KILGORE - This time it was the red lead Jeep that struggled to get out of the creek and up the steep muddy bank as the caravan behind it - including YJ, Rubicon and CJ models - sat patiently.
The driver, Zac Tinkle announced over the CB radio that his TJ model might need some help being pulled out from behind by Chris Chambless.
Chambless, driving the YJ that had been modified to run on a Cummings diesel, started to pull into position to help his friend out of the mess, when Lane Jordan, Tinkle’s father-in-law, decided to run down the creek to cross at another point in his Rubicon and come up so he could pull Tinkle out forwards.
Of course the ribbing began once all four were on the other side. It was all in a day’s fun for the members of the East Texas Jeep Club, a loosely knit band of men and women Jeep owners who are taking what was originally designed as a workhorse vehicle that became a grocery getter over the years back to its rugged roots, even if the manufacturer cannot or will not.
Asked whether the group considers themselves gearheads or adventure seekers, Chambless said, “It is a combination of the two really. It is working on cars, wrenching on them and then really being able to go out and doing something.”
Tinkle agreed that it is all about taking a vehicle designed for the street and beefing it up to handle off-road conditions.
“You want to do some modification, tinker with it and then go out there and try it out. When you get to try it out you realize I either did good here or I did bad, then you go back to the garage and try to modify it some more to get up that next hill, that steeper hill or deeper mud hole whatever you are into. Turning wrenches and making it better,” he explained.
It is like the long tradition of building up stock cars to become street racers, but with one advantage.
“These will get you in trouble, but not necessarily with the law most of the time and that is definitely an advantage,” Chambless joked.
Born out of World War II, the Jeep became a civilian workhorse after the war. It was especially popular with veterans, hunters and those working where four-wheel drive was needed including around the farm where all types of implements were designed to run in front or behind like a tractor.
As the country became more urban and car manufacturers began adding things like power steering and air conditioning, Jeeps were relegated to a niche following. The brand faltered and passed through a number of hands from Willys and Ford to Kaiser, American Motors, Dodge and now Fiat Chrysler. Looking for modern-day buyers, the Jeep was transformed to a street vehicle with air conditioning, carpeting and a removable hard top.
Then came a new generation of owners who wanted to return Jeeps to their off-road roots. Like the hotrodders of the ‘50s and ‘60s, they started buying old Jeeps and grabbing parts where they could to beef them up. With a market came manufacturers who started supplying beefed up parts as well.
Tinkle was introduced to off-roading by his then-to-be-wife, Kalli, and Jordan. Chambless got started when he bought a Jeep he did not need while in college but was for sale for $1,000. Neither could leave them alone, and the modifications began and have never stopped - even as they traded from one model to another.
And while the building is a big thing to these guys, it would be meaningless without the thrill of reaching the top of a boulder-choked trail or clearing that one mud hole they had not in the past.
“It will scare you from time to time - that is what gets you chasing parts. At a certain point, you get a little jaded and you want to go bigger and that is when it gets expensive,” Chambless said.
Tinkle said it doesn’t matter whether it is a No. 5 rated expert hill climb or a lazy run through the creek bottoms, there is no such thing as a bad ride.
“Every time, my heart gets going, like just after this little ride. I don’t do very good on the downhill stuff, that always makes me a little nervous. There is something about being out here. You are in control, but not quite in control. You are trying to do something with your Jeep that probably isn’t supposed to be done, but you modified it to do that. It is a little bit of everything. You are going to try to do something you are not sure if you can do or not, and you get the biggest adrenaline rush when you get to the top and get that feeling of success,” he explained.
Driving a Jeep down a street versus finding the right line up an incline whether dry or wet is like night and day. All the vehicles in the world are not going to matter without the skill of knowing how to keep the tires on the ground and the top in the air.
“There is definitely some skill involved. It is not all the Jeep. We have seen some guys come out with high-dollar rigs that have basically bought into the hobby and not be able to do anything with it. They can get themselves in a dangerous situation real quick. It is like any other motor sport. If you buy something above your skill level, you can hurt yourself,” Chambless said.
Tinkle added there are also incidences where the person has the skill, but their Jeep is lacking the ability. That is when a club member has to step in and honestly say you don’t have enough vehicle yet, come ride with me.
He added when club members meet at an off-road park, it is not for competition, except within themselves and to test their Jeep’s ability.
“We are more at it for the adventure. We don’t want to go blast through the woods real quick. We want to see what is in the woods. We want to go at a reasonable pace, but there are some points like on these muddy hills you have to give it some gas, but at the same time there is a saying, tread lightly. We don’t want to rut it up. We use straps around trees. I don’t want to say we are tree huggers, but we want to protect the environment,” Tinkle said.
Joining ETXJC is pretty simple.
“Priority No. 1 is owning a Jeep. It is a Jeep exclusive club. It has to have seven slots in the front grill and says Jeep on it. Now, some get highly modified after that, but most still have that grill and hood shield on there and it is somewhat still a Jeep,” Tinkle said.
And for those whose vehicle may not be ready for Rubicon of Moab, that is OK. The club holds regular “wrench sessions,” where members come together to improve their own vehicles and help each other.
“Most of the guys in our club do it all ourselves. We have a bunch of people and meet mainly at Zac’s house. We will tear Jeeps down and do all sorts of stuff. Really to me, working on them is half the fun. Zac is a good mechanic and we have a lot of really good mechanics in the club,” Chambless said.
Tinkle said the advantage to working on it yourself is that you are familiar with the vehicle, so when you get off-road you are more likely to know what that odd sound is or how to fix something that breaks, which will eventually happen.
Most of the club’s Jeeps, including Chambless’ and Tinkle’s, are “Frankenjeeps” made up of parts from all types of manufacturers.
“Getting together with guys that know what they are doing is kind of a learning session and a wrenching session at one time, and we can kind of build these Jeeps up as mild as they want or as wild as they want,” Tinkle said.
Chambless added it can be expensive, but doesn’t have to be.
“It depends on the size of your shovel sometimes. But when it comes to Jeeps, you will find that for most people, the only reason to ever sell a Jeep is to buy another,” he said.
Locally, the club uses the 27 miles of trails in the former gravel pit at Barnwell Mountain near Gilmer for a lot of weekend rides. The site has trails rated from beginner level to expert.
There are parks around the state, as well as some in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana that club members will travel to.
“We bill the club as event-based family-friendly. Bring your wife, your kids, your husband, bring anybody. We are going to go jeeping and have a good time,” Tinkle said.
Besides Tyler, the club also has chapters in Henderson, Longview, Lufkin and Nacogdoches. For more information, go online to ETXJC.org and East Texas Jeep Club on Facebook.