If you are a Land Rover fan living in North America, the words "On the Road" can only mean one thing: off-road guru Bill Burke and his annual four-wheel-drive seminar and backcountry extravaganza.
Bill Burke left his stamp on the extreme 'wheeling arena after competing in the 1991 African Camel Trophy event. After finishing the grueling, hard-core event, Burke decided to turn his love of the sport - and his success - into a career. It was at that point that Bill Burke's 4Wheeling America was born.
Until recently, Burke was known primarily in Land Rover circles for giving small groups expert instruction in off-road travel. But as of late, this western Colorado/Utah-based operation has become known as the gold standard by which overland expedition training around the world is judged.
As his business grew, he was faced with a problem: how to take his successful curriculum to a wider audience. The more he examined the problem, the clearer the answer became. He was going to have to take his program on the road.
We were fortunate enough to attend this year's program at the primary training grounds in Moab, Utah. And after driving 2,300 miles from Boston and enduring the 31-hour, brain-numbing ride, our expectations were high.
Having been to Moab twice now, all we can say is that it really does live up to all the stories told about it. Moab is to 'wheeling what Nashville is to Country. And every year, more four-wheelers seem to discover the fact. If you've been planning a trip to Utah, Moab should be your first destination.
On the Road basically works the same way that Burke's private training sessions do. It is a mixture of field workshops and actual driving time where students are encouraged to develop skills learned in the classroom. This year's event was divided into four days. There were two days of workshops and two days of 'wheeling, all interspersed with informal night runs, pub crawls, a formal banquet with an awards ceremony, and a great raffle giveaway.
During the first two days of seminars, participants took two workshops per day. Classes were held in a large, dirt-floor arena. This gave a casual outdoor feel to the day and provided a quiet, all-weather atmosphere for vendors to display their products.
Workshop subject matter ranged from overland expedition planning, backcountry emergency medicine, and GPS navigation and orienteering, to field repairs, backcountry cooking, and safety and recovery techniques. There was information to be had for every skill range and degree of technical experience. We had the opportunity to use an underhood welding system, learn new backcountry recipes, and try out a Pull-Pal for the first time.
The second two days of the event were reserved for formal trailruns. Whether you were running a bone-stock SUV or a heavily modified trail rig, there was a trail to challenge you and a certified trail leader to see you through.
On the first day of 'wheeling, we tagged along with a group heading out on a trail called Metal Masher. Although the trail proved to be nothing like the name, the scenery and 'wheeling did not disappoint. The trail was very well marked and slipped in and out of rock formations that gave us a colorful taste of the legendary slickrock and punishing desert environment. Our trail leader was confident and did a great job of getting all the vehicles through.
In our group, we had a wide range of vehicles, from trail-proven Defenders to long-wheelbase pickups. It was an odd assortment, but curiously we only had to drag the winch cable out once.
Perhaps the most exhilarating run was the first night's informal trail ride. We were eager to see some cool, new trails, so we queued up right behind Burke and headed out into the cool, desert air. Although we have been to Moab a couple of times, we have not even begun to explore all the trails there, which means that everything still seems fresh and exciting.
On this night, Bill chose to take us to a large dune area. Access was gained via a sunken wash laden with deep, fine sand. We were able to run rather quickly, slipping from side to side in and out of each turn as if we were given a glimpse of a Baja or Dakar rally.
We wound in and out of the deep sandy turns until the black sky opened up on a huge, sandy bowl. We followed Burke up and down the steep, sandy slopes, trusting his experience as we dropped the big nose of our truck over the seemingly bottomless canyons of nothing below. Our trucks undulated through the desert night, grasping for traction.
Eventually, we spun around and changed direction. We climbed a steep dune and turned 180 degrees back toward the rear of our column. For the first time, we could see all 20 or so trucks in our group snaking over the deep tracks that we had just left in the sand.
Bill got on the radio and gave the word. Suddenly a free-for-all ensued. We watched as the blustery 4x4 machines raced up and down the dunes, streaking a yellow and red frenzy across the desert night.
For as long as we are fortunate to ride behind the wheel of a 4x4, we will never forget that night. It's safe to say that Burke's program far exceeded our expectations. In fact, most of the drive home was spent thinking about the next time we would be able to get back out to this four-wheeling mecca.