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Topless on two-lanes: Open-air Jeep traverses 2,700 miles to North Carolina and back

The Jeep sits in front of the gatehouse to the famed Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C.1 / 2
Great Smoky Mountains2 / 2

Two-thousand, seven-hundred and nine miles. That's the distance Hubby Bryan and I recently traveled from our front door to Asheville, N.C., and back -- the farthest trek we've yet to undertake in our Jeep Wrangler.

We were on the road for nine days, spending more than one night in just one place -- downtown Asheville. At times it was a grueling drive under the hot sun, but we also drank in beautiful scenery, the hospitality of some wonderful people and a beer or two along the way.

Getting there

People who know Bryan and me and our interests -- particularly Bryan's home-brewing hobby -- won't be surprised to learn that the impetus for selecting Asheville as a destination was an article in a beer publication. It touted Asheville as one of the hot spots on the beer scene, with a number of microbreweries and an acclaimed gourmet beer store.

Considering the distance and high gas prices, we initially weren't sure the trip would be feasible this year, but we asked for a couple extra days off, saved our pennies and didn't commit to the venture until just a couple weeks prior, when it appeared gas prices had stabilized.

We departed bright and early on a Thursday morning and made it to Asheville by late Saturday afternoon. Our route -- plotted out using "Alice," our faithful GPS unit and my map reading savvy -- took us through a good chunk of Iowa and a much bigger chunk of Illinois. We spent the first night in Peoria, Ill., and the following day logged close to 500 miles across the rest of Illinois, a corner of Indiana and into Louisville, Ky.

The Illinois part -- both going and coming back -- was the most grueling part of the trip. When we stuck to the back roads, which we usually prefer, we got slowed down by towns every five miles. On the freeways, it was nothing but a sea of corn for miles and miles. Plus, the temperature was hovering close to 100 degrees with lots of humidity.

As we got closer to Asheville, we began to note an odd phenomenon. Every few miles, there would be a flea market. Not just a small stand set up by the edge of the road, but large markets with room for a multitude of vendors. They were everywhere and proved to be an annoying distraction from the beautiful scenery that loomed before us.

Asheville

Located below the Appalachian Mountains and Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the western tip of North Carolina, Asheville is a city of about 85,000 people, although the greater metropolitan area boasts more than 400,000. But we found the city to be easy to get around and extremely friendly. One resident boasted that Asheville was virtually crime-free, and we felt completely safe wandering the streets downtown.

Downtown was our headquarters for two nights, staying in a modest hotel just a block from an establishment called The Thirsty Monk and within walking distance of at least four microbreweries.

"Funky" is the best descriptive word that comes to mind for Asheville. It has been compared to other cities with such a vibe, such as Austin, Texas, and Portland, Ore. We've never been to Portland, but could see the similarities with Austin. The downtown area is filled with quirky independent shops, cafés with sidewalk seating and street musicians. We enjoyed pizza at the Mellow Mushroom, outdoor brunch at Mayfel's and quaffed a few beverages and sampled a variety of appetizers at other establishments.

Our favorite among the breweries was The Wedge, which we almost didn't find. It is tucked in the back of a warehouse populated by artisans, fenced in by sculptures composed of an assortment of metal parts. Tables were strewn randomly around a gravel lot, with a food truck selling crepes parked in the middle. The brews were tasty and the atmosphere unlike anything we'd ever experienced.

Asheville is perhaps most well known as the home of Biltmore Estate, a 125,000-acre lavish compound built by industrialist George Vanderbilt in the style of a French chateau. We've been told that Biltmore is something to behold, but we chose not to behold it. We were there at the height of the tourist season, and a ticket to get in was $70. Since this trip was longer than our usual forays and we were trying to be frugal, Bryan and I decided $140 would be best spent elsewhere.

We tooled around Biltmore Village, drove through the surrounding Biltmore Forest as far as we could get without paying the entrance fee and visited the gift shop. A worker there told us we could spend $15 apiece after 5 p.m. for the privilege of spending more money at another shopping complex and pub on the Biltmore grounds. Again, we chose to pinch our pennies.

Before we left town, we stopped briefly at McCormick Field, home of the Asheville Tourists baseball team, and spent a few hundred of those pinched pennies on a T-shirt. Then we hopped onto the Blue Ridge Parkway and began the long and winding -- and spectacularly gorgeous -- climb up and out of Asheville.

The parkway was one of the highlights of the trip. The elevations certainly don't rival the Rocky Mountains, as the highest point we reached was 6,053 feet, but we found ourselves among the clouds through much of the trek. It was an ethereal experience, and we quickly learned how the Smoky Mountains came by their name, as the peaks were continually ringed by white wisps.

Stoplights and raindrops

While most of the trip was delightful, it wasn't without frustration. Somehow, the stoplight at every intersection we crossed seemed to be red, without fail, constantly impeding our travel progress.

But on the return trip, we could be a bit more leisurely. We ventured off the beaten highway to visit the Wild Turkey Distillery in Kentucky, where I loudly proclaimed that we were from the Turkey Capital of the World, Worthington, Minn. We'd missed the last tour by half an hour and didn't want to wait another hour and a half for the next one, but we had the fortune to talk with the master distiller, an older gentleman named Jimmy, who was holding court from a chair near the cash register. Jimmy told us how he had the good fortune to earn his post in 1967 and was waiting to relinquish it to his son, who only had 30 years on the job.

The Jeep encountered a few raindrops on its way east and along the Blue Ridge Parkway, but on our second time through Indiana we experienced the first of two deluges. We'd just pulled into the parking lot of a motel in Terre Haute when the skies opened up. It poured for the next hour, dumping 4½ inches. The cover that we put over the Jeep each night had to be bailed twice.

But that rain was nothing compared to the storm the following night in Dubuque, Iowa. Again, we had just pulled in when the first sprinkles started. We decided to wait out the storm -- which initially seemed to be just one cloud -- at our motel on the city's outskirts before heading to the downtown area for supper. But eerie storm continued to build over the top of us and the downpour never relented. Eventually, during a brief letup, we ran down the hill to a Mexican restaurant.

It continued to rain throughout the night (13 to 20 inches in spots!), and we awakened to a thoroughly soaked vehicle and the dilemma of finding a safe way out of the city. The bridge across the Mississippi River was closed because the flooding had torn up the streets on the Illinois side. The road north along the river was under water. Because it was the only option, we finally headed west, although we were intent on crossing over to Wisconsin for our final night on the road. Five miles down the highway, a truck in front of us kicked up a rock, shattering our windshield.

Yep. Time to go home. One last night in the Wisconsin Dells, then it was homeward bound.

Beth Rickers
Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at http://lagniappe.areavoices.com/.  
(507) 376-7327
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