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Mark A. Smith Rubicon Trail Adventure

Story By Michael Cohn
Photos by Michael Cohn and Todd Moore

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The Dream Begins

Piano Bob
Piano Bob plays while we arrive at camp
The hot, dry day is finally cooling off. My sun-scorched eyes are still burning and watering but easing up a bit. A honky tonk piano is playing, it's out-of-tune keys plinking away, echoing off the tall trees. As we pull into the camp site, "Piano Bob" is playing a weather-beaten grand piano and I'm handed a cold shrimp cocktail. Surely, the sun has gotten the best of me this day, no? As we drive further into the camp, we're greeted by a full staff. Several people are cooking over a pit barbeque, there's an operating bar and hot water heaters are plumbed from the adjacent river. We have arrived at Mark Smith's personal camp ground at Rubicon Springs - and this is not a dream!

It's real - all of it. And there's more to come. But first, let's go back in time just one day.

Todd Moore and I were weary travelers, having flown all day separately, and converging upon Reno, Nevada's airport, where we were greeted by a Jeep Jamboree USA (JJUSA) employee and turned over to a surly limo driver. We were here to partake of the Mark A. Smith Rubicon Trail Adventure and this is where Jeep Jamboree USA's part begins.

Run only once or twice a year, Mark's gang takes a limited group of people on one of America's (if not the world's) greatest journeys - the Rubicon Trail. 25 brand new Jeep Rubicons would be driven by novices and experts, alike, over the 12 mile route - the only trail given a top-rating of 10 by Jeep Jamboree USA.

The trip for 2006 will be run from August 25-27th at a cost of $1850/person. We'll wait...ok...you're back? Keep reading the story and you'll see that it's really a pretty sweet deal - especially if you live far away.

It's up to you to get yourself to Reno. JJUSA will pick you up at the airport and get you to your hotel in Lake Tahoe by way of a fabulous limo (with wet bar). Since several passengers will ride sideways we do recommend polling them and finding out if any of them get car-sick before chosing your seat (don't ask). Just to be safe, take the rear seats, facing forward.

A reception is held that night, where you are given your goodie bag, which unlike many local events, actually includes lots of great stuff you'll need. Our duffle bag in 2005 included a fleece JJUSA jacket (my favorite) but also included things you may have forgotten, such as toilet paper, rain poncho, sun screen, a flash light and lots of other doodads.

During the reception, the staff went over the trip ahead and let us all know what to expect. Afterward, we were off to get some rest. The price for the trip does not include your hotel stay the first and last night, but everything else is included once you're picked up at the airport.

In the morning, Todd and I chose our Rubicon and loaded it up with our stuff. Each Jeep is pre-loaded with a stocked cooler with plenty of ice and drinks. All windows were already removed and stashed in the hotel garage. Our Rubi had just over 100 miles on it and we were ready to rock!

Mark A. Smith Rubicon Trail Adventure
Lining up in Lake Tahoe
Mark A. Smith Rubicon Trail Adventure
Our brand new Rubicon awaits. It was clean once...once

Show Me To Your Rocks!
Our group set off and paraded through Lake Tahoe on the gorgeous ride to the Rubicon Trail. Thanks to no windows and half doors, we were nice and cool. Our fleeces definitely came in handy right away as we enjoyed the great scenery and great soundtrack on my iPod.

We won't give you a play-by-play of the whole trail. The Rubicon Trail is one every four-wheeler needs to experience for themselves. With the state of public trails in this country the way it is, we recommend you hit the 'Con sooner than later. If you want to learn more about the trail itself, we suggest you pick up some videos and guide books.

We would spend our first day on the toughest part of the trail, banging over rocks and spending more than just a little time with our lockers engaged. Interestingly, our swaybars were left connected and our stock 31" Goodyears were not really aired down much at all.

Mark A. Smith Rubicon Trail Adventure
Me on the trail (Photo, Todd Moore)
Mark A. Smith Rubicon Trail Adventure
The gang meandering over the rocks

JJUSA had several staff spotters throughout the trail, ready to help us out when needed. These guys really knew the trail and the Jeeps. With a few first-time 'wheelers in our gang, they became best friends of some of our group's drivers quickly.

Also along with us was a JJUSA mechanic, Tim Hoy. He was responsible for all of the Jeeps in the fleet and was ready to dive in if anyone had any problems along the way.

The only modifications done to these Rubicons were MOPAR oil pan skids - most of which would return bent-up, thanks to the Jeeps not being lifted. Our Rubi actually never got one installed, as it was too new and there was no time. One of us (cough cough) did have a rock jump out from nowhere, that viciously attacked our oil pan. Oops.

Mark A. Smith Rubicon Trail Adventure
Some folks seem to have had more sun than others
Mark A. Smith Rubicon Trail Adventure
The JJUSA spotters were awesome and always ready when needed

The ride is only done in August, as this is the only time of year you can count on consistently decent weather. Well, by decent, I mean not snow-covered. It was hot during the day. Really hot! Even for a Southern boy.

Todd and I took turns in the driver seat throughout the day. The day is long and will wear down even the best drivers, as you are constantly concentrating and getting beat up by the terrain. But it's all so worth it. The Sierras are absolutely breathtaking and the air is so clean you'll never want to leave. We were, in fact, happy to take turns at the wheel because we were able to really enjoy the views better when not driving.

Mark A. Smith Rubicon Trail Adventure
Bridge going into camp
Mark A. Smith Rubicon Trail Adventure
Even the staff sometimes goes oops. The bridge is to the left!

Mark's Oasis
We pulled into Rubicon Springs, where Mark has built a wonderful camp ground, complete with toilets, showers and trash facilities. But what he's also done is set up separate, private camping area just for us. The tents were new, the port-a-potties were flown in just in time for us so they were clean, and each tent had two cots with fresh pillows and blankets.

But back to Piano Bob. He's real, alright. He and his piano are flown in by helicopter to play for us. Really. Discovered by Mark Smith, playing in a bar, Bob can't read a note of music, but he can play or fake his way through just about any old standard. He'd play from the moment we arrived to just past bedtime and again in the morning during breakfast.

After a wonderful meal, we rested under the clear, black sky - devoid of any interference from busy towns and without even a hint of cell phone service (the staff does have a satellite phone for emergencies). The smell of the mountain air was tainted only by smoldering coals in the pit and the gallons of Off sprayed on everyone in camp. Yes, the mosquitoes were out in force, making even our Alabama herds look miniscule. They would become so bad that the helicopter was sent for a fresh case of the stuff the following day to get us through. If only I had a bee keeper suit! I realized that perhaps this was the real reason for the fleece jacket - to cover up my arms and neck from the flying demons.

As the moon passed above us, Piano Bob played on, and we sat under the stars telling lies about our day on the trail, laughing, singing, and getting to know each other better.

Mark A. Smith Rubicon Trail Adventure
Our tents
Mark A. Smith Rubicon Trail Adventure
The kitchen


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