We were so close to the finish. So close. Yet Mother Nature was doing her best to keep this group of Land Rovers from reaching its destination on the coast of Oregon, at the end of the Trans-America Trail. Much of the trip had already gone quite well. The goal had been to be the first sport/utility vehicles to take the TAT, created by Sam Correro, to get from coast to coast on dirt roads. So far, there had been no damage to the vehicles.

The group that went on this journey, a combination of Land Rover employees, photographers, and videographers, called it the Land Rover Expedition America. They equipped four 2013 Land Rover LR4s for the trip. While they kept them stock, they added a winch up front, a roof rack and rear ladder, and waterproof seat covers -- all available through Land Rover dealerships. The SUVs also retained the stock tires. The expedition team was led by Tom "TC" Collins, an off-road instructor who has worked with Land Rover for more than 25 years. Collins spent extensive time plotting out the route based on Correro's maps, and brought a GPS navigation system along as well. He was the group's navigator. Gear stowed in the vehicles and on the roof racks, maps and GPS equipment set up, we were ready.

THE TRAIL


The group had left the east coast almost a month earlier, following Sam Correro's trail the whole way. Correro had wondered if there was a way to get from coast to coast without driving on paved roads. He spent 30 years researching the idea, and after solid years of driving different routes throughout the United States, he finalized his Trans-America Trail. He is an avid motorcyclist and designed the trail for dual-sport motorcycles. The trail is familiar to people who explore on two-wheeled vehicles, but isn't widely known outside of the motorcycle overlanding community. Land Rover was determined to be the first to complete the trail in SUVs. And they weren't about to cut any corners. Once the team was on the trail, they did everything they could to stay on the trail. Anyone who left the trail for any reason would have to come back in the same spot where they left.

One of the nice things about the TAT is that, while the roads aren't paved, they are public roads. Anyone who has a vehicle that is capable of driving on dirt can drive this route, and as long as you follow the instructions and GPS locations, you will always be on legal, public roads. Many of the roads are used by the Forestry Service, are logging roads, or follow already existing routes. So how is it a motorcycle trail is one that's now wide enough for SUVs to drive on? The trail has changed over time. Carrero rerouted it to accommodate wider motorcycles, so in many spots the trail is now a two-track trail, wide enough to accommodate SUVs. He also adhered to all Tread Lightly! principles. A pleasant surprise that came from that was that all of the roads we were on were in the LR4's navigation system from the factory. So in addition to Carrero's GPS notes and TC's navigation software, we also had the reaffirmation provided by the vehicle's own nav system.

THE EXPEDITION BEGINS


Land Rover's off-road driving school at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, served as the meeting place for the team, but the actual trail begins in Tellico Plains, Tennessee. After driving through Tennessee, the trail wound down to Mississippi, where the team hit the lowest elevation along the route -- 172 feet above sea level at the Mississippi Delta. From there, the elevation increased as they went through the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas, where the trail was more than 90 percent dirt.

It was at this point on the journey that the drivers discovered one of the best things about being on the TAT was the people they met along the way. Since many of the unpaved roads and trails wound through small towns, shop owners and people in restaurants would soon learn if out-of-towners were passing through, and whether they were driving the TAT. All the locals were very enthusiastic about the TAT. Arkansas has hand-painted signs welcoming people on the trail. Many stores had books for people on the TAT to sign, and folks there had stories to tell about the motorcyclists who had already completed the trail. However, no one knew of any SUVs that had done the whole thing. When they found out why four dirt-encrusted Land Rovers were in town, many locals said, "Cars don't do Trans-America Trail," cars being anything on four wheels.

From there, it was on to Oklahoma, where the route was more than 90 percent unpaved. And as the team continued west, the landscape continued to change. On this stretch, the team dealt with its first big obstacle: flash flooding. Creeks along the route had turned into hazardous water crossings. They had to walk in first to gauge how deep the water was, and find a way to get through or around them (and past the poisonous water snakes) without skipping any of the trail.

After that, the geography changed again, as the team made its way to -- and through -- the Great Plains. This gave them the opportunity to travel at higher speeds. They observed that, at the 101st parallel, trees changed from eastern species to sagebrush and cottonwoods. The geography changed almost as abruptly at the New Mexico border, and the team spotted their first antelope. And they narrowly avoided being stuck in flash floods again. From there, the expedition continued to Colorado, where the team drove over the Rocky Mountains. They crossed the Continental Divide, took the Hancock and Tomichi Passes, Cinnamon Pass, California Pass (at 12,960 feet, it was the highest elevation of the expedition), Hurricane Pass, and Corkscrew Pass. They also rode some classic off-road trails, such as Black Bear Pass, on a side trip. From Telluride, the team went to the back woods by Dunton Hot Springs, where they encountered mud and big water holes. When the Land Rovers got stuck in a big mud hole, the drivers had to back out and find another off-road route.

In Utah, they drove through the LaSalle Mountains behind Moab on simple gravel roads, went down toward Moab, and did the Fins and Things trail. From there, they went to Gemini Bridges, and then got into Black Dragon Canyon, where they drove with 200-foot-high walls on each side. Dropping down into Devils Canyon, the off-roading got much more challenging. The Land Rovers had to be put into low range, and spotters were needed to get through.

Continuing on, the team rolled into the desert, where western Utah looks much like Nevada. This region was fine for the LR4 drivers, as the Land Rovers were comfortable, air conditioned, and did a good job sealing out the dust, but it isn't as much fun for motorcyclists. As TC explained, "At the end of Nevada, they think they've been through hell. The silt beds, the deep, deep gravel, it's just a long, hot slog for those guys. For us, it was great." They spotted plenty of animals along the way, such as wild burros, wild horses, mule deer, and a lot of antelope. They drove past old, abandoned ranches, saw cattle, and passed through open country. Soon, the team briefly traversed California, then drove into Oregon, and as they continued north and west, the trees got bigger and more spectacular.