Eric D. Lawrence
 
| Detroit Free Press
Jeep ‘easter eggs:’ TikTok user helps owners find their own creaturesA TikTok user’s recent discovery about his Jeep had many owners inspecting their vehicles for hidden creatures.Is it OK for a Jeep Wrangler driver to wave to someone behind the wheel of a Grand Cherokee?The question itself is not to be taken lightly, and it can get even more complicated. Is the Grand Cherokee modified? Some people would wave at a modified Grand Cherokee but refuse to wave at a stock Jeep even if it is a Wrangler, the vehicle even non-Jeep fans immediately recognize as a Jeep.The wave might be as simple as popping a couple of fingers up off the top of the steering wheel. Or it might be four fingers or a full hand’s worth (safely, of course). Descriptions vary. After all, we’re not just talking about any wave, we’re talking about the Jeep Wave, that signifier and sign of respect among Jeep owners that they’re part of the same club — that they get it.Many a video exists online to explore The Wave and its etiquette. In December, the host of the Cheap Jeeper YouTube channel out of Australia decided that it doesn’t make sense to discriminate, so wave away:“You’re part of a massive family no matter if you guys are from America, South America, New Zealand, Australia, England, France, wherever … it doesn’t matter. You’re all part of a community and you just don’t get that with any other brand of car.”Here’s the breakdown: Ford cuts price of 2021 Mustang Mach-EWalmart store redesign: More self-checkout kiosks, contactless options rolling out to SupercentersThis is the essence of what’s called the Jeep Life, which is a community, a club, an attitude and an outlook all rolled into one. It’s taking the doors and top off and riding with the wind blowing your hair back. It’s crawling over rocks in your 4×4. It’s fitting your Wrangler with a snorkel or tube doors or skid plates. It’s hauling your Jeep on a trailer so you still have a way home if you “break it” on the trail. It’s in-jokes and memes shared on countless Facebook pages along with videos of mud-covered Jeeps going back for more. It’s Jeep-inspired jewelry, coffee mugs and furniture. And it’s a marketer’s dream.Plenty of long-standing car nameplates have devoted followings, with their own clubs and meetups (Mustangs and Camaros come to mind), but good luck finding anything among mainstream brands approaching the connections Jeep has with its followers, who happily point to a history tied to the rugged vehicles that helped America and her allies fight and win the Second World War. A brand controlled by a multinational corporation with siblings named Fiat, Maserati and soon probably Peugeot snags the top spot on the Brand Keys annual consumer survey of most patriotic American brands. It probably doesn’t hurt that the Wrangler and now the Gladiator pickup hail from Toledo, Ohio, the spiritual home of Jeep.This shows the hill Ford, a company itself with ties to the early manufacture of military jeeps, is trying to climb with its new Bronco, a name with off-roading and pop culture traditions of its own. An SUV that represents the first real challenge Jeep has faced in its off-roading space in a long time easily prompts dismissive comments from loyal Jeep fans.“That it’s a wanna-be Jeep. Everybody loves the Jeep so much they’ve shown they’ve just gotta copy it, which I understand, but it won’t ever be a Jeep,” said Mike Hardin, who lives on Hawaii’s Big Island.Have you heard of ducking? Jeep owners purchase rubber duckies so they can leave them on a Jeep they spot on the street or a parking lot or wherever, maybe with a sticker or card attached. It’s a way of saying, “Nice Jeep.” Anniece Jamison, founder of Detroit Black JeepHers, a women-only club, said she bought a bag of 50 recently and had given out 30 ducks by the time she had talked to a reporter from the USA TODAY Network’s Detroit Free Press.Jeep owners also love to name their Jeeps. Sometimes the name is stripped across the top of the windshield. Sometimes it’s right on the edge of the hood. “Oh my goodness, that is probably the No. 1 or No. 2 topic” on the many Jeep fan pages, said John Kistner, of the questions about what to name a Jeep. Kistner named his Wrangler Bah Bah Black Jeep, a moniker it shares with his Facebook group of more than 100,000 followers.So who are these Jeep people?Detroit Jeep CityEver since Anniece Jamison was a little girl, waking up on Christmas morning and seeing a pink Barbie Jeep, she has wanted a Wrangler.She said she’s far from alone.“I think every girl that starts off with a Barbie Jeep, right on down the line, they end up with a Wrangler,” said Jamison, 24.Jamison’s ride, however, isn’t pink. It’s orange, and that’s how she found her name.“Orange Crush, like the drink, like the pop. At first, I was thinking pumpkin,” Jamison said. But one day Jamison stopped at a gas station and picked up an Orange Crush.“It was sitting in my cup holder, and it was like, this is the exact same color.”She has had the 2014 Wrangler for about two years, something she got after going to work at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ Sterling Heights Assembly Plant in Michigan, where Jeep’s parent company makes the Ram 1500 pickup. Jamison, whose 8-month-old Chihuahua, Snowy, loves to ride with her, grew up in Detroit and moved to Michigan’s Shelby Township to be closer to her job, bringing materials to the assembly line. Her fiancé works at the same plant. They planned to get married this year, but COVID-19 intervened and now they will tie the knot next August.Although she moved to Michigan’s Macomb County, Jamison still represents the Motor City as founder of Detroit Black JeepHers, one of the scores of clubs that cater to Jeep owners, except this one is for African American women with Wranglers. She started the club in April as COVID-19 was changing how we connect socially.“Out here in Shelby, Sterling Heights, Rochester, there’s a lot of Jeeps, a lot of Jeeps everywhere you go. Up and down the street, you’ll see at least five, six different Jeeps,” Jamison said, describing how she started looking for an all-women Jeep group, finding some around the state and even in the metro area but not necessarily connected to Detroit. “I talked to my fiancé. I said, ‘We’re the Motor City; we need a Jeep group in Detroit.’ He was like, ‘You should start one.’ ”Since then, the group has only grown in size and vision. It now claims 80 members, with interest from all over the region, stretching as far as Toronto. There have been some events, like a meetup at Belle Isle, a back-to-school rally in Highland Park, a trip to the Ford-Wyoming Drive-in in Dearborn and a celebration of one member’s birthday, driving past her house in a horn-blowing “Jeepcade” of 30 or 40 vehicles. “When I first started the group, I was like, OK, you know, this is something that us women, that we can do together. It really brought a lot of women together. Now it’s pretty much like a sisterhood,” she explained, noting that the ages of those in her club range from 22 to about 52. “If you have a Jeep, a Jeep comes with friends. I read that a long time ago before I got my Jeep and I was like, OK, having a Jeep comes with friends. But it actually does.”A baby named StevieMelissa Dinkins picked up her baby 13 years ago.She’d just graduated from nursing school. Dinkins, who turns 44 in December, saw the 2002 black Jeep Wrangler at a dealership and took it home the same day.“That’s the baby of my five,” said Dinkins of the five Jeeps in her fleet. She also has a 1994 Wrangler she bought in Detroit and restored, two 1946 CJ-2As and her “daily driver,” a Jeep Renegade. In Jeep world, there are lots of initials designating different models over the years.This Jeep fixation is a kind of addiction, but Dinkins, a hospice nurse living in Laingsburg, near Lansing, loves it.“The freedom. There’s no other vehicle that you can take the top and the doors off and just drive. It’s an amazing thing,” Dinkins said, describing the joys of off-roading on Drummond Island or driving her Jeep, all decorated with holiday lights and tinsel, in the DeWitt Christmas parade.In photos, the name “Stevie,” after “the great Stevie Nicks,” shines in red lettering against the black exterior paint.But it’s not just the ride. Dinkins loves her Jeep family, too. Her women-only club, Michigan Jeep Ladies, has about 1,500 members on Facebook. It’s one of the many clubs across the country that caters to the unique community that has grown up around Jeeps, many of them dedicated to hard-core off-roading but others to those who just like Jeeps and the opportunity to get together.“The Jeep community is essentially a secondary family,” she said, pointing to her experience as a front-line worker in the coronavirus pandemic.“The Jeep community reached out to me more than I would have imagined. My people in my club were bringing supplies to me and bringing food and PPEs. They’re an extended family,” Dinkins said. “Everybody’s got different views on everything in life, but (Jeeps are) one common ground, so when we all get together, everybody … absolutely gets along.”Bright purple with racing stripes Patrick Foster remembers the moment when the idea now encompassed in the Jeep Life ethos became evident to him.It was 1970 and Foster, who was a mechanic, later a Jeep salesman and now an author of numerous books on Jeep, was walking around the campus of Yale in New Haven, Connecticut.“Out of this side road comes a brand new CJ5 and the fricking thing is purple, bright purple, and it’s got racing stripes on the hood, and it’s got these big wheels on it and it says ‘Jeep Renegade’ on the side,” Foster said. He asked his buddy what he was seeing. It was a then-new sport model.“I said, ‘Man, I like that a lot.’ ”Foster’s spent more time than most contemplating the meaning of Jeep and its attraction as an American brand — though the current version of the Renegade, for instance, is made in Italy. The Jeep Compass is another model with an international vibe, with production in Brazil, India, China and Mexico.“It appeals because, particularly in the case of the Wrangler, it represents freedom, and it represents what people perceive as a very American brand. Rightly or wrongly, they see it as a very American product,” said Foster, who is still based in Connecticut.Of course, a vehicle known for its off-roading chops can’t just look the part.“Jeep has just got that image of being much more capable when it comes to designing and building four-wheel drive vehicles, and I subscribe to that. I think Jeep four-wheel drive vehicles are, for the most part, superior to others,” said Foster, who might have tipped his hand by titling his 2014 book, “Jeep: The History of the World’s Greatest Vehicle.” Jeeping in paradiseMike Hardin had always been into off-roading but not necessarily with a Jeep.Before he moved to Hawaii from Georgia about a decade ago, he figured he’d better get one.“Because we knew Hawaii has all (these) nice trails down to the ocean, and I wanted to make sure we’d be able to get to all these hidden gems,” he explained.Hardin, 39, is president of the Big Island Jeep Club, which has about 56 active members. They’re all great people, he said.“Just fun to hang out with. No drama. No, he said, she said, high school stuff. Just get out and have a good time.”Hardin and his wife, Jenn Corso, have four Wranglers now. His main ride is a blue 2005 TJ with a four-inch lift and some other add-ons. He calls his Jeep Bruiser, although that’s an unofficial name. His wife’s Wrangler is yellow when it’s not covered in mud, and fittingly named Queen Bee. They’re beekeepers, after all.Hardin, expressing a conviction held by many in the wider Jeep world, has strong views on his vehicle of choice:“Jeep is by far the best off-roading vehicle that you could have. It’s not a Toyota … it’s just the pure ability of what Jeeps can do. I’ve never been stuck in my Jeep,” Hardin said. “We go through some tight turns. These things will turn on a dime. You can do a U-turn in the middle of the street if you needed to.”And then there’s the freedom of open air.“It’s always nice, especially here, to have the top down, enjoy the wind and the sun on your face and go hit up a beach or just cruise with all the other local Jeepers,” said Hardin, who lives in Ocean View.Like so many other Jeepers, dogs figure into the picture. Unfortunately, Hardin lost his furry companion, a Siberian husky named Jake, a couple of weeks ago, after 13½ years of being together.Early on, Jake was always along for the ride.“He’d go down to the beach with us. He loved trying to find some sea cucumber in the little bay or whatever. Once he started getting older, it got harder for him to ride,” Hardin said. “We got him cremated, so he will be riding with us again.”That connection, dogs and Jeeps, tends to be a big part of the Jeep Life ethos. Several of the Jeep fans who spoke to the Free Press mentioned or knew of the recent contest FCA hosted to pick a Jeep Top Canine from thousands of entries. The winner was named Bear, a mostly black Lab, with Collie, Chow-Chow, a little standard poodle and some other blend, according to his family in Northborough, Massachusetts. Bear, who becomes the face of the Jeep brand for its social media channels, will hold the title until National Dog Day 2021.Jeepers in mourning and solidarityFor Catherine Fanaro, an event last May made a deep impression.It’s hard for her to put it into words.Hundreds of Jeeps, maybe 700 or more. Miles and miles of vehicles, she said.Fanaro, a 32-year-old mother of two and hotel supervisor, had helped organize a Jeep procession for the funeral of Kendrick Castillo, an 18-year-old who was killed as he “rushed the shooter” in an attack at his school in a suburb of Denver. His selfless actions saved lives, and Fanaro’s group, Colorado Jeep Girls, and others in the state’s off-roading community wanted to be there for him.“When Kendrick died it was all over the news obviously, and we noticed here in Colorado that Kendrick had a Jeep Cherokee. In the past we have done other (convoys) for fallen police officers. We have also done one for a female Jeeper in Colorado to kind of show support that we’re the Jeep family that they had and so we figured we’d do something like that for Kendrick, and it actually blew up way bigger than anticipated,” said Fanaro, who grew up with Jeeps in her family and off-roading her whole life.She’s trying to give the same sense of place to her daughters, 6 and 12.“I have two daughters and I am raising them in the scene, and I think that they gain a lot of trust and knowledge and all sorts of things from … different walks of life and all different kinds of people, and I think that is a very unique thing about Jeep,” she said, calling it a different level of family from what she’s experienced with other car scenes.“Just in my club alone, I have people that I know have my back. They support me. I can reach out to the whole Colorado community if anything happens or I need help with my Jeep. People will stop what they’re doing and come help each other,” she said, noting that she volunteers with an off-road rescue and recovery nonprofit.Fanaro’s 2001 Jeep Cherokee is “modded,” with a 7-inch lift and 8.8-inch axle in the rear. She laughed, and said, “too much,” when asked how much she’d spent on it, maybe $10,000 all together, including the $4,000 she paid for it four years ago. Betty White is what Fanaro calls hers because the Jeep’s got that spirit. “She’s an old lady, but she keeps on going,” Fanaro said, in a nod to the stamina that’s a mark of the legendary 98-year-old comedian, actress and TV pioneer Betty White.The Cherokee is “kind of like the ugly stepchild of Jeep, but I love them.”“I have more pride in my Jeep than I’ve ever had in any vehicle. I know a lot of people, their blood sweat and tears go into their Jeep. It’s like a gateway to learning so much about yourself as a person and your abilities,” said Fanaro, who lives in Evergreen, about 45 minutes from Denver.She started Colorado Jeep Girls in 2012. It’s an all-women club, although it does have a partner membership open to all for half the $100 full price.“I think for women it’s kind of a hard thing to go into a mostly male-dominated hobby and try to find … a no-pressure place to learn and grow, so I started the club just to meet other women first off who were interested in Jeeps, but second off, to teach what I know and learn things from and it’s really grown since then.”Deep in the heart of Jeep countryFor John Kistner, the best part of the Jeep Life is bringing hundreds of Jeepers together, to watch a movie at a drive-in theater, to cruise the track at the Texas Motor Speedway or to park scores of Jeeps to form the shape of Texas in a field during the Plano Balloon Festival.For five years, until COVID-19 intervened this year, the trip to the Speedway meant Jeeps riding two or three wide, rolling at 60 mph, people having a good time, shooting videos. It’s something that’s not just about off-roading, but also about doing fun things in town, too.“You don’t have to have the lift. You can just come out with your family, enjoy the time with other Jeepers, maybe form some new friendships or find a club that you wanted to hang out with more, but it was mostly about me trying to give back to the community, a way to share my enthusiasm,” said Kistner, 52, who lives in Longview, Texas, and runs the popular Bah Bah Black Jeep Facebook page, and has organized various get-togethers over the years. “To me it’s the community, it’s the getting together, being together, getting to know each other.”Everyone involved shares a general interest in Jeeps and then that grows when those involved have the same model, whether it’s two Gladiator people or two Liberty people, he said. “I think that’s where the community spirit really shines, especially if we’ve got some sort of a tragic type of event like a hurricane or flood, when you see these Jeep clubs or communities coming together for a common cause to collect water or food or blankets or socks or whatever,” Kistner said.Of course, there’s a little showing off, too, along with the do-gooding.“We like to take all our doors and tops off and put some flags on and drive 10 miles around the city to the drop-off zone just so we can make a big deal out of getting together. Maybe disrupting a little bit of traffic. If we’re lucky we can get some police vehicles to let us through the red lights so we could stay together and make it to our destination,” Kistner said.Jeeps have been in Kistner’s family since 1998.His wife, Donna, said she always wanted a Jeep and so he said he’d get her one for her 30th birthday. That first one was a chili pepper red Wrangler, and Donna drove it every day for 10 years. When their son, Taylor, turned 16, Kistner said they started tinkering with it, adding lift kits and different wheels. The first one, of course, was not the last.Kistner’s family has had maybe eight Jeeps over the years (he’s lost exact count). His son and daughter are grown and out of the house, but he said they’ll never lose their love of off-roading. Taylor is now into side-by-sides, a type of utility vehicle, but Kistner’s daughter, Tyler, is on her third Jeep, a Grand Cherokee. His dog is a black Lab, also a rescue, named CJ, another nod to his vehicle of choice. “We’re pretty obsessed if you will, in a mild sense,” he said.Follow Detroit Free Press reporter Eric D. Lawrence on Twitter: @_ericdlawrence.


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