Get Out and Drive
Driving the Mid-Atlantic Backcountry Discovery Route in a 2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
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