First, we hit heavy traffic in Philadelphia, even though it's Saturday. As Philly gives way to farmland, we pass a billboard for a church that reads, "Heaven or Hell: Your Choice." The very next billboard is for an amusement park. It reads, "Choose Your Own Adventure!"
We're choosing our adventure according to the advice of my TomTom, because a navigation system is missing from the $33,070 R/T's otherwise decadent specification. And that poses periodic directional issues, as my TomTom's software is so old that its routes include the Silk Road, the Oregon Trail, and the Bering Land Bridge. It has a habit of choosing strange routes, my TomTom.
We're within about a half hour of our destination when TomTom commands us to exit the highway. I dutifully obey the little screen suction-cupped to the windshield, and soon we're climbing a sinuous road through the trees, ascending a ridge that occasionally offers gorgeous views. Right on, TomTom! This is what it's all about -- getting off the highway and actually seeing the country.
That is, until we come to the roadblock. Feeling lucky despite the beating I received last night at the blackjack table, I make the executive decision to double down and ignore the roadblock. Several miles later, we encounter a Chevy Tahoe coming down the hill, and I open the window to ask the driver what's up ahead. He says, "There's a steam shovel blocking the road up there." A steam shovel?! This roadwork must really be taking a while.
Around the corner, we discover a Caterpillar excavator very deliberately blocking the road. We'll have to backtrack to the highway. Now we're late. But any epic quest requires its tribulations, as Homer and Clark Griswold well know.
We pull into Legendary Excursions behind schedule but, we hope, with enough remaining daylight to execute our plan. Mark Townsend, CEO of the company, meets us at the ticket booth. Behind the building is a man-made concrete mountain covered in skid marks and littered with broken pieces of four-by-fours, and the parking lot is filled with tents, campers, and RVs. This place is the Disneyland of getting your truck stuck in the woods.
With time our enemy, Legendary Excursions employee Ron Lobb hustles us into the world's most battered Jeep Grand Cherokee, the patina of its tufted leather seats evoking a Samoyed dog with a skin condition. We head into the woods to tour the buggy course, Lobb using this prerun to impress upon us all the ways in which things can go wrong if we overestimate our buggy-driving prowess. "See that tree over there?" Ron asks as we're heading down an innocuous straightaway. "The one with no bark? A guy decided to start pitching the car back and forth along the straight, and he lost it and went into that tree. That was $8000 worth of damage." Once I start paying attention, there are a disturbing number of barkless trees in this forest.
Back at the office, there's a buggy ready to go. The weather is cold and drizzly, and I can't help but notice that the buggy has no windshield. Or doors. Or a floor constructed in such a way that it might prevent geysers of puddle water from spraying up your pants. "Uh, is there a chance you guys might have some ponchos or something?" I ask. Mark looks to Ron and says, "Go grab them some banana suits." Banana suits?
It turns out that you can stay dry or look cool, but you can't do both at the same time. I'm grateful for the yellow plastic outerwear, but our group sartorial theme is now "Hazmat team does Baja."
Down at the starting line -- demarcated by some type of ungulate skull nailed to a post -- I cinch the five-point harness over my banana suit and push the start button. The rear-mounted Subaru flat four burps out a few lungfuls of crisp Pennsylvania air and settles into an idle familiar to anyone who's driven an Outback or a Forester. Only when I let out the clutch and bring the revs up beyond 3000 rpm does the humble Subaru engine start to crackle with enthusiasm for its new role.
With Ron's admonitions in the back of my head, I take it easy on the first lap. The Wide Open-built car doesn't drive like any street machine I've ever experienced -- its default handling modes are oversteer and more oversteer. Lift the throttle and the back end unloads and steps out. Get on the throttle and you're quickly into power oversteer. The Subaru engine makes only about 200 hp, but in a 2800-pound buggy on loose gravel and slick mud, you're going General Lee tail-out on every corner.
By the second lap I'm going a little bit faster, gaining confidence in the car and generally learning which way the corners go. By the third lap, I'm saying things like, "This thing just gets better the harder you drive it!" and glancing at the Garmin GPS on the dash to see if I can top 60 mph (I do). And that means I'm ready for a time-out. In fact, Legendary requires one, because they've realized that after too many consecutive laps, the twin devils of adrenaline and overconfidence climb onto your shoulder, followed soon thereafter by wrecked buggies and recriminations. So with my spirits high after three laps, I head to the sanctuary of the Dodge, fire up the seat heater, and contemplate our weekend chariot.
Sure, the Grand Caravan R/T is mostly a badge-and-trim job, but it's a badge-and-trim job on a van that has more horsepower than a 2004 Ford Mustang GT. The Grand Caravan R/T may not be a thing of beauty in and of itself, but when you can comfortably cover more than 1000 miles in a weekend while getting 25 mpg and watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail, then a lot of possibilities are in play. The minivan is the enabler that allows you to go on a bachelor party without the bachelor, a road trip just for the sake of it.
Except that, in a way, there is an occasion for this blowout. You might call this a going-away party for our fifth man, the Dodge Grand Caravan. As you might've heard, Chrysler is canceling the Grand Caravan for the 2013 model year, a circumstance that our particular R/T seems to protest via the Monty Python movie cued up on its DVD player. As we merge onto the highway for the long drive home, the speakers blare a defiant message, possibly in the general direction of corporate headquarters in Italy. The gravedigger might be knocking on the door, but the Man Van insists that it's not dead yet.