Plato, Henry David Thoreau, Arthur Dent and Alton Brown all found enlightenment and self-discovery with the added perspective of distance provided by the open road. I know where I'm going, I have a basic schedule, but I don't have any idea what I will find. Traveling from one ocean to the other in a brand-new car and bringing along a laptop--what a dream trip.
My journey begins at an airport terminal in Orange County, California. I'm mingling with two dichotic yet intermixed pools, like separating salad dressing, of artificially tanned, fast-talking, gold-festooned hustlers dying to get out of the prosaic Golden State alongside bright-faced, blonde-haired starlets in dread of the unwelcoming Garden State. Airports are funny, they bring in all types and force them to deal with each other.
I normally hate cross-country flying. The seats are too narrow, the view too monotonous and the food too terrible. This flight, however, I'm excited. There's nothing that will stand in such juxtaposition to the next five days as this flight. It's still a horrible five hours, but I almost enjoy its misery.
Landing in Newark is the same as at any other airport. The wheels bounce a few times, a giant sigh goes up from the plane's organic cargo and all is well. It's after you leave the plane that things change. People here are extremely self-focused. It's as if others don't exist, or are just obstacles in their way. Baggage claim is a battle and your own belongings are the spoils of war. I wait for the flailing to subside before charging in to get my bags and head for an awaiting shuttle.
I arrive at the car valet expecting a swift delivery. Instead, it's the first hiccup of the trip. The car isn't ready. Apparently, a scheduling error has occurred and it will take a little while to get the MINI. I sit on the bench outside and enjoy a surprisingly cool, breezy evening with a beautiful golden sunset. The valets are winding down for the day and join me in my appreciation of the nice weather. Two of them are from the West African country of Ghana. They ask me questions about California and what it's like. One of them talks about moving west, talking about the beautiful weather and endless possibilities. Manifest Destiny is still very much a part of the American Dream, especially for those who have recently become American. The MINI Cooper S arrives, a bright red vision glowing under fluorescent lights. Sean Lobosco from MINI North America hands over the keys and it is ours for an entire year. I shake hands with everyone, pass out some magazines and drive off on the 3,000-mile adventure back home.
The next morning, I decide that some shots of the new Cooper S by the Atlantic would be appropriate, since the end of the journey would be overlooking the Pacific. I drive an hour south and east, eventually finding the start of the country. It becomes immediately apparent that the roads in this area are not meant for easy navigation, but are threaded around whatever happened to be there first. I find a beach, but nothing I can get near with the subject. Locals inform me of an old lighthouse out on a sandbar. I'm given a point in the general vicinity, rather than actual directions. I scour the coast for well over an hour, but to no avail. With noon approaching, I settle for a semi-picturesque spot.
Back on the road, I discover how expensive it is to drive in the northeast. Out west, we take freeways, bridges and tunnels for granted. Here you pay by the mile. Before even burning through $5 in gas, I've spent $9 on tolls. A rough calculation of a bridge's length compared to the toll leaves me convinced that, mile-for-mile, flying transatlantic first class is cheaper. And they feed you. Twice.
Grinding away on crowded freeways isn't exactly what I had in mind, but the MINI's interior is superb and I never feel uncomfortable. The car is easy to drive in traffic and the navigation system relatively straightforward. I find it amusing to sit among the large, black, monolithic limos that fill the roads around our capital. I wonder how many of these giant barges are filled with politicians who will later preach environmentalism and conservation?
I'm halfway through Virginia before the giant, center-mounted speedometer exceeds 40 mph. This part of the country is strange to me. The roads are surrounded by giant green trees and the landscape rolls in front and behind, so you never see more than a half-mile in any direction. This area isn't as populated as California, but the lack of horizon makes me feel much more claustrophobic.
So far, heading south on the 81 has been the route. Just as night falls, I find the 40, the first real sign of heading west. With sunset comes rain--lots of it. I find myself testing the ABS and DSC much earlier than I would like. The 40 is a major route for trucking. These guys drive it day in and day out. Unfortunately, there are also cars with careless drivers and it gets ugly. A slice between trucks, a pass on the right, a slice back and suddenly a Honda is almost pointing in the wrong direction. Luckily, no contact is made, but I'm amazed by the MINI's sure-footed stance and thank the inventor of DSC as well.
Late at night, through the thick mist of water, I come upon Knoxville, Tennessee, where I'll stay the night. It's amazing (to me) how difficult it can be to find a good meal in some cities at 11pm (or any time). I decide to break one of my own rules of travel and have a seat at the bar of a chain restaurant. The gentleman to my left is concerned with my life insurance situation and to my right is a guy dating a multi-millionaire supermodel. Our bartender is dating a man she really cares about, but isn't the kind of guy she would marry. I sit, listen and wish my $12 sandwich was as interesting as the company.
I leave Knoxville early, excited about the next stop. Not only do I pick up my co-driver, but I've been dying to see Memphis for some time: `The Birthplace of Rock 'n' Roll and Home of The Blues' as the tourist bureau states. There's a lot of road to cover, but I'm hoping this part goes by quick.
Our MINI is not equipped with a direct iPod interface, only a mini jack input--a problem I intend to fix later. A trip to Wal-Mart for the appropriate cable will be a quick fix. If you've never been into a Wal-Mart in the middle of nowhere, you haven't really experienced one. Walking into this place is like walking into the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars. Strange patrons walk about while even stranger employees are performing unknown rituals with pallets of unidentifiable goods. I amble out a little closer to being a Jedi, with a cable and glass cleaner.
Memphis, early afternoon, just in time to get a hotel room and do some work. Adventure waits outside, but I have a phone interview and a story waiting on me. Night falls as the work is completed--time for dinner. After some driving, I find Neely's BBQ, a family-owned restaurant famous among BBQ connoisseurs. The giant turkey sandwich is stupendous and really is better than anything I can get at home.
A few hours' sleep and I'm on my way to Memphis Airport, to collect my co-driver. I've already grown tired of conversation with myself (I can be so hard-headed and nave sometimes), it'll be nice to hear a different point of view.
We leave the airport to find another beautiful morning and head to The Waffle House for breakfast. They're all over the place in Memphis and you owe it to yourself to have a plate of smothered 'n' covered hash browns at least once. Immediately after walking in the cloudy glass door, all conversation stops. I feel an uncomfortable tension I'm not accustomed to on the West Coast. We're the only white people in the entire restaurant. Luckily, there are two things that bring people together in Memphis. One is music and the other is food. I love both. A waiter sees the humor in the situation and directs us to our booth. We have a great meal and the other patrons have a story to tell people at work later in the day.
Before leaving Memphis, we have to pay our respects to the birthplace of rock 'n' roll. We head over to Sun Records Studio. In this tiny, awkwardly shaped building, the Big Bang of modern music took place. Little Richard, Elvis Presley, many big names recorded here in the dawn of the era. But even before there was rock 'n' roll, there was The Blues. And Beale Street is where it lives. A collection of nightclubs and restaurants still features some of the best musicians in the world--often playing free shows in dark corners of cramped bars. It would be easy to spend the better part of a week here, but the clock is ticking.
After a brief stop on the eastern bank of the Mississippi, we say goodbye to Memphis, hoping to return one day soon. We enter Arkansas and the country starts to flatten out. This time of year, things are yellow and dry. The land is parched and it looks as if time has stopped. There's no activity anywhere and we're an hour into Oklahoma before we even realize it.
Oklahoma is much the same as Arkansas, but around sundown we find the General Thomas P. Stafford Aerospace Museum. Named in honor of the test pilot and astronaut who flew both Gemini and Apollo missions, the museum is a welcome surprise right off the highway. It's getting late and we decide to stop for dinner. We find Lucille's Diner, antique gas pumps and muscle cars mark the entrance. Inside, we find real road food and a gentleman known as `Bill from the Grill.' He sits with us during our meal and we talk cars, traveling and life. Bill is the kind of guy who is instantly a friend. Every local who comes or goes says `hi' and he greets them all by name. We stay until the close of business and hit the road again. Halfway through the panhandle of Texas, we call it a night.
Early next morning, just outside Amarillo, the sun comes up over the Texas Plains. The wind is fierce, but the MINI behaves flawlessly. Even with a relatively low weight, our biggest concern is the bigger vehicles being blown from lane to lane. Before we know it, we cross into New Mexico, an alien land of mesa and valleys, looking as if an entire mountain range was cut down in one slash with a giant sickle. We dive south of the 40 to make a pilgrimage to Roswell. The UFO Museum and Research Center was founded to document and investigate the events of the alleged spacecraft landing over 60 years ago. The Museum is a collection of stories and documents dealing with the crash and UFOs in general. It's worth the price of admission, if you happen to be in (or hovering above) the town.
On the way out of Roswell, we run into more unpredictable desert weather. Combinations of hail, rain and wind pound the MINI without mercy. I consider stopping, fearing body damage to our new car, but realize that hail is hitting the side of the car harder than it is the front and so the decision is made to push on. At the border of New Mexico and Arizona, we end up smack in the middle of several storms. Lightning surrounds us, but right above is a beautiful cool night. We stop to check for damage and grab a picture; it may be the best shot of the trip. We make our way to Kingman, knowing we're getting close to home.
We wake early to the sound of a freight train that runs just a few hundred feet behind our hotel. At breakfast, we decide that we're slightly ahead of schedule and have time to swing a few miles north, to drive the new Cooper S across the Hoover Dam and through Las Vegas. The view from the Arizona side of the dam is amazing. Looking out over the 3,000,000 cubic yards of concrete that created Lake Mead, we realize how far we've come. Once on the other side, the Las Vegas Valley is only an hour away. It goes by quick, while the weather is hot and clear.
After a brief stop, Las Vegas is left to the gamblers and party crowd, and the MINI is pointed south on the 15, the last real open road of the trip. The parched desert is a welcome change to the humidity and storms we've seen the last few days. A few hours later and our new long-term car is finally home in Southern California.
Lessons were learned, friends were made. We averaged between 34 and 36 mpg during our cross-country drive. Sadly, we have no way to put quantify the amount of fun per mile. The MINI Cooper S is fantastic, quite possibly the perfect way to experience a cross-country drive.