June 20, 2008

New Mexico 4-Wheelers - 50 Years Of Trail Riding

By Joan Wolf
4Wheel Drive & Sport Utility

An early trail ride of stock vehicles to view unusual rocks near Cabezon in 1958.

It's been an exciting 50-year ride for the Albuquerque, New Mexico-based New Mexico 4-Wheelers (NM4W). Incorporated in 1958, the original club name was Albuquerque Jeep Herders. However, the club was never restricted to Jeeps, and the name, New Mexico 4-Wheelers, was adopted in 1976. Regardless of name, the club has always been committed to fun, safe, responsible, and family-oriented off-highway adventure.

Twenty people attended the first Albuquerque Jeep Herders meeting held on August 6, 1958. The newspaper notice invited "all owners of vehicles with 4WD or rough-road capabilities."

One of the first club runs was to the Mt. Taylor area of the Cibola National Forest, 70 miles west of Albuquerque. It was September 1958, and four vehicles participated: a CJ-3, CJ-5, and two Willys Station Wagons. The off-highway section was a Forest Service road that wound up the mountains through pine forests and open meadows and ended at the La Mosca Peak fire lookout (elevation 11,038 feet). Those carburetors must have been well-tuned!

In 1959, a group of 22 vehicles hauling 64 people caravaned to the Gila Cliff Dwellings near Silver City, New Mexico. According to the trip report, the group "encountered a nearly perpendicular trail on the side of Copperas Peak that had been strewn with boulders by recent rains. They also had to ford the hubcap-deep Gila River 18 times before reaching the remote cliff dwellings. The club picked up three Fort Bliss, Texas, military men who were stranded in a pickup truck on the rocky route." This route is now paved all the way to the ruins.

Looking back, it seems that people did more with less. In a 1960 outing to the Rio Salado Valley near Socorro, New Mexico, the club newsletter reported, "Dr. Homer Musgrave's Jeep fell into a hole of quicksand, and it took a number of Jeeps to get it out. The Jeep Herders also pulled a deer hunter's car out of the sand." If winches were used, it wasn't mentioned.

Fifty years is a long time for any organization to carry on. What are the secrets to longevity? Alan Gilmore, now a Colorado resident, was an active member from 1983 to 1995 and a four-wheeler before and since. He says, "The club has always been conservation-conscious. We stayed on established trails and abided by the same rules on the trail as on the highway."

That meant no drinking, no shortcuts, and no racing.

None of the 1958 charter members still belong. Pat and Sue Brady, 22-year members, are the longest-standing current members. Why has the club remained intact for 50 continuous years? Pat explains, "We're nondenominational. Pickups, Suzukis, Rubicons ... it doesn't matter. We accept everybody. And we're dynamic. We like to do lots of different things, and we change. Members have been into sand drags and hard-core rockcrawling, but trail riding, easy to hard, has been the mainstay of the club."

As with any organization, there have been ebbs and flows. In 1983, the club was running out of steam. Alan remembers, "My wife Marty and I were in our 40s and were the youngest members age-wise. The charter members were getting older and driving on dirt roads, not trails."

After scouting for more challenging trails, Alan and Marty introduced the group to "new" areas including the Caballo Mountains in southern New Mexico. The Caballo Trail, on BLM land, is rated Hard and remains a club favorite. Caballo offers big rocks, shelf roads, and the history of Palomas Gap, a notch between mountains that allowed stage coaches to travel between New Mexico and Texas.

Over the past few years, the club has been stable at 70 members/families. The club strives to retain existing members and attract new members by offering a well-rounded schedule of activities. There are trail rides at varying levels of difficulty, campouts, and participation in outside events and the political arena.

Some runs that started in 1958 became club traditions. Christmas tree-cutting runs, "aspencades" to view fall colors, and summer events in the higher elevations of New Mexico and Colorado are mainstays. More recently started traditions include a "Chic Challenge" with women-only drivers, an annual trek up Mt. Blanca in Colorado, and a large attendance at the Chile Challenge in Las Cruces, New Mexico, every February.

Community service has been an ongoing club endeavor. In the early decades, the club organized toy drives and provided Christmas trees for the New Mexico Children's Hospital. There have been work days at a day-care center, assistance with search-and-rescue efforts, and cleanups of adopted forest trails and highway miles.

Road closures on public lands have been an ongoing concern. The meeting agenda for February 16, 1960, included "speakers discussing the state land-grab situation." The club spoke out against a Cibola National Forest proposal to regulate off-road-vehicle use in January 1976. And since 2007, the group has been heavily involved with the National Forest Travel Management Rule. To show support for keeping forest roads open to motorized vehicles, members attend meetings, write letters, and document routes. Members have even taken United States Forest Service staff members on field trips to show them routes to save.

NM4W was instrumental in the formation of the Southwest Four Wheel Drive Association (SWFWDA), currently comprising clubs from six states (New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Kansas, Arkansas, and Missouri). In 1991, Alan took action on what had been talked about for years. He linked seven clubs to form SWFWDA. Alan says, "We needed a bigger voice to fight trail shutdowns. A regional group would wield more influence with the United Four Wheel Drive Association and the government."

A series of events are planned throughout 2008 to celebrate the 50-year milestone. The club will rerun some early trails, participate in a show 'n' shine, perform community service, and host a reunion picnic. A photo book showcasing club vehicles through the decades is being compiled by member Justin Simenson.

From early rockhounding and photography trips in stock vehicles to today's typical rockcrawling in TJs with 35-inch tires, the focus remains fun and adventure. For 50 years, club members have enjoyed and promoted fun, responsible four-wheeling.

Lauri Rector, current NM4W president, comments, "What an amazing history this club has had. To look at things that were recorded in 1958 makes me realize how long this club has sustained itself and thrived as well. I think it's due to the camaraderie of club members. We share an interest in getting out there with our vehicles and seeing what nature has to offer."