The Road to Silver Bay

Do you remember your favorite summer? I’m talking about back in the days when summer was really summer. Three full months off from school! It was so much different then, before we began full-time careers. Nowadays, we’re lucky if we can arrange one or two weeks of vacation at a time.

My last full summer involved a temporary job, yet it was a glorious, unforgettable season of fun. From early June to mid-August 1979, I worked on the staff of the Silver Bay YMCA conference center on the shore of beautiful Lake George in upstate New York. I was one of about 300 Emps (shorthand for employees), the great majority of whom were college students or recently graduated from high school. As one of three “house boys,” I assisted with housekeeping chores: picking up bundles of dirty linens in the morning, helping the laundry staff as necessary (especially during a big conference), and then distributing clean linens back to the main inn and the outlying residence halls and cabins—some 600 beds in all. My chores were usually done by mid-afternoon, with free time for the rest of the day. The Emps had their own lakeside recreation center: a former steamboat landing with a big dock and a diving board. Whenever we weren’t swimming or lounging at the ERC, several of us were usually waterskiing or “Samurai Tubing” on Lake George.

That's me on the left, 20 years old in the summer of '79, playing a jazz gig on the lawn in front of the Inn

That’s me on the left, 20 years old in the summer of ’79, playing a jazz gig on the lawn in front of the Inn

I hauled my drum kit up to help out with the summer musical (a big production in the gorgeous old auditorium) and played a few gigs whenever the opportunity arose. I really came into my own that season, developing a sense of self-confidence that has never wavered.

I also developed numerous friendships, many of which have lasted all these years. I attended some great reunions for a few years, but alas, I never returned for another summer as an Emp. I finished my academics at Penn State in the summer of 1980, and then went to Aviation Officer Candidate School at Pensacola later that year to begin my naval aviation career.

Fast forward to late 2012. I concluded my Jack Kerouac tribute journey across America in October, a trip so satisfying that I immediately began to plan a similar (but shorter) journey for 2013. That morphed into a visit to New England, with a top priority being a return to Silver Bay. Knowing that guests and conference attendees are afforded a variety of daily activities in the arts and humanities, I contacted the program director to suggest a lecture. Luckily for me, Chip Devenger (who had been on the staff in ’79) approved the idea and provided two days/nights of room & board in the main inn.

Thirty-four years after my wonderful summer at Silver Bay, I made my way back. I first spent a few days with my family in Central Pennsylvania, then started a leisurely two-day drive to Silver Bay on Sunday, August 11. Rather than take a direct route, I headed into western New York to spend a little time in the Finger Lakes region, with a truly enjoyable drive north along Route 14, which parallels the shore of Seneca Lake from Watkins Glen to Geneva. I was surprised by the sheer number or wineries that have sprouted up there in recent years, and stopped for a great lunch at Veraisons, the restaurant at Glenora Wine Cellars. It was well worth the stop, not only for the food but the superb view of the vineyards and lake from the outside veranda. After an overnight stay in Syracuse, I followed two scenic secondary roads—Routes 8 and 28—through the Adirondack Mountains to Lake George. From there, the road along the western shore of the lake was familiar: Route 9N through Bolton Landing, over Tongue Mountain, and north to Silver Bay Road. The weather was perfect for top-down cruising the entire day.

What a great place for lunch--a veranda overlooking the Glenora Wine Cellar vineyards on Seneca Lake in New York

What a great place for lunch–a veranda overlooking the Glenora Wine Cellar vineyards on Seneca Lake in New York

A location that lives up to its name: Lake Pleasant, in the midst of the Adirondack Mountains on Route 8.

A location that lives up to its name: Lake Pleasant, in the midst of the Adirondack Mountains on Route 8.

Although 34 years of my life had flowed by since my last visit, the huge and lovely campus at Silver Bay had hardly changed. And to my great surprise, there were several people still on the staff who had been there in 1979. I no sooner parked my car than I saw Chuck Leonard, an Emp with me in ’79 and now on staff to direct the annual musical. Another familiar face was that of John McPherson, the creator of the popular Close to Home syndicated comic. Although we had not been Emps at the same time, I knew John from former reunions, and we had several friends in common. I spent hours at The Store, a turn-of-the-century ice cream parlor, hanging out with Chuck and John and several new friends.

This is the view from the expansive "rocking chair" porch of the historic Inn.  No wonder folks spend hours here.

This is the view from the expansive “rocking chair” porch of the historic Inn. No wonder folks spend hours here.

With its stone columns and shingle siding, the Auditorium at Silver Bay has hosted lectures, musicals, and variety shows for more than a hundred years.

With its lovely stone columns and shingle siding, the Auditorium at Silver Bay has hosted lectures, musicals, and talent shows for more than a hundred years.

The two-day stay was all too short. I enjoyed presenting “Sweet Chariot: The Worldwide Adventures of a Silver Bay Emp,” which seemed to be well-received. Overall it was such a fine visit, in fact, that I have vowed to make Silver Bay a regular part of my life again. Whether it’s periodic visits or perhaps even a whole summer, I will keep going back. The place has that effect on people, defying the old adage that you can’t turn back time. At Silver Bay, you can—or at least slow it down a little. There are no televisions on campus. Cell phone coverage is spotty. It’s a real throwback to another time, and a refreshing change from the hectic pace of our workaday lives.

Photographer Mark Hudak took this dazzling shot in front of the Inn as I departed Silver Bay. I'll be back!

Photographer Mark Hudak took this dazzling shot in front of the Inn as I departed Silver Bay. I’ll be back!

Silver Bay beckons, and there’s a very good chance that my favorite summer is yet to come.

White Knuckles and Elbow Grease

Exactly what is “elbow grease,” anyway? My mother uses the idiom regularly. A member of what everybody calls the Greatest Generation, she grew up during the Depression. Back then, long hours of manual work on farms and in factories was common. But the phrase became popular long before—it can be traced back almost 350 years—and it’s typically used to imply a vigorous effort at scrubbing or cleaning. Before the days of modern spray-on polishes, getting a high-quality shine on a piece of furniture or a car took a lot of “elbow grease.”

Remember the original “Karate Kid,” starring Ralph Macchio? “Wax on, wax off” was how Mr. Miyagi taught the youngster to use some elbow grease.

I got a good lesson myself last month when I entered the convertible in a Mustang Club of America national show—a first for me. There are five such events in 2013, including a Grand National at the end of summer in Orlando. The one I registered for was held at a great venue: the Crowne Plaza Golf and Tennis Resort in Asheville, North Carolina, over the July 4th holiday weekend. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I will drive hundreds of miles to participate in a show held in an attractive setting, and the Asheville event did not disappoint.

Two days before departing for the show, I arranged to have the Mustang cleaned from top to bottom by a local business, Pop’s Mobile Detailing. The team worked in my driveway for more than three hours, washing and hand-waxing the exterior, cleaning the backseat area, and detailing the engine compartment. (I enjoy doing my own work on the things I can reach while sitting down, so I cleaned most of the interior and the trunk.) Some might question the wisdom of going to all that trouble before getting on the road; but from past experience, I’ve learned that it’s much easier to wipe down an engine compartment with a days’ worth of road grime than one with six months’ worth. The same goes double for an exterior with a fresh coat of wax: cleanup is a snap with little more than a clean microfiber cloth and some rinse water.

Usually, that is. The problem with the MCA show in Asheville was getting there—alive. As almost everyone in the eastern United States is all too aware, this July has been one of the wettest on record. I left for Asheville on Wednesday, the 3rd, stopping an hour up the road to join up with Russell and Jeannie Weaver, who were trailering an unrestored, low-mileage 1966 fastback to the show. We set off from Cottondale, Florida and encountered only light rain for the first couple of hours, but south of Atlanta we ran into a torrential downpour the likes of which I have rarely seen in more than 35 years of driving. The effect was like driving under the flow from a bathtub faucet, with visibility cut to a matter of feet. The Mustang’s 46-year-old wiper arms struggled even on “hi” speed, and despite an upgraded a/c system, the windows fogged up because of the ambient temperature. Fortunately the traffic on I-85 was not terribly heavy, and all of the drivers around me slowed to a steady, cautious pace with their flashers on. Still, for a span of about two hours, it was a white-knuckle drive.

For all the challenges, I was happy to discover that the new windshield, installed last year, did not leak at all. Only a small amount of water crept in (or blew in) at the inevitable gaps between the header and the door windows. The trunk got a bit wet, too, but the leak was minimal compared to the horror stories I heard from other vintage Mustangers that weekend—even those driving hardtops—who literally had to bail water out of their trunks. All in all, I was proud of the way the convertible “leak-checked” under the worst possible conditions. (Even so, I brought along an elasticized cover, which kept the car dry while it was parked.)

The sun played hide-and-seek all afternoon on Saturday. I got the car clean, but also got the worst sunburn I've had in years

The sun played hide-and-seek all afternoon on Saturday. I got the car clean, but also got the worst sunburn I’ve had in years

On Saturday, I started to prep the car early for judging. The heavy rains had left a haze of interstate grime on just about everything, but the cleanup wasn’t too tedious. I had some help from volunteers who touched up areas out of my reach. Russell and Jeannie did a great job on the convertible top: really made it “pop.” The car was entered in the Modified “A” class, which meant the undercarriage was not judged. As a first-timer to a national show, I had received some helpful advice regarding the modified classes, which award points for each modification based on its complexity—everything from 1 point for a simple attachment to 4 points for complicated alterations. Over the years I have made so many mods that the list I handed to the judges was a page and a half long. Some were made in the interest of personalization or appearance (the chrome stuff under the hood, the aftermarket aluminum rims, etc.), but most were done to enhance the comfort, safety, and convenience of the Mustang for long trips.

The end result was that I earned a lot of points for the mods; enough that, together with the points for appearance and cleanliness, the Mustang earned a Gold—yahoo!—her first time out at a national level show.

A nice award from MCA as a result of using some elbow grease

A nice award from MCA as a result of using some elbow grease

As nice as the achievement felt, it couldn’t compare with the fun of continuing up to Pennsylvania to visit with my siblings and celebrate my mother’s 88th birthday. Unfortunately it rained nearly every day, but I did hit a stretch of rural highway in Virginia that was “between showers” and pretty as a postcard on that July afternoon. It didn’t last: an hour later, in Winchester, I hit more torrential rain.

Virginia 1

What’s around the next curve? As green as Ireland and just as pretty, the stretch of Rte 231 (Blue Ridge Turnpike) between Madison and Sperryville, Virginia is a great cruise–one of the nicest rural highways in the mid-Atlantic area.

By the time I returned to Florida, five days later, I had logged about 2,500 miles on the journey. The visits were fun, the show was a blast, and the award was great—but I never put the top down during the entire trip. No complaints: it was still an outstanding cruise in a vintage car that seems completely at ease while clocking mile after mile.

On August 6, we’ll start the biggest trip of the year: a run of about three weeks that will include a windshield tour of New England—all the way to the tip of Maine. Stand by for some more rural highway blogs, and help me by crossing some extra fingers for fair weather. I’ve had to wipe down the car far more often this year because of the constant rain.

And I’m running out of elbow grease.

Spring Makeover 2013

The first day of spring is fast approaching. The news might not mean much to folks in the Northeast or the Upper Midwest, where Old Man Winter is still brushing his icy fingers across the landscape, but in Florida the azalea blossoms are at their peak. That’s a sure sign of good things to come.

Personally, the promise of warm weather and abundant sunshine is my signal to prepare the Mustang for another season of travel. After six months of rarely getting out of the house—a self-imposed hermitage necessitated by a tight deadline for my next book—I am more than ready to get back on the road. Unlike last year, when I completed a 10,700-mile journey across the country and back, I don’t have any monster road trips planned. Instead, I hope to take at least one driving vacation of about two weeks’ duration, perhaps longer, and I might attempt a second trip if the schedule allows.

More importantly regarding the convertible, I have registered for a Mustang Club of America national show for the first time in years. Normally I don’t devote much time to car shows (see my post on May 25, 2012), due to the fact that most are held in boring venues. Spending eight hours in the blistering heat of a Wal-Mart parking lot is not my idea of a good time. But I’m willing to travel hundreds of miles to attend a car show in a unique, attractive setting. The event in question is the “Stars, Stripes, and ‘Stangs” show sponsored by the Blue Ridge Mustang Club, held during the 4th of July weekend at the Crowne Plaza Golf and Tennis Resort in Asheville, North Carolina. The resort provides a beautiful setting—not your average retail parking lot—and the agenda includes a cruise through the spectacular grounds of the Biltmore Estate on the night of July 4.

Having completed numerous lengthy trips over the past few years, I am willing to bet that my convertible is one of the most reliable, comfortable, and capable long-distance touring antiques on the road today. By signing up for a national MCA event, I am also committing myself to a lot of cosmetic work. Once the car is parked, all that really matters is how it looks. As such, I’ll be stacking my car against Mustangs that rarely, if ever, leave their enclosed garage. They won’t have thousands of miles of road grime in the engine compartment and underbody. Instead, they’ll have an engine bay clean enough to eat off of. In order to be competitive, I’ll need the help of my accomplice, Pop. He runs a mobile business, Pop’s Detailing, and does a fabulous job making vehicles look like they rolled off the showroom floor.

A gorgeous example of the attention to detail that  Pop gives my Mustang

A gorgeous example of the attention to detail that Pop gives my Mustang

I also plan to make a few changes before I start the summer excursions. For the past three years, I’ve been using an aftermarket stereo that has all the looks of a vintage radio, but with contemporary “guts” that enable iPod connectivity and connections to multiple speakers—even a subwoofer. However, I’ve never been fully satisfied with the sound performance of the USA-630, made by Custom Autosound. The iPod connection experiences a major volume drop, and I don’t care for the glaring neon green backlighting, which cannot be dimmed at night. I have been watching with great interest as another company, Retrosound USA, recently launched its Model Two stereo. The new head unit, which began shipping in February 2013, promises far more functionality than the USA-630. The iPod connectivity is fully licensed by Apple, and the display colors are almost infinitely adjustable, so that I can match the stereo with the red backlighting of my outrageously cool Dakota Digital VHX instrument cluster.

Restrosound units look "old school" but have modern digital components

Restrosound units look “old school” but have state-of-the-art functionality

In addition to making some upgrades, I need to schedule the convertible for a visit to my local body shop. While backing into my garage this winter, I scraped the right quarter panel against the vinyl-clad frame of the garage door, resulting in a half-dozen long scratches in the paint. Other things on the to-do list include a new fuel pump, some ignition work, and getting the driveshaft balanced. (Ever since completing the AOD transmission swap, which required the driveshaft to be shortened, I have felt a very slight vibration.)

An "öops" beside my garage door is going to cost me, sooner or later,

An “oops” with my garage door is going to cost me, sooner or later. Look closely, and you’ll see several horizontal scratches.

With spring right around the corner and big plans in the offing, I can literally feel the veil of the winter blahs beginning to lift. I’ll post some updates as the Mustang’s spring makeover progresses, and we will see you on the road!

A Grand Excursion

It’s true, what Dorothy says as she clicks her heels in The Wizard of Oz:

“There’s no place like home.”

Her mantra could be construed any number of ways, for she doesn’t really qualify “home” as it compares to Oz. Is home better? Is it worse? Or is it merely a place where the surroundings and routines and people are familiar? Such qualities would seem favorable to the strange hullabaloo of Oz, but we don’t know for certain. We just believe that there’s no place like home.

After six weeks on the road, I could certainly relate to Dorothy. I was ready to go home.

I left central Pennsylvania in the predawn darkness on Saturday, October 19, and was treated to a beautiful sunrise as I drove along US 322 between Lewistown and Harrisburg. Throughout the day the Mustang and I rolled through parts of five states—Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina—the most of the entire trip. The 500-mile run ended with a complimentary stay at a Hilton Garden Inn north of Charlotte, one of six free nights I acquired by using a Hilton Honors Visa almost exclusively during the journey.

My cross-country odyssey was ending, but this pretty sunrise in central Pennsylvania reminded me that much more is yet to come. The low cloud is a fog bank over the Juniata River.

The final drive of the journey was slightly longer: 550 miles from Mooresville, North Carolina to my home in Lynn Haven, FL. The trip was uneventful, but I had a serious case of “road buzz” by the time I pulled into my driveway and backed carefully into the garage. With that accomplished, I moved the console shifter into “Park” and shut off the engine.

After nine-and-a-half hours of wind noise and engine thrum, the sudden silence seemed odd. My ears rang slightly. I didn’t get out right away, but instead just sat there. I wasn’t ready for the trip to be over. Yes, I was happy to have completed the journey; and I was equally glad to be home; yet I needed to sit there for a few minutes and contemplate the enormity of the whole thing.

I could feel a tremendous glow of satisfaction begin to swell, and was conscious of a huge grin on my face. I had taken a dream, planned it carefully, and then made it a reality. And a glorious reality it was, too. I had witnessed the enormity and spectacular beauty that characterize these great United States, visiting 32 of them over a span of 45 days. I glanced at the GPS, where the digital proof still glowed:

I had estimated a total of about 9,000 miles before starting the trip. Obviously I meandered a bit over the 45-day excursion. Yes, the fuel cost is accurate: I spent 22 cents per mile on gas.

Forgive the maudlin gesture, but I reached my hand out to the vinyl dash and gave it a few pats of appreciation.

“Way to go, old girl.”

I finally got up the initiative to haul my wheelchair out of the backseat and put it together. It felt great to wheel into the house and return to familiar surroundings. There were several obligations waiting: a huge stack of mail had accumulated on my desk (thankfully I’d arranged to pay bills electronically throughout the trip) and I knew that the deadline for my next narrative nonfiction book was approaching in April, 2013. So for the next six months I’d be a virtual hermit.

But after that?

Well, if you must know, I’m already planning a tour of New England and the Maritime Provinces for the summer of 2013.

See you on the road!

Swashbucklers and Black Sheep

When I reached the outskirts of St. Louis on Monday, October 15, I stopped for about an hour to visit one of the last surviving members of the famed Black Sheep squadron. Of the original 49 pilots and two ground officers who served with Greg “Pappy” Boyington in World War II, only five are left. The Sweet Chariot tour provided me with an opportunity to visit four of the five; however, one individual has been reclusive for decades and his exact whereabouts are unknown, and another is suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s. Call me selfish, but I decided not to attempt to meet with the latter, since I preferred to remember him the way I last saw him—as a vibrant, talkative gentleman rather than someone who would neither recognize me nor recall my visit.

I did stop to see Ed Harper in Lake St. Louis. Now 92 years young, Ed was badly wounded during the war. He’s been a friend since we first met in New Orleans, almost 20 years ago, and his wife Jane is one of my favorites. She’s also one of my biggest book proponents, helping to push dozens of sales whenever we’ve participated in events together. I still get Christmas cards from the Harpers, so it was great to visit with them again during my trip across the country.

Visiting with Ed Harper, one of Pappy Boyington’s original pilots, and Jane Harper at their home in Lake St. Louis, MO.

Earlier, during the outbound leg of the tour in mid-September, one of my scheduled events was an evening presentation at the Pritzker Military Library in downtown Chicago. I called up another Black Sheep survivor, Jim Hill, who had previously declined an invitation to join me at the presentation. Fortunately the weather was fine that Thursday night, and Jim was feeling pretty good, so he decided to attend the event at the library and even joined me onstage. We shared an interesting and informative exchange, with Jim providing first-hand accounts of flying the F4U Corsair during the Solomons campaign.

Another of Boyington’s originals, Jim Hill of Chicago, at the Pritzker Military Library on September 20, 2012. Also pictured are Jim’s son Jeff Hill (at left), along with staff members Ken Clarke (President and CEO), and Nancy Houghton (Program Director)

And in northern California, I had the similar privilege of presenting a program on the new book with the assistance of a former Swashbuckler, Drury “Mac” McCall. We gave our presentation to a small but enthusiastic audience of about 15 people on a Monday night at Copperfield’s Books in Napa. I had exchanged numerous letters and phone calls with Mac, but had never actually met him until about five minutes before our presentation began.

I’ve known Mac McCall, an original Swashbuckler of VMF-214, for about 15 years; but we had never met face-to-face until we gave a presentation at Copperfield’s bookstore in Napa, CA.

After visiting with the Harpers near St. Louis, I continued my journey east, generally following the path taken by Jack Kerouac in 1947. He rode a bus from Los Angeles as far as Pittsburgh before his money ran out, and then used his thumb to hitchhike the rest of the way home to New York City. I took a slightly different route from Pittsburgh in order to spend a few days with my mother in State College, PA. And, as luck would have it, the decision resulted in a serendipitous encounter with yet another of my high school classmates!

My drive to State College, after an overnight stop near Cincinnati, was a fairly long push of more than 7 hours. I was low on gas by the time I got to Happy Valley, and out of laziness I decided to drive a few miles out of my way to the village of Boalsburg, where a Quik Mart gas station provides full service. (At the end of a long day, it’s a luxury to let someone else pump gas rather than unload my wheelchair from the car at a self-serve station.)

The attendant commented on the Mustang and asked where I was from. I told him I was from Florida, but had grown up there in Boalsburg. “Really,” he said. “Me, too—I’m a Gingrich.”

I hadn’t looked at him very closely before he said that, but suddenly everything clicked. I somehow even knew his first name, more than 35 years after high school.

“Are you Ira?”

“Yep,” he said.

It was a real OMG moment, especially considering that we had barely known each other back then, among a graduating class of more than 600 students. I was struck by the vast differences in our two lives. I’ve traveled extensively and was just finishing a coast-to-coast road trip; he has rarely, if ever, been out of central Pennsylvania.

After a few pleasantries, I pulled out of the station and headed for my mom’s place. I looked forward to visiting with my extended family for a couple of days before heading home to Florida. No, I didn’t plan to finish the Kerouac tribute by driving to New York City, although I was only four hours away. I felt extremely fortunate to have gotten the Mustang into Manhattan at the beginning of the trip without damage—and that was enough.

Besides, I still faced a two-day drive to Florida. I had another thousand miles to go, and would be at the wheel for more than nine hours each day—plenty of time to contemplate how odd life can be.

If Ira Gingrich watched me pull out of the gas station, I’m sure he saw me scratching my head.

MO Showed Me

Status

Earlier this month, while heading east to trace the second half of Jack Kerouac’s route across the United States, I had the privilege of touring Route 66 for two days. Kerouac had purchased a bus ticket in Los Angeles in October 1947, and followed the famous highway from Flagstaff to Tucumcari. His bus then veered north to go make scheduled stops in the Midwest, including Wichita and Kansas City, before reaching St. Louis.

It was fascinating to see the impact of the interstate system on Route 66, but I still faced a journey of more than 2,600 miles before reaching my home in Florida. I planned to cover the Midwest in three days, and anticipated a rather dull ride in comparison to the rugged yet dazzling landscapes of Arizona and New Mexico.

Happily, I was wrong.

The first day of the “Midwest Passage” was unremarkable, to be sure. From Tucumcari, I followed US-64, which is mostly two lanes and virtually flat as it passes through Dalhart, Texas on its way to Wichita. The only features dotting the landscape are the numerous grain elevators that tower above the highway and adjacent rail lines. And, the closer one gets to Kansas and beef country, the more feedlots one passes. The sight of thousands of cattle jammed shoulder-to-shoulder in huge pens, waiting their fate in slaughter houses, was almost enough to turn me into a vegan.

I overnighted in Dodge City. Although it wasn’t exactly on Kerouac’s route, I’m a fan of Western history and movies, so I spent the night there “just because.” But the decision was also favorable in that it put me back on US 50. With great memories of my drive across Nevada on that highway a couple of weeks earlier, I felt like I’d been reacquainted with an old friend. There were no surprises—but no “wow” moments, either—during the drive across Kansas to Olathe, a suburb of Kansas City. However, the scenery improved the next day, October 15, as I continued east on US 50 to Jefferson City, Missouri. There, the highway takes a big southern dip. I wanted to approach St. Louis from due west because I had a brief side trip planned, so I consulted my atlas and made a spontaneous decision to take Route 94. My decision was motivated by efficiency, but instead it slowed me down—and was infinitely more rewarding.

At first, Rt. 94 merely looked like a more direct way to get where I was going

A state highway, Route 94 runs along the rich bottom lands of the Missouri River. I had no foreknowledge of this road, but have subsequently learned that it’s considered one of the most scenic in the state, especially when fall colors are at their peak. Woo-hoo! Was it just coincidence that I happened upon this road on a beautiful day? Route 94 might be heavily traveled on fall weekends, but there were only a few vehicles driven by local residents that Monday afternoon; otherwise the highway was all mine to enjoy.

I soon discovered that Rt. 94 offers all sorts of visual treats, such as this old railroad bridge on the Katy Trail, a popular rails-to-trails reclamation project.

The road suddenly became hilly, and I found my head on a constant swivel as I drove through miles of forest ablaze with fall color.

I had not anticipated such an array of bright colors when I started down the highway–thus the surprise was all the more pleasant.

Even the geography held surprises, such as this bluff rising dramatically from the bottom land near Marthasville, Missouri.

The unofficial nickname of Missouri (postal code MO), is the “Show Me State,” for reasons that only Missourians can readily identify with. Having driven through spectacular scenery in California and the desert Southwest, I thought my journey through the Midwest would be boring. But the fall colors of central Missouri provided a wonderful display, and reminded me that beauty can be found in virtually every state of this great county.

I can’t wait to see what’s around the next bend.

Route 66: The Desert in Decay

After a spectacular top-down cruise through the red sandstone mountains of northern Arizona on October 10, I thought I might have shot my bolt. You see, the problem with spectacular top-down cruises is not merely that they end; there’s an almost addictive desire to do something even better the next day. And that’s simply not realistic—at least not in any sustainable way. So as I headed down Interstate 40 from Flagstaff to Winslow, where I would spend a 27th consecutive night in a motel room, I wondered whether I would encounter another day as thoroughly enjoyable.

It didn’t help that the last sixty miles of the day were flat and utterly boring, but a diversion presented itself at the halfway point. About 30 miles east of Flagstaff, I took a brief detour to check out a famous Arizona landmark: the impact crater caused by a piece of an asteroid that smashed into the desert some 50,000 years ago. The tourist attraction used to be free, but now a commercial enterprise charges $16 for the privilege of gazing at the gigantic crater. The visitor center was about to close for the afternoon, so I headed back to the interstate after viewing the crater’s outer rim from the parking lot.

Needing gas the next morning, I headed into Winslow in the gray light of dawn for a tour of the town. Highway signs indicated the historic portion of Route 66, and I hoped to also find some references to the stanza from the classic hit “Take It Easy”:

Well, I’m a-standing on a corner
In Winslow, Arizona
And such a fine sight to see
It’s a girl, my lord
In a flatbed Ford
Slowin’ down to take a look at me

(The Eagles, 1972)

The song is catchy and fun, but the ride into the center of town on October 11 was depressing. Winslow is a city in decay. Until a half-century ago, Route 66 was the main two-lane artery between Chicago and Los Angeles, but its days were numbered. President Dwight Eisenhower, having seen the tremendous mobilization capabilities of the autobahn in Germany during World War II, had initiated a construction plan for extensive superhighways that would crisscross the United States. In time, hundreds of small towns were bypassed by the Interstate Highway System, their once-flourishing business districts left to rot because commerce followed the new interstates. Winslow was no exception. Where I-40 loops to the north there are new hotels, gas stations, and fast-food franchises that manage to turn a profit; but the center of town appears forsaken, with weed-choked vacant lots, decrepit buildings, and grimy gas stations. The cars on the street look beat, as Jack Kerouac would say, as do most of the people driving them. I managed to find the street corner, commemorated on one side with a bronze statue and mural, and on the other by a store trying to capitalize on the tune’s fame.

East of Winslow, between Joseph City and Holbrook, I stopped at the Geronimo Trading Post to get souvenirs for my family back home. It was fun browsing through selections of Navajo pottery, turquois jewelry, and pieces of highly-polished petrified wood; but I had an agenda and was soon back on the road. Navigating through Holbrook, I got on US-180 for a few miles to the entrance of Petrified Forest National Park. This was a much-anticipated visit, for I had clear memories of visiting the site as a mere 8-year-old in the summer of 1967—the same year my Mustang rolled off the assembly line!

You can buy almost anything of regional interest at the trading post, including tepees, old chuck wagons, and huge pieces of petrified wood.

I would have to look through my father’s old Kodachrome slides for confirmation, but I’m certain there were significantly more petrified trees in the park 45 years ago. Apparently, during the past decades, much the wood has been removed by entrepreneurs (see my photo of the trading post), hence the strongly-worded warnings to visitors by the NPS not to pilfer even the tiniest bit of petrified wood within park boundaries. The few fallen trees that remain have been cut into forlorn-looking sections. Still, the petrified wood itself is not the real highlight; that distinction goes to the winding blacktop that connects the southern entrance of the park to the Painted Desert visitor’s center, more than twenty miles distant near Interstate 40. At first, cloudy skies muted many of the colors across this fascinating landscape, but by late morning the sun began to illuminate the outcroppings in all their glory.

Few fallen trees remain in the desolate landscape of the Petrified Forest National Park.

In the badlands just a few miles north of the Petrified Forest, portions of the Painted Desert yield an amazing contrast of colors.

By early afternoon I was back on I-40, heading east, though I soon took another detour to pass directly through Gallup, New Mexico, one of ten towns (besides Chicago and Los Angeles) named in the lyrics of the hip, timeless “Route 66.” About twice the size of Winslow, Gallup seems to have been more successful weathering the I-40 impact, although it’s obvious from cruising the main drag that many of the motels and restaurants are struggling. After spending the night in Moriarty, NM, I continued to follow Kerouac’s trail on Route 66 as far east as Tucumcari. There, according to a sketch in the author’s journal, his bus turned north and passed through Dalhart, TX on its way to the Midwest.

Thus, while making my last Route 66 detour into Tucumcari, I was compelled to dial my iPod to another great song about life on the road:

I’ve been from Tuscon to Tucumcari,
Tehachapi to Tonapah,
Driven every kind of rig that’s ever been made.
Driven the back roads so I wouldn’t get weighed.
And if you give me: weed, whites, and wine
And you show me a sign,
I’ll be willin’, to be movin’

(“Willin’,” Little Feat, 1970)

Tucumcari’s main drag shows the same state of decline that the interstate had brought to Winslow, Gallup, and all the other bypassed towns. Some of the old motels and restaurants are literally falling apart, and most of the others are on virtual life support. I was also glad to see that several enterprising businesses have turned a few small motels and garages into quasi museums, but the real commerce is south of town along the interstate. It’s apparent—especially considering the current economic downturn—that the few struggling businesses along the famous route will eventually go the way of the dinosaurs.

The “Old School Garage” in Tucumcari displays several vehicles from the storied history of Route 66, including these cab-over trucks. Jack Kerouac’s hitchhiking adventures included several rides with truckers.

Motel or museum? One of the old businesses still in existence in Tucumcari, the Blue Swallow Motel, still has its original sign that advertises “100% Refrigerated Air.”

All that’s left, if you’ll excuse my homage to another great Eagles song, are some Sad Cafés.

Desert Skies

One of the highlights of my cross-country trip was an unbroken week of sunny days in California. The temperature reached the 90s in northern California during the first days of October, but conditions turned more pleasant—perfect for top-down driving—by the end of the week. I spent the morning of Sunday, October 7 signing books at the Commemorative Air Force museum in Camarillo, then fired up the Mustang at about noon to start the eastward journey back across the country. Aside from one more scheduled event, I had no specific plans other than to continue to trace Jack Kerouac’s route, at least in general terms. Exactly 65 years ago, in October 1947, he rode by bus from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh, PA.

I had initially hoped to follow Route 66 out of California, but Kerouac’s bus went straight east on what is now Interstate 10, passing through remote desert towns such as Indio and Blythe. I took a deliberate detour to feed my lifelong interest in all things nautical by paying a quick visit to Long Beach, where I enjoyed a close-up view of the RMS Queen Mary. I did not have time for a full tour—that will have to wait for another trip—but I was glad to spend a few minutes soaking in the beauty of the legendary  passenger ship.

The elegant lady could use a cosmetic freshening, but she’s still beautiful at the age of 76!

After spending the night in Palm Desert, about halfway across California, I continued east on Monday for another 265 miles to Scottsdale, AZ. I took nearly a full day to catch up on paperwork and some blogging, then met my friend and fellow author Barrett Tillman for lunch on Tuesday. We toured Barrett’s “home museum,” the Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force museum in Mesa, followed by a tag-team presentation and book signing event that evening at The Poisoned Pen, an independent bookstore in Scottsdale.

I privately felt some relief that the event with Barrett was the last scheduled program of the Sweet Chariot tour. For the rest of the journey, I could concentrate on seeing this great country without worrying about a specific timetable. Appropriately, the next day resulted in one of the most enjoyable and visually entertaining cruises of the entire trip. From Phoenix, I headed up Interstate17 for about 60 miles, and then took Arizona Rt. 69 into the Prescott National Forest. Slightly north of Prescott, I cut back to the east on Rt. 89A, which twists and climbs dramatically into the Verde Valley. The town of Jerome is perched at 5,000 feet, with the surrounding slopes so precipitous that it almost appears to be a community of cliff dwellers.

Looking beyond an outcropping into the Verde Valley, some 5,000 feet below, near Jerome, AZ

After descending back down into the valley, I followed 89A to Red Rock State Park and took a side trip through the fantastic outcroppings of red sandstone near Sedona. The sight was incredible, even though I arrived at high noon (lower sun angles, in the morning and evening, yield more dramatic reddish hues). I had no particular plans for lunch that day, but while driving through Sedona I spied the funky Red Planet Diner, and felt compelled to stop. Glad I did! The inside is pure kitsch, with chrome and stainless steel furniture, a very cool 3-D spaceship mural on the ceiling (complete with lots of ETs), and tabletop collages of old sci-fi movies and TV shows. The service and the food were outstanding.

Cathedral Rock, one of the most photographed outcroppings in Arizona.

Back outside, I dropped the top and motored up 89A from Sedona to Flagstaff. That winding, 30-mile stretch of two-lane was the most satisfying cruise of the trip, with an azure sky overhead and the temperature as ideal as I’ve ever experienced. The sun felt pleasantly warm while sitting at idle, yet the breeze was perfectly balmy out on the highway. With the exception of another top-down cruiser—a new Mini Cooper in front of me—there was virtually no traffic along the picturesque route. I was almost sorry to reach Flagstaff, where I put the top back up for the 60-mile run to Winslow on Interstate 40 (I don’t care to jockey among semis moving at 75 mph with the top down).

One of the most enjoyable cruises of the tour was a 30-mile run north on this picturesque two-lane: Arizona 89A between Sedona and Flagstaff.

On the flip side, I realized that Interstate 40 followed what had once been Route 66. For the next two days, I would be cruising THE road—far and away the most representative cross-country trip in American highway lore. Please join me as we examine what remains of it.

Until then: Roll On!

Sponsor Appreciation

Early this summer, when I was finalizing plans for the Sweet Chariot tour, I approached a few corporations in the collector car/restomod industry to inquire about sponsorships. I was dubious about getting much response, so it was a pleasant surprise to receive positive replies from two companies: Dakota Digital and LoJack. Follow-up discussions with their marketing personnel led to sponsorships-in-kind, and I’m grateful for their participation. However, I’ve been remiss in providing some personal endorsements for the products they provided. In the interest of full disclosure, I’d like to point out that neither company has pressured me or even contacted me to insist on providing endorsements; I’m writing this because the products deserve to be promoted.

The first company I approached was Dakota Digital, Inc. I had installed one of their VFD (vacuum fluorescent display) digital gauge packages in the Mustang in 2009. Engineered specifically for the 67/68 Mustang instrument bezel, it was truly a great upgrade for long distance touring. Where the original Ford instruments were vague—the temp gauge needle merely indicated something between “H” for hot and “C” for cold—the digital readout provided the precise coolant temperature in degrees Fahrenheit (with the option to select Centigrade if desired). The oil pressure and voltmeter readouts were just as accurate, and I liked the digital indicators for speed and rpm on the main gauges. Also, unlike the dim lighting of the original instruments, the Dakota Digital readouts were highly visible at night, requiring a separate rotary dimmer to optimize the display for different conditions. My only complaint about the system was that the highly polished Lexan lenses were flat, and therefore highly reflective in sunlight. The glare was especially bad when cruising with the top down and the sun behind my shoulder: in such cases, the digital indicators were virtually washed out, even with the display at its highest intensity. To help solve the problem, Dakota Digital supplied a set of darker lenses, which I sprayed with a light layer of clear satin finish to cut the amount of reflection. Even so, the display remained difficult to read in bright sunshine—something we typically have in abundance in Florida.

When I saw Dakota Digital’s advertisements for their next generation of cutting-edge instrument packages, I was immediately interested. The new “VHX” systems provide the perfect marriage of traditional clock-face analog instrumentation with digital enhancements—and the backlighting is vastly improved compared to the original Ford gauges. Dakota Digital also thoughtfully provided a choice between silver-faced instruments or carbon-fiber faces, each with blue or red backlighting, giving consumers a total of four options. Based on the ads, I had a strong hunch that the new systems would be much easier to read in bright conditions when the convertible top was down.

I contacted the marketing representative for Dakota Digital and presented an overview of the Sweet Chariot tour. The company was soon enthusiastically on board, with an offer to upgrade my VFD system with a new VHX package—a very generous level of support. I selected the silver face option with red backlighting, and waited a few weeks while the package was built to order for my Mustang (I received one of the first 10 systems with that combination). The package arrived in due time and I followed the straightforward instructions for installing the various gauges in the factory-style bezel. The upgraded system also included new sending units for water temperature, oil pressure, and volts; they were installed by a local mechanic, who also routed the wiring through the firewall, something I’m not able to do as a wheeler. With all of the components hooked up and the bezel installed in the dash, I was thrilled to see the system light up for the first time.

The VHX features a visually appealing display, with a combination of analog gauges for most readouts and digital displays to provide secondary information. Best of all, the display is much easier to read in bright sunshine, when the convertible top is down. The red backlighting is highly visible at night, and reminds me of the instrumentation in the Navy jet I flew in back in the 80s.  At max intensity it’s too bright for night driving, so I highly recommend the addition of the specially-designed rotary dimmer that Dakota Digital offers (the factory dimmer in the Mustang’s mechanical light switch does not control the new system). It’s helpful to adjust the brightness for different conditions, and I typically drive with the headlights on in the daytime with the dimmer set to max. After six weeks of daily use, I can say without reservation that the new VHX display is a huge improvement over Dakota Digital’s earlier displays. It’s easier to read, and looks more natural in a vintage car than the strictly digital readouts of the VFD systems. All of the components are well-engineered, lending confidence that the corporation’s lifetime warranty statement is not just a hollow boast. I never had any difficulties with the VFD system that was previously in my car for three years, and I fully expect the same flawless performance from the VHX display.

I drive with the headlights on, so the backlighting is always functioning in the VHX display. This helps to highlight the instruments on a bright day. Note the speed readout in the GPS–the Mustang happily cruises all day long at modern highway speeds.

The other corporate sponsor, LoJack, offered to install a “LoJack for Classics” system in the Mustang for a deeply discounted price—a proposition too good to refuse. The standard recovery system has been around for a long time, but the system designed for classics and high-end collectible vehicles is new—and unique. Rather than go into a lengthy description of how it works, I strongly recommend that anyone interested in protecting their classic vehicle visit the “LoJack for Classics” web page.  Briefly, the system is self-contained (its lithium-ion battery lasts for years) and small enough to be concealed just about anywhere inside the vehicle.  Not even the car owner knows where it is. Mine was installed in Jacksonville, FL by a technician who concealed and initialized it in about an hour.

The device is not a theft deterrent. As LoJack points out, if a thief really wants your car, he’ll take it. Rather, the LoJack for Classics system is a tool that enables speedy recovery of a stolen vehicle. I opted for the “early warning” add-on, which will notify me if the vehicle is moved—but only after a 15 minute delay (so that I don’t confront the thieves in the midst of a heist). Knowing that the system is in the car provides tremendous peace of mind. Again, visit the LoJack for Classics page to learn how the system works. The technology is impressive!

Please check back in a couple of days. I’m behind schedule in describing my road trip, but I hope to get caught up soon. I’ll be posting about a spectacular top-down cruise through the mountains of Northern Arizona, a trip down Route 66 in the desert Southwest, and a surprising day of fall colors in Missouri.

See you soon!

Two Days in Paradise: The Pacific Coast Highway

In the world of classic cars, few things are more iconic than the sight of an early Mustang—especially a red convertible—on the highway.  And in the world of two-lane touring, no American road is more iconic than the Pacific Coast Highway. So it’s reasonable to assume that my recent two-day cruise along the coast of California gave hundreds of motorists a visual kick. From Santa Cruz south to San Luis Obispo on Thursday, October 4, and then down to Ventura on the 5th, I toured approximately 300 miles of America’s most famous shoreline drive.

The weather was idyllic: sunny and warm, with no appreciable humidity. Although a full month had passed since the end of the summer tourist season, droves of people were out enjoying the highway. There was no evidence of a sluggish economy in the region, even with the price of regular gas in Southern California at $5 per gallon. (No, that’s not a typo.) The parking lots of the upscale restaurants, shops, and inns along the route were crowded, as people were obviously in the mood to spend their money on more than fuel.

Day 1: A gull has the park overlooking the harbor at Monterey all to himself.

Day 1: I found myself stopping at every scenic overlook to admire the cliff-side views, such as this setting in the Big Sur area.

So, just how popular are Mustang convertibles? I was amazed to count literally dozens on the two-lane highway, mostly headed north. Nearly all were new 6-cylinder models, and it’s a good bet that most were rentals. My theory was borne out when I stopped at a scenic overlook and chatted with a couple in their sixties from Australia. Like me, they were touring the USA, but had rented their V-6 equipped 2012 Mustang at LAX. At the same overlook, a group of Harley riders stopped to stretch their legs. They wore expensive riding suits, unlike American riders, and turned out to be vacationing from Germany. All were Harley owners, but had rented their current machines rather than ship their Hogs all the way from Europe.

Day 1: Overseas tourists were out in force, including the Aussies in their black Mustang convertible, parked beside mine, and a group of Germans riding rented Harleys.

Day 1: Meeting other cruisers was fun, but this was the real reason for pulling off the road. Note the distant bridge.

Considering the iconic nature of driving a classic red Mustang on the Pacific Coast Highway, it was no surprise that the convertible drew a lot of attention.  I had a pleasant diversion while chatting with the Aussie couple, but the road and the scenery beckoned. By Friday afternoon I was passing through the picturesque city of Santa Barbara, after which I took the US-101 freeway into Ventura. Friday night found me sharing a teriyaki steak and shrimp dinner at a seaside restaurant with special friends and a couple of new ones, including David Bianco, co-founder of Elderhostel, Inc. (now called Road Scholar). It was a great start to a fun weekend with the Commemorative Air Force, So-Cal Wing, based at their museum in Camarillo.

Day 2: One of the less-crowded sections of the Pacific Coast Highway, shared with a couple of bikers and an import.

Day 2: Between Santa Barbara and Ventura, the 101 freeway runs right along the coast for several miles.

In all, I spent a full week in sunny California, all of it in marvelous October weather; but by the end of the stay I could definitely feel the pull to start my journey home. I was looking at three more weeks on the road and some 4,000 miles of driving, but never felt that the trip was becoming a chore. With another book event in the Phoenix area and several days’ worth of exploring the desert Southwest, I had much to look forward too.

I also had a strong hunch that the best was yet to come. And as my next posts will show, I wasn’t wrong.