Every now and again, the passengers push the bus. (Or at least they try to.)
Montezuma County resident and former Durangoan Dick Sandlin has had his share of memorable moments in the 25 years-plus he’s spent driving tour buses in the Southwest.
He regularly drives a route to the new private Spaceport America facility in Upham, N.M. During that ride, his CB-style microphone becomes a radio to space shuttle control as he talks riders through a space-launch fantasy scenario while the bus hurdles down a runway toward an imaginary space launch.
While that is a memory he spins for himself and his passengers, many more of Sandlin’s memories are courtesy of Mother Nature.
There aren’t many charter-bus companies in La Plata County jumping at the chance to drive tourists around the area’s many attractions during the winter. Companies that once offered the services said the tours are no longer available. Still, more companies said they never considered it because of many good reasons not to, from economic challenges to the hazardous weather winter can bring to high-country roads.
A spokeswoman for Mesa Verde National Park thought the park once may have offered winter packages and tours. Now, the programs only run May through October.
It was the common theme for area tour companies interviewed, with the exception of jeep tours.
But memories abound for the brave charter-bus companies – and freelance bus drivers such as Sandlin – willing to trek into La Plata County so passengers can experience the amenities situated on the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s reservation or the powdery slopes at Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort.
“I have what seems like a thousand stories, and most of them involve the frustration of dealing with weather,” Sandlin said. “Maybe you get stuck. Maybe you can’t go to where you’re going. And for some drivers – there’s the occasional tragedy.”
Through the years, Sandlin has come to know well that a surprise issued by Old Man Winter can turn an easy day behind the wheel into “long, long nightmares.”
Based on a long stint driving charter buses on a route taking tourists to Durango, Montrose, Ouray, Silverton and Grand Junction and another period carting riders to Telluride, he has learned the “snow gods” have a “wicked sense of humor.”
That’s why he carries tire chains – even in July.
Sometimes riders see the adventure in the struggle, he said.
For instance, during a recent trip to Ignacio from Alamosa with a bus full of journalists from around the country, including a reporter from The Durango Herald, the bus got stuck in the snow twice – once on a mountain pass – despite chains on the tires.
“Chains are often a last-ditch effort when you’re in a tour bus, and they usually don’t do the job,” Sandlin said.
The storm turned a two-hour trip to more than 12 hours and featured journalists undertaking a comical, and unsuccessful, attempt at pushing the bus from its tire-spinning, snowpacked place on the road before Department of Transportation crews rescued them for the second time in a day.
“They were good sports,” Sandlin said of the scribes, “but people aren’t always.”
Like most good bus drivers, Sandlin does his best to watch the weather and route accordingly.
“You don’t want to be out in the middle of nowhere in falling snow and trying to get help,” he said.
“I want people to feel absolutely safe. When you’re on a snowpacked road and the passengers can feel the bus getting squirrelly, it’s not a fun experience,” he said. “But sometimes you just get caught. And when it happens, it’s usually a mercy situation. You kind of roll with it.”