You’ll know Laguna Seca: the glorious California racetrack whose legend is built on turn eight – aka the Corkscrew.
A freakish left-hander taken blind, it plunges car and driver almost six storeys with a viciously steep sweep to the right. Distorting and with endless scope for error, it’s nevertheless done, dusted and behind you after a few intense seconds. At least until the next lap.
Now imagine driving a Tarmac-ripper up and down the Corkscrew every day for a week, then sprinkling the track with knee-high granite rocks. Some of these rocks are sharp with dark, flinty edges but othersare glass-smooth and slippery. Many are damp, and all are spread out inconsistently atop a shifting soup of smaller stones and mud. Replace the azure sky with a gloomy canopy of aromatic Douglas fir. Narrow the breadth of the track from five car-widths to barely one and sporadically escalate the downhill gradient to a stomach-churning degree. Forget about phone reception – you’ve had precisely nothing for hours.
There’s no quick and easy way out of here, so try to relax into the emulsion of sun cream and dust daubed across your face, neck and arms. Take a deep breath, then ease off a brake pedal suspending two tonnes of metal, plastic and BF Goodrich rubber.
Welcome to the Rubicon Trail. The pedal in question is attached to the latest, JL-generation Jeep Wrangler – gently tweaked, substantially improved but, to everybody’s relief, fundamentally unaltered from before – and what you’ve just imagined is a stretch known as Cadillac Hill. In essence, this is 15 sweaty-palmed minutes of warily managing gravity in such a way that machine isn’t unnecessarily damaged or beached entirely by your own ineptitude.
It’s one reason why the trail as a whole is regarded as the toughest off-road challenge in the world – a hot lap of the Nürburgring for those of a knobbly tyred disposition – and were it any easier, it’d be a disappointment. The prospect of axle-breakage looms large here. More so if you’re driving a Land Rover, say some partisan but pleasant locals we encounter.
Because of the remoteness of this point, an hour’s drive south of Reno in the El Dorado mountain range, even minor maladies can mean an overnight stay before a ‘trail repair’ can be made. Like many a wilderness, it is spectacularly pretty at times, but it’s equally brutal all of the time. Jeep’s association with the place goes back to 1953. It was then the first organised tour left Georgetown, a tiny settlement established a century earlier as a camp for hopeful gold rushers.
During two days of what must at times have felt like an intolerably hard slog, more than 50 ‘CJ’ Jeeps – popular among Second World War veterans – initiated an annual tradition that exists to this day in the form of the Jeepers Jamboree. Modern-day tours can number 400 cars, each subtly remoulding the trail with every turn of their wheels.