The Experience Arizona Memory Project: Jeep Tubing in the Early 1990s
By Matt Marine
How to Impress Women with Your Jeep
I looked at the large pile of snow in front of me. It must have been ten feet high and just as wide. It glistened brightly in the sun from a fresh six inch snowfall the night before. No problem. I could make it through. My 1977 CJ-5 seemed invincible in the snow. A friend of mine had just welded a huge bumper on the front end we fondly called “the cow catcher” that would make mincemeat out of that snow pile. And most of all, I had to impress the woman sitting next to me in the passenger seat.
“Wanna see something cool?” I asked with a grin.
She sipped some of her hot coffee she had just poured from the thermos sitting by her feet.
“Sure,” she said tentatively. It was our second “date” and she didn’t know what to expect.
I floored the Jeep. The tires spun in the deep snow. They slowly gained traction and by the time we hit the snow pile we must have been going a good 5 mph or even 6 mph.
I was expecting a big “poof” as my massive steel bumper hit the fluffy white stuff, but what I didn’t know was that the pile was an old dump from previous road clearing work that had iced over many times.
It was like hitting a granite boulder. My Jeep stopped instantly and died. The coffee spewed like hot lava all over the Jeep – mostly on the person that had been holding it moments before.
Hmmmmm. That didn’t go exactly as I had planned.
I glanced over at my passenger. She was covered in hot coffee (luckily her winter clothes saved her from any burns). She was speechless, but her face had a look that clearly asked the question: WTF?
I was about to give up any hope for a third date when she finally gave me a small smile and said, “Smooth. Very smooth.”
Give me Snow or Give me Death
I was born and raised in Michigan where you could count on a good eleven out of twelve months of snow during the year. Sledding, ice skating, ice fishing, hockey, snowmobiling, skiing, freezing to death and shoveling, shoveling, shoveling were what you did in the winter in Michigan. I felt like a fish out of water during the winter months when I moved out to Arizona in the 1980s.
Thankfully, there’s Mt. Lemmon. This 9000+ foot mountain on the north side of Tucson gets some of the white stuff a few times in the winter allowing many Tucsonans (including this one) to make the 1.5 hour trip up to play in the snow. It’s great, except for one thing: there’s no place to sled (or ice skate, snowmobile, etc. – skiing can be questionable). I was used to Michigan where all you had to do was throw a rock to find a hill to sled on. But not here. The slopes of Mt. Lemmon are either too steep, too rocky or too thick with trees for sledding – and usually all of the above.
The old saying, "necessity is the mother of invention" brings us to Jeep Tubing: tying a flimsy clothesline rope to the back end of my CJ-5 and hauling ass (in Jeep terms this means about 10 mph) down a 4WD road in the snow while pulling some clueless sucker behind in an inner tube.
Sound like a recipe for disaster?
A Day in the Life of a Jeep Tuber:
Here’s what a typical day of Jeep Tubing would entail. After a winter storm, I’d get up in the morning to check the snow on Mt. Lemmon. As this was during my college days, many of these days I would wake up a little blurry eyed from the festivities the night before. If there seemed to be a good amount of white frosting on the mountain, I’d call my friend Bill and ask him to gather up a few truck inner tubes and pump them up.
Then we’d call up any friends, relatives, insane people or potential girlfriends (sometimes these people were all one and the same) to see if they wanted to join us. Many would make one trip, only a few would end up being repeat customers (both up to the snow or as girlfriends).
Those who expressed an interest either drove their own 4WD (if they had one) or were piled into the back of either my Jeep or Bill’s Land Cruiser if they didn’t (and wished they did).
The trip up the mountain was usually a little insane and unsafe as hell. We didn’t drink, but we may as well have been. The government didn’t believe in as much road safety or maintenance as they do today. First was the road itself, although paved, it was extremely narrow (they widened it a few years after these excursions), didn’t have guardrails and was snowy/icy as … well … a typical Michigan road.
Second was the people. Most that were driving on this road were not from Michigan and had no clue how to drive in the snow. This issue was not limited just to Mt. Lemmon Highway, but all the dirt roads at the top of Mt. Lemmon (which used to be open all winter). I would often drive up there on weekends just to cruise the back roads looking for people to pull out (and I never charged a soul). My best day was when I pulled out three vehicles that had slid off the roads. Tucsonans go crazy in the snow, thinking their little Honda Civics can take on 16 inches of snow without a problem. They can’t. Especially when you don’t know how to drive in it.
Most of the time, we’d end up at the very top of Mt. Lemmon, taking the road from Ski Valley to the observatory. There’s an old 4WD road behind the top of the ski lift that was great for Jeep Tubing (which has been closed now for years).
How to (or not to) Jeep Tube
The first thing you want to do with snow is give it a quick test. Snow can be very tricky. So we’d ignore this advice and just blast into it and see what happened. Sometimes it worked out and we could negotiate the road, other times we’d get stuck within the first twenty feet.
Heavy, wet snow behaves very differently from light, cold snow. And, like everything else, depth matters. The difference between two inches and eight inches of snow is huge.
Sometimes, it’s best to have narrow tires (with or without chains) that will chew through the snow down to the hard ground below. Sometimes you want to stay on top of the snow.
During one trip, there was about two feet of fresh snow. The big 4WD truck that was with me had chains on, and they would get him down to the ground below, but the snow was too deep for him to push through. I had my 35 inch tall by 14 inch wide Ground Hawgs on at that time and I could just “float” on top of the snow and run circles around him.
Usually we’d find somewhere between four and twelve inches of snow, which is perfect for Jeep Tubing. If no one had been on the trail since it snowed, we’d make an initial run to make a nice path for the tube to follow.
Then we’d tie one end of some clothesline rope to my trailer hitch and the other to a branch which served like a water skiing rope. With minimal instructions, we’d coax someone onto the inner tube (usually a newbie) and we were off. I would drive since my Jeep was so much better in the snow than most vehicles (including Bill’s Land Cruiser). If we had enough people, we assign a spotter to watch the person in the tube to make sure the driver knew if they were in trouble, other times we relied on my rearview mirror (I didn’t bother telling anyone that I could rarely see them).
The Land Cruiser was terrible in the snow. At one point we thought it was just the tires, but then we had the same tires on the vehicles and I could go places in 2WD that he would have problems in 4WD. Then I thought it was the vehicle, but after years of consideration I have determined it was the driver. Definitely.
During our trips up the mountain to Jeep Tube, we only had two significant issues: steering and stopping. Mostly the tube, sometimes the Jeep.
Controlling the Tube
For most coordinated people, keeping the tube inside the tire track wasn’t too difficult, all it took was a little bit of snow steering with gloved hands like you would do with one of those plastic tub sleds. Stopping was a little more difficult, but it could be done by doing a “Fred Flintstone”’ with your boots. The issue came when you were too short to effectively reach the ground with either your hands or feet – which was the case for the women in the passenger seat of my Jeep during this trip and my stepsister sitting in the back.
Typically, I would drive as fast as I could along the trail towing the person behind in the snow, which worked great until once when I stopped and my stepsister didn’t. In a flash of black and white, she disappeared under the Jeep. Luckily she was small enough to slide under my bumper and then stop when the tube hit my differential. No injury. Just one pissed off stepsister.
Reload the tube, put the coffee spiller woman in there. I told her if she got into trouble like my stepsister, just to bail off the tube. Easier said than done. As one that always looks for ways to impress future girlfriends, I drove even faster. Great in theory, poor in execution. Everything was going well until her tube jumped out of the track and sent her flying off the mountain side. The image of her disappearing down the mountain was clearly visible to me in my rearview mirror, though I’m sure I would have gotten the message with all the screaming my stepsister was doing from the back seat.
I thought my stepsister was over-reacting just a little. She was acting like this wasn’t something that happened all the time.
I stopped the Jeep and we raced to the tube’s last know location and looked down. It was a very steep section of the mountain, luckily with lots of trees. The rider had gone maybe 15 feet down before getting caught in the branches at the base of a large pine tree. The branches were pinning her to the ground and she was bent over, still sitting on the inner tube.
I thought she may have been hurt badly and more importantly, my chances at a third date were over, but all she did was laugh. In the end she forgave me, though she never rode the tube again.
Other Snow Related Activities You Can Do
Once we were done pulling the tube, if the snow was wet and sticky, we would build snowmen. Sometimes these were works of friggin’ art. Sometimes they a little perverted. But always s lot of fun. The day would usually end with a snowball fight. Which is all fun and games until your Jeep gets hurt. Note to all Jeep owners with a soft top: based on personal experience, plastic windows become very fragile when it’s cold. A snowball hitting one will crack it. And you will become very angry.
End of an Era
Most of the dirt roads and trails on top of Mt. Lemmon are closed off now in the winter time. It seems I was not the only one pulling people out of the snow. The Forest Service also got tired of doing it on a regular basis.
As they closed the roads, our ability to ride the tube shrank and we began to do more sane things, like studying for college. I don’t think I’ve Jeep Tubed in over twenty years, but I do miss the spray of snow in my face and the smell of exhaust up my nose.
And whatever happened to the “coffee woman”? Surprisingly, she would marry me a few years later and we would have two wonderful children. Did I ever take them Jeep Tubing? No way! I’m not that crazy.
No forests were damaged during our adventures in the snow. We stayed on the road and the only thing hurt was our butts. But … Jeep Tubing is dangerous and I wouldn’t recommend it. There’s a lot to go wrong and you may not be as lucky as we were back then. If you try this, it’s at your own risk. And please. Don’t damage the environment (i.e. tear up and snow covered meadows). That’s just not cool.
Pictures from the Past
Being pulled out by my brother's Jeep when I tried to take on another drift. No, I'm not a quick learner
Maybe a little shoveling will help?
Yep. Stuck twenty feet in from the road. My Jeep and I were usually the guinea pigs. Sometimes it worked out well, other times ... well, you get the picture
Even with chains on, I'm still stuck
"I think you're stuck."
"The wheels go round and round."
"Get the chains."
"Hey, can you two give me a good push? And you can just watch."
Me, Jeep Tubing at the top of Mt. Lemmon
My stepsister happily Jeep Tubing - before she slid under the Jeep
Yes. I DID think I was going to make it through this drift. I was that confident in my Jeep
No. I did not make it
My soon-to-be wife and my Jeep having fun in the snow on top of Mt. Lemmon
"What the heck?"
"The clothes line broke."
"Just tie a freakin' knot in it and let's get going!"
A nice, deep path to follow. Easy-peasy
Yikes. I still have that winter coat and those gloves!
The top of Mt. Lemmon during the summer, but you can see the massive bumper my friend welded on the front of my Jeep. And my shorts are awesome!
My stepsister having a great time
Putting chains on to see if I can make it out on my own power. I'm just wondering about those shirts...
Another view of my front bumper
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