In and Out of Control Among the Dunes
Sunday, March 4, 2007
PISMO BEACH, Calif.
I had misgivings. The idea of driving on beachfront sand always struck me as odd, the moral equivalent of approaching a communion rail in the nude. It seemed inherently inappropriate, certainly wrong.
But this town, situated between Los Angeles and San Francisco, is a rarity. It has a beach for all reasons, including four-wheel driving -- the only beach in California where that sort of thing is legal.
We arrived on a windswept Thursday afternoon in a fleet of 2008-model Land Rover LR2 compact sport-utility vehicles. Weekends start early in California, especially in beach towns. All along the beach, people were setting up tents, anchoring motor homes, and unloading all-terrain vehicles and other four-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive models.
From a distance, where the sand billows into mountainous dunes, came a buzzing sound reminiscent of bees. The buzzing grew louder as we approached the dunes. There were helmeted people, mostly young men, on motorized dirt bikes, in ATVs and behind the wheels of Jeeps.
My partner, Teresa Bravo, an automotive journalist from Coral Gables, Fla., checked the LR2's terrain-setting indicator. It's a nifty device, also available on other Land Rover models, that allows the driver to automatically adjust the traction and suspension systems for on-road travel, mud and snow, sand and gravel, or climbing rocks.
Bravo selected "sand and gravel" and proceeded slowly along a dune's ridge. I happily gave her the first turn at the wheel. It was the gentlemanly thing to do. Besides, the dunes, which seemed to rise skyward before plummeting into oblivion, were scary. I figured I could learn from Bravo's mistakes, assuming that we and our Land Rover off-road driving instructor all survived them.
But either Bravo was a ringer or the LR2 was marvelously adept at traversing packed and loose sand, crawling up and down dune hills and around the bottoms of dune bowls. She got stuck only once, and it wasn't her fault.
Our instructor asked Bravo to pause at the top of a dune hill -- a necessary precaution in dune running because the top of a dune hill could be a cliff with a long, unhappy descent to the bottom. It's best to stop and check the terrain before moving ahead.
Bravo stopped, but not quite at the top, thanks to another vehicle that pulled in front of her just as she was climbing toward the apex. Stopping on a sandy incline is a sure way to get stuck, regardless of the vehicle at your command.
Bravo put the LR2 into reverse, backed down the hill, found another path to the top and turned the wheel over to me. I wish I could say I cherished the moment. I didn't. She had done so well maneuvering through all of that sand, I had the sinking feeling that there was no way I could top her performance. I didn't. I got stuck four times, each time making the elemental error of decreasing acceleration while climbing a hill.
I blamed my haplessness on the sun being in my eyes, obscuring my forward vision and, thus, forcing me to decelerate. It was a lame excuse. But Bravo patted me on the back and said: "Good job! Bravo!" She seemed sincere. We left it at that.
From October through February, huge swarms of brilliant orange and black monarch butterflies migrate to Pismo Beach to do whatever it is that monarch butterflies do to maintain the species. No four-wheel-drive vehicles are allowed near the grove where the Monarchs congregate, and that is a good thing.
The next time I come to Pismo Beach, I'll visit the monarchs and watch those winged royalties flit about. And I think I'll come back in an LR2. But I'll leave it parked on the road, where it performs with as much competence and finesse as it did in the dunes in Bravo's hands.