Less than a four-hour drive north of Boston, Bethel, Maine teems with history. Tucked into the western side of Maine, not many miles from New Hampshire and the White Mountains, Bethel was first settled in 1774 although it didn’t acquire its current name until 1796. In the early 19th century, Bethel had become one of the most productive farming towns in the state. In the winter, logging and sawmills kept the wheels of commerce turning. The arrival in 1851 of the Atlantic and St. Lawrence railroad opened up the town to tourists and several hotels were built, some on today’s Common, and Bethel became a popular and fashionable summer resort.
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Today, Bethel’s population of 2,500 continues to welcome visitors year-round to this charming and historic town. In the winter, the nearby Sunday River ski resort is a big draw. In the summer, it’s a full range of outdoor activities. Year-round, the shops and restaurants along Main Street and by the Common provide unique shopping and dining opportunities.
An important part of the recent history of Bethel has been Jeep Jamboree USA. This year’s event, held in early October, marked the 20th anniversary of the Maine Mountains gathering. Headquartered at the historic Bethel Inn and Resort right on the Common, this Jamboree established its popularity long ago, so much so that this year, it was sold out in May. Many of the participants come back year after year, attracted by the great trails, the hospitality of the people of Bethel, and the skilled efforts, hard work, and tremendously friendly welcome of the Western Maine Mountain Jeepers who have provided the local organization and trail guiding since Jeep Jamboree came to town twenty years ago.
So it’s easy to see why the “better half” and I had been looking forward to the Maine Mountains event for many months. For the last few years, we have attended Jeep Jamborees in several states from our home base close to Toronto, Canada. It’s been a great way for us to wheel our TJ Rubicon and explore new places.
Our plan was to break up the ten hours of driving time to Bethel with a couple of days of sightseeing and geocaching. Luckily for us, this would take us from Canada into the USA over the incredibly scenic St. Lawrence River at the Thousand Islands Bridge, through the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, across Lake Champlain by ferry to Burlington, Vermont, and then across northern New Hampshire to Bethel. Unluckily for us, the weather was less than cooperative as we departed Lake Placid in a snowstorm, and this was still September. Now I understand why Lake Placid has been able to host two winter Olympics! While the weather curtailed our geocaching, the disappointment was offset by the fall colors, which were approaching their prime, especially in Vermont and New Hampshire.
We arrived in Bethel and went straight to Jamboree registration. The many repeat participants and the experienced trail guides provided lots of good advice to event first timers like us on trail selection for the next two days. There was something for everybody, from stocker to the heavily modified to the moderately modified streeters like us. From there it was on to our comfortable and quaint room at the Bethel Inn before heading off to dinner. We arrived, logged in, and were looking forward to the next two days of wheelin’ with great anticipation.
The 20th anniversary of this Jamboree was celebrated in a couple of unique ways. Mark A. Smith, the founder of Jeep Jamboree USA, and wife Irene had travelled across the country to be in attendance. Mark is a truly unique individual, and it was immensely entertaining and memorable for participants to meet Mark and be on the receiving end of his inexhaustible supply of adventure and life stories accumulated over a lifetime of off-roading and adventure, entrepreneurship, and battling the evil forces of politicians, bureaucrats, and latté-fuelled urban Californians.
The anniversary was also celebrated with a fireworks display over the golf course behind the Inn after dinner on Friday. It was spectacular! This was no neighbourhood low-budget afterthought. We were treated to a first-rate, professionally produced and choreographed display that rivalled many 4th of July efforts in major cities.
Aside from the special anniversary celebrations, the Jamboree continued with what has become an annual tradition – a Saturday morning parade of Jeeps down Main Street to the Bethel Inn and back, on the way to the trails. Despite the inclement weather, the good citizens turned out in numbers, some equipped with lawn chairs, to wave and smile as the hundred or so rigs drove past. At the Inn, Mark and Irene Smith stood in review. Everyone loves a parade!
The fireworks, parade, and the genuine hospitality of the townsfolk left no doubt that Jeep Jamboree is an important date on the annual Bethel calendar!
Fortunately, by the time we were airing down on day one, the weather had turned for the better. Some blue sky was visible for the first time in days. We had chosen the Ridgeline trail, which provided a number of challenging climbs, descents, and rock obstacles. As it turned out, the trail was on the property of our trail guide, Brian. This is real hospitality, wheelin’ in the ‘backyard’ of your trail guide.
The trail also treated us to beautiful seasonal colors and spectacular vistas of the Maine Mountains. On the distant mountainsides, the many ski runs could be seen waiting in anxious anticipation for this year’s arrival of snow and skiers.
Unfortunately, the good weather on the first day turned out to be only a break in the wet, not the beginning of a trend. By the time we got to the trailhead south of town on day two, it was raining steadily with some intensity. We broke out the rain gear and hooked up those winch controllers, boys and girls, as we were going to need them. And need them we did! Much of the trail was turned to a muddy morass. Even modest inclines became greased tracks that were tough to climb for man alone, let alone machine. Throw in a broken u-joint, a sidewall ripped to shreds by a tree stump, and a valve stem sheered off by a rather large rock, and it was quite a day, especially for our hard working and ever resourceful trail guides. We all made it back to the Inn, however, with time to spare for a welcome hot shower before dinner and the evening’s wind-up activities.
Breakfasts and dinners, all served at the Bethel Inn, were terrific and the best we’ve had at any of the several Jeep Jamborees we’ve attended. For our second and last dinner, we were given the choice between a huge steak and an even bigger lobster, the latter particularly befitting our stay in Maine, notwithstanding our distance from the ocean.
In all, it’s an event that is a flagship for Jeep Jamboree USA and we can’t wait to go again!
– Special thanks to Stephen Browne for his contribution of this article and photos. To book your trip to the Maine Mountains Jeep Jamboree, please click here or visit the Jeep Jamboree website to book any of the remaining Jamboree events for the 2011 season.