Why do we get excited when we hear the words “road trip”? For me, it’s not the prospect of sitting in traffic or logging long hours on boring highways that’s exciting—it’s the adventure. Which means that, in my humble opinion, the best adventuremobile is my old Land Rover Discovery.
There are only three Land Rovers that matter in this realm: The boxy Defender is more fashionable than my Disco, but it has the road manners of a particularly unrefined tractor. The Range Rover is luxurious, but its plush air suspension is fragile. The first-generation Discovery, on the other hand, managed to combine most of the off-road capability of the Defender with most of the refinement of the Range Rover.
Describe the perfect formula for a truck and you’ll probably end up with something that has a short wheelbase, four doors, a fuel-injected V8 engine, solid axles, and coil springs on all four corners. The Discovery’s 100-inch wheelbase is nearly as short as that of a two-door Jeep Wrangler, but in a body that actually has space inside for people and gear. Based on an old Buick motor punched out to 4.0 liters, Land Rover’s all-aluminum V8 is both light and, for the time, powerful. Its solid axles maximize articulation, allowing you to keep all four wheels on the ground through truly gnarly terrain, but unlike most similar designs, it handles well on the road too, thanks to the coil springs.
On top of that solid stock platform, my Disco has been lifted onto large tires and fitted with steel bumpers and rock rails. Together, those modifications give it the angles, clearance, and protection necessary to clear pretty much any obstacle you find off-road. Underneath, Land Rover’s unique full-time four-wheel-drive system has been augmented by locking differentials, front and rear. If you’ve taken the time to learn how four-wheel drive works, you’ll know that it’s only with those components that you can truly lock the speed of all four wheels together, achieving maximum traction. All together, those changes work with the merits of the stock platform to create a vehicle that’s not only unstoppable off-road, but actually pretty decent on it, too.
What that means for road trips is that I never have to sleep in a motel or a group campground. Instead, once the day starts waning, I just look for a patch of public land (the green stuff) on Google Maps and find a dirt road that winds up into it. There, I can camp anywhere I please, away from other people, and often as deep into unspoiled nature as you’d get on a backpacking trip. Every single night.
In those national forests and on that BLM land, with no real planning or effort required, I’ve had some of my best nights outdoors. Once, in Oregon, I sat by the campfire with my dog, listening to wolves howl. One night in California, a Native American woman on an LSD trip wandered into camp and slept by my fire. In the morning, she gave me a fan she’d made from turkey and pheasant feathers before walking back into the woods. If I have the right license and it’s the right time of year, I might put an arrow in a rabbit and cook it over the fire for dinner. Sounds better than a night at a Motel 6, right?
Of course, road trips are as much about meeting new people as they are about seeing new places. As you can see, the Land Rover really helps there, too. It’s classy enough that valets park it out front at the fancy hotels I occasionally book on the way home from a really big adventure. But it’s oily enough that I don’t get shaken down for bribes south of the border. This thing is kryptonite for 5-0 back here in the United States. I’ve never gotten a ticket in it, and not just because it’s slow. Maybe it’s the shovel, or the winch, or the big dog sticking his head out the window, but if I pull up in a small town, the local sheriff will inevitably swing by to say hi and speak to me like an old friend. This is generally the opposite reaction I get when I’m driving something newer and fancier.
Those newer, nicer vehicles cover miles easily, but there’s just no sense of occasion in them. Where they’re just appliances, getting me where I want to go with efficient ease, my Land Rover feels like an old, cantankerous friend who’s along for the journey. Its heavy driveshafts thrum harmoniously as the landscape rolls by outside its greasy fingerprint-stained windows, giving even the most mundane trip a sense of grand occasion.
Bogged down in the day-to-day reality of buying our first house and moving to Montana, I had actually resolved to sell the Land Rover back to the guy I bought it from. It’s too tall to fit in our new garage, and the roads up there get heavily salted in winter—a potential death sentence for older vehicles. But you know what? After writing this, I’ve decided it’s worth solving those two problems just so I can still take this thing on summer road trips. I’m going to keep this truck forever.