From the bottom of the hill the driver is instructed to get more of a running start, to charge into the grooves already carved by his previous efforts to climb the slick incline, and to keep his foot in the throttle as he passes the two tree roots that have so far, quite literally, stopped him in his tracks. It looks as though he just might make it this time; but just as with the first three attempts, the brand new Land Rover — still shiny and new except for the wheels, whose finish is already worn through to the primer and are currently encased in fresh mud clear through to the brakes — comes to a stop after crossing the first tree root, all four wheels spinning madly for traction but without enough momentum to carry them through.
“Still no good. We’re gonna have to go ahead and pull out the straps and winch it up.” And with that announcement, the new 2010 Land Rover LR4 concedes to the forces of nature.
This is a big disappointment for the handful of witnesses standing around in the woods on the Biltmore Estate, which is where we’ve come for this sloppy Land Rover experience. Never mind that the trail is nothing more than a slick of Carolina clay, that the ruts are so deep the chassis is dragging in spots (even with the air suspension at full lift), or that the tires doing the clawing are the same all-seasons that come on every suburban Mall Rover. We all expect the LR4 to conquer the terrain. That’s what Land Rovers do. But not this time.
The lesson here is this: Sometimes Mother Nature kicks your ass, and you have to have a back-up plan if you want to make it home — you and your vehicle — in one piece. Our Plan B for this deep, slick rut on the hillside is to wrap a strap around the biggest tree we can find, hook it up to the winch already installed on the LR4 and let the electric motor pull the big machine to more secure ground. It also means the LR4 now becomes the tow vehicle for the Range Rover Sport behind it; it’s no coincidence the truck with the winch goes first. Later that day we’d move to Plan C, which involves chain saws. Welcome to class at the Land Rover Experience Driving School.
The school at Biltmore is one of four such facilities in North America that Land Rover has created not only for the benefit of its owners, but also for the education and enjoyment of anyone with an interest in learning proper off-road driving technique. Here, students get a one-on-one education from a certified off-road instructor — everything from the basics of ascending and descending hills to more advanced skills like winching and towing — all from the helm of someone else’s brand new Land Rover. Each school teaches the same basic program, but the natural terrain at a particular facility dictates a wide variety of potential scenarios. Students at the Quail Lodge in Carmel, California, encounter dry, rocky conditions while those who attend the school at either the Equinox Resort in Vermont or the Fairmont le Chateau in Montebellow, Quebec, are more likely to deal with snow and wet weather. At Biltmore, the clay is a major factor, as we’ve already discovered.
If this off-road driving school sounds like nothing more than a slick marketing ploy to get people into Land Rover showrooms, you should spend some time talking to the guys giving the lessons. They’ll be candid (off the record of course) about which other vehicles can perform the same trail magic and which ones are total marketing hype. The focus of the school is entirely on teaching the skills needed to survive in an expedition driving scenario, not the features and benefits of Land Rover vehicles. What you learn here can be applied universally. The instructors — most of whom had previous careers in either the military or some other he-mannish, outdoorsy profession — are far from salesman. They make it clear that’s not their job. They’ll gladly explain how to use Terrain Response or Hill Descent Control, but you won’t be subjected to a spiel on why these features make Land Rovers superior to other vehicles that lack them. As one of our guides said, “We just teach the driving; the cars pretty much speak for themselves.” Cleary they do, as our guides’ personal vehicles include a couple of kitted-out Discoveries and even a Defender 110 diesel. They may not be salesmen, but it is safe to say they’re believers.
The grounds of Biltmore, George Vanderbilt’s monumental estate in western North Carolina, are ideal for teaching the fundamentals of off-roading to novices and more experienced drivers alike. With more than 5000 acres of woodlands and hills to explore, this classroom is far more than a simple 4×4 park with some synthesized obstacles and a mud pool. The trails used by the school are old logging and fire roads; a few of the paths have been cleared (if that’s even an adequate term; “identified” is more like it) specifically for the program. At several points the only way across a creek is by log bridge. Only the deep-water fording pools, which are adjacent to and fed by the French Broad River that bisects the property, appear to have been created specifically for the sake of driving Land Rovers through them. Otherwise the vast landscape is filled with natural obstacles, and the sheer quantity of trail options (there’s more than a hundred miles of trail on the estate) means no section of the estate gets overdriven; even for the instructors, each session represents an unknown.
That is why we later find ourselves at yet another impasse, this time with a fallen tree in our pathway. We’ve been stomping over fallen limbs all day, but at nearly a foot in diameter and elevated more than a couple feet off the pathway, there’s no way we’re driving over this one. Time to go to Plan C. Out comes a gas-powered chainsaw, and in a matter of minutes the trunk is cut into sections and moved out of the way; our convoy proceeds unscathed as a result of preparing for the worst. Shortly afterward, the LR4 is once again challenged by a muddy vertical ascent, bringing out the winch and strap one more time; not long after that, yet another fallen tree momentarily halts our progress while the chainsaw gets another workout.
Our four hours in the mud and rocks and trees come to an uneventful close; nothing is broken, none are left behind, there isn’t even any damage beyond the helpless wheel finish. We return to the lodge exhausted from a day of getting in and out of the trucks, slogging through the thick clay and just driving with such intent focus. Amazingly, the same fleet of muddy Rovers we’d just been abusing in the woods arrives back at the inn a couple hours later, spotlessly clean, to take us to dinner.
This unique ability to blend so seamlessly both ruggedness and refinement is at the core of Land Rover’s spirit, which is probably why the schools are all paired with luxury resorts. This approach — an on-site resort activity on the same list as horseback riding, fly fishing lessons and clay shooting — also underscores the soft-sell nature of the school. When asked how often people leave the school and buy a Land Rover, our guide states simply, “We don’t know. It happens; people leave here saying they’re going to buy one. But we don’t track any of that. We just teach them how to drive.” It’s like asking the fishing instructor how many people buy new poles after one of his two-hour lessons.
It’s hard not to come away from the experience at least somewhat impressed by what a Land Rover can do. More than anything, though, the school conjures up thoughts of what’s possible, not only with a real sport utility vehicle but also with yourself. Perhaps it’s a bit fantastical, but just knowing that these vehicles can take you places unreachable by others instantly inspires an interest in more primitive hobbies — camping, canoeing, hiking — that encourage you to get as far away from civilization as possible. As we become more detached from the activity of driving and rely on our vehicles simply for A-to-B transportation, this day in the woods serves as a reminder that there is still plenty to do with our vehicles, if we only make the effort to somehow include them. And that little lesson isn’t even part of the curriculum.
Details and Other Information
The Land Rover Experience Driving School is available year-round, except at Montebello where sessions are conducted from May through November only. The plans are flexible, ranging from a simple 20-minute off-road ride-along experience to one- and two-day courses that cover advanced recovery skills. Costs vary accordingly, starting at around $225 for a one-hour lesson and running up to around $850 per day for full-day courses.
Dress for the weather, especially footwear, as you’ll likely be out of the vehicle frequently; Timberlands and Levi’s are always appropriate. Leave the cell phone in the room, but bring a camera, as you’ll witness not only some breathtaking scenery, but also some pretty amazing situations that your friends won’t believe you drove out of without photo evidence.
Finally, don’t expect to tear through the forest like a WRC star or catch big air at the crests of hills like a Baja racer. The school teaches expedition-style driving, which means the vehicle is a temple to be respected and honored, not beaten into the ground. Slow and easy is the order of the day. Land Rover is also a charter member of the Tread Lightly! Organization, whose goal is to increase awareness of responsible outdoor practices. The idea is to leave the natural environment as untouched as possible, which means you won’t be pushing down seedlings or tearing wildly through fields. It’s also why we didn’t simply cut those tree roots that were in our way.
For more information, visit the Land Rover Experience website.