Antonio Olivero: Exploring ‘heaven on earth’ above Montezuma with the Dillon Community Church Jeep Club
MONTEZUMA — This spring, former Summit Daily assistant editor Susan Gilmore forwarded me an email that piqued both of our sporting interests. It was about the Dillon Community Church Jeep Club, which rides all over the state’s most rugged above tree line trails and invited me to join in.
This winter and spring’s snowy and wet conditions delayed the trip from one week to the next, then one month to the next. Finally, I got the call from club members Bob Pietrzyk and Ruth Carroll that we were a go for the morning of Aug. 10. Our destination: the historic Saints John Road high above Montezuma.
“It’s in our backyard,” Bob said. “It’s our trail.”
The instructions for my maiden Jeep trip were simple: Pack a picnic lunch and cold weather clothes. The week prior, when Ruth and Bob were able to get up Saints John for first time all summer, temperatures were as low as 46 degrees amid the lingering snowpack.
When I arrived Saturday morning, the lineup of about 15 Jeeps outside the church was impressive. It was “wheels up” at 8 a.m., and I rode shotgun in Bob’s lead red Rubicon.
Our first stop was at the start of Deer Creek Road in Montezuma, where everyone would air down their tires. Once here, Bob told me about how he and the church’s pastor, Jim Howard, launched the club six years ago and welcomed anyone who wanted to explore “heaven on earth,” as the club’s slogan puts it.
For those who join, there are just two rules:
“Nobody dies,” Jim and Bob both said. “And we don’t smash our cars beyond recognition.”
Jim, a Jeeper of more than 40 years, said the club was created to find a bridge between the church and the Summit County community.
“Let’s show Summit County that Christians have just as much fun as everybody else,” Jim recalled saying about the club’s launch.
Once the tires were aired down Saturday, Ruth, Bob and I climbed the Saints John Creek drainage, first coming across avalanche debris. We then drove through the relic settlement of Saints John — its heyday in the 1870s — before coming across more abandoned, weathered cabins at tree line.
The clouds already were rolling in at about 9 a.m., a first for Ruth and Bob in all their years Jeeping the Saints John Road. Despite the weather, the views were expansive, providing stunning, in-your-face views of Grays and Torreys to the east and all the way across to Mount of the Holy Cross to the west.
Jeeping past the snow-covered cornices on the ridgeline was something else. From the steep, narrow switchbacks between the Wild Irishman and General Teller mines to the steep hill near Glacier Mountain, the Jeeps hit most every rock and boulder they could find.
Eventually, we got to the junction of the North Fork of the Swan River and Saints John Road. The tufts of hair blowing in the wind was an indication mountain goats had been here. The lingering snow filled into cornice after cornice, and Bob and I agreed there was no way it would all melt before winter returned with a vengeance.
Back at the church, the group convened for the first and only prayer of the day. Once complete, Bob and Jim shared stories of the Jeep club’s history. It included the tale of a trip last July when an older engaged couple decided at the spur of the moment to get married while riding Tin Cup Pass south of Buena Vista.
“He looks at me,” Bob said about the groom, “and his eyeballs are this big around. ‘This is it.’ And we are bouncing in the Jeep, a really rocky trail. And he said, ‘You know what? You’re right. If we’re going to do it, this is the time.'”
Once at Mirror Lake, forlorn railroad ties served as pews. One Jeeper provided a bottle of wine for communion. Another donated a freshly baked loaf of bread for the same purpose.
As for the ring, the groom knelt down during the ceremony and picked up a piece of the Rocky Mountains and slid it between two of her fingers.
“She said she needed a rock,” Jim said with a laugh. “You know, you never know what’s going to happen on a Jeep trip — as long as we don’t die and as long as we don’t smash our cars beyond recognition.”
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Spoiler alert: There was almost no drama whatsoever during my recent test of the accomplished, practical and even vaguely sexy-looking Hyundai Sonata hybrid.