“Remember, don’t touch the brakes as you go down the hill.”
“OK, sure,” I laughed through my face mask at the off-road driving instructor standing outside the window of a brand-new Land Rover 2020 Defender. From the driver’s seat, all I could see was Vermont’s clear blue sky and mid-September forest starting to change color. Definitely not the bottom of the hill I had just been told to drive down sight unseen—with no brakes.
As an infrequent driver and first-time off-roader, I had trouble believing this was actually how the car’s hill assist function worked. But after confirming a second (and third, fourth, and yes, fifth) time that the instructor was not joking, I eased the car over the lip of the hill and went down with my foot off the brakes on purpose.
It felt like I was finally letting go.
For the first time since March, I had left my hometown to take on the new-to-me challenge of driving a car off-road at the Land Rover Experience Center in Manchester, Vermont. Before the pandemic, I considered myself a brave traveler. I’d swum with sharks in the Galápagos, I’d slept in a “haunted” hotel in Utah, and I even let my friends convince me to go sky-diving once. But after months sheltering alone this spring as coronavirus swept through the country, I had become a shut-in.
I was a nervous wreck dipping my toes in things as normal as outdoor dining or visiting my sister’s new home in the suburbs—even as the case count where I lived dropped to under 1 percent for weeks on end this summer. Packing a bag and traveling again seemed unimaginable. But as I reached the bottom of that hill safely, I realized that learning how to off-road was the kind of risk I needed to take to learn how to live again.
Thankfully, I wasn’t doing it in any old car. The Land Rover Defender is one of the British brand’s most iconic four-wheel-drive vehicles, known for its rugged capabilities. And now after a 23-year hiatus, it’s being sold again in the United States. While the new model still delivers on the boxy safari-style look of the original, Land Rover turned it into a modern, comfortable car with loads of bells and whistles, including USB and wireless chargers, comfy leather seats, and even a mini cooler in the center console to keep your water cold. On the three-hour drive up Interstate 87 toward Vermont, the Defender didn’t feel huge and handled well on paved roads—but it’s most fun to drive on rough and uneven terrain.
After the first day at the Land Rover Experience course taking on hills with no brakes, as well as crossing streams and driving along rocky roads that became nearly diagonal at certain angles, it was time to take the road less traveled to the top of Mount Equinox, the 3,840-foot peak that looms above Manchester, a small town in the southwestern corner of the state. You can certainly take the paved road in less time, but the off-roading course was a challenge that I was nervous to attempt but excited to try.
On one particularly steep and rocky uphill section, the instructors got out of their own vehicles and helped guide each turn of my wheel from a safe distance at the top. As I nearly completed the difficult pass, I heard a loud phssssst as a sneaky—and very sharp—rock took out my front left wheel.
While I was being winched up the mountain to a slightly flatter surface so the support team could replace the tire, I realized that no matter what life throws at you, it’s still worth getting out there. As long as you have the right precautions in place, risks should be taken instead of avoiding the experience—and life—altogether.
Where to try off-roading in the United States
The 2020 Defender has been on the market since June, and the 2021 model—including a new two-door version—will arrive in the States by either the end of this year or early next. If you’re not ready to invest in a new car, or just want to try off-roading for the day, you can visit the Land Rover Experience Center in Manchester, Vermont, and borrow one of theirs.
They’ve implemented new COVID safety considerations including having masked instructors walk alongside your car on the course to guide you instead of sitting in the passenger seat, as well as temperature checks and fully sanitizing vehicles before each experience. Off-roading courses at the Land Rover Experience Center start at $275 for a one-hour experience and go up to $1,200 for a six-hour full-day adventure that includes lunch. Read more about Vermont’s current COVID-19 travel restrictions here.
For those not located in the Northeast, Land Rover offers similar off-roading experiences in Carmel, California, and Asheville, North Carolina, as well. You can also take off-roading courses at Northeast Off-Roading Adventures in New York’s Catskill Mountains, and Badlands Off-Road Adventures in southern California.
How to get there and where to stay
Manchester is roughly a 4-hour drive from New York City and a 3.5-hour drive from Boston. In Manchester itself, you can check into the Equinox, a Luxury Collection Golf Resort & Spa or the Kimpton Taconic Hotel. If you’re making a road trip of it, consider exploring nearby North Adams, Massachusetts (stay at Tourists, a motor lodge reborn as a boutique hotel, and don’t miss MASS MoCA). Or go glamping at Gather Greene, located just outside of Coxsackie, New York, and only about 20 minutes from other popular Hudson Valley towns like Catskill and Hudson.
Products we write about are independently vetted and recommended by our editors. AFAR may earn a commission if you buy through our links, which helps support our independent publication.