So after months of planning and being asked for the thousandth time, 'when is it you go to America?', I'm sat in a hotel room in Charleston South Carolina waiting for the call from my US shipping agent to say the vehicle is cleared and good to go. The agent had advised me to give myself a week between the ship arriving in Charleston and me flying out in order for the paperwork to be prepared. It's late in the day when I get the call to say the vehicle is all set. Despite Charleston being a huge commercial port and a US naval base my taxi driver doesn't seem familiar with the address. He's from Georgia. No not that one. The one that was once part of Russia. He double checks the address and with a puzzled look on his face enters it into his iPhone to try pinpoint the location of the port of Charleston...!
The dock worker takes me to the Defender and tells me him and his colleagues have been admiring it all week. As I leave the security gate at the port exit, I spot blue and red flashing lights behind me. I pull over to let him pass, but he swings his truck in front of me. I'm not a hundred feet outside the gate and I've already been pulled by the cops! 'What the hell is that thing?' the cop drawls. It turns out he was just curious. "Land Rover? That's like a Range Rover right?"
This level of interest and attention the vehicle draws is something I'm going to have to get used to and you start to see why Defenders' are starting to command $100k asking prices. You can't fill up at a gas station without someone starting a conversation with you. As someone told me, "you need to be sociable person to own a Defender in America". People pull up alongside you on the road and take pictures, bikers give you the thumbs up and people at the side of the road shout 'badass truck'.
We'd shipped the truck RoRo rather than container. It's a far cheaper way to transport the truck across the Atlantic, the downside being anything in or on the vehicle that isn't fixed is at risk of being stolen. I'd hidden as much stuff as I could in or about the vehicle prior to shipping but what remained we shipped to the hotel via FedEx in three separate parcels thanks to MUD's excellent North American shipping rates! A sweaty afternoon was spent in 95 degree heat sorting, organising and loading and trying to remember where I'd hidden all of the stuff I knew I'd packed in the truck somewhere!
Leaving Charleston I made my way north on rural backroads for an appointment with the guys at South East Overland in Seneca who with the help of Matt Scott at MaxTrax USA, had tracked down a sparewheel carrier for my MaxTrax that I'd been unable to get hold of in the UK. Walking out of SE Overland's doorway I discovered an admiring crowd had gathered around the Defender on the sidewalk. I think the crowd numbered seven at one point!
From Seneca I had a short drive up to Asheville, North Carolina, ticking off State number two visited. The Biltmore Estate in Asheville is home to one of only four Land Rover Experience centres in the USA with Biltmore being its most prestigious. Biltmore was designed by Carnegie for the Vanderbilt's in the style of a French Chateau. The Vanderbilt's had money. Lots of it and it shows. I was there at the invitation of a couple of the guys who work for the Experience who'd offered to give me a TAT send off, as it was Biltmore where Land Rover had begun their own TAT adventure a couple of years ago.
Instructor Matt Albriton showed me some of the vehicles in their collection including a rare NAS 110, no less than three NAS90s including one with less than 600 miles on the clock and a Discovery 2 with hood adorned with the Dalai Lama's signature.
From Asheville it was time to join the TAT. Strictly speaking the 'official' Trans Am Trail starts inland in Andrews, North Carolina but a route from the coast to Andrew's has been created to make the TAT a coast-to-coast route. My journey had started at the coast anyway but I headed for the link section on the way to Andrews NC. This section didn't include any off-road driving and with hindsight I'd have happily skipped it. Don't get me wrong, the route takes in small roads with stunning scenery (weather permitting) through a beautiful part of the US but on a damp Saturday, the route was akin to a never ending Bank Holiday dawdle through the Lake District. The TAT is primarily aimed at motorcyles and I'm sure it would be great riding on two wheels, but the endless switchbacks in a heavy 4-wheel drive couldn't end too soon for me.
I grabbed a meal in Andrews and found a KOA campsite just outside of town and spent my first night in the pop top, listening to the rain on the roof and the rolls of thunder from the mountains. The same mountains where I was heading the following morning as I began the TAT for real.