My Friend, the Planet Wrecker

In the local world of hard-core Hummer devotees, Manny MacMillan is a bona fide celebrity. To me—a Jetta-owning, enlightened SUV-hater—he’s also a reminder that none of us really are what we drive.

They were thrilling images, bursting off the walls of the Southborough showroom, rousing promotional shots of monstrous trucks ripping through mud fields, cutting across deserts, tearing up swamps. One photo didn’t feature a Hummer at all, just a lithe young adventurer standing atop a summit, alone, surveying an entire world spread out for him below.

The men wandering the Long Hummer dealership didn’t look much like that guy. They were middle-aged mostly, their days of infinite potential behind them, their mountains already scaled. Nor did their Hummers, lined up a dozen deep behind Bob Upton and me, resemble the beasts on the walls. Watching these opulent cruisers sparkle in the morning sunlight, it was difficult to imagine the tires rumbling over anything but asphalt. But that’s the thing about the Hummer, as Upton doesn’t mind pointing out: It’s the luxury SUV that truly can conquer the off-road.

Which in a way explained the convoy waiting behind us. “These people are spending all this money on trucks,” said Upton, who knows this because, as the product manager at Long Hummer, he’d sold many of them. “Well, let’s take ’em somewhere and let them see what they can do.” So a couple of times a year Upton organizes off-roading trips for his customers, renting out old logging roads or hilltop trails or, our destination today, the sandpits of the A. D. Makepeace cranberry empire in Wareham, the largest expanse of privately owned land in Massachusetts. My interest in this trip, though, had less to do with what the men who drive Hummers choose to do with them than with who, exactly, is still driving these things at all.

There was a time, of course, back when a gallon of gasoline cost less than $2, and when the energy lobby could still purchase plausible deniability from a handful of compliant climatologists, and when fewer than two in three Americans opposed the war, that the 11-mpg Hummer was understood by those of us who didn’t own one as indicative of merely an outsized ego and an undersized sense of self. Today, the truck is generally regarded as the embodiment of pure evil. In July, two vandals took baseball bats to an H2 parked on a tree-lined street in Washington, DC (it was too large for the owner’s garage), smashing every window, slashing every tire, and, lest the symbolism go overlooked, etching “FOR THE ENVIRON” into the paint. All of that, however, was a loving embrace compared with the beating that buyers across the country were delivering to Hummer at that very moment. Though each of GM’s eight automotive brands posted a sales loss in July, none was as steep as that suffered by its Hummer line, which sold 30 percent fewer trucks than the year before. The anti-Hummer sentiment seems to have washed over even California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the first private citizen to own one; he reportedly once had at least eight Hummers but has trimmed his collection to just four.

So as Bob Upton punched numbers into the GPS, and our convoy rumbled off the Long auto lot, crossing Turnpike Road as we headed for I-495 and the Makepeace property, I was certainly curious to know just who these proud Massachusetts Hummer holdouts following us were. I was also looking forward to seeing Manny.

Manny MacMillan started in with the Hummer nonsense a decade ago. He was a friend of someone in our crowd, and he came to be my friend, too. We were all in our mid-20s then, grinding away at a tiny sweatshop of a daily newspaper in Dover, New Hampshire. Most of us had either come to the business late or come to it via the low road—no journalism degree, no mentors, no prospects. Manny worked in computers, some hazy IT job that I could never completely understand. He was somewhat extroverted, yet seemed always to keep a part of himself private. He’d been a goalie on his college soccer team and could, at 5 foot 9, dunk a basketball. (Once, out of breath after yet another failed attempt to tackle Manny during a football game, my friend Nick looked up and gasped, “He’s not just fast for us. I mean, he’s fast.”) Manny had been the singer in a band specializing in a kind of heavy metal/rap fusion I came to call screamer music. He’d dabbled in skateboarding and surfing, developed a lethal finishing move on the foosball table, and was an audio-video aficionado who worked part time at an electronics store for the employee discount. He also kept a tarantula, and a 6-foot boa constrictor called Snake.

So it wasn’t exactly a surprise when Manny announced his plan to buy a Hummer. I just didn’t happen to believe him. This was 1998, and no one had a Hummer, and anyway, I couldn’t understand what the hell anyone would actually do with a Hummer. The next time I saw Manny, though, he was driving one. It was enormous, an H1, the original, hulking machine that had more in common with its ancestor, the military Humvee, than its descendants, the relatively refined H2 and H3 models that would come later. “I can’t believe you actually bought it!” I said. “Why not?” he replied. “I said I was going to.” It was used, three years old, and he’d paid nearly $45,000 for it. In the summertime he drove it up and down the East Coast. He took us on runs to the Cape. He took us on runs to the corner beer store.

He also got into off-roading. He’d had some experience with a Jeep he once owned, but four-wheeling in a Hummer, he informed us, was something else entirely. The truck would go places you could barely walk. You could even inflate or deflate the tires with the touch of a button, useful, he explained, for negotiating various terrains. Still, as with all life, it turns out there is a learning curve when it comes to “wheeling.” One day, Manny got the Hummer stuck, “high-centered” on a dirt ridge. It fell to his friend Rob to extricate the massive truck, tugging it free with, of all things, his humble Jetta.

As my journalism career developed momentum, taking me to other regions of the country, I eventually lost touch with Manny. A few months ago, though, when a mutual friend hosted a poker night, I saw him for the first time in years. We’d both married, Manny had become a father, and we were each well into something like adulthood. In some regards, then, it was a surprise to learn that Manny’s passion had only deepened since I’d last seen him. In other ways, it was no surprise at all. He’s now president of the New England Hummer Owners Group, runs the website, writes for two Hummer publications, and, of particular interest, is involved in a project called Hummer Owners Prepared for Emergencies.

Known as HOPE, the program is an offshoot of the Hummer Club, a national organization of Hummer owners. After receiving first-aid training and getting certified as proficient off-roaders, HOPE members are authorized to use their vehicles to carry Red Cross personnel and equipment into disaster zones. The only way to get the required certification used to be to attend Hummer Club events in Indiana, but the club has recently empowered select drivers to grant regional certification. On the entire East Coast, there is just one person with this authority—Manny.

Bob Upton set the cruise control to a gentle 70 mph as we led the convoy south to the cranberry bogs. Manny would be there when we arrived, doing his first-ever HOPE certification testing.

Upton hadn’t heard about the DC Hummer attack, but it didn’t surprise him. “Environmentalists” are always singling out the vehicle, he said. “No one says anything about the Cadill
ac Escalade”—another GM behemoth—“Bigger engine, same power train, same weight. You never hear anything.” He said 71 percent of the material in a Hummer is recycled, and insisted that the mining of nickel for hybrid batteries makes those cars worse for the environment than any SUV. “We got stereotyped at the beginning,” he said.

I suggested that these kinds of off-road trips might play into that stereotype, but Upton said he limits the outings to locations that have already been cleared, and that he’s a member of the Tread Lightly group, which promotes responsible motor use in the wild. He said HOPE is further evidence that Hummer owners care. In any case, he said, Hummer owners aren’t the type to fret about what others think. Most are self-made men, he said, who’ve worked for what they have. “They know who they are. They’re not trying to impress anyone.”

Our caravan finally pulled into Wareham, where we were met by Manny and another 10 or so Hummers. Driving through the lush Makepeace property, we came to a clearing, at the center of which sat a sprawling moonscape of sand. The convoy, now numbering 22 trucks, came to a rest. A small crowd gathered around Manny’s Hummer. I hadn’t seen the truck in years and was amazed by its transformation. What had been a street machine, polished and bright, now looked as if it had been built only to chew rock, dirt, and mud. Its body had been raised an additional 4 inches off the ground, strategic notches had been hand-cut into its brutal tires, its front and back were tattooed with off-roading decals. Once sleek, the truck had turned ferocious.

Upton called the drivers around him, and gave Manny a couple of minutes to describe the HOPE program. When he asked if anyone was interested, five hands went up. Upton split the fleet into two groups, making sure the HOPE candidates were all together so Manny could observe their driving skills. Then he told everyone to be careful and have fun.

Manny and I climbed a slope and watched the action. From above, it resembled a giant sandbox overrun with motorized toy trucks. The drivers gunned their engines, gathering speed to scale the various dunes. As they careened over thresholds, their front ends shot up off the ground, tires spinning furiously in the air, like claws poised for prey.

Manny snapped photos, kept tabs on the HOPE guys, and, whenever a Hummer got stuck, helped attach towlines to pull it free. He did not, however, deign to drive the sandbox himself. He wouldn’t say so, but the prospect clearly bored him. When someone asked if Manny was going to show off a few tricks, he thought for a moment and said, “I like rocks. Things that look like you shouldn’t be able to drive over.”

As we broke for lunch, I began to realize that in the time I had been away, Manny had become a kind of celebrity in this tiny subculture, the posterized adventurer come down from the summit. “I go to your website all the time,” the drivers told him as they approached in small groups. Some had technical questions. “Should I upgrade to a stainless steel line?” someone asked in reference to the automatic tire-inflation system. “There’s mixed feelings about that,” Manny replied. “I’d just stick with the rubber. You can just carry a spool of it and cut off what you need.” When a young boy came by to admire Manny’s Hummer, Steve Brajak, the Long dealership’s H1 mechanic, told him, “That truck does things no other truck can do.” He was talking, presumably, about the time in 2003 that Manny successfully scaled the rock-face competition slope at Paragon Adventure Park in Pennsylvania, a feat that is commemorated to this day with five photos on the park’s website.

Sitting under a giant tent the Long dealership had assembled for lunch, I spoke with a guy named Matt and his girlfriend, who is a member of the decidedly green Appalachian Mountain Club. How does she reconcile that with her boyfriend’s interest in Hummers? “She doesn’t tell her friends!” Matt said. It was silly to focus on the vehicles themselves, she said, since housing and retail developments were the true threat. “People are the real problem for the environment, not Hummers.”

It struck me that there’s truth in that. I happen to be reflexively anti-Hummer…but why? Some of it, I suppose, is outrage that, knowing what we do now, Hummer owners keep on trucking anyway. But don’t we all? The fact is, fingerpointing Prius drivers contribute to global warming, too. So do I with my Jetta, my computer, my television. And you wonder, did those DC Hummer vandals take the subway to the site of their attack?

Still, with all the venom directed at them, even the most enthusiastic Hummer owners are feeling a little defensive these days. Even Manny. Once when he was at a gas station, a woman pulled up in a Hyundai, demanding to know what kind of mileage he got. At least 15 mpg on the highway, he told her. “Oh,” the woman replied, surprised. “What does your Hyundai get?” he asked. “About the same, I guess,” she answered. “She had no idea what she was talking about,” Manny recalled. “Lots of people don’t. They just form opinions.”

Ron Wright, an energetic H1 owner from Northborough, spent half an hour at the cranberry bog deriding everyone from the oil companies to President Bush. He didn’t deny he was sounding a lot like a classic liberal. So how did he justify the Hummer? His voice rising, he said he makes his own biodiesel, volunteers his services to the local search and rescue team, is first-aid certified, and is getting his HOPE certification. “You know what I think, Ron?” a friend of his said, cutting off the rant to explain Wright’s left-wing views. “I think you were a rich white guy who bought a Hummer. Now you’re just a white guy.”