Summit County Renaissance man Kim Fenske is much more than a curious bus driver
June 2, 2015
Kim Fenske isn't your run-of-the-mill bus driver.
For the past eight years, the veteran Summit Stage driver has avoided merely rolling through his daily routes like some kind of bus-bound zombie. No, he's more likely to think about creative ways to get the most out of transit in the High Country, like funding combo diesel-electric buses though the federal Clean Fuels Grant Program, or how the engines on modern hybrids keep getting better, year in and year out.
"Hybrid vehicles are more functional than internal combustion in the mountains," Fenske tells me over beer and pizza at Backcountry Brewery. "Those vehicles are extremely powerful in the initial torque, but when you're dealing with an electrical motor you don't have issues with combustion. If anything, a diesel engine is gasping for oxygen. My backpacking stove is the same."
Sure, deeply analyzing the ins and outs of Summit Stage's environmental footprint is above Fenske's pay grade, but he's not doing it to get paid. And he knows it. He simply enjoys finding new and untapped ways to do good by Planet Earth. It's the old-school crusader in him, the same crusader who earned a law degree from University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1990 to work on environmental policy, long before going green was even a phrase, let alone a global movement.
And Fenske doesn't just think about the environment. Come summertime, he rides his bike from a small, deed-restricted condo in Copper to the Summit Stage yard in Frisco, weaving some 7 miles along the Ten Mile Canyon recpath before tackling an 11 or 12-hour shift.
"I haven't had a weekend off in eight years, aside from my annual vacation," Fenske says. It's a slightly depressing thought, but Fenske doesn't seem to mind. Driving a bus along State Highway 9, Swan Mountain Road and even the now-defunct San Juan Hill gauntlet beats a nine-to-five wedged between cubicle walls.
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"I've just always liked serving people," he continues after a sip of breakfast stout. "Again, I'm not confined to an office. I get to work with new people, meet new people every day."
Thanks in part to Fenske's previous life as a history teacher — "'I lived in a van down by the Provo River to get my master's degree," he says — he's keenly aware of how even the smallest actions can impact others, from biking to work to driving a Prius (when off the clock) to having friendly chats about local hiking trails with Stage passengers.
"I hope we're moving toward these hybrid-electric vehicles," Fenske said after explaining how the U.S. is home to 70-plus transit systems with hybrid fleets, including our neighbors in the Roaring Fork Valley. "We need federal funding to cover that differential, but we also need a cultural transition. There just isn't any demand for it right now, no belief that a hybrid is a benefit, at least in this area."
A MAN OF MANY INTERESTS
For most of his life, Fenske has never spent longer than two or three years in any particular career, Summit Stage excepted, and he's fully embraced the nomadic life of a modern-day Renaissance man.
"I was a — what do you call it? — a geek," Fenske laughs, referring to a childhood spent building water-wheel generators and collecting plants for study. "I guess they called me 'the brain' as a kid. I was kind of an outcast from society. I always have been. To be honest, I would prefer living among bears than some people."
Fenske grew up in Wisconsin, poor, he says, living on a fifth-generation farm near La Crosse, a town on the banks of the Mississippi River.
"Can you imagine: my brothers were involved in the Vietnam war, my sister's career was in the '70s, and I was trying to get a career going during the recession of the '80s," Fenske says. "I'm a baby boomer, coming right at the tail end of the generation. I hope the millennial generation straightens out some of the problems the baby boomers left."
Yet big-picture problem solving isn't the only thing on Fenske's mind, at least not all the time. He's an avid outdoorsman, something he credits to the family farm and camping trips as a kid.
"My environmental bent probably comes out because my Dad loved taking us to the national parks when we were young," Fenske says. "That's when campsites were 50 cents per area. Imagine that these days."
Through his 30s and 40s, Fenske tried to meld his myriad interests together. Sometimes he was successful, other times he wasn't, but he tackled it all with passion.
Take the career in law: Fenske never dug deep into environmental policy, but instead made a name with the "Cow Kick Case" in the early '90s. When a farmhand was kicked by a cow and forced to undergo surgery, the farm's insurance didn't cover the operation — agriculture is exempt from worker's comp claims in Wisconsin. He managed to convince a jury to award double the original compensation and was featured in several litigation journals.
Then there was Fenske's time in politics. Shortly after graduating from UW-Madison in 1981 with a history and education undergrad, he was on legislative staff for the state assembly, working on the environmental resources committee. By 1994, he ran for the state assembly, and although he lost, by 2000 he was a congressional district coordinator for Al Gore's presidential campaign.
"I like to be forward looking, progressive," he says, noting he has no remaining interest in politics. "You get beat up enough and it's time to retire from politics, and I got beat up enough."
Between it all, though, Fenske has been drawn to the outdoors, particularly the mountains. He was a ski instructor in Wisconsin through the '90s before heading to Colorado in the early 2000s. Early on he volunteered with the Dillon Ranger District and as a wildland firefighter, quelling blazes in Palisade and near Summit High School.
"I always wanted to be a veterinarian, too," Fenske says, pausing when I ask for a by-the-numbers rundown of the jobs he's had. "I wanted to get into medicine, be a writer, be a photographer, just all of these things. I just can't be narrow in focus. When you're a broad thinker, you don't want to limit anything, don't want to have narrow pathways."
No pathways speak to Fenske quite like the quiet, secluded trails of his adopted hometown. He's written two full-length Colorado hiking guides and is working on a fourth, all available through Amazon. He often disappears into Eagles Nest Wilderness for two or three days at a time with little more than a backpack, tent, camera, camp stove and a bit of food. There's no dog or hiking partner or anything like that — just him and the outdoors.
"I always planned on having a wife and a family and those traditional anchorings in life, but I never quite found the right person," Fenske says. "I can't find someone who keeps up with me on the mountains — I can't even find guy friends who will do that."
Fenske has also tackled every 14er in Colorado. One year, he did 40 in a single summer — just 13 off from the grand total. Yet like any mountaineer, he's had his share of close calls, like the near-death experience on Mt. Elbert in December 2011. He had hiked late in the day to take photos at sunset, yet during the slow, snowy descent on the northeast face, he lined up for a glissade and hit ice instead of snow. He slid nearly 300 feet, heading straight for a massive boulder until he managed to spin around, feet and eyes uphill, backpack downhill.
"I smacked that boulder perfectly centered — it sent me skyward for three airborne rolls," Fenske remembers, chuckling in the sort of way only inspired by a near-death story. "When I finally stopped, I checked myself for broken bones and was just shocked that nothing happened. Then I had to hike another 6 miles out of there."
As Fenske finishes his brew, I ask what comes next. How does a Renaissance man pick one thing over the other? He has no real answer, other than at some point he'd like to retire. He enjoys the Stage, but there are too many places to see and trails to hike.
"That's about where I want to be for retirement," Fenske says. "I figure I'll be in an RV, traveling the world or the nation, doing some writing, and proceed with my adventures."