My sister inherited the love of driving in our family. I’m the one who failed the DMV driving exam three times before I earned my license. Cars, to me, are not sexy. Like the housewife who truly revels in receiving a blender for her birthday, I’m dazzled more by practicality than horsepower.
So, when a family member suggested that I try out the Biltmore Estate’s Land Rover Driving Experience School, I laughed. Me maneuver an off-road vehicle? Hardly. My “off-roading” experience consists of wandering off a path to have a picnic.
Much like me, at first glance the Biltmore Estate would seem an unlikely figure in the off-roading universe. Touted as America’s largest single-family home, the massive chateau is a destination for tourists from around the world who come to marvel at its architecture and furnishings, wander its acres of gardens and dine in its gourmet restaurants. They tend to wear polo shirts and khakis. They are not the types you’d expect to find zipping along muddy, wooded paths, terrifying all manner of helpless fauna.
I pulled into the Driving Experience School parking lot with regret, wishing instead that I’d stopped at the estate’s winery. Test-driving chardonnay is more my speed. But when I met my instructor, Warren, I knew I was in good hands. First of all, Warren took the wheel. Secondly, he launched into a detailed explanation of the workings of an off-road vehicle, from the “approach angle” to the “departure angle” and how to handle a $45,000 vehicle on rough terrain without doing significant damage to it.
Forty-five grand? My ears pricked up. “We’re breaking the stereotype of off-roading,” Warren explained. “This is not mud bogging.” In fact, the expedition-style driving taught at the Land Rover school is focused on a slow-paced, safety-oriented trip. They idea is to ease the vehicle over rugged ground without slinging mud or scratching paint. By the end of the class, Warren assured me, a Land Rover owner should be able to off-road on the weekend and still drive the vehicle to work on Monday (And the lessons aren’t for Land Rover fans only; any four-wheel drive owner can benefit).
Heartened by the mention of “minimal speeds” (“As slow as possible; as fast as necessary” is the school’s motto), I buckled myself into the passenger seat and braced for lesson two: How to hold the steering wheel. Turns out that my standard vice-grip is not recommended. Warren cheerfully relayed the various injuries to the thumbs, wrists and arms a driver might sustain by holding the wheel incorrectly. Then we eased onto our first deeply grooved trail.
And here’s a surprise: Unlike the dirt-bike tracks and snowmobile trails I’ve witnessed in the past, off-roading Land Rover-style isn’t about a macho assault on the outdoors. Instead, drivers keep their vehicles in the ruts, and focus on preserving trails and conserving nature – a concept not so far removed from hunters and fishermen who work to save woods and streams. I didn’t have much time to mull this idea over, though, before Warren was pointing our three-ton vehicle nose-first down what appeared to be a vertical drop.
I know a few things about driving, such as how to burn out a clutch by riding it at the top of a steep incline. I also know that gravity works, no matter the ticket price of a car, and teetering at the edge of a precipice is funny in National Lampoon films, but not in real life. The Land Rover, however, comes equipped with a computer that figures all this out, allowing us to coast easily down the hill. When we touched the bottom, I was elated. Ground-kissing, deity-praising elated.
“Now you try,” Warren said.
I listed for him all the reasons why this was a terrible idea. For starters, my own father, who is well-known as the world’s most patient man, couldn’t teach me how to parallel park, let alone ease a vehicle worth more than my annual salary down a precipice. Warren, for all my pleading, was unfazed. I gave up and took the wheel (thumbs in proper position to avoid breakage, mind you).
What happened next was beautiful to behold. I eased the Land Rover ground-ward as if I’d been off-roading all my life. I’m a brilliant driver, I thought. I should do this for a living. A minute in the driver’s seat and it turns out I’m the next Danica Patrick. I couldn’t seem to wipe the ear-to-ear grin from my face.
“Nice job,” Warren said.
Over the next couple hours, I mastered an obstacle course of steep hills and precarious angles. I changed gears while driving. I used my mirrors. I didn’t break a sweat. Warren revealed that women often make great students because they tend to arrive at the school with open minds and few expectations. Listening helps, as does the willingness to abandon what one knows about highway driving: Off-roading, it turns out, is a whole different beast.
By the end of the lesson, we were putting the Land Rover to its intended use, cruising rarely seen trails on the Biltmore Estate’s beautifully rambling acreage. We passed cows, horses and woods, experiencing the estate as visitors a hundred years ago might have – i.e. before paved roads limited the views. We parked in a grove of white pines and left the car just long enough to walk to a vantage point and see the house as tourists rarely get the chance to do. It was as gorgeous as ever, rising stately from its manicured gardens. But I didn’t want to go inside: There were still miles of outdoors to explore.
Get in the driver’s seat
A two-hour lesson at the Biltmore Estate Land Rover Driving School runs $300 per vehicle for up to three drivers. Full-day adventures are available; call 800-239-0533 for information. To learn about other Land Rover Driving Schools, go to www.landroverusa.com