JOINING THE TEAM


I joined the expedition at Silver Lake Campground, their planned finishing point for that day's drive. Everything had been on schedule until they came upon two downed trees blocking the road. After some chainsaw work, they finally reached camp after dark.

Once there, they tore open some freeze-dried meals, added hot water, and we talked about how the expedition had gone so far. They told me about the stretch on an old railroad route where the ties and rails had been removed. They described an area where wild horses paced the Land Rovers as they drove. Then a herd of antelope crossed the road and started pacing the horses, then outran them. (Turns out, on the range, the antelope really do play.) As the Rovers drove at about 38 mph, the horses fell back a little -- but not the antelope, which can run as fast as 60 mph. There was also the spot in Oregon at a gas stop, where they saw light planes land on the highway and fill up at the same pumps as the Land Rovers. The fire risk was too high to set a campfire, so we chatted by the light of the near-full moon and watched the International Space Station zoom by. Then we set up camp, and as I drifted off to sleep, I wondered if I had missed the best parts of this adventure. As I soon discovered, there was plenty of excitement to come.

Wake-up call at 5:30 the next morning came way too quickly, but to stay on schedule, we had to get moving by 6:30. We broke down camp, and all four Land Rovers, packed with safety equipment and camping gear, headed out. On the first day, I drove the lead vehicle. TC was in the front passenger seat, calling out the next instruction, which was typically something like, "In 4.2 miles, turn left at the T." Then, as we got close, he would remind me of the turn and clear the TerraTrip computer when we got there, making it much easier to stay on course. There were times when, even though we were going the right way and we were on a public road, there'd be a gate we'd have to open to continue. But we were careful to close the gate behind us after we passed through.

Things went just fine on the first day. The Land Rover was comfortable on the trail, and the four-wheel-drive system worked perfectly. The LR4 was the right combination of luxury and capability: We enjoyed the amenities the vehicle had to offer, but the Landie felt totally at home on the trail and looked perfect covered in dirt and loaded with gear. We were experiencing the out of doors in style.

It wasn't long before we were in the Oregon backcountry, but this stretch wasn't an example of the typical Pacific Northwest. Views were of wide expanses covered with scrub brush, the trail was littered with small, sharp rocks, and we passed meadows covered in tall grasses. However, as we continued, we ventured into the true Pacific Northwest, where a two-track trail seemed to bisect lush forest. The trees towered overhead and provided a cooling canopy as we drove. The shaded trail also offered excellent hiding places for rocks, but we didn't have to deal with any flats because of them. This section of the TAT was more technical than when we had started -- we had to carefully work our way over ruts, and the trail was steeper. It was also quite narrow in spots, to the point where smaller branches and overgrowth broke off as we drove past.

We started to see a lot more wildlife, and I initially thought we were simply lucky to see it all. After we narrowly avoided hitting a deer that had darted into the road, we saw Rocky Mountain Elk, mule deer, blacktail deer, two mountain lions, a bear, and a coyote. Then we starting hearing news of forest fires in the area, and came to the conclusion that the high amount of wildlife may have been animals trying to escape the fires.

We were near Tiller, Oregon, and for the most part, we were on schedule for the day. There had been some challenges along the way -- at one point, there was a tree that had fallen that was partially blocking the road, but we lowered the Land Rover's air suspension to shimmy under it -- but were doing fine on time. We were supposed to stay at Cover Campground, and when we arrived after dark, the campground was empty, but open. No gates blocked the entrance, no signs indicated it was closed, so we unpacked the LR4s and set up camp. When some of the people in our group went to pay for the use of the campsites, they saw a small piece of paper on the bulletin board that said the campground was in the Whiskey Fire exclusion zone. So we had to pack everything up, head back up the way we came, and find a place to camp in the middle of nowhere. That ended up being an even better spot to stop for the night, and we ate by the light of the moon and the headlights of the Land Rovers.

The next day, for most of the morning, we managed to avoid road closures due to the Whiskey Fire. Problems began after we went into town for lunch. Roads were blocked off for fire department access. This was due to another set of forest fires, the Douglas Complex. The fire department had set up at the local high school, and we went inside, so we could go over maps and road closures with the FD's information officer. This second set of fires brought the conflagration total to six in the area. We were so close to the finish, and it looked like there was no way we could get to the end of the TAT.

Then TC came up with another plan. It involved taking an extended detour, skirting around the fire and getting to the other side of the roadblock, driving as much on dirt as possible. This was the only way we could still drive the trail and finish what we had set out to do. We got to the backside of the roadblock, and by that time, the road was reopened. We reached the exact place where we had left the trail earlier. Even though the roads were open, the whole mountain was smoldering. We may have lost a couple of miles on dirt road, but managed to drive the TAT safely through the areas where the fires had scorched the forest. We went as far as we could, then stopped for the night. Mother Nature did her best, and while she slowed us down, she didn't stop us. Having gotten through the Whiskey and Douglas fires, we wondered what obstacle was waiting for us next. It didn't take long to find out.

The next morning, so close to the end we could practically smell the ocean air, the road we were supposed to take was mostly washed out. It was a strange image -- we were on a gravel road that wound its way through gorgeous firs, with massive ferns framing the trees' trunks, and came upon a huge crater where the road used to be. Fortunately, there was enough room for the Land Rovers to pass on one side. We got through, with the help of a spotter.

After that, the trail got easier, and we grew silent as we realized that this journey was about to come to an end. That provided an opportunity to speak with TC about the expedition. Asked about how much experience he thinks an SUV driver would need to do this trail, he replied, "You know, most of the driving isn't that difficult. You would have to have some basic off-road experience to get through the canyons in Utah. Where the skill comes in is with the navigation. Trying to do it with just the roll charts, you really have to pay attention to Sam's tulips [pictures of each intersection] and you have to have a resettable odometer. We have a TerraTrip, because everything is down to hundredths. That made it easy. But I also spent 15 days, 14-18 hours a day, putting all the points in my laptop on DeLorme Topo USA. I had to be sure the cars would fit, because cars had never done it before. For someone who wants to give it a try, I would buy Sam's track logs, and then you have the GPS, and get the roll charts. You have to pay attention."

We drove on, and the gravel road gave way to a paved road, and it wasn't long before the street we were on crossed Interstate 101. We had done it. Land Rover had completed the Trans-America Trail and was the first to do it in SUVs. The vehicles completed the trip with a lot more miles on the odometer, but none the worse for wear. The expedition traveled over more than 4300 miles and took 27 days, and while everyone who had been on the journey from the start was exhausted, they were sad to see it come to an end.