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Big wheels for big kids

Andy Zuber does his rock climbing from behind a steering wheel.

As Zuber finesses the clutch and gas pedals, the tires of his Jeep grab hold, kicking up dust and dirt. Zuber powers the vehicle over a steep formation of boulders until we reach the summit of Kodak Rock. It's the most challenging section of a 16-mile trail system that runs through the Uwharrie National Forest, a popular spot for area off-road enthusiasts. These are folks who use their 4X4s as the vehicles were intended, as opposed to all those bozos in mammoth SUVs who never traverse anything more challenging than a speed bump.

A few hours earlier I had pulled into a gravel parking lot filled with rugged Jeeps and trucks. I was there to go for a ride with Zuber and his wife, Pilar. The two met at an off-road driving park in Pennsylvania, and married last summer. Men may dominate the sport of four-wheeling, but Pilar, a UNC-Charlotte graduate student, has always loved driving 4x4s. In 1998, she bought the Jeep Wrangler we'll be bumping over rocks in today. Zuber, 29, grew up on a farm in upstate New York. His first vehicle was a used Jeep CJ.

"I didn't have any money to pay a mechanic to work on it, so I started doing it myself," says Zuber, who turned the hobby into a business when he opened Carolina Rock Shop in 2001. The business specializes in customizing 4-wheel-drive vehicles, including fabricating bumpers, installing lift kits and designing roll cages. Last summer, Zuber moved the shop from Concord to a more spacious location on South Boulevard.

"We get all kinds of customers, from teenagers to bank executives," he says. "It's not just a bunch of rednecks going into a mud pit and raising hell."

Out in the field, I strap myself into the front passenger seat and grab hold of the "Oh Shit" handle. Zuber drives up the trail, over boulders, steep hills and through deep, mud-filled ruts. There's a convoy of nine other 4X4s following us, ranging from high school students and young executives to middle-aged fathers with their kids.

Directly behind us is Ian Caulfield, a short, stocky bundle of energy from England. A 38-year-old real estate agent, Caulfield started four-wheeling about two years ago. Before he moved to Charlotte in 1997, he was a Paratrooper in the British military. "This is a great way to get out of the city and enjoy the outdoors," he says.

Behind him are Reid Johnson and his fiancée, Christina Allen. Johnson, 25, has the most unique vehicle in the group. With the help of Zuber, Johnson cannibalized parts from other vehicles, including a Toyota Forerunner, and pieced together an orange Frankenstein of a 4x4. "It's definitely not street legal," he says.

After about two hours we reach the Rocky Mountain Loop Trail, at the top of which is the daunting Kodak Rock section. It takes a delicate and precise touch to successfully navigate up this steep, boulder-strewn trail. You can't just gun the engine and muscle your way through, as many newcomers learn after they bust an axle or drive shaft.

Zuber summits the trail first, then spots the others as they attempt to drive up the rocky incline. Some make it, while others opt to go around the biggest boulders and up the easier section of the trail. Soon, about a dozen guys are gathered at the top yelling instructions to the stragglers.

"Turn left! Give it more gas! Ease up on the clutch!"

"Damn armchair quarterbacks," laughs one guy who had a particularly hard time making it up the trail.

Once everyone reaches the top, we sit down for lunch and the guys talk shop and swap stories.

"You've got millionaires out here and guys who don't pay their phone bill so they can buy a new pair of shocks," says Steve Owens, who runs Tarheel 4-Wheel Drive Center on North Tryon Street. Owens, 37, has been driving Jeeps since he was a teenager. "Lots of these guys might not have any money, but they've got great driving skills. They can turn chicken shit into chicken salad. Then you have guys who can afford anything, but can't drive. It's an even playing field out here."

After lunch Andy drives me back to my Toyota Corolla. Having spent the day motoring over rocks and other rugged terrain, my little sedan feels kind of wimpy, and I start to wonder if I should trade it in for a bad-ass Jeep with a roll cage and 4-inch lift kit. As I turn in to my neighborhood, I notice some of the new speed bumps are bigger than the old ones. I spot one of the slabs of asphalt and stop for a moment.

"You're mine," I say, and then drop the hammer.

For more 4-wheelin' info, go to these websites:

Carolina Rock Shop:

Tarheel 4-Wheel Drive Center:

Uwharrie National Forest:

Have an idea for Urban Explorer? Contact Sam Boykin at or 704-944-3623.

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