By NORMAN LEIGH
VINDICATOR SALEM BUREAU
DESPITE THE POPULARITY OF sport utility vehicles, few owners of these sturdy rigs ever shift them into four-wheel drive and venture off the pavement.
That's not the case, however, for Rick Garrison and Dr. Harold Albert.
These Salem-based professionals' hobby is motoring over unpaved pathways that carry travelers into regions of the nation's back-country where minivans fear to tread.
Albert, a 57-year-old veterinarian, said people see him in the office and "envision me playing golf. They don't see me with mud and grease and briars on my clothes."
"There's a feeling of accomplishment. You're up against the physics of nature," Garrison, who owns an insurance agency, said in describing the challenge of coaxing a vehicle over jagged rocks, wheeling it through mud bogs or idling white-knuckled down a slippery incline.
"I'm perverse," joked Garrison, 54, who's been driving off-road since about 1992 and referred to his pastime as a brain malfunction.
Many enthusiasts avoid calling it "off-roading" because it suggests that they're crashing their vehicles through pristine woodlands or carving up mountain meadows.
With rare exceptions, conscientious four-wheelers always use an unpaved road in the back country. Generally they follow logging or mining pathways, ranger trails or roads put in for oil and gas well access, and always with permission.
"It has nothing to do with speeding through the woods," Garrison said, noting SUV commercials' fondness for depicting drivers hurtling rigs over the landscape and launching them airborne, the dust and water flying.
"You slow down until it hurts, and then you cut your speed in half," Garrison said, explaining the prevailing philosophy of negotiating rugged roads.
Knowledgeable four-wheelers do all they can to avoid "tearing up what Mother Nature has given us," Albert said.
He fondly recalled the first off-pavement event he attended nearly eight years ago.
"It was like tasting that first piece of apple pie," he said.
Keeping him going back for helping after helping is "the camaraderie of other people who have the same attitude" and the desire to enjoy nature and challenge their abilities, he said.
"It brings a grin to your face," Albert said.
Both men spoke also of the heart-pounding adrenaline rush that comes when you successfully negotiate a formidable obstacle.
Albert and Garrison get their off-highway fixes primarily through participating in organized events held each year throughout the country.
Typically, enthusiasts assemble at a rendezvous point and follow leaders to where the pavement ends and beyond.
Some of the bigger events, also called jamborees, last for several days and draw dozens of people and their rigs from all over the country.
Albert and Garrison both pilot Jeep vehicles in their four-wheeling excursions.
Although their vehicles started out as stock rigs, over time they have been transformed into trail machines capable of tackling obstacles that would challenge a mountain goat.
Both men note, however, that monstrous tires and rigs standing tall enough that you need a ladder to board aren't necessary.
Virtually all SUVs on the road today "are capable of doing more than you realize," Albert said. Modifications are made by some owners to enable them to take on more demanding terrain.
Both men urged owners of four-wheel-drive vehicles to give it a try by contacting area off-pavement clubs or, for Jeep owners, attending one of the many Jeep-only jamborees held nationwide each year.
"I want the sport to grow," Garrison said.