Taking the road less traveled | VailDaily.com

Taking the road less traveled

Nate Peterson
Bret Hartman/ Vail DailyJohn Stevenson, of Lakota Guides, drives down a rock trail Tuesday near Holy Cross City.

Rumbling up Highway 24 Tuesday afternoon, the thunder of the turbo-diesel V8 and the roar of the wind drowns out a short conversation John Stevenson is having on his cell phone.There is a question hanging in the air. Stevenson gets his answer, then slaps the phone shut and turns back to the elevated two-person bench in the middle of the open-air Hummer H1 with a mischievous smile on his face.”Well, we’ve got permission from the boss to get airborne,” he says.He faces back around and presses down a little harder on the gas pedal, grinding up Tennessee Pass to the Holy Cross wilderness area. Rows of brown and green trees lining the valley zip by out the window, blending with the ominous gray clouds overhead to form a vivid High Country canvas. It’s a beautiful view on a crisp Colorado afternoon. As Stevenson looks ahead out the front window, he talks about why he decided on a whim to pick up and leave Austin, Texas, less than a month ago to move to Eagle County. A standing offer to lead Hummer tours for local rafting outfit Lakota Guides this summer was too good of an opportunity to turn down.”Some new buddies of mine Les and Leslie Mashburn bought this company,” he says. “Another friend of mine asked me to come up here and visit them one time. I loved the mountains. I loved Vail and the whole Vail Valley. The people are great and it’s so beautiful. It’s God’s country. When they asked me to do it, it was like, ‘Why not?'” Stevenson admits he is still getting to know the area’s myriad four-wheel drive roads. And, since this isn’t a formal trip – just a foray out in the Humvee for a good story – what better way to get to know some more backroads than by doing a little exploring?”I love getting lost,” he says. “That’s part of the fun.”Why not?Stevenson is 37 years old, but he doesn’t look it. Maybe it’s the boyish looking face, or the full head of soft brown hair. It might be the grin – a smile that underlines a spirit for adventure and the outdoors, not the doldrums of middle age.Whatever it is, if a carnival seer tried to guess his age, Stevenson would easily win the stuffed animal.As he talks about his new summer job in his east Texas accent, it’s easy to see why he left a successful 12-year real estate career behind in the Lone Star state to make the move to Colorado. In his mid 20s, he backpacked around Europe for a year with his only plan being to seek out new adventures and meet new people. The opportunity to drive a different group of people everyday on one of the numerous offroad adventures offered by his employer brings him back to those memories.”It’s like going through the Bordeaux region in France,” he says. “You just go to get lost and hit all the wineries and wonder what you’re going to hit next. This job, it’s exciting that way. I like to see people smile. Doing this, it happens.”He continues, “This really isn’t a job to me. I don’t look at it like it’s a job. It’s fun and adventurous.”

As the Hummer chews up the dirt road heading toward Homestake Reservoir, a doe steps out into the middle of the road up ahead, then darts back into the forest. Stevenson says taking clients back to the Castle Peak wilderness area near Wolcott is one of his favorite trips because wildlife abounds there. “We drive back for about an hour to this pond back there and see a couple beavers and a few porcupine,” he says. “You ever see a porcupine? They’re big and fat. I haven’t seen my first bear yet, but I’m looking forward to that.”Stevenson is in awe of the beautiful Colorado wilderness and its inhabitants, having spent most of his life in Texas. He says his favorite clients are little children of families because they share in his excitement.”The kids are in awe,” he says. “The parents are loving that the kids are in awe, so that puts the parents in awe that they’re not babysitting and they can just enjoy the scenery.”While the colorful sightseeing is a vital part of the tour, Stevenson says, the principle appeal of a Hummer outing is the excitement of it. The rugged trails that lead to some of the valley’s pristine wilderness aren’t welcoming inways.There isn’t much, though, Stevenson says that the 6-ton H1 – the world’s most capable offroad vehicle – can’t handle.”It’s pretty tough to get one of these things stuck,” he says. “It’s too heavy to roll it. You just have to know your limits, bottom line. It’s my friend’s vehicle, so I’m going to take care of it. You don’t want to get stuck somewhere where there is no way of turning around.”Stevenson shows off what the Hummer is capable of on the road up to Holy Cross City, a winding broken trail littered with huge rocks and creased by pools of rain water. While crossing one particularly rough section, he puts the Hummer up on two wheels with the right front wheel sitting idle more than two feet off the ground.He also blasts through a standing pool of water that is a little more than a foot deep – a small lake to a regular SUV, but a teensy puddle to the Hummer. He never does get the entire H1 in the air itself, but Lord knows he could if he wanted.”I usually ask people what they are looking for before we head out,” he says. “Some people can’t handle some of the really rugged stuff. You just try and give them what they want. I like to go up really hairy stuff, but that’s just me.”

Starting in the 80s, H1s or “Humvees” began being mass produced for the United States military to transport soldiers and supplies through treacherous terrain.When asked jokingly where the machine gun is on the red H1 that he is driving, Stevenson comes back with, “We only brought one missile today.”Stevenson also has a response for Hummer haters – those who identify the massive vehicles as the most blatant example of disregard for the environment by American auto manufacturers and car buyers.”I’m very environmentally conscious,” he says. “I always stay on the marked roads when I’m driving back in the wilderness because I respect the environment. Period.”And what about fuel efficiency? Environmentalists single out the Hummer as the poster child for America’s love of big, fuel-inefficient cars and its increasing dependence on foreign oil to keep the tanks full.”I understand where you’re coming from Mr. and Mrs. Hummer Hater,” Stevenson says. “I’m waiting for the hybrid Hummer to come out, so I don’t have to spend so much money on gas. Truthfully though, I’m able to fit 11 people in a Hummer. Sure, it is a lot of gas, but let’s say for example that’s two families. They’d have to go and get three Jeeps to do what this one Hummer does. That’s not to mention that it’s three times the wear and tear on the trail and probably more gas. Really, it’s doing a nature a favor.”It’s a pretty confident answer. When he is asked something more personal, however, like what his plans are for after the summer, Stevenson wavers a little. He might get into the real estate market here in the county, which he says is “a really hot market.” The house he lives in Edwards is one that he says he could turn around to make a profit. He might head somewhere else in Colorado. Why not? When he was in his college years in Texas, Stevenson bounced around between three schools and also studied abroad in Spain for a while. It’s apparent he likes navigating life’s roads the same way he likes navigating new trails in the H1 – finding adventure in the unfamiliar and unknown. There’s no fun in having everything laid out beforehand.”This is cool right now,” he says. “It’s just kind of interesting how I picked up and I’m here. I just love the mountains, period. I really enjoy meeting new people and making new friends. I’m already on cloud nine here. I’ve never been here in the summer, just the winter, and the summers are awesome. So, I’d think I’d really like to stay here and see what happens.”Do you have a cool outdoor summer job? Do you know someone who does and would like to see them profiled in this series? Contact Nate Peterson at 949-0555, ext. 608, or via e-mail at npeterson@vaildaily.com.Vail, Colorado

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