Last spring, on a New Hampshire farm, Dora Fang cruised through a thin stand of pine trees in her souped-up, white Jeep Wrangler. Driving in a caravan of ten off-road vehicles, she followed a blue Ford Bronco to a muddy clearing strewn with boulders nearly as round as she is tall (five feet five). She slowed to a crawl and began carefully navigating her Jeep's oversized tires onto the rocks. The idea, she explains later, is to place your tires precisely, the way you would your feet if you were crossing a creek on stepping-stones.
"In the type of driving I like to do," she says, "where you put your tire, what angle you go up a rock on, whether you go two inches to the left, two inches to the right, or straight on, makes a difference."
The difference was obvious by the end of the six-hour, two-mile tour.
"I had these huge rigs all around me," Fang says, "and they all broke"--except hers.
Fang has been surviving--and often leading--in the male-dominated world of off-road driving for seven years. The founder and owner of Adventure 4WD Inc., she has led tours and taught off-road driving courses from the Moab Desert in Utah to boulder fields in Indiana's Badlands. At the peak of her business in 2002, she generated some $200,000 in revenue from guided trips and from sales of parts like skid plates and winches. Once, Ford paid her to introduce a new member of its Land Rover engineering team to the SUV's off-road capabilities.
Eventually, Fang says, Adventure 4WD's growth outpaced her ability to learn business skills on the job. So, last year, she decided to scale back the company and enroll at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business. But she still serves her loyal customers and joins in outings with a local Jeep club, North East Willys Jeeps Organization (www.newjo.org).
Fang grew up in Lubbock, Texas, the only child of Chinese immigrants and a self-described "frilly-frou-frou girl." Even as a public-policy major at Duke, she says she was a "have-to-have-a-hair-dryer-to-go-outside" sorority girl (Chi Omega).
That all changed a year after she graduated. She bought a new red Jeep Cherokee, and, on a whim, signed up for a Jeep Jamboree weekend outing in New Jersey's Pine Barrens. Even though she got stuck in three feet of mud, she enjoyed the adventure and camaraderie. She was hooked.
Soon, she had a CB handle ("Dor-able"), a vanity plate ("JEEP CHK" for "Jeep Chick"), a name for her increasingly customized SUV ("Thrasher"), and a business (Let's Go Jeepin', later renamed Adventure 4WD).
Despite the occupational perils of off-roading, Fang's only serious accident came when she was returning from an expedition in Moab. She was following a friend along a remote mountain road in Colorado, when the road gave way.
"I remember arching toward upside down," Fang says, "and that's it." She came to in a rocky ravine thirty feet below the road--still in the SUV, right side up, facing in the same direction, with the engine still running. The Jeep's roof, undercarriage, and four sides were seriously damaged, she says, and the beef jerky and tortillas previously on the passenger seat were beneath a toolbox in the rear hatch. She walked away with only cuts, bruises, and a fractured rib.
Accidents are the exception, Fang says. Don't be deterred.
"You didn't buy a sport-utility vehicle just to drive it on the street," she says. "There's something in you that has this little adventurous spark."