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Taking the Leap

The greatest risk would be to pass up the chance to do something that will make you happy

You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. You can’t get there by bus, only by hard work and risk and by not quite knowing what you’re doing. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover will be yourself.
–Alan Alda
Brian Wrabley stands at the edge of a cliff. Below the Gunnison river churns through a deep canyon. The river is almost impossible to reach, accessible only by a few billy goat trails: steep, rocky and in some places risky. But Wrabley, 48, isn’t deterred. Sure-footed, he recognizes the rewards that wait at the end of the trail, no matter how long it takes to get there.

Cliff’s Edge
    Wrabley’s cliff-top perch is 2,000 miles from his home in Southern Maryland. He is not vacationing; he is working, scouting the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River in southwestern Colorado for his new business, Treks West Tours. Focused on national parks and monuments, its tours break trail for people who want to explore the West but don’t know where to start … people just like Wrabley.
    “My love of the West began as a child, watching those old John Ford Westerns,” says Wrabley. “I had never been further west than Columbus, Ohio.”
    Wrabley was grown and married before he experienced the landscapes of his childhood dreams. In 1996, he and new wife Sheila traveled to Arizona.
    That vacation would change the Wrableys’ lives.
    “We drove across Arizona, saw the Grand Canyon, and I fell in love with all of it,” Wrabley says. “The mountains, deserts, canyons, culture. My first trip to Monument Valley was a very emotional and spiritual experience. It fired my imagination.”
    There they drove the famed Apache Trail.
    “It is a hairy road,” Wrabley says. “A thousand feet above the Salt river with no guard rails. It was a wild ride.”
    Barely wide enough for two vehicles, the Apache Trail is a road that makes going around each corner a surprise — and a little scary. It would be a metaphor for their future.

Dangling Over
    Back in Maryland, Wrabley returned to his job as a project researcher at Catholic University. But he left his heart deep in the red rocks of the American West.
    “I had worked in construction most of my life,” Wrabley says. “The job at Catholic University was a step up for me career-wise. I should’ve been content.”
    The job was good in both pay and benefits.
    “But it didn’t make me happy. I had no passion for it,” Wrabley says.
    Every vacation, the Wrableys boarded a plane for anywhere west. After 10 years, he took the first step toward his dream.
    “I knew I wanted work out West as a ranger, a guide or even a trail maintenance worker,” he says.
    He applied for jobs at the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Government jobs aren’t easy to get, he soon learned.
    Meanwhile, he planned a camping trip to the Grand Canyon for friends. He loved putting it all together, and the friends loved the trip. One happy camper suggested to Wrabley that he plan outdoor adventures for a living.
    “I thought, why not,” Wrabley says. “What have I got to lose?”
    The seed for Treks West was planted.
    A kick-start got it growing.
    Terlingua, Texas, a tiny hamlet — some call it a ghost town — is the jumping off point to Big Bend National Park, one of the Wrabley’s favorite places.
    “A 2009 trip to Terlingua was the absolute tipping point for me to step away from the safe and sure to start this business,” he says.
    The inn where they stay is owned by Casey Fullwood. After spending most of her life in Alaska, Fullwood wanted to go someplace different, a place, as Wrabley tells it, “where the sun shines all the time.”
    “Casey had the courage to take the risk,” Wrabley says. “If she could do it, I could do it. She inspired me.”
    Still employed at Catholic University, Wrabley jumped into the minutia of starting a business. He learned about insurance, permits, licensing and advertising. He hired a web site designer and familiarized himself with the Internet. He became a regular on outdoor blogs and forums.
    “It’s not my favorite part of the business,” he says , “but it is crucial.”
    In 2011, Wrabley was ready. He quit his job and hung out a shingle. Treks West was open for business. The first four tours mapped Big Bend, Wonders of Moab, Circle of the Ancients and Texas High Country.
    The Wrableys knew it usually takes a minimum of three years to get a new business up and operational, if not profitable.
    Was Treks West viable? Only time would tell.

A trip to Arizona in 1996 with his wife Sheila would change Brian Wrabley’s life, leading him to start his own outdoor tour company.

Leaps of Faith
    Sheila is a critical partner in her husband’s dream business plan. The second half of Team Wrabley, Sheila is Tech Support. For the immediate future, her job as a Prince George’s County elementary school teacher provides the family its sole regular paycheck. She understands the value of following a dream, even if it doesn’t pan out as planned.
    “I’ve been at crossroads, and I’ve taken leaps of faith,” Sheila says.
    Right after meeting Brian, Sheila took a leave from teaching and returned to her native New York, following her dream of working in
theater. It’s an extremely competitive field in an area with a notoriously high cost of living. She struggled.
    “It didn’t end up the way I had envisioned,” she says. “But a friend remarked maybe I hadn’t gone back to New York to pursue acting but rather so Brian would realize what he had.”
    Brian traveled to New York and proposed marriage. Sheila accepted and returned to Maryland. They were married in 1995.
    “I have followed my heart several times, taking risks and making changes to be happier,” Sheila says. “I can’t deny Brian the same opportunity.”

Free Fall
    Treks West went from dream to reality when the first tour was booked. That was November 2011.
    “One of a group of 12 businessmen from Vancouver saw our ad in,” Wrabley says. “These guys had been all around the world and wanted to do something different.”
    They scheduled Wonders of Moab for May 2012.
    “It a little intimidating,” Wrabley says. “These guys had just been hiking in Bhutan. How in the world was I going to top that? But it turned out to be a fantastic maiden tour.”
    Jumping off a personal fiscal cliff isn’t for everyone. The financial risks are real. Wrabley’s next three bookings fell through.
    “It probably wasn’t the best time for me to quit my job,” he says. “Lean national economics make it even more of a struggle.”
    But the Wrableys are optimistic. Several tours are tentatively booked for this summer. Sheila’s paycheck and their savings keep the bills paid. Odd jobs between tours help with the cash flow.
    They don’t have a formal business plan but they do have hard goals.
    “In the short-term, we need three tours in 2012,” Wrabley says. “In 2014, six tours would pay the bills. The ultimate goal is 12 tours a year.”
    Wrabley takes several trips a year to scout new locations, recently Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Next he and Sheila will head to Alaska.
    If all goes as planned, Treks West’s newest adventure will be week-long guided horseback trips into the Alaskan bush.

All In Perspective
    Is taking risks, following your dream, going outside of the safety of your box a good New Year’s resolution?
    Brian and Sheila Wrabley think so.
    “Don’t tell yourself you can’t, because you can,” he says. “The most we could lose is money, and we can always get that back. The greatest risk would be to pass up the chance to do something that will make you happy.”

Treks West Tours: