When you’re looking to travel from coast to coast, you’ve got several options; planes are the fastest, trains are probably the cheapest, the interstate is a good DIY choice. But for the adventurer, the Trans-America Trail (TAT) is one of the best. The TAT is a westbound dual-sport motorcycle trail across America on unpaved roads. Sam Corerro, original founder of the TAT, spent years passionately pursuing his goal of charting a coast-to-coast, off-pavement motorcycle adventure. After studying reams of maps and personally surveying thousands of miles of unpaved roadway, Corerro finalized this 5,000-mile route across America in 1999. Over a year ago, Land Rover, too, had the idea to travel across the continental United States completely off-road. Having heard of the TAT, Land Rover consultant and expedition guide Tom Collins was selected to lead a group of thrill-seeking journalists and film crew through the expedition. I was invited to join them after the first leg of the trip. How could I say no?
A few days before I flew in to join them, the caravan group started their journey in North Carolina at the Biltmore Estate. This seemed like a natural starting point as it houses the Land Rover Experience Driving School and a garage big enough to outfit the vehicles. The time they had already spent on the road saw them traveling through the eastern part of the U.S., finally reaching their destination in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
Rainfall followed me into Bartlesville. Excited about the day ahead but slavishly loyal to a good night’s rest, I scheduled a wake-up call for 5 a.m. and tried to sleep.
TAT Expedition Packing List
Filson Large Duffle
It’s not winning any awards from Louis Vuitton, but this spacious and unbreakable bag will hold more than you can lift.
Topo Designs Rover Pack
From the 1000d Cordura to the easily accessible design, this bag is made for the TAT. Colorado natives know a thing or two about rugged materials. I’d trust ’em.
Gerber Downrange Tomahawk
Easily hack your way through road-blocking debris with the Downrange Tomahawk. Also good for: fending off would-be vandals and modern-day stagecoach robbers along this dusty trail.
Filson Tin Cloth Packer Hat
Cold weather? Wet weather? Any weather? Wax this thing once a year and it’ll outlive you. Ditch the baseball cap, sonny. It’s time to channel your best Indiana Jones.
Fjallraven Keb Shirt
It’s made with rugged G1000 material, has mesh ventilation openings under the arms and across the back, and wins our nonexistent award for darn good lookin’ outdoor apparel.
Black Anchor Minimal Wallet
It won’t bother your bum when driving over rocky roads for hours. This minimal wallet by Black Anchor was the perfect solution to hold all the necessities.
“Good morning, Mr. Gallegos. Would you like a second wake up call in 15 minutes?”
The dreary agricultural town morning was dark, muggy and rainy. I gobbled some stale cereal, poured a cup of coffee from the gurgling automatic coffeemaker and headed out into the wet parking lot. The vehicles were already there.
Driving LR4s made sense because of their seven-passenger seating, excellent storage and ground clearance and impressive off-road capabilities. The LR4s were equipped with a Warn winch, OEM roof rack and three spare tires per vehicle. Other than that, these LR4s were completely stock, what you’d expect off the lot. The entire TAT was done using standard tires and Land Rover’s extremely capable Terrain Response system. This lack of outfitting was intentional, mind you. Land Rover was proving the versatility and rugged off-the-lot capability of their vehicles.
There was some confusion in the lot, initially. Which one was I driving, again?
“This one.” Tom Collins pointed out. “We’ll be the lead the car.”
Collins, a legend in his own right, was the U.S. Camel Trophy Team Coordinator from 1990 to 1998. Collins coached the team to a first place finish in 1993 and second place finishes in 1992 and 1996. He competed in the legendary 1987 Camel Trophy in Madagascar and placed second in a hotly contested finish. In his younger years Collins rocked a magnificently black ‘stache; he still possesses a towering stature. During our trip he donned Vietnam-era jungle boots, quick-drying fabrics and had a thing for beef jerky.
I threw my bags into the back as Collins secured the luggage with tie-downs. He fired up his laptop and Terratrip, an extremely precise electronic odometer. We traveled down a paved road for a few miles before turning left onto my first county road, which was scraped well with easy pebbles. The trip had officially begun.
We started in Eastern Oklahoma where, Google Earth would affirm, there is still quite a bit of greenery. This drive consisted of slowing for ruts, splashing through the frequent murky puddle and listening to Willie’s Roadhouse on satellite radio — just to remember that we were in the heartland. About 45 minutes had passed when we came to a section of seemingly impassable road. Collins and Warren Blevins, a Land Rover Experience driving instructor, decided that it would be best to wade out into the water to check the depth.
“If the water goes up to here”, Collins explained, pointing to his hip, “it’s too high. That’s where the air intakes are.”
Now we’re talkin’, I thought. Was I about to drive this $55,000+ LR4 over a flooded bridge with no visible roadway? Collins and Blevins walked out farther and farther until they stopped and looked at each other. I could see Collins mouth something to Blevins, who nodded in agreement. They looked back at me and shook their heads. It was a no go. Back at the car, Collins consulted his navigation software and found an alternate route. We moved on.
Collins was forced to reroute portions of the TAT to accommodate four-wheeled vehicles, but the route remained unchanged in all material respects. It wasn’t long before we got to another section of flooded road. I wondered if this, too, would be impassable. Again, Collins and Blevins waded out into the water to do the “hip test”, all the while keeping their eyes on a venomous water moccasin swimming nearby. After consultation, a cautious Collins and grinning Blevins eventually agreed that this road was passable. We were going to drive it.
“If the water goes up to here”, Collins explained, pointing to his hip, “it’s too high.”
We raised the ride height and adjusted the Terrain Response System as Collins came to warn me that “the road turns sharply to the left. It’s actually a small bridge, so if you go too far left you’ll fall into the creek.”
I moved the LR4 into the water at a slow but consistent pace. The objective, I was told, is to go fast enough to force a trough in the water, but not so fast that you catch up with it. This effectively lowers the water level at the front of the vehicle. “Piece of cake”, I thought.
Driving through that much water is an uneasy feeling, which was compounded by the fact that I’d never done anything like it before. I pushed forward into the water, immediately feeling the loss of traction. I’m not altogether sure if it was mental or physical, but I labored under keeping the wheel straight while all of my attention was focused on speed; not too fast, not too slow. This sort of thing takes a different, heightened awareness of every move the vehicle is making. Keenly aware of the perils of doubtful hesitation, I continued forward and made it across without a drop of water on me, thanks to the triple-sealed doors.
Kansas was about how you’d imagine it: flat fields, rows of corn, shockingly large tractors. Awfully remote. The LR4s handled effortlessly on these unpaved roads with our speed averaging about 45 MPH during this portion of the trip; Kansas rolled by.
This section of the trip allowed the mercifully comfortable interior of the LR4 to really shine. The beefy leather-wrapped steering wheel, large, grippy climate control knobs and a seven-inch touchscreen display made all the difference. I’m sure if you asked Collins he’d agree that we both enjoyed the dual-zone climate control; there was often a sizable variance in our temperature choice. It even had a refrigerator in the center armrest, which I made full use of. We wanted for nothing.
We traveled pretty quickly through this region of America. Many of Kansas and Oklahoma’s county roads are sectioned off into one mile by one mile grids. It’s amazing, really, how few natural barriers stand in the way of industrial progress. I imagined someone looking down a long, straight dirt road to see eight bi-xenon headlights twinkling through voluminous dust-cloud rooster tails spewing from our tires. We passed an isolated farmhouse on this particular county road that appeared like a mirage. As we approached, I saw a young boy atop a riding lawnmower on his front lawn, mouth agape as he watched four fully loaded, identical, large European SUVs pass right in front of him. I wonder if he told his mom or dad. Maybe he boasted to a school friend. If it’s because he liked the Land Rovers, he’s already got impeccable taste.
As we continued, we snagged the Oklahoma panhandle and then made our way into shrub-laden New Mexico. Fueling up at gas stations was always a treat. When you roll into a small town with four safari-chic Land Rovers, people notice. The LR4’s profile and upright posture are unmistakably distinct, and this car is the handsomest of the three redesigns since 1999. Add to that the fact that the LR4s had not seen a car wash since North Carolina and you’ve got a topic ripe for conversation. While some may have found our explanation dubious, the conversations ended with well wishes and “safe travels!” sending us off to our next destination. After one of these encounters Collins reminisced, “there’s a saying in Baja: good road, bad people. Bad road, good people.” How right he was.
The daily monsoon started, turning our confident rubble roadway into a muddy, slippery mess.
In New Mexico we wove in and out of tree trunks on canyon roads where violent floods had swept through several days earlier. The chainsaw that Collins strapped to the roof rack suddenly made more sense. We meandered our way through New Mexico for a couple hours before pushing north into Colorado, where Land Rover’s Terrain Response system shone brightly. Colorado natives are well aware that during the summer the afternoon usually brings rain through the mountains. On my last day there, we found this true at about 10,000 feet when the daily monsoon started, turning our confident rubble roadway into a muddy, slippery mess.
“No problem.” Tom affirmed. “We’ll put the car into second gear, adjust the Terrain Response system to ‘Mud and Ruts’ and ride it out. If things get really bad, we’ll turn on the Hill Descent Control.” The Terrain Response System — and Tom’s attitude — was reassuring. The system consists of driving modes that include: General Driving, Grass/Gravel/Snow, Mud and Ruts, Sand and Rock Crawl. Each subtly adjusts throttle response, traction control and ride height. The driver can couple this with Hill Descent Control, which will interface with the ABS to apply brake pressure when detecting slippage at the wheel. The combined result gives the driver appropriate control based on the situation. Intermittently using this technology, we made our way through the aspen-lined forests, basked in the shadows of the Spanish Peaks and headed down into the valley near Salida, CO, my last stop on this great expedition.
In a day where technology often removes the driver from the driving experience, Land Rover has leveraged their innovations to do quite the opposite. They couple luxury and utility to drag drivers out of their comfort zone and encourage them to enjoy the outdoors. Did Land Rover need to execute this audacious, six-week, largely off-road trip for us to believe in the LR4? No, they didn’t. But they did anyways. That spirit matches the Trans-America Trail, and I’m glad I got to experience both.