She tackles the Land Rover Experience off-road driving school, while I watch in admiration.
When I called to confirm that I would be attending the Land Rover Driving School at the glamorous Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, I was informed that I couldn’t come unless I brought along my eighty-six-year-old Aunt Mimi. After reading about my last driving adventure with Mimi on this website, everyone at Land Rover was eager to meet her. One call to Mimi confirmed it. She answered without hesitation, “Just tell me the date, time and place. I’m all packed!” Mimi informed me that she had not driven an off-road vehicle since the 1950s, when she and her husband, Alan, who was in the Air Force, were stationed in Newfoundland. She got around in the snowy conditions in a Triumph Mayflower, a small British four-seater, which was plenty sturdy but nothing compared to a Land Rover. I thought, “Oh no! How is Mimi ever going to get behind the wheel of a Land Rover on a rough off-road course? She is going to freak!” I was so wrong. Let me preface this by saying that I have been taking adventures with Land Rover for well over a decade in places as wild as the mountains of Argentina, the dunes of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, and the canyons of southern Utah. Several years ago, I took the off-road course at the Biltmore. I remember being so scared that my instructor, Greg Nicklaus, told me to calm down and appreciate the Zen of the experience. By serendipity, Nicklaus was the same instructor that Mimi and I had on this trip.
We would be experiencing mangled roads with rocky, knee-deep puddles, mud, ice, tree stumps, steep hills, and unknown obstacles. Mimi’s response was, “I want to go fast!"But Mimi was not at all frightened. After Nicklaus explained that we would be experiencing mangled roads with rocky, knee deep puddles, mud, ice, tree stumps, steep hills, and other unknown obstacles, Mimi’s response was, “I want to go fast!” Nicklaus calmly informed her, “Slow and steady is the word here.” He gave us a user-friendly explanation of how to shuffle the wheel (let it slide between your hands) and the terrain response system (one simply turns a knob to suit the terrain: grass/gravel/snow, mud/ruts, sand and rock or auto). He also educated us on using hill descent control: you take your foot off the gas and the brake when descending a hill, and the vehicle takes over. Mimi exclaimed as she was driving over our first rutted road, “This car practically drives itself!” Greg reminded her to go easy on the gas, keep her foot off the brake, and center the wheel to prevent us from sashaying. Mimi’s reply, “These tires are like dancing shoes rather than hiking boots—this vehicle is so graceful!”
Our instructor educated us on using hill descent control: you take your foot off the gas and the brake when descending a hill, and the vehicle takes over.After the hill, there was a series of bumpy ruts and puddles. “Hello baby,” said Mimi, “I’m in mud and there’s no road here!” “Mimi you're a rock star!” exclaimed Nicklaus. She answered, “You mean because I'm going through rocks?” Yes. In fact, at that point Mimi was driving on two wheels. To describe what this course looked like, we got out of our car to watch the other students take the rocky path. Nicklaus lowered the suspension so that Mimi could get out easily. She was impressed. “My friend has an SUV, but we need a ladder to get into it,” she quipped. And there’s more, I explained as we got back into the Range Rover. “These seats can heat, cool, and massage. And look at all the beautiful wood inlays and soft leathers they use,” I bragged. Mimi cooed, “This interior is as handsome as a piece of Elizabeth Taylor’s jewelry…it shines!” As we approached the next butte, Nicklaus said, “We are going to drop down on a hillside to your left.” Mimi uncharacteristically faltered for a second. “I can’t see what’s below me!” Nicklaus noted calmly: “There’s nothing to it. Take your foot off the gas and the brake, and let the machine do its job.” As Mimi slowly lowered the vehicle down into one and a half feet of mud, she smiled. “This is a lot different than driving on a racetrack in an Aston Martin. How fast does this car go on the autobahn?” Nicklaus replied: "You’re bringing a tear to my eye. You’ve got it! You are in control of this vehicle.” Mimi’s comeback? “If I had a Range Rover in Atlanta, I could maneuver through all of our traffic with the ease of a gazelle.” About a week later, Mimi sent me this e-mail: "As I think back on the wonderful weekend in North Carolina, all I can really recall at my senior age is the thrill of driving the Range Rover. Wow! It was the thrill of my lifetime. The car, although I must say it's much more than a car, was the smoothest feeling of travel I've ever experienced. Sure, there were bumps and grinds …the logs crossed our paths, the mud holes were knee deep, the creeks crossed were uncharitable, the cliffs climbed were rocky and daring, I never once winced because this Rover was so luxurious and solid-feeling. I felt like I am in the arms of an Atlas or Arnold Schwarzenegger (in his youth, of course.)” And then there was the Biltmore. The 8,000-acre estate is the historic home of George W. Vanderbilt. Building started in 1889, in the style of a French Renaissance chateau, and it formally opened on Christmas Eve 1895. Besides taking part in the driving school, we were invited to a private candlelight tour of the estate. The mansion has more than four acres of floor space, including thirty-five bedrooms, forty-three bathrooms, sixty-five fireplaces, an indoor pool, and a bowling alley. Frederick Law Olmstead, who created Central Park in New York City and Elm Park in Worcester, Massachusetts, designed the Biltmore’s vast gardens.