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“Off Road”

“Off road: Jeep touring company hits the remote trails ”
By: Megan Kamerick
New Mexico Business Weekly

Albuquerque, NM (August 2, 2007) – Business networking is a little different in Roch Hart’s world.

Most tourism industry folks meet at business mixers, lunches or other events. For Hart, it can mean using his Jeep’s winch to help a guy get his SUV out of the mud near Cabezon Peak.

Hart recently launched the company New Mexico Jeep Tours and is offering off-road Jeep tours from Albuquerque — one of the only companies offering such tours in the area. Jeep tours are common in other Southwest markets, and the idea began percolating when he went on similar tours in Arizona and Southern California.

“I thought ‘New Mexico is better than this,'” he says. “We have some of the most beautiful land in the country.”

A former Albuquerque policeman, Hart obtained a two-door Jeep about a year-and-a-half ago. He calls it “Precious” — in only a partly tongue-in-cheek tone — and hopes to get a four-door version as well.

He already faces the conundrum of many small business owners: How to grow the company while dealing with a limited capacity. Hart had to turn down a tour recently because his vehicle wasn’t big enough. He took out no loans to start the business and works out of his house. He’s also working on routes near Santa Fe.

Hart has spent hundreds of hours scouting possible trails, using Google Earth to find ruins, and getting permission form the Bureau of Land Management to visit specific sites around the Rio Puerco and Ojito Wilderness and the Jemez Mountains. (The BLM gets 3 percent of his gross proceeds from each tour.)

He also has invested time getting to know the people who live in these remote places, both Hispanic and American Indian, to build relationships so he can expand his routes to reach areas on private land.

Confrontation usually defines these first interactions, he says.

“They went from ‘Get the hell out of here’ to “Tell me why you’re here,” he says. “They’re so used to people trashing the land.”

Indeed, the first stop on a recent tours iwth Hart is a ruin of an old homestead full of old tires, shotgun shells, beer cans and other detritus. But other ruins he has found are pristine. He waxes poetic about a huge hand-hewed beam in a crumbling stone structure.

“Watch out for snakes,” he cautions as a visitor enters the former home.

Aside from a plump, striped lizard, no reptiles reveal themselves, but farther down the road he stops the Jeep to show his guests a coiled rattlesnake perfectly camouflaged and warily watching the visitors. Hart says he usually sees wild horses, and near the end of the tour, the antlers of elk outlined by the dying sunlight come into view.

The sun sinks lower and Cabezon Peak looms 2,000 feet above the road as Hart talks about the volcanic activity that formed the landscape. Below a bluff overlooking the Rio Puerco are five former homesteads, built perhaps as early as the 18th century, Hart says.

He explains how they were placed far enough apart t allow for ranching and farming, but close enough to protect one another from Indian raids. He contemplates what life was like in this isolated space a half day’s hike from Cabezon. That town was nearly abandoned but now has a new owner, he says, and is closed to visitors.

“It’s more than seeing sites or ruins,” Hart says as streaks of late afteroon sun occasionally appear from behind clouds and ropes of rain linger, seemingly suspended in time, over a volcanic peak. “It’s the feel of the space.”

Jackrabbits dart across the road in front of the Jeep as the sun sets. When a young man appears, it’s a jolt in this deserted place. He swats at the mosquitos that have begun swarming in the evening air. Hart’s police instincts kick in immediately, but after deciding the man poses no threat, Hart helps him extract his SUV.

Relatives arrive from Cabezon and offer profuse thanks. Hart is upbeat. He is hopeful that htis brief connection could lead to access into Cabezon later. Such relationships are key to operation, he says.

Hart went through the long process to get a license from the Public Regulation Commission as required by law. (He is waiting for final approval and has a temporary license.) But there are operators who don’t do that, he says, and undercut his prices. He charges $35 per person per hour, and the shortest tours are typically three-and-a-half hours.

“It was very difficult to start this business legally, but I’m determined to do it that way because, ultimately it leads to credibility,” he says.

Under state law, he must have a license, which requires insurance of $1 million, proper drivers’ licenses and annual vehicle inspections. Operators without such a license are subject to fines of up to $10,000 per day, as are third parties who knowingly use a motor carrier not authorized by the PRC, says John Arnold, spokesman for the commission.

Susan Kolb, co-owner of Lincoln County Tours in Ruidoso, started Jeep tours last summer and says they are extremely popular, but her company spent several years trying to get insurance.

“It’s been a big part of our business,” she says of the tours. “I hope he does well, but I feel his pain.”

Tania Armenta, vice president of tourism and communications with the Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau, says Hart is the only ACVB partner company offering these kinds of tours and the idea fits in well with the Destination Master Plan goal of promoting outdoor recreation here.

“It’s a tremendous way to showcase the natural landscpape that makes Albuquerque unique,” she says.