By JOHN MacDONALD
MOAB, Utah -- It was the voice of the little girl in the back seat, looking for anything to grab onto as the Jeep teetered at an unnerving angle, that caused me pause.
"May I get out, please?" asked 8-year-old Danielle White, her eyes big and worried, her hand already on the door handle.
In five solid days of "jeeping" over the sandstone formations, narrow cliff roads, river bottoms and sand dunes around the self-proclaimed "Jeep capital of the world," it would be the only time my young co-pilot asked to watch from the sidelines.
Who could blame her, really. We were easing our way through the final major obstacle on a trail called "Hell's Revenge," a challenging 81/2-mile Jeep path just outside of Moab. Rated as "difficult," it is a winding series of the incredibly steep grades, big boulders, rock ledges and this last major obstacle -- "Rubble Trouble" -- a narrow canyon with sandstone walls on each side and rocks the size of garbage cans where vehicles are supposed to drive. Even at a snail's pace, climbing over the rocks one wheel at a time put my Jeep at unnatural angles, often with only two tires on the ground at any given time.
With Danielle on the sidelines and her father, Zac White, guiding me via walkie-talkie with comforting phrases like "it's all good," I emerged, wheels-side down, through Rubble Trouble without a scratch. Danielle rejoined me, shrugging off her absence with a smile. "I like all four wheels on the ground," she said.
The small southeastern Utah town of Moab has become a Mecca for off-road enthusiasts -- from families looking for nice desert drives to the hard-core types wanting to test the capabilities of their rigs. Within a short drive of the desert town, there are more than 50 designated off-road trails that crisscross mostly Bureau of Land Management land. Each spring, thousands of off-road enthusiasts flock to Moab for the Easter Jeep Safari, a week of organized trail rides and other off-road activities.
"I went to Moab and was completely, instantly, hooked," said Charles A. Wells, author and publisher of a series of guide books for four-wheel-drive buffs like himself. "It's hard to describe the place unless you've been there. ... It has spectacular scenery and beautiful drives you can take the family on. But it also has challenging stuff for the hard-core crowd."
On this trip, we did a little of both.
Modifying their rides
My companions included Zac White of Denver, now 28. Twenty years ago, he was my "little brother" in the Big Brothers and Sisters program. Today, he's a husband to his high school sweetheart, Kelly, and father to Danielle and 7-year-old Rachel, all of whom share White's passion for jeeping, although they sometimes choose to enjoy it from outside the cab.
White spent hundreds of hours turning his used 1976 Jeep CJ7 into a capable off-road vehicle, and did the vast majority of the work over the past two years to make my 1997 Jeep Cherokee trail-ready for this trip, too.
However, neither rig has been modified to the extent of many of the four-wheel-drives that come to Moab each year. Many owners often have spent thousands of dollars customizing their rigs with massive suspensions, huge tires, beefed-up engines and every off-road gadget imaginable. By comparison, our rigs are conservative -- but still more than capable of handling difficult trails.
Armed with emergency provisions, GPS units, copies of Wells' guidebook and walkie-talkies, we spent five days jeeping Moab, camping each night at one of the many area campgrounds in and around Moab. We hit three trails rated "difficult" by Wells, one rated as "moderate" and one easy "family fun run."
The trails, while usually only a dozen miles long or less, often took most of a day to traverse because of the slow speeds required to get over the terrain -- and because of frequent stops to photograph and soak in the unique scenery.
On "Hell's Revenge," for instance, the trail winds up a series of steep sandstone domes, leading to a turnout overlooking the Colorado River several hundred feet below, with breathtaking views of the distant La Sal Mountains.
On "Fins and Things," another trail rated as "difficult," but one which we traversed with ease, the trail winds along a series of sandstone "fins," -- long narrow rock formations that snake across the sand -- with more views of the La Sal Mountains and natural sandstone arches.
A guiding hand
It is the unusual terrain and scenery that attracted Wells, of Colorado Springs, Colo., to Moab. However, it was his concern that off-road users were going where they shouldn't that turned him to writing guide books for those who shared his pastime. Irresponsible drivers who cut their own paths can cause serious environmental damage and, if left unchecked, can lead to entire areas being closed to vehicles.
"Even well-meaning folks can get off the track, because when you're in the backcountry, it can get very confusing," said Wells, who has also written guide books for popular four-wheeling areas in Colorado, Arizona and California.
"I feel I'm doing more to help the environment by helping keep people on legitimate routes. I've seen the damage when that doesn't happen and it upsets me, too."
His "Guide to Moab, Utah -- Backroads & amp; 4-Wheel Drive Trails," includes exacting descriptions of trails, including backroads through nearby Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park.
It also includes detailed maps, GPS coordinates, photos and warnings about obstacles that might be too tough for some vehicles.
Probably one-third of the jeep trails in Wells' book are suitable for "stock" or unmodified four-wheel-drive trucks and SUVs, and some easier trails are even suitable for two-wheel-drive vehicles.
However, you don't even have to have your own rig to enjoy the back trails around Moab.
A number of companies, including Highpoint Hummer, Moab Adventure Center and the Moab Tour Co., offer trail tours in specialized Humvees with expert drivers and guides.
Prices start at about $60 per adult for a two-hour tour and about $100 for a four-hour tour.
In recent years, a number of companies also have sprung up to rent Jeeps so visitors can take off on their own. Most rentals start at under $200 per day.
Brad Knight, who operates Cliffhanger Jeep Rentals, said such rentals have become increasingly popular, especially among novices.
His company rents Jeeps that have been modified for difficult terrain, although the company, like others in Moab, does set guidelines on which trails customers should use.
"Most people who are renting a Jeep probably aren't going to be qualified to run some of the tougher trails, anyway," he said.
"But this is another alternative to see Moab. ... People have heard about the jeeping and want to experience it for themselves."
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