As I gaze out at the Winter Romp trail network, I can hear the ominous voice of the movie trailer for In a World… frightening me:

Maine Winter Romp – The Return of the Pit of Despair

One by one, the Land Rovers challenged the dreaded “Pit of Despair.” The unlucky did not heed the warnings and succumbed to the insidious, sucking vortex, requiring recovery and extrication. A lucky few gunned their engines, finding those brief, thrilling moments of traction that led to their triumph over the gruesome, hideous obstacle. But heed this warning – beware the “Pit of Despair!”

Maine has a well-deserved reputation for rocky shores, broad forests, and majestic mountains, but it hides a reality that wetlands – a.k.a. mud – comprises 5 million of our 20 million acres. That ratio also applies to the Sebasticook Millennium Green location of the Maine Winter Romp, home of the “Pit of Despair.” Despite an average temperature of 22 degrees F throughout February 2022, the 20 inches of snow and ice gave way under the weight of over 130 Land Rovers and 270 enthusiasts to expose the mud and water underneath.

Maine Winter Romp – The Return of the Pit of Despair

The site of the Winter Romp encompasses 207 acres, land purchased through donations from enthusiasts and now owned in trust for off-roading and camping. It’s located in the town of Benton and borders Unity Plantation and Clinton. The topography includes many hills and forests, an old railroad causeway – and swamps, some enhanced by particularly industrious families of beavers.

2021 should have been the 25th anniversary of the Maine Winter Romp, but like so many events during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, it held off celebration until this year’s event. It’s hard to believe that the Romp began as a small, local, low-key antidote to winter boredom (the first “banquet” took place in the Unity College Student Union). This harkens back to the days when movie theaters [remember them? -ed] featured the first Mission Impossible (now 8 films and counting ) and Scream (now 5 films, a television series, and a video game), and you gasped through Independence Day and Twister. Yup, it’s been around that long.

From the early years of winter camping area B&Bs and the nearby American Lodge and USA Lounge (room furniture bolted to the floor, vise grips for faucet handles), the Winter Romp has grown such that this year, organizer Bruce Fowler had to commandeer all the rooms in three Waterville, ME hotels – even with the extra hurdles of required proof of Covid-19 vaccination and enforced online preregistration.

The Romp finally caught up with the 21st century. Thanks to website designer Amanda Ehlers, Gibson, BC, Canada, the significantly revamped website did not look like it had been created on Windows 7 or Mac OS; thanks to Paula Miniotis, Midland Park, NJ, the online registration went smoothly. Bruce Fowler used social media very effectively to communicate updated information prior to the event and encouraged participants to download a trail map to their phones. Yet, somehow, the event remains free in terms of registration; you pay only for your meals and lodging.

Maine Winter Romp – The Return of the Pit of Despair

Although named the Maine Winter Romp, the largest number of participants came from Massachusetts, with hefty numbers from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, and surprising numbers from Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, South Carolina, Georgia, and even California. I’m sworn to secrecy as to exactly how the Canadian contingent from Quebec, Ontario, and New Brunswick crossed the border and returned.

Maine Winter Romp – The Return of the Pit of Despair

The trail network over the Millennium Green land has grown significantly in recent years, and Bruce received invaluable help this year from Paul and Nicholas Vigue, Ray Sisk and family, Trevor Ness, Jeff Porch, Brian Rossini (BDR Automotive and crew), George Miniotis and Parris Lambert, in creating, maintaining and prepping the trails. Other than the likely cold temperatures, you never know what the trail conditions will be from Romp to Romp. This year’s weather included a thaw and successive freeze, followed by 6 inches of fresh snow, making the trails quite unpredictable and entertaining. Bruce and his volunteer crew had manufactured trail name signs, color-coded to (assumed) level of difficulty. Over recent years, a warming hut, used by the Waterville Habitat for Humanity to sell over $3,800 in hot food and drinks, and a one-holder outhouse have been erected on a ridge as permanent structures. Other improvements include a much larger staging and “put on chains” area at the end of the entrance road.

Maine Winter Romp – The Return of the Pit of Despair

To the cries of, “You wuss!!” from the 34 Series and Defender drivers, I tackled the trails from the warmth and comfort of my ’97 Discovery I. I aired down the tires but stubbornly refused to put on chains. With luck, I made it through all my chosen trails and hills, taking advantage of the center differential lock and low range. Amidst the clamor for upgrades, it’s too easy to forget the built-in capability of any Land Rover with proper off-road oriented tires.

As I drove, I enjoyed watching a wide range of Land Rover models. Winter Romp might be the only time I’ve seen two Stage Ones together – David Short’s ’80 from Sterling, VA, and Terry Jackson’s ’81 from Lewiston, ME. We don’t see enough Range Rover Classics on the trails, so a thanks go out to Eric Archer, Warwick, RI and Rob Wollschlager, Colchester, CT (both ‘92’s), Lazz Mackenzie, Cumberland, RI (’95) Tristan Black, Lincolnville, ME (’94) and Richard Chase, Gray, ME (’88).

Helene Raynauld, Ellicott City, MD, lived in the lap of luxury in her ’08 Range Rover L322, as did Chris Snyder, Newburyport, MA (’14), Edwin Herrera, Frederick, MD, and Jim Romano, Wenham, MA (both ’98 P38-A’s). John Eraklis, Pemaquid, ME, towed his Mad Max Series creation behind his ’12 Range Rover L322. “After two days of freezing,” he said, “I opted for the warmth and luxury of the Range Rover.” Doug Foster, Bar Harbor, ME, found an ’09 Range Rover Sport, which he affectionately named, “The Beater with a Heater.” He welded on some homemade skid plates, mounted a horse ornament on the hood, and proceeded to tackle every trail while, indeed, staying warm.

Maine Winter Romp – The Return of the Pit of Despair

Rovers North’s own Zach Griswold sought to tow his ’93 Defender 110 canvas top behind his Range Rover, but the lack of proper rental trailer availability in Vermont forced him to tax his Defender’s heater for the 5-hour drive. I don’t know if he thawed out by the time he returned home, but the Defender looked terrific at the event.

This 25th year not only saw new trails but also new features; the first was a Friday night auction, organized by Carlane Mattson and Paula Miniotis, to raise funds in support of the Millennium Green infrastructure. Roped in at the last minute as the auctioneer, I benefitted from the generosity of Rovers North and other parts companies, enthusiasts emptying out their garages, and, lastly, the good spirits of bidders such as Stephen Smith, Yarmouth, ME, and Arie Schochat, Rochester, NY, who let his young sons go wild in bidding for Land Rover models. In the end, the collective generosity raised thousands of dollars.

An unusual raffle became the second special event for the 25th anniversary. Back in 2012, Greg Black and Sarah Katuzny, Lincolnville, ME, drove down a side street in Boston’s South End – with far too much cash – to answer an ad for an ’01 Discovery II. The deal was done that night and they drove it back to Maine. They found a VCR player in the back [remember those? -ed.] which kept the twins, Sam and Landon, entertained on subsequent long drives to Vermont to visit Sarah’s family. The Discovery also transported their oldest son, Tristan, and his mountain bike team to races all over the state. When it reached nearly 200,000 miles and became surplus to their ’94 Range Rover Classic and ’86 Defender 110 200 Tdi, they offered “George” to Bruce Fowler as a raffle prize to raise funds for land maintenance. Bruce spread the word and before long, it had new head gaskets, CV joints and a winch, along with a high lift jack and other recovery gear. Bruce also saw to it that “George” received a tune-up, some frame welding and a test drive.

Despite the fact that I bought two $50 tickets, Jesse Ware, Portsmouth, NH, won the Discovery II. This was only fitting, as I can remember Jesse attending almost every Winter Romp since its inception. There’s every reason to believe that the next 25 years will prove just as entertaining.