Call us crazy, but our idea of a great road trip involves something other than spending our nights in overcrowded campgrounds and our days elbowing through busloads of tourists just to get a prepackaged glimpse of America's natural beauty.
While we'd freely admit that any day on the road is a good day, our best travel experiences have always come when we've managed to get ourselves well off the beaten path. That, combined with a desire to travel in comfort, was what led to our Ultimate Adventure Vehicle project.
A Plan Is Born
Our initial goal was simple: Turn a screaming yellow one-ton Ford cargo van into a rolling base camp. It would comfortably support friends and family on extended rambles through those places on the map where signs of civilization are blessedly few and far between.
To help us turn that vision into reality, we sought help from the folks at Sportsmobile West in Fresno, California. The company has been building camper vans since the 1960s, equipping them with aftermarket four-wheel-drive systems for more than a decade.
The crew at Sportsmobile grafted on an impressive new four-wheel-drive system of their own design. They filled the interior with all the amenities you'd find inside a full-size motorhome. Finally, they shoehorned in a long list of aftermarket accessories ranging from fun (a trick in-motion satellite-TV system) to functional (a 12,000-pound winch) to create a truck that would allow us to get out of town with previously unknown levels of comfort and convenience.
To see how well our completed rig lived up to its Ultimate Adventure Vehicle billing, we planned an epic road trip. The loose itinerary we laid out would put the concept to the test in three remote locales, covering several thousand miles on everything from crowded urban Interstates to remote boulder-strewn trails.
More than anything else, however, our plan was designed to squeeze more starry skies, spectacular landscapes, and memorable adventures into two weeks' time than most folks could pack into an entire year.
On the Rocks
Of all the modifications made to our E-350 cargo van, none was more intriguing than Sportsmobile West's new four-wheel-drive system. The set-up combines rockcrawler-quality hardware--including a DynaTrac ProRock 60 front axle, ARB air lockers, and Advance Adapters Atlas II gear-driven transfer case--with a suspension design that has more than 24 inches of front-wheel articulation. The result is an incredibly off-road-capable production vehicle, and we were eager to see what this sucker could really do.
To put this all-terrain motorhome through its paces, we headed to Moab, Utah, the unofficial capital of four-wheeling, where we met off-road driving instructor and backcountry guide Bill Burke. This former Camel Trophy competitor has trained everyone from novices to military special-ops types.
We'd already had a fair amount of off-road instruction and experience in other vehicles, so even though our big yellow van hadn't yet so much as dropped a wheel off the pavement, Burke decided to throw us into the deep end of the pool. Over the next three days, we tackled some of the area's best-known trails, encountering everything from serious slickrock obstacles to late-season snowdrifts nearly as deep as the van was tall.
From Elephant Hill Road to the Silver Stairs, our factory-stock Sportsmobile crawled up and down terrain rugged enough to make most Jeep owners think twice. Each time we motored through seemingly insurmountable obstacles with relative ease, we found ourselves shaking our heads in disbelief at what this 9000-pound truck could do.
Hit the Beach
Having sweated Moab's toughest trails, we turned northwest to the cooler San Juan Islands above Seattle.
We took the ferry from Anacortes to San Juan Island and the quaint town of Friday Harbor and spent the night at the island's picture-perfect county park. The next morning, we met Martine Springer, executive director of Sea Quest Kayak Expeditions.
Kayaks were lowered off the Yakima roof racks and paddles, life jackets and spray skirts dug out of the Blacktop Pro 21 cargo box. The van's interior served as a changing room as we suited up.
After a thorough safety orientation on the beach, we slid into our Dagger Specter 14 single and Perception Carolina II 17.5 tandem kayaks and paddled south along the island's rocky shoreline, past the lavish waterfront homes of the rich and famous and the historic Lime Kiln lighthouse. Along the way, our small group stopped for marine biology lessons from Martine, which included a Ewell Gibbons moment as she invited us to taste fresh-plucked bull kelp leaves.
Appetizers out of the way, we stopped for lunch on the sheltered beach at Deadman's Bay. As we ate, Martine explained more about the history and marine life of Haro Straight and passed around the photo-filled charts that researchers use to help identify individual members of the three local orca pods by the distinctive shapes of their dorsal fins and markings.
Despite paddling through some of the pods' favorite fishing grounds, those photos turned out to be the closest we'd come to the big toothy beasts. All was not lost, however, as our full day of paddling was rewarded with the kind of spectacular sunset that we seem to see only when we're on the road.
From the northwest corner of Washington, it was a straight shot down Interstate 5 into the heart of Northern California's Bigfoot country and a rendezvous with mountain-bike and fly-fishing guide Tim Harris.
It may not have the same reputation for world-class mountain biking as southeastern Utah, but the wild and wooly area of northern California between Redding and Eureka is filled with miles of intermediate to advanced mountain-biking trails. The possibility of an encounter with the legendary Bigfoot (the area boasts one of the highest numbers of recorded Sasquatch sightings in the U.S.) only added to the fun.
Tim led us to one of his favorite mountain-bike trails just outside the historic mining town of Weaverville. Our two Scott mountain bikes came off the rack, and we spent the morning exploring miles of sweet single-track with dramatic views of snow-covered Mount Shasta, Lassen Peak, and the Trinity Alps.
Having worked up a good sweat, we loaded up the bikes and headed for nearby Lewiston Lake at the edge of the Trinity Alps Wilderness Area. There, we wanted to see if we could tempt any trout with Harris's pheasant-tail nymph flies. After a few hours working out the kinks in our technique, we'd managed to reel in and release a couple of nice rainbows.
With a monstrous appetite urging us on, we headed back to our four-wheel-drive studio apartment where the kitchen yielded salmon filets with ginger sauce, wild rice, and steamed asparagus washed down with a bottle of excellent wine.
On the Road Again
We logged nearly 3000 miles in those two weeks, and through it all our Ultimate Adventure Vehicle proved an ideal traveling companion. With its combination of moderate ride and handling, respectable fuel economy, serious off-road capability, and numerous creature comforts, the van allowed us to get away from it all in style. Our only regret is that we're not still out on the road--but we're always ready to set out at a moment's notice for all those places on the map where the road ends and fun begins.
Resources--Creating Your Own Ultimate Adventure
• Bill Burke's Four Wheeling America We learned more in the 72 hours we spent with Bill Burke than in all the other four-wheel-drive training programs we've attended combined. Add his encouraging teaching style, easygoing manner, and sense of humor, and we wish we could take Bill everywhere.www.bb4wa.com ; 970/858-3468.
•Sea Quest Kayak Expeditions
This company has been leading day trips and overnight tours through the San Juan Islands for 17 years--and it shows. The operation's highly knowledgeable guides--who, like the exceptional Martine Springer, have degrees in the natural sciences--give its tours a uniquely educational twist. www.sea-quest-kayak.com; 888/589-4253.
• Tim Harris's Guide Service
Whatever outdoor pursuit you have in mind, Tim Harris can arrange it from his Northern California base of operations. Fly fishing, mountain biking, snowshoeing, and backpacking are just a few of the possibilities in the hundreds of square miles of wilderness he calls his back yard. HarrisFlyFishing@hotmail.com; 530/356-5076.
Locking differentialsAir compressor
|Check Corporation |
Head unit, DVD, monitor, nav system
Viper GPS tracking system
Recovery gear, Hi-Lift jack, straps
HID, fog, and backup lights
|KVH Industries |
Satellite TV, antenna
|Right Away Fleet Graphics|
|Scepter Military Products|
Carbon-fiber dash overlay
4WD & interior conversion
|Tim Barker Studio|
|The Tire Rack|
|Xantrex Technology Inc.|
Cargo box, kayak stacker, bike carrier