"Whoa, whoa, WHOA!" Bill Haegele stood on the far bank of the Rapidan River, in the hills outside of Madison, Va., lowering his hands in the universal slow down! signal, his smile turning to a wince. He was yelling at me, and I could hear him, but the message for some reason was not reaching my right foot, which stayed on the gas pedal of my Ford Explorer.
And so I continued to lurch across the rocky streambed while autumnal sunshine cast diamonds on the water and painfully intriguing bangs, pings and scrapes echoed from beneath my vehicle, announcing my indoctrination to recreational off-road driving.
The moment had been months in the making, germinating really since the day I bought my sport utility vehicle, climbed into that odd high throne of a driver's seat and rumbled down University Boulevard toward home. I had seen the ads, and now it was my turn to pound through streams, over rock piles, up the west face of Everest and into the endless desert, all to the soundtrack provided by the (super-amped) sound system.
But for the longest time I, well, didn't. The new-toy novelty wore off and I felt like a dork for owning this rumbling, overpowered, gas-eating, hard-to-park, extra-polluting four-wheel-drive machine. I mean, what did I really face that required this two-ton monster--a few snowy days a year and a couple of deep potholes that may have sidelined my old car? Ultimately I set out to find me a rough, mean road, something that's off-limits in no uncertain terms to wussy little cars. I had an investment to amortize.
But that turned out to be no a simple mission. Most unpaved roads in the D.C. region are either boring gravel jobs or wild trails nearly impassable in standard SUVs. My luck turned, though, when an Internet search led me to Haegele and his four-wheel-drive club, the Off-Camber Crawlers. The group is one of a handful in the area and runs about a dozen rides per year (dues are $35). A number of hard-cores attend most of the rides, but attendance fluctuates greatly and newcomers are always welcome.
When I first spoke to Bill, he rattled off six roads within striking distance of Washington--mostly in Virginia--that could be driven "even in a stock vehicle," i.e., an unmodified SUV like mine, although winching, pulling or other help might be required to get the less-robust machines (unmodified SUVs like mine) over gnarly sections of the tougher roads. Which is why, I learned, serious off-roaders say never to go it alone: Extricating a multi-ton vehicle from trouble isn't something you can usually do by yourself. Besides, these people often try to get stuck because, as Haegele said, "pulling each other out of trouble is half the fun!"
We picked the one-day run of Blakey Ridge Road and Old Rapidan Road for my virgin journey because it's a scenic, fun-for-the-novice route and because we could make a day of it by adding a short hike up to Herbert Hoover's old fishing camp and an all-you-can-eat dinner at Graves Mountain Lodge, a sturdy wooden inn in Syria, Va., apple country.
Idling at the head of Blakey Ridge Road, where the pavement turned to dirt, I had stage fright. The OCC had rallied 23 vehicles for this ride--a near-record turnout for the club--and I feared that I was moments away from making some blatant rookie error that would leave these hard-drivin', four-wheelin' folks shaking their heads. Worse, we each carried a CB radio (mine borrowed from Haegele), and I dreaded the group commentary that would follow my blunders.
But as we started up the road the anxiety eased. My truck was built for this stuff! Sticks and hard earth crunched under my wheels, and the Explorer rocked side to side as I eased it over half-buried boulders and other obstacles absent from even the worst streets in D.C. I took the first mud puddle slowly, following Haegele's lead, but saw in my rearview mirror that Jimmy LePage, an Air Force technician, rolled into it, stopped and then spun his tires in an attempt to coat the vehicle behind his in mud. My first lesson in SUV off-road etiquette.
I got comfortable enough on Blakey Ridge (a fairly mellow off-road route by enthusiast standards) to enjoy the yellow-green canopy of autumn and the occasional buena vista into distant valleys dotted with barns and silos. At one such break in the trees, the road narrowed into a turn, hugging the mountain on the driver's side and leaving a precipitous, brambly slope hundreds of feet long on the other. Roll off that sucker and you can kiss your vehicle, if not your life, goodbye. Haegele stopped dead in front of me to survey the best line, then ever so slowly inched his Ford Expedition through the curve. I was next, and I stayed so far from that edge as to practically burrow my truck in the hillside during the turn.
On the calmer sections it seemed Haegele, our leader and pace setter, might have been too cautious for the joy-ride speed I had expected, but his gait was understandable given the fact that his Expedition weighs 5,000 pounds, heavy for an off-road rig, and that he was traveling with wife Deb and their golden retrievers, Betsy and Oliver.
Our slow headway dispelled the lay-driver's delusion that four-wheeling is a high-speed rollick through the wilderness, a fallacy shamelessly perpetuated by advertisers. Throughout the day, true to OCC's name, we held a slow, steady crawl up Blakey Ridge, filing over rocks, roots and ruts one wheel at a time, like giant, opiated ants advancing on a picnic.
Somewhere past the halfway mark we stopped for lunch (bring your own) and continued conversations that had begun over the CB radio. Subject matter ranged from Jeep construction to Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s NASCAR future to war stories from far more harrowing rides at a Pennsylvania off-road park called Paragon and back to Jeep construction. There was also much discussion of vehicle modification, as integral to four-wheeling as sneakers are to basketball.
For the devout four-wheeler, vehicular alteration has almost no limits. Start with oversize tires, a body lift, power winches, locking differentials (a traction-aid device) and a roll cage, then throw in a fire extinguisher, straps for pulling stranded vehicles and a first-aid kit, and you could quickly add $8,000 to the cost of your off-road toy. That kind of investment will get you out of bed Saturday morning and onto the trail.
"Y'know, you can turn that around and it'll work better," Le-Page said, pointing to an engine-cooling vent on the hood of a Jeep belonging to Craig Leszkiewicz of Annandale. "Air will run down off the windshield and right in there. Plus it'll look cooler."
Leszkiewicz apparently had heard this before. "Yeah, yeah, I know," he said. "I just haven't gotten to it yet."
The auto-centric chat belied the diversity of backgrounds in the group, which included a Raytheon Systems engineer (Haegele), a graphic designer, a Breathalyzer manufacturer, a lobbyist, a computer network geek, Jimmy the Air Force guy and a diplomat. The rolling stock was similarly eclectic, including numerous combat-ready Jeeps, a Nissan Pathfinder, Ford Expedition, Dodge Ram pickup, two Ford Broncos and two Jeep Grand Cherokees, one with new-car temporary tags. Most of the primary pilots of these $10,000-$30,000 rigs were men (one woman drove her own vehicle), and the passenger load ran the gamut from wives to girlfriends and buddies to kids. In some trucks, the genders shared the driving.
Reversing our tracks through the Rapidan River (we had no destination on the far side; we crossed it because it was there), I again drove too fast and heard frightening sounds from beneath my truck. Randy Wood, a dedicated four-wheeler from Gaithersburg with a tricked-out Bronco bearing the upside-down bumper sticker "If you can read this ROLL ME OVER!," approached my window.
"Look, man, you gotta take these slow. Before you go in, stop and look at the rocks, then pick a line. Hell, I walked right over this thing." He patted my shoulder, like a dad sharing wisdom. "If you can't see and you need a spot, let me know. I'll give you a spot," meaning he'd stand in front of my truck and signal me through the water.
To stay on the flatter underwater rocks and avoid river-bottom holes, he and the other experienced riders turned their wheels more times in a 40-foot stream crossing than I do looking for parking in Adams-Morgan. And where I had bashed the daylights out of the Explorer's undercarriage, they barely got their hubs wet.
Pulling into the Graves Mountain Lodge, as the sun retreated behind the mountains, I felt as if I'd seen far more than 11 miles of trail. And my mud-splashed truck, still dripping with Rapidan memories, seemed to agree. Maybe miles don't fly like time when you're having fun.
DETAILS: Novice Four-Wheeling
WHERE TO GO: I drove Blakey Ridge Road, which begins near the intersection of state routes 657 and 658, outside of Madison, Va. (consult a U.S. Forest Service map for directions). It's about 90 miles from the Beltway.
Other four-wheel-drive roads that are usually passable in an unmodified SUV include Dunkle Hollow Road, Long Run Road/Gauley Ridge Road, Old Long Run Road, Second Mountain Road and Kephart Run (all are near Harrisonburg, Va., in or near the George Washington National Forest. Maps are available from the forest's supervisor's office at 1-888-265-0019).
In Maryland, there's Green Ridge State Forest (off Interstate 68), which has been graded almost too flat for fun driving, according to Bill Haegele of the Off-Camber Crawlers Club (see below).
Serious off-roaders may want to check out the twice-yearly Big Dog Run in Gore, Va. (http://linux.lgi.com /bigdogs) and Paragon Adventure Park, southeast of Hazleton, Pa., a privately owned area where four-wheeling costs $35 per day.
CLUBS: The Off-Camber Crawlers Club (703-680-6903, www.offcambercrawlers.org) has information on all of the above areas.
Other nearby clubs include:
* CV4W (546 Dunn Irvin Dr., Hagerstown, Md. 21740; contact Kevin Roof at 301-739-2850 or e-mail at email@example.com). One trail ride per month, and dues are $30 per year.
* Baltimore 4 Wheelers (2819 Onyx Rd., Baltimore, Md. 21234; 410-882-6036 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org).
WHERE TO EAT/STAY: Graves Mountain Lodge in Syria, Va. (540-923-4231; www.gravesmountain .com) offers rooms and cabins from about $55 per person per night, including meals. The lodge also serves dinner nightly (even if you don't stay), with prices from $12.75 to $31.45 (the Saturday rib-eye steak buffet is $20.95, plus tax). Reservations are required but often may be made on-site.
INFORMATION: The United Four Wheel Drive Associations (1-800-44-UFWDA, www.ufwda.org) lists clubs and news worldwide.