CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The sport of tearing into trails in backwoods in trucks and all-terrain vehicles, known among enthusiasts as “muddin’,” is a part of life for many amateur daredevils who love to get dirty in rural West Virginia, just as it was for “BUCKWILD” cast member Shain Gandee.
It was a fitting pastime for the 21-year-old, one of the stars on a show that warned viewers not to mimic the “wild and crazy behavior” they witnessed – swearing, fighting, four-wheeling, even swimming in the bed of a dump truck-turned-swimming-pool.
He and two others were found dead inside an SUV Monday about a mile from Gandee’s Sissonville home. The Kanawha County Sheriff’s Department said Tuesday that autopsies confirmed they died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. The vehicle was stuck so deep in a mud pit that its tail pipe was submerged; it is possible the gas flooded the cabin because of the clogged exhaust.
In one episode, he describes four-wheeling as a stress-reliever: “This is my medication right here,” he says before getting stuck in a mud pit and blowing up his engine. And there was no place he enjoyed being more than behind the wheel in the woods, said Gandee’s cousin Ashley Gandee Lewis.
Just two days before he died, Gandee had gone mudding with people he met Saturday at the grand opening of her general store in Proctorville, Ohio.
“He said, ‘Let’s go!’ And they went,” Lewis said. “Mudding’s just taking your vehicle and finding the biggest mud holes you can get, and seeing how fast you can get through them. You can fish tail it sideways or get stuck.
“It’s just about having a good time. It’s just about making memories.”
Authorities said Gandee, his 48-year-old uncle, David Gandee, and 27-year-old Donald Robert Myers were last seen about 3 a.m. Sunday at a bar and they told people they were going driving off-road. The SUV was found by one of Shain Gandee’s friends next to a trail used by four-wheel drive vehicles, about 15 miles outside of Charleston.
The network has not said whether it was filming Gandee at the bar Sunday morning or after he left.
A four-wheeling charity event was being planned, with donations going to Gandee’s family for funeral costs.
Jim Humphrey, a salesman at Morgantown Power Sports, said mudding is just a part of the Mountain State’s history. People who live near lakes and oceans buy speedboats and personal watercraft. People who live near mountains and mud buy four-wheelers, he said.
“People around here just like to get muddy and have fun,” said Humphrey, whose dealership sells 40 to 50 all-terrain vehicles a month at an average price of about $6,500.
West Virginia has an abundance of designated riding trails, including the 600-mile Hatfield-McCoy Trails network, which lets tourists and local alike traverse seven West Virginia counties. Local officials say riders have come from as far as Alaska and Canada.
But Humphrey, who used to ride two or three times a week, said locals often prefer to forge their own paths.
“That’s part of it, just the adventure,” he said. “Just getting away from work or whatever.”
That thrill-seeking isn’t without risk. Statistics on off-road fatalities weren’t immediately available, but there were 588 ATV-related deaths reported from 1982-2011, the most recent statistics available from the state Division of Motor Vehicles. Of those, 144 occurred from 2008-2011.
People more commonly use ATVs, not trucks, Humphrey said.
“BUCKWILD” boasted millions of viewers during its first season and had already begun shooting season two, though it was not without detractors, including U.S. Sen. and former West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin. He asked MTV to cancel the show in September, telling the network’s president in a letter that the show profits off of “poor decisions of our youth” and that it plays to ugly, inaccurate stereotypes about the people of West Virginia.
“MTV didn’t make those kids do anything that those kids didn’t already do,” Lewis said. “It’s not like they forced anybody to do anything.”
Shooting for the second season of “BUCKWILD” has been suspended because of Gandee’s death, according to an MTV spokesman.
Manchin was asked about the show again Tuesday during an appearance in Charleston, but he held back any harsh words.
“It’s just awful for a young person, very bright and promising, to have this happen,” he said. “The series, that’s immaterial, it really is. This is all about family, it’s about losing a loved one at such a young age.”
Associated Press reporters Vicki Smith in Morgantown and Lawrence Messina in Charleston contributed to this story.