I’ve always loved the great outdoors. Some of my favorite childhood memories were of my exploring my grandparents’ farm in rural Louisiana. I loved the smell of the crisp, country air, eating fresh figs from my grandmother’s tree, chasing the livestock around the yard, and stargazing at night.
But my favorite activity was riding in the back of my grandfather’s old pickup truck. It was a beat-up early 70s model clunker with the gearshift in the floor. Sometimes my grandfather would place me on his lap and let me to steer the truck while he shifted gears and operated the pedals. We’d drive down dirt roads, through the backwoods, and across open fields. My grandfather’s pickup truck represented freedom and adventure and miss those precious moments that we shared together.
When Toyota invited me to test drive the new 2014 Tundra in southwestern Pennsylvania, I jumped at the opportunity because it seemed like a fitting tribute to my grandfather (disclosure: Toyota paid for my travel and accommodations).
I connected with my friend Jeff Bogle (you need to read his post “The Case For NOT Saving For College“) and we spent three exciting days exploring southwestern Pennsylvania and bonding over rugged vehicles, nature, and great food.
My plane landed at the Pittsburgh airport and one of the first things that I noticed when I entered the terminal was a Franco Harris (of the Immaculate Reception fame) statue. Although I was a fan of Harris, I was no fan of the Steelers because they beat my Cowboys in the Superbowl on two different occasions. However, I snapped a photo because it was the first time that I was greeted at the airport by an NFL Hall of Famer (there was also a George Washington statue, but I ignored it because he doesn’t have any Superbowl rings).
The Nemacolin Woodlands Resort
I met my driver in baggage claim and we loaded the car to head to scenic Farmington, Pennsylvania. Although I was impressed by the scenery during our 90 minute drive from the airport, I was even more impressed when we arrived at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. I’ve traveled all over the world and I’ve stayed at several upscale properties, but this one made me gasp. This luxury vacation destination occupies 2,000 wooded acres in Southwestern Pennsylvania and has every amenity that you could possibly think of and several more that you would probably never consider such as a black bear habitat and dog sledding.
I dropped off my luggage in my impressive suite at the Chateau Lafayette. My room featured vaulted ceilings with crown molding, crystal chandeliers, two-story Palladian windows, a sitting area, and a jacuzzi bathtub. If not for my other commitments, I would have spent the whole time unwinding in this luxurious suite.
Clay Shooting at the Shooting Academy
I met Jeff at the Shooting Academy at The Nemacolin Field Club. We exchanged quick hellos before we were carted off to separate clay shooting stations. I was a little nervous about handling a firearm because I haven’t shot a real gun since I was 8-years old. Thankfully, the instructor was informative and patient. He taught me how to safely handle the weapon and gave me a few pointers on hitting the clay targets.
I positioned myself at the first shooting station and yelled, “Pull!” The instructor released the targets and I missed them both.
“That was a good try for your first time,” he said with a gravely voice. “But you need to relax, focus, and aim. You’re shooting too soon and too high.”
I took a few deep breaths, cradled the rifle in my arms, looked down the barrel and again yelled, “Pull!”
Same result. Zero targets hit.
“You’ll do better at the next station,” the instructor said.
It wasn’t until the third station that I finally hit my first target. I was proud of my accomplishment and it boosted my confidence. I managed to hit all of the targets at the last two stations. The instructor gave me pat on the back and complimented my improvement.
We returned to the Field Club house for succulent steak dinner. I met Jeff and we shared our results. We both started off slowly, but gained momentum towards the end. We managed to complete the challenge with a 50-50 hit/miss ratio. Not bad for a couple of guys with limited shooting experience.
A heavy rain shower blew over just as dinner ended. Jeff and I took the shuttle back to the Chateau and retreated to our chambers. Worn out from the day’s activities, I melted into the luscious bed as the sound of the rain lulled me to sleep.
Hitting the Open Road
Jeff began his morning with a jog through the resort and was startled by a fully-clothed, lifelike statue of a woman that was situated along the jogging path. I didn’t have to worry about creepy statues because I chose to indulge in a few more minutes of rest.
When I finally stepped outside, I basked in the gorgeous wether. The rain ushered in a cool front and the temperature dipped into the 60s. It was a refreshing change from the blazing Texas heat that I was accustomed to.
After a hearty breakfast, Jeff and I explored the southwestern Pennsylvania countryside in a red 2014 Toyota 4Runner Trail. We tuned the Entune Audio system to SiriusXM’s Pearl Jam Radio and allowed Eddie Vedder and crew to provide our soundtrack for the journey. The vehicle was comfortable and handled the winding roads perfectly.
During our drive, Jeff and I discussed parenting, automobiles, and the pros and cons of city vs. suburban life. I was most intrigued by Jeff’s former career as the owner of an indie record label. Music is one of my passions and I’ve often thought about starting my own label. Jeff’s experience, while interesting, made me thankful that I never pursued that plan.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Kentuck Knob
When we reached our location, Jeff and I boarded a shuttle that took us to one of Pennsylvania’s famous Frank Lloyd Wright houses. I majored in architecture in college (my freshman year) and I’ve always been a huge Frank Lloyd Wright fan. Wright was a brilliant designer and maximized space, light, and nature in ways that have yet to be replicated. Although we didn’t get to visit my dream property, Falling Water, I was satisfied with the tour of Kentuck Knob. I listened in awe as the tour guide talked about Wright’s vision and guided us through the property.
After the tour, we had lunch outside on a hilltop that offered a breathtaking view of Southwestern Pennsylvania (see first photo). Jeff and I shared a few stories with the journalists at our table then headed back to the parking lot to select a different vehicle. We were hoping to get one of the 4Runner Limited SUVs, but we had to settle for an SR5. Back at the resort, Jeff did a quick donut in one of the parking lots to test the vehicle’s responsiveness. I’m proud to say that we completed that stunt without incident and the 4Runner passed the test.
Tundra Towing Challenge and Off-Roading Adventure
Our next challenge was to test the limits of the Tundra’s towing abilities. Jeff selected a Tundra 1794 Edition (my grandfather would have loved this truck) that was hooked to a horse trailer and I chose a Tundra Limited that was pulling a race car trailer. I took my position on the runway and stepped on the gas. I barely noticed the trailer behind me as I accelerated past 60 m.p.h. The truck even handled well as a navigated the turns. Toyota claims that the Tundra’s towing capacity is 10,00 lbs. After driving it, I’m inclined to believe it.
Our final adventure of the day was navigating an off road course. Stirling Matheson joined Jeff and me for this challenge. The guides warned us that the course would be somewhat treacherous, but I didn’t realize exactly how treacherous until I got behind the wheel. I had to maneuver over and around logs, trees, deep water, embankments, and slippery mud puddles. The Tundra handled each hazard with aplomb. The only problem I had was going up a nearly vertical, muddy hill. I kept sliding off until Stirling informed that I had to shift the truck into 4X4 low drive. After I made that adjustment, the Tundra and I were unstoppable.
The final leg of the course was a bumpy, dirty straightaway. I felt like one of the Dukes of Hazzard as I pressed the gas and caught some air as I jumped a slight incline.
Dinner at Lautrec
That evening, we were treated to a gourmet meal prepared by Chef Kristin A. Butterworth in the kitchen of the Lautrec restaurant. Courses included Corn soup; Pasta with truffles; Mediterranean Bass with heirloom cherry tomatoes; Goat cheese, almonds and honey; Bubble tea; and Lime custard with watermelon. Each course was served with a wine pairing.
My tastebuds rejoiced with each course and the bold, fresh flavors delighted my palette. Our dinner conversation was just as scintillating. Jeff is a movie buff and he gave me a few selections to watch (based on his recommendation, I plan to see “The Way, Way Back“). We also addressed the important topics of comic books, travel, relationships, and of course, parenting.
After dinner, Jeff and I said our goodbyes and headed back to our rooms. Before going to bed, I took advantage of the huge jacuzzi bathtub. It was the perfect way to end an exciting day.
I woke up early the next day, ordered room service, and spent the remaining hours touring the resort and admiring the $45 million dollar Hardy Family Art Collection.
I thoroughly enjoyed my three days in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The accommodations were impeccable, the weather was great, the food was first class, and Jeff was the perfect wingman.