They call it “wheeling.” To participate, you need something bigger than 35-inch tires (average car tires are 15 inches in diameter) locking differentials and a winch. Thirty-fives, deflated to a splashy level that helps them “eat” in the dirt, are just big enough to crawl over boulders and stumps on the trail. Locks will fix one axle so that both tires spin at the same speed and the winch, a strong cable attached to a spindle motor on the grill of the truck, is for when the tires and locks aren’t enough. The winch is both a lifesaver and a last resort for any self-respecting driver.
Those are official requirements. Unofficially, you need a good spotter to tell you where to turn and a good joke. You also need a warm coat, a cooler stocked with beer and energy drinks, beef jerky, crackers and enough smokes and spare fuel to carry you through the “15-hour Nightmare” rock crawling trail ride at Flat Nasty near Salem.
John Markovich reiterates his philosophy, “slow and steady,” as he eases the dented hood of his orange and gray Jeep through winding trails and creekbeds littered with four-foot boulders and tattered tree stumps. Rock crawling is true to its name. The trucks crawl, not race over boulders through winding back-country trails. In fact, lead-footed newcomers are the most likely to have to leave their rigs on the trail for the night, and come back to fix them in the morning.
Markovich has been piddling with tools and trucks for as long as he can remember. His shop on College Avenue in Columbia holds a mix of spare parts and tools, blow torches and “long-term projects.” Everything, even the computer mouse, is coated with a thin film of dust and grease. “I first started building these before I could drive,” he says. “We rented the shop because it was just an idea, something I wanted to do.”
“Marko,” as his friends call him, is one of the most respected drivers in the region. Countless all-night off-road trips have written the maze of trails into his mind. “It’s just what I do,” he says. “I like the building, I like the traveling, I like the wheeling.”
He, like most of the drivers, built his own rig. It’s a simply built CJ, or Jeep chassis, which sits atop 37-inch Pit Bull tires. No bells and whistles, just headlights, a couple switches, good seat belts and a rudimentary paint job.
“Wheelin’ is just basically a weekend with a good bunch of friends,” Markovich says.