By Sarah Elkins
Take the White Sulphur Springs exit from Interstate 64 and head east. There aren’t many straight roads in this state, but the one that leads you to The Greenbrier is about as straight as they come. Once you leave the tangle of gas stations and fast food joints you’ll be lulled past the dream-like private Greenbrier Sporting Club. Your foot will ease off the gas despite the 55 mile per hour signs. Your breathing will slow just a bit as you roll past the most beautiful golf courses in the country tucked up against mountainsides that rise from the valley floor in a green pillowy expanse on your left and right. In summertime the air is sweet and everyone slows down just a fraction—stretching the long, warm days a bit more, yawning in the hazy afternoons.
You look right and see a perfect stretch of white fence as your car noses into the last gentle climb before the main entrance of The Greenbrier. But, don’t pass them. Yes, yes, the entrance to the hotel will be on your left, but forget about that for a moment. Turn right toward the stables.
It’s possible a guided horseback ride is beginning; a row of helmeted guests sitting upright on gentle horses who lope along sleepy-eyed in the sunshine. Or, maybe the horses are in their corrals, swishing flies with their tails. The Greenbrier carries on, now 236 years since its beginnings as a destination for restorative health, but just beyond the carriage rides, croquet tournaments, fine dining and finer wines, there’s a new way of “carrying on” emerging. Peek behind the horse stables and you’ll find a different resort. A white knuckled, muddy, wahoo of an adventure awaits those who aren’t much interested in slowing down.
I’m headed for the Greenbrier’s Off Road Adventures. The short stretch of smooth driving that brought me from the interstate to the grounds has nearly lulled me to sleep. But don’t worry, I’ll be fully awake soon enough.
Tracy Asbury greets us with a handshake, a firm jolt that serves as my first hint of what is to come. He’s a laughing, fast moving, fast talking guy, Tracy is about to introduce me to the meanest little vehicles I’ve ever seen. Off Road Adventures at the Greenbrier offers Can-Am Maverick UTV (Utility Terrain Vehicle) driving experiences.
Tracy takes me through the basic mechanics of the Can-Ams, safety precautions, and hints on how not to destroy the machine or myself. Tracy rolls his eyes slightly and slows down to explain the finer points. “Do not try to floor it and steer into a turn. It’s not going to work for you.” Something tells me he’s seen a few tough guys feel not so tough by the end of their driving experience.
Tracy is a full time elementary PE teacher, operates his own guiding service on the side, and has been guiding off road driving tours at ORA for a year. His average speed is full throttle. In the one year since the Can-Ams have been introduced, he says, “I’ve had 250 of those machine behind me, and, knock on wood, no injuries.”
He tosses me a full helmet and a splash jacket. I’ll need both. I opt for the pants, too.
Off Road Adventures also offers Jeep Rubicon driving experiences for those who want a little more clearance from the mud. If the Rubicons are the t-rexes, the Can-Ams are the velociraptors.
Once I’m behind the wheel of the Can-Am, the adventure begins by plunging into the forest behind the garages. The belly of the forest doesn’t look much like the pillowy green hills that greeted me from the road. The route starts out easy enough—worn double track with some twists, turns, ups and downs just for warm up. Then the terrain gets a bit grittier. The machine drops us down into mud pits too large to be called puddles, and grinds up hills so steep my internal physics scream, “This isn’t possible. You’re going to flip backward down this hill.”
But we won’t. Probably. At the top of the hill we come to a tract of man-made hills that rise and fall like a Dr. Seuss landscape. It reminds me of white water rafting. But instead of a rolling river tossing me over invisible boulders and jerking me around bends, I am tossed and jerked through muddy ruts and around rocky switchbacks.
Just before we emerge back into the shady forest canopy, Tracy stops his vehicle and jumps out. He crouches to pick up a box turtle in the path and carries it back to show me. Every adrenaline trip must stop for a turtle rescue mission.
The tour continues down a rocky creek bed with a trickle of water still flowing. By the end of summer it will be bone dry, but for now it’s obvious we’re driving down the middle of a creek. The rocks seem none too happy about it and bounce us along. I remind myself not to bite my lip. I might just bite through.
Around the bend, we slap a rock jutting out from the mountainside as the Can-Am flies past. Tracy stops ahead and jumps out again. He’s come back to the vehicle to switch the keys.
“Okay, it’s time to up the ante a little,” he grins, removing the orange key and replacing it with a grey one. For the first half of course, the travel speed is restricted, but once I prove I am not interested in maiming myself or anyone else, I am granted a little more power. I’ll need it for the next portion of the trip.
If the beginning of the ride was into the belly of the mountain, we’re about to enter the bowels. Over the growl of the engines, Tracy instructs, “Just let ‘em eat!”
Soon we find ourselves driving along a bank at a 45 degree angle, if not more. The driver’s side door is touching the bank, and as sure as I was that we would flip backward down that hill earlier, I am now even more sure that I will flip onto my side. In fact, it probably happens on occasion... but not today. We climb out of a gully, and the engine is hot. I understand now what Tracy meant earlier by “let ‘em eat.” The Off Road route is teeth-against-teeth, rock and mud against the grinding tread of fierce little monsters. And, after a hot shower you may head off to a seven-course meal, but I bet you’ll want to crack a cold beer before the mud dries in your hair.
That’s the experience Chris Hanna, owner of Off Road Adventures, hopes you have anyway. He’s hanging around after we finish the course. He smiles and asks how we liked it. Chris took over the Greenbrier’s Off Road experience two years ago, which, at the time, offered the Jeep driving course. Since then, he has expanded the business to include the popular Can-Ams, and as of June, Segway tours as well.
The Greenbrier’s Off Road Adventures will change your pace, quicken your breathing and remind you that a little mud can’t hurt. Of course, you’ll want to book a reservation before you wander off behind the stables in search of adventure. ORA is busy and getting busier.