Chouteau, Okla. – Whoever's in charge of rain hates North Carolina. At least, that's what I thought two weeks ago, during the opening stages of my 14,000-mile overland trek in a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, as rain pursued me from the Oregon Inlet National Park Campground on North Carolina's Outer Banks to the western edge of the "First in Flight" state. Then the rain traveled the Trans-America Trail with me through Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas. When I arrived at the Love's Truck Stop in Chouteau, Oklahoma a few hours ago, it was raining. And it still is.
And you know what? Don't care. Nearly three weeks into this wet and windy Rubicon Alaska Cannonball, there's but one word to describe it: supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
I hustled from Southern California to Atlanta, Georgia in two days. In the ATL I stuffed my gear in the Jeep, stuffed my face with Waffle House, and squeezed in a side trip to The Jeep Collection at Omix-ADA. Any Jeeper who ends up in the Atlanta area should make time for a visit. It's not huge, but it contains original and vital specimens of Jeep DNA, meticulously and colorfully explained by tour guide Dave Logan. And Logan was kind enough to loan me his personal snatch block since I'd somehow managed to forget that item in my recovery kit.
Four days later, I departed for Oregon Inlet. That was the start of my Trans-America Trail, but I need to clarify that I'm not on original Trans-America Trail. The one most people know and read about was stitched together over a decade by a motorcycle rider named Sam Correro. When I researched this trip, Correro's trail didn't cross the country. It started in Tennessee. A little more Internet digging turned up another trans-America trail put together by another motorcycle rider called GPSKevin. His route starts further south in the Outer Banks, in Buxton, and covers similar local ground to Correro's trail all the way to Port Orford. I'm taking Kevin's route, but only because when I found it, it crossed the country and Correro's didn't. I'm going to refer to Kevin's trail as the TAT for simplicity.
After two prodigiously windy days at Oregon Inlet, I descended the lengthy sandbar that is the Outer Banks through Cape Hatteras to Ocracoke to spend a windy and wet night at Teeter's Campground, and in the morning wandered through the rain to the tiny British Cemetery on the adjoining plot. I hadn't realized that German U-boats did good business sinking merchant ships off the Outer Banks during WWII. My morning lesson complete, I hitched the Ocracoke ferry for the rumbling 2.25-hour trip to Cedar Island, North Carolina. That was "Land ho!," and I've been making my slow, wet way west ever since.
I'll admit I wasn't sure about the TAT before I started. The rambling, variegated, cross-country artery makes all kinds of bucket list articles, but it's not what you'd think of when hearing the word "trail," especially for someone in a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon looking for adventure. Logan, who's also a professional off-road driving instructor, told us that the furthest you can get from a road in the lower 48 states is 20 miles. The extent of development makes the TAT a mix of rural roads through small towns and villages, most of those roads paved. When you finally get off the pavement you're still never far from life: logging roads in North Carolina and Tennessee, gravel county roads in Mississippi, gravel farm roads in Arkansas.
Homes dot even the most remote stretches of trail, because some people just really don't want to be around other people. I've been down some ornery backcountry tracks where I was certain it was just me and the insects and some CGI deer in a recently terraformed landscape. Then I'd see a mailbox. No house. Just few dollops of gravel that hinted at a driveway maybe, or a rusted but clearly operable gate, and a mailbox. After wondering, "Who in the hell ... ?", I'd think of Jeff Goldblum's Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park: "Life finds a way."
The trail is a ride through an America you'd never see unless you were following a local's directions. It's often like driving through the Star-Spangled Banner – even the occasionally grotesque and redoubtable bits – mixed with a whole lot of Food Network (barbecue and catfish, anyone?). It's wild, gorgeous, strange, eye-opening, inviting. It's the America we read about in school and the one we read about now: Daniel Boone and pioneers, farms, forests, homes and homesteads, every animal we keep and kill, a thousand dead barns, the Appalachian Mountains and cricks and gaps and hollows, the national parks, the country stores, towns with one stoplight and no stoplights, and people who wave as you pass. I've also realized that the third- and fourth-generation Chevrolet Camaros are the Rolls-Royces of lawn decoration.
A couple of days ago I stopped in Trenton, Arkansas at a former general store that's now a museum of ... well, let's call them curios ... as well as being a stop for TAT travelers. Trenton's so small that I can't find its population online, but the nearby town of Marvell contains 1,395 residents according to Wikipedia.
As I pulled onto the grass in front of the building, a young man pulled up next to me in a pickup, got out, came to my window and explained a bit of the store's history. The encounter was so unexpected – one of many I've had on the trail – and the young man was so polite that the first couple of times he called me "sir," I didn't know who he was talking to. He called the man who owned the store, and soon I was in conversation with five of the nicest guys a traveler could want to meet. They put up with lots of my questions about the area and farming and where to stay the night and how expensive farm machinery is. We chatted for about an hour, then they had to break for supper. They gave me a sticker to show I'd visited Rednickistan, Arkansas. It was great. And I'll go back. I'd put the sticker on the Jeep, but I want it for my own vehicle.
I can't recommend this trail enough. If you have any bit of adventure in you, and something as handy as a Subaru, do at least a piece of it. It might not change your life, but the TAT will provide some unforgettable impressions.
On the subject of unforgettable impressions, the Jeep Wranger Rubicon has made a few on me already. Yes, I have some issues with it. The eight-speed automatic transmission gets antsy in cruise control; it will downshift two gears to go from 34 miles per hour to 37 mph when resuming cruise. The number of auxiliary outlets, and their placement, baffles me. The 12V lighter outlet up front sits just above the transfer case lever, so I have to brush cables away when reaching for 4H. The second 12V outlet in the cargo area faces the load bay, so when you stuff things in the back you have to make sure the cargo doesn't crush the plug. The 110V outlet sits on the rear passenger console. That would make sense in a minivan, when backseat kids need tablets powered. I'd rather have the 110V outlet in the cargo area so I can park the Jeep, open the tailgate, and easily plug an appliance in the space where I'm most likely to be doing something. Better yet, put another 110V outlet back there.
These, however, are inconsequential complaints, and the best I can come up with so far. The driving controls possess range and feel suitable for fine modulation of intense off-road trials, without being rubbery and exaggerated on the road. I stayed cozy and relaxed doing trucker-length shifts during my near-non-stop highway run to Atlanta. While the Wrangler's body keeps a stiff upper lip, the suspension isolates any jitterbugging the 33-inch BFG All-Terrains need to do over nasty roads. The soft top doesn't creak or rattle, and only flaps if you have the windows down at 65 mph or more. Roll the windows up, and everything hushes up; I can have a hands-free conversation at a tranquil volume.
The cargo area easily swallowed all the gear I bought for myself and my absent shotgun partner. I give myself credit for not overdosing on the "Buy Now" button, but I give the Wrangler even more credit for being right-sized yet capacious. And the rubber floor mats with the upturned edges? The ones that act like shallow water pans, that you can pull up and empty without getting the interior wet? The ones that have come in ridiculously handy during two weeks of plaguing storms? A gold star for those.
I realize I'm gushing. That's because I'm sold. I was going to start this piece with a quote by North Carolina explorer Daniel Boone, since I kicked off in his adopted state. But I stopped in Outer Banks Jeep and met "Jeep Joe" Sarette, who recited those opening lines to me. Turns out he was paraphrasing Jeep literature for the 2016 anniversary edition JK Wrangler. But our interaction was such chance comedy that I had to go with his rendition. Jeep Joe, you see, started off our association by trying to sell me the very Jeep I'd driven into the dealer. Besides, this Wrangler Rubicon has been one of the two heroes of this trip (the TAT being the other).
Three weeks ago I wouldn't have complained about never getting in a Wrangler again, due to a 10-year-old experience (yes, it was that bad). Now I spend at least a portion of every day on the trail wondering if I should make this a one-way trip, go native with the bears and bush pilots in Alaska, and force Jeep to hunt me down to get this Wrangler Rubicon back. This rig is outstanding.
For now, that is. I've got six more states to reach before hitting the coast at Port Orford, Oregon. I hope to do that in 12 days. Then I'll make a right turn for Seattle, regroup for a spell with more rain and clam chowder, then crack on to the top of Alaska.