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 She’ll let you know the pictures on her desk are nearly a decade out of date.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 attending to various legal matters – is constructed of a VW GTI piloted by the Reverend of Rinse-and-Repeat and housing the bravest cameraman this side of a war zone, a pair of proper Ninjas in a McLaren, a couple of Porsches who can see us sprinting back into their twisty home-field advantage, an Audi in that hue of bronze that looks odd on the showroom floor and absolutely explodes off the road when backdropped with sunlight streaming between scattered rainstorms, and our boisterous Corvette banging off redline like it’s drunk on Coors belting out the chorus to “Friends in Low Places” at a Garth Brooks concert.
I don’t know who dropped the first gear, but I can tell you that watching a McLaren absolutely drop the hammer might make Donna and her officer buddy blush.
Colorado is ours, and we’re back on the playground once again. America the Beautiful, indeed.
Day 5: Colorado to Colorado: Trillion Dollar Highway
The timezone changed again. Another hour of sleep, and that’s got to be part of the program, because we’re going to need it. My wife threw open the curtains and I can catch a glint of the observation deck on Pike’s Peak winking at me. Breathe in that fresh Colorado air, buster. There’s roads to be taken.
Two Seattleites, disciples of the temple of Porsche in nothing short of an immaculate 987-chassis (when you hear someone reverently talking about area codes, they’re talking about Porsches) Cayman S, have prepared Espresso Martinis for the co-drivers in the circle drive to get ahead of the G forces they’re about to undertake. Our master of ceremonies doesn’t really have to say much, we all know what’s in store for today. There’s no way to get to Los Angeles without cutting a line through those mountains.
Everyone on the radio this morning sounds like they’re jumping up and down on their parents’ bed trying to wake them up to head downstairs to see if Santa brought them that Nintendo 64. I’m struggling to keep up with an Audi S8 as the turns in the roads cease to be dictated by easements and farmland and begin to flow with the topography.
For just a moment before we enter those mountains, I’m struck with how wise of choice that S8 is for this trip. Forced induction for the elevation, a long wheelbase for the highway, a plethora of horsepowers for the straights, and all-wheel-drive to absolutely rip out of those apexes. Once again: there are no bad choices in means of transportation across the country by car, but some choices are better than others.
He’s a good driver: confident in his passing, and absolutely chomping at the bit to get some altitude. The owner is one of those guys who knows every bartender intimately across the country and is more fun drop dead sober than you or any of your college buddies were throttled up against that magical six beer threshold. He’s got one of those slab-sided mid-century Lincolns that are just breathlessly stylish slammed on those sculped steel rims back at home. He’s as rare a personality as white guys who can wear hats that aren’t baseball caps. And as warm as the guy is, he’s just ice slinging Ronin’s younger sibling through two-lane traffic.
Up here in the mountains, you’ve got plenty of room to run, but once you come upon traffic, you’ve got to be prepared to take advantage of those passing zones like this is the last one you’ll see until you hit the Pacific Coast Highway. Out here where the scenery is as spectacular as the tarmac, you’ll have to assume that most folks you happen upon aren’t paying attention to the latter. If you don’t have your wits about you, you can find yourself with the dotted line door closing before you can even heel-toe into 3rd.
Just on the downhill outside Monarch Pass is the first time I noticed that modern Porsches have a tell right before things get funky. There’s a goofy feature with some modern motors, if you’ll permit me to nerd out for a minute, where on the overrun after you let off the throttle up in the rev range the ECU will keep that exhaust valve open for just a hot fraction of a second without completely burning the mixture in the cylinder, which in turn splashes some fuel into the headers. Once that fuel hits the red-hot headers, it’ll ignite, which, after all that, makes this intoxicating crackle and pop.
It’s a throwback to the earlier days when, on mostly naturally aspirated cars, engines weren’t nearly as efficient at combusting all the fuel in the chamber – particularly with race cars and anything capable of dousing the pistons with a swimming pool’s worth of fuel. These days, with modern direct injection systems and decades of dorks sitting around computers under the watchful eye of our benevolent regulators, it’s been tuned out of the equation. A couple of years ago, some drunk Porsche engine mapping scientist came in after hours, watched a whole bunch of 917 at Le Mans videos on YouTube and decided to get a bit cheeky with the fuel mapping off throttle when owners push that little button on the console labelled “SPORT PLUS”.
Which brings us back to the Monarch Pass, with me positioned directly behind a Cayman GTS and an unsuspecting Jeep Liberty. Coming around a corner with the windows down when the cabin sounds like someone just started pouring milk on some Saturday morning Rice Krispies. A trio of downshifts and it’s giggle time. The air up here is thin, but with all this displacement and forced induction in the crew, it doesn’t slow us down one bit.
Headed back into the valley after a tasty lunch, the temperature quickly spikes up to a sweltering 93 degrees indicated at a gas stop some 40 miles outside Telluride, which, as it turns out, is where the lines tracing our route on the map switch back from Mondrian to Pollock.
With the windshield quickly filling entirely with the Rockies dead ahead, the “scattered thunderstorms” we were hearing about from the teams that have dashed ahead slam down on us. Dumping buckets also tears the temperature back down, we’re watching it tick back down to 60 in a matter of 5 minutes, keeping everything nice, cool, and copasetic as we continue our ascent into the little ski town.
If you’ve never been on Splash Mountain at Disneyland, it’s a fairly laid-back log flume ride that takes you floating up and around this animatronic mountain. The ride teases you with these little drops here and there before depositing you into the core of the mountain clanging up 5 stories and plunging you in a freefall into a pool of water below. You know that feeling you get in a roller coaster as you hear the metallic teeth clinking against the track as you keep going higher to the inevitable release?
That is what approaching the Million Dollar Highway out of Telluride in the rain is like, except for the better part of an hour and almost no guardrails to speak of.
There’s a string of 10 or 12 of us, just ripping up rooster tails and having a hell of a time soaking here in between bouts of liquid sunshine. Uphill first gear hairpins that fill the entire windshield with roadway and runoff turn quickly to these soaring views of the Rockies and looking down on a magenta Bentley and blue M3 that are tagging along immediately behind me. This sort of elastic lead and follow, diving into these hairpins to bunch up and listen to all the burbles and screams of every imaginable layout echoing off the rock faces and being absorbed into the tree line.
There are a million reasons to not do something this pointless with your time: driving from coast to coast, maybe admitting your staid and pragmatic coworkers were right. But the second you see the driver of the red Mustang directly in front of you just absolutely nail that 4 to 3 to 2 downshift, just grace the brake pedal with a toe through the apex and get that all-American tail end just a degree or three off center putting the power down in the rain, well, your coworkers can go right to hell.
We hit Durango by sunset. It’s the speed limit from there on in. It’s one of those days where the beer at the bar upon arrival is the best one you can remember having for reasons entirely independent of what’s in your glass.
Day 6: Colorado to Nevada and the Mysterious P265/35 ZR20
Today, heading southbound out of Durango, it’s that classic story of failure, frustration, and redemption. Oh and we also went to the Grand Canyon at some point.
The blue CL63 showed up at the hotel late last night. Like a whole host of models of those range-topping Astons, Bentleys, and Mercedes Benzes, the V12 is marketed as the absolute best in product lineup. Of course, and the manufacturer won’t admit it, that’s indiscretely wrong. The V12 offers larger integers in the brochure, and that’s fine for the brand’s margin, but the V8 is the choice to have. You’ll see it with the DB11, same with the Continental GT. And nothing on earth makes a noise like an AMG V8 at full murder-death-kill. Keep the windows down following one going from a stop and it’s got that punch-in-the-gut hit the second those throttle bodies go wide open that I can’t describe without some help.
Right now, go grab some headphones, find Killer Mike’s “Big Beast” on your streaming app of choice, and turn the volume up to an ignorant level. Hit play. That first note on the verse, up through the chorus where El-P absolutely slaughters the baseline, that’s an AMG V8 from a dig.
Of course, it’s a bit broken. This AMG’s computer is throwing codes like a Soviet spy in the 60s. It’s a strange thing, being able to differentiate the scars that a well-worn car wears apart. On the one hand, there are those borne by mistreatment and neglect, from the fourth owner who picked up something they were too young or irresponsible to own. On the other hand, there are those scrapes and dents that are borne like old Monza and Daytona winners plucked directly from the winner’s circle and put into a museum caked with grime and showing those late night combative maneuvers traded on the red eye stint. This car wasn’t broken being abused in a two-year lease, this car was broken being hammered in a half dozen coast-to-coast legalish road rallies.
Of course, the driver and crew couldn’t take it more in stride. He’s a veteran – one of those guys on that short list of people you want to keep tabs on because he’s going to be doing something wonderful in the world at any given time. Monk-like work ethic, makes the room feel bigger when he walks in. Weaponized extroversion. Pictures of his niece on his Instagram page.
He’s not just someone you want to grow up to be like, he’s someone you want your kids to grow up to be like.
And he’s the picture of cool in one of those slightly hopeless situations. Every year, mechanical gremlins creep out of their hibernation and strike at some of us. They already took a Subaru. They’re doing their best to sideline this CL63. And they’re not done for the day.
I can tell you that the rear tire size on a 2015 Cayman GTS is P265/35ZR20. OEM recommended equipment is a Michelin Pilot Super Sport. I can tell you that there are a half-dozen tire stores in San Juan County, New Mexico, that do not carry Michelin Pilot Super Sports in a P265/35ZR20 or anything by any brand in any size that’s remotely compatible with this particular wheel. I can tell you all about Route 64 between Farmington and Shiprock. Hell, I can tell you all about the rough geological timeline that gave the Shiprock formation it’s defining place rising above in the scenery off in the distance.
I can also tell you that if you throw enough determined people on cell phones at a problem, you’ll get a Cayman GTS from limping off the side of the road in the desert with a fatal tire wound in the morning to hustling in a convoy at 95 mph headfirst into sunset and one of those magnificent and malevolent thunderstorms that only the Western United States can muster up.
It’s one of those days packed with little tiny problems magnified by the fact that you’re surrounded by a thousand miles of unfamiliar that get resolved because the kind of people who do this sort of adventure aren’t those to shy away from the lack of appropriate manufacturer’s recommended equipment outside one of New Mexico’s most prime examples of volcanic breccia.
And that’s one of those reassurances that’ll visit you months after the event. When you’re sitting on the side of the highway at 9PM on a Wednesday with your daily driver’s hood skyward and the radiator pulling a somewhat derivative tribute performance to Old Faithful and an alarm set on your phone for a 5AM call into the office, you can draw on those moments of desolate panic. If those guys can whisper something in German to the world’s most complicated ECUs and rustle up enough horsepower to motivate more computing power than the Space Shuttle off the side of a mountain in the rain in Colorado or work the underground tire professional’s network on the surface of the sun in New Mexico, shoot, anything else is just poquito potatoes.
At some point during the day, we were witness to an armed robbery and ensuing police chase in Tuba City, Arizona, and finally were able to process why folks say that photography doesn’t even begin to convey any sense of scale with regard to the astronomically notable Grand Canyon.
Late that night, with 20 minutes to go on the map in the driving rain to a small town in Nevada, it began to sink in. Everyone that woke up in Durango was still on the road. The show must go on.
Day 7: Escape to Los Angeles
Eastern Nevada is the equivalent of international waters on land. I know there is some basic standard of law that prevails out there in the desert but my goodness that sure can be easy to forget. When folks ask why you’d buy a sportscar that can do north of 150 miles per hour when there’s nowhere to drive it, quietly remind yourself that Nevada exists. I’m not going to advocate wanton abuse of the speed limits in any particular state, but, well, I’ll probably just end this paragraph right about here.
Bunched up with this lunatic collective, we’re making good time across this little imported section of Mars on Earth. There are highway exits and intersections out in the middle of nowhere, diverting traffic to nowhere. It’s easy to just let your foot slip down on the throttle and just…go.
But that’s a symptom of the problem then, isn’t it? Our directions have us plugging along into LA sometime in the early afternoon along the Rim of the World drive. This far along into the trip, it’s easy to get caught up in the residual adrenaline from the day before and slip right back into attack mode. Our filthy faded Skittle-colored convoy darting in and out of the increasingly California-plated cars seem to be picking up speed even as the road goes windy, leaving Mars as we pick up trees and turns.
This route, up in these foothills, is just spectacular. And wide open. It’s easy to treat it like a race track, and to what end? The finish line somewhere beyond 2 hours of LA traffic? It’s almost like I’d need an impossibly convenient and inevitably expensive plot device to slow down the trip.
Lo and behold, the literary gods are smiling upon us this Thursday. A few miles into our corner carving, the coolant gauge spikes to 255 degrees Fahrenheit. Best I can tell, we’ve damaged enough fins on the radiator following those sticky-tired pebble trebuchets across the whole North American continent that we’re out of the business of temping law-enforcement officers for the rest of the trip.
Pulling over to let the mercury drop, our good amigo and recurring character pulls off ahead in his Cayman on 19 lug nuts (one was sacrificed due to a locking lug key left in Michigan) and we decide to limp each other into LA. Gobsmacked by that fresh evergreen air, I’m struck by the fact that we’re in desperate need of a quiet, delightful lunch somewhere off the lake. My navigator, batting 1.000 for the week, picks out a place that looks like the perfect parking lot to potentially boil off some coolant from the overflow tank.
I’m not big on plugs. Seems to degrade the writing experience. But let me tell you a thing or two about Blanca & Pierre’s located at 39170 Big Bear Boulevard, Big Bear Lake, CA 92315. When your Corvette is on the fritz and you’re in a completely delightful Alpine town in California filled with muddy Land Cruisers and that kind of pace of living you can only get above 7,000 feet, this quaint café is nothing short of an apparition. Some life-affirming sandwiches are followed by what can only be described as sunshine and frolicking laughter with a crust: boysenberry pie. The waitress informs us that her grandmother makes them from scratch every night, which, honestly, given how unspeakably tasty they are, was somehow obvious.
The pause is just what the doctor ordered, and, somehow, with enough luck accumulated over the last 3,000 miles, our trek along this feat of civil engineering continued on without pegging a thermostat in a very reasonable 3rd and 4th gear tour up here in the clouds overlooking the sun slamming down on the valley. I know we’ve gotta come down off these mountains before too long, but there’s a little part of me that wants to just see what happens if we overheat up here and simply must find a little bed & breakfast…
Nah, the finish line beckons.
The culturally depraved among us immediately recognize this parking lot outside the Portofino inn. It’s the only place this grand tour could come to an end. I’m not sure if these folks at the finish line look more relieved that they’ve survived or are just working through processing the mileage and adventures. It’s a balance of missing dogs after a week on the road and that sort of deep personal accomplishment that you only get after surviving major life events.
I’m exhausted just from writing this section, just remembering how an entire week can catch up to you just by having someone wave a ceremonial checkered flag in your direction in a parking lot that offers a lovely view of the other ocean.
Another day on the Dustball, another trip complete, another beer that’s just the best beer you’ve ever had. Welcome to LA.
Day 8: Malibu Canyons, Johnny Cab, and the Epilogue
Usually this is the part of the story where I tell you, the reader, that if you’ve made it this far, there’s a chance you’d be interested in doing this trip with the Dustball folks next year. I’ll give you some information about the other rallies that this organization puts together, the smaller events they run all around the country (I’m sure there’s one close enough that you can rationalize,) and the big 2,000 mile trip they’re planning between Boston and New Orleans next year. And if that’s your jive, hell, welcome to the family, click right here, sign up, see you soon.
But there’s something in my head that’s been building during this trip strikes me as we’re sitting on the benches outside Malibu Kitchen sipping coffee and petting Golden Retrievers after spending a day absolutely shredding the brake pads on a borrowed Aston Martin up in the canyons up north along the coast.
In no particular order: Tesla, Waymo, Apple, General Motors, Ford, Uber, Baidu, NuTonomy, Honda, ZF, Toyota, Peugeot, Hyundai, Delphi, Volvo, BMW, VW, Damiler, and Renault are all making headway as the industry heads toward that elusive Level 4/Level 5 autonomy that’s seemingly the discussion du jour in every other analyst report, Wall Street Journal article, and technical thesis coming out of Stanford and Carnegie Mellon. These discussions usually hinge around just how many years away – whether it’s a matter of Elon Musk’s absurdly optimistic projections or the curmudgeonly MG-owning automotive journalist sector calling for it to be in the year 3156.
What these folks are missing – and what you need to know – is simply this: autonomous cars are coming. Whether they’re here tomorrow or in 2050, they’re inevitable, you’ll experience one in your lifetime in some capacity. Period. There’s a solid chance your kids won’t need to learn how to drive. All the Miatas and E30 BMWs aren’t going to stop the inexorable march of progress.
We’ve had the luck to occupy this narrow strip of the timeline, these last 100 years or so, whereby locomotion has become something not just accessible to the common man, but so accessible that it can be taken for granted. Somehow, we’ve mastered the control of trillions of explosions, tiny releases of chemical energy translated into kinetic motion, noise, and occasionally lift-off oversteer. These are machines sandwiched between modes of transport we either need to feed oats and those that must receive over-the-air navigational updates to function in a basic commute. In the halls of museums, a millennium into the future, this notion of cars that we drove ourselves might warrant a mention on a plaque that describes the 5,500 years of domesticated horses.
For those of us who have our identities intertwined in this community, who have laid down deep roots with the ilk that wakes up at 5AM on our weekends to go run around in oddly shaped circles breaking expensive shiny things or who take weeks off at a time to enjoy harmonious engineering and drink in the blurred scenery at our own discretion with nothing more than fuel in the tank and enough “clean” clothes to make it to the next time zone, well, I’ll be the first person to look you dead in the eye and tell you: the sun is setting on our era.
And you, well, you have some choices you need to make right now. By the time you see the end of this odd manual driving speedbump in history coming to a close, it will be too late to plan that absurd trip you always talked about with the folks who treat a raised hood like a campfire. So if you’re sitting on that irrational Porsche purchase, or whatever badge infects you, well, use this paragraph as an excuse to pull the damn trigger already. And just go. Those roads outside your house or apartment lead to places I can’t even begin to describe. Find your road.
I’ll see you out there in this twilight. Just be sure to wave when you pass.
Below is a visual reference of the story above. The person hired to film decided he didn't want to edit it, so we threw something together for Dustball with the salvaged footage. Sit back, with some popcorn, and enjoy the tale of 60 friends and 3000 miles.