In it for the long run, off road

Andy Stonehouse
Special to the Daily
Guide Jim West helps a driver negotiate a portion of the road in the Great Basin National Park in Nevada.
Special to the Daily |

Given the plowed and paved nature of the greater American landscape, you’d probably think it unlikely you could get from sea to shining sea on old-fashioned dirt roads. A few years back, Sam Correro, an enterprising pharmacist from the deep South — who really enjoyed long dirt-bike rides on his vacations — cobbled together the Trans-America Trail, a 5,000-mile-long system of unpaved back roads, ATV trails and desert goat paths, from North Carolina to Oregon.

Land Rover, in all of its worldly and adventurous spirit, reckoned it ought to be the first full-size, four-wheel vehicle to tackle the entire trail system. 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 out west into parts unknown, faithfully following Correro’s route.

I got a chance to join up with the Land Rover Expedition America in mid-August in Richfield, Utah, as the vehicles continued their often-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 journey was within visual range of the interstate, though we had a very, very different experience.

“I knew that this could be a problem, as so much of this area was designated for ATVs only — and this is where Google Earth doesn’t quite help.”
Tom “T.C.” Collins
Longtime Land Rover guide

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In the saddle

During the first weeks of the trip, 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, not to mention crossing the whole of central Nevada’s and eastern Oregon’s deserts, en route to a finish on the coast in Northbend, Ore. So far, they’d had seven punctured tires, but no other mechanical issues, and had consumed about a metric ton of beef jerky and trail mix.

Perhaps the most surprising thing is that nobody with the Land Rover team had actually physically pre-scouted the trail, especially these potentially dodgy bits out West.

I got to spend several long, long days in the saddle — they made the visiting journalists drive the whole way — with navigator and Carbondale native Tom “T.C.” Collins, a longtime Land Rover program guide who’d first suggested the trip to the company more than two decades ago.

T.C.’s the kind of guy who talks casually about floating 4x4s across South American jungle streams or through roadless spots in Borneo or Madagascar (he was a winning participant in the Camel Trophy adventure race series).

We had, for better or worse, joined him the day where his extensive reel of Trans-America Trail maps, full laptop-based GPS and DeLorme map books all “suggested” we could make it from Richfield to Kanosh on increasingly smaller and smaller roads. He’d eyeballed almost the entire route 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 — including fellow guide Jim West, another Camel Trophy vet, plus Land Rover company support staff and a full photo and video crew — were on the road by 7 a.m., today with hopes of making it to the funky Border Inn hotel near Baker, Nev., by sunset.

Not to worry, as 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.

A rocky route — to nowhere

After hitting a couple of dead ends two 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 bigger workaround: “I knew that this could be a problem, as so much of this area was designated for ATVs only — and this is where Google Earth doesn’t quite help,” he said.

We ended up backtracking down the mountain and into Joseph, then back around through the Fremont Indian State Park and up Clear Creek Canyon Road 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., who 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 whole route. 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.

Andy Stonehouse is a Denver-based automotive writer whose work appears regularly in Ski Magazine, the Salt Lake Tribune, the Boulder Daily Camera and the Summit Daily News.

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