A cadre of FMCA members meet in Moab, Utah, each year to push their modified four-wheel-drive rock-crawling Jeeps to the limit.
By Lazelle Jones
I happened upon this story quite by accident while spending time at a four-wheel-drive shop called Moab 4×4 Outpost, located on the south end of Moab, Utah, not long ago. As I watched the shop technicians install equipment on Jeeps, I listened to them talk fondly about a group of four-wheel enthusiasts they had nicknamed “The Old Man Mafia.” The group of well-seasoned retirees share a common passion for extreme four-wheeling, I was told, and their ability to modify their Jeeps to enjoy the sport to the fullest had earned them the mechanics’ admiration.
My ears perked up even more when I heard one of the techs mention FMCA. “Do you mean the Family Motor Coach Association?” I asked. The answer was yes. As it turned out, these four-wheelers were FMCA members.
The mechanics put me in touch with Bob Micklick, F207044, who helped me begin an intense period of total immersion (for I was a complete novice) into the world of extreme off-road four-wheeling. Suffice it to say, this genre is pretty unbelievable.
Never let it be said that thrill-seeking is ruled by youth. These FMCA members gather each year in Moab to test the limits of their modified rock-crawling Jeeps. Their passion for off-roading and their love for the canyon lands that lace the Moab landscape in every direction has no bounds.
Everyone who belongs to this wild bunch owns a Jeep. However, they are anything but regular, off-the-showroom-floor models. The Jeeps are immediately ready to be modified and turned into extreme 4x4s, and these folks have taken advantage of many aftermarket products that can be added to give the vehicles extreme capabilities.
So what do I mean by “rock crawling”? Well, it’s exactly what the name implies. These modified Jeeps can literally climb what appear to be nearly vertical faces of rock that can be many feet high. But it’s not only the aftermarket equipment that makes this possible. Of paramount importance are the skills and technical know-how of the driver. Let’s take a look at both.
To make a Jeep capable of crawling up rock faces and navigating through other extreme surfaces encountered out on the trail, the gurus at Moab 4×4 Outpost said that essential modifications can include such things as risers, lockers, larger tires, skid plates, and heavy-duty axles. Enthusiasts can quickly sink up to $20,000 worth of additional equipment in a stock vehicle to make it rock-crawling-ready.
But before mechanical enhancements are made, the Jeep also needs some safety system modifications. If the vehicle is not already equipped with a steel roll cage, steel plates for side protection, and a state-of-the-art seat belt restraint system, it will need those, too.
In the world of extreme 4x4s, the age and gender of the driver are not nearly as important as the equipment and the technical skills of the driver. Whether you’re young, well-seasoned, middle-aged, female, male, or have great or little physical prowess, it does not matter. This sport takes place on a level playing field (although with rock crawling, the surface is far from level). It’s not bravado but driving technique, skill, and equipment that determine a driver’s success.
I rode with Bob, and the others also climbed into their vehicles; we all headed toward a part of Utah they consider a challenge.
One of the trails we experienced is called Mashed Potatoes. It’s an endless landscape of tortured and clumpy white rocks that look like scoops of the famous side dish. The cedar trees that dot the horizon make the lumps look as though they’ve been duly garnished with spears of parsley.
Among the mashed potatoes are deep depressions, perhaps 20 feet deep in some spots, that were created as rock eroded over the millennia. When it rains, the bowls collect rainwater, but since they’re in mashed potato land, they’re called gravy bowls. And among the dozen 4×4 vehicles that went out on the trail with us that day, only three drivers elected to take on a gravy bowl. You ease down over very slick rock into the bottom of the bowl (that was the easy part), and then face the real test: to rock-crawl your vehicle back out. Of those three drivers, only Bob made it out on the first try.
The second trail we engaged is one that extreme-4×4 enthusiasts call the Pickle. It earned its name because drivers frequently get themselves into a pickle there. Over the last million years this mile-long, several-hundred-foot-deep canyon has been carved out by torrential rains and flash flooding. We watched a young lady named Camille (probably about 25 years old), who had never driven off-road before, use a highly modified Jeep and the verbal coaching of a pro to successfully crawl up the face of a rock monolith that was (my best guess) 15 feet high.
Even the best drivers experience mechanical failures, and when they do break equipment out there, they have to repair it on the spot. The things that most often break are axles, U-joints, and differentials. Two such occurrences happened during our full day going up the Pickle and out across the Mashed Potatoes. However, at the end of the day, everyone had enjoyed some good experiences and earned their share of bragging rights.
Back at the campground in Moab, Bob and I met up with other FMCA members (Tony Fugit and Lynda Forney; Sherm and Jean Conrow; and Johnny and Sandy Johnson) who, while we were out on the trails, had driven in from around the country for this gathering of four-wheeling friends. All are full-timers who for the next several days would pursue their passion together as they have done for many, many years. Like Bob, who has been four-wheeling for four decades and has put a million miles on all of the Jeeps he has owned (the current one has 400,000 miles on it), these folks are die-hard enthusiasts who just can’t get enough of the sport.