Land Rover, in all of its worldly and adventurous spirit, figured it ought to be the first off-road-friendly make to tackle the Trans-American Trail — a system of unpaved back roads, ATV trails and desert goat paths created for motorcyclists, running from North Carolina to the Oregon coast.
And so, roughly a month ago, a quartet of fully loaded Land Rover LR4 SUVs hit the very dusty road from the Biltmore Hotel in Asheville, N.C., and headed west into parts unknown, faithfully following the trail’s route.
I got a chance to join up with Land Rover Expedition America a week ago in Richfield, Utah, as the vehicles continued their grueling journey across the most exciting parts of the entire trail. Oddly enough, for those of you who’ve driven to Vegas a few times, much of the first day’s journey was within visual range of the Interstate, though we had a very, very different experience — with journalists at the wheel the whole trip.
Back east, they’d survived waist-deep, flash-flooded river crossings in Oklahoma and, more recently, a 15-hour day on the San Rafael Swell. Now we had some uncharted territory ahead of us in the Fishlake National Forest. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that nobody with the Land Rover team had actually physically scouted the trail.
Tom “T.C.” Collins, a Carbondale-based Land Rover program guide, had first suggested the trip to the company more than two decades ago, and served as navigator on this trip. He’d recently eyeballed almost the entire route (available from trail founder Sam Correro’s website, on a long reel of maps made for motorcycle riders) using zoomed-in Google Earth maps at home. But he admitted this chunk might be iffy, as he really couldn’t tell how wide some of the trails were.
Like each of the previous 150- to 200-mile days, T.C. and his crew were on the road by 7 a.m., this day with hopes of making it to the funky Border Inn hotel near Baker, Nev., by sunset. We had a lot of territory to cross — but if we didn’t make it, the burly SUVs were also loaded up with roof racks carrying fuel, a dwindling supply of spare tires, plus loads of camping gear and an entire pallet of freeze-dried camp food. They’d pitched tents at 10,000 feet near Lake City a few nights before and woke up to a dusting of snow the next morning.
After hitting a couple of dead ends several hours up the West Mountain Road, including a rocky chute into Cottonwood Creek that looked promising but ended up being nothing more than a mountain-bike trail, T.C. admitted he’d done everything he could, but he’d have to find a better workaround.
We ended up backtracking down the mountain, crossing under I-70 and into Joseph, then back around through the Fremont Indian State Park and up Clear Creek Canyon on gravel roads — in order to rejoin the official motorcycle route, and end up grabbing a much-needed lunch in Kanosh.
The rest of my portion of trip, as far as Battle Mountain, Nev., took us on a mix of wide-open desert roads, winding pinyon pine canyons and mining trails. We crossed the Pony Express route near Eureka, Nev., and we concluded that trail founder Correro might have a slightly masochistic streak — each day, as we neared our much-needed stopping point, the trail would suddenly veer off of improved gravel roads and head onto a cow trail or through a rocky ravine for four miles.
But the duo of motorcycle riders from Truckee, Calif., whom we shadowed for three days (some days they were the only people we encountered) said they loved the variety of the route, and were also pretty amazed to see the Land Rovers successfully tackling the terrain. The team told me they had four days of camping ahead in the Nevada and Oregon deserts, with some worries about being able to get fuel — but all part of the adventure.