Get Out and Drive

Driv­ing the Mid-At­lantic Back­coun­try Discovery Route in a 2018 Jeep Wran­gler Ru­bi­con

Automobile - - Contents - By Au­to­mo­bile Staff

What­ever your vi­sion of the per­fect road trip, the sense of free­dom that can come with get­ting in a car and tak­ing off to des­ti­na­tions near or far can be lib­er­at­ing. Our ed­i­tors hit the road from Cal­i­for­nia to Appalachia to Africa— plus we de­tail some spe­cial ad­ven­tures you can take.

THE ROUTE DIDN’T open un­til May. We were more than a month early, driv­ing through the first dim hours of spring in a 2018 Jeep Wran­gler Ru­bi­con. I’d imag­ined bare hills and blue skies, bud-laden limbs and yel­low finches flit­ting through the whole of it. In­stead, we ran head­first into the last wan days of win­ter, the map blan­keted with a statewide storm full of snow and ice. We could have turned around and left the more than 1,000 miles of the Mid-At­lantic Back­coun­try Discovery Route for safer, warmer days. But now more than ever, the Wran­gler is a key that un­locks this coun­try’s for­got­ten places, a tool that takes you there re­gard­less of ter­rain or weather.

The Wran­gler is a rare thing. Point one out to any­one—your grand­mother, young nephew, den­tal hy­gien­ist, plumber, or CPA—and ask what it is, and not one among them will hes­i­tate to an­swer, “Jeep.” The shape is so in­grained in our col­lec­tive con­scious­ness that when it came time to com­pletely reimag­ine the ma­chine for the fourth time in the model’s his­tory, de­sign­ers aban­doned the front badge en­tirely. Save the chrome for some­one who needs a nametag.

The pre­vi­ous-gen­er­a­tion JK Wran­gler de­buted in 2006. The new JL model bows to an au­to­mo­tive land­scape that’s for­eign by com­par­i­son, one in­creas­ingly pop­u­lated by EVs and talk of self-driv­ing cars. It must seem like some fresh hell for a body-on-frame SUV, un­apolo­getic on its solid axles, bliss­fully in­ca­pable of op­er­at­ing it­self. The Wran­gler has al­ways sur­vived in spite of change, a prized relic with thick roots that run right back to the war-win­ning Willys MB. Is there still room in this world for the Wran­gler?

The peo­ple of Back­coun­try Discovery Routes seem to think so. The non­profit has been do­ing the Lord’s work since 2010, cre­at­ing and pre­serv­ing off-high­way tracks that typ­i­cally stretch from some mas­sive western state’s south­ern border to its north­ern edge. They’re en­gi­neered to cater to adventure and dual-sport mo­tor­cy­cle rid­ers, with dips into small, one-pump towns for fuel and food. Paul Guil­lien has been on the BDR board since its in­cep­tion. The midAt­lantic route is or­ga­ni­za­tion’s 12th and its first on the East Coast.

“It’s more im­por­tant now than ever be­cause a lot of the roads are be­ing closed down, and the roads that typ­i­cally get closed are the ones with the most value to us,” Guil­lien said. “They are the lowusage, high-el­e­va­tion, rugged roads that have a lot of char­ac­ter and a lot of fun fac­tor and are re­ally re­mote. You don’t see peo­ple out there.”

BDR re­lies on an army of lo­cal vol­un­teers, peo­ple who know the crooked, hid­den gems that wind their way through any given place.

“Even if the route’s in your own back­yard, like Wash­ing­ton, a state that I was born and raised in, when we cre­ated the route, we went to so many places I had just never been to,” Guil­lien said.

He’s not some se­questered of­fice drone, ei­ther. As the CEO of Tourat­ech USA, he’s spent a life­time rid­ing into wild and aban­doned places.

The MABDR winds from the Ten­nessee border through Vir­ginia, West Vir­ginia, Mary­land, and Penn­syl­va­nia be­fore ter­mi­nat­ing on the New York state line. It nips and chases the Ap­palachian Trail, tum­bling along the knot­ted chord of the old hills I’ve loved all my life. It was too cold for mo­tor­cy­cles but per­fect for a Wran­gler.

It was a gam­ble, go­ing so early in the year. We did not know how long it would take us. BDR splits the route into nine sec­tions, and each one can ac­count for a day of rid­ing if you have nowhere else to be. I called some friends. Sam, who I’ve known since we were 12 years old and has been a will­ing ac­com­plice to most if not all of my id­iot schemes, and Paul, my se­nio­ryear room­mate from col­lege, fresh from his time as an of­fi­cer in the Marines.

The sky was clear when we hit I-81 and gunned south for Da­m­as­cus, Vir­ginia. There are more than a few cor­re­la­tions be­tween an adventure bike and a Wran­gler. His­tor­i­cally, both have been lit­tle more than tol­er­ant of time on an in­ter­state, but this ma­chine is a rev­e­la­tion. The 3.6-liter V-6 is a car­ry­over, and it still turns out 285 horse­power and 260 lb-ft of torque, but the new eight-speed au­to­matic trans­mis­sion and the Ru­bi­con’s 4.10 gear ra­tio means that for the first time, the Wran­gler is rea­son­ably quick. And for a metal tub with a can­vas roof, it’s also rea­son­ably quiet.

We caught the weather at the start of the trail, the first big, wet flakes fall­ing as we crossed the Ten­nessee line, and turned north again, the route chas­ing old rail beds and streams, both lined with the wide, waxy leaves of moun­tain lau­rel. At first, the snow was fun and gor­geous, the Ru­bi­con un­fazed on its 33-inch BFGoodrich KO2 tires, but by midafter­noon out­side of Blacks­burg, it was clear the storm wasn’t there to play.

Moun­tain Lake Lodge, just out­side of Pem­broke, sits at 3,875 feet. If you’ve seen “Dirty Danc­ing,” you know this place. The movie was filmed there. The body of wa­ter the ho­tel is named af­ter is one of just two nat­u­ral lakes in the state, and although it once cov­ered more than 50 acres and was more than 100 feet deep, a col­lec­tion of nat­u­ral drainage holes all but emp­tied it in 2008. The lake bed turned up more than stones and mud. The bones of Sa­muel Felder ap­peared when the wa­ters re­ceded, too. He’d fallen out of a boat and drowned 87 years ear­lier. Work­ers have sta­bi­lized the bot­tom us­ing clay and stone, and

Don’t let the leather and gor­geous touch­screen fool you. The 2018 Jeep Wran­gler hasn't lost any of its bruiser chops.

What else can fit three grown men, enough gear for four days, and blast through more than 1,000 miles of

off-road abuse?

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