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Lobbying for Jeep Jamboree pays off for Big Horn Mountains lodge owner
A Jeep is guided through a rough section of trail during last week's Jeep Jamboree in the Big Horn Mountains. The sections took around an hour to get seven Jeeps up the hill. (Paul Ruhter/The Billings Gazette)

BURGESS JUNCTION - For four years, Rick and Roberta Young lobbied Jeep Jamboree officials to visit their Big Horn Mountains home in hopes of luring the four-wheel drive event to Wyoming.

"It's just that the area up here is so perfect for Jeeps," Roberta Young said. "They're really missing out if they're not coming to the Big Horns."

Last Friday, the Youngs' work paid off as Wyoming and the couple's Bear Lodge Resort played host to the first jamboree in the state.

But Jeep Jamboree official Pearse Umlauf hedged on whether the event would be held annually. Low registration, possibly because of the depressed economy, meant fewer people than expected showed up for the three-day event. Usually, inaugural runs are sellouts, Umlauf said.

"We're hoping we can weather the storm on this," he said. "We are committed to next year at this time."

Umlauf said that of the 30 Jeep Jamborees held across the United States in a year, ones west of the Mississippi typically see a lower turnout with the exception of one held in Moab, Utah, and California's Rubicon, the granddaddy of Jeep Jamborees.

Between March and October, the 30 events attract more than 7,000 entrants packed into 3,200 vehicles, Umlauf said. The events have a family atmosphere and gather a loyal following, with 65 percent of the year's registrants return participants. After four or five years, most participants "graduate" from the jamborees and move on to join local four-wheel drive clubs, Umlauf said.

Granddaddy of events

One exception is 78-year-old Bill Austin of Orlando, Fla. Austin has set the record for the number of Jeep Jamborees attended - 97. He started in 1991 and his vehicle, a 1992 Grand Cherokee with 200,000 miles on the odometer, has set the record for most jamborees by a single vehicle - 93.

Two things attracted Austin to the event and kept him coming back year after year.

"One is it forces you to discover places that you've never heard of," he said. "I've gone to all these little out-of-the-way places and seen scenery you're not even aware exists."

Second on his list is the people he meets at the jamborees.

"I know when you talk Jeeps you think redneck, and they are to some extent," he said. "But we've got some good redneck friends now."

Economic incentive

The attraction for communities to host the Jeep Jamborees is money. Jeep drivers drop dollars at businesses in remote towns.

Umlauf said the inaugural event, in 1953, was specifically designed to boost the coffers of Georgetown, Calif., an old mining town where the Rubicon trail starts. The two-week event has netted the community in the northeastern shoulder of the state an estimated $30 million over the years, Umlauf said.

The turnout for the Big Horn Mountains Jeep Jamboree was 52 vehicles, although it was hoped the event would attract 80. Rick Young speculated that because the Big Horn Jamboree was rated a scenic ride, it may not have attracted some of the "Jeepers" more interested in difficult trails. The jamboree rates trails on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most difficult. The Big Horn ride is rated a 1 to 5.

The Youngs, looking forward to next year and ever optimistic, hired three bands to play over the weekend. They encouraged locals to visit to learn more about the jamboree in hopes that the turnout next year could be boosted.

"People are really starting to notice the Big Horns," Roberta Young said. "The last two to three years we're seeing a big increase in ATVers."

Hospitable 'Horns

The Big Horn Mountains are home to 170 miles of ATV trails and 1,500 miles of road enrolled in the Wyoming trails program and open to automobiles, according to Clarke McClung, ranger for the Big Horn National Forest's Tongue District. Smack dab in the middle of the mountains is the Cloud Peak Wilderness.

Because the Jamboree is an organized event, it was necessary to acquire a Forest Service permit. But McClung added that the route of the trail ride is open to the public without a permit.

"This isn't anything the public couldn't do," he said. "We didn't grant any off-road travel."

McClung noted that forest officials policing the trails in the past have made contact with people from across the region - from Billings and Gillette to South Dakota. All vehicles are required to purchase a sticker, which helps fund the state's trails program and Forest Service patrols.

"It seems to be a growing use," McClung said.

It's no wonder four-wheel drive and ATV use of the Big Horns is climbing, according to Seth Stebbins, a longtime Jeep owner from Billings who volunteered to be one of the trail guides for the jamboree. It's an area he cherishes.

"I love 'em, absolutely love 'em," he said. "It's just kind of a different world up there � the scenery, the wildlife, and the Forest Service is catered to four-wheelers. It's really nice."

Despite his love for the Big Horns, he doesn't mind sharing the area with the jamboree folks.

"I'd like to see it come back again," he said. "It's a big deal."


The more rugged the trail, the happier the drivers


The Billings Gazette

BURGESS JUNCTION - Up here at 9,000 feet, a thick coating of mud on a shiny new Jeep is a badge of honor. A branch that has scraped paint off the side of a rig is called pin-striping. And when a CJ-5 snaps its U-joint while trying to accelerate up a steep, boulder-strewn slope, it's just another day at the jamboree.

Such was the situation in the Big Horn Mountains on Friday during Wyoming's first Jeep Jamboree.

"I knew what it was right away," said Dwayne Ryan of Casper, after his 1965 CJ-5 broke down on the first day of the three-day event. "I've heard that sound before."

The vehicle had to be towed up the hill by the trail guide's Jeep.

True to the "can-do" credo of Jeep drivers, though, Ryan planned to be back on the trail by the next day.

"If I'd have packed the parts, I could've been running again by now," he said.

Jeep Jamboree sponsored 29 similar events across the nation beginning this spring and ending in the fall. The Wyoming trail ride attracted about 60 people. The number was less than expected for the state's inaugural event, according to Will Morgan, the jamboree's liaison. He admitted to being biased about hoping the jamboree succeeds because he grew up in nearby Casper.

Bald with a goatee and dark wraparound sunglasses, Morgan looks like he would be just as home on a Harley-Davidson chopper as a Jeep. But then again, he doesn't have just any Jeep. His is tricked out in a World War II theme - large white star on the hood, decaled bullet holes across the army green sides and a hand-grenade shift knob.

"This is where the addiction begins," Morgan told the crowd of drivers at the morning briefing outside Bear Lodge Resort before they broke up to take different trails.

He then detailed a list of dos and don'ts - don't go off the trail, tread lightly, pick up trash if you find any, and stay hydrated because the elevation is so high.

A Jeep thing

This is a crowd that takes special pride in its vehicles and where the machines take them.

"We do get on some trails in some places where I can't see over the hood," said Jane Rainwater of Pavillion, who has attended four jamborees with her husband, Mark.

When asked what she likes about the outings, she said, "Getting places that you normally wouldn't see; getting off the beaten track; quiet, solitude, nature."

The Jeepers' zeal is proclaimed on their T-shirts: "eat � sleep � Jeep"; Don't worry, it'll buff out"; and "It's a Jeep thing, you wouldn't understand."

"I think it's an American pride thing," Mark Rainwater said of the reason he and his wife own three Jeeps and plan to buy another. That may also explain why a few of the drivers are ex-military.

Former soldier Gil Floyd, 35, learned to four-wheel drive while in the Army. He and his wife, Sara, of Stevensville, Mont., decided to try the Big Horn Jeep Jamboree for their first outing partly because it was so close. The cost was $250 each for three days and included some meals but not lodging.

"I thought this would be fun," Floyd said after other drivers got done admiring the homemade spare tire and jack rack on his wife's bright yellow 2009 Wrangler Unlimited.

"Some of the funnest rides are with first-timers when they realize what their stock vehicle can do out of the box," Morgan said.

The Floyds' license plate read MUDNROX. Other plates revealed Jeep fanatics from Nevada, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Florida and even New Jersey.

"It's my first time this far over," said Justin Naylor, 21, of Southhampton Township, N.J.

He attended the jamboree with his mother and father before returning to college. The family combined the jamboree with trips to Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone National Park. But he was awestruck by the trail past Shell Lake in the Big Horn Mountains, a route that featured large boulders in the two-track trail and a few stream crossings.

"It's the first time for my family to be out here in this type of wildness," he said. "It's breathtaking, the views and everything."

Tackling the trail

After a slow start to Friday's ride, winding up a forest road that had recently been graded much to the Jeepers' dismay, the trail finally degraded to the two-track gnarliness that the hard-core crowd had signed on for.

After Ryan snapped the U-joint on his vehicle later in the day, Paul Sherwood, a 43-year-old truck driver from Lake Mills, Iowa, attempted the steep hill. His rig dropped into a hole, prompting both tires on the driver's side to spin vainly. After trail guide James Knox of Billings helped fill in some of the holes with large rocks and gave Sherwood directions on which way to steer, Sherwood's Jeep finally spun out of the hole and powered up the mountain.

Despite the difficulties, Sherwood was excited.

"This last part was pretty dang good," he said. "I like the more rougher, technical stuff. I've always said I want to tip it over, but I haven't done it yet."

Catering to all

Not all of the trails are rugged. Three options were offered Friday to appeal to the varied drivers, each route led by trail guides. And not all of the Jeeps are tricked out; some are stock. But the after-market add-ons are what beef up the vehicles for the rigors of rough routes.

Morgan, the jamboree official, owns an after-market accessory business he once based in Gillette. He also has a Web site dedicated to Jeep freaks. Yet even his specialized 1988 Scrambler was not immune to breaking down. About halfway into Friday's ride, Morgan's Jeep began chugging as if starved for oxygen at the high altitude. He hadn't taken the time to adjust the carburetor for the elevation. Dismayed, he had to abandon the rig alongside a high mountain lake and hitch a ride back to get a tow vehicle.

"Such is life in a Jeep. You take the good with the bad," Morgan said.


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