The idea sprung, as so many great ones do, from the Dukes of Hazzard. How many times have the Duke boys evaded Rosco or made it back to the farm just in time to beat the foreclosure guy? Many. And how do they do that, other than by driving fast and jumping over barns? Exactly – they take shortcuts. The Dukes are masters of driving off into the woods, blasting down a suspiciously well-graded trail, and then slewing back onto the main road, having cut critical minutes off their journey.
Is it possible, I wondered, to use that strategy in the real world? In all the millions of miles of asphalt in this country, is there anyplace left where the quickest point-to-point route would be the path unpaved? I find my potential answer on a map of Colorado, a state bisected by 14,000-foot mountain peaks. For instance, there is no paved road that runs directly from Telluride to Lake City, because the terrain between those two towns-about 50 miles distant-includes 13,509-foot Telluride Peak, as well as Darley Mountain (13,260 feet), Engineer Pass, Palmetto Gulch, and countless other remote locales where you’d expect to see mountain goats idly gnawing on the bones of ill-fated prospectors. According to MapQuest, it’s a 166-mile drive between Telluride and Lake City, as the pavement takes the long way around all that daunting topography. However, my trusty Colorado recreation map says there’s another way: up and over, via seasonal four-by-four trails. As the crow flies, more or less. So if a car averaged about 50 mph and an off-roader averaged about 15 mph, we might have a photo finish on our hands. And maybe, just maybe, we’d find that there’s still a place in the U.S.A. where a low-range transfer case and big, knobby tires are more than a sad affectation for highway-bound suburban commuters. And, to be frank, I want to go bash around in the boonies with a jacked-up truck before somebody decides that that sort of thing is really so much fun that it should be illegal.
Next question: Which vehicles? For the four-by-four, we settle on the new HUMMER H3T Alpha. Before you begin formulating your anti-Hummer letter to the editor, allow me to remind you that the object of this exercise is to traverse 50 miles of rugged mountain trails without getting stuck, breaking down, or puncturing a tire, all while driving as fast as possible. And the H3T Alpha has available 33-inch off-road tires, underbody skid plates as thick as manhole covers, and locking differentials front and rear. Also, the Alpha packs a 300-hp V-8, which means that the H3 finally has something in common with hundreds of thousands of other trucks and SUVs that somehow don’t incite the same radical-conservationist urge to firebomb dealerships.
For the H3T’s nemesis in this challenge, we choose none other than the Nissan GT-R, our new Automobile of the Year and quite arguably also the titleholder for the crown of “fastest car on any given road in any given condition.” If a BMW is the ultimate driving machine, the GT-R is the ultimate passing machine. No passing zone is too short, no line of dawdlers too long, for the GT-R to dispatch with violent malice. In the case of the H3T, you could say it’s picking a fight with the meanest guy in the prison yard. That’s how you cement your rep.
West Coast editor Jason Cammisa selflessly volunteers to pilot the GT-R in this grand showdown, and we meet a day early in Telluride to take stock of both the trails and the area’s roads. On the trail up out of Telluride, heading toward Imogene Pass, it’s immediately clear that the Hummer will be able to make good time, as the path isn’t too rough in most places. What it is, occasionally, is narrow. On the way back down, we encounter a Jeep coming up the mountain, and I squeeze over as close as I can get to the cliff wall. The Wrangler, meanwhile, is essentially treading on the edge of the clouds. This doesn’t perturb the driver, who stops to chat and ask how my day is going, but it’s evidently more nerve-racking for his passenger, who is peering out the window at nothing but sky. “Did you see the woman in the passenger seat?” Jason asks after I drive away. I reply in the negative. “Well,” he says, “she was crying.”
In my favor, the paved roads in this area have their own challenges, and after a recon drive in the Hummer, I have abrasions on both elbows, from bracing myself against the center console and the door panel on the constant switchbacks of the San Juan Mountains. If averaging 50 mph sounds easy, try doing it when you’ve got 25-mph hairpins, an endless parade of logging trucks, and no passing zones for miles. What’s more, the high altitude seems to have afflicted the GT-R with a massive case of turbo lag, such that the Hummer is now actually quicker than the GT-R off the line-at least until the dual turbos whip the thin air into usable boost. It’s a small advantage, but against Godzilla, I’ll take what I can get.
The next morning, I stop at the San Miguel Country Store-which rents Wranglers to tourists-to get a little advice about my route. The guy behind the counter suggests that I take Engineer Pass out of Ouray, rather than the seemingly more direct Black Bear Pass. “If you go on Black Bear, bring a spare pair of shorts,” he says. “And a body bag. People die up there.” You know, I think Engineer Pass will work just fine.
Jason and I fill our respective gas tanks and meet at the trailhead at the top of town. I edge the Hummer’s tires onto the dirt, Jason backs up the GT-R to the edge of the pavement, and after a quick countdown we’re away, the H3T’s V-8 bellow commingling with the rapidly fading scream of the Nissan’s high-strung V-6.
For the first couple miles, I’m confident bordering on overconfident. Jason has a lot of ground to cover, and I’m going as fast as 40 mph, bombing along what’s essentially a rough dirt road. I’m gonna Baja 1000 this sucker and beat him by a mile. So when photographer Brian Konoske, riding shotgun, asks to jump out to take a photo, I say, “No problem.”
Soon, though, the trail narrows, and it becomes clear that there’s a contingency I hadn’t expected. Although I assumed Jason would have to deal with plenty of rolling roadblocks en route to Lake City, it hadn’t occurred to me that I’d encounter traffic on the trail. Besides the ubiquitous Jeeps and ATVs, my path becomes clogged with bikers, hikers, walkers, sightseers, joggers, meanderers, and general human speed bumps. And you can’t just blow past them in a cloud of dust, because this is Colorado and people have guns. So, for example, when we encounter two women walking up the trail ahead of us, I have to wait patiently for them to acknowledge my presence and step off to the side. As I pass, one of them leans toward my open window and calls out, “Hey!” I slow to a crawl and prepare for a fusillade of abuse, since I came up behind them at about the speed of the landslide that I was probably causing in my wake. But she edges a bit closer, peers into the interior, and says, “We like your truck.” Well, that wasn’t what I expected. But perhaps a Hummer in its element draws a different critical eye than one crowding into a parking space at Ikea.
At mile 4.7, we encounter a sign: “Recommended-high clearance, four-wheel drive, short wheelbase.” Ummm . . . define “short wheelbase.” Because we’ve definitely got a shorter wheelbase than a lot of things, like a crew-cab Ford F-150 or those fire trucks with a separate steering wheel on the back. But within an hour, we’re up over the 13,114-foot Imogene Pass and heading back down toward Ouray. There’s been nothing so far that would threaten the Hummer with getting stuck, but we have affirmed that off-roading, like brain surgery and tantric canoodling, is an activity best approached at a leisurely pace. The way I’m driving, we won’t get stuck, but we might well suffer concussions from bouncing our heads off the roof.
We roar down into Ouray and, after a strangely soothing mile or two on the pavement, cut back onto a trail called the Alpine Loop for the second leg of the trip. We’re a couple hours in, and I wonder how Jason is faring. I imagine him stuck behind a wedding procession in some Podunk town, banging his fists on the steering wheel and wondering why he ever got on the wrong side of a Duke boys shortcut scenario.
As we wend our way up to Engineer Pass, my phone rings. It’s Jason. Probably calling to forfeit because he’s so far behind. I gleefully answer, “Wanna give up?” “No,” he answers serenely. “I’m there.” No. This cannot be true. He cannot have covered 160-something miles on insane mountain roads this quickly. I ask how fast he went. “Well, I probably averaged seventy,” he replies. This scarcely seems credible, given the dastardly roads around Telluride. “Once you’re away from Telluride, the road opens up a lot,” Jason explains. “I probably passed 150 cars. There were places to pass everywhere.”
If the first stage of grief is denial, the second is anger (maybe anger is supposed to come later, but for me it comes second). “You and your damn photos!” I yell at Brian. “I never should have let you stop to take photos. Stupid!” I grab his camera and scroll through the day’s shots. “One hundred thirty-six photos. I declare this competition null and void on the grounds of photographic interference.” Brian pleads some nonsense about just doing his job, but we’re high up in the wilderness and we just lost and I don’t want to hear it. Boss Hogg got to the farm first and now Uncle Jesse’s gonna be foreclosed on, and-did he say 150 cars? Little did I know that I sent Jason and the GT-R out on the frickin’ Coloradobahn.
We meet at a gas station in Lake City a mere, oh, two hours later. Jason is talking to an old-timer wearing a cowboy hat, explaining our ill-matched showdown. I say that I’ve just come from Telluride via Ouray while barely touching pavement the whole way, and he replies, “I reckon that if you two had started in Ouray instead of Telluride, you’d have got here right about the same time.” Well, thanks for the advice.
I pull to the opposite side of the pumps and begin filling the H3T alongside the GT-R. My pump stops at 6.5 gallons, but Jason’s keeps running until it clicks off at 9.7 gallons. So there is an upshot to my performance, after all. “You may have gotten here first,” I tell Jason, “but if you cared about the environment, you’d have driven a Hummer.”