Fear Not, Newbie
Many new owners find the local wheeling club immediately and sign-up to take their trucks off the beaten path. It all starts with those minutes when the group meets up at the off-road destination. It is a blend of people, some who may know each other from past events, and those new vehicle owners. During the introductions, the bravados are in full kilter. Whether it is a 21 year old college girl with her bright red H2 complete with vanity plate set out to prove she is willing to get it dirty, or the guy who bought his Hummer at mid-life accompanied by his 10 year old son, many have something to prove. They often know my trail-guide husband from websites or magazine articles, but many haven’t met him in person yet or seen firsthand the damage that is his truck. I sense the anxiousness of the new folks immediately when they see it; the fear of the unknown—the ’how much can I trust this guy?’ look on their faces. They consider themselves up for the off-road experience—heck, that’s what they bought the thing for anyway—to drive it. But they also remember how much they paid for it…and how they can still see their reflection in the paint job. They are all human and therefore thinking—now just how scratched up is it going to get? Will the convoy be waiting for me while my wheels are forever spinning in the mud? Will the spotters get frustrated trying to coach me if I hold everyone up? Just what am I in for?
As the sidekick spouse, by default, I am often given the responsibility of welcoming these ‘newbies’ who sign on for their first off-road excursion-- to ease them into the whole experience. My husband’s reputation as a trailblazer (pun intended), often proceeds him and it can make the owner of a brand spanking new H3 a little uneasy. He and other trail guides are often busy prepping, checking and confirming things and I am left to socialize with the group, all anxious to come back like muddy trophies. Fortunately, I can identify with the first timer, and perhaps that is why I can spot them so easily. They have usually packed their truck with an entourage of passengers eager to be bounced around inside it. Those same buddies are impressed first by the fact that they are in a HUMMER, and second by the fact that they are about to take it up the side of a mountain. On the first day for the driver, you can see it slowly sink in that they have no idea of what to expect from the adventure that awaits them. There is definitely some pressure on the hummer owner not only to provide an entertaining day, but to do it with as much finesse as possible to avoid embarrassment.
They often approach me with a few questions. I look relatively unassuming I think. Or at least a lot less intimidating than my husband, whose truck looks like it has been buffed with an electric can opener. I attempt to put their mind at ease. To the pregnant passenger of one wheeler I offer—“don’t worry, this trail is pretty tame.” To the first time driver of a brand new H3 I mention—“we hit the first trail then come back for lunch and then head back out, so you can see how you feel about the second half of the day…” I try to talk to everyone that looks nervous. There are also those more experienced folks who clearly want to appear not nervous, and for them, I acknowledge that they are “all set” and “have everything under control….no problem.” Now that I think about it, I guess I am kind of an off-road therapist of sorts on those mornings, recognizing that every driver in the group needs a slightly different pep talk. The trail guide gives the official advice before the trucks head out en route; slowly and clearly stating only a few simple rules of the trip. No matter how cool, calm and “checked in” to the speech the crowd seems, it never fails that one of the drivers loses sight of the truck behind him because he was a little nerved up when they got the instructions the first time around. Some will have to wait until they are alums before they can relax enough to take in the whole experience and not be too much of a liability to the rest of the group.
I am quick to empathize because I was once, and still am, in their shoes. As someone fairly new to the off-road circuit, I still behave as ‘the newbies’ do. I still get nervous before a trail that is new to me. My husband sometimes spontaneously asks me to drive so he can take pictures or shoot some video, and I refuse him pretty much every time. I would need adequate time to psych myself up to become that involved in the action. I tend to enjoy off-roading from the passenger seat—mastering brake throttle modulation in front of a group of onlookers is a little bit too much pressure for me. I think I have found my niche on these trail runs, prepping everybody else for the big experience. I enjoy the social aspect of checking in with the stopped trucks on the trail while the convoy waits for someone to get unstuck. Mostly it is just to say “hi” and to see if everyone is having fun. When everyone returns smiling with trucks unharmed, I sense the trust we have built in them all. They will help me ease any panic in the faces of those new to join the group for the next excursion.
I will always feel that somehow it is my responsibility to protect the ‘newbies.’ The idea of someone who likes to off-road, but doesn’t want to ruin the paint job on their brand new ride is not outlandish to me. There is fun to be had on these trips, and it can be a real downer to get a nasty scratch, break something or mangle it beyond repair. Battle scars for some, “my wife is going to kill me” for others. Snapping a half-shaft in the mud on a Saturday afternoon can be a traumatic experience for a new wheeler. After all, some of owners in this generation are going to need their trucks to transport them to work on Monday so they can finish paying it off.