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.

Through the Redwood Forests

With the Mustang running strong again, thanks to the good people who helped put the Humpty Dumpty ignition switch back together, I enjoyed a great cruise through the Lassen and Shasta National Forests to Oregon. My visit to the lovely city of Ashland was a most worthwhile detour from the Kerouac trek, as it gave me the opportunity to visit several relatives I hadn’t seen in decades.

Another benefit came at the conclusion of the visit. On Sunday, September 30, I headed up to Grant’s Pass, where I picked up US 199 for a winding, inspiring drive through redwood forests to the coast.  The temperature was warm enough to put the top down, so I could easily smell the pungent evergreens as I drove through enormous stands.   Shafts of sunlight resembled overhead Klieg lights, illuminating some of the giant trees while keeping others in deep shadow. Route 199 terminates at Crescent City, California, just a few miles below the Oregon state line. And there, after visiting the harbor and watching commercial fishermen unload their catch, I started down US 101 for a coastline cruise to Fortuna.

The blurring of this image was unintentional, but gives a sense of speed. It was a fun drive!

Built and maintained by inmates of Pelican Bay State Prison, the mermaid statue at the Crescent City harbor is a popular attraction.

My schedule for the next day, Monday, called for an evening presentation at Copperfield’s Books in Napa. I had the whole day to get there from Fortuna, a distance of about 300 miles, but you know what they say about the best laid plans…

Thanks to some of my choices, the journey took more than seven hours; and for much of that span, I despaired of driving the poor Mustang to ruin.

The drive started out well enough as I wound through more redwood forests on US 101. I thought about taking US 1 at the famous “Drive-Thru Tree Park,” but was somewhat apprehensive about the warning signs regarding steep, winding roads for 22 miles. The brake repairs in Denver and the ignition repair in Susanville made me question the wisdom of driving a demanding road. So I continued on US 101 and took a different cutoff, CA-20, to the coast.  Little did I realize there was construction underway, which resulted in several stoppages. Also, numerous  tandem-trailer hopper trucks filled with asphalt crept slowly up the highway’s steep hills. It took well over an hour to cover just 30 miles.

Dwarfed by the redwoods–and these were nowhere near the biggest.

Once on US 1, I realized the wait was worth it: the coast of Northern California is mostly remote and wildly beautiful. The rocky shoreline was an attractive nuisance, making it hard to concentrate on the road—a two-lane filled with sharp curves and steep hills. After about 40 miles of following the coast, I realized that the slow pace would make it difficult to get to my hotel in Petaluma early enough to prepare for the event at Copperfield’s. This notion precipitated my second bad decision of the day.

Remote, but worth the drive for the beautiful shoreline scenery.

How many opportunities do we get to drive one of the country’s most scenic routes? There I was on US-1, worrying about my schedule, and I talked myself into crossing the mountains to gain access to US-101. Both my Garmin GPS and my Rand McNally printed atlas showed a connector near Manchester, CA, called Mountain View Road. It looked like a smooth road, so I turned east and figured I’d make up some time. Boy, was I in for a surprise. A few miles inland, I saw warning signs that mentioned steep, winding roads for the next 28 miles. In hindsight I should have turned around, but how was I to know that the warning signs were an understatement? The road snaked through remote and incredibly rugged mountains, with double-digit gradients and numerous switchback turns. I saw one road sign warning of a 16% grade—by far the steepest I’ve ever seen on a public highway. The pavement was extremely rough and patchy in places, and the unseasonably hot temperature, well in the 90s, put an additional strain on the Mustang. I could hear the engine protesting and feel the brakes going soft, and became seriously concerned about the torturous conditions I was putting my 45-year-old car through. I shifted the automatic into second gear for the slow climbs as well as the seatbelt-straining descents. At its most remote center section, the road was more of a goat track than a highway, and by the last few miles I was literally talking out loud to the old girl, coaxing her up each precipitous slope and down the opposite side. When I at last saw some residential properties and the road smoothed out again, I felt tremendous relief. I’m absolutely convinced that the Mustang did, too.

A one-lane bridge over a deep gorge in the coastal mountains of California highlights the ruggedness of the terrain.

We made it to Petaluma, where I had just enough time to get prepped for the evening’s event in Napa. I had a wonderful time meeting Drury “Mac”McCall, whom I had talked with and corresponded with for years, but never met face-to-face. We presented an informal discussion on Swashbucklers and Black Sheep, my new book on his famous Marine squadron, VMF-214, for a small but enthusiastic audience at Copperfield’s Books.

With Drury “Mac” Mcall, a former Swashbuckler of VMF-214, in Napa, CA.

The next day, I stayed in my hotel room to get caught up on work and pay a few bills electronically. But most of all, I wanted to give the Mustang a day of rest after putting her through the wringer. That afternoon, my only trip of the day was to a local carwash that offered hand-washing, drying, and a complete interior cleaning for just $25. The Mustang shined like a new penny, inside as well as out.

And I honestly believe that she performed better, thanks to her “spa day” in California. I’ve written before about the concept of machines having a mechanical soul. Maybe I just project my own emotions onto a hunk of steel–but then again, maybe not. If you’ll spend a few minutes reading my earlier posts and get to know the car’s history, I believe you’ll see the Mustang as I do.

Roll on!