating from the expanding off-road community.

"The Rubicon is the crown jewel of off-roading," said Del Albright, a retired California Forestry Department firefighter. He holds the title "trail boss" for the Friends of the Rubicon, a recently mustered organization dedicated to keeping the mountain trail open for four-wheelers, motorcycles, mountain bikes and equestrians.

"This is the oldest and hardest continuous four-wheel-drive trail in the world," said Dan Mainwaring of Georgetown, Calif., president of Jeepers Jamboree, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary as host of an annual Rubicon trail rally. "Most people feel that if you haven't done the Rubicon, you haven't four-wheeled."

In 1953, the former Indian foot trail and stagecoach route was the setting for the country's first organized four-wheel-drive event. Flat granite and boulder-strewn sluices provide a dream venue for those who love to test machine against nature.

The U.S. Army's super-secret Delta Force trained here before leaving for Afghanistan. Chrysler Corp. sponsors several annual promotional excursions for Jeeps on the trail. The company recently announced a 2003 Rubicon model of its Jeep Wrangler. The Rubicon's renown has never been greater. But its problems have become so obvious that they are acknowledged not just by environmentalists, but even by mainstream off-road organizations. Like many of America's favorite off-road venues, the Rubicon is in danger of being loved to death.

Pressure from the estimated 70,000 off-roaders who make the pilgrimage here each summer is taking a toll. The delicate mile-high terrain is scarred from renegade drivers who leave the main trail. Human waste fouls the path. And erosion has become so extreme that a regional water agency last year temporarily banned use of the trail to protect runoff bound for Lake Tahoe.

The Rubicon symbolizes the predicament faced by many California forest areas under increasing pressure from a recreation-crazed populace. According to the state Department of Parks and Recreation, 3.5 million Californians, representing 14% of all households, participate in some form of motorized off-road activity.

Extreme sports television marketing urges Americans to confront nature rather than passively enjoy it: A lake is not simply a lake; it is a water challenge. A stream is not something in which to languidly dangle a toe; it is a barrier, it is to be forded.

Said Daphne Greene, head of the state Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Commission: "It is extremely difficult to educate the off-road community when you turn on the TV and you see a vehicle crashing through the air and slamming through meadows and rivers."

"The reality is that more trails will be shut down," said Greene, a Gov. Gray Davis appointee who owns her own San Rafael off-road consulting company, "because people think this kind of behavior is acceptable."

Rubicon veterans in the Sierra foothills are perplexed about how to go about saving the famous trail while keeping it open for public use.

"Part of the problem is that the Rubicon is so popular that on some weekends it gets overloaded," said Mark Smith, a 75-year-old former lumberjack, who is considered one of the fathers of American off-roading.

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