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Topless on two lanes: Jeep sojourn takes couple to Kentucky

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Worthington, 56187

Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

As we tooled into Emmetsburg, Iowa, our journey was brought to an abrupt halt at a railroad crossing. The train seemed to be in much less of a hurry than we were, and we found ourselves stalled there for about 15 minutes.

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But 15 minutes can seem like an eternity when the temperature is in the high 90s and you're traveling in an open-air vehicle. As the road finally cleared of train cars, a woman in the vehicle next to us rolled down her window and yelled, "I was just about to ask if you wanted to sit in my air-conditioned car for a while."

Her offer was gracious, if somewhat belated. And the traffic delay was apt to be only the first of many sweat-inducing episodes in the week to come.

Such are the hazards one encounters when traveling in the mode that my husband, Bryan, and I prefer. We have taken open-air vacations in our Jeep Wrangler for the last six summers. We've ventured to the Black Hills, Minnesota lake country, Door County, Wis., Colorado, and last year, we set out for Memphis, following the Mississippi River, but were turned back by Hurricane Dennis, which moved inland and threatened to make the trip extremely soggy. We made it as far south as St. Peters, Mo., but spent the end of our vacation exploring the wilds of Wisconsin.

Some people think we're slightly crazed, but traveling a la Wrangler isn't much different than traveling on a motorcycle, although I would argue that the Jeep is more comfortable, allows for easier communication between the driver and passenger and has more room for luggage. We try to stick to two-lane highways, avoiding the interstate system wherever we can. The scenery is usually more interesting on the two-lane roads, and we find the pace is better suited to our open-air vehicle.

Before embarking on a long-distance Jeep journey, however, it is important that the travelers come to a couple realizations. First, you won't melt if you get wet, although raindrops on the inside of the windshield can greatly reduce visibility. (We do travel with the Jeep's side window panels and a modified top behind our luggage, just in case we run into a major squall.)

Secondly, you won't melt from the heat, but it's important to keep hydrated by drinking plenty of water and slathering on the sunscreen repeatedly throughout the day. Although in July and August we're more often soaked with sweat than covered with goosebumps, cold can occasionally be a problem, and we keep sweatshirts and windbreakers under the seats, just in case.

Thus prepared for yet another adventure, this year we headed out with an ultimate destination of Kentucky, keeping in mind that our plans could change rapidly depending on the weather. Since we hadn't made Memphis the year before, we decided on the same general direction but a less specific goal.

Why Kentucky? Because we envisioned pretty drives on roads alongside horse farms bordered by white picket fences. And for us, the drive really is the destination. It was largely unexplored territory, although Bryan had passed through the state briefly on a motorcycle trip some 20 years ago.

Our route took us across the width of Iowa, with a brief stop to visit a relative along the way, and into Illinois, where we traversed most of the length and the breadth before crossing over into Kentucky. We spent our third night on the road in Paducah, just over the border. I have to admit we didn't do too much exploring there. We were more anxious for a dip in the outdoor pool, which wasn't nearly cool enough after a long, hot day on the road, a cold beer and a good meal.

Little did we know how difficult it would become in ensuing days to find all three of those things within close proximity, but that's jumping ahead in the itinerary.

From Paducah, we continued in a southern direction, traversing through what the Kentucky Department of Tourism calls the Western Waterlands region. This area boasts two of the largest manmade lakes in the country. We chose a route called The Trace, which ventures through the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area. We expected to see water views all along this path, but to our disappointment, caught only brief glimpses of water, the view largely obstructed by forest.

From there, we headed toward Kentucky's largest tourist attraction, Mammoth Cave National Park. Since the temperature was once again in the 90s with a dew point hovering in the high 70s, by the time we got there, we were anxious to head into the depths of a cool cave.

We arrived at the national park at about 4 p.m., just as a tour was departing from the visitor center. As we scanned the list of upcoming tours, we realized that a trek into the cave might not be possible. The shortest tour was scheduled to last 2½ hours and wouldn't depart for at least another half an hour. Since we had no hotel reservations, no idea where we were heading next, Bryan and I knew we couldn't devote that much time to an underground tour.

We left the park without so much of a glimpse of a stalagmite or stalactite. As we traveled through an extremely touristy area that didn't hold much appeal for overnight accommodations, Bryan and I began to scan the local establishments for one where we could stop, get cooled off and perhaps sip a beer as we perused the map and determined our course of action. But as we searched for signs that offered "Cold Beer," we quickly realized there were none. The area we were in was a dry county, meaning no alcoholic beverages could be sold. The sign on the next county we entered also declared it "A Certified Clean County" -- clean evidently another way of saying dry.

So, without benefit of an air-conditioned stop or a malted barley beverage, we set our sights on Elizabethtown, the setting for a recent movie starring Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst. There, we discovered it has recently become a "moist" community, with alcoholic beverages sold only in restaurants. To find a liquor store, you had to travel 10 miles, just over the line into an adjacent county. (A day or so later, we would spy a liquor store with a sign that declared it "the last liquor store for 100 miles," and that was no exaggeration.)

According to information found on the Internet since our return: Of the 120 counties of Kentucky, 55 are completely dry and 30 are wet. The remaining 35 counties are "moist," meaning they may allow the sale of alcoholic beverages on golf courses, at wineries or that some cities within dry counties have voted to allow restaurants to serve drinks, such as in Elizabethtown.

Bryan and I both noted that you've never craved a beer so much as when you know you can't have one.

Ironically, one of the highlights of our trip did involve an alcoholic beverage. Based on a documentary that Bryan had viewed on television, we ventured off the beaten path to visit the Maker's Mark distillery in Loretto, Ky. There, we were guided by a woman named Betty Petersen. With her name and appearance, Betty could have passed as a Minnesota native -- until she opened her mouth and a distinct southern drawl came out. From Betty, we learned about the history of Maker's Mark distillery and got an up-close look at the distillation process. Visitors even enter the fermenting room, where they are urged to stick their fingers into the huge wooden vats and sample the thick topping of yeast.

The rest of our journey was as we anticipated -- scenic views of vibrant green pastures and rolling hills -- a stark contrast to the dry landscape we left behind in Minnesota -- interrupted on occasion by a corn or tobacco field. The tobacco was beginning to dry, permeating the air with an aroma reminiscent of my grandfather's pipe tobacco pouch -- a pleasant aroma. At one point, we saw workers harvesting the tobacco and the dark-colored drying barns with freshly cut tobacco leaves visible through its slats.

As we returned home a week after our departure, we were anxious for our own bed and home-cooked meals. But we were also thinking ahead the summer of 2007 and where our Jeep will take us next.

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