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Colorado backcountry off-roading program puts disabled adventurers on the throttle

Soren Lindholm, of Carbondale, enjoys the views of the Flat Tops mountain range from his off-road vehicle July 24 near New Castle. Lindholm was paralyzed from the waist and down in a skiing accident five years ago. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)
Return to Dirt lets people take the wheel in rigs that can be driven with adaptive controls

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – The engine growls as Allyson Mallory cinches her helmet and pulls down her goggles.

“The anticipation of awesomeness,” she says as aspens shimmer beneath Sunlight Peak.

With a flick of her wrist, Mallory guns the Can-Am Maverick X3, sending gravel flying. Her passengers hoot as her machine joins a parade of off-road rigs revving up Four Mile Road. For the next two days, Mallory and about 10 other disabled athletes explored Colorado’s backcountry in specially equipped off-road rigs that can be controlled with adaptive tools.

It was, Mallory says, “a chance to get a little more adventure in my life and maybe scare myself.”

The world of off-road travel has been transformed by the technology in the new-school ATVs, with as many as six seats, 200-horsepower engines and almost 24 inches of suspension. With minor adjustments that allow for hand-controlled throttling and braking, the machines are delivering unexpected adventure to people with spinal cord injuries. With only a few adjustments, the growling machines can become the ultimate wheelchairs, ferrying paralyzed explorers into dusty boondocks.

Adaptive drivers Allyson Mallory, left, and Jarred Evans interact inside an off-road vehicle during the Return to Dirt outing on the Flat Tops. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)
Off-road adventures across the West

It’s all part of Tim Burr’s plan with his Return To Dirt program. Since 2018, when he founded the off-road adventure program for disabled adventurers out of his family’s compound above Glenwood Springs, he’s had about 130 people revving their machines through some 5,000 miles of dirt roads in Colorado, California, Montana and Utah.

Burr asks a visitor to remember the first days of driving as a teenager with a new license.

“So much freedom,” the 27-year-old says. “Now add newfound physical freedom. This is about more than just being able to drive. It’s the freedom of moving through space again; moving through space in some of the coolest areas and doing it with friends and family. That is one of the most basic of human experiences, you know, getting together and having fun with friends and family in the woods. That’s what we are bringing back to people.”

Burr, like many of the people gathered for this Return to Dirt rally, had a life-changing moment that left him wondering if he had forever lost those backcountry experiences. For Burr, it came after a fall while skiing early-season snowpack in 2014 in the backcountry outside Crested Butte.

His C5 spinal cord injury left him with quadriplegia and limited use of his hands. But he can use hand throttles and crank a steering wheel. With his parents and a tight brotherhood of friends, he forged Return to Dirt to help others like him know the freedom of not just driving, but enjoying the outdoors with good company.

Ben Hulin, who has a spinal cord injury from a motorcycle accident in 2006, moves his legs inside an adaptive off-road vehicle. Hulin is able to operate the OHV using the custom-fitted hand controls without the need for foot pedals. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

“This is about much more than just the cars, or the driving or the trails,” he says as he rolls through Return to Dirt’s two-bay garage redolent with fuel and stocked with tools and cases of Liquid Death water. “This is about an entire experience that can be elusive for people with disabilities.”

The $35,000 machines – donated by Can-Am – have power-assisted steering, mechanical levers that work the gas and brake pedals and special systems that can swiftly douse an engine fire in an emergency. Return to Dirt has been raising money since 2018 to maintain the machines and host about 20 events a year.

Roy Tuscany, the founder of the High Fives Foundation, helped Burr start building Return to Dirt. Tuscany, who suffered a spinal cord injury in the Mammoth Mountain terrain park in 2006, has helped more than 600 people since 2009, building a community of injured athletes through adventures, gatherings and recovery programs. Coming out of the pandemic, Tuscany led High Fives through a more dedicated focus on snow, surf, fishing, off-road biking and motorsports. The Truckee, California-based High Fives acquired Return to Dirt last year.

The deal has the 20-employee High Fives handling administration, insurance, accounting and other tasks while Burr focuses on operations, events and fundraising.

“The hope is that we build this huge infrastructure and create change for a community that is underserved,” said Tuscany as he rigged himself for a day of throttle-twisting fun. “For too long this community has been overlooked and with programs like Return to Dirt we can utilize things that make people really happy and do it in a way that is adapted so everyone can have these experiences.”

Adapting for the sensation of power, speed

Jarred Evans has surfed, skied and played competitive rugby since he injured his spinal cord in a surfing accident eight years ago. He relished the dusty thrills behind the wheel of the off-road machines.

“It’s so good to have that sensation of power and suspension and speed in the great outdoors,” the 43-year-old from Reno, Nevada, said. “I miss it. It’s so important.”

Like Burr, Tuscany says the goal with the machines is about more than movement.

Adaptive drivers experience the outdoors of the Flat Tops with help of Return to Dirt’s OHVs. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

“The cars are the catalyst,” Tuscany said. “What we are really trying to do is get like-minded people with similar injuries together as part of a community so they can build these lifelong relationships. That’s what Tim has built here. He’s got great friends and family involved and that is an extension of what we have created at High Fives. This is all about creating a family.”

Over the weekend, athletes from several states spent hours charging through remote valleys. They stayed at a ranch outside New Castle, hanging out around a campfire and eating good meals. The first day they adjusted to the machines and by the second day they were navigating up technical trails to the top of peaks.

“This was my first time doing anything like this,” said 32-year-old Erica Smith from Parker. “It’s so great getting to views that I would never get to in my chair.”

Smith has been in a wheelchair since recovering from a car accident 15 years ago. She didn’t start adventuring with other disabled athletes until a few years ago. Now she’s going skiing, mountain biking, fly fishing and four-wheeling up remote mountains.

“It’s been totally game-changing,” she said.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.