Off-road driving instructor takes care of clients, environment with program
Managing a “butt-scratcher” without “boiling the balonies” might come naturally to some novice four-wheelers, but most are just spinning their wheels without a little coaching from an expert, high-country driver.
Recognizing trail obstacles and finding a path around them is a skill that normally develops after hours of trial and error, but it can be taught.
Preserving your life and flaunting your skills are two perfectly good reasons to learn how to properly drive a four-wheel-drive vehicle, but for Bill Burke, using proper technique to tour the high deserts and mountains is the best way to conserve public lands and ensure his way of life continues.
“I always talk about tread lightly and leave no trace. It’s about camping in appropriate spots, paying attention to the land and being able to pass it on to our children’s children’s children. I’ve always had the opinion that if the roads are there and we take care of them, then my business will succeed year after year after year and we can go back and visit those places.”
Burke owns and operates 4-Wheeling America, a school for people who drive four-wheel-drive vehicles.
For 4x4 beginners, 48 hours under the watchful eyes of the globe-trotting outdoorsman could mean the difference between a thrill ride at timberline or rolling down the mountain.
For nearly 28 years, Burke, 61, has trained baby four-wheelers across the U.S., in Europe and South America, helping them avoid body damage like a cracked chassis or cracked ribs.
Randolph Hauts, who graduated Burke’s training in 2009, learned a style of driving that he uses years later — slowly and carefully.
“His approach is, you stay on the trails and do as little damage as possible,” Hauts said. “Sometimes, you have to grind but he teaches a really low-impact driving style that’s best for most situations short of a mud bog.”
Hauts traded his Chevy for a Jeep not long after taking Burke’s class.
“His style is one of ... not making it difficult for the next vehicle behind you.” Hauts said. “He’s just one of these guys who has the serious knowledge and experience, but he’s not a head case about it. He doesn’t demand fealty to his guru status.”
Burke and his wife and business partner, Rachel Budman, both of Grand Junction, turned their passion for the outdoors into a successful business that has them teaching four-wheel driving skills on public lands, including national forests, national parks and some of the most rugged territory the Bureau of Land Management has to offer.
A former International Harvester truck mechanic, Burke held down many jobs when he was younger, but decided to launch the business, the first of its kind at the time, in 1986.
“I always wanted to be an outdoor educator,” Burke said. “I (was) using a vehicle to get to the climbing and backpacking that I loved to do. People realized that I had skills and said to me, ‘Why don’t you teach something like this because people are messing up out there?’”
Burke and Budman decided to take the plunge as entrepreneurs and took the state’s Leading Edge small business training to prepare for the journey.
“That helped us get focused on delivering our message and making sure that we run it as a business so that we pay ourselves some kind of money at the end of the year and live off of it,” Burke said. “And we learned that the personal service aspect of our business is very important. Customer service, risk management and ultimate client safety is the key to our success.”
Burke gives a lot of credit to Budman for the longevity of their business.
“Fortunately, she’s been my partner for all these years and she’s supported me, so that makes life easy. When we’ve had the downsides, we’ve kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Well, this is self-employment’,” he said with a chuckle.
Managing the 20 permits he needs to use state and federal lands for classes and tours is Burke’s least favorite part of the business.
Each state charges a different fee. In Colorado, the charge is 3 percent of the gross take. In California, the charge is 10 percent, he said.
Burke must report to the proper authorities how many vehicles participate in each event he hosts and for how many days.
Each course includes handouts, technical discussions, hands-on skill building with several scenario teaching moments and plenty of seat time on the trail.
His favorite part is watching his students enjoy the outdoors experience.
“I get to take people out and see the smiles on their face when they get out of their home environment, out of their offices, out of their comfort zones and see the stars and the moon and the bunny rabbits,” Burke said.
“Initially, it was an education company. We wanted to teach people how to drive their vehicle safely and how to take care of the environment,” he said.
“The tours (started after) people took the classes and said, ‘OK, now what do we do?’ Well, let’s take them camping or on day trips and now that’s a big part of our business, too.”
Classes are usually two days in duration and teach drivers all the skills they need to find a path through, over or around high mountain obstacles on many of the state’s non-maintained roads.
A class earlier this month taught recovery skills, like how to use a car jack, winch or strap to get out of a jam.
Safety is paramount, but part of the fun of four-wheeling is the thrill of risk.
“I’m monitoring constantly,” Burke said. “I do it in a way so (students) do have risk because that’s what it’s all about — that’s part of the fun. We take them to the limits. Then, if I see something going on, it’s easy for me to stop it.”
Protecting the environment is also high on the syllabus for Burke’s class.
“The key factor is to go out there with a heart that says, ‘I’m responsible for my actions in wild lands’,” he said.