BETHEL — “What a hoot!” Mary Myos of Northville, Minn., said Saturday morning, standing on the sidewalk in a light drizzle.
For 20 minutes, she and other guests staying at The Victoria Inn watched about 150 Jeeps parade up and down Main Street during the 25th annual Maine Mountains Jeep Jamboree USA.
“This is incredible,” Myos said, “first the Pet Parade in Boston and now this.”
Myos and her family are on vacation and traveling through Maine for a week.
She emerged from the inn with other travelers from Germany and Tennessee who are in Maine to view and photograph the foliage. They said they couldn’t believe the previously tranquil street was suddenly flush with nothing but Jeeps of all makes and colors.
Myos ran back into the inn to bring her daughter out to watch the procession.
Although several drivers lightly tapped their horns, the only noise came from mufflers — or the lack of mufflers — and one tall rider standing on the front passenger seat of a yellow Jeep with Massachusetts plates dressed head to toe in a bright-yellow chicken outfit and flashy red cape, clucking madly and waving feathered arms.
The odor of spent fuel mingled with food-preparation aromas from Main Street businesses and decaying fall leaves getting soggy on the ground.
Frank Roggenbuck of Duisburg, Germany, smiled broadly while photographing the parade from the street. A family member said they might see a few Jeeps in Germany, but not as many as were participating in the Jamboree or even such a parade.
Ron Woody of Kingston, Tenn., said the group knew the Jamboree participants were going to parade through town before heading into the back country for trail rides. But it came as a pleasant surprise to learn the parade was happening right in front of them on Main Street.
“It’s pretty neat,” Woody said. “Some of these Jeeps I hadn’t seen before. I saw a few that I don’t know that I’ve ever recognized them new. There’s a couple of Willyses in it, too. Now a Willys is an old Army Jeep. I don’t know the last time when a Willys was even built.”
One of those Willyses is owned by Dave Aho of Warren. Aho, a Vietnam War veteran, said he attended the first Jeep jamboree in 1989 in Bethel and hasn’t missed one since. He said Willys owners all feel the same way about Jeeps and off-roading.
“I’ve been doing this for 35, 40 years and I haven’t lost a bit of enthusiasm,” Aho said.
He described his 1946 Jeep as “an old Willys, slapped together.”
“I love that little thing,” he said. “I just love the Jeep vehicle. I’m a Willys guy and I particularly enjoy the Willys.”
He said events like this weekend’s Jeep Jamboree grew out of the 1940s when Willyses were first introduced by the military and spawned Jeep off-roading as a sport.
Aho said the Jeeps that people build for Jamborees are more for off-roading than longevity and high mileage.
“I do drive it around town and such, but generally, we don’t put as many miles on them as we used to, and we try to keep away from the winter, because most of the frames and bodies are pretty much toast from the (1970s and 1980s), you know,” he said. “Even the (1990s), they’re gone by this point, but I still manage to find a few here and there.”
He said he and his family drive several Jeeps.
Prior to the parade, drivers and families, friends and relatives gathered at the Casablanca Cinema parking lot off Cross Street. There, Doug Wilson of the Western Maine Mountain Jeepers Club stood on the tailgate of his 1970 Jeepster Commando giving everyone an itinerary for the day.
Wilson ran through a list of CB channels for each of the trail rides the group would be heading for immediately after the parade.
The area has about 20 miles of trails available in Upton, Greenwood, Bethel, Newry and Albany Township. Wilson said the trails for the Jamboree are rated from 1 (the easiest) to 9 (very demanding).
Afterward, Wilson said the Jamboree is a boon to the local economy.
Erin Helms, Jeep Jamboree’s general manager and adventure consultant, said Friday that the Bethel event was sold out with 268 participants from 17 states and Quebec, Canada, and 146 Jeeps.
Wilson said a good portion of the participants stay at The Bethel Inn and many stay at local motels and campgrounds.
“They buy a lot of gasoline,” he said. They venture out into the local restaurants at different times. It just makes another busy weekend in Bethel with all kinds of different, various things going on.”
As for Jeeps, he said, “We’ve got everything from (1946 Willys Jeep CJ-2As) right up through to CJ-5s.”
“We’ve got pretty much everything Jeep is right here today,” Wilson said. “They’re trail-equipped and these folks are ready to go out for a beautiful day on the trail in the western mountains.”
He likened owning a Jeep to being similar to any other kind of hobby that people have, although people can buy a new Jeep for $25,000 and easily put another $10,000 or $15,000 into it.
“All these Jeeps here, they’re not bought, they’re built,” Wilson said. “I mean you can’t buy it out of the box. They’re all personalized in what kinds of accessories they want to put in, which is a wide variety. It’s an up-and-coming thing that people just like to build these Jeeps.”
Wilson owns two Jeeps: a 1954 CJ-3B he got in 1991 and a 1970 Jeepster Commando he got in 2006. He built them with help from fellow off-roader Geoff Gaudreau of Bethel, who owns Gaudreau’s Repairs.
Gaudreau and Dick Rasor, owner of The Bethel Inn, helped bring the Jeep Jamboree to Bethel in 1989.
Wilson said his Jeepster has a 6-inch lift and 36-inch-tall tires.
He said participating in Jeep Jamborees “is a good family thing, too.”
“You see a lot of drivers, they bring their wives, their kids and their grandparents and they swap off driving during the day, so they all get the chance to get the experience, and the camaraderie with all of the people out on the trail,” Wilson said.
“But the best thing about the Jeep is you can drive it every day,” Wilson said.
“When you’re driving down the road and you meet another Jeep, no matter where you are, there’s always a wave,” he said. “So it’s kind of a bonding thing — they all stick together.”