The sense of freedom and excitement from cruising along the open road in a Jeep is the perfect reminder of how fun and enjoyable this life can be. Few experiences will give you a sense of adventure like taking a Jeep Wrangler on a cross-country road trip. If you’ve ever wanted to buy an old Jeep Wrangler and take it for an adventure, then you’ll love this story of how I drove a 1998 Soft Top Jeep Wrangler 900 miles across this beautiful country.
Why would anyone buy a Wrangler old enough to order itself a beer? Because sometimes you have to get off the tried and true path and enjoy the wild ride of life. So how did I end up with the keys to this rugged ride?
Last fall my buddy calls me noticeably shaken up and worried. I listen eagerly to try and help if I can. “I got my girlfriend pregnant man. I’m freaking out,” he tells me. I first tell him congratulations and tell him how awesome it is to be a Father. He’s thrilled now, but what guy isn’t nervous at the life-changing prospect of raising their first kid?
More to the point, he feels like he needs a more family friendly car. He had a Mustang and a Jeep Wrangler and felt the need to start acting (somewhat) more like an adult. So he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: $1,500 for his Jeep. I begin looking for one way tickets to Rochester, Minnesota.
So, a one-way plane ticket later and I’m in Rochester, Minnesota freezing my ass off. But I like to make lemonade, so I decide to make this into a mini-vacation and use this opportunity as a great excuse to hang out with an old friend. Did you know Austin, Minnesota has a truly impressive SPAM Museum? With no sarcasm, I can say that it is one of the most fun sights to see in Minnesota.
Upon landing, I am chauffeured (by my friend) to go pick up a popular microbrew from the region. The greatest beer I have ever tasted is the King Sue by microbrewery Toppling Goliath out of Decorah, Iowa. If you are ever in the vicinity of Decorah, Iowa, do yourself a favor and track down this beer, or better yet, go visit the epic brewery.
A couple hangovers later, I’m sitting in a 1998 soft top Jeep Wrangler in 40 degree Minnesota with 900 miles to drive, questioning everything that led to this precipitous moment. But at least the heat works, because the AC doesn’t. Also the odometer is off by like 40,000 miles. It doesn’t really have 217,000 miles, or so I’m told. And the fuel gauge doesn’t work, so I have to reset the trip meter and fill up every 150 - 200 miles. Jeep life is always an adventure.
925 miles to go…
First stop on the Wrangler Road Trip: LaCrosse, Wisconsin. I don’t really no why I went here. I just heard it was pretty and I thought it would be fun to drive through. As I’m cruising along the interstate, I am greeted to a light and fluffy omen for the trip. Snow. Little flurries of snow are coming at me and I’m barely 25 miles on the road, or 1/8 of a Wrangler gas tank apparently. This will be an interesting day.
I then come to find out that the rakish good looks of the boxy Jeep Wrangler is literally the most nonaerodynamic thing short of a parachute. Wisconsin is treated to an unprecedented 60 mph wind gusts on the day I cruise through the epic nothingness or rural Wisconsin. Next stop, Madison Wisconsin.
898 miles to go…
I’d never been to Madison but heard it was a neat town and planned on stopping at the famous bar and restaurant, The Old Fashioned. That day my Alma Mater, Illinois, was playing Wisconsin and I thought I might meet some fellow Illini so I don my Illinois ballcap. As I walk in, I am greeted to a sea of red. I being a firm believer in doing as the romans do, decided to remove said ballcap and ordered a New Glarus Spotted Cow and some Cheese Curds. Delicious on both accounts.
762 miles to go…
I leave and am almost immediately distracted yet again. I look through my cracked windshield and see waves crashing on the shore. I am confused but intrigued. My A.D.D. gets the better of me and I drive straight for the Wisconsin Shore. I park the car and the 60 mph wind gusts are thrashing the water about as if a category 2 hurricane is heading for Madison, Wisconsin. I pose my Jeep for a rugged picture in James Madison Park, because, why not?
I then am greeted to another 90s Jeep Wrangler complete with a Jurassic Park logo. I stop in the middle of the road to get this picture. I regret nothing. Next stop, Normal, Illinois.
Illinois is flat and boring and uneventful. I cruise along I-55 struggling to keep the 21 year old Jeep at the speed limit. Everyone that cuts me off costs me another 5 minutes of getting back up to speed.
As the sun sets in a picturesque sunset over the empty fields, I coast into Normal, Illinois. I am greeted with a glorious beef sandwich at Portillos Dog House. A childhood staple of mine. This alone is worth the trip. I spend the night in my childhood home and hang out with my father who can’t seem to comprehend why I bought this old Jeep, despite this amazing trip I’m having. Next stop, Champaign, Illinois.
594 miles to go…
I wake up the next morning and take off to see how my Alma Mater has changed since I last arrived. I hear my dorm was torn down so my first stop is to see what replaced the glorious Six Pack. The official name was the Six Pack because it was 6 buildings in the shape of a six pack of beer. Although this was also considered the party dorms of the University of Illinois. I roll down Peabody Avenue and with Memorial Stadium to my right, I am shocked to see Scott Hall, my dorm still standing. 4 of the 6 dorms had been replaced but by a miracle, my old dorm still stood. And like my Jeep, it had no A/C.
I park the Jeep and continue reminiscing on foot. I see the Morrow Plots which are the oldest experimental farm field. This life is full of strange and quirky sites when you slow down and look around you.
I also made a stop at the newly rebuilt Illini Inn, which is a bar, not a hotel. Throughout my years in college, we spent many nights at the Illini Inn. It was close to our apartments, it had a cozy vibe like the Cheers Bar, and they had the Illini Mug Club.
To join the Illini Mug Club, the bartender would ring a bell and shout at everyone in the bar, “We have 2 new mug club members!!!” Then you would be forced by peer pressure to chug a beer while everyone laughed, cheered or made fun of you depending on your drinking prowess. It was a rite of passage for all my friends who came to visit us in Champaign, IL. Then you would sign your name in a big book that listed all the members who came before you.
The next time you entered the Inn, you would present your card and be rewarded with an ice cold glass mug, while the plebeians settled with a cheap plastic cup. And when the night was through and you had had your fill, you would have to recite your Illini Mug Club number back to the bartender to get your card back. Rumor has it that if you said the wrong number, they would rip up your card. Though I rarely ever saw this happen. This was usually reserved for those who were being unkind to the staff.
Now I had heard that the Illini Inn was torn down and this was sad news for an alumni who spent many a blurry night in this fine establishment. This was where I’d stop for “just one beer” after a rough exam. But to my delight, I read a story online saying that the Illini Inn had made its triumphant return as a new and classier bar. So, I had to stop in for “just one beer.”
As fate would have it, the Chicago Bears were playing the Patriots and I thought I would take a break from the road (I’d been driving for upwards of 45 minutes!) and enjoy the game. I shot the breeze with the bartender and he was taken aback when he saw my number on my Illini Mug Club card: 59,XXX. I glanced over at the wall and the counter was about to reach 100,000 mug club members. The bartender then retrieved the “ancient” books that held the signatures of the members from the original Illini Inn. I blew the dust off the cover and began perusing through the aging pages. Lo and behold, I found my name and number. A flood of hazy memories overtook me as I was transported back to that night of chugging my Miller Genuine Draft.
As a responsible adult, I thought it prudent to fuel up and ate a very tasty Italian beef sandwich and maybe a barley pop or two. And as all hope appeared to be lost for my beloved Bears, I decided it was time to hit the old dusty trail.
And yes for those keeping score, I kept my Mug Club card for 10 years despite the entire building being torn down. Next stop ??? 543 miles to go.
As the day was winding down, I began to get sleepy. So, the plan was a simple one. Go get gas and find a hotel. I roll into a very packed gas station at 11 PM. I began asking around why this rural place is so popular. A nice older truck driver tells me that there’s a gas shortage in the area. This is quite alarming when you’re driving a 21 year old Jeep with a tiny gas tank and no working fuel gauge. I patiently wait in line like its 1973, and I’m blessed by the god of 4x4s with a full tank of gas. I’m back on the road and find a hotel in Lexington, Kentucky. Next stop: home. 245 miles to go...
I awake and hit the road before the sun is up. This eagerness rewards me with one of the greatest views of the entire trip. I get off I-75 and turn down a back road to get higher for this epic shot of the sun rising over the Smoky Mountains. 120 miles to go.
While I drive down the interstate, countless bland sedans stream past me as they hustle to their jobs. Meanwhile, Leisurely cruise down the road at my own pace and enjoy the sights in a slightly impractical but much more enjoyable ride. Jumping off the interstate, I drive down a winding two lane road and pass countless trees and cabins as I roll through rural Tennessee.
Living in the mountains of Tennessee, this ole ‘98 Jeep Wrangler looks right at home next to my log cabin. Driving from Minnesota all the way to Tennessee was an adventure I’ll never forget. I made so many great memories, and I love people’s reaction when they hear I drove 900 miles in THAT?!” Everyone should go on a fun road trip and the Jeep is so perfect for this type of adventure.
Is it a sound economic decision to buy an old Jeep Wrangler with no working fuel gauge? Maybe not, but if you can find one for this good of a deal, you’ll be treated to such a sense of adventure. I always loved Jeeps, but never understood Jeep Life until I bought my own. Now I’m addicted. Those who buy Jeeps live their life a little different than the average person.
We strive to find adventure. We love the dirt path. We love puddles. We love getting out in nature. Life is better without doors. Why should you buy a 1998 Jeep Wrangler? Because there are few things this affordable, that provide this much fun.
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