Updated: Dec 18, 2019
The first person you’ll meet when you walk into the Graham County District Court is a woman by the name of Donna. She had a son who got a scholarship to play football at the University of Iowa and a grandson who just got a scholarship to wrestle at University of Nebraska. She’ll let you know the pictures on her desk are nearly a decade out of date. As is fitting for a representative of the court, she has a typically midwestern demeanor – not necessarily bright and perky, but genuine to a fault.
She’s the person you’ll need to talk to should you have a $400 speeding ticket to pay in Kansas.
I’d recommend you go on a Tuesday – we may have been the only folks in the entire courthouse and municipal building apart from the judge. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, Hill City, being the county seat for Graham County, has a population of just 1,474 at the time of the 2010 census, and it doesn’t look to have undergone any major population booms in the tie that’s since passed in this oasis in a sea of wheat and soybeans.
Donna didn’t seem too judgmental of us scofflaws, who, admittedly, were in just a bit of a hurry on their trip from Omaha to Denver. The throwback Cannonball-tribute matching t-shirts we were wearing didn’t register with her. She may have been slightly thrown off-guard when we told her she was likely to meet some other friends of ours from Long Island, who, as we were preparing to leave, informed us that they were pulled over. By the same officer.
Should you continue reading, there’s 8,592 more words to be written about this New York to Los Angeles rally, and even if I used the remaining 8,571 to just rave about the experience, you already know whether or not you want to take the trip. Driving from the heart of Manhattan to Redondo Beach is sort of like skydiving, attending Burning Man, or narrowly avoiding being gored on YouTube in the Running of the Bulls: it’s something that some people do and everyone else will look at you in that sort of bless-your-heart smile and nod that your coworkers do when they’re being nice and are waiting for their chance to talk about their weekend. And I’m not going to sell the experience better than anyone else who tried in the last 200 years of pop culture. Road tripping across America is the subject of every other coming of age film, book, poem, and a solid 50% of singer-songwriter content from 1967 through 1988.
I’m honestly not sure how to even start this piece. Should I present it to you as a search for some sort of definitive conclusion about collective American life? Nope, that’d be the plot of “Easy Rider”. How about a quest for self-discovery and independence, casually ripping off the plot of Kerouac’s “On the Road”? Or maybe indulging your wanderlust in the wildest fantasy that doesn’t involve renewing your passport, which would unsuccessfully summarize the plot of every other album produced in the career of Joni Mitchell? This story has been told time and again – and, like Christmas in New York, maybe there just comes a time when you need to figure out for yourself why everyone kept writing about, singing about, and filming it.
If you must be convinced to hop in a car with your closest amigos and family to shoot off at occasionally irresponsible speeds while taking in a statistically significant sample of the lower 48 states with anything more than just an open invite from Andy, the organizer and circus ringleader of this chrome and carbon parade, well, bless your heart. This is NYC to LA. The difference between the great American road trip and The Great American Road Trip. This is Necessary. This is Wonderful.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the folks that tried to do this in one go. The record-breakers. Coast-to-coast in 30 hours or thereabouts. The Cannonballers and Alex Roys and Ed Bolians and US Express. Between you and me, they did it wrong. This is a fine country with savory roads and captivating characters. Driving it in one go is silly – like listening to Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors” on 4x speed or scarfing down 10 courses at French Laundry for a t-shirt and your name on a plaque. There is an element to savoring the journey that’s overlooked on the way to accomplishment. Respect where respect is due, and it’s absolutely an impressive feat for reasons I can’t ever seem to verbalize, but I don’t envy them.
Anyway, before I lose the plot, I should tell you about this thing suitably named the Dustball 3000. Without much further ado, here’s a collection of tales from our little summer road trip.
Day 0: This Stuff’s Made in New York City
Most good stories somehow start with a guy like our host here in Newtown. If this was somewhere more exotic than Connecticut, he would be known as a fixer. He’s the guy that’s got a good sushi recommendation within 250 miles of your current location, kind as the summer day in New England is long, and driver of a Chevrolet SS, which is obviously a subtly exquisite choice for a trip across the country. This fine gentleman let us ship our cars to his house as the unofficial starting point for a journey across the country. And so, on Thursday, July 27, we met at his residence to throw a whole bunch of stickers on a whole bunch of sports cars and consummate our endeavor.
Before you ask, yes, his wife is an absolute saint.
Seeing these guys again is a homecoming – being in the Dustball is sort of like being Batman for a week. People going about their lives with this dirty little secret that they carry with them, this personality quirk that most folks wouldn’t guess. It’s a different crowd – folks who might go about their daily lives and occupations as introverts and subdued professionals who happen to have a family scattered throughout the world who come together once or twice a year to tear across the country together in a rainbow menagerie of screaming machinery.
The folks who do Gumball and Gold Rush and the late Bullrun tend to be a bit more…outgoing on a day-to-day basis than this crew. Not a thing wrong with that, just a different vibe. A little bit less Huracán and a bit more R8, if that makes sense.
Throwing a bunch of high-quality vinyl on these cars turns them from “my neighbors hate it” to “my neighbors hate it and are vigorously complaining to the HOA” and, if I’m being honest with you, there’s no other way to attempt something like this. Folks see you coming. Should you need to get from suburban Connecticut to Midtown Manhattan on a Thursday afternoon approaching rush hour to make it in time for the driver’s meeting, this is certainly the way that, if you have the means, you simply must.
A couple of drinks the night before to take the edge off is more welcome this year than most. Usually, the new teams are a bit uneasy as the reality hits them of just who this merry bunch of nonviolent moving violation activists are, but there’s an air of trepidation in the bar that night for the veterans as well. Google has us right 3,000 miles on the most direct route from where the cars are holed up at the valet here in the heart of Gotham, and we know we’re not taking that direct route.
If there’s one thing that can be assured to the new folks, it’s that the route this year is going to meander a bit. Couple of things you should know about the Dustball Rally, in the event that you’re unfamiliar. Native to the Southwest, this is the 11th year they’ve been in operation – and they’ve evolved from time/distance to a gimmick rally format. It’s essentially a scavenger hunt of the esoteric to keep your eyes peeled at…some miles per hour. The only things the 24 teams here know about the upcoming days are:
- We’re currently in New York. We will be leaving tomorrow at 8AM. Don’t be late. - Next Thursday afternoon, we’ll be in Los Angeles. - The stops between here and there over the course of the next 7 days have been exhaustively researched and extensively pre-driven - You’re not going to know where we’re going until we’re already there
Perhaps the crown jewel in the Dustball experience is the route. Some rallies will leave the navigation between you and whatever default navigation app you have on your phone. The packet that we will receive at the start line tomorrow will be a bit different than that experience. The organizers in their seemingly boundless appetite for adventure and collectively forgiving PTO policies will drive the route to ensure maximum enjoyment and minimum interstate. County roads, farm-to-market roads, and scenic byways will enter your daily lexicon over the course of the next week.
My wife and I know this night-before-Christmas routine all too well. I’ve got enough whiskey to take the edge off the excitement that I might actually get some sleep tonight. Which is good, because according to Wikipedia and the US Census Bureau, 9 out of the top 10 most population dense incorporated areas in the United States are all located in the New York City metropolitan area. So is #11, for that matter.
Day 1: New York to Pennsylvania - No Passing in Eastern Pennsylvania
Driving in New York is a lot like jumping out of an airplane: it’s not something that’s immediately appealing, and while you might have some initial fears about hopping into the Thunderdome of traffic in the continental United States, once you take that short right hander out of the valet garage, you’re committed whether you like it or not.
I’m sure native New Yorkers would probably giggle at my teething in the tempest of cabbies and car service, but give it roughly 7 minutes or two stoplights and you’ll be driving with the kind of decisiveness and complete disregard for whatever is behind you that folks won’t believe the Texas tags on the back of this Corvette. Leaving the city, it’s us and a bright purple Ferrari 458 driven by another Texan with a gentle accent that contrasts fairly violently with the straight pipes with the kind vocal range from a Mariah Carey holiday album.
It takes lot to rustle feathers in New York on a Friday morning, but, well, we’ve crossed that threshold. Seeing that car in my rear-view catching breaks in traffic and opening the taps a bit gives me more than an ounce hope for Ferrari owners worldwide. For all those tifosi sentenced to 4,000 miles over 5 years of ownership seeing more time in a parking lot at some clumsy upmarket rebranding attempt at Cars & Coffee than on the road, this apocalyptic rave violet Ferrari with something like 30,000 miles on it is making up for their stationary sins. With the current nuclear cabernet livery and exhaust that’s whatever translates in Italian to “open headers”, this car is some sinister mixture of tinnitus and other peoples’ Instagram feeds. It’s hateful and offensive even to Enzo’s disciples. I’m smitten.
The route has us running north out of the city along the coast, autocrossing the cabbies. For as dense as New York is, getting the hell out of Dodge doesn’t take but a hot minute. Coming from Dallas, the poster-child for urban sprawl, we’re out in the open and gingerly running with Mercedes E-Class wagons filled with kids either headed to lacrosse or field hockey practice before you can say “is this actually New Jersey or New York, I’m not sure we loaded the maps for New Jersey last night?”
We’re bunched up with the running crew for the day at a gas station just on the other side of Hudson to make sure everyone is topped off before we continue on this mad journey. I’m a bit shocked as to how easy we just got out – folks who’ve lived in The City their whole lives must just look at these roads winding along through the hills screaming toward Pennsylvania as alien territory. But say what you will about New York – being able to tear from Washington Square Park to these absolutely delectable roads in just an hour or so is almost unfair for those of us living in the middle of the country.
“But the rent and parking is just so expen-“
Hush. Enjoy your temperate summers and Christmas movies and magnificent halal carts.
Now I’m not one to enjoy conspiracy theories, but if you told me that one was brewing with the road stripe paint industry being awfully cozy with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to throw two stern yellow stripes down the center of every road in the eastern part of the state, I’d wear your tinfoil hat and subscribe to your newsletter. And it’s a shame, because even without a tremendous topography, whistling through the forests there is quite the experience for us East Coast tourists. Windows down before we get to the Midwest seems to be the unspoken policy of this crew.
We’re hitting our stride. It looks like downtown Pittsburgh tonight, according to my navigator.
And you know what? That’s a lovely city. And I’ll set my grating sarcasm aside for a second, the highways that intertwine between the hills and urban topography that seem to untangle into these old avenues through the city. For a city that’s had to put up with economic hardship and fairly lackluster performance from Ben Roethlisberger since the ‘08 Super Bowl, they seem to have done just fine.
We roll into town in the rain, hoping, praying, and hoping again that the atmosphere gets all that out of its system before we hit Southern Ohio in the morning. We’re going to grab a couple of beers and try to let the torrents rinse off the first day of mosquitoes from the front bumper and hood.
Day 2: Pennsylvania to Indiana, Young Man Yells at Cloud
(this space left intentionally blank because it was just a stream of obscenities directed at rain)
Sometimes I think I’m too impatient with the weather conditions we run into. As frustrating as rain can be, driving across ground as fertile as southern Pennsylvania into southern Ohio, the rolling hills out tearing our way across coal country, the gentle rain slows down the pack enough to enjoy just how *green* everything is out here. The colors of these fields look like if you took a picture of the ivy outfield walls at Wrigley Field and then turned the saturation all the way up. Watching the sheets of rain roll across the territory out here, it slows the tempo to where we can take a nice easy start to the day and take in something other than RPMs and the flow of the turns.
Every time I’m in this part of the world, it seems to give me just enough rain to make everything shiny and pretty and clear the roads up enough so that when the sun returns and evaporates what’s left on these surprisingly well-maintained agrarian roads linking all these Ohio State fans together the magic returns in a jiffy.
Let’s just keep this between you and me, okay? Like surfers, us enthusiasts need to be good about keeping these roads a better-kept secret. These roads, when empty, are just rhythmic greenery, buttery smooth and rural enough that farm traffic is few and far between. Roads this good must be protected against their natural enemy: tourists and the bagged cruiser bikes they ride.
Somewhere deep into rural Ohio, near where the roads run in the valleys between forests and intermingle with the hills to create these spectacular tight and technical routes where the shadows from all the trees hanging over the two-lane roads play games with your eyes, we run into a group of maybe 30 Miatas out for a day. Dual-sport bikes and Miata clubs are a bellwether for good roads. If you see them anywhere sprinkled along your route, be sure to follow them off the beaten path – down those hidden intersections between gas stations and insurance agencies built into buildings that used to be Pizza Huts.
Hitting these roads on weekdays means that when the weather is clear in the summer, you’ll get the intermittent intermission behind a ratty old F150 that’s clearly on the clock, but with a wave and a nod they’ll take the first turnout, some sort of unspoken understanding that they know what a gift these roads are, even for a bunch of city folks who don’t get even tiny doses of this in their respective home states. Say what you will for the guys afraid to lean more than 5 degrees on a Goldwing and who are blissfully unaware that they’ve got 15 cars stacked up behind them, but the locals are in on it. And sometimes – with rare aplomb – you’ll find the one retiree in a Mercury Grand Marquis that knows these roads like they’ve driven them since they were old enough to sit on their mom’s lap and drive before they hit puberty who is getting lift-off oversteer and tapping braking zones like it’s Ohio’s own Eau Rouge-into-Raidillon. Class is in session.
Getting into Indiana is readily identifiable – the roads become straighter than a 1950s sitcom. Of all the geographical wonders in this country, the Midwest’s unending farmland is spectacular in it’s unceasing vastness. Indianapolis is our intermission for the night, with yet another unexpectedly vibrant downtown. We grab some beers as we plot out how we’re going to conquer the Midwest over what has to be the next two days.
Day 3: Indiana to Nebraska: The Iowa Giveth and The Iowa Taketh Away
What is there to say about crossing Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska? Asking for a friend.
If anything, there’s some lesson in just how diverse the lifestyles in this country are. 3 days ago, we were in Manhattan, where the subcultures have subcultures, and now we’re bathing in ubiquity, tiny towns with equally immaculate Main Streets and impossibly pleasant people who are inexplicably happy and curious. But I’m sure someone else has written that article as some sort of New Yorker or The Atlantic election post-mortem with actual reporting and actual credentials and actual talent. Instead, I’ve got a story to tell you about why this particular rally with these peculiar people combine to make this event its own brand of wonderful.
On Route 34, just across the Iowa state line, a WRX wagon developed a death rattle. The driver, a mechanic, has used his expertise has helped free at least a dozen of us from the jaws of equipment failure over the years. Just last year, he got my car running at some random gas station after dying on a hillside some 100 miles outside of Spokane. Spotty reports on the radio and through our messaging app have indicated that the oil looks like someone mixed some Goldschläger and Jägermeister – meaning that the motor had begun to auto-cannibalize, and the valve guides had metastasized to other parts of the motor. He had an open seat to get to the coast with someone else, but for all intents and purposes, his time as driver was over barring some sort of miraculous intervention or outright silly gesture dreamed up by a pair of Porsche drivers (one with a 911, one with a Cayman).
The call went out, and, at 90 mph across lower Iowa, some combination of Craigslist, a group of friends & family who didn’t hesitate to pull out their wallets, and an idea begat either as a prank or payment for previous good deeds (the jury is still out) turned into a 1992 Buick Roadmaster Limited over the course of 3 hours. So without further ado, rather than read me attempt to describe 400 miles of cornfields, here’s a proper car review for a 25-year-old, 89,900 mile, four-owner Buick.
1992 Buick Roadmaster Limited
MSRP: $25,560 (as tested $3,300) Engine: 5.7 liters, fuel injected, 190 horsepower, 300 lb/ft. torque
There are 2,100 Waffle House locations in the continental United States, with the clear majority of them sprinkled liberally throughout the southeast. It is factually impossible to drive down any meaningful stretch of I-10 or I-20 in either direction and not pass several dozens of them conveniently beckoning to you with their familiar signage and architecture.
Waffle House has not, to my knowledge or according to Google, ever won a single Michelin Star at any of their locations. They do not regularly take reservations, but, thanks to some clever marketing and heads-up branding, will accept them on Valentine’s Day. They have a frequent diner’s club card that will send you promotions and coupons for those who frequently find themselves at one of their locations, which are as far north as suburban Toledo, Ohio, and as far west as Glendale, Arizona. They offer a menu for breakfast and a separate one for lunch & dinner, although their full menu is available upon request. I’d tell you what’s on them, but, if you can conjure up any or every stereotype of an American diner, you already know.
If you’ve never been to one, frankly, that doesn’t matter.
Using nothing but the power of your imagination, you can see, smell, and taste exactly what this Regional House of Pancakes has to offer in terms of stereotypically southern cuisine. Hell, it’s right there in the name. Waffle House is not a pop-up Noma or Thomas Keller property that’s drowning in critical acclaim for adventurous eating, accessible only by reindeer-pulled sleighs or squirrel suit or sailing yacht. Waffle House is predictable, safe, and a staple of disaster recovery footage whether it be tornadoes or hurricanes due to an unbelievably well-constructed supply chain and good old-fashioned buy-in from their employees.
If you were to have someone from any other country in the world with zero context or understanding as to what American culture is about, you could take them to any one of their aforementioned 2,100 locations and let them absorb and intake what Waffle House has to offer and they’d have a roughly 97% understanding of what we’re all about and what we’re dealing with.
And, if you wanted to get them to the full 100% immersion, you’d drive them there in a 1992 Buick Roadmaster Limited.
The Roadmaster, designed in the 1980’s for the sophisticated (according to the ad copy, this is not actually true) American luxury car buyer (again, that’s ad copy, and only sort of true, but mostly it is not). It was a body-on-frame dinosaur, one of the last of the species that had front row reserved seating for the meteorite that ended their one-time seemingly unchallenged dominance of the planet. It is nearly 18 feet long, seats six comfortably on two bench seats, and has the sort of fit and finish that makes that “luxury car” claim a prosecution-worthy offense.
This wasn’t a car for marketing consultants and whatever the 1990s version of a social media influencer was. This car is simple – you could walk into a Buick dealer without any knowledge of the car, take a hard glance at it, pick a color or two, specify leather or velour, and, with exceptional confidence, know exactly what you were getting.
The Roadmaster – and by the same token, Waffle House – is simple in both concept and execution. And while 1990s American cars and cuisine don’t often get high marks for complexity or subtlety, simplicity means that this effort isn’t half-assed or temporary.
The engine is understressed – 5.7 liters of displacement putting out 190 horsepower means it’s dead slow but cockroach reliable even with the expected deferred maintenance. The steering wheel angles the front wheels both left and right at varying degrees as specified by the driver’s inputs, and that’s basically everything that can be said about the handling. The suspension feels like it’s been tuned by Novocain and Enya albums, but over a decaying infrastructure and rural roads, or for someone who has to consume several hundred miles over the course of their day, it’s downright welcome relative to some of the more exotic washboards we find ourselves in from time to time.
If you’re convinced that you must take a trip from New York to Los Angeles, the right answer to “which car should I take?” is always “the one you have”, followed shortly by “something fun” and “something comfortable”. But if you wanted to indulge and maximize your cultural experience, you’d do it in a Buick Roadmaster. It’s bulletproof, simple, and Springsteen cassettes don’t sound this good coming out of whatever Bang & Olufsen system you’ve got optimized for your car.
Proper Americana: scattered, smothered, covered, chunked & topped.
Anyway, on Day 3 we drove from Indianapolis to Omaha. It was okay.
Day 4: Nebraska to Colorado: We’re not in Kansas anymore, Officer Dorothy
Really, if you’re going to drive from coast to coast, the middle bits are more of a transit stage to the special stages that make up either side of the country. Nothing against the breadbasket of the world, the pork tenderloin is fantastic and the culture that bubbles underneath the surface is as real as you’ll find anywhere in the country.
You will need it for scale. It’s one thing to set off across the East Coast and find yourself ticking through a baker’s dozen state lines before lunch. But Nebraska? Kansas? Those take dedication. That instant gratification of sprinting across jurisdictions is gone out here in the Midwest. No, you’ll need focus. Indianapolis to Omaha yesterday was a reprieve, straight two-lane highways and cute gazebos in town squares on back roads click by further and further apart.
You can take a look across any map and see that settlers sped up as they went West. Those covered wagons that traipsed across the prairies didn’t catch stride until they hit the Mississippi. And it’s not just the Louisiana Purchase-era suspension design that ties this Corvette to its history in the landscape. Once the visibility opens up, that left foot, hindered by incorporated areas across the Eastern Time Zone, becomes leaden.
Which generally is how you find yourself talking to my new friend, the stoic and unrepentantly polite civil servant Donna.
Our reputation preceded us as we cross the Kansas state line, and stayed with us until we hit the Colorado border, at which point you begin to wonder if you’ll just follow wheat fields and grain elevators until you drive off the edge of the earth. Eastern Colorado is a tease, the roads dictated by land deeds to give barely a sneeze of a directional change in the road.
A bit of consumer advice here: when you cross that Colorado border, zoom out on your map until you can see I-25. It’s a highway that splits the state from north to south. Now, I’m from Saint Louis and folks there won’t hesitate to tell you what that big silver handle in the ground represents right on the bank of the Mississippi: it’s where the East kinda peters out and the West with a capital “W” begins. Between you and me, that Gateway Arch is plopped down about a two-and-a-third states too far to the east.
No, my friend. I-25 is where the West begins.
And it won’t sneak up on you.
A funny thing happens as you plunge further west into Colorado, and you should be prepared for it. Those roads loosen up. The taught, straight shots between towns of 1,500 who share football rivalries suddenly start to get a bit of slack, and then just a bit silly. And as your little blue dot creeps closer to that line on the map, you’ll find yourself coming around these meandering ranch roads until you find yourself cresting a ridge.
There’s a scene in The Wizard of Oz, one of those watershed moments in cinema history, where Dorothy’s house, picked up by a tornado, slams down in black and white and this great crescendoing orchestra falls dead silent. Judy Garland, clutching Toto in her arms, timidly gets up off her bed, finds her way through the house with the furniture strewn about, walks to the front door, and slowly opens it. The door opens to an overwhelming Technicolor paradise, with the camera tracking around the set for the maximum grandeur for the viewer. As an early blockbuster hit in the history of cinema in color, this was many moviegoers first exposure to a life outside of sepia tone.
On the other side of that ridge, in crisp Technicolor, will rise those purple mountains’ majesty. And after two days of the amber waves of grain, it won’t so much wash over you as it will punch you right in your mouth.
Our little convoy of 6 – having been scattered apart by fuel stops and brought back together by luck and