When I was small, I had my own sandbox. It was a giant green turtle whose shell came off to reveal an area that could be anything that my imagination created. In that mutable space, my trucks and cars traveled over the highest peaks, down the steepest grades, through the deepest swamps and oceans, and over the hardpan of the hottest deserts. Unless there was a dinosaur attack – or an intentional wreck, my vehicles never had a problem crossing the backcountries of these imaginary worlds. Years later, when I began off-roading, I was disappointed at first to find that the real world was not like my sandbox; in the real world things became stuck, clogged, flooded, and broken at a minimum. This disappointment vanished when I realized that real-life off-roading presented a myriad of challenges for both my imagination and practical knowledge. I quickly realized that when disaster struck in the backcountry, the proper tools and materials would always be lacking; and what tools and materials that you had were the proper tools ones, as long as they could at least get your vehicle back to a road and you didn’t maim or blow yourself up trying to fix things.
Today, the thing that I like the most about off-roading is its ability to change time. There are beautiful places in the world that are sequestered by near impossible approaches. The wondrous thing about off-roading is that it shrinks the time it takes to make that approach, and makes it a real, possible adventure, rather than a two month impossible and improbable trek. I’m not going to say that roads or vehicle trails should be blazed everywhere to every pristine spot on the planet, and in general, I’ll take a fantastic climb or hike over time in a vehicle any day, but in terms of accessibility and making adventures fit into the practical confines of regular life, off-roading is a positive time altering bonus. And, in all fairness, should you not know how to drive; or should the conditions be poor; or should anything go wrong mechanically with your vehicle (which, despite proper maintenance and regular care, is quite likely due to the stresses of rugged terrain), off-roading can be a time killer. You may find yourself stuck beyond the pale of civilization; miles from your destination, with nothing but time, as your wrack your brain of a solution that will at a minimum, see you to safety. Off-roading, then, is something that has the power to bring the joy of discovery quickly; and the despair of failure slowly.
This is not a column about the vagaries of off-roading though. This is a column about what is in my journeyman’s opinion, the best off-roading vehicle you can obtain right now; and where you can go with that vehicle when you have it. I’ve been through all sorts of terrain – jungles, mountains, beaches, deserts – in all sorts of vehicles, from those with low slung axles and no gearing, to those with modifications made to every aspect of the drive train and frame. I had some theories, and some favorites for a while, but all of that changed when my friend Good Ship showed me his Unimog, and offered to take me to Mogfest.
At this point, I can hear the questions: Wait, what’s a Unimog? What’s a Mogfest? A Unimog is a four wheel drive truck made by Mercedes Benz, and in my opinion, probably the best vehicle to get any adventurer anywhere in the world. (More on Unimogs here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unimog). The vehicle, for starters, is huge. They’ve been used as troop transports, farm vehicles, fire vehicles, industrial vehicles, and general adventure vehicles. The clearance on the axles is superior to anything I’ve seen, and the gearing on all of the models I’ve seen demonstrates that they can go over and through any obstacle with a competent driver.
I could talk technically about Unimogs for a bit, but like I said, I’m a journeyman off-roader; my technical level of expertise as an expert is mountaineering. If you want to learn more, the above link is a good place to start. Mogfest, as should be evident, is an American gathering of owners of Unimogs. For the last couple years, it was held in Calico, California. (http://www.mogfest.com/photos.asp). It’s a chance for Unimog owners to bring their vehicle out, show off the modifications that have been made to it, and an opportunity to demonstrate their driving skills and the capabilities of the vehicles. Moreover, it’s a chance for Unimog enthusiasts to share knowledge, bond, and relax while having an adventure with friends.
To me, Mogfest is many things. It’s the sheer gut check terror of riding in a monster vehicle up vertical slopes, and knowing that if things go wrong, it’s either a leap to safety, or being crushed to death. It’s the feel of icy cold air whipping into the bed of the truck at forty miles per hour with a deafening howl that overpowers the murmur of the engine as we cross mountain passes. It’s the sheer unpredictability of the night run, where stars cover their eyes as we pelt across the desert. It’s jokes at all hours of the day; of cracks about flying scorpions; and general camping problems. It’s smoked meat; so much smoked meat over three days that I even consider becoming a vegetarian. It’s the non-stop thrill of thinking, “there’s no way we can cross that obstacle”, and then finding ourselves over it; and at approaching another, larger obstacle. It’s waiving to people cheerily on the main roads as they look at you with astonishment, and, it’s the comfort of traveling no faster than forty-five miles an hour ever in jolting, bumpy style, while sometimes having to change tires.
That’s Mogfest to me. There’s a lot more that goes on – exploring caves, mines, creepy shrines, meeting new and interesting people, and hearing stories of the world. But at some level, it’s like being a boy again in that sandbox, and knowing that your vehicle can make it anywhere. Someday, I’d like to think that I’ll travel to difficult places of the world in my own Unimog. But for now, I’ll settle for Mogfest, wherever it is, because it’s that unique and entertaining and good.
More on Mogs and Mogfest here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IVkVB8mPtRA, http://www.billcaid.com/2010/1017ACamperConstruction20100921/Part7/Part7.html