MOAB — Alan Jackson is on the radio; his faithful dog, "Tuff," is asleep next to a grease rack; and Rick Sparks is enjoying the calm before the storm he's absolutely certain is coming, no matter what the weather amounts to during the next nine days.

It's Friday afternoon, mere hours before the annual Moab Easter Jeep Safari officially begins. For 40 years now, since 1967, the Safari has been as inevitable around here as the spring runoff. Jeeps and other four-by-fours by the hundreds trek to the red rocks and the desert. For a full week and two full weekends, they spread out in all directions to conquer the wilderness, climbing through washes and canyons and crevices and huge rock walls and anywhere else that will let them through.

Sometimes they don't make it. Usually it's because something's busted.

That's where Rick Sparks comes in.

Rick owns Moab Offroad 4X4, a repair shop on the south end of town.

The sign in front of Rick's airplane hangar-size mechanic bay reads: "If we can't fix it, we'll find someone who can."

Other than during Jeep Safari, that is.

During Jeep Safari, just like at every other repair shop in town, Rick is busier than the proverbial one-armed paperhanger. He doesn't have time to find someone else. He barely finds time to sleep. He doesn't "go" home from work, he "sneaks" home. People hang around him like he's a rock star.

"Me, popular?" deadpans Rick. "During Safari, yeah, I can say that. There's been times when I've had 15 people just standing in line to talk to me."

The reason, of course, is that even though off-roaders don't try to break things when they go off road, when they do it isn't exactly news.

"Most of the breakage comes as a result of people with heavy right feet," says Rick, himself an off-road aficionado. "They think power's the game, and power's the problem."

Day-in, day-out during Safari, the heavy right-footers beat a steady path to Rick's shop. As the crescendo builds to Big Saturday — the day before Easter when Safari hits its traditional peak and Moab is wall-to-wall Jeep Wranglers (that's this coming Saturday) — Rick's shop turns into a giant hurdle to get past, not unlike the famous routes up Lion's Back or Hell's Revenge.

"We do as much business in two weeks as four or five normal months," says Rick, who opened his shop 17 years ago and has seen Safari crowds increase every year since. "We turn away at least as much as we can handle."

And that's with double the mechanics on board.

"Safari is no fun, not for us; it's work," says Rick. "I dread the week. I dread facing the people more than anything. I know they're only down here for a day or two, and they want it fixed right now. They don't want to wait for their vehicle to be in service. But it's physically impossible to do everything everyone wants done."

There is, however, the upside: Moab Offroad 4x4 makes as much money in two weeks as it does normally in 4-5 months.

"True," says Rick. "I just wish they could spread it out a little more."

He says he refuses to raise his prices even though he could. He won't even take a bribe from those who offer him a little extra to jump the queue.

"I deal with a lot of these people year in and year out," he says in explanation. "Besides, it wouldn't seem right."

"There was this guy with a Hummer a couple of years ago," he says. "He needed a U joint in a drive shaft, about a $20 labor-plus-parts job. No big deal. He offered $200 then and there if we'd fix it first."

And?

"My mechanic said 'yes,' " says Rick. "I'd have said 'no,' but I was so busy I didn't even know about it."

"My philosophy is to take care of people as they come in," says Rick. "And to get as many in and out as fast as we can."

He sighs the sigh of someone who knows what's coming and is powerless to stop it.

"I guess we're like H&R Block during tax time," he shrugs. "To be honest with you, I'll be glad when it's over."


Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.