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The Wonder of Off-Roading

Lessons in abandoning the beaten path

Zach BowmanwriterThe ManufacturerphotographerJames Lipmanphotographer

I call him my brother, but we share no blood. We've just known each other long enough to matter. We spent our young days trying to kill ourselves together by feat or dare, ripping around the county I now call home in a pair of hand-me-down sedans with the throttles welded to the floor and our collective sense of self-preservation somewhere behind us. Neither Sam nor I expected to live much past 18. By luck or grace, we did.

Our lives have wandered far. Me banging around the southeast, building a family, chasing work, and him settling on Florida's Gulf Coast to be near his father and pursue a nursing degree. It's been long, arduous years of study and internship, and while we were never farther than a phone call away, we'd go months between sitting down at a table together or raising a little hell.

He passed the last of his exams this month, landed a job up north, and celebrated by finally putting his ragged Accord out to pasture, replacing it with a 2009 Nissan Frontier Pro4X. It is the perfect machine to ferry him to his new life in New Hampshire, fully kitted for abuse and adventure by the previous owner. There's a modest lift, a stout bumper, plenty of underbody protection, and a winch should the factory rear locker and low range prove insufficient.

It is one of an army of such vehicles. You see them sometimes, the Jeep Wrangler Rubicons and Toyota Tacoma or 4Runner TRDs, the Ram Power Wagons, seemingly outfitted for the apocalypse with antennas, lights, and armor. It is easy to dismiss them as cosplay for CPAs, as grown men and women playing dress-up with their daily driver, but they offer something that no sports car or family sedan can deliver: the excuse to explore and the serenity that comes from a barely worn trail.

The Frontier is an impressive tool, but one Sam doesn't have much experience using. When he came through town on his way north, I pried a few hours out of the mid-week slog and pointed us toward the Jefferson National Forest for a little light off-roading. Virginia isn't as flush with forgotten two-track as the open deserts of Utah or Texas, but there are gems to be found. Roads that wind you up and away from the towns that dot the Shenandoah Valley, paths that wander into the gorgeous and lonely hills.

The weatherman swore a winter storm was on its way. On any normal evening, I'd be putting dishes away and trying to decide what to do with myself before bed. Maybe turn on the porch light and eye the dark, waiting for the first flakes. It's strange how quickly the night slips from your grip. How gladly you yield the dusk to younger men.

Sam's headlights flickered along the boulders and ice that lined the road, the springs that welled and sweated from the ridge now beautiful and ornate displays in the cold of winter. We cracked the windows to listen to the creek to our left as it rushed through the forest. In the daylight, the water's as clear as the air in our lungs, but our high beams only shone on the snow that still sat in the shadows, the currents running like ink between the banks.

I aimed us at Shoe Creek, a forest road that once wandered all the way to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Now it comes to a stop at a gate where it crosses private land, but it's still a perfect playground for someone new to the vagaries of four-wheel drive. It constricts and climbs, dives through the water and up and over wide stones. Nothing about it looks like a place you'd willingly take a vehicle, and yet, the Frontier worked its way through it all without so much as spinning a tire. I gave Sam a few pointers on when to be in four-high, when four-low's best, and how to use the rear locker as a get-out-of-jail-free card. By the time we wormed our way back to the main track, he was grinning wide with new-found knowledge, with the glow of capability and where the truck could take him. I could see him hungry for the winding tracks of the White Mountains.

It's a different type of driving, but not so far from the thrill of chasing a redline or bending the limits of tire adhesion. The lessons Sam has learned from a lifetime of slinging a car around serve him well here. Spatial relation, grip awareness, and tire placement all play a role. Everything just happens more slowly. Those delicious and perfect moments when you do not know whether you'll overcome the obstacle in front of you, whether you'll sail through without a scratch or go tumbling off course, they hang in the air like a pent breath. It's a perfect thrill at walking pace.

But there were other lessons to be learned. Like how quickly the easiest trail can snap your confidence. On the way home, we took one last diversion, bouncing up a simple cell tower service road that clung to the side of the ridge. To our left, the land fell away, the driver's window full of nothing but sparse tree branches and the occasional flicker of light from the valley below. To our right, the slope climbed its way to the Appalachian Trail. When we turned a corner, our eyes didn't quite know what to make of what covered the ground: a dark blanket, three inches thick and spread across both wheel ruts. Asphalt? No. Ice.

There was no backing the truck out. No turning it around, either. We simply had to inch forward in low range and hope the slick stuff was broken enough for the BFGoodrich All Terrain KO2s to get a bite. The cab went silent, the two of us staring out into the darkness and praying for a patch of gravel. For a moment, it seemed fine. The Frontier edged its way down the small dip, towards a kink in our path. That turn was our undoing; the truck snapped sideways in the width of a breath. Sam turned into the slide and grabbed a boot full of brake in time for us to come to a stop perfectly perpendicular to our intended path of travel.

I looked at him, his jaw set and his breathing shallow, his knuckles blanched against their skin. His eyes were wide with the knowledge that we'd nearly slid his truck off the mountain and into the trees below. He hadn't managed to put 1,000 miles on it yet.

But we were stopped, we were safe, and we had time to contemplate our next move. This is the brilliance of off-roading. It is a mechanical game of chess played against physics and water and weather and the very land beneath you. There was a tire's width of gravel ahead of us. If Sam could coax the Nissan to that patch, we'd be home free, at least until we had to turn around and come back up the hill.

At first, Sam couldn't understand what I was saying, but as the haze of adrenaline lifted, he saw what I was working towards, and he eased us forward. There was a brief slide before the tires gripped and the truck worked its way up the bank, through a bit of brush, and around the worst of the ice. He was ecstatic, laughing and cursing as we continued on, up to the crest and the towers there. The valley spilled out below us, a dozen hamlets glowing in the dark and shuttered tight against the coming storm. We could smell the snow, the air sharp with the promise of it. Neither of us wanted to be up there when it hit.

The way out had us retrace our steps, and when we came to the ice sheet, we parked the truck, got out, and walked the road, searching for a line that would carry us up and over the worst of it. I hadn't taken two steps before my feet went out from under me so quick I couldn't get my hands up. I bashed my face off the ice, my tongue full with the taste of blood as I struggled to stand. As I did, I caught a glimpse of the source of our woes: a natural spring pouring warm, clear water out onto the ice, where it immediately refroze. Now it was my turn to laugh and curse, my lips already swelling to a bruise.

We made a plan, Sam got back in the truck, and I guided him up the slope, working to keep him on as much dry ground as possible. It worked fine until the very top, where the ice spread wide across the trail. No matter our approach, we couldn't get the Frontier up and over. The tires dug and spun. Sam sawed at the wheel in a quest for purchase. None of it worked. I hadn't intended on giving a lesson in winch recovery. I've always viewed the things like a fire extinguishers: absolutely vital to have, but only to be used in the very worst of circumstances. With the temperature dropping and the wind picking up, it was time to pull cable.

I hiked up the hill to a suitable stump, mindful of slick spots and briars and ankle-busting stones, hooked to, and talked Sam through working himself up and over the trouble spot. In a blink, he was clear, and we were on our way off the mountain well ahead of the first flakes. The two of us were exhausted, bruised, bloody, and muddy from a fight with a stretch of trail no longer than a couple hundred feet. We were content, too, washed in the kind of calm that only comes from the sort of hyper-focus required by any specialized driving. It's a breath.

It's a rare thing in our world of ever-growing distraction and connection. We are wedded not to the moments at our feet, but the ones accessible through the tapping of fingertips on screens. And it's endangered. What room does our electrified, automated future have for mud and ice and stone? For wild creeks and the foolish human desire to cross them only to turn around and come back again? Get in your trucks and go while the world still lets you.