Jeep lovers' heaven is off the road, in Slade, Ky.

August 14, 1994|By Michael Konik | Michael Konik,Special to The Sun

Slade, Ky., is a perfect place to take a large machine and run over things.

It's only a couple of hours away from 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 a place where the proprietor of the town's grocery store knows all 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 man can commune with nature and his four-wheel-drive vehicle at the same time.

This mountainous, verdant, barely touched stretch of countryside is full of rocks and 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. Pavement does not excite a Jeeper.

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 celebrations of horsepower called Jeep Jamborees. Conducted April to November in a different scenic location every week (the Black Hills, the Adirondacks, Appalachia), Jeep Jamborees bring together several hundred motor heads 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 hours of the morning.

While you might assume that the only people who would enjoy such a weekend are guys named Billy Bob -- guys who work in a junkyard, enjoy hunting raccoons and know a darn good recipe for moonshine -- the shocking truth is this: Many dozens of otherwise normal, well-adjusted citizens, 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 trials. 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 supposed to be as much about socializing as it is about burning out your clutch. A good portion of Jeepers stay at campgrounds; others opt for motels (a jamboree guidebook provides information on both).

In recent years, more than 300 participants from more than 20 states and Canada have attended the Daniel Boone Jeep Jamboree in Slade. They have brought their Wranglers, Laredos, Cherokees, Scramblers, Renegades and customized hybrids, generally known as "rompers," to Slade's untamed hills. Fords, Chevys and Mitsubishis are not welcome at a Jeep Jamboree. (Driving, say, a Suzuki Sidekick on a Jeep Jamboree would be like taking a Yamaha to a Harley Davidson rally.) The Jeeps-only rule serves two purposes: the Jeep Jamboree organization, which provides guides, meals and entertainment, licenses its name from Chrysler; more important, not all four-wheel-drive vehicles would make it through the trying trails one encounters.

To a jamboree driver, a steep, wet, boulder-covered swath of Kentucky forest might as well be a stretch of Kansas interstate. Unlike other motor-sports events, participants like when it rains on their track, since they don't really have a track, and the muddier their nonexistent track becomes, the more likely it is they might get stuck, which requires ever-mightier feats of their rugged steed. In other words, nothing pleases a Jeeper more than traversing a passage that he had no business even thinking about traversing, looking back over his shoulder and saying to his smiling colleagues, "I gotta believe a Range Rover woulda never made it through that slop!"

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