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.

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.

SOURCE
Trans-America Trail
http://www.transamtrail.com/
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