Aug. 10, 2022 — Picture more than a dozen iconic Jeep grilles lined up behind you, headlights on for safety on a backroad. For local vehicle enthusiast Cal Applebee, this is a familiar sight when Jeeps R Us Florence takes its monthly Jeep run.
However, when the Jeep club heads up to view Roman Nose Mountain through Whittaker Creek Recreation Site this Saturday, Aug. 13, Applebee will be the tail gunner, the last of the row, as longtime Florence resident Darryl Parsons breaks trail.
“He used to come down here in the ‘70s and ‘80s to go to the beach and go hunting and stuff like that,” Applebee said. “He knows these back roads like the back of his hand.”
The drive up to the Roman Nose area has an elevation rise of more than 2,000 feet. While the peak itself and a local forest lookout aren’t accessible anymore, the panoramic view extends from the Willamette Valley to the coast.
“I don't want to do too much pavement-only scenic tours. I want to get some gravelly, back road stuff,” Applebee said. “Plus, I figure we have a better chance weather wise to finally make it up there this time.”
The group has tried to scale Roman Nose before, but was stopped by snow and fog, which creates difficult terrain. The roads are gravel and often hug the mountainside.
“We always go prepared. Legally you're supposed to carry an ax, a shovel and a fire extinguisher. When we go on these backroads, I also bring a chainsaw, because there are a lot of times, particularly in the bad weather season, where trees come down and block the road,” Applebee said.
Some members of Jeeps R Us take their rigs into the dunes during the week. Others wait for the scenic drives that take them to places within a couple hours of Florence. These have included Smith River, Gardiner and Highway 36 to the John Sumich Round Barn near Triangle Lake. A future trip will be to Mary’s Peak.
“We've gone up North Fork Road several times,” Applebee said. “There are so many different ways to go to the same location on these roads. On one trip, I had scouted it the week before and I still took a wrong turn to come back.”
The club occasionally goes on runs with Oregon's Bay Area Jeep Club, based in Coos Bay, and members go to gatherings like the Salem Jeep Fest and other “Jeep and Greet” events.
At the end of July, Parsons led Applebee on a scouting run to Roman Nose.
“Darryl is a phenomenal guy. He's around 84 years old, served in three different branches of the military in his career — he's got like 28 years combined service — and an avid hunter,” Applebee said. “It's amazing the detail of stuff that he remembers from 15 to 20 years ago. It’s like going on a guided tour, because he knows so much and he's been to so many of these places. There's so much historical knowledge about the routes.”
For Parsons, “A heck of a bunch of our population in Florence don't even know this country's up here,” he said of the backroads accessible off the main highways of the area. “I've wore out three rigs on these back roads since we came here in ‘97. Deer season comes around, but I don't go anymore, because all my partners either died or are gone. And Diane (his wife) told me to stay out of the woods by myself, but I still come up.”
The two Jeeps — Parsons’ black Wrangler and Applebee’s Gladiator — navigated up the gravel road, with Parsons talking over CB (citizens band) radio.
“It’s a real clear day. I've been up here when you can see snow-capped mountains,” he said.
According to Applebee, not every Jeep owner has a CB radio, so those who do spread out among the 12 to 15 Jeeps to keep everyone in communication.
“The whole idea of the convoy is to keep an eye on your mirror in case the guy behind you drops off,” he added.
Radios can also help alert to the presence of logging or work crews.
“One thing you learn on trips like this, on roads like this, is always take the curves on a wide angle,” Applebee said. “You just never know when somebody is coming around the other side. The other thing you have to be cautious of is the potential for working gravel or log trucks to be up here on these roads.”
The Jeeps pulled to a stop at the top of the ridge to look over Eugene, with a slight smoky haze from wildfires, and stop at the large pond.
According to Parsons, people swim there, but it would be too cold for him.
Online reviews of the area vary, with one person saying, “Just a rock pit. Nice views.” Another said, “I felt like I was on top of the world. It is amazing!”
Yellow swallowtail butterflies flitted past the purple fireweed and other wildflowers.
At one point, Parsons shouted, “There’s a bear right ahead of me!”
The Jeeps slowed as Parsons indicated a juvenile black bear that ran in front of his Jeep and clambered up the hillside.
“See him? He was a young guy, he looked like a cub,” he said.
Applebee answered, “That’s the first time we've seen a bear. We've seen a lot of different things, but first time for a bear.”
There’s a first a time for everything, which is why people who go into the backroads need to be prepared. Applebee advised checking local fire danger levels and for other emergency alerts.
“We have one guy in our club that when I was out on the sand dunes with him, he had everything in the world in his Jeep ready to go. When I got stuck, he just pulled a chain out, hooked onto me and dragged me along. I mean, it was just great having somebody like that,” he said.
Applebee keeps maps in his car, the county’s road atlas and his dashboard GPS. Because the road names are not consistent across them, he plots courses ahead of time and does scouting trips.
“There are all kinds of roads to get to the same place out here in these mountains,” he said. “It just amazes me. Like, take this road over here and it comes out there, but you connect with that when it comes back in here. It's just like a network of spaghetti noodles.”
It’s also why relying on word of mouth to get somewhere new can be dangerous — and why Parsons will lead this Saturday’s expedition.
“I could show you roads up here you wouldn't believe,” Parsons said. “I even used to drive my old Jeep up here, when I could get in the thing, and it would run. I picked Diane a big bouquet of rhododendrons when we were up here one time.”
For those not wanting to explore all the way to the top of the area, the Whittaker Creek Recreation Site has access to several hidden gems, including trails, fishing, camping and the Austa cemetery.
And the roads crisscross, with paths leading to Mapleton and beyond.
“Doesn’t it feel great coming down with this wind?” Applebee asked after he took off the two top pieces of his Jeep.
He described several of the Jeeps he’s owned, but the Gladiator takes the cake.
“This Jeep here is just the Jeep of a lifetime for me. It’s got four doors, the pickup bed, the top comes off, I can tow our travel trailer with it. I can go off roading with it. I mean, it's like having four vehicles in one,” Applebee said.
Now, he hopes that Jeeps R Us will expand to include more Jeep lovers.
“I would really like to get this club built so it's more active and more prominent,” he said.
Right now, Applebee is the main person plotting the next run, as well as doing the newsletter, engaging with members and leading the way for many of the trips.
If people want to get involved with Jeeps R Us Florence, they can contact Applebee at [email protected] to get added to the email list.
“The real emphasis is Jeep owners and Jeep enthusiasts,” he said.