How minivan overlanding fed my soul
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Off-road exploration is having a moment. Blame the pandemic, our deteriorating national discourse, that ad for tactical underwear you saw the other day—whatever the reason, we now have a hankerin’ for anywhere else, and we want to get there behind the wheel.
Social media and advertising have helped sway this narrative, selling a specific image of adventure. If you believe the hype, you can’t even trundle down the nearest fire road without a dedicated 4×4 lugging five figures of overland gear. The cool kids are all running 37-inch tires, more lighting than a football stadium, a roof tent, and heavy-duty bumpers. Carmakers have been trending toward dirt for almost a decade now, chasing what people want. What’s left in the wake is a mixed bag: We have a new Ford Bronco, but we also have a slew of half-baked cosmetic packages tacked onto crossovers with no business on a trail.
Perhaps the oddest result: A factory-built, warranty-equipped minivan with a lift kit. The Toyota Sienna Woodland Edition rides sixth-tenths of an inch higher than stock, 6.9 inches of ground clearance to the base Sienna’s 6.3. The van wears no other real concessions to off-road duty. All four wheels see power through a hybrid system, two electric motors and a CVT helping a wheezy, 2.5-liter four. Toyota says the tow bar out back can pull 3500 pounds. Second-row captain’s chairs are standard, and the whole thing makes a combined 245 hp. For just $46,715, this mutant between worlds can be yours.
Naturally, we decided to call Toyota’s bluff and take this thing to the American West. Where all the overlanders, van-lifers, and Jeep-thing-you-won’t-understanders go for ad shoots and social feeds. Into a vehicle built mostly for children we piled three grown men, some camping gear, and too many snacks. Then we headed for Nevada’s Great Basin National Park—like a lifted minivan, a large and mysterious thing totally apart from civilized reality.
Questions were asked along the way: What does adventure mean, anyway? Is it really an off-road rig if it can’t flatten mountains? And why is your author just now learning about the glory of Mango HiChews?
Lessons were learned, and none of them would have come at the wheel of a Jeep. All told, the trip wasn’t about a lifted van so much as how far you can go when you stop worrying about how to get there.
Monday, May 16, 11:00 a.m. PST
In the arrivals lane of the Las Vegas airport, the Sienna’s doors and liftgate opened in unison, like a peacock in full fan. Senior editor Brandan Gillogly, our trip’s photographer, hopped out of the driver’s seat as my friend Sam and I threw our bags into the trunk. I’ve known Sam for years and invited him along—mention questionable adventure, he immediately asks when and where. We’d packed as light as we dared, but even cheap outdoor living requires a fair bit of gear. The Sienna swallowed it all—two large bags, two small suitcases, backpacks, groceries—without so much as a readjusted seat.
Great Basin sits some five hours northeast of the Vegas Strip. The journey spans desert valley crossings best measured in whole songs on the radio. The only task worth pursuing along the way is reducing your ETA—no apexes to clip, no hills to climb, just a straight shot and a heavy foot.
Brandan had picked the van up from Toyota’s Los Angeles media fleet and driven into Vegas the day before. Because he is our staff’s resident weird-snack connoisseur and a professional bad influence, he had filled the Sienna’s center console with enough weird candy to choke a horse. (“We’re not playin’ around here, fellas—this is a serious ordeal.”)
Brandan is more than six feet tall, with shoulder-length hair, a former editor at Hot Rod. We call him Hot Rod Jesus. Or sometimes just, “Jesus, Brandan.”
Wrappers piled up on the floor. Steely Dan blared from the speakers. Seats reclined, comfy and buzzed, we developed a plan: Four days in the desert. In a minivan. Getting lost.
That was the end of the plan.
Three hundred miles later, the park’s mountain range crescendoed to the right. Every eye in the van settled on the dirt roads snaking up those hills. There were jokes about two-tracking the Toyota, and then, because adult males hopped up on candy are adult males hopped up on candy, they stopped being jokes. We took a pause and headed for camp.
Monday, May 16, 4:00 p.m. PST
Sacramento Pass BLM Campground sits just north of the park, off Nevada’s Highway 50, a stretch of pavement so desolate, Life magazine once labeled it The Loneliest Road in America. As with so much of the land west of the Rockies, overnight stays at that campground are free.
Road trips in certain cars make you think a certain way. In a minivan, for me, I mostly felt like a kid, and kids have no restraint. Maybe it was the novelty of Gillogly’s candy overload. Nauseous from an unholy combination of Nerds Rope and Fruity Pebble Rice Krispies treats, I began to scope out a campsite. A dry gully ran along the area’s lone road. On the other side, nestled between a pair of hills, was a clearing just big enough for a minivan and a few small tents.
Gillogly went serious. “No time like the present to see what a half-inch lift kit is good for.” In the interest of journalism, I inched the Sienna over the first ruts in the gully, lining up the tamest path possible. The suspension up-and-down hung a wheel in the air for an instant as the driveline decided where to send power. I flinched, expecting an underbody crunch, but it never came.
Triumphant, I flung open the van’s doors open, inhaling the view. We set about erecting tents, pretending like we were excited to get a bunch of awful outdoor sleep on what was really just an angled gravel pit.
I glanced over at Sam. He is an athletic person who takes care of his body. The first five hours of the trip, he had been chipper. His body language now said other things, however, and most of those things suggested he was slowly resigning himself to several days of internal and external abuse.
“Dumb fun, ain’t it?”
Sam sighed the sigh of a man who really does not want to tell an extremely sugared old friend to shut up. “Please just hold the tent pole still.”
Monday, May 16, 6:30 p.m. PST
Gillogly had the bit in his teeth. There was a trail at the far end of the campground. “What’s a little two-track to a machine that’s already ventured off-piste?” he said.
The answer appeared about 100 yards in: Far more than what you’re built to handle, bud. Our confidence evaporated as the ground abruptly morphed from uneven dirt to miniature rock garden. The Toyota thumped its tow bar on one giant rock and barely cleared its front fascia on another—not stuck, but clearly not going any further. I put the van into a seven-point turn, trying to escape. That didn’t work. Backing up slowly and carefully was the only way out.
Humbled, we rolled back to our tents. Then, hot dogs on the fire for dinner. Some parts of camping are always exactly what you expect, and what you expect is pretty great.
Tuesday, May 17, 11:00 a.m. PST
In 2021, nearly 300 million people visited one of the 423 sites in America’s national park system. Of that figure, a mere 144,000 made the trek out to Great Basin. It’s easy to see why; the nearest major airport, Salt Lake City, is still four hours by car. Some of the more popular western parks—Yosemite, Olympic, Rocky Mountain—are less than two hours from a big airport. They regularly see attendance in the millions.
Two days in, we opted to roam like most people do in these environments: drive a national park’s main byway, then stop off for a bit of low-consequence hiking to feel like we did something.
A few miles into a hike that carried us past two gorgeous alpine lakes, a sign signaled the chance to chase up another peak, toward a grove of bristlecone pines. This gnarled tree species is one of the oldest non-clonal (one plant per root system) organisms on the planet, fantastically overbuilt to survive the harsh climate of the Great Basin area, where temperatures swing wildly. I am not overbuilt, but I like hiking, so we gave it a shot.
The trail turned out to be more of a goat path, hung off the side of a mountain and tapped into a few feet of snow. Jokes about loose footing flowed freely, but then the air grew silent, punctuated only by soft cursing and the sound of sliding feet. After three dozen falls, sudden posture changes, and moments where whole legs disappeared in deep snow, Sam, leading the way, turned back to Brandan and I. He looked exasperated.
“Anyone having fun?”
Brandan, red in the face, answered. Between deep breaths.
“Not even. A little. Bit.”
Laughter all around. I thought of the Toyota, almost stuck on that dinky camp trail a quarter-mile from our tents. Oil pan nearly cracked on the rocks, some guys without real hiking gear breaking their legs in deep snow, what’s the difference? There’s a thin line between stupid and seeing what you can get away with.
“Thinking we call this one a draw and about-face,” Sam said.
“Way ahead of you,” muttered Brandan. By the time I turned to look, he had already reversed up the trail, bee-lining for the van.
Tuesday, May 17, 3:00 p.m. PST
As vast as Great Basin is above ground, a main attraction lies below. The Lehman Caves span several miles, a subterranean maze formed over thousands of years. The park rangers offer cave tours every hour. We lined up with a small group of tourists and walked underground, where our guide told us that, despite being named after a local prospector in the 1880s, the caves were originally used by Native Americans as a burial ground. (“Absalom Lehman was simply the first one to charge admission,” he cracked.)
It was all damp, dark, and occasionally cramped. A fine pressure cooker for anyone brave enough to bring their kids, and our tour group had a few. Halfway through the cave, a little one behind me reached his breaking point. When it became clear the boy’s meltdown was serious, the family turned around, bolting for the exit.
At the end of the tour, blinking back daylight in the parking lot, I saw the kid again. He was still crying, only now his flustered father was trying to fold him through the narrow rear door of a Jeep Gladiator. The dad wasn’t having much success. The Jeep carried all the signs of a serious overlanding rig—tires, roof tent, bumpers, lights. Built for a job.
We ambled toward the minivan. As the Toyota’s doors slid closed, a thought escaped my head.
“Should we ask if he wants to trade?”
Tuesday, May 17, 5:30 p.m. PST
There is a bar in the front office of the Whispering Elms Motel & RV park in Baker, Nevada, population 36. It’s the type of place you find only in small towns, where everyone either knows everyone already or will know them five minutes after walking into the room. The bartender slings beer on draft or mixed cocktails. You can also buy a frozen pizza, which you are then responsible for cooking in a small oven that lives on a table at the back of the bar. The walls hold pictures of people who have stopped in on their way to somewhere else. Music videos play on a small TV, but the sound from the speakers is actually a YouTube playlist of old country hits from the bartender’s computer.
That man was equal parts gruff and warm, always willing to pour but slow with conversation. Our trio took up a table in the corner, discussing the day, while a few park guests hooted and hollered at the bar. In the lot outside, the Sienna sat between an older Silverado and a Jeep. All three vehicles wore a thick layer of dust.
At the bar, somebody piped up in surprise: “Who’s running around here in a minivan?”
“We are,” I replied. “Staying north of town at Sacramento Pass. Went off-roading the other night! Didn’t go so well, but what can you do?”
“Pick a better vehicle? Why a minivan?”
The question hung in the air. I simply shrugged and passed my credit card over the bar, to close out.
Wednesday, May 18, 10:00 a.m. PST
Against logic, we went off-road again. Maybe it was Brandan’s novelty candy. You meet things in the outdoors that break your thinking. (What is the wild beast Mango HiChew? What does it want from us? Why could I not stop eating them?)
Lexington Arch, a highlight in Great Basin’s southern half, lies at the end of a road that the park map marks as high-clearance 4-wheel-drive. Which the Sienna was not, of course, but then, the first bit was easy, just graded gravel. The Toyota happily loped a few miles into the bush, past the ruins of an old shack and some pull-offs for dispersed camping.
The road dove into a dry creek bed shortly after. The map’s markings hadn’t lied, but I had begun to enjoy seeing how far we could get. There was a brief pause where the three of us debated what would happen when rock met rocker panel. Then we waved the white flag again and turned around. Back on the park’s main drag, we found a lumpy road running west toward the hills, through open pasture. The Toyota humped and flopped along, faster with each mile. Somewhere in the Sienna’s wiring harness, a computer scurried through data, frantically trying to make sense of a few screaming stability-control sensors. (In typical Toyota practice, the Sienna’s ESC system can’t be fully disabled.)
We charged on like that for miles, over hills and down into a valley along another creek. A wry smile crept across my face. Then little bouts of laughter as I tried to Scandinavian-flick a minivan through fast left-handers.
I swear, the Toyota even seemed to like it.
Disclaimer: It’s also entirely possible I was simply out of my mind in the middle of a very hot desert and blinking back the corn-syrup sweats in a lifted Toyota mom van that woke up one day and wasn’t in the Kansas school drop-off line any more.
Whatever. Adventure is what you make it. All I really remember is that my teeth hurt.
We eventually reached a pull-off marking the start of another long hiking trail. Dust hung in the air as we climbed out. The hike ascended a hillside, worming through clumps of scraggly desert foliage before turning hard left and opening to a valley between two mountains. The brush gave way to a grove of quaking aspens that pulled your eyes to the horizon. The latter seemed to stretch for a hundred arid miles before climbing a far-flung set of peaks and vaulting off into blue sky.
“I’ll take it,” Sam said, between long pulls from his water bottle.
Thursday, May 19, 3:00 a.m. PST
Great Basin National Park is one of just 42 certified International Dark Sky Parks and sanctuaries in the lower 48. Aside from Baker to the east, civilization has almost no footprint in these lands. No people means no light pollution. Each night, the stars take center stage as a cosmic glitter bomb erupts across the sky.
I had seen a sky like that only once before, near Moab, Utah, in my 1998 Mitsubishi Montero. I had just bought the truck and was driving home to Michigan. That trip occupied a large portion of my brain Thursday night, as I tried to sleep in that campsite, in that tent, on those rocks, near that van.
Overlanding forums and books are filled with the idea of “fitness for purpose.” The Montero would have made quick work of just about everything we encountered in the Sienna. It makes sense, to a point. Assuming you have a good idea of which purpose you’re getting fit for.
Dinner had been a concoction of Spam seasoned with cajun spices, assembled from the shelves of a nearby gas station. On top of that were too many Mango HiChews and some lukewarm lager. As that mess began to run up and down my esophagus, I hoisted myself out of the tent, hoping to catch the sky showing off.
Instead of an arm of the Milky Way, I was greeted by a full moon, the desert doused in iridescent blue light. The hills behind us cast long shadows through the creek bed. Great Basin’s peaks sat in the distance, capped with the last gasps of winter snow, glowing like dull neon. The Sienna, filthy, sat dormant by the fire pit we’d huddled around just hours earlier.
In some other lifetime, I might have cared what we were driving.
I zipped the tent shut and tried to get comfortable once more. Only this time, there was a smile on my face.
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