I just bought the first car I've owned in 13 years and decided to break it in properly over the weekend. Ingredients for this adventure included: Death Valley, being naked around your friends and a bunch of crusty hippies, hot springs, Unimogs full of twinks, mushrooms and 125 miles of off-roading.
Me and car ownership. The last car I owned was a Saab 900 made in the late '80s; it lived at home with my parents in Buckinghamshire while I went to university in London. We sold it when they moved to France. Since, I've mostly ridden motorcycles, bicycles, taken public transportation, driven press vehicles for work and yeah, bummed a few rides off friends.
Being a young, single guy and living in London, New York and Los Angeles, I just didn't really need one. Motorcycles worked better in London, bicycles did in New York and now motorcycles again just make a ton of sense in Los Angeles, where I can again lane split and park wherever.
Then, I got a dog. A big one who likes to come with me on adventures. And then a girlfriend who does too. And that's been a bit of a challenge over the last year and a half or so; the Jetta that Lara had couldn't really go anywhere exciting and you really have to plan press vehicles carefully, cover them and you're not really supposed to let Wileys ride in them.
With the end of Lara's lease approaching, I suggested that we take the opportunity to buy a car together. She needs a car 90 percent of the time to go to shoots and castings and auditions and to visit clients. I need a car 10 percent of the time to take her or friends or dogs on trips. Doing the car together meant we could get her something nicer and more suited to her needs than a basic economy car and get me something capable off-road, all in one vehicle, with her reducing her cost of ownership significantly.
But our requirements didn't end with being both practical day-to-day and capable off-road. Her dad has a new-car-only policy for his daughters; he likes the peace of mind knowing they're driving something safe that won't leave them stranded. I can get behind that and, as Bart likes to remind me, he owns a lot of guns. We wanted something that'd be easy to drive and park in a busy city, but also something big enough to haul boats and backpacks and dogs and bicycles and friends along on trips.
I initially thought the new Jeep Renegade Trailhawk might be that vehicle, but we sat in one and it was just too small. Packing for a trip would have been similar to going motorcycle camping by the time we fill the back seat up with dogs. So we looked at a Wrangler Unlimited, but that was just too big and too rough for city life, not to mention its poor fuel economy. So we were thinking about a Grand Cherokee — I refuse to acknowledge that the regular Cherokee exists due to its horrendous styling. Then I went to Iceland and talked about all this with a bunch of car journalists. Both Scott Oldham from Edmunds and Laurence Ulrich, formerly of the New York Times, were adamant that the Subaru Outback was perfect. I was skeptical, but decided to test drive one and, once we did, we immediately forgot about the Grand Cherokee. The Subaru is substantially larger inside, better to drive, actually has 1/10th of an inch more ground clearance and returns a combined 29 mpg.
It's also a lot cheaper. I'd like to think I got an excellent deal just because I'm a super influential dog camping journalist, but in actuality we ended up paying what most guys on the SubaruOutback.org forum report: $28,000 even for a 2.5i Limited.
Death Valley: For the last couple of years, we've irregularly been visiting these remote hot springs in Death Valley National Park. They're northwest of Death Valley proper, way, way off-road in a remote and seldom visited valley called Saline. The environment is a pretty significant challenge out there; I once rescued a guy who'd made some poor life choices and found himself broken down 50 miles from the nearest road in a Chevy Impala. He woulda died if he hadn't found help.
Ty and I talked about taking the girls there for Valentine's Day a few weeks ago and decided we'd either all pile in his 4Runner or, if we bought the Subaru in time, we could take that too. So, Lara and I set aside an afternoon last Thursday and went and bought a car. Two days later we loaded it up with camping gear, a big cooler, two dogs and another friend and hit the road at 6am.
Along the way, we ran into another friend, his Toyota pickup and a girl he'd just met on Tinder. They decided to tag along too and so we were three cars deep when we rolled off the paved road east of Lone Pine.
The roads into this valley used to be incredibly rough. Like washed out, boulder strewn and hadn't been maintained in 50 years or so rough. The Parks Service always had "Road Closed" signs on both ends just to keep people out. Then, last year they graded both the north and south passes and now it's just a rocky, 120-mile long dirt road through the desert. The Outback could have just about made it in before without issue, but now it's easy driving. I switched traction control off for the loose sand, but don't think I spun a wheel even once. Subaru's AWD system is seriously impressive; driving all four wheels all the time rather than simply apportioning some drive rearwards when the front wheels slip, as most other systems from most other manufacturers do. No, this trip wasn't a real challenge to the car's abilities, but I'm nevertheless impressed with its performance so far; it's better on dirt than I expected.
Death Valley's Own Burning Man: Rolling past the pole bats and into the hot springs, there were a lot more trucks and camps than usual, but we just figured it must be a popular weekend for doing stuff outside and thought no more of it. Found a place to camp, opened some beers, set up camp and ate some mushrooms. Then we took off our clothes and went and sat in a spring with some sunburned hippies.
As sun was setting, I was pacing around the spring, watching our dogs do battle with a few others, Lara was leaned against a tree having a giggle fit and John was saying, "It's the apocalypse, It's the apocalypse…" Over and over. And it kind of felt like that. As the sun set, stereos across the valley came to life, people were coming out of there tents and all sorts of crazy vehicles were showing up. Two identical Unimogs drove past the spring, then a beat up old Golf rumbled in and eight party boys in hot pants and angel wings jumped out. That was all happy and positive, but then a Dodge Ram full of rednecks creeped up on my girlfriend as she walked back to camp topless and proceeded to be wildly inappropriate towards her. She just asked me to remind everyone that this was a nudist type location and that she normally keeps her top on. I came along, surrounded by a whirling pack of three big dogs, and that sight scared them off, but it was still a sudden realization that we had just found ourselves without full control of our bodies in a very weird place in the middle of nowhere surround by people who, at least partially, were not necessarily safe to be around like this. I went to a dark place for a little while, but Lara eventually pulled me into the tent and there we lay in a giant pile of down sleeping bags for the rest of the night.
Minersexual will be 2015's lumberjack. Trust me.
Ty and John were a little better off than we were and went to hang out. It turns out that this party has been going on at the springs on Valentine's day for 25 years or so. Just a big free love, drugs and dancing fest at some weird hot springs in the middle of the desert without the pomp and circumstance of a more organized event like Burning Man. There were fireworks, drones and chinese lanterns flying through the air, a bunch of really pretty guys having a really fun dance party and very little in the way of clothing. Excuse the lack of pictures, some things shouldn't be photographed.
I think we'll come back next year, just a little more prepared on what to expect. Stumbling into all that as a total surprise was a little overwhelming.
Is a lifted station wagon really adventure capable? Yesterday, we cooked breakfast, drank a bunch of water, got naked and sat in the springs one more time, then drove six hours or so to Santa Ynez where some friends' parents have a nice house on top of a hill in wine country. Driving home right now, we've got 941 miles on the car, pretty much all of which were this weekend and, at not one point were we uncomfortable or cramped, even with tons of camping gear in the trunk, two dogs in the backseat and three humans on board. Even with 125 miles of dirt road, we've averaged 25mpg on this trip; probably 10 to 12 more than we would have in a Jeep. The Outback was more than capable of tackling Saline Valley's rough dirt road, a significant enough challenge that it kills several less well prepared people ever year.
When I think about the kinds of trips I need this vehicle for, the vast majority of them involve huge highway time and then a little bit of dirt roading. On the Lost Coast, for instance, Ty and I drove for 12 hours to get there, then did 11 miles of dirt into the mountains. The Subaru is as quiet, comfortable and spacious as a Mercedes E-class, sips fuel and is surprisingly capable on rough terrain. It has some of the best vision I've found on a new car and it's also incredibly safe. I am very happy with our purchase, I cannot think of another vehicle this versatile.
I'll be upgrading it a bit, of course. A set of smaller diameter steel wheels will be both stronger and allow me to fit a real set of all-terrain tires. A roof basket will allow me to carry a 5th full-size spare, a jerry can and one of ARB's inflatable X-Jacks. A trunk fridge will enable us to take nicer food and drinks along for car camping. A bike rack will hold a new mountain bike that's on the way and a rear-seat cover will keep the damn dogs off the leather. All that will go on for weekends, giving us the widest possible set of capabilities, then come off for week days, so Lara can drive it in quiet, safe, comfortable ease.
The Outback means we'll be able to have more and better adventures, so that's more and better content for IndefinitelyWild. Thanks, car.
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.