It’s impossible to make out when you’re wearing a full-face helmet. My wife and I try, but it’s a no-go. We’re in the Southern Utah desert on the edges of Zion National Park and Bryce National Park, driving a state-of-the-art utility terrain vehicle (UTV) through a bowl of 30-foot-tall sand dunes, gunning a Can-Am Commander Max up a steep slope in hopes of catching a little air. I hop out of the machine to take some photos and watch as my wife, Liz, drives circles around a fire pit flanked by the sand dunes, kicking up a rooster tail of dirt. The back end of her machine slides across the sand, a classic Tokyo Drift move. Liz hangs her head out of the window and howls. It’s sexy as hell.
I thought I’d come to the desert to play redneck: do some donuts in a tricked-out off-road vehicle and drink beer by the campfire. But it’s possible that I might learn something about my wife and our relationship in the process.
Whipping Can-Am Side-by-Sides With The Wilderness Collective
We’re at the beginning of a multi-day off-road trip that has us driving zippy Can-Am side-by-sides through classic southern Utah terrain (think sandy dunes, towering hoodoos. pink cliffs, and canyons). Leading us are guides from The Wilderness Collective, an outfitter specializing in curated off-road adventures all over western U.S. They’ll take you and your buddies on moto trips into Yosemite, snowmobiling in Jackson Hole, or side-by-siding around the Grand Canyon.
The terrain for all their trips is wild and remote. You sleep in tents with a chef following you in a support vehicle with a fully stocked bar. In other words, you get to play Mad Max by day and enjoy a sunset happy hour by night.
It’s a good combo, but I’m not an off-road vehicle kinda guy, Can-Am or not. At least, I haven’t been in the past. I love spending multiple days in the woods, but I’m typically hiking or riding my bike to get around. The last time I was in Utah, I was bikepacking 50 miles a day for a week, so I’m uneasy about the notion of driving a vehicle through the same terrain. It feels lazy, like I’m cheating somehow. If you’re not suffering, can you really call it an adventure?
Plus, OHVs, ATVs, side-by-sides—whatever you want to call them—they’re for rednecks, right? I’m skeptical when the opportunity to drive Can-Am’s new Commander Max across the desert pops up.
My wife is more open minded, and she likes the idea of not having to pedal a bike 50 miles before reaching camp. I tend to do what my wife says, so here we are, gunning a $26,000 UTV with a pack of strangers deep into a landscape that looks downright extraterrestrial. It’s all so strange, and I’m shocked how much I like it.
Behind the Wheel of the Can-Am Commander Max
If you’re not familiar with the Can-Am Commander Max, imagine a sedan built for the end of the world.
It has four doors with room for the whole family and their gear, thanks to a legit “trunk,” but it’s built for high speeds on sketchy terrain. Rock hopping, dune drifting, berm surfing—the Commander handles it all. It has room for the kids in case you need to get them to a soccer game on the other side of, say, a desert full of post-apocalyptic warring tribes. And forget about the redneck stereotypes. The side-by-side category has blown up, attracting all sorts of people to the apparently universal joys of off-roading.
“The Commander helps open up some wild terrain to a lot of people who wouldn’t necessarily get out here,” says Adam Timm, our lead guide. “You can drive it hard or sit back and hang on, so we have a lot of families booking these trips.”
The Commander Max is like a point and shoot camera—100 horsepower with a push-button start. The trick to driving it is to get the hell out of the way and let the machine do what it’s supposed to do—which is rip through rough terrain at shockingly high speeds.
Hitting 65 or 70 on dirt roads feels surprisingly comfortable, but the real joy comes when we start cruising double track trails awash with sandy berms, creek crossings, and technical rock gardens.
Carrying high speeds through the berms feels like surfing and I find myself pushing the gas pedal harder and harder, pinning it through the corners and riding high on the upper edge of berms, trying to eke as much speed out of banked turns that I can. The scrub trees that line the trail pass by in a blur.
It feels dangerous, but in a good way—like cliff diving or ordering a Double-Double at In-N-Out Burger.
Full-Throttle Can-Am Adventure or Couples Therapy?
I keep waiting for my wife to tell me to slow down. At home, when I’m driving the minivan with our two kids in the back, she likes to do that thing where she presses her foot hard into the floor, hitting an imaginary brake. But when I ask her if she’s ok, yelling over the engine, she gives a thumbs up and bellows—“Faster!”
Her newfound carefree attitude is enticing, and I’m probably going to have a thing for full-face helmets from now on. The smell of gas and my mild state of dehydration will probably become aphrodisiacs too.
My wife and I have been married for 15 years, so we have all the usual issues regarding communication, trust, and ennui.
I love her dearly and, at times I think she’s still fond of me, but if I were to give the current state of our relationship a name, I’d call it the “comfort zone.” We’re happy, but very much established in our roles. She schedules the dentist appointments and enforces the bed times. I dig bike jumps in the backyard and try to convince her our kids are old enough to watch The Big Lebowski.
Driving these machines at high speeds through the desert is like a much-needed shock to our system.
It blasts us out of our comfort zones. She’s not a soccer mom and I’m not a little league coach as we romp around the arid terrain. We’re just two people looking for opportunities to catch air or slide into the vehicle through the window like Dukes of Hazzard.
As it turns out, this isn’t an off-road trip, it’s marriage counseling—like how therapists will make couples row a canoe together to focus on teamwork, communication, and problem solving—only this is way more fun.
As Liz floors it through a creek bed, cold, murky water splashes into our cab. Now it’s me reaching for the “Oh, shit!” handle—and recalling that my wife is every bit as adventurous as I am given the opportunity. She’s not just a nurse practitioner who thinks spread sheets are sexy, or someone who researches the safety features of rental cars before we book them. She’s a badass.
We make our way through Dixie National Forest. Our convoy includes a mild-mannered woman from the Midwest, a father and his 10-year-old son, and a young couple from Brooklyn, neither of whom have driven a car in years.
Adam is our lead guide and we’re trailed by a couple of other guides and photographers, kitted out in full desert rat attire: bandanas around their faces, long pants, jackets and gloves, dusty leather boots. The support truck is ahead of us, scouting our first campsite.
Handling a Can-Am Prepares You for the Unexpected
Liz and I take turns driving, our Commander handling steadily improving as the day progresses. Some things I learn: Keep your momentum when you’re moving through a sand pit. Turn into the slide if you feel your vehicle slipping and tipping over on a steep dune. Commit fully to technical sections. And no half-assing it.
I’m sure there’s a metaphor for life in there somewhere.
When we roll into a lush creek valley between white cliffs to take a snack break, my wife looks at a field of tall grass and flowers extending to the base of the cliffs and says, “I want to run in that meadow.” And then she’s running through the meadow, just for the hell of it. Like some kind of animal.
A feral dog watches us from a distance as we set up camp along the banks of the East Fork Virgin River.
The support truck gets stuck in a sand pit next to the stream, but everyone pitches in to help—digging out the tires and laying MaxTrax to gain traction.
Dinner is amazing: cavatelli pasta with pork ragout. We sit around the fire drinking beer and trying to think of the name of the actress from the movie Clueless.
The Wilderness Collective operates under a strict digital detox policy—everyone surrendering their phones to a padded lock box at the beginning of the trip. It’s hard not to reach for my phone at first, but cutting the digital ties helps my wife and I focus on the moment. We can’t check in with the kids even if we wanted to—or Google tip-of-the-tongue names of any actresses from ‘90s flicks. It’s liberating.
On day two, my wife and I come up with a game while rumbling down a mountainside along an old logging road. We dock each other 10 points every time the driver touches the brake.
Later, we’ll witness a mild-mannered woman from the Midwest gleefully catching mega-air off a sand dune, then losing all her gear—tent and bags—on the landing. I watch the Brooklyn couple go from cautious to curious behind the wheel. The personal growth is palpable on this trip.
My wife starts saying things like, “What if I were a NASCAR driver?” And my personal favorite: “What if I wore this helmet to bed?”
After 48 hours in the desert, I’m as dehydrated as jerky and covered in sand. Who cares? I actually start to enjoy the heat, the dirt, even the constant need for water.
We work our way through the Paunsaugunt OHV Trail System, driving a tangle of white dirt roads and sandy trails past ranches with cows and the occasional llama.
Climbing to our campsite on top of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, we pitch our tents on the rim of the sky-high peninsula, perched 9,000 feet above the pink hoodoos rising from the valley floor. That night, our last in the wild, we eat massive tomahawk steaks with crispy fried rice and potatoes.
There’s more driving to come tomorrow on the edge of Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, but I’m already missing the terrain as we sit by the fire, drinking cocktails.
I’m missing the vehicle.
I thought I’d get bored, sitting behind the wheel of a machine all day. Or worse, plunked in the passenger seat while my wife drives. But there’s no time for boredom. It’s not physically exhausting like riding a bike, but it’s challenging—always pushing yourself to go faster, hit corners tighter, find opportunities to test gravity.
Watching my wife handle the Commander might even be more fun than driving it myself. I get to witness her shed the responsibilities of work and home, pinning it through corners and hammering it across dunes. I get to watch her explore her inner badass.
At some point that night, she starts talking about getting a Commander back home.
“We could drive the kids,” my wife says. “It has four doors.”
It’s a ridiculous notion. We live in an urban neighborhood hundreds of miles from the nearest OHV system. The vehicle would look silly parked next to our minivan. But I know what she’s getting at. She wants to bring a little of this trip back with us—find a way to hold onto this feeling when we’re back at home, shuttling kids around. I do too.
Buying a Can-Am Commander is out of the question, but I can order my wife a full-face helmet of her own, a souvenir to remind us both of the badass within. That’s not ridiculous. That’s hot.
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