Gieger's Culture Counter: When four wheels beats two legs

I’ve never been a car guy. However, it’s hard to deny the thrill of recreating a Jeep commercial by blasting Cat Stevens while driving over Stony Pass towards Silverton.

If I were browsing a bookstore or library, you wouldn’t see me flipping through the glassy pages of a car magazine. Giant posters of cars aren’t found in my bedroom. I played with Hot Wheels as a kid but I only cared about which one flew the farthest, not their make or model. I’ll never invite you over to watch NASCAR or the Indy 500.

I just didn’t understand the fuss over fast moving hunks of metal. I waited as long as possible to get my license because I never saw what was fun about a simple means of transportation.

That changed when a friend showed me an episode of “Top Gear” in college.  The specific episode of the BBC show focused on the three hosts travelling on the Yungas Road in Bolivia, one of the most dangerous roads in the world. Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May weaved iconic British deadpan humor with gorgeous cinematography and informative commentary.

I became a fan from that moment on, watching almost every episode—some multiple times.

They’ve raced a Toyota Hilux against sled dogs to the North Pole. In another episode they drive the same indestructible Hilux in a volcano. The trio built amphibious cars to traverse a two-mile-wide reservoir and the outcome was a hilarious failure. In Vietnam May wore a colander on his head for a helmet while driving a scooter in the rain.

Part Monty Python, part talk show and part review show, the program makes it easy for the general public to get excited about the automotive industry. It didn’t turn me into a gear head 100 percent, but I can appreciate the craft and culture more because of it.

My appreciation only grew when I witnessed wild driving feats firsthand. Shortly after my dad acquired a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon in 2011, the two of us made an excursion to a quarry with friends. There we learned what it means to spot—guide a vehicle from the outside—the driver over and around obstacles like boulders and ledges.

I was speechless as our wheels straddled rocks and pivoted at seemingly impossible angles. Others rode over stones like they were pillows.

The off-roading bug, along with peer pressure from his friends Steve and Eric, convinced my father to modify the Jeep so it could handle more adventurous challenges.

In 2014 we made the pilgrimage to Moab, Utah, and witnessed why thousands of trucks, Jeeps, Razors and other all terrain vehicles line the streets every season. Instead of doing a double take at a truck with 39-inch tires, the stranger sights were sedans and minivans.

Conquering trails with the names like Poison Spider, Steel Bender and Hell’s Revenge over the years gets the adrenaline pumping while watching the stars shine between orange arches calms the nerves.

Another part of the entertainment is derived from watching folks attempt obstacles like ridiculously steep basins—called bathtubs—that you’ll never try. Why? Because it’s better to winch a vehicle that slid 50 feet on its side than to be winched.

The Jeep has to be drivable back to the Valley. Busted Razors and ATVs can be stowed on trailers.

Though I’ve summited 12 14,000-foot mountains, I’ve yet to attempt Blanca. It wasn’t until a group of us used rubber wheels to climb and crawl beyond Lake Como last summer that I witnessed a view from a majestic mountain that’s usually in my view.

Not only is it more enjoyable to do these sort of activities in a group, but it’s a lot safer as well. The more experienced drivers can ferry the Jeep across deadly obstacles that the majority of us are fine with never attempting. I don’t know how I want my life to end, but I can tell you that tumbling off of Jaws II is not what I have planned.

Driving unmaintained backcountry roads might as well be freshly paved highways compared to that trail.

Another frequent trip, and one of the few we do without spotting due to relative easiness, is Medano Pass at Great Sand Dunes National Park. The proximity and unique terrain make it a fantastic practice run. Just a month ago I took control of the Jeep’s wheel for the first time off-road and felt what it was like to drive on sand rather than macadam.

Containing only a few stream crossings and no narrow, hair-raising sections, the road to Silverton was easier than Moab and Blanca yet also not a Sunday drive. Tracing the same trail used by miners more than a century earlier, I was thankful for modern amenities to take our caravan to the 12,592-foot summit in a handful of leisurely hours.

I’m still not much of a car guy, but I’m a lot more enthusiastic about them than I used to be.