Thirteen hundred miles in two and a half days, driving from Rochester New York to southern Ohio. My goal – spend one night outside of modern amenities to rekindle something that my digital existence doesn’t foster – an analogue connection to nature… while driving a 2005 Subaru Outback 3.0. I know – a bit hypocritical, but what can I say – this car is special and I’m okay with the delusion that I can justify camping alongside fuel injection, an all-aluminum three liter 250 horsepower flat six and symmetrical all wheel drive.
Of the 10 cars I’ve owned, this one – purchased in 2016 after discovering I would soon be living in a place that has at least six months of long, rough, snow covered winters – has become known as the objective best. It’s a remarkable car – a jack of all trades, master of none sort of thing. It has power and luxury – two things I’m pretty foreign too – but the typical Subaru quirkiness that makes driving a nearly two-ton automatic station wagon a fun (er, interesting) experience. What else, other than maybe an all-wheel drive Audi or BMW wagon, can carry as much as a large SUV, haul ass on the freeway, and do hilarious slides and skids in a snow covered parking lot all with a sense of vault-like security and low operating costs? Nothing. Or, at least nothing that I’ve owned… yet.
Clearly, I have a lot of confidence in this car. So, I had no qualms about putting it through hell – which it has been to and back more than once. This particular trip, was one of those times.
Having taken the interstate from Rochester to Ohio in mad dash of highway heroism, my trip really started the second day, leaving from Cincinnati. I headed east – avoiding the interstate all together this time – on a path to travel through some national forests and state parks, and camp for the night. The next morning, I would have to drive – on the interstate – back to Cincinnati to pick up my girlfriend so we could drive back to Rochester and punch our clocks again. I picked a dirt road using the clunky but now proven useful website Gravel Maps (for anyone monitoring “Gravel Maps” on Google Alerts or a keyword monitoring tool: “Hello. These are not the droids you are looking for.”).
Getting there took about two hours, driving through neat little towns and scenic highways. Efficient cruising speeds. The drivetrain handles highway jaunts with ease, but the 187k mile suspension isn’t helping the car’s ride quality. Neither do the factory struts or springs. This car really deserves something a little stiffer – especially in regards to body sway. It’s like those spring-loaded ponies you would play on as a kid. Regardless, the car’s quality construction makes due with the high amounts of wear. It’s a pleasant experience – especially when you exploit the factory-equipped under seat subwoofer (easily one of my favorite gimmicks from this car).
Once I arrived at my dirt road – which lead to a cemetery – I planned to travel on dirt as much as possible to get to a campsite which I only had a vague understanding of how to get to. My stubbornness when it comes to technology coupled with my cellphones horrendous GPS interface meant I was relying on memory of the map and a nearly 10-year-old Garmin GPS. Needless to say, I started just driving as the crow flies.
Southern Ohio dirt roads are wet but grippy. Obviously well traveled but remote enough that I didn’t come across another person on the first leg of the trip. This gave me a few opportunities to bring the Subaru back to its rally-car roots, triggering manual shift mode on the otherwise lazy transmission and letting the all-wheel drive/snow tire combo do their perfectly choreographed dance together. These cars really do handle better on loose surfaces – especially if you left-foot brake to give the front tires more bite. I’m fortunate to have an 2005 Outback in that the torque split between the front and rear differentials is 45/55 with a limited slip rear. You can’t get this kind of performance-oriented setup in older, four speed automatic Subaru transmissions.
I spent about an hour or so exploiting the under-developed wonder that is a dirt road system. Letting the car find its groove with each new apex and purposely hitting any resemblance of standing water. The communication between driver and car seems enhanced when on dirt – almost as if Subaru engineers want you to drive where other cars can’t. Of course, the grippy snow tires helped immensely… until I hit pavement again. Then, they proved vague and loose. Probably why professional rally cars use two sets of tires for tarmac and dirt events.
I had my fun and needed to find a remote area to stay for the night. That’s when I came across Wayne National Forest near Hanging Rock – right on the boarder of Ohio and Kentucky. Pretty industrious with lots of railway stations and plants that looked partial functional and depressingly defunct all at the same time. The vehicle landscape changed too as I got closer. Gone were the luxury cars and SUVs, replaced with rusted 4×4 pickups and dingy little Ford Rangers – one of which led to a course correction that changed my trip for the better.
I am, by nature, a paranoid person without a carry permit or a firearm. I’m not afraid of nature or the prospect of wild animals with an intent to kill – I’m afraid of humans. National Forests are strange places – places almost untouched by government and its bureaucracy. They don’t really close and park rangers don’t really police them. So, while you do have access to likely the most freedom you’ll ever have while standing on U.S. soil, you’re pretty vulnerable. You can camp anywhere with the boundaries only limited by your common sense. As I was loving the unpaved road system and hiking trails within Wayne – and the sun was setting faster and faster – I decided I would pitch my tent and make camp. This was around 5 p.m.
A few hours earlier, while initially scouting out the area, a faded-red, mid-90s Ford Ranger strolled along the main road and down the path to the first campsite I looked at. I was hiking back to the car from an off shoot trail and noticed the thing. I heard it first – typical Ford 2.3 liter with a wheezy exhaust – and made sure to catch a glimpse of the driver. An older overweight white male with a shaved head and no sleeves on his shirt. He made a u turn, looked at my out-of-state Subaru, and went along his way.
Later that day, when I made the decision to stay in the national forest as the closest state park was closed for the season (this was still March after all), I was pitching my tent with the backdrop of gun shots (a side effect of the national forest) when all of a sudden, that little Ranger comes strolling once again down the main road. This is when I think to myself, “I’m alone and without a firearm and no one knows where I am.” Then the Ranger drives back the other way, slowly, and I can see the same man behind his poorly installed purple-ish window tint.
I’ve never taken a tent down faster in my life.
I needed a contingency plan and I needed one fast. The sun was going to set in about two hours and I had no internet access or real map to find a secondary campsite. On top of that, how would I know if it was actually open? Do I just sleep in the car? Do I call it quits and head back to Cincinnati? Are KOAs cool? Fortunately for my increasingly repressed adventurer nature, the phrase “good to see you commit to something” was ringing in my ears – and I had 250 all wheel drive horsepower to exploit. So, I left, found an area where I got reconnected, and searched for the closest OPEN state park I could find. I wanted to be close to the only version of law enforcement I respect and admire – Park Rangers.
Thankfully, Pike Lake State Park was open and only 45 minutes away. If I booked it, I could make it there and set up camp before it went dark. I made it, with some time to spare – enough to pay for my spot, pitch my tent, and set up my kitchen. After a 15 minute jaunt out of the park to inform my girlfriend where I was (no service), I settled in for some soup and sleep.
The next day was easy – relaxing almost. I did what I wanted to do and did it by myself. I was also the only person tent camping at the park that night. My Subaru served me well and got us back to Rochester in time to go to work the next day. Every time I take this thing on a trip, it always ends up in having to tackle something that endangers its existence. Whether that’s driving for an hour straight in white-out blizzard conditions on the thruway, going from Rochester to Knoxville, TN and back in an extended weekend drenched in rain, never once letting go in the winter regardless of the snow fall or salt accumulation, or being treated like the sports car it isn’t in order to save my paranoid life, this car always seems to bounce back. It’s one of the reasons I call it Planet Express Ship. It’s truly a character in my cartoon life.