Written by Arthur Treff | Photos by Evan Anderson
Western North Carolina has ample opportunities for fun- and thrill-seeking off-road buffs. Marshall Grant, of Marion’s Blue Ridge Expeditions, wants to make sure the fun and thrills are accompanied by safe practices and ecological sensitivity.
The track ahead is deeply rutted with a mound in the center that, if I’m not careful, could strike the bottom of the vehicle. The ruts lead me through a break in the trees barely wide enough. After a slight right turn, the road vanishes; all I see is sky.
“Okay, I’m in first gear, the transfer case is set to low and locked, and the M light is on,” I say aloud. Left foot is on the brake, right on the gas.
“Good! From now on until you’re heading downhill, you can’t see the road, so ease into it,” says the man seated next to me.
He wasn’t wrong. As I turn and crest the drop off, the hood pitches up sharply, obstructing my view. As the front lowers, the rear rises, and the seat pitches me forward… way forward. The valley floor slowly comes into view, but I still can’t see the road over the hood. I’m riding a rollercoaster that’s just about to plunge over the abyss.
When I’m about 10 feet down the hill, the track finally comes into view: It’s steep. It rained last night so, yeah, it’s muddy, too. But I’m way too busy feeling for traction to worry.
“Nice!” he says, encouragingly. “You don’t want to over brake and lose traction, because then we’re just sliding out of control. Let the engine do the work.”
Slowly we bump down the hill and towards the bottom.
“I wasn’t smooth enough on the brake,” I say, “but I’m sure going down is easier than up.”
“You’re about to find out. Make a U-turn in that little grass patch.”
What?! Gulp. “Wait—I’m going back up this?” I stop the car.
“Of course.” The man passes me a conspiratorial grin. “Now, let’s talk about momentum and how it affects the suspension and traction.”
That Zen-like Feeling
Many of the stories I’ve told in Capital at Play have involved speed, risk, and machinery: driving on the BMW race track in Spartanburg, riding my motorcycle on the Trans America Trail, and skydiving in a vertical wind tunnel. In spite of this, I have zero off-road experience on four wheels, so when Marshall Grant of Blue Ridge Expeditions (BRE) invited me to drive with him, it was a no-brainer.
We started the day with a vehicle familiarization session, where I was looking over and under the 2000 Land Rover Discovery 2 to find any parts of the structure that could possibly hang up on an obstacle. This could impede progress or, worse, disable the Rover. Marshall and his assistant, Kenneth Chester, explained approach angle, high centering, departure angle… and exactly why a shovel and tree loppers are carried on board, and how to use them.
We removed air from the tires and talked tons about things that affect traction. I learned about the Rover’s transmission and transfer case settings and how, between the two, there are sixteen different gearing scenarios at the driver’s disposal.
In the first exercise of the day, I was paired with Capital at Play publisher Oby Morgan. I drove us through some simple traffic cones to simulate trees, performing controlled moves forward and reverse.
Before moving on, Marshall reached through the window and handed me some fabric.
“Put this on over your eyes, make sure you can’t see anything. Your passenger will guide you.”
We drove a circular route around a field through some mud puddles and over a couple rocks. We quickly found a way to communicate. This is a team building exercise that BRE uses for military and private classes. It’s especially useful for husband/wife students where one spouse appears to be dominating the cockpit.
I trusted Oby implicitly, and he was a good communicator. This allowed me to relax and tune into the vehicle, feeling for traction, listening for engine and tire noises. Before Oby told me we were driving through a series of muddy puddles, I already knew: I’d heard the sound of water through the open window and I felt the tires being sucked into the mud.
With some of the basics covered and my blindfold removed, we moved down the trail to see what obstacles we could encounter. Muddy ruts were first, and Marshall did a great job explaining that fighting the rut by turning the wheel makes the tires slice into the rut walls. This increases resistance to forward motion, which decreases traction.
“Just relax, let the steering wheel slide through your fingers, use your hands as brakes to slow the wheel’s movement… relax, don’t fight the wheel.”
Part of a student’s time with BRE is spent out of the car, looking at an obstacle, planning a successful route by evaluating ground clearance, traction, overhead/side clearance. While driving, BRE instructors use expressions like don’t fight it, relax, feel the vehicle, and breathe.
For his part, Marshall originally discovered that he was happy when he felt one with something, like a vehicle. This “tuning in to the machine” made him a better driver. Surrounding himself with others also working toward that state thrilled him. “Entrainment” is a term he uses to describe it (see sidebar, p. 85).
“Feel the machine, feel the Zen of it,” says Marshall. “Take in the sights, sounds, and feedback through the steering wheel and seat of your pants. Be aware of what others are doing in your 4×4 convoy and, pretty soon, you will begin to anticipate what your fellow drivers are doing. That’s Entrainment. Passing this knowledge on to others is what draws me to teaching. I want people to enjoy this sport and do it safely. Watching the light go on in someone’s eyes when they learn something new is very exciting to me.”
I thoroughly enjoy learning anything new particularly if it involves machinery in motion, and I enjoyed how Marshall used our out of the car time to immerse me in the technical aspects of getting through an obstacle.
When I was behind the wheel, however, he laid most of the tech-talk aside and encouraged me to sense the movement and vehicle while he subtly coached me through a tricky part of the trail.
Riding with the BRE team was also a lesson in trail conservation. Entering one obstacle, the Rover’s right side started to bend an overhanging hemlock branch. Marshall instructed me to stop. He rolled down the window, grabbed the loppers he carried, and trimmed the offending branch. The cuttings were then placed in low spots of the track ahead of us. Branches were not broken off; the trail was cleared in a way that left the tree healthy. We would repeat this numerous times throughout the training.
As my confidence grew so did the size of the obstacles. We’d stop to look, and after an out of car planning session where I was encouraged to think for myself, I would get behind the wheel. Marshall would remain outside, guiding me via hand signals and walkie-talkie. I trusted him completely—all I had to do was watch his hand signals, feel the vehicle, and be smooth.
I’d never piloted a car or truck on anything other than smooth gravel. Fueled by monster truck commercials and movie chase scenes, I thought that four wheeling was all about highly modified trucks vaulting over school bus sized obstacles, or pickup trucks festooned with aftermarket lights jumping sand dunes at highway speeds.
Under Marshall’s tutelage, I found it to be a slow physical and mental game where the driver and occupants are continually strategizing about the obstacle ahead—how to cross it safely, without getting hung up or damaging the machine.
After crossing a sizeable section of bedrock hump where one wheel was off the ground, and the deck angle inclinometer registered 15 degrees of bank, I came to a stop beside Marshall.
“Okay, that was great. Now, see that muddy track just around the corner? Follow it and then you’ll come to that long muddy part we did this morning. Go through that and when you come to the flat, stop and we’ll join you there in the other rover. You’ve got your radio if you get stuck.”
First solo! It felt like flight school 35 years ago when my instructor hopped out of the aircraft and ordered me to make three takeoffs and landings, alone. It wasn’t that tough because I was prepared. I heard Marshall’s words in my head, I felt for traction, let the wheels ride the ruts, used my hands as gentle brakes on the wheels, and kept my momentum up. Entrainment—I get it!
A thread that runs throughout training with BRE is safety, trail etiquette, and trail conservation.
“I was raised here in Marion,” Marshall reflects, “and learned to drive off-road with my dad in his Jeep. My uncle had a driveway that was harder to drive than anything you’ll be tackling today, so four wheeling was a part of life. Back then, we all drove on tracks that ran through private land.”
Today, though, things are different; fences and gates block entry to private and public land alike. Why? As our mountain population has grown, a small percentage who seek the 4×4 Adventure Lifestyle buy an off-road rig, equip it with a rescue winch, fill their $500 Yeti cooler, and sally forth into the wooded unknown… without any formal training.
Armed with nothing more than a few YouTube videos, eventually they find themselves deep in sand, mud, or rocks. Out of traction and ideas, driver panic sets in. While trying to free the vehicle, they do extensive trail damage, which causes significant erosion. Sometimes they loop the winch cable around a tree and pull the vehicle free, often leaving the tree irreparably damaged and dying. And sometimes, in the case of older vehicles, they are abandoned entirely. Who is saddled with the expensive cleanup? Land owners, of course—who, afterwards, put up fences.
As if that weren’t bad enough, numerous inadequately trained 4×4 drivers are seriously injured or killed each year due to crashes or improper use of rescue equipment. All of this points to a dearth of quality education among 4×4 operators.
For these reasons Blue Ridge Expeditions was born in 2008. A driving school can only stay on track if a skilled driver is in charge. Marshall’s driving and business experiences run all the way back to his childhood.
From a very early age, Marshall would ride in his dad’s Jeep on the rocky mountain roads surrounding Marion. The boy was passionate about learning, and his father, Sandy, was a patient teacher. These jaunts were to become the foundation of Marshall’s off-road driving education, something that would serve him well in the future.
Business or Pleasure
Sandy Grant was a textile mill supervisor who earned extra cash in his spare time as a musician. He eventually tired of mill work and opened Silver Dollar Pawn in Marion. This entrepreneurial move provided more income as well as time to devote to his twin passions of music and off-road driving. Sandy’s rock band had achieved a large following in the Southeastern United States, and young Marshall was eager to tag along, helping haul equipment and watching music being made.
Never one to remain on the sidelines, Marshall became a drummer, and quickly started a punk band in high school. He continued to study drumming and played with an assortment of working bands honing his craft.
His own playing abilities became significant enough to join a touring avant-garde jazz outfit, The Hibernaculum Trio. This was where he discovered the concept of Entrainment. Musicians playing free-form music rely on their talent and intuition to bring structure and dynamics to a piece. When the players mold into a cohesive unit, it feels great. When it clicks into place in front of a live audience, that can be intoxicating. Performing, however, can be a difficult way to make a living.
When asked about his work history Marshall says, “I’ve only worked two straight jobs in my life. The first, I was 16 and I was the salad bar guy at Wendy’s. I was sweating in a polyester uniform, bored out of my mind restocking the veggie bins. I lasted two days.”
The second was loading giant spools of thread into a die machine in a textile mill. It was hot, toxic work. Marshall was gone after two hours. He secured an Associate of Science in business, which he put to work in the music industry.
When he wasn’t touring with the jazz trio, Marshall was also earning money teaching music. As a consequence, he realized that his students bought online or traveled long distances to shop for musical instruments. It was clear: His home town needed a music store, so with his savings and a bank loan, in late 1995, he opened one—Marshall’s Music.
Marshall’s stocked classical, high school band, and electric instruments, as well as drums and percussion. The store also carried a full line of guitar amplifiers, speakers, and stage sound equipment. When a local YMCA called him looking for a public-address system for their building, Marshall saw yet another entrepreneurial opportunity. The music store expanded to install sound gear for schools, theaters, churches, and YMCAs.
This musical enterprise covered all phases of business except one: a recording studio. Yep, you guessed it; Marshall opened one. He was living a musical dream—performing, teaching, selling instruments, recording, and installing sound gear. He was one busy guy.
Throughout this intense musical phase, Marshall still made time to drive his vehicle off-road and enter some competitions. Through competing, he discovered that Sandy’s lessons had given him a really good foundation compared to the other drivers he encountered. The events turned out to be good exposure for his talents, as people would seek him out for private off-road lessons.
Too much fun can dull the shiny edge, of course. By 2003, Marshall had reached his musical Waterloo; he eventually realized he couldn’t continue the breakneck pace of his musical enterprise. Through a friend, he learned that there was an area opening for a forest ranger, so he closed the store, sold off the inventory, and lived the life of a park ranger. It was just what he needed at the time.
While in the forest service, Marshall continued to run the recording studio and his sound installation business after hours. Over time, the studio business fizzled out, so he sold off the assets. The sound gear installation business continued to provide him extra income and had now morphed into a part-time consulting gig. As for playing drums, Marshall continued to play music on the side, touring with various jazz bands.
He loved being a park ranger. Being surrounded by solitude and natural beauty was a great stress reducer, but in 2006, after three years as a ranger, Grant got wind that his position might disappear. As if on cue, a fellow off-road driver told him that there was an instructor opening with the Land Rover Experience team.
When they saw his credentials, Marshall was hired immediately. Teaching in brand new Land Rovers within the pastoral boundaries of the Biltmore Estate, what’s not to like? He enjoyed working in an off-road environment and teaching full- time. Land Rover students often asked him for more advanced instruction in their own vehicles, but there was a problem for Marshall: Land Rover employees were not allowed to moonlight. After a two-year tenure, it was time to launch a new business.
The year was 2008 when Blue Ridge Expeditions became full-time. Marshall had stayed in touch with his former Land Rover students, and through a massive marketing effort he started booking lessons immediately. Startup capital came from the liquidated music business assets.
He also discovered that the military doesn’t have a dedicated off-road vehicle school, they contract with outside vendors. Marshall once again brought his energy to bear on the opportunity. The learning curve for becoming a contractor and how to bid and keep contracts was steep, but he persevered. Concurrently, he networked his off-road contacts and existing contractors started hiring him when they found themselves shorthanded on larger military jobs.
Mixed in with BRE’s burgeoning military work, Marshall was contacted by the Boy Scouts of America. The organization was losing scouts once they reached driving age, so they wanted to introduce some off-roading with all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) to the program. Marshall’s qualifications struck gold again.
ATVs resemble motorcycles, in that the driver straddles the vehicle, and pilots it using handlebar and foot controls. They ride on four soft tires and are predominantly ridden off-road. They are used by anyone who needs to cover ground in rough environments such as hunting, farming, construction, and rough search and rescue.
Marshall designed a trial program where scouts would learn how to drive ATVs properly. It was wildly successful, so the Scouts wound up taking the program nationwide. Marshall designed the curriculum and trained the instructors. Before he was done, he also designed the instructor training program, then trained the instructor trainers. This safety program was also adopted by SVIA, the industry association representing the manufacturers of ATVs, as well as the United States armed forces who also operate ATVs.
Side-by-sides or four-wheelers are another class of off-road machines that more closely resemble golf carts. They seat two or more, the occupants sit in automotive type seats, and the driver uses a steering wheel and foot controls. They are four-wheel drive. Once again, Marshall was hired by an industry association, the Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle Association, to develop a curriculum that would teach purchasers how to safely operate their rigs.
Designing a safety curriculum for any type of motorized conveyance may sound trivial until you understand the amount of research that must be conducted. Vehicle dynamics must be thoroughly explored, and you might be surprised to know how little the vehicle manufacturers’ engineers know about the subtleties of how their product operates.
Someone—like Marshall—has to conduct extensive testing. At what speed and under what conditions will it roll over? Dangerous maneuvers must be identified. Loading conditions with regard to weight and location have to be explored. Additionally, the human factors affecting the operator and passengers must be considered.
With those variables identified, then comes the hard work of constructing classroom materials and driving exercises that will educate someone who’s never operated the vehicle before. Marshall Grant’s extensive experience with the dynamics of four-wheeled vehicles has made him the one of the most qualified people in the country to design these important safety courses.
It’s no surprise that BRE’s military business took off and became steady work. As of today, Marshall owns and maintains a fleet of ten vehicles that remain close to Fayetteville, and he trains mostly special operations soldiers and contractors with very high security clearances. In today’s operations, when SPEC ops deploys, they travel light and have to acquire a vehicle at their destination, so the vehicles BRE trains them in are what they’d find overseas: Land Rovers or Toyota Land Cruisers, with right hand drive, standard shift, and a diesel engine.
The State Department teaches their operators how to hotwire a car in less than five minutes, and Marshall takes it from there. He teaches them how to drive their vehicles over the worst obstacles imaginable. When they get stuck, they practice self-recovery. When something breaks, they learn how to fix it. They repair hydraulics, electrics, leaking coolant, and broken drive shafts, additionally repairing damaged tires in the field.
Most modern cars and trucks ride on tubeless tires; inner tubes (which contain the air within the tire) are seldom necessary. The area inside the tire is filled with air, and without the inner tube, the inner diameter of the tire creates the vital air tight seal where it meets the wheel rim. The seal is formed by a very thick, reinforced area molded into the tire, called the bead.
When a tubeless tire loses air due to a puncture or other damage, this seal is broken, and the bead must be re-seated against the rim. In your local tire shop, when they mount new tires on your car, they must seat the bead against the rim. This is done by pumping a high volume of compressed air through the tire valve, something that cannot be replicated in the field by a hand pump or portable air compressor.
Instead, Blue Ridge Expeditions teaches students a safe and effective way of seating the tire bead by setting off a small explosion inside the tire using a can of engine starter fluid and a lighter. (Marshall demonstrated the technique for me, which was as exciting as it was effective. Don’t try this at home, kids!)
Part of the advanced training also happens in the dark. After a full day of driving, the team must find the vehicle that Marshall’s team has stashed (usually flipped over and disabled). When found, students have to right it, change tires, get it running, then extricate it from whatever obstacle BRE has driven it into… all in blackout conditions, wearing night vision goggles.
Goals in Life
The military side generates half of BRE’s business; the other half is teaching private individuals. The company’s Linville Gorge training center is a network of private trails that BRE leases, where they operate four standard Land Rovers. Rates are approximately $750 per day in your own vehicle or using one of Marshall’s. The company teaches individuals, couples, and groups, and also designs customized team-building events. All sales are generated via word-of-mouth.
In Linville, BRE can tailor instruction to help client’ reach their driving goals. Say you’re on the cusp of buying an
off-road machine but have no experience: Taking a class will help you decide if four-wheeling is for you. Maybe you’re on the other extreme and you’re training for an upcoming trip to conquer the Peruvian Altiplano, Siberia’s Road of Bones, or maybe even motor through Mongolia. BRE can put
you through everything they teach to the military and the State Department.
Marshall and his wife, Jessica, are the only full-time employees of Blue Ride Expeditions. They do it all: marketing, sales, promotion, accounting, teaching, fixing the fourteen vehicles, and interfacing with the military (which sounds like a full-time job by itself).
In addition to Kenneth, the company has five part-time instructors. Jessica, too, is a world class off-road driving instructor, so she jumps in to teach when needed. When they’re not doing all of that, they homeschool the eldest of their three children.
Being a father is what drives Marshall to keep BRE running, and it’s not just for the money.
“I want to show my boys that they don’t have to move to someplace like Atlanta to make money,” he says. “And they don’t have to work a dead-end hourly job. I want them to watch me like I did my dad. I learned that with brainpower and hard work, I can make my way right here in Marion.”
Remember that steep uphill track Marshall told me to climb? With a knot in my stomach and a mouth as dry as the dashboard dust, I hit the gas. As the tires clawed for altitude, I stifled the fear of flipping over backwards. The Rover pitched upward and felt like the Andrea Gail, fighting waves in The Perfect Storm. I was thinking I’m gonna make it… this is awesome… almost there…
Then the wheels spun—a solid fail, three quarters of the way to the top. For a second, I was certain the car was going to flip onto its back. Not to worry. Marshall had prepared me. I took a breath, put it into reverse (for engine braking) and gingerly backed it down, using the brakes when needed.
“Nice work. Now, let’s think about the relationship between momentum and traction for a second,” says Marshall. “This is a 6300-pound vehicle and that’s a steep hill… think you know what to do this time?”
I made it.
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