1999 Dodge Intrepid — the car that they drove through their final unvisited county in the continental United States last week, with 540,000 miles on the clock.
Jon, 31, an engineering instructor at Michigan Tech University, bought the car in 2002 for $9,000 when he was a senior in high school. At the time, the Intrepid had done 70,000 miles, and it was his first ever car: “My dad didn’t even think it would get me through college,” Jon tells Yahoo Autos. “Clearly he was wrong.”
Not only have the Riehls visited every county in the lower 48, but they’ve taken a large dent out of Alaska and are planning to ship the Intrepid out to Hawaii to complete the U.S’s full 3,142 counties; their tally currently lies at 3,122, and all of this discounts the 60 to 70 percent of counties they’ve visited in Canada.
Finishing off Alaska and making the trip to Hawaii is sure to be a logistical nightmare, but Jon has been plotting out various cost-effective solutions to make it happen: “I’m into collecting things, and I’m kind of stubborn” he says. “So when I get into something, I need to finish it.”
Jon has always been an “explorer.” From the age of three he had a map in his hand, helping his parents navigate during family trips; Jennifer Riehl, 32, was the same way, so when the couple met in 2005, their collective desire to travel occurred organically.
Today, the Riehl’s explore via those same old-fashioned maps. Many of the roads are off-road – which makes the Intrepid’s reliability even more impressive – and a GPS is only used when they get so lost things might get dangerous.
Along the way the pair have encountered massive bears, bison blocking the roads, horrific traffic accidents and even a swarm of ten tornados. A blizzard in Manitoba, Canada, meant they couldn’t drive above 2 mph, and the road out of Stewart, Alaska, left them stuck for eight hours due to an avalanche.
It’s been quite the adventure, but for Riehls, the architecture along the way and meeting friendly people from different backgrounds has been the most valuable part: “We’ve both gained a huge amount from this,” he says. “We’ve learned that people are typically very nice and always willing to help you out. We ran out gas once in the middle of Tennessee and someone drove us miles to the nearest gas station.”
Beyond the hours driven, the couple always makes time to sample the local breweries. In total, they’ve visited 550 throughout the U.S., and over a few late night drinks in off-the-wall locations, they’ve learned a lot about the various cultures across America – as well as acquired a keen taste for good beer.
The duo typically drives around 50,000 miles a year, and Jon plans to keep his Dodge Intrepid until it dies. In all 540,000 miles, there has been maybe five times where they’ve had to stay an extra night due to a mechanical breakdown. A typical day can include 16 hours of driving, and in places like Alaska, the roads are often rough and gravely. Jon carries a few spare tires in case of the inevitable flat, but the V-6 engine is entirely original, and, like the Riehls, has never shown any signs of quitting.
In all likelihood, they are the only people who have visited every county in the lower 48 states using the same car. And in most cases, they don’t just cross the border and leave; they visit each area’s county seat to take pictures and document their journey, just as they did last week when they hit their final target, Nantucket County in Massachusetts.
In 2012, the pair took their largest single trip to date, heading out to the Arctic Circle to get married: “I wish I would have thought about it before,” says Jon, “but if we would have looked at a Guinness Book of Records for the amount of miles driven in the shortest time, there were some guys in Russia who did 10,000 miles in 60 days. We did 15,000 miles in 38 days.”
Like the Riehls, the car has been through a lot, and in many ways, it’s now a part of the family. With their colossal journey through North America entering its final stages, one can only hope that when they eventually cross the finish line, they do so aboard their Intrepid.