David Farley bought his Jeep Cherokee in 1990 but had never taken it off the asphalt--until Saturday.
As part of a caravan of four-wheel-drive vehicles on a daylong trek through this vast desert park in San Diego County, Farley and daughter Stephanie watched the car ahead of them disappear slowly over the edge of a drop in Dropoff Wash. The axles twisted in opposite directions, and one wheel came a foot off the ground as the car inched down the steep, rock-strewn path.
Farley looked alarmed for a moment before proceeding down the road cautiously and without a hitch. "That was a bit of a tingle," the Tustin resident admitted later. Dropoff Wash is the toughest part of the organized outing, offered under the aegis of Saddleback College.
"I went to the expense of buying a four-wheel-drive vehicle, so I though I ought to take it off the pavement at least once, to justify it to myself," Farley explained. After a day in Anza-Borrego, he is ready to try it again.
Such trips are offered at community colleges throughout Southern California, and the man behind most, if not all of them, is Harry Lewellyn, an Anaheim Hills resident who has made a full-time career out of promoting safe and environmentally conscious four-wheeling.
In addition to frequent trip leader, he is the author of "Backroad Trips & Tips," a newly revised and expanded guide to dirt roads in Southern California (along with Baja California and Death Valley), and the editor of Ecological 4-Wheeling, a monthly newsletter with about 1,000 subscribers.
Four-wheel-drive cars (Cherokees, Explorers, Troopers, 4-Runners and the like) have become the suburban station wagons of the '80s and '90s. Industry surveys say that 95% of the four-wheel-drive vehicles never leave the pavement, according to Lewellyn. Interviewed on the drive out to Anza-Borrego, he says that one of his aims is to dispel off-roading's "irresponsible" image and persuade people that they can enjoy backcountry travel without risk.
"You say 'four-wheeling,' and some people squirm," Lewellyn says. "The immediate image is irresponsibility to the environment, to the vehicle and to the safety of life."
The term off-roading is often used interchangeably with four-wheeling, but Lewellyn stresses that he always drives on roads and always in designated areas. That divides him and his followers from the true off-roaders--folks who enjoy riding and driving across trackless desert and on sand dunes.
To Lewellyn, there are two main camps: those for whom everything centers on the vehicle itself, and others for whom the vehicle is the means to an end--a way to explore otherwise inaccessible areas of the backcountry, not only in the desert, but in the mountains and other areas where they are allowed. "To me, that divides the use and abuse issue," Lewellyn says.
The vast stretches of California's deserts are crisscrossed with dirt roads. Some are old mining or utility roads, and some have evolved over hundreds of years, from game paths to Indian trails, to covered-wagon roads. Recreational use of the desert was scant until the end of World War II, after which thousands of troops came home with a new knowledge of off-road jeeps and other vehicles.
"I suspect there was no sensitivity, no awareness" to ecological concerns in the early years, Lewellyn says. But as more people have taken to the desert, "the intensity and magnitude of the abuse" has escalated, sparking protests from the environmental community. Thousands of miles of desert roads are open to vehicles, but the pending Desert Protection Act would turn large parcels of California desert into federal wilderness, cutting off access to mechanical vehicles (even bicycles).
Lewellyn's approach to the access issue has been to promote environmentally sensitive practices in the backcountry. He likens abuse by off-roaders of wilderness areas to Russian roulette, with each irresponsible act tantamount to putting another bullet in the gun.
"Before long, you're playing with a fully loaded gun, and you're blowing your privileges," he says.
Lewellyn's community college excursions are designed as introductions to backcountry travel. Before the trip, participants must attend an evening lecture, in which Lewellyn stresses basic safety rules--always carry water, always travel with someone else, always let someone know where you're going--and discusses how to prepare the vehicle and how to drive under various circumstances.
Saturday's Anza-Borrego trip departed from a meeting point in Rancho California at 7 a.m. By the time the caravan hit the dirt about two hours later, there were 19 cars in the caravan, including Lewellyn's. All were connected by CB radio, some rented from Lewellyn (handle: the Silver Coyote), and he gave participants frequent commentary on the natural and human history of the desert they were passing through, as well as landmarks to watch for ("Bear right at the 'Y' in the wash") and driving tips (when to shift into low range, for instance).
The trip wound through baked-mud badlands, along washes thick with smoke trees, and through the sandstone canyons of Split Mountain. Early signs of what is predicted to be an excellent spring wildflower season were in evidence: patches of desert lily, desert aster and desert sunflower, locoweed, lupine and brittlebush.
Lewellyn's trip was slow and steady, with a top speed of 30 m.p.h. hit on some of the sandy washes. Contrary to the rowdy image of four-wheeling that advertisers like to play up, Lewellyn said that the sport (when done right) is "safer than driving on the freeway." In eight years of trips, no one has ever been lost, and there have been only two mechanical breakdowns and three flat tires.
"We're learning how to do this safely and without having an impact" on the fragile desert environment, said Mike Smith of San Marcos, a veteran of numerous Lewellyn excursions. He goes out often on his own and often goes out on one of the organized trips when he's introducing someone to the pursuit. On Saturday, a brother and sister-in-law were along for the ride.
Lewellyn, 54, is a onetime professional motorcycle racer and electrical engineer who began teaching his four-wheel-drive classes in 1985. Working at the time as an engineering consultant, Lewellyn began to concentrate more and more on his classes and eventually began making it his full-time job, along with writing (he writes for various magazines, in addition to the book).
He has taught more than 300 classes through 26 community colleges, and also leads longer trips in Mexico and elsewhere under his own banner. His expertise has gained wide notice: In 1991, he wrote the "California OHV Guidebook" for the state Department of Parks and Recreation; earlier this year, he organized a promotion for Ford in which 200 radio disc jockeys were brought to Anza-Borrego to test-drive Ranger trucks.
His newly published edition of "Backroad Trips & Tips" (published through his own Glovebox Publications) is available in some bookstores and through Lewellyn directly. Lewellyn can also provide information on coming classes and excursions. For information, call (714) 998-6636.