It went from twos to fours quickly, about the moment tires hit the dirt. Fours is what they were there for. Fours ruled . . . four-wheeling, that is. Four by fours. Four-wheelers lured here by the rocky back roads and a goal - the ultimate ride, a four-plus.

Jeeps, Blazers, Broncos, Cherokees, Toyotas, Mitsubishis and Nissans. Chevy, Ford and Dodge pickups, and family-size Suburbans. Even a brand new Mercedes Benz four-wheeler and a handful of mongrel models.They came to Moab for the 23rd annual Easter Jeep Safari, a week-long outing for four-wheel drivers looking for what one called the "best ride in the country . . . and the most scenic."

There were 865 vehicles with drive to all fours registered, nine times more than went on the first ride in 1967 and 119 more than were counted at last year's event.

They came, said Ron Brewer, president of the sponsoring Red Rock 4-Wheelers, from 20 different states and Canada. Four came from Alaska, but most from Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and California.

And they came with every imaginable make and model of four by four, from brand new wagons directly off the showroom floor to custom made jobs with car bodies and high-rise four-wheel frames and drive.

They drove on roads in the Moab area that ranged from the peaceful to the unnerving; easy to challenging.

The 21 guided runs were rated by four-wheeler guidelines, from a 2 to a high of 4-plus. The 2 runs were the scenic, bumpy-road type where drivers and passengers could, on occasion, lose themselves in the sandstone formations, red cliffs and sandy dunes. A 4-plus were those runs where four-wheel drive was mandatory, short-wheel base suggested, and extra help like "lockers," where front and rear tires are locked in independent drive, special suspension, performance engines, experience and deep concentration are necessary for climbing steep rock steps and boulder-littered roads.

And therein, admitted Ber Knight, one of the veteran trail leaders, is the biggest problems organizers face.

"Getting people sorted out to the right trails," he said. "Some drivers come in, think that because this is a once-a-year thing that they have to take the roughest, hardest, most exciting trail they can. I had one driver whose leg was shaking so badly on one hill he couldn't hold his foot on the gas. Then you get the macho-type driver that won't give up . . . no matter how hard it is on equipment.

"There's a knack to driving in this country. You have to know where to put the wheels, pick the right line and know when to hit it and when to back off. The difference between making it or not may be an inch or two . . . but there's nothing wrong in backing off. There's always next time and maybe a better line. It sure is nice when you do make it."

The Safari was started in 1967 by a group of local "Jeepers" looking for a way to lure people into town. There were fewer than a 100 vehicles on the first and one and only trail offered.

As the numbers grew, said Brewer, so did the options and the trails. This year there were 27 guided trail rides offered during the week, 21 on Saturday.

They ranged from:

- "Canyonlands Special," rated a 2, took vehicles into the beauty of Canyonlands National Park, past Pucker Pass, Dead Horse Point and Shafer Trail to the Island in the Sky District of the park.

- "Steel Bender," rated a 3-plus, took a loop east of town, stepping up over the benches and along high plateaus overlooking the rugged, often intimidating countryside. The route is rocky, tricky in spots, and definitely for four-wheelers. Alternate roads can be a test for both drivers and vehicles.

- "Behind the Rocks," the very first trail ride offered and with a few alternate routes rated a tough 4-plus, is considered the "big one," with such sections as "White Knuckle Hill," and "High-Dive Canyon" being more than most drivers and vehicles can handle, opting instead for easier routes after the two-runs-at-it limit.

And there lies part of the whole trail experience - the trying. The ways up a difficult trail are as different as drivers and vehicles. Some climb as comfortably as a Sunday walk through a park; some attack the road with engines racing and tires spinning, never putting all fours down long enough for traction.

It is here that the groups gather to watch, advise and applaud success . . . and quietly wonder how any vehicles is able to make the climb.

Few will argue, though, that this country was carved out for four-wheelers. There is no place better.

One long-time California four-wheeler said he's driven on most of the big rides, "but this is the best. You've got everything here."

And there is, from sandy roads as soft as cotton and as smooth as a table top, to slickrock routes more difficult than most four-wheel vehicles are capable of or drivers comfortable with.

Brewer said that numbers have been increasing from 75 to 100 vehicles per year, and he sees no change in the pattern.

"Not when people have such good things to say about the rides and they go home and tell friends . . . and the publicity," he said. "I've had a lot of people tell me they've been Jeepin' all over the country, but that they didn't know what true Jeepin' was until they came to Moab."

Moab is, as Safari goers discovered last week, four-wheel country.