So who could get any luckier than myself? Born in 1937, I missed the worst of the 1930s Great Depression, although growing up as a kid in the 1940s wasn’t a picnic by any means. At least in the 1940s there were a few area mines operating to provide minerals and jobs needed for the war effort which was more than could be said for the 1930s. In the 1930s, prior to the war-to-end-all-wars, Telluride was deathbed city and expiring fast. Although some pure luck was involved – that’s fodder for another column – it’s fair to say that World War II saved Telluride’s economic butt until 1969, when Joe Zoline’s ski area dream took the town in yet another face-saving direction, particularly since Idarado Mining Co., the area’s last remaining mining operation, closed for good in 1978.
I graduated from Telluride High School in 1955 and therefore missed World War II due to youth. For various reasons I also missed the Korean and Vietnam wars that followed. The decade of the 1950s has been labeled “the fabulous fifties.” Even though I very rarely touch the rotgut stuff, I’ll drink a toast to that.
The 1950s certainly treated me well. I guess one of my minor regrets in life is that I wasn’t born 10 years earlier so that I could have taken full advantage of the earliest jeeping in the Telluride region, but then, nobody ever claimed that life was perfect – or that jeep-oriented recreation be mandatory. The prime jeeping period lasted for 25 years, ending with the inception of the ski area in 1970.
The jeep, and all the various hybrids that followed, created a 4WD recreational Shangri-la. That hasn’t totally disappeared, but it has certainly been reduced by a factor of at least 95 percent. Yes, 95 percent, if you take into consideration that you used to be able to drive off-road anywhere you wanted and every jeep driver worth his salt and testosterone did just that. So what exists for jeeps (jeep being a synonym for the multitude of all the lavish 4WD vehicles today) to challenge nowadays in the immediate Telluride region? Only the “tourist trap” roads of Imogene Pass, Black Bear and Ophir Pass. That’s it, thankfully. Given the population of the region now and the fact that 4WD vehicles are the rule rather than the exception they used to be, if four-wheeling was as allowable everywhere as it was back in the “good old days,” half the country around here would be as decimated as if it were populated by prairie rats (dogs).
When the Willys Motor Company introduced the jeep to recreational America at the end of World War II, it was the best 4WD going simply because it was the only one available, except for the extremely rare jeep-like vehicle made by Ford. Others soon followed, such as the International Harvester Scout, the British Land Rover, the Toyota Land Cruiser, the Nissan Patrol and the Ford Bronco.
I guess because I grew up with one, I was always partial to the jeep, and I’ve owned a lot of various models through the years. I also owned a Nissan Patrol, an original Ford Bronco and a Bronco II before I gave up true jeep-type vehicles completely and settled into the comfort of an all-purpose 4WD SUV. My favorite jeep vehicle of all time for the down-and-dirty stuff was a 1966 V-6 engine jeep equipped with a power take-off winch. Man, that horsepower endowed marvel could perform wonders that made the older four-banger jeeps hang their heads in shame.
I mention that in times immemorial, jeeping in the region was uninhibited. That meant going myriad places totally off-road. Swampy areas and springtime snowmelt softness were hazards virtually all jeep explorers had to contend with. Being as light as they were, this gave jeeps a huge advantage. They would go through a swamp that the heavier vehicles would bog down in. Plus, when one of those heavy-framed, rock-solid leviathans bogged down, you were stuck big-time. Getting out took about twice the effort that it took to get a jeep out.
When it came to deep snow, however, the advantage flip-flopped; those heavy 4,000-pound vehicles could buck through half again as much as a jeep. I noticed that, as a rule of thumb, those early jeeps could only handle about 18 inches of fresh snow on the level without tire chains on. I’ll bet some of the extreme high-lift, locker-equipped (all-four wheels pulling simultaneously) vehicles now customized will probably buck three feet of newly fallen snow before it settles. Fifty years ago I would have killed to have a vehicle to do that with – providing I foolishly didn’t put the vehicle in a situation to do just that to me first.
I figure any bet on the latter probably would have to be rated a push.