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Story and photos by Jil McIntosh
Man, these things are big.
That’s the first thing that goes through your mind when – if you’re my 5-foot-4 height – you’re trying to pull yourself up and into the cushy leather seat of a Hummer H2.
It’s also the second thing that goes through your mind, as you’re trying to figure out if you’re fitting between the lines on the road on your way to the Hummer Driving Club course.
The place is Nemacolin Woodlands, an ultra-plush resort nestled in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains, some 110 km south of Pittsburgh. Along with such activities as golf, horseback riding and a spa, the resort offers what it claims is one of two off-road courses in North America to feature GM’s massive SUV.
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They actually have four of them – two military-style H1s, and two civilian H2s. But the smaller Hummer is more than enough for the job. Especially when I miss my turn, and try to spin a 3,000-kg vehicle with a 13.5-metre turning radius around a tight corner.
It doesn’t faze instructor Jeremy Bowman, who’s winched guests out of mud and through streams. No matter how he looks at it, he’s getting paid to get out of bed and go off-roading every morning – something he does for fun in his spare time anyway. “We started the program last October, and I was picked for training and was lucky enough to be kept on as an instructor,” he says.
The extent of my off-road experience is a ’79 Chevette that we run out the back forty and purposefully drive into trees for something to do. I’m here to learn.
The first thing I discovered is that it ain’t the way it looks on TV. Rather than roaring through the wilderness, real off-roading involves almost glacial speeds and sticking to the trails. Take it quickly, and you risk damaging the vehicle’s undercarriage.
I start by driving through a pond that comes up to the Hummer’s hubs. “You go through water slowly, to avoid splashing the engine,” Bowman says. “And you don’t know what the surface is like under it.” He’s right; halfway through, there’s a mean drop.
My next test is sticky mud. I follow Bowman’s instructions, and keep the left wheels in the deep rut left by the last vehicle. It acts like a wall, stopping me when the ground proves too soft and the Hummer lurches sideways. It’s very unnerving at first to be leaning 25 degrees and sliding across the path. But gradually my brain accepts that we’re not going to tip over, or go careering down the mountain.
Jil McIntosh driving the Hummer H2 at Nemacolin Woodlands off-road course. Click image to enlarge
Even with the H2’s 25-cm ground clearance, there’s danger of getting caught up on rocks or tree roots when we take to the wooded trail. Bowman teaches me “brake-throttle modulation” – using the brake and gas simultaneously. “You use it when you need the power to crawl up, but you have to get right back on the brakes so you don’t fall off the other side,” he says. I use it to get the truck down and out of a one-metre drop at a stream.
The course runs along a combination of old hunting trails, and new ones that Bowman scouted out in his own Jeep. At one point the trees are almost right against the Hummer’s sides. A nice touch is electric folding mirrors, which tuck in to prevent them being knocked off.
Out of the woods, the trail goes straight uphill. “Keep it at 1500 rpm, and don’t stop,” Bowman says. I don’t. If I stop halfway, I’ll be backing down and taking another run at it. The H2’s 360 ft-lbs of torque pull it up. All I can see is the sky. “You have to look at the trail beforehand, and memorize where the rocks and the holes are,” Bowman advises.
At the peak, I start to understand why people do this. The view, of wooded mountains and lush farmed valleys, is awe-inspiring.
Bowman estimates that 40 per cent of clients own or plan to buy Hummers, and want to learn to use them. The rest simply enjoy the off-road experience. He has to take the wheel for a few who chicken out on the hills. And he occasionally gets people who want to be passengers only, letting him chauffeur them over the course.
The experience isn’t cheap – US$275 plus tax for two hours, and $100 for every 60 minutes after that. But it seems worth it, to see a vehicle that usually “off-roads” on city streets, crawling through mud and over rocks, with branches scraping the sides.
After the trek up and down the mountain, I get a little too confident, and on one muddy crevice, the Hummer refuses to move forward. I back up and try it again, being more careful about following the existing tracks. My instructor points out the obvious: whoever put them there got through.
Finally, on a firmer trail, I also have an urge to speed up. But Bowman warns me to max out at about 25 km/hr. He knows the area like the back of his hand, including the huge holes that appear around the bend.
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Back at the resort, I make an unsuccessful attempt to gracefully exit the huge vehicle. (The running boards have been removed, since they’d only get hooked on trees.) The muddy Hummer gets some very strange looks from guests waiting for their valet-parked Jaguars and BMWs.
Jeremy Bowman, meanwhile, has 40 minutes of cleaning up ahead of him. He likes my suggestion that having the guest power-wash the mud be made part of the experience. The next guest, that is … I’m off to dinner and the spa.
For more information on the Nemacolin Hummer Driving Club, contact the resort at 1-800-422-2736, or Nemacolin.com