Rural Missouri Magazine

Fat Tire Fanatics
The Capital City Crawlers find retreat in mud, rocks
and grease at Flat Nasty Off-Road Park

by Jarrett Medlin
Steve Eikermann examines his twisted ’78 Ford Bronco as it climbs a 6-foot rock ledge. The obstacle, dubbed Baby Bear, is one of the “Three Bears,” a set of challenging rock climbs at Flat Nasty Off-Road Park.

The group had been driving only 15 minutes when the first breakdown occurred. The ear-splitting sound of metal scraping rock pierced the night air. The driver stomped the pedal of his ’95 Chevy S-10 to the floor, and the motor’s roar echoed through the dark valley like some great, maimed animal crying out in the night. But the white beast remained stuck in the dried-up creek bed, its front tires dangling just above the ground.

Neil Pickett got out of the cab and bent down to see a large boulder had snapped the truck’s drive shaft. He sighed deeply. For the next hour, he mended the damage with only a set of pliers and a ball-pein hammer by the soft glow of a flashlight. Slowly, tediously, he reassembled the truck’s running gear like a surgeon performing an emergency operation without the luxury of a hospital room.

Members of the Capital City Crawlers off-road vehicle club chat at the base of Get It Billy, Flat Nasty Off-Road Park’s most challenging trail.

After an hour, the truck fired up again and inched forward another 50 yards only to drive into a deep hole and lodge its thick tires into a fallen limb that busted the drive shaft again and disabled the power steering. This time it would take more than two hours, a dozen men and a tow from two Jeeps, but the truck would finally emerge from the creek bed at midnight.

Standing in a field afterward, dripping sweat, dirt and grease smeared across his white T-shirt, Neil smiled widely and muttered what would become a mantra: “It’s too bad about the truck, but we’ll fix it in the morning. It’s all in good fun.”

It was the first night of the Capital City Crawler’s Carnage Crawl, held May 5-7 at Flat Nasty, an 858-acre off-road vehicle park in hilly Ozark terrain near Salem. Earlier that afternoon, 17 die-hard off-road drivers made the two-hour trek from mid-Missouri to a section of land housing steep hills, rocky creek beds and off-kilter dirt paths — an off-roader’s paradise.

Upon arrival, 30-year-old Bob Adamik, the owner of an off-road shop in Tebbetts, unloaded his forest-green ’98 Jeep Wrangler Sahara from its trailer and announced, “Now the testosterone really begins!”

Like many other dedicated club members, he wore a T-shirt with the group’s logo emblazoned on the back.

Bob is one of “The Three Bs” — Bennie Necaise, Brad Gilmore and himself — who formed the Capital City Crawlers, central Missouri’s off-roading club, in early 2000. Today, the group consists of 48 mid-Missouri men and women, ages 18 to 65, who drive all makes of four-wheel-drive vehicles, from bone stock to heavily modified rigs. They rarely hold meetings, ride as often as possible and share an appreciation for rough terrain, big tires and four-wheel drive.

Bob Adamik, right, and Neil Pickett make repairs to Neil’s truck on the morning after a brutal night run that damaged the truck. “Repairs are just a part of off-roading,” says Bob, a founder of the Crawlers.

“Off-roading gives you the chance to get away from it all,” says Bob. “But the carnage and the camaraderie keep you coming back for more.”

In the world of serious off-roading, there are three unofficial rules: 1) No terrain is too tough — the bigger the rock, the better the challenge; 2) Damage is inevitable — repairs are a fact of life; and 3) Safety is paramount — a seat belt is mandatory and a roll cage is strongly advised. Over time, these rules become second nature.

When it comes to driving styles, however, there are two schools of thought: The School of Finesse and The School of Hard Knocks.

“I’m a finesse driver myself,” says Bob. “I go slow and find the right angle to avoid tearing up my Jeep. Other guys just gas it to make it over a rock or whatever.”

A convoy of off-road vehicles make their way to the trails of Flat Nasty.

Bob’s explanation became apparent as a seven-rig procession crept along on an overcast Saturday afternoon. In many cases, the rigs’ thick tires, inflated with just 2 to 5 pounds of air pressure, molded to the terrain and allowed drivers to cross turf average vehicles wouldn’t dare. But some places required more skill.

At particularly rough spots, where a large boulder or fallen tree blocked the path, drivers looked for the correct “line,” or approach route, to clear an obstacle as spotters helped direct them. Some drivers eased over the rocks slowly while others reached a certain point and gassed it, desperately spinning the tires until the vehicle continued down the path.

“It’s just amazing how these vehicles can make it up some of these rocks,” says Bob. “You look at it at first and think, ‘No way.’”

In off-roading, such challenges separate the skilled from the timid. And Flat Nasty, in particular, offers more challenges than most.

Pete Eiberger hammers away at his ‘86 Toyota 4Runner’s front end as his dog, Doc, looks on.

The off-road park opened on Memorial Day of last year after an extensive search by two out-of-state off-road enthusiasts, Ron Maximoff and Bryan Hamilton. The pair had gone so far as to offer a $500 reward to anyone who could find a piece of land fit for their needs. Finally, they discovered a spot near Jadwin that offered everything from steep hills and dry creek beds to green valleys and large boulders. They snatched up the land and began building trails, marking them in three levels of difficulty: green for easy, yellow for intermediate and black for difficult. They then christened the trails with names like White Knuckle, Devil’s Throat and All-Day Sucker.

Off-road clubs, such as the Crawlers, heard about the park and couldn’t resist seeing whether Flat Nasty lived up to its name.

“Flat Nasty? There’s nothing flat about it,” Bert Shaw, an off-road driver from Columbia, told Ron after making a steep climb on Saturday.

Neil Pickett’s ’95 Chevy spins its tires, sending up a shower of mud, while it attempts to climb an 8-foot rock wall. The effort would snap the truck’s drive shaft.

Ron, a retired commercial airline pilot and former professional off-road racer from Michigan, delights in hearing such comments. He is constantly searching for ways to make the paths more difficult, whether by bulldozing “bunny hills” in a dry creek bed or placing a downed tree in an inconvenient location.

So far, Ron’s proudest accomplishment is Get It Billy, a long, steep hill that only four vehicles have ever cleared. He offers a bounty to anyone who can climb it. Many drivers, like Vince Pamperl, a fiery red head who laughs maniacally when attempting a rough patch, have tried and failed without reaching the halfway point.

Along such difficult trails, drivers often get stuck, which requires others to winch them out. This is not always simple. During night runs, it can be especially difficult to see the paths ahead and vehicles can rack up costly damages.

“Night runs are great because you can’t see the damage. That’s what the morning after is for,” says Neil.

Steve Eikermann throws a tow line to Bob Adamik after lodging his truck on an 8-foot rock ledge. In off-roading, pulling another vehicle out of a tight spot is a regular occurance.

Repairs can cost cost thousands and have upset countless drivers’ spouses. But a true off-roader doesn’t know the meaning of quit.

On Sunday morning, after a weekend spent largely under his truck, Neil sat next to his wife, Pamela, in his Chevy’s cab and stared down Papa Bear, a steep 8-foot rock wall that rises out of a 2-foot-deep mud puddle. After a moment of hesitation, he slipped the transmission in drive and crept forward. The grill scraped against the rock before the front tires caught. The truck’s nose lifted in the air but stopped just as it reached a 45-degree angle. Neil stomped the gas, and a shower of mud rained in all directions.

After a few moments, the truck came to a standstill, and Neil decided to winch it out. Several men strapped a steel cable to the front bumper and began to reel it in. As the truck rose, its undercarriage dragged against the jagged rocks, and various shades of fluid began leaking onto the ground.

Finally, the once-white Chevy reached flat ground. Neil got out to survey the damage and discovered the drive shaft had snapped for the third time in three days, and the truck had a whole new set of problems.

Neil shrugged. “Well, at least we tried. We’ll go home, make repairs and be ready to run again by Memorial Day,” he said. “Besides, it’s all in fun.”

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