“What do I do when I can’t see over the hood?” I called out to John Stewart on my walkie-talkie.
“You stop immediately, get out of your truck, and survey the trail in front of you,” returned the voice of Four Wheeler’s editor. But of course!
However, I was at the rear of a snaking line of four-wheel-drive vehicles, motoring along an undulating, high-elevation, backcountry trail, and I was worried that I was slowing our convoy’s momentum.
The year was 1988, and I was the “newbie” on the Four Wheeler of the Year week-long testdrive in California. We had a collection of ten contenders to evaluate on and off the road; each was an all-new or significantly upgraded model. I was over-the-moon to be included in this elite group of automotive experts and was learning a lot. One thing was that some of the SUVs, and almost all the trucks, were made for average-to-tall drivers. When I called out to Stewart, I was using my toes as an extension of my 5-foot, 2-inch body to motivate the throttle of a Dodge W350 and, at the same time, stretching as tall as possible in the seat to see the trail beyond the hood; its sheetmetal was nearly as long and wide as a modern-day cute-ute!
Those days are over, and we’re all happy they are! Today’s trucks and SUVs are crafted with ergonomics that fit short and tall, slim and not-so-slim drivers, as well as passengers of different sizes, and even mini-riders in booster and car seats. We can move heated and cooled captain’s chairs, with lumbar supports, in multiple directions to see precisely over sloping hoods that reveal the roadway ahead. Plus, we have cameras that can see behind us and at all four corners of our vehicle.
We drive with HID headlamps that project clear to the hinterlands and with Night Vision that protects us from errant dogs and deer ambling about in the darkness. We can shift-on-the-fly, set-and-forget, as well as select from a variety of “terrains” as we meander through wind and weather, or traverse the lands beyond. We can make hands-free phone calls, check on sports scores or request a stock quote; we can order music selections and auto parts from the trail, which can be marked with imaginary breadcrumbs to get us home safely—or, at least, more directly. And, maybe most important of all, we can rock—and even roll—much more safely, ensconced in a cabin with new-age airbags, seatbelt pretensioners, and energy-absorbing crash cages.
Many things have changed. Some are for the good. Some of us who are purists would opt out of a few.
Regardless, I think much is still the same. I go four wheeling not because of all the modern-day technologies in trucks and SUVs. I love four wheeling because of the places it takes me—the places of the heart. The places where I can smell the great outdoors and mud baked on hot truck parts. The places where a tweet comes from a bird and doesn’t emanate from a hand-held device. The places where our busy-ness ends and adventure begins.
That’s what hooked me back in 1988. I’ve been on the trail ever since.
How ’bout you? What got you started?
In case you’re interested or don’t remember, our fleet of contenders for the 1989 Four Wheeler of the Year included the Range Rover, Suzuki Sidekick, Mitsubishi Montero, Isuzu Trooper, Geo Tracker, Dodge Raider, Toyota SR5, Ford Ranger, Dodge W350, and Chevrolet S-10. And the envelope? It was the ’89 Range Rover.
About Sue Mead
Sue Mead is a full-time automotive journalist who specializes in all things four-wheel-drive. She has lapped the globe twice in off-road miles over the past two decades. When she’s not on the trail, she makes her home in Williamstown, Massachusetts.