- Associated Press - Thursday, February 12, 2015

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - The trailhead at Cherokee Park is freezing, but there isn’t much snow on the ground.

Between the trees, which are shading patches of white, the Cheyenne Trail crew is busy setting up a photo of the team before its annual snow-busting trip.

A year ago, the group encountered plenty of snow on their way to the northern Colorado trailhead. They had to release air from their tires to help with grip long before reaching the official starting line.

This year, however, has been dryer, and the ride in featured more rock with patches of ice than anything else. That probably explains some of the nervous energy from the group when they headed out on January morning from Cheyenne.

After the final click of the smartphone’s digital shutter, the drivers start the business of getting the engines going and getting in line.

They file off down the trail, roaring up and over the first pass, the stickers that nearly cover all the back windows glinting in the now peaking sun.

Over the radio, a squawk from the lead Jeep: “We have some snow up here” is met with cheers from the rest of the crew, which grow louder as the drifts come into view.

The great snow bashing adventure of 2015 has begun.

Formed in 2005, the Cheyenne Trail Crew is a close-knit group.

Many members are former or active duty military who enjoy getting out of town on the weekends and exploring the great outdoors from behind the wheel.

That doesn’t mean membership is exclusive, though. In fact, the group welcomes anyone who has even a stock Jeep with a few safety modifications and tow point to hit the trails with them.

“What sets us apart from other groups is that these are our everyday cars,” said Donald Swenson, longtime member and current treasurer of the group. “With some of the other groups, you get these vehicles that have thousands of dollars of changes to them, but they aren’t street legal anymore. They have to be towed to the trail. That’s not the case with us.”

That’s not to say there aren’t additions and changes to the vehicles.

Stock is the starting place, but members have spent thousands of dollars changing the size of the tires, adding winches and whatever makes it easier for their vehicles to get up and over anything in their path. When they talk about these additions, the list turns into a bit of jargon soup, but the gist is clear - these guys mean business on the trails.

About 90 percent of the vehicles in the group are Jeeps.

Specifically, most are “TJs” - a type of Wrangler that was made from 1997 to 2006. The make was and is insanely popular for off-roading thanks to a coil-spring suspension and other details.

The squat little boxes instantly conjure images of the outdoors, even when you see them on the highways. On the trail, there isn’t much that tops their abilities.

The crew also boasts a few Toyota FJ Cruisers, a hulking truck that look well suited to an African safari in color scheme and shape.

A few other makes from Jeep and Toyota round out the crew for the day.

Swenson drives an FJ while his wife runs a Jeep.

“You definitely have a good-natured rivalry from both groups - you hear it from them when you get stuck and you give it right back when they do too,” he said. “That’s part of the fun.”

The crew operates year-round, heading to various spots mostly in Wyoming and Colorado.

In the summer, they climb over rocks. In the winter, they amuse themselves with 3- to 4-foot snowdrifts.

The first thing a novice notices about the act and art of snow busting is that it is a team sport. Before heading out, one would imagine a line of Jeeps and FJs flowing majestically across miles of empty snow, bulldozing the drifts too large for them to bound up and over.

The reality of the situation is much more complex and interesting.

For one thing, snow bashing takes a fair amount of organization. The line of attack is carefully organized so vehicles with powerful engines go first to break up the snow.

They are followed by those with winches and other support hookups to offer assistance on narrow trails. This pattern repeats more or less through the group.

The activity also requires a fair bit of skill to get through even some of the smaller drifts - finding the line, as the drivers say.

For Josh Firster, that is a big part of why he got into the hobby.

“Everyone is going to come at it with a little different strategy or line and the machine is doing a lot of the work, but you also have to know what you are doing,” he said. “How their tracks are going to change your route, what is around the trail that can damage your car or get you really in trouble. That all goes into it when you are playing out here in the snow.”

One of the most laid-back members of this deeply laid-back group, Firster is ex-Army and ex-Boy Scout. The back of his white TJ is packed with tools and the floorboards lack carpeting, a casualty to water damage from past runs.

He joined the crew in 2013 after seeing a picture of club member and co-worker Many Gonzalez’s Jeep “Recon.”

About $5,000 in improvements and modifications later, his little white beast is a source of great pride.

Firster’s job on this run is to follow the trail blazers and offer a hand should they get stuck in the deep stuff.

“The balance is letting them try and figure it out, and getting out, hooking up and giving them a little pull,” he said.

The latter takes up most of the time on the trail. The front car gets stuck and the back of the line empties out a bit to come and watch the fun or offer a hand.

This is where the group differs from others as well, as many members bring their families and dogs along for the ride, making for a festive atmosphere close to a spectator event at times.

Runs last most of the day, especially when factoring in drive to and from the trails.

Firster said you spend enough time together that it starts to feel like a family, simply because everyone is so welcoming and happy to share bits of equipment or offer advice.

To become a club member, you must attend three events, a combination of club meetings and runs. Additionally, your rig must have some safety considerations, including tow points and spare tires.

Annual dues are $20, which pay for stickers, barbecues and other activities. Whatever is left is given to groups like Colorado’s Stay the Trail, which encourages responsible use of the roads open to motorized travel.

Club President Dustin Goettsch said coming to the meetings and heading out on runs were the most important part of the process.

“That way, we can meet you and see what you are about and you can meet us and see what we do,” he said. “That works out pretty well, but honestly, we haven’t had a problem yet.”

___

Information from: Wyoming Tribune Eagle, https://www.wyomingnews.com

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