Couple takes scenic route through 3,108 counties
Jon and Jenn Riehl aren’t the only people who have visited every county in the contiguous United States.
But they may be the only ones who did it with one car. And not a new car, at that, but a used 1999 Dodge Intrepid.
It took nine years and 300,000 miles for the Riehls to visit all 3,108 counties in 48 states. They finished the task in March.
“The best part is all the experiences you have,” said Jon.
The Intrepid is aptly named, given some of the couple’s travels and travails.
They’ve dodged avalanches, mudslides, volcanos, dust storms and a swarm of tornadoes.
They’ve also seen their share of strange sights: 90-degree days in the Arctic, goldfish races in a Juneau bar and a man rolling a six-foot globe down an Ohio highway in the middle of the night.
They will be the first to tell you they’re not your typical travelers.
Most vacationers want to reach their destinations as quickly as possible. The Riehls prefer the long way around. Some days may involve 16 hours of driving.
“It’s not a trip until you’ve driven on a dirt road,” joked Jenn.
They love to explore and learn new things. Not surprisingly, they’re academics.
They met while attending different colleges in northern New York state, and recently received their doctorates at Michigan Technological University in Houghton in the Upper Peninsula.
They’ve started new jobs at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where Jon, 31, is a transportation systems engineer, and Jenn, 32, is a forestry research scientist.
The quest to visit every county just sort of happened.
The Riehls travel every chance they get, during school breaks and vacations. When visiting their families in Texas and New Jersey, they change the route for variety.
Relatives have come to expect their arrivals to be delayed because the couple found something interesting along the way.
That’s what happens when one takes the little-used route of Michigan to Texas via California.
After a few years of traveling like this, Jon realized the couple had passed through much of the country.
He mused about the possibility of visiting every county but didn’t undertake the Herculean task until a friend said it would be impossible.
“When people tell me I can’t do something, I decide I’m going to do it,” said Jon.
The couple aren’t the only ones doing this sort of thing; 41 members of the Extra Miler Club have visited every county in the U.S., including Alaska and Hawaii.
The Riehls plan to visit Hawaii and the rest of Alaska, if the Intrepid is still running and they can afford to ship it to Hawaii.
One club member who has visited every county in all 50 states is Oscar Voss of Arlington, Virginia.
“It’s more fun to add some extra miles to your travels, to get off the beaten path,” he said.
The club motto: Because the shortest distance between two points is no fun!
Back roads bring surprises
When preparing for a trip, the Riehls plot a route that zigzags through the most counties, and they then look for interesting things along the way.
Jon, interested in architecture, looks for county and state courthouses and government buildings. Jenn, who loves nature and hiking, covets state and national parks.
They rarely use interstate highways, enjoying the intimacy and local flavor of back roads.
They have GPS but prefer a trucker’s road atlas, laminated and spiral-bound. When going somewhere, they like to know what’s between here and there.
They love nothing more than being surprised and puncturing stereotypes.
Jenn was delighted when their trip through Iowa, which is supposed to be one long cornfield, found bluffs, ravines and rich foliage along the Mississippi.
Jon was tickled when three weekend trips to West Virginia, dismissed by some as a hillbilly haven, yielded beautiful fauna along mountain roads. He also was bowled over by the New River Gorge Bridge, whose 3,030 feet once made it the longest single-span arch bridge in the world.
“It was one of my favorite states,” he said. “It had a lot of cool things.”
The surprises aren’t always pleasant.
On their honeymoon in 2012, they were trying to leave Stewart, Alaska, when they learned all three routes were blocked — one by an avalanche, one by a mudslide and one that had washed out.
Also on the honeymoon, they were driving late at night just a mile from a campground in Canada’s Northwest Territories but the dirt road was blocked by a sleeping herd of bison.
The bison eventually awoke and, after feeding their calves, moved just enough for the couple to slip through.
Jon, an inveterate collector, enjoyed accumulating the long list of counties visited. But the accomplishment was always a secondary concern, he said.
More important was the collection of experiences, he said.
A car with stamina
Scientists say there’s no such thing as a perpetual motion machine, but these two academics may have discovered the next best thing: their car.
It was a gift from Jon’s parents when he graduated from high school in Annandale, New Jersey, in 2002.
His dad didn’t think the Intrepid, which had 73,000 miles, would make it through college. Jenn didn’t think it would make it through their county quest.
Apparently, the car is just as stubborn as its owner. It’s at 570,000 miles and counting.
“We thought it would be great if it happened,” she said about the car lasting the trip. “But we didn’t think it actually would.”
The Riehls allow that it can be a mite nerve-racking to drive such an old, high-mileage car to some of the most isolated parts of the country.
But they’ve been fortunate. Breakdowns are rare. Major problems have been limited to a blown transmission and replacing the alternator twice.
The car is a great advertisement for Chrysler.
In fact, the Riehls have approached the automaker for a corporate sponsorship, which would cover the expense of shipping the car to Hawaii so the couple could visit the counties there.
But Chrysler wasn’t interested. The company just gave the Riehls a license plate that read 300,000 miles.
When the couple approached the carmaker again during its next milestone, it gave them a plate reading 400,000 miles.
But the Intrepid means a lot more than that, said Jon. After all, it’s the only car he has ever owned.