APPALACHIA — 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 mid-Atlantic 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 low-usage, 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.
We were in four high when we hit the first DRIFT. I ran down the stuck-as-hell trouble tree. First, reverse.
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 senior-year 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 Up there, the snow was axle deep, clinging to branches and blanketing the road, but the Rubicon made short work of it until we crested the ridge. On the north side of the mountain, great drifts of heavy, wet snow barricaded the road. We were in four high when we hit the first one and beached the Jeep firmly on its frame rails. I ran down the stuck-as-hell trouble tree. First, reverse. We continued to sit where we were parked. Then four low with the rear locker engaged. Nothing. Then both lockers. Sam hopped out.
Up there, the snow was axle deep, clinging to branches and blanketing the road, but the Rubicon made short work of it until we crested the ridge. On the north side of the mountain, great drifts of heavy, wet snow barricaded the road. We were in four high when we hit the first one and beached the Jeep firmly on its frame rails. I ran down the stuck-as-hell trouble tree. First, reverse. We continued to sit where we were parked. Then four low with the rear locker engaged. Nothing. Then both lockers. Sam hopped out.
“All four are just spinning,” he said. “Now what?”
“Now we dig.”
I’d loaded the usual off-road necessaries in the Wrangler when we left, not because the MABDR traverses impossible terrain but because these forests want their roads back. Downed trees, washouts, and deep mud are all par out here. In addition to the usual emergency sleeping bags, food, water, and a lighter, I’d packed a shovel, an ax, a saw, all manner of recovery straps and bow shackles, and a come-along. That last one was important. Although Ram will sell you a vehicle with a massive Warn winch already mounted in the front bumper, Jeep will not. If we had to extract ourselves, we’d be doing it with muscle and mechanical advantage.
The drifts were over our thighs at the deepest, unheard of this far south. The day was late, and I didn’t want to be up there after the sun went down. We pulled out our gear, Sam got to digging out as much snow as possible, and Paul and I started stringing recovery straps to the nearest tree. None of us had prepared for more than an hour of digging and wading through wet snow. Our jeans were soaked to our thighs, and our scalps steamed in the cold afternoon air. We’d dig, crank on the hand winch, dig some more, and crank again. Paul took up a place at the nose, and with me easing on the throttle and sawing at the wheel, the Jeep broke free. Nothing like a little winter adversity to stoke an appetite.
At any point, we were no more than six hours from my doorstep, off in places I would have never had the gumption or the ability to otherwise explore. That is the miracle of the Wrangler.
We finished the first day in Covington, the Wrangler filthy from door sill to roof, the three of us reeking, wet, muddy, and laughing our asses off at getting stuck on the side of a mountain in late March. When we sat down for dinner, I asked the waitress for a beer suggestion.
“My favorite right now is from Starr Hill,” she said. “I think I’ve got three left. It’s called Snow Blind.”
We caught our fair share of road closures over the next few days, routing around them with a little help from our Garmin InReach Explorer. It’s something of a miracle that anyone could sketch a semipermanent route through these mountains, but Guillien says BDR has had plenty of help from the National Forest Service.
“The land managers look fondly on managed travel,” he said. “They like the fact that we’re organizing all of the adventure motorcycles to follow a defined set of roads because it makes it easier for them to choose which roads to keep open.”
At least during the summer months. But spring, even with its still-frozen tracks and closed barricades, is a wonder. We followed game prints in the snow, caught deer, turkey, bobcat, quail, and porcupine all unperturbed by our presence. Hawks and owls followed us as we drove, eyeing us as the curiosity we were, far from our own homes, the wildlife all waking up and anxious for warmer days.
At any point, we were no more than six hours from my doorstep, off in places I would have never had the gumption or the ability to otherwise explore. That is the miracle of the Wrangler. That is the mantle the 2018 JL has assumed. I can’t help but adore the truck. It’s happy out there, crab-walking up a snowy climb one second and blasting down an empty two-lane the next, more composed than anything this capable has any right to be. It’s a galaxy from the supercruise-plagued sedans of today. It is made for just this. For packing in two friends and all your gear and gunning for the empty ridges around you with no plan but to see where the horizon ends.
We wound ourselves through the wilderness for three and a half more days. It’s a strange thing to wander into a town and have no clue what state you’re in. To only know you’ve covered a distance by the accents on the locals’ lips and the gently shifting shades of architecture. First, the locust-planked barns of Virginia, low and weathered. Later, the stone-foundation bank barns of Pennsylvania, painted bright and proud against a deep blue sky. It’s the quilted fabric of our country on display, the great disparity of people and histories forged together to make something greater. It is the gift of the BDR and the machine that can run through it.