We had the good fortune of connecting with Helen West and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Helen, can you walk us through the thought-process of starting your business?
Anyone who has been through the US school system knows that teachers has summers “off”. Most people also know that most teachers take a second job during the summer to support themselves & their families.

As a high school student, I worked for a tour company in Alaska that took guests from the cruise ships biking & hiking for the day. I loved that job. I loved meeting new people, and telling them about the history, ecology and culture that made my small town special.

When I moved to southwest Colorado, I wanted a summer job much like the job I had growing up. The tour companies near Cortez, however, focus primarily on rafting, ATVs/jeeps, or taking folks to Mesa Verde National Park.

I actually started a business several years ago, West Adventure Tours, with hopes to guide longer hikes in Sand Canyon and the San Juan National Forest. For various reasons this business did not work out and it folded in 2019 before the pandemic started.

Cortez Tours is the West Adventure Tours 2.0. The tours I am offering and developing now are shorter (less than 2 hours). I found in my first business endeavor that folks in and around Cortez often have longer day trips already planned, and so early morning or evening tours work better in the city. I also offer my sunrise tours on the Airbnb Experience website, which has given me confidence these smaller tours might work for a place like Cortez.

I’m not sure where the Cortez Tours company will go, but the big dream is to someday have enough demand for our tours that I will need to employee energetic young people as guides, much like where I got my start.

Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I think I am most proud of being a teacher. (My day job is a high school band director/music teacher at Shiprock High School on the Northern Navajo Nation in New Mexico.) Public education is a challenging career, filled with low pay, lots of bureaucracy, and long hours. I struggle often with work-life balance and frustration with how society & the system treats teachers. Still, when a student has that “ah ha!” moment or is able to play through the piano piece they’ve been working on for two weeks, or when the marching band performs at half time, I am filled with such admiration and pride that it makes teaching worth the struggle.

When I think of Cortez Tours, I want people to know that I am primarily that – a teacher. For me, being a teacher is not only about passing knowledge & skills to others but fostering relationships and building community. I want my tours and my company to do this too. I hope guests of Cortez Tours walk away having learned something new and feeling like made new friends.

In my experience as a teacher – and a business owner – I’ve learned a couple of important things:

1) Take things slowly – change & learning & growth happens over a lifetime and it’s impossible to rush it. Letting things (like skills, knowledge, a business or relationships!) grow naturally ensures lasting success.

2) Conflict is good – when something feels wrong: STOP! Evaluate the uncomfortable feeling to figure out the problem and then address the issue. Sometimes this means apologizing for a mistake or eliminating an element of your business that is not working. Conflict can be hard and upsetting, but if you tackle problems when they first come up you save yourself a lot of headache later on.

3) Have fun! That is not to say building a business or walking into work everyday isn’t easy….but I find that if I’m not having fun on the day to day there is something wrong that I am not addressing (see point 2!). Life is hard enough, I think we all should try to have fun through it!

If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Oh goodness, there is so much to the seemingly sleepy town of Cortez! I love lists, so I’ll make a quick list of the highlights of Cortez!

Weird & Wacky Things:
– Pipe People on P: At the 25600 block on County Road P, someone has created this strange & delightful homage to the Wild West using mufflers. It’s definitely strange and worth a visit!

– The Colorado Trail Mural at the corner of Main & Market St. I always tell people to find the jeep that doesn’t exist in this 1880 depiction of the Colorado Trail!

– Main Street Brewery – the oldest brewery in Montezuma County housed in a rumored old slaughterhouse with the craziest murals and artwork on the walls! I love stopping here for a beer and burger in the afternoon.

My Favorites (obviously food related!): I love eating out so here are my highlights:

– Lounging Lizard – My partner and I love to eat here. It’s got great American fare with a southwest twist and good mixed drinks. I recommend the Prickly Pear Margarita! (Or Prickly Pear Lemonade if you don’t drink!)

– WildEdge Brewing Collective – I love this place. You can always find a friend here, it’s filled with good people, good food, and great beer!

– La Casita – best place for Mexican food & Margaritas in the county! Definitely sit on the Wild West-themed patio!

– Thai Cortez – it’s surprising to find SUCH GOOD Thai food in the middle of nowhere Colorado, but we have it in Cortez! Unfortunately because of the pandemic, Thai Cortez no longer has dine-in seating, but if you like Thai food, this is definitely worth a trip!

Outdoors: If you’ve come to Colorado, obviously you need to get outside!
– Hawkins Preseve is worth a walk around – but I’d recommend checking this place out by taking the Mesa Verde Sunrise Tour from Cortez Tours! (yes, shamelss plug!)

– Mountain Biking at Phil’s World is an absolute MUST.

– Paddle Boarding on the McPhee Resevoir – did you know there’s a flooded ghost town at the bottom of McPhee? That’s right, t Colorado’s 5th largest lake gets it’s name from the town that was intentionally flooded to create the reservoir!

The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
There are so many people I’d like to shoutout for helping me become the person I am today, and unfortunately this blurb probably won’t hit them all. I definitely want to give credit to my parents: Kate & Rand who have dreamed and planned and been behind me all the way. I also want to shoutout Jeff from Alaska, original founder of Sitka Bike & Hike for giving me my first job! The company Jeff built sparked my love of telling stories & passing on knowledge. I really credit not only my desire to start Cortez Tours, but also that I went into education to Jeff and my job at Sitka Bike & Hike. Finally, I want to shoutout a fellow business owner and my dear friend, Aly Hansen. She runs Star Hopper Henna and has just an incredible hustle. She inspires me, gives me advice and is always the most supportive friend. Life in Cortez wouldn’t be the same without her – she’s amazing.

Website: https://www.corteztours.com/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/cortez.tours/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/cortezco.tours

Yelp: https://www.yelp.com/biz/cortez-tours-cortez

Nominate Someone: ShoutoutColorado is built on recommendations and shoutouts from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you or someone you know deserves recognition please let us know here.