At its last meeting the Eastern 4x4 Jeep Club established a $2.50 towing fee for all members who, through their own insouciance, manage to get their Jeeps stuck on a club outing.

Ron Hollingsworth did not attend the meeting. He thus was flabbergasted when club director Robert Cowan demanded the payoff last weekend after rescuing Hollingsworth from a mud hole in Beltsville.

Hollingsworth did not actually say it, but it was clear from his evident chagrin that he thought the whole idea of the Eastern 4x4 club was to get stuck in the mud.

As it turns out, that still is the driving motivation for most of the members of Cowan's six-month-old off-road outfit.

That became obvious shortly after Hollinsworth's misadventure, when Cowan himself bounded into a mud puddle while in the Contee sand pits. His Jeep sank up to and then over the exhaust pipes.

"Abandon ship!" shouted a rider.

That was at 3 o'clock Sunday. At 5:30 Cowan's $10,000 plaything was still mired above the bumpers. He had a dent in the stern, had watched a quartz-halogen running lightly off in pieces during towing attempts, had a rip in his canvas top and was himself coated with mud and grime.

One by one the other drivers, who had been working for 2 1/2 hours trying to dig, pull, push and pry him out, drifted by with progress reports.

"This is it, man," each told a visitor. "This is real four-wheelin'."

It began to look like all-night four-wheelin' until someone came up with the bright idea to hook another Jeep to Cowan's with a "snatchin' strap," and then hook another Jeep to the first towing machine with a chain.

With that double two and 15 men pushing and shoving from the rear, Cowan's Renegade CJ5 began showing signs of motion and before long it came bounding out of its hole. He slammed the accelerator to the floor and roared through the remaining swampland to high ground.

A mighty cheer rose up.

Cowan's club has a healthy racial mix. It was suggested that, since everyone already was wet to the neck, a mud battle would be a nice way to wind up the day.

"Blacks against the whites," someone said.

"No way," Said Richard Wedding, who drives a truck for a living. "I couldn't tell who's on my side."

Four-wheel drive vehicles have taken a firm root among outdoors people. Hunters and fishermen value them for their ability to deliver man and materials to areas otherwise inaccessible except by foot.

Most outdoorspeople also recognize the pitfalls. "I'll never own one," said a wise Mississippian. "It'd just mean I'd get stuck that much farther from home."

"We don't go out alone," said John Bishop of Riverdale."As long as there's other Jeeps along you never get stuck so bad you can't get out."

Togetherness, in fact, appears to be the big factor in the formation of groups like Cowan's.Wives and children were along for Sunday's ride, and the day included a stop under shade trees for a lunch of store bought fried chicken and plenty beer.

It certainly wasn't a nature trip. Wildlife makes itself very scarce when 16 Jeeps, their CB radios blasting away at high gain, come roaring through an eight-foot-wide trail in the woods.

At least Cowan's outfit wasn't tearing up valuable natural habitat. The Contee lands, long a favorite with dirt-bikers, are dotted with scarred and gravel pits and along each road are numerous places where folks have chosen to dump old tires, refrigerators, sofas and other trash.

Not much left to damage.

Contee is a regular stop for the Eastern 4X4 Club. Big weekend voyages are planned from time to time, where the group travels in a serpentine convoy to places like George Washington National Forest and Deep Creek Lake in Western Maryland.

How much longer the world fuel stocks can support adventures like that is a question no one yet can answer. On Sunday's simple expedition, the 4X4ers burned up substantially more than 100 gallons of gasoline, and that obviously can't go on forever.

But these poeple get attached to their machines and they'll keep on as long as they can.

Like Jesse Thompkins and his 1972 CJ5: "Man, I've done it all. I rolled it; I sunk it; I even caught it on fire. It's made a believer out of me."