Inside the First Annual Destination Defender Gathering

Our writer spent the weekend with a brand new Defender 130, but really fell in love with the other diehards at the festival

November 30, 2022 6:22 am
A maroon Land Rover in the woods in fall with lots of leaves
The Land Rover Defender 130, at home in the woods
Basem Wasef

Land Rover’s origins were anything but auspicious. Inspired by the honest utility of his Willys Jeep, engineer Maurice Wilks and his brother Spencer famously carved an outline of an offroad truck on a sandy beach, a fleeting sketch that inspired the first evocatively named Land Rover in 1948. The rest, as the gearheads say, is proto-SUV history. 

Despite those low-key beginnings, you can’t say Defender these days — or Range Rover, for that matter, without evoking images of cloyingly trendy, NBD (Never Been Dirty) boulevard poseurs. But at the first annual Destination Defender event held on the muddy grounds of the Oz Farm in New York’s Hudson Valley, there were few, if any traces of the brand’s annoyingly urban tendencies. Organized in just 8 weeks by Land Rover’s US-based team, the gathering drew over 800 registered visitors to Saugerties, New York as an open-air lovefest for the rugged nameplate. The carmaker loaned yours truly a fresh-off-the-assembly-line Defender 130, the latest spinoff of the model that returned to the U.S. in 2020 after a 23-year hiatus. But the weekend was less about the new-new than it was about people…more on that later.

First, a disclosure. Your author is, for better or worse, a serial Land Rover junky. I play truck dad to a tractor-like 1963 Series 2A and a box-on-wheels 1992 Defender 110. As any honest vintage Landy owner will tell you, these relationships are not always copacetic. Yes, classic Rovers are royally cool, but they’re often fraught with all the hallmarks of a dysfunctional relationship — thrilling highs (climb that mountain!) intertwined with inevitable disappointment (spilled oil on the driveway again?!) and occasional heartache (call a tow truck). 

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Land Rover is arguably one of the more, ahem, characterful automotive brands. But when they’re working as intended, they’re also among the most gratifying. Not only has the Solihull-based carmaker been associated with epic adventure competitions (see: Camel Trophy, G4 Challenge), they represent some of the first mechanized vehicles many tribes have witnessed in the remotest areas of the world. That inscrutable x-factor is what brings us back to the inaugural Destination Defender. The organized events included the usual array of outdoorsy activities — a rock climbing wall, mountain biking loop, and a de rigueur offroad driving course. But the highlights actually weren’t the adorable vintage Landys on display; the most notable part of the weekend was the second annual Defender Service Awards. 

Based on 220,000 public votes whittled down to 25 finalists in five non-profit categories — Environment and Conservation, Search and Rescue, Veterans Outreach, Animal Welfare, and Community Service — the event awarded a Defender 130 and a $25,000 grant to each of the 5 top winners. Formal dinners held by big companies (and in this case, sponsored by Chase) can feel like an interminable timeshare presentation. But seeing these everyday people so committed to their cause was refreshingly real. A bear conservation group described how their work helps rehabilitate injured cubs and raise public awareness; a veteran gave an emotional account of how a service dog quelled his PTSD and changed his life. These are groups that could genuinely benefit from using a long-wheelbase utility vehicle, and their stories dovetailed easily into with the nostalgic, adventure-themed ideals of the Land Rover brand.

Oh, and the brand spanking new Defender 130? The brand’s first 8-passenger vehicle performed flawlessly over the weekend, shuttling us around the Hudson Valley in big-bodied comfort and convenience that defied the brand’s fading reputation for unnecessary roughness and unreliability. With way-back seats offering a surprising amount of space for three adults in a package that’s only slightly compromised of its full offroad capability, the 130 proves that the age-old Defender platform can adapt to the market’s insatiable need for a 3-row SUV while sticking to its roots — critics be damned.

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