Six Questions with Willie and Jeannie Worthy of Montana 4×4 Trails

Willie and Jeannie Worthy are off road royalty.  They have been writing about 4×4’s and exploring the landscape in them since their first article was published in 1970.  Willie is widely known and deeply respected from his 40 years as a contributing editor for Four Wheeler magazine, authoring regular columns like “Tech Line” and “Willie’s Work Bench” amongst other long and short form articles.  

Today, Willie and Jeannie live in Western Montana and they authored a three volume series of exhaustively researched books titled 4×4 Routes of Montana.  Each volume covers a geographic area of the state, and is filled with detailed descriptions of dozens of off road adventures you can take and the rich Montana history that can be found along the way.  They are, in our opinion, the key to exploring the back roads of Montana.  

With summer upon us and many of us looking for some places to travel by vehicle, it felt like the perfect time to talk with Willie about their books and get the scoop on the story of how he discovered Jeeping. 

Willie and Jeannie are some of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and they are passionate about their work.  Regardless of how well you think you know the dirt roads, Jeep trails and overland routes of Montana, you are going to discover new places that you didn’t know existed in the pages of their books.  

Head over to their website (https://www.montana4x4trails.com/books), buy a book, and start planning your trips for the summer.

 

Overland Montana: How did you get started in Jeeping and off-roading?

Willie Worthy: As a 15-year-old I was camped with some Boy Scouts in the Borrego Desert of Southern California. The driver had struggled with deep sand and with boy-power pushing a lot, we finally managed to get a two-wheel-drive pickup up a sandy wash to our camping spot. That evening a Jeep with a big heavy-set guy in it easily drove up to our campsite. Right then I vowed that I was never going to push again, but would drive a 4×4 (guess who now laughs at that idea of never pushing?). I talked with him for over an hour about the area, but mostly about his Jeep. Oh, and he was none other than explorer/writer Erle Stanley Gardner, whose books, such as “The Land of Shorter Shadows,” I was growing up with. (Yep same guy who wrote 80 Perry Mason mysteries.) Little did I know then how this chance meeting was just one of the events that would change my life—or what would follow next.

Photo courtesy of Willie Worthy.

That summer I worked at a camp where we had had two surplus military jeeps that we used for transportation. Now I was really hooked and just had to have a Jeep. With my summer savings and a part-time job at an auto parts store, plus the money I had from selling a racing go-kart, I somehow managed to convince my dad that I should have a Jeep instead of building a hot-rod like most of my friends had. I am sure he figured I would get in less trouble with a four-cylinder Jeep than a V-8-powered hot rod. Little did he realize. Before long I was driving a well-used ’43 MB for which I had paid $450. That jeep became my automotive teacher along with what I learned from working on various friends’ cars and hot rods. Within the year we did an engine swap! Granted, it was only the F-head version of the four-cylinder motor, but it had some aluminum high-compression pistons, a re-ground cam, was balanced, and sported a Holley carburetor.

In 1962 I bought a new CJ-5 that served me well through my college years as well as my first couple of significant jobs. It somehow survived several engine swaps and a couple of crashes. Almost every weekend found it in the California desert, Pismo Beach, the Glamis dunes, or in the local mountains. The Jeep just might have had something to do with my being on academic probation most of my college years.

Photo courtesy of Willie Worthy.

I968-69 the Jeep went up on blocks as Uncle Sam called and I spent some time in beautiful Southeast Asia. I got to drive a Jeep, this time with a .30-caliber machine gun mounted on it. I picked up the moniker “Wild Willie” from my driving style that emulated a famous drag racer of the time, and it stuck. Four Wheeler magazine was forwarded to me each month and every issue was devoured. Unfortunately, the first Baja 1000 off-road race took place while I was in Viet Nam, but the next one found my wife and I pitting for NORRA in El Rosario, Baja California. The CJ-5 came off its blocks and got transmogrified into a tube chassis off-road race car followed by a succession of race buggies.

In November, 1970 my wife and I visited Charles Manson’s hideout in Goler Wash in Death Valley, California, and I figured I should try writing a story about it for Four Wheeler. It was published! I was living a dream!

Photo courtesy of Willie Worthy.

In 1972 we had a new Bronco, a new baby, and exploring Baja and the southwest deserts became a passion.

I felt some of the modifications that we had done to the Bronco were worthy of Four Wheeler’s pages. I dropped off a couple of articles with then-Editor Bill Sanders at his office, but never heard back from him. In 1973 we were at the awards banquet for the Baja 1000 in La Paz, Baja, and I was able to talk with Sanders. He said that he liked the articles, was planning on using them in the future, and wanted more like them. Great! Unfortunately, I didn’t keep copies of those magazines and can’t remember exactly when they were published.

’72 Bronco. Photo courtesy of Wille Worthy.

One day I got a phone call from a guy who said he was the editor of a new off-road vehicle magazine called Travelin’ 4x4s. Of all things, he wanted me to write monthly articles. “Sure!” I said, hardly believing it. Perhaps 6 months later or maybe a bit longer, Bill Sanders called me and said he wanted me to take over the Techline column at Four Wheeler. Because I was already writing as Willie Worthy for Travelin’ 4x4s, I got a new name, Mark Stanton, as well as a couple of others that I have forgotten. Even if it wasn’t under my own name, I was actually part of Four Wheeler magazine. Writing money and sponsorships put us strongly back into off-road racing for about 8 years. Travelin’ 4x4s folded in 1980, so my real name went on the masthead of Four Wheeler. What could be greater! That put my name there for over 30 years.

Perhaps 6 months after that I was asked to do a tech column in another startup magazine. Another year passed and three other magazines requested my services. By now I actually was pretty much over my head. We had three daughters, I was doing custom dirt work with my Bobcat tractor in the summer and snow removal in the winter, and with some great sponsorships, I was racing off-road in both short-course and in the desert. Not only was I writing for three to five different magazines, but I was also trying to hold down a job as a professional firefighter, as well as a volunteer fire fighter in my local community. Somehow, we still found time to take some extended family trips into Baja with our three daughters.

Flying through the air in Riverside. Photo courtesy of Willie Worthy.

Talk about over extending myself! I would get up early in the morning, write in long hand and leave it for my devoted wife to type up on our old manual typewriter. Back in those pre-computer days it had to be placed on special copy paper. No such thing as cutting and pasting or spellcheck. Then I headed to the fire station for my 24-hour shift. In the evenings when the guys would be watching TV or playing basketball, I was in the office writing. Getting off shift I would head over to my sponsor’s shop and work on the race cars, head to an off-road shop for a story idea, or take the tractor to a jobsite and often not get home until late evening to grab a few hours of sleep and start the cycle over again.

Something had to give, and it did. I injured my back at the fire department and was forced into retirement. Racing and tractor work came to an end and a major change in lifestyle took place. I did manage to fit in a couple of long adventure trips for Four Wheeler, the Canada to Mexico “Border to Border” in 1990 and “Hoof Beats of History” in 1991, where I traced the Pony Express route. A move from Southern California to Montana took place in 1992. Now I was taking it easy and down to only writing for two magazines—Four Wheeler as well as for its biggest competitor. Soon I was asked not to write for the “other guys,” and given a monetary incentive. A few months after JP magazine came out I was asked to work for them as well, and since it was part of the parent company, it was OK.

After quite a few years, the job with JP and Four Wheeler came to an end due to the
onset of Parkinson’s disease (good old agent orange) and I was pretty much back to where I started. It’s been a lot of great years. I don’t think that anyone one can say they have been a continuous subscriber to Four Wheeler from Year One to the present. And how many people can say that they have been writing for a publication for as long as I have? Dates get confusing, but it’s almost 40 years since I first had a story published by Four Wheeler. I met and developed early friendships with people like Mickey Thompson, Brian Chuchua, and later with Robbie Pierce, and others who made numerous innovative changes and improvements to vehicle equipment and safety.

Hoof Beats. Photo courtesy of Willie Worthy.

I have survived something like five different owners, 12 different editors, and was even asked to take over the editor’s job a couple of times. Some editors have been, well, let’s just say not the best, some OK, and some great—like past editors John Stewart and Douglas McColloch. Most have pretty much given me free rein to write about what I wanted. Four Wheeler is the oldest, and in my biased opinion, the leading 4×4 publication. Trends have gone from back country camping to racing to monster trucks to show vehicles and practical build ups, and now to expeditioning. At one time we had several off-shoot publications, such as Monster Trucks, the 4×4 Answer Book and even a specialty-book sales department.

OMT: What has been your favorite journey?

WW: To quote the now deceased marathon runner Bob Hayes of Evaro, MT “the next one”. How do you decide on a favorite journey….that would be like choosing your favorite child.

OMT: What do you love most about Montana?

WW: The lack of people and the remoteness as well as friendly people.

OMT: Why did you decide to research and write three books about Montana 4×4 routes?

WW: Back in 1990 I did a multi series of articles for Four Wheeler Magazine entitled “Border to Border” where I used a modified Jeep Cherokee to traverse the US from Canada to Mexico, mostly on dirt roads. I started at a small crossing in Montana, and fell totally in love with the state. In 1992, I convinced my wife to visit Montana and that we should buy some property and move in a few years once our girls were out of school. INSTEAD, we ended up buying a house in Evaro (where we lived for 23 years) that had both the perfect kitchen and the perfect shop, and returned to California and moved to Montana in a period of six weeks.

The Border to Border Cherokee. Photo courtesy of Willie Worthy.

In 1995 several friends and I decided to start a four wheel drive club “Montana Back Roads”, based in Missoula, MT. Other members of the club kept pestering my wife and I on other places to four wheel, so we put the effort in to research, map and write about some of those that we had discovered. All of our routes have been run more than once to check GPS figures, mileages, to be sure we put the right direction to turn in (sometimes have left instead of right, or south rather than north!). We’re both very interested in the history of mining in Montana and wanted to be sure that these memories were preserved.

OMT: Who or what most inspires you?

WW: Gotta go back to Erle Stanley Gardner and his series of books about Baja. If it hadn’t been for that chance encounter…. And then there is my wife.

OMT: What are you most looking forward to this year?

WW: Continuing to improve my Rubicon. Hoping that my health holds out long enough to get the chance to explore some of middle and eastern Montana.

Agent Orange on the trail. Photo courtesy of Willie Worthy.

 

 

To learn more about Wille and Jeannie, and buy all three of their books, head over to their website.

To follow the adventures of the Montana Back Roads 4×4 Club, check them out on Instagram.

 

Overland Montana was founded in 2017 by Jeff Wright and Peter Kearns for the expressed purpose of getting people stoked on vehicle based adventure travel and exploration in Montana and around the Western US.  They’ll be presenting “Six Questions” in collaboration with the Montana Outdoors Foundation on the RecCon Montana site.  Follow them @overland_montana.

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Important Announcement

Announcement

This will likely not come as a surprise, but it’s news that we are certainly sad to announce: we are going to postpone RecCon Montana until the weekend of 

July 10th & 11th, 2021.

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