Jeep wave creates ‘extended family’: How a secret bond formed between Jeep SUV owners

This 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.

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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.

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.

This 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.

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.

Ducking Jeeps

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.

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.

So who are these Jeep people?

Detroit Jeep city

Ever since Anniece Jamison was a little girl, waking up on Christmas morning and seeing a pink Barbie Jeep, she has wanted a Wrangler.

“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, is orange, and that’s how she found her name.

“Orange Crush, like the drink, like the pop,” Jamison said.

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.

Jamison 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 there’s a lot of Jeeps,” Jamison said, describing how she started looking for an all-women Jeep group, finding some around the state 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.

“When I first started, I was like, this is something that us women, that we can do together. Now it’s pretty much like a sisterhood,” she said.

A baby named Stevie

Melissa Dinkins picked up her baby 13 years ago.

Dinkins, 43, 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.

This Jeep fixation is a kind of addiction, but Dinkins loves it.

“There’s no other vehicle that you can take the top and the doors off and just drive,” she 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.

Dinkins loves her Jeep family, too. Her women-only club, Michigan Jeep Ladies, has about 1,500 members on Facebook.

“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,” Dinkins said.

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 University.

“Out of this side road comes a brand new CJ5 and it’s bright purple, and it’s got racing stripes on the hood, and it’s got these big wheels on it and says ‘Jeep Renegade’ on the side,” Foster said.

Foster spent more time than most contemplating the meaning of Jeep and its attraction as an American brand — even 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.

Jeeping in paradise

Mike 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 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. He 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.

Hardin 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.

“Jeep is by far the best off-roading vehicle that you could have ... it’s just the pure ability of what Jeeps can do,” Hardin said.

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 Siberian husky named Jake, a couple of weeks ago, after 13½ years of being together.

That connection, dogs and Jeeps, tends to be a big part of the Jeep Life ethos. Jeepers in mourning and solidarity.

For Catherine Fanaro, an event last May made a deep impression.

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.

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,” 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 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,” she said.

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.

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 legendary 98-year-old comedian, actress and TV pioneer.

“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,” said Fanaro, who lives in Evergreen, about 45 minutes from Denver.

Deep in the heart of Jeep country

For 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, the trip to the Speedway meant Jeeps riding two or three wide, rolling at 60 mph.

“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,” said Kistner, 52, who lives in Longview, Texas, and runs the popular Bah Bah Black Jeep Facebook page.

“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,” 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.

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.

“We’re pretty obsessed if you will, in a mild sense,” he said.

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