By Steve Garrett
One day, a couple of months ago, I was at work, doing normal work stuff, when my phone rang. This was surprising for me... I don't usually get a lot of phone calls. When I answered, there was a lady on the other end of the line, asking me if I wanted to come wheeling with Mel Wade and EVO Manufacturing at the 2017 NITTO JEEP Experience presented by Discount Tire. At first I thought she was joking, but then I vaguely remembered adding myself to a waitlist some months before without ever really expecting to hear anything else about it. Well, that just goes to show me, I guess, because as luck would have it, a couple of folks had to remove their names from the list, and I had my chance to go! I was pretty excited, and I'm always looking for an excuse to hit the trails, so I jumped at the offer to wheel with these folks. It was pretty short notice (I got the call only a week before the event), but I made the necessary preparations and on Friday, May 12th I headed out for what promised to be a weekend I'll never forget.

I didn't really have any idea what to expect as I made the eight hour drive from Tulsa, OK to a little town called Mason, TX about four-and-a-half hours southwest of Dallas. I'd read the weekend's itinerary, and knew that we'd have not one, but two entire offroad parks exclusively to ourselves all weekend, but I had never been to an event like this before. I wasn't too worried about my rig. I had full armor, lockers, 37's, upgraded axles, trail cage, and a long-arm coilover conversion, so it was well prepared, but I was worried about myself. I have only a couple of years worth of wheeling under my belt, and have relatively little experience compared to some of the world-class drivers I'd be sharing the trails with. I mean, Mel Wade and his crew run King of the Hammers, the Alcan 500, and the Baja 1000, not to mention the annual JKX he's been putting on since 2011. This dude isn't screwing around, and I don't want to show up here and make a fool out of myself. On top of that, I couldn't find anyone to go with me, so I was flying solo into the unknown, in a way. To add even more cause for concern, my rig is my daily driver, so I was nervous about the degree of intense wheeling the weekend promised and the high potential for trail breakages, especially being so far from home with no trailer or tow rig to get me back. This was not an opportunity I was going to let pass by me, though, and as I pulled into Katemcy Rocks Offroad Park (K2 for short), I steeled myself for whatever was in store.

Firstly, let me say that the crew running K2 are some great folks. I was greeted at the check-in trailer by a sweet little old lady who apparently was everyone's grandma, haha. The Kruse family and Shain are wheelers at heart, and they know how to have fun while maintaining a safe and professional atmosphere for all. K2 has a few cabins, and a nicely sized camping area that supports some RVs as well as tent camping. There were about 150 people there all-together I'd say, and we were able to spread out enough so no one was camping on top of anyone else. They also have their own concession stand that serves limited breakfast, lunch, and snacks, as well as a shower/restroom building, and a large, well lit pavilion with a stage. Add to that a little shop support to help with trail fixes (welder, some tools, etc), and overall it's a great little basecamp for the 800 acres of rock crawling beyond the gates. Mel and his crew didn't disappoint either. As I got my bearings around camp, it quickly became clear that this event is well planned and organized. NITTO Tire, the event's main sponsor, pulled out all the stops and sent a full exhibition tractor/trailer. Other sponsors like Discount Tire, PSC Motorsports, Painless Performance Products, KMC Wheels, and more were all well represented. Of course EVO Manufacturing/Offroad Evolution had more than a few rigs in attendance, including their unprecedented JKU build that was the first of its kind to complete the Baja 1000 and their latest SEMA build 'Spicy Chicken'. After meeting Mel and spending some time talking with him, I can tell you that if you didn't already know who he was, you'd never guess it. Dressed in his standard camouflage cargo shorts and black t-shirt (or hoodie), he's friendly, approachable, and humble, and he was just as excited to hit the trails as I was, even though his experience far surpasses my own. Those he surrounds himself with are similarly minded. His crew was courteous, helpful, and professional, and never once gave me any impression that they were just there to babysit us.

Friday night was mostly check-in, swag distribution, camp setup, and a quick meet-and-greet. Some folks managed to get in a little wheeling before the back gates closed, but I arrived too late for that. Saturday morning we started bright and early with some quick breakfast, a driver's meeting, and splitting up into our groups. They set up three groups: Extreme Overlanding (Mel's creative way of saying 'easy'), Moderate, and Hard (which I was warned was basically buggy territory). I chose moderate because I wanted to challenge myself, but I was not prepared for just how much of a challenge it would be. Our trial guide/lead was a local dude nicknamed 'Clutchee' and he was about as good of a trail boss as you could ever hope to have. He was knowledgeable, patient, calm, eager to learn as well as to teach, and most of all, he was fun. Our group started the day with 12 rigs, ranging from pretty much stock all the way to purpose built buggy. There was even one guy with a highly-modified Renegade. We had folks from all age groups and walks of life. It was really a great group to spend the day wheeling with. Clutchee didn't waste any time throwing us in the deep end either. Right out of the gate we were climbing over boulders the size of Volkswagen Beetles all stacked on top of themselves and squeezing between rocks barely wide enough for a golf cart, much less my JKU. The very first obstacle claimed a victim from our group. A bent a tie rod and a leaking steering stabilizer forced him back to camp, and ended his day almost before it began. It only got crazier from there. Words could never adequately describe it, and the pictures don't really do it justice either. As we followed Clutchee around in his Samurai buggy, we all pushed ourselves and our rigs beyond what we had ever done before. Through obstacle after obstacle, we helped each other spot, pick lines, pull winch cable, and make trail repairs all day long. By Saturday's end, our group had dwindled to 9. I myself suffered a depressurized shock reservoir, busted welds on both side steps, and cracks in my hard top, but nothing that kept me from tackling every obstacle I tried.

That night dinner was catered by a local BBQ joint, thanks to NITTO tire, and was as fine an example of Texas BBQ as I've ever had (and I was raised in Dallas). We all ate and discussed the trials of the day, as well as helped those who were working on trail repairs. Then, of course, there was a raffle that included some really sweet merchandise from all of the sponsors, and we finished up the night with some live music from a local country/western band.

Sunday morning the wheeling commenced early again, this time over at the nearby Wolf Caves Offroad Park. Being that it was Mother's Day, and I'd pretty much ruined my wife's weekend by leaving her with the kids to go wheeling, I decided it was best to head back and spend a little time with my family. The long trek back home gave me plenty of time to reflect. As I meandered through Texas Hill Country, I felt accomplished. This was the most intense and technical rock crawling I had ever attempted. I learned a lot about my rig, for sure, like how much harder it is to crawl with a manual transmission!! I definitely challenged myself and improved my skills, and made a bunch of new friends in the process. I'm eager to come back next year, because this was an experience I'll never forget.