Last year, I went off-roading with some friends in Virginia’s George Washington National Forest. We had a blast with the mix of trucks and SUVs that we owned, some of which were a bit too new to scrape up by doing anything really wild. Over drinks one night, we decided that 2019 would see us return to the trails “Top Gear style,” with a few simple rules. Participants were to spend $1,500 or less on their vehicle. It had to be all-wheel drive – not true four-wheel drive with low range. And nobody was to reveal the vehicle they’d chosen until we all arrived for the weekend.
Over Labor Day weekend, a group of about 16 assembled at an Airbnb just outside Harrisonburg, Virginia. We had five cheap AWD beaters, three support vehicles, and a motley crew of friends to help photograph, film, and spot us all weekend. I was the first to arrive in my 2001 BMW X5 3.0i, which conveniently left a small puddle of coolant in the driveway the instant I parked. Several friends were right behind, with Jack in his 2004 Toyota Tacoma support vehicle.
When the challenge was conceived, one of our friends mused about an all-wheel drive Mopar minivan joining the group. We collectively laughed it off at the time. Naturally, the second challenge vehicle to arrive was the 1994 Chrysler Town & Country AWD of Paul and Greg, from Georgia. They had redone the van’s interior to be a bit more festive than 1990s-Chrysler thought possible, and complimented the exterior’s wood paneling with some thoughtful bumper stickers and “World’s Best Mom” oversized greeting card.
Following the minivan, we saw Matthew and Tarron pull up in a 2001 Subaru Forester S. The $1,100 sales price was due to a bad catalytic converter, but everything else worked – including the air conditioning. James and Christian weren’t far behind, having driven from Florida in their $500 Subaru Legacy. James is a big fan of the 1990s-era “Jazz” Dixie cup styling, and the duo applied a vinyl graphic on top of white latex house paint, covering up the Legacy’s original dark green finish.
Finally, Michael rolled up in his $1,000 Volvo XC90 that he trailered home to Virginia from its past life in New York. The Volvo featured Yamaha’s V8 engine with a healthy exhaust leak, which sounded fantastic. Aside from the Christmas tree of warning lights on the dashboard, it ran well enough for our trip.
Our other two support vehicles were Paul’s Lexus GX470 and Jake’s Land Rover Discovery II. We were glad to have three capable trucks along for the ride, just in case something went a little sideways.
We settled in to the Airbnb, threw some burgers on the grill, and splashed around in the heated saltwater pool until it was time for bed. Two days of trails were waiting.
Friday: Flagpole Knob
As I was tasked with choosing the trails, I made the deliberate choice to spend Friday on the easier of our options. Flagpole Knob is not the most challenging trail, but there are a few clearings toward the top that provide ample room to play around and challenge yourself and the cars you bring. It was a great “warm-up,” if you will, for what was to come. =
The Legacy tried to throw a fit before we even left town, splitting a rubber fuel line on the way to Sheetz. Christian popped the hood and discovered the line had split toward its end. He sliced the bad section off, stretched the line a bit to reach, and threw a few zip ties on it for good measure.
Our first clearing featured a big dirt hill that we each tried to climb. Everyone learned a little something about their beaters, which proved useful throughout the rest of the trip. The X5 was rolling on some Walmart-special “Black Lion” highway tires, which had tread but provided little grip on dirt or rocks. Momentum was my friend. It was also Michael’s friend, as he learned the XC90 had suddenly become front-wheel drive due to a stability control system failure that disabled the Haldex AWD system. The Town & Country and both Subarus made it up with relative ease.
Moving on, we found the second clearing toward the summit, which had several muddy spots that were ripe for photo ops. The Chrysler made several runs through the mud before it slung the serpentine belt off of the pulleys. Thankfully, the belt stayed intact and able to be reinstalled. Several of us got more and more brave, tackling deeper obstacles and probing the vehicles’ capabilities. Ironically, the only one to get stuck was the Land Rover. A mix of old highway tires, unlocked differentials, and just the wrong angle of approach saw it high-centered. With locked diffs and a quick push, it was freed. Matthew took great pleasure in going over the same muddy track in the Forester, no push needed.
As playtime wrapped up, we drove the final 600 yards or so to the true summit, got some great photos, and wound our way back down to Harrisonburg. I was happy that everyone had made it through the first day of trails, and wondered quite a bit about the next day’s outcome.
Saturday: Peters Mill Run
I was nervous about Peters Mill Run before we even left the house on Saturday morning. It had been narrow and rocky the year prior, and I figured trail conditions hadn’t improved since. Thankfully, I was in a smaller, cheaper, and far more busted vehicle compared to last year’s three-month-old Ford F-150 Lariat. We purchased our OHV passes and set off.
Just entering the trail proved to be a challenge for some. We waited for the surprise-FWD Volvo and rubber-band-tired Legacy to make it up the rocky path to the first clearing. While waiting, we ran into a group of Jeep and ATV drivers, who were intrigued (to say the least) by a BMW X5 and Chrysler minivan about to tackle the trail alongside “real SUVs and trucks” like our support vehicles. They all bet that the BMW “might” make it, but had serious doubts about every other challenge car. This only emboldened us and our driving.
The theme of the day was both careful lines (to avoid big rocks and strange approach angles) and “just send it” when really necessary. Sometimes, Jeremy Clarkson’s “POWERRRR” mantra is just what you need to get up some rocks or through some mud. Our support vehicles and their drivers, as well as countless other passengers, proved invaluable in getting us through obstacles and past oncoming traffic. Yes, Peters Mill Run is somehow a two-way trail.
Everyone had their fair share of smacking cars around or dragging them over things. The Town & Country got a few good whacks to the transmission pan, the lowest point of the van. I took the “send it” approach in the X5 a few times and landed the front subframe pretty hard against various rocks. The XC90 required a ton of throttle to get its snow tires to ascend rocky climbs, but it scrabbled its way up. James and Christian managed to slice the sidewall of one tire, and installed their 25-year-old space-saver “donut” spare tire instead of borrowing the full-size spare from the Forester. Somehow, that donut survived the rest of the trail.
The 2001 Forester S proved to be the “easy button” of the group. Matthew and Tarron had money left over in their budget, and installed a slight lift kit prior to the trip. The lift, combined with the limited-slip rear differential and automatic transmission’s ability to lock the AWD system 50:50 front-to-back when locked in 1st gear, made the Forester a bit of a billy goat. Tarron ended up pushing me up one fairly steep hill when I couldn’t find grip – but the Subaru had it.
As we reached the summit of Peters Mill and began our descent down the other side, I felt slight relief. Everything was downhill from here, right? Well, yes, sort of.
We faced several muddy sections of the trail as we worked our way toward its northern exit. The final section was quite deep, and Jack dragged the rear differential of his Tacoma as he exited the mud pit. That didn’t bode well for our beaters. I chose to hug the treeline to my right in the BMW. About two-thirds of the way through, the front end of the X5 started to wash out toward the mud pit. “Oh hell no, I am not getting stuck now,” I thought as I pinned the throttle to the floor and aimed the steering wheel vaguely in the direction I wanted to go. The front end slid, bounced up in the air, and gripped again. It was a rush of victory, but only Jack and I had made it through so far.
Michael was up next in the front-wheel drive Volvo. He backed up, got a running start, and went straight through the pit. The Volvo slammed around, struggling for grip with its front two tires. As it hit the final, huge bump, the rear hatch glass shattered as Michael’s steel floor jack came through the window. The XC90 made it up behind the BMW, we all took a few minutes to pick up bits of shattered safety glass, and recommended the others go a hair slower and secure anything in the hatches.
Thankfully, the rest of the vehicles – beaters and otherwise – made it through unscathed. The other beaters all came through on three wheels, which made for some excellent video and still photography. We made our way down the final mile or so of the trail, and rejoiced when the rocks turned to gravel, which eventually became asphalt.
Although every vehicle made it to dinner that night under its own power, a few did show up late. After making it through seven hours of grueling, slow rock crawling and mud pits, the Chrysler’s transmission said “no more” and refused to employ any gears but second and third. Paul drove it back to town, screaming above 4,000 RPM in third gear on the interstate, for 45 minutes. Michael finally lost a tire in the XC90 and had to install his spare. Thankfully, both issues presented themselves in a church parking lot and were relatively easy to deal with.
The boys from Georgia left the minivan at a friend’s place in town and continued on to Niagra Falls as the final part of their vacation. After letting the van sit for a few days, the transmission regained first and fourth gears. James and Christian had to get a new tire installed on the Legacy, but took it to the Tail of the Dragon on their way back to Orlando – still covered in mud from the trails. Michael is sourcing a new rear hatch for his Volvo and hopes to fix some of its bigger gremlins so he can keep it for a bit. I sold the X5 upon returning home – space is at a premium and while it served its purpose, I didn’t feel a huge attachment to it. I made a $50 profit on the 196k mile BMW and the enthusiastic new owner plans to use it as a pizza delivery vehicle. Matthew and Tarron both fell in love with their Forester, and Matthew has since bought Tarron out so he can keep it. Tarron sold his Scion iQ and is on the hunt for an identical Forester S to call his own.
This trip was successful beyond what I imagined when we came up with this hilarious, mildly idiotic plan a year ago. Themes for 2020 have already been discussed – not necessarily for another off-roading challenge, but for a challenge of some sort – and I’m curious what will develop as we undoubtedly meet again for drinks and see an idea become more concrete.