The story at Twisted Trails Off Road Park doesn’t begin until a 75-year-old man pulls up in his red Ford Ranger and offers me a ride. Four wooden slats frame his truck bed, and a black knit cap tops his bearded face. But it’s his mink coat that stops me.

“Where to?” I ask, buying time. There are over 4,000 people at this off-road bash called the Dog Party, none of whom would notice me missing.

“Around,” he says.

A short woman with dark hair jumps out of the front seat. “Get in,” she says. “He won’t kill you.” I eye the passenger side door. The bottom is even with my waist.

“Get the step ladder out of the back,” he hollers, running his gloves over the tattered steering wheel, his window cranked open to the February air. Finally, he leans across the bench seat and offers me his hand. “I’m Ron Doberstein, I run this place.”

I climb inside the faded red interior, and though my surroundings and this encounter have spawned many questions in my mind, one rises to the top: What’s up with the mink coat?

But in five minutes, the coat isn’t even on my radar because Doberstein is taking me up Holey Moley, and I’m totally freaked out.

The park

Welcome to Twisted Trails Off Road Park in the town of Copemish (population: 194). The 240-acre park has been open for five years. It’s a mile wide and includes everything from sand hills to rock piles to mud bogs, all built specifically to navigate with your truck, ATV or any other vehicle you care to come up with. In other words, the place is a good ole boy’s dream.

The park is managed by the Dusters Off-Road Club, a group of four men who’ve been four-wheeling together for years. The group started in 2005 and first leased, then purchased part of the land from Doberstein a few years back, although Doberstein is still involved with the park as well.

“We’ve got 15 to 20 miles of trails here,” says Dale Humphrey, the club vice-president. “Of course, if you turn around and come back up a trail, you’ve got a totally different trail, so you could say there’s double that.”

Humphrey’s riding a quad, wearing a neon green reflective safety vest and patrolling organized chaos during the 32nd annual Dog Party, as thousands of vehicles cruise the property. There are no marked roads, no stop signs, no directions. People and trucks move in waves, taking turns, a self-governed country on wheels.

“We have about 20 people who help patrol each Dog Party,” Humphrey says. “But everyone takes care of everyone else here and keeps things in line. It’s good.”

Over the years, the Northern Michigan Dog Party has moved from one piece of private property to another, moving from a spot in Traverse City to a second location in Copemish just up from where it is today. But it’s here, on Read Road, where Twisted Trails built its permanent home in 2007.

The party

The name “Dog Party” comes from a group of friends who all adopted puppies from the same litter one February some 30 years ago. To celebrate, they went out four-wheeling together with their pups and lit a bonfire to cap things off, according to Gary Porter, club president. The Dog Party turned into an annual tradition, and now draws wheelers from all over the country and Canada. License plates from Washington, Colorado, Wisconsin, Tennessee and Indiana roll by. The evening still offers a bonfire, but it’s gigantic now—the tall, timber skeleton sits waiting, down near The Bowl. The night also includes a rousing fireworks display. Over the years the February Dog Party grew so huge that the club added two more parties—in March and August. Meanwhile, Twisted Trails grew too, adding a 30-site campground and ATV and Jeep rentals.

“We’ve got everything from mild to wild,” President Porter says.

The stunts

At the Dog Party, there’s one attraction everyone counts on: The stunts. Today’s main stunt involves Northern Michigan Dog Party regular Crazy Ray jumping his Ford Ranger through a saggy, graffiti-adorned, road-weary motor home. It’s happening at 3 p.m., and the crowd gathers, holding cozies of Bud Lite, Monster or Mountain Dew.

People hoot and yell as Crazy Ray sits rumbling at the top of a hill, then suddenly the truck launches down the slope, full-tilt for the take-off ramp. Speed is key. He needs enough lift to clear the axles and tires of the motor home, but not so much that he hits the roof. The sweet spot: sailing through the dining area, in one window, out the next. The crowd stands still for the moment of truth. Will Crazy Ray make it through? Yes!!! It’s golden. A neat in and out, debris splintering everywhere with satisfaction.

The crowd goes nuts. No one has died, and better yet, the motor home is intact enough that someone else can give it a go. A few men line up to take their turns at the target. The siding of the motor home, at least what remains, reads “Room for Rent” and “Elvis Lives Here” in orange and black spray paint.

The second guy catches too much air and t-bones the metal frame in the roof of the motor home. His hood buckles. The sweet smell of burning radiator fluid fills the air, and the snow bleeds green. The crowd groans at his troubles then cheers at his nerve. Either way, success!!!

The mink coat

It’s here that Doberstein picks me up, hot off the stunt situation. I refuse to let him take me up a series of hills I can see will kill us both. He only says, “We’ll make it,” even as he navigates around the steeps, a gentleman showing courtesy for me. But eventually we hit a spot in the trail where the only way out is up.

We almost make the top before the icy slide begins. The slide backward.

“Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!” This is me, looking out the back window at a blue pickup truck parked at the bottom directly behind us. A boy, maybe 17, runs and jumps in the truck and tries to throw it in gear. The scene is all slow mo. If I were this boy’s mother, I would yell at him for running behind a sliding Ford Ranger. But we come to a stop inches from his truck.

“That would have left a dent,” is all the boy says.

In Picker Valley, we find a white truck off the trail hung up on saplings, breaking them down, an unspoken no-no. “I’m gonna get their ass for that,” Doberstein says. I sit in the truck and worry. Will I have to be backup to the guy in mink? He’s old enough to be my grandpa, but I’m afraid he’s on his own for this one.

I breathe again when I see him shake hands with the two offenders. There’s nodding and clapping of hands, slapping of backs.

“They said someone else was doing it,” he explains in the truck. “I told them, yeah, but you’re the ones who got caught.”

“Will you tow them?” I ask.

“I don’t tow anybody.”

We head down the trail. We pass a truck named “Probation Frustration” and a bumper that reads, “Get in, shut up and hold on.”

Finally, I have to ask.

“So, the coat. Is it real?”

He’s been expecting the question all along. “Who knows. Bought it for $10 at an auction.” I can’t drop it.

“What do the guys have to say about the fur coat?”

He laughs. “They don’t say nothing about what I do.”

The people

“Where’s your Carhartt?” This is how Rebecca Hancock, 37, from Traverse City greets me.

I wish I had a snappy reply but it is weak, friendly even. “Back home in my closet.”

“I’d rethink that outfit,” she says, pulling on my ski jacket, eyeing my matching snow pants. “Wouldn’t be caught dead in those around here.”

Awkward pause.

“What’s your name?” she asks.

My gut tells me it’s the wrong answer, but I say it anyway: “Kandy.”

She folds her Carhartt-clad arms over her Carhartt-clad chest. “Kandy? I’d rethink that around here too.” I whip out my notebook. This is the interview I’ve been waiting for. Hancock is the first mate on a 1,000-foot freighter. She spends seven months of the year on the Great Lakes. And in February she was named the first-ever female Grand President of the International Shipmasters Association. The first in its 100-year history.

Despite her lack of fondness for my name and fashion sensibility, I like her instantly. “Here, if you are in Carhartts and boots, no one knows if you have a bachelor’s degree in Human Ecology like me or not,” Hancock says. “You’re just people. I like that, all walks of life here.”

Hancock is spending her first overnight at Northern Michigan’s Dog Party. She’ll be staying in her friend’s trailer. “It’s actually a 30-foot-by-7-foot car hauler,” she says. “The wood stove was custom built by another friend in his welding class. How cool is that? That’s good ol’ Red Green ingenuity. Pass the duct tape!”

Hancock is funny and fun. She’s got her own 2007 Jeep Wrangler Sahara that she takes on the trails, testing and building her skills. “There are always some difficult and even embarrassing moments on the trails,” Hancock says. “But little by little, I improve. There are lots of moguls and rocks to climb and lots of vehicles jumping and falling on their sides and other fumbles.”

She is right. In any direction, I see a Dog Party driver trying something outrageous. In the center of the action is The Bowl, a valley with a man-made mud hole at the bottom. When it’s frozen over, the goal is to break through the ice. When it’s mud, the goal is to get through it without sinking. Right now, there is a Jeep up to its windows and a Suburban trying to tow it, spinning on the icy uphill of the bowl’s side. Everyone involved looks beside-themselves happy.

The spectators

This is what The Bowl is for—the spectators. Not everyone comes to wheel. Hundreds come to watch the antics and cheer and jeer. Pickups line the rim, backed up, tailgates down, lawn chairs out, kids, women, men of all ages, watching. There’s a concession stand nearby, the scent of elephant ears mixing with the burn of hot brake pads and exhaust. Besides The Bowl, spectators might check out the Drag Strip, or, as in my case, take a run down the track. It’s open to anyone. I climb into the pickup of Randy Stockfisch, 41, a lifelong friend. I want to try the Drag Strip. “Let’s!” I beg.

“My wife will kill me,” he says.

“Please, please, once!”

“Fine, but no pictures.” He heads to the strip, donning his orange 01 Dukes hat.

It’s simple. You get in line. Either line. The start line is officiated by passersby. We pull up next to a truck with two men and a dog inside. The driver revs his engine and bounces on his shocks for effect. Stockfisch follows suit. I snap a photo. The young man at the line sets down his beer and calls: “On your marks … get-set … Go!” And he drops his arms to let us fly by. I hear the mud kick up underneath on all four tires, and we are in the lead. When we reach the far side of the finish line first, the cab of Randy’s truck can hardly hold the celebration in. Without hesitation, we turn around to try it again.

This article and additional photos are also available in the January issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Order yours today!

Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowski