Heavy tread

Teeth clenched, forearms vibrating wildly and motors thrumming between their legs, all three riders wore faces pained with terror. Mounted atop matching four-wheelers aptly named “Warrior,” the family unit had just passed treeline and was continuing to make steady progress up into the San Juan Mountains. A steep slope dotted with wildflowers set the backdrop on their right. The earth fell away a thousand feet on the left.

Junior seemed slightly less frightened than Ma and Pa, but he was also sitting squarely on his dad’s Rustler Jeans and close to the snack bag and the Pepsi. There was no concealing ma’s concern. Straddling her camo-colored, oversized beast of burden, the woman’s hand cautiously twisted the throttle. Her body was a portrait of tension, voice shaking when it finally sounded amid the growl of the motors.

“Hon!” she called out, just as her four-wheeler spit a large rock off the trail and down into the yawning abyss. “Honey! Listen! I gotta say sumthin’. I ain’t too sure about this anymore ... I think, maybe, I wanna go back.”

Pa eased off on his throttle, and a near ATV pile-up materialized.

“Now, you listen!” Pa answered brusquely, also clearly gripped by the experience. “We’re damn near there. We can’t turn around. And damn it, this is what we drove all that way for.”

By chance, Pa took notice of me and my mountain bike at that moment, as I casually watched the melee from a favorite rock and an excellent vista. Turning red with embarrassment, his voice dropped a dozen octaves, “Dang, Lara. Can you pipe down? Someone’s even watching all this.” The man turned his attention back to his machine and gunned the Yamaha, raging up the remaining 75 feet of two-track to position near my rock and the end of his trail.

I secretly expected – no, hoped – that pa would be a good husband, honor his wife’s discomfort, turn around and burn back into Durango for some variety of all-you-can-eat. Instead, it became my turn to wear the face pained with horror. Pa and Junior, followed closely by Ma, zipped beyond me and beyond an obvious brown sign. (You know the one. It has a clearly X-ed out ATV rider right on top of it.)

The three then rode off the double-track and straight onto the pristine piece of singletrack I had just ridden up. The X-ed out, ATV rider quivered as they advanced. Two left wheels inside the trail (one of our classics, I might note) and the other two on the adjoining hill, the pair of machines rolled on effortlessly. Grasses, dirt, pebbles and wildflowers issued from the errant wheels, and one of Durango’s singletracks rapidly moved into the realm of the double. To heap terror atop horror, the sound of the motors just kept going and going and going. A legendary trail was being unmade.

There’s no way, I thought. They can’t make it all the way. The trail is way too narrow. The consequences are too high. But the sound of the motors eventually faded into the distance. My vista soiled, I climbed back onto my carbo-powered steed and started to retrace my pedal strokes.

That’s the last straw, I told myself. This time I’m saying something. After all, the dust hasn’t faded for me anytime this summer. They just keep coming, riding from the farthest corners atop beasts with names like Banshee, Wolverine, Brute Force and Rhino. A cozy seat, full tank and twist of the throttle seem to be the only prerequisites for passing the entrance exam. I can practically hear the sales pitch. “My grandmother Irene’s been tearing up the Colorado Rockies on her Warrior for darn near a decade. Anybody can ride one of these babies.”

Unfortunately, once Irene’s had her fun and gone home, the damage remains. Anyone who’s left the Durango city limits has seen the handiwork of off-road vehicles. The mark doesn’t fade quickly. At the same time, our public lands managers seem powerless, short on enforcement and wielding limp rhetoric like “strongly discouraged.”

So on that fateful day, I gritted my teeth, loaded up my reprimand and headed back down the trail. But somehow I lost track of those two Warriors and their three occupants. Somewhere our tracks parted. Still, I did finally make a firm pledge at that moment.

Four-wheelers do have their place, and I’m not about to legislate anyone’s form of recreation. But off-road vehicles don’t belong on virgin meadows, inside rivers and streams, atop uncut desert or on alpine singletrack. And if we want our wild places to remain, someone is going to have to stand up. If the Banshees, Rhinos and Warriors aren’t going to hear it from our public lands managers, the rest of us will have to start raising our voices.

– Will Sands

In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows