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Just 120 miles north of Manhattan, in East Haddam, Connecticut, there’s a 90-acre stretch of rugged woodland where professional explorers learn to drive the wild. At Overland Experts (OEX), one of the country’s premier off-roading schools, founder Bruce Elfstrom teaches Navy SEALs and Army Rangers, safari leaders and research scientists—to say nothing of average Joes and weekend warriors—all they need to know about “nature-preserving momentum.” That’s the method whereby drivers maneuver slowly in low gear, leaving as little trace as possible on the terrain. This is no simple task, especially when piloting one of the school’s 15-foot-long, 4,800-pound Hummer H3 Alphas.
A former biology professor, Elfstrom perfected his method in the remotest areas of Iceland, Namibia, and Mongolia, and he makes a patient teacher. “Learning to fail safely, without damage,” he says, “allows us to try again with increasing aggression.”
During a recent lesson I shifted the Hummer into reverse and a tiny video screen popped out of the rearview mirror, providing a camera’s-eye glimpse of what lay behind me: just as many rocks, trees, steep grades, and slippery slopes as there were ahead. OEX employs certain tricks (slightly deflating the tires to increase surface contact and angling side mirrors to reflect the rear wheels) to make things easier, but the driving is still tough. The main enemy is a spinning tire, which will suck power from the other wheels and also dig a hole, scarring the ground and stranding the car. It’s very slow going. “Most of the time,” says Elfstrom, “if you go faster than I jog, it’s way too fast.”
One- and two-day lessons start at $750; nine-day expeditions abroad are from $3,500 a person. The next trip departs for Iceland on September 13 (overlandexperts.com).