SUNDOWNERS 4X4 CLUB HISTORY
Back in the summer of 1976, a small group of people from Kalamazoo would sometimes get together for a leisurely drive to the beach along Lake Michigan’s north western shore. Unlike most people, however, they didn’t take the interstates and main roads to get to where they were going, and they didn’t take along any Frisbees, footballs, or beach towels either. Instead they packed their vehicles with winch cables, chains, and snatch-um-straps, and they traveled over logging trails, sand hills and fire roads. They were 4-wheel driving enthusiasts, and their idea of fun was to take their Jeeps, Blazers, and Broncos through more mud, sand, and dirt than most people would ever want to see in a lifetime. Some people thought they were crazy.
Later that year, the group formed the Sundowners 4-Wheel Drive Club, the first club of its kind in Southwestern Michigan to cater especially to the interests of 4-wheel driving enthusiasts. The Sundowners also opened up their membership to anyone in the Kalamazoo are who had a 4-whell drive vehicle and an interest in driving it - off-road or not. The club grew rapidly during the late seventies as more and more people developed an interest in off road driving and the sale of 4-wheel drive vehicles soared. By 1981 the club’s membership stood at nearly 60 vehicles of every size, manufacture and model: Jeeps, Broncos, Blazers, Scouts, Commandos, and even a few homemade ones that didn’t fit into any category.
Over the years, the club has done a lot to help out the Kalamazoo area during snowstorms and other ‘natural disasters’. Remember the blizzards of 1978 and 1979 when Kalamazoo was socked in with so much snow that nearly no cars were moving? While most people were home trying to stay warm or outside shoveling out their driveways, many of the Sundowners were out on the road driving doctors and nurses back and forth between the hospitals. There is almost no snow deep enough to stop a dedicated 4-wheeler, especially one equipped with balloon tires, 8,000 pound winches and 4 inch lift kits.
Other sundowners have helped the Red Cross deliver food and medicine to people who couldn’t get out, while others have helped out Meals on Wheels and various police agencies. Some of them even enjoy driving around during bad snow storms to pull cars out of ditches (at not charge of course). The members have numerous letters of appreciation from civic leaders and local groups thanking them for their efforts during snow storms. So the next time you think that the whether is too bad for anyone to drive, think again, because a member of the Sundowners is probably out there somewhere helping to keep the city going.
Besides helping out whenever they can, the Sundowners also enjoy taking their vehicles of the road for some real 4-wheeling. One rule they always follow, however, is to only drive on designated off road areas or trails and conserve and protect the environment. They normally take four or five weekend trips a year. In the spring they would take a weekend excursion to Baldwin, Michigan for a couple days of off road driving on the logging trails and designated off road areas in the Manistee National Forest. The Baldwin area was especially popular because of the numerous off roading areas, plus some of the members had cabins and cottages nearby where people could stay. Some even preferred to ’rough it’ in campgrounds or peoples back yards.
A couple times during the summer they would get together for a weekend trip to the Silver Lake Sand Dunes near Hart, Michigan. There is a state controlled area of the sand dunes that are reserved especially for off road vehicles. Sometimes on a hot summer day, you’ll see hundreds of four wheel drive vehicles, ATC’s, motorcycles, dune buggies and san rails alike racing around on the sand flats, climbing the dunes, or just sitting along the beach while their drivers take a cool dip in Lake Michigan. Many of the Sundowners also had ATC’s which are especially fun on the sand dunes and help to get everyone in the family involved.
In the fall they used to head back up towards Baldwin to take in the fall colors and do a little more off roading. Sometimes they participated in road rallies put on by other clubs and sometimes in the winter they hold a couple road rallies of their own. In the past the club has gone other out of the way places to run the trails including the Tahquamenon Falls area near Paradise, Michigan in the upper peninsula, and Atlanta, Michigan near Alpena.
The club has also helped out in the pits and staging areas at some of the indoor 4-wheeling driving events held at Wings Stadium, including 4-wheel drive mud bogs and tractor pulls.
A typical weekend outing can really produce some real hair raising experiences. Usually the club will drive around in a caravan of vehicles until someone sees an interesting looking trail or mud hole. Then it becomes a challenge to see which vehicle can make it through the difficult spot without getting stuck. If everyone makes it through, so much the better; they just drive on to the next spot. Otherwise it becomes a challenge to see which vehicle can get the furthest before getting stuck, and for every vehicle that can’t make it, it then becomes a challenge to figure out how to get the stuck vehicle out.
Many of the vehicles in the club have winches so getting stuck vehicles out of the mud is really not too difficult, but sometimes requires a little imagination. They also carry an assortment of ropes, chains, snatch-um-straps (these are long flat nylon ropes used to pull vehicles), and block and tackles to help out in really difficult situations. One notable thing about the club is that they have never lost a vehicle in the ten years they’ve been hitting the trail, and believe me, according to what I’ve heard they have gotten into some pretty hairy situations over the years.
Back in the spring of 1980, for example, the club was on its usual spring outing up to Baldwin. They found an interesting looking logging trail that hadn’t been used in a few years, so they thought they would give it a try. They hade about 12 or 13 vehicles in the caravan, and started up the trail one at a time. About 200 yards up the trail the road suddenly ended into a swamp so they had to turn around and head back the way they came. By this time, however, with 12 or 13 vehicles running over it, the trail had become quite soft, and had turned to a gluey consistency of mud that was nearly impossible to get through. They spent nearly 4 hours getting back out of the 200 yards we had gotten into in just a few minutes. Every vehicle was so covered with mud that you couldn’t tell the red ones from the blue ones.
Another time, up in Atlanta, one of the more daring Jeeps decided to take a shortcut through a swamp. He didn’t get too far though before he just stopped moving completely, and it took several hours to get him out of the predicament. They finally had to hook three 8,000 pound winches up to the guy at the same time just to pull him out. He was the first and only guy ever brave enough to try to tackle the ‘Atlanta Swamp’.
One of the more interesting things about 4-wheeling is the extent to which you get to know your vehicle, especially when it breaks as it often does when you do some serious off roading. If you’re not much of a mechanic, however, don’t worry; many of the members of the club are very handy with mechanical things and they will be glad to give you advice or even a helping hand when something goes wrong or when you find that you need to install that new lift kit or winch.
Thirty seven years have passed since the Sundowners first got together and they are still going strong. The size of the club may have shrunk a little from the heyday of the early 80’s, but the enthusiasm of the membership is as big as ever. The club still concentrates on what they call ‘family 4-wheeling’ getting the entire family (young and old) involved in the fun and excitement of off road driving. A saying that is often used around the club is that the only difference between men and boys is the price of their toys.
The club usually gets together twice a month: once for an organizational meeting to plan outings and activities (this is always the second Thursday of each month), along with another get together for a road rally, weekend trip, sporting event, or the like. Besides 4-wheeling, some of their activities have included picnics, roller skating parties, Easter egg hunts (for both kids and adults), parties, canoe trips, camping excursions, and the list goes on and on.