Photos by Steve Hoare and Neil Hanekom
“Music and Rovers, Mud and Rain”
Loaded up with my sleeping bag, tools and sundry spare parts, I turned the ignition key to be greeted by Keith Richards screaming “Start Me Up” on the radio. Obviously, the Defender knew what was up. I set the GPS for the destination: Wheatland Farm, 100 Hoges Orchard Lane, Pembroke, VA. While the sat-nav was analyzing perhaps hundreds of possible route options, I relied on intuition and experience. From memory, it’s “drive west from Philly on the PA Turnpike, turn left on I-81 and keep going south.” Nothing like a 500-mile jaunt in a Defender to start off the annual Mid Atlantic Rally.
MAR, as it’s better known, has been a fixture on the east coast Land Rover calendar for a long time. Hosted by the Rover Owners Association of Virginia (ROAV), the oldest Land Rover club in North America, it’s an event that in past years I’d block out an entire week on the calendar for. This year’s a little different though; thanks to a grueling production schedule getting a certain new Land Rover magazine ready for launch, I was only available for a day trip.
Leaving late Friday evening, the plan was to drive through the night to arrive in time for the morning driver’s briefing scheduled for 8:30 on Saturday. With all systems reading normal and no strange noises from the engine or transmission, the Defender cruised down the turnpike and joined westbound traffic. Whitesnake’s “Here We Go Again” came on the radio, another message from the Rover gods apparently.
The prospect of eight hours in the driver’s seat allows for some serious bonding time with your vehicle. Every squeak and rattle is sourced and analyzed. A maintenance list is mentally filed, and drinks and snacks are constantly being rearranged for optimal access. Having hit I-81 southbound, I merged into an endless convoy of tractor-trailers. The wet roads and highly illuminated trucks made a lot of glare, damn near requiring me to pull out my sunglasses to relieve eyestrain. Meanwhile, the radio’s thrown me another appropriate gift, AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.”
There’s a long tradition of fall storms and hurricane threats coinciding with MAR. Regulars often joke the letters actually stand for “Mud and Rain.” This year was no exception. A large front moved up the eastern shore dumping precipitous rainfall over a two-day period. The worst had moved through before I got on the road, but the tail end of the storm was still around, evident by the spray being kicked up by trucks and the occasional shower at high elevations.
I had estimated my arrival between 8:30 and 9:00 am, and felt pretty good still when I pulled up at 9:04. ROAV president Bob Steele already had the morning participants corralled and ready for the various trail rides. It was obvious that for the vast majority of vehicles this was not their first time on the trails; most were already covered in various shades of mud. As they moved off in convoy formation, a familiar smell caught my senses: the sweet aroma of mud and peat burning on V8 exhausts. This was definitely a Land Rover event!
The campground was already defined by muddy ruts cut into the sodden fields. As the sun broke through the clouds for the first time in a couple of days, campers had a chance to dry out. A lucky few stayed at local hotels, including the Mountain Lake Lodge that overlooks the campsite and trails. It’s better known as the backdrop for the ‘80s movie Dirty Dancing, a maneuver most of the Land Rovers were practicing as they traversed the campsite.
As Saturday morning progressed, groups of vehicles started to meander back to base camp. Paintwork was all but indistinguishable, each one covered in mud. Some required subtle body adjustments and there were several open holes where windows are meant to be. The advanced trails had certainly claimed some carnage.
The afternoon saw the start of the less carnal RTV (Road Taxed Vehicle) trial for road-legal vehicles, most of which are lightly to moderately modified. The RTV is a non-damaging event where the goal is to maneuver the vehicle through a series of “gates” (pairs of numbered canes) without collecting points for stopping or hitting a cane. The person with the least amount of points at the end of the afternoon wins.
The sunset brought everyone to the big tent for a pulled pork dinner, followed by prize giving and the infamous raffle and auction. The amount of donated product is always astounding, and it’s fair to say that most attendees walk away with some form of prize, raffle winning or auction item.
After the formal festivities wound down, folks migrated back to their campsites, lit fires and relaxed with stories of the day’s activities challenges, including plenty of what you might call “fish stories,” except they involved exaggerations about the depth of mud holes and trail damage instead of line-breakers and lure thieves.
A night of good times with good people quickly turned into Sunday morning, so I filled the coffee mug and flask and prepared for the trek back north. Turning the key once again, Phil Collins greeted me with “Take Me Home.” I’m beginning to think the Defender has some way of making requests to local radio stations.
Back on I-81, with the hordes of lemmings shooting past in their “shades of grey” crossover vehicles were bending their necks to get a better look at my mud-plastered Defender, it occurred to me I was spending close to 16 hours in the driver’s seat, burning enough fossil fuel to decimate a whole herd of dinosaurs, and adding roughly a thousand miles to my odometer to attend MAR for essentially just a day. Was it all worth it?
The Defender seemed to think so, at least judging by what was pouring out of its speakers. Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes were signing “The Time of Our Lives,” the theme song from none other than Dirty Dancing.
I’m ready to do it all again! See you next year.