"It's not a scratch -- it's a trophy and a story," said Erin Lara, assistant general manager/adventure consultant of Jeep Jamboree USA, as she welcomed 254 Jeepers driving 120 Jeeps to the first annual Laurel Highlands Jeep Jamboree in Pennsylvania, on the first day of this two-day off-roading event.
There's an ever-growing collection of Jeep-isms -- often seen on bumper stickers on CJs, YJs, TJs, and JKs -- but this one was new to me, despite attending dozens of Jamborees across the U.S. and even helping organize and run a couple in Alaska and Australia. I was also a newbie to four-wheeling in the Keystone State, and was excited to have an opportunity to drive the new 2012 Jeep Rubicon Wrangler in the Laurel Highlands, located in southwestern Pennsylvania. This popular tourist area is famous for hiking, mountain biking, hunting, trout fishing, white-water rafting, leaf-peeping, and downhill skiing. Now Jeeping can be added to the list.
The highlands are aptly named, as its mountains are the highest in the state, with Mt. Davis sitting at 3213 feet. Four-wheel-drive enthusiasts who hail from the West Coast jab at East Coast 'wheeling because of the West's renowned high-elevation trails such as the Rubicon in the Sierras of Northern California and off-road playgrounds like Moab, Utah, and Farmington, New Mexico, in the Southwest. But don't be fooled, West Coasters, and don't miss out: There are a host of challenging trails and gnarly four-wheeling tracks east of the Mississippi. And more than half of the Jeep vehicles sold in the U.S. are registered to the right of the Big River.
There's plenty of help along the trails. Guides are generous with their time and expertise, so even neophytes can feel that they're in safe hands. "
That's precisely why the JJUSA folks added a second Jeep event in Pennsylvania -- the first is the Penn's Woods event, held in Bradford in June. This year's popular Penn's Woods trip was the 14th. And it was no surprise when the Laurel Highlands trip sold out well before the fall event, which was scheduled to take advantage of the changing colors of the region's deciduous foliage. Not only was there plenty of picturesque four-wheeling along trails rated from 3 to 8, with water crossings, mud ruts, and rock-littered tracks, but the Jamboree was held on the grounds of the five-star Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, which has recently opened the country's first Jeep-only off-road driving academy.
This new event was organized by Jim Gunter, of Waterford, Pennsylvania, who also coordinates the Penn's Woods Jamboree. Jeepers included newbies, old-timers, the young, and the young at heart. The youngest participant was one year of age, and the oldest was 79. Twenty-seven families were on their first Jamboree, and there were four families that had each attended 25 or more Jamboree events. First-timers included Tom Wehner, of Peru, Massachusetts, and Tracey Driver, a U.S. Army Sergeant First Class stationed in Baltimore, Maryland. One driver showed up with her Wrangler sans tow hook for the pre-trail inspection, and was told she needed one on her Jeep to participate. Trail guides helped her find a place to purchase one and welded it on as a welcome-aboard gift. Other Jeep feel-good stories: Honeymooners Derek and Marla Kuntz of Pittsburgh were checking out the Jeeps parked at the front of the Nemacolin resort when they met seasoned Jeeper John Turek, of Greenwich, Connecticut; they invited him to ride along with them and JJUSA's Lara. Bill and Betty Walker, of Quantico, Virginia, brought three generations of their family, driving three setup Jeeps for a first-time run, which they promise is now the "first of many."
Seasoned Jeepers love Jamborees. Pat Workman from Hartville, Ohio, works as a trail guide on some of the JJUSA runs, and has attended more than 40 Jamborees. Orest Swystun and Teresa Stasiuk of Silver Spring, Maryland, summed up the Jamboree: "It's like a horse that takes you into the woods on a wagon train. It brings you closer to your basic self. When you start the Jamboree, you might not know the person in front of you and the person behind you, but a Jamboree strips away the layers of civilization -- and covers you with mud!"
Laurel Highlands is famous for hiking, mountain biking, hunting, trout fishing, white-water rafting, downhill skiing, and now jeeping. "