“Your vehicles are in breach of Pennsylvania State vehicle code and you are driving illegally without proper vehicle tags,” the cop bawls, adding with certainty: “your vehicles will be impounded.”
His partner, hand resting on his holstered firearm, scans the interior of the Jeep with his flashlight. “What in the hell is that doing there!” he snorts, as the beam lands on the steering wheel in front of me – on the right-hand side of the dash.
We knew driving two British Jeeps across America would be a challenge, but this isn’t quite what we had in mind…
We knew driving two British-registered and highly modified Jeeps through Pennsylvania – with its strict vehicle code – would be a challenge, but this isn’t quite what we had in mind. Our rides violate nearly every rule in the book, and they know it. This is not a good start to our adventure.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. To ship Vince’s Cherokee and Rachel’s Wrangler 3,500 miles back to the USA to be extensively modified, before Vince and I drive them 2,500 miles across 10 states in five days to Moab, Utah. There, Vince and Rachel would be married among the astonishing rock formations of Arches National Park, before indulging in some of the finest off-roading on the planet.
Now, though, it’s looking a little less appealing.
After much explanation, shuffling of documents and no small amount of grovelling, both cops realise the world of pain they’re about to make for themselves by trying to confiscate two British vehicles probably isn’t worth it, especially when they hear we’re leaving the state anyway.
We’re free to go, but we’re despatched with a clear warning: “If y’all are caught again, don’t expect the next cop to be so understanding.” We slink off to our motel, tired and behind schedule, with these words ringing in our ears.
Trouble is, you can’t help but attract attention when you’re driving from the ‘passenger seat’
The problem is, you can’t help but attract attention when you’re driving from the ‘passenger seat’, especially when your vehicle is eight inches higher than normal, and bristling with snorkel, winch, extended flares and 35-inch tyres.
Every fuel stop turns into a circus. Sales of disposable cameras rocket as people queue to photograph “those crazy-ass Brits.” After the second day, we’ve condensed the story of why we’re here into just a few sentences – we’ve had plenty of practice – but it’s a story we never tire of telling. Vince also never tires of telling people we’re used to paying $9 a gallon for gas back home in the UK. “Nine bucks a gallon! You’ve gotta be kidding me!”
Of course the simple act of driving the Jeeps across the big country isn’t without its problems. On the freeway, we create our own mobile traffic jam as other drivers slow to get a better look. Kids wave, truckers give us the thumbs up and even old ladies in Cadillacs point.
Day three, and a quick pit-stop at the Chrysler dealership in Terre Haute, IN, to have both Jeeps’ essential oils changed. British dealers could learn a thing or two from these guys; not only is the service incredible (they even looked up the UK service histories and discovered two outstanding recalls), but their enthusiasm for our adventure is overwhelming. We’re given quite a send-off as we leave later that day.
The Wrangler’s short wheelbase means it wanders across the black-top like a wino checking dumpsters for scraps
Back on the road again, and I’m soon cursing Vince. While the Cherokee steers straight and true, the Wrangler’s shorter wheelbase means it wanders across the blacktop like a wino checking dumpsters for scraps. Its meandering ways become even more pronounced as we roll into Kansas in the middle of a tornado warning.
Surrounded by starless black skies and with everyone else pulling off the road, we’ve become a pair of storm chasers. The only thing on this road, besides us, is a biblical lightning storm a few miles up ahead. “I bet that’s where our motel is,” I say to Vince over the CB, half-joking.
I’m struggling to keep the Wrangler on terra ferma and, as I round a corner, the Jeep completely disappears in a thick cloud of dust whipped across the road by the storm. “Christ, where are you?” Vince’s voice crackles over the CB, full of concerned tones. “In my own personal storm,” I reply, trying to sound calm, “I’ll be right with you.” Maybe we should have turned back, but when it’s 3am and you’ve driven almost 700 miles, you become detached from reality, like everything’s just a video game.
The tornado warnings are still in effect the following morning and, with a 650 mile target, day four is set to be another tough one. Things become a little tougher as the Wrangler’s foot-well fills with rain water and the cruise control fails. The Cherokee’s packs up a few hours later – coincidence, or altitude?
The Jeeps are struggling in the thin air – they’re tuned for sea level, and we’re almost 11,000 feet above that
We both agree Colorado is home to the most beautiful scenery we’ve seen so far, but the Jeeps are struggling in the thin air. They’re tuned for sea level, and at times we’re almost 11,000 feet above that. They’re also fussy about gas, and anything less than 91-rated fuel causes real problems.
We venture through the snow to the ghost town of St Elmo, home to 2,000 people during the height of the mining industry, but now devoted to recreation and inquisitive chipmunks. In the general store, we recount our story while sipping coffee with the proprietor before trying out the world’s most pungent pit toilet.
We’re waved off again by the assembled crowd and head off in the direction of Moab. In his excitement, Vince has overlooked that our motel reservations aren’t until tomorrow, so we saunter into town to find everywhere fully booked. We resort to paying $200 for a room out of town and punish Vince by making him sleep on the sofa bed. It was worth it, though – the view of Moab’s red rock cliffs in the morning is breathtaking.
The weekend allows us time to recover and address a few minor issues on the Jeeps while the wedding guests arrive. Rachel flew into Salt Lake City and can’t wait to be reunited with her Wrangler. She immediately declares it necessary that we run a couple of trails.
Wedding day arrives with bright sunshine and cloudless blue skies. The couple exchange vows under Double Arch, as assorted tourists ‘coo’ and ‘ahh’ from a respectful distance.
But it’s the four-wheeling they’ve come here for. Moab is Mecca for Jeep enthusiasts the world over, but most have to settle for driving the trails in a rental like our wedding guests. This time last week, it looked like Vince and Rachel might have to do the same.
Nine months ago, when planning for this adventure began, we didn’t know what to expect. We figured at times it would be tough going, but we didn’t bank on the unbridled enthusiasm exhibited by everyone we met.
In a country where even the toughest cops can be suckered by a good love story, Vince and Rachel began a new journey all of their own.
None of us wanted to leave.