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!

 

 

Samaritans to the Rescue

Call it luck, call it fate, call it the Grace of God, or call it coincidence, I recently experienced another amazing occurrence of serendipity.

Only 18 hours after completing my two-day run across Utah and Nevada on The Loneliest Road in America, the Mustang suffered an unusual breakdown. I departed Reno early on Saturday, September 29 to visit my aunt and a couple of cousins—a detour from the Kerouac tribute—in Ashland, OR. The drive was estimated to take about four hours. I planned to stop at a casino along the way and watch some college football, since the early games start at 9 AM in the Pacific time zone. I reached Diamond Mountain Casino in Susanville, CA, had a big country breakfast, and watched Penn State (my alma mater) trounce Illinois. All in all, a good start to the day.

I’m lucky that I stopped at this little casino, the perfect place to watch college football on a Saturday morning

But when I went back outside to my car, there was no start at all. The key turned in the ignition, but nothing happened. After a few minutes of fiddling with the ignition switch, located in the dash in early Mustangs, I discovered that something quite bizarre had happened: the ignition cylinder had fallen apart! When I parked at Diamond Mountain that morning and shut off the engine, something in the spring-loaded outer cylinder had popped loose. I discovered this by removing the ash tray adjacent to the switch, which enabled me to reach my hand behind the dash and feel the loose parts. Worse, as I shifted the parts, I heard the snapping sound of a short—never a good sign. I knew I needed to disconnect the battery before something serious shorted out or a fuse blew; unfortunately, my car was parked almost bumper-to-bumper with a car in the facing row.

Soon a couple of local guys pulled up in a pickup. I asked for their help in pushing my car back a few feet, which they gladly provided. I raised the hood and disconnected the battery, and then got to work pulling the ignition cylinder out of the dash. I removed three or four pieces, but could not figure out how to disconnect the terminal end from the wiring harness.

I had the sickening sensation that I was going to be stranded for days. Susanville is a small town, and the chances that a parts store would stock an ignition cylinder for a 67 Mustang were very slim. And of course it was a Saturday, so if any parts needed to be shipped in from Reno, the earliest I could expect to receive them would be late Monday or even Tuesday! Nevertheless, I used my Garmin to phone a couple of nearby auto parts stores. As expected, nobody stocked a complete ignition switch.

This is what the switch is supposed to look like. Mine popped apart in Susanville, CA on a Saturday morning.

I phoned Aunt Barbara and told her about my situation, saying that it looked almost impossible that I’d get to visit Ashland. We were all disappointed, especially as two of my cousins and their extended families had joined her for a visit.

Meanwhile, the Mustang attracted plenty attention, especially with the hood raised. Several people graciously offered to help, and one group set off for an independent parts store. The further I got into inspecting the cylinder, the more I realized that the casing—a combination of metal and plastic parts that snap together—had simply separated. This gave me some hope, yet I was still frustrated that I could not disconnect the back of the cylinder from the wiring harness.

At that opportune moment, another helpful individual walked up to my disabled car. He introduced himself as “T,” and said he knew a little about ignition switches. I was sprawled across the driver’s seat, still trying to get that harness free, so I deferred to his experience and let him have a try. Within a few moments, Attilio (“T”) Aguirre, a heavy machinery mechanic for Cal Tran, figured out how to loosen a small nut from the back of the cylinder, which disconnected the wiring harness.

Now that the whole cylinder was out, we confirmed that nothing was broken. As suspected, the two casing halves had merely separated.  It was easy enough to fit the various pieces back together, including a compressed spring inside the switch, but it was obvious that the casing had not been securely fastened during factory production. “T” mentioned that he and his wife lived just a few minutes away, where he had a workshop; so while he held the switch tightly in his hand to keep the pieces together, his wife drove the two of them home. A few minutes later they were back, and “T” proudly showed the rebuilt switch, its outer casing pieces securely crimped together. He reattached the switch to the wiring harness and installed it in the dash. At first he had trouble inserting the key cylinder, but I recalled the procedure for using a paper clip to properly clock the cylinder, and it slid right in.

We connected the battery, and the car cranked immediately with the turn of the key. What a sweet sound—and what a relief! We then pulled the battery cable again so that I could reinstall the ashtray and lighter, as I needed the receptacle for my GPS device. Once everything was back together, the battery connection was tightened down. Just three hours after the breakdown, the Mustang was as good as new.

Big hearts live in small towns. Attilio (“T”) Aguirre, at right, knew exactly how to rebuild a vintage ignition switch, and saved my day. Gerald Mack, left, offered moral support for the better part of three hours.

During the past few days, I’ve contemplated the razor-thin line between disaster and setback. Certainly the Mustang has had some delays caused by mechanical issues—a loose brake caliper in Denver that could have been calamitous, and a separated ignition switch that might have broken a day earlier while I was in the middle of the Nevada desert—but thanks to the help of Good Samaritans, the worst scenarios were averted.

It’s all part of the adventure of taking a 45-year-old car on a cross-country odyssey. The tour is not an “everyday” excursion by any means—and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Western Originals

As the Sweet Chariot Tour rolls toward the California coast, I am constantly awed by the great open spaces of the American West.  I have not visited this part of the country in about 30 years. Living in the East my whole life, I had quite simply forgotten the scale and majesty of the Western landscape.

Repairs to the Mustang’s disc brakes were completed on Monday, September 24 in Denver. I had hoped to explore the downtown area and visit Central City, where Jack Kerouac experienced a few adventures during his layover in 1947; but the brake issue with the Mustang interfered with my timetable, as I had to be in Salt Lake City by Wednesday for a book event. I left Denver on Tuesday morning hoping to follow the old roads that Kerouac covered by bus (after borrowing money from a relative for a ticket to San Francisco), but the route has disappeared under the concrete of Interstate 80. I did enjoy a scenic climb through the Rockies on US 287 to Laramie, Wyoming, where I had to join the heavy trucks that rumble along I-80. Fortunately traffic was light, and I was able to soak in the sights of the high desert landscape, often aiming my Canon camera through the windshield or out the driver’s window. Dark clouds threatened, but the rain fell on the mountain slopes rather than in the valley. One impressive sight, after miles of unpopulated land, was the big oil refinery in Sinclair, WY. I had mistakenly thought the company was defunct, because the brand disappeared from the east years ago; but there are quite a few Sinclair stations in the Midwest and Far West. That afternoon I made a brief side trip at Rawlins to see the sinister-looking Wyoming Frontier Prison. I did not go inside: a few photos of the imposing exterior were enough for me.

After overnighting in Rock Springs, WY, I continued to Salt Lake City on Wednesday. Just past Green River, I saw a long train down in a valley below the highway. Pulled by five big Southern Pacific locomotives and climbing slowly around a curve, the train looked for all the world like a toy because of the dimensions of the nearby mountains. The highlight of the day’s run was a stop at the Fort Bridger State Historic Site in the small town that shares its name–an interesting and nicely maintained site well worth visiting. The weather cleared up by mid-afternoon as I drove through spectacular mountain passes on I-80, including Cottonwood Canyon between Park City and Salt Lake City, Utah. I had a most enjoyable book-signing event that night at the Barnes & Noble in Sugarhouse, where I was joined by my nephew, Cedric, a member of the Park City ski patrol in the winter months.

The main museum at Ft. Bridger, in the old commissary building.

As terrific as the scenery had been in Wyoming, I was in for even more visual treats while driving from Salt Lake to the coast. On the Road reveals only that Kerouac’s bus passed through Reno, NV, making the exact route from Salt Lake City a tossup. I decided to get off the interstate and follow US 6 again, that old companion of a highway that my friend Al and I had started on some three weeks earlier. In eastern Utah, south of Salt Lake City, both US 6 and US 50 share the same pavement. In the desert valleys, the two-lane blacktop runs as straight as an arrow for miles on end, with nothing taller than telephone poles in the foreground and craggy mountain ranges in the distacnce. The road then snakes through narrow—and spectacular—mountain divides with mystical names, such as Skull Rock Pass.

One of the many mountain passes on US 50.

During a stop at the Nevada state line, near Garrison, Utah, I encountered one of the most interesting people I’ve met during the trip. While I fueled up the Mustang, a short-bodied school bus pulled alongside a nearby pump. The driver, a slim woman in classic western attire, expressed her admiration for the convertible, which started up a friendly conversation. For the past 20 years, Ruth Eldridge has driven a bus for the White Pine County school district in Nevada, making a round trip of 260 miles every school day. Now that’s driving—and it’s not her only job. She and her husband have a ranch where they raise livestock and grow their own vegetables in a large garden. To me, Ruth is the personification of a rugged Westerner.

Ruth Eldridge drives her bus 260 miles every day that school’s in session.

About sixty miles into Nevada, US 6 turns south at Ely (pronounced Elee). Route 50 continues west, roughly following the path of the historic Pony Express, most appropriate for a Mustang cruise. It’s well worth noting that the section in Nevada has been officially named The Loneliest Road in America—and there was nary a structure beyond Ely for 80 miles. I knew my decision to take a 45-year-old car across that stretch was a calculated risk, but the Mustang ran like a mail pony at the 70 mph posted speed limit. Mile after mile of extraordinary scenery was our reward for choosing the path less taken.

It’s an understatement to call this an empty stretch on the Loneliest Road in America.

I stopped for the night in Eureka, which boasts a nicely appointed Best Western. The next morning, while I headed down Main St. for gas, a bright yellow Corvette of mid-70s vintage approached from the opposite direction. I could hear the loud rumble and loping cam of a racing setup, and the driver and I mutually waved as we passed. A few minutes later, the same Corvette pulled into the gas station. My jaw must have dropped as a police officer climbed out wearing a classic two-tone brown uniform. He stuck out his hand and introduced himself as Ken Jones, the Eureka County Sheriff. I had just met The Most Interesting Man of my journey thus far. Ken’s real passion is hotrods. He organizes an annual car show and drag races in Eureka, and his yellow Corvette has the goods, with a race-built engine putting out some 450 horsepower. After posing for a photo with me, Ken fired up the ‘Vette and lit up the rear tires in a half-donut while pulling out onto Main St. He headed up a steep side street, but was soon back at the gas station, this time driving his “government vehicle,” an Impala cruiser that looked every bit as bad-ass as the Vette. “I’m 70 years old and I still haven’t grown up,” Ken admitted. He sincerely wished me a safe trip, and we bid farewell.

Sheriff Ken Jones and his hot-rodded Corvette in Eureka, NV

The day’s trip across Nevada measured about 240 miles. There was only one tiny town, Austin (population 192), between Eureka and Fallon. It was a lonely highway indeed, and I saw exactly one car going my direction along that stretch. It was almost strange, afterward, to enter a thriving metropolitan area as I drove through Sparks into Reno.

They call US 50 the Loneliest Road, but between the fascinating folks and the unparalleled scenery, I would rate my trip across Utah and Nevada as one of the best drives I’ve ever experienced.

Braking Bad

Readers who have followed this blog from the beginning know that I’ve experienced some truly serendipitous events. So I feel almost humbled in describing a recent incident that can only be defined as providential—or maybe divine intervention.

For the first 4,000 miles of the Sweet Chariot tour, the 45-year-old Mustang has performed remarkably well. The only repair needed was replacement of the front wheel bearings, a routine maintenance item that was accomplished in Pennsylvania before the Kerouac tribute started. Subsequently, the car has been subjected to some of the worst roads in the country. The pavement in New Jersey around the metro New York City area is rough enough to loosen fillings. The same goes for Chicago; and in the Midwest, many of the rural intersections have deep rumble strips cut into the pavement. The rough roads and heavy vibrations over the past couple of weeks almost certainly contributed to a mechanical problem, causing the disc brake caliper on the Mustang’s left front wheel to work loose.

Fortunately, the situation did not become apparent until I was just a few miles from my scheduled destination on Sunday, September 23. I was approaching the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum in Denver when a traffic light turned red just as I neared the intersection. I hit the brakes hard. The car slowed normally, but I heard a rather sickening metal-on-metal sound from the front of the car. Later, going through a series of roundabout intersections, I heard the same grinding noise. And, as I pulled into the parking lot at the museum, the noise was even more apparent.

The Mustang made it safely to my hotel that night, where I enjoyed a great visit with my brother Larry and his family from Estes Park. On Monday morning, taking the advice of a staff member at the air museum, I phoned University Hills Conoco on S. Colorado Boulevard in Denver. Claude Akridge answered my call, and said to bring the car in at 9 AM. During the drive to the station, my brother and I heard one slight “clunk” from the front end, but we arrived without incident. Claude, who has been working on cars for 50 years, promptly took the Mustang for a test drive—and was gone much longer than anticipated. I was getting a bit nervous about his absence when he came around the corner, walking back to the station!

My first thought was that he had crashed the Mustang—and I wasn’t far wrong. “You might have been killed,” he said without preamble. “The left front wheel locked up. Thank God I was driving slowly. If that had happened while you were on the highway, you might have been killed.”

He sent a couple of guys with tools to free up the wheel, and they were able to drive the car to the station. Soon they diagnosed the problem: Over the extended road trip, one of the two large bolts in the bracket that attaches the brake caliper to the spindle had worked loose. The caliper had been shifting slightly, and the constant torque eventually stripped both bolts.

So once again, the Mustang had a mechanical issue—but only after I had arrived at the day’s destination. And it happened where someone with expertise could correct the problem. (If this sounds familiar, see my post entitled “Another Lesson in Serendipity,” published in August, 2011.)

Monday had been set aside so that Larry and I could drive the Peak-to-Peak Highway  on our way to Estes Park. Had the brake caliper issue not become evident when it did, we might have found ourselves either stranded—or worse, wrecked—on a remote highway in the Rocky Mountains. Meanwhile, the staff at University Hills Conoco had over a dozen cars in the queue for service that Monday; nevertheless, Claude called a few of his regular customers and shuffled their schedules so that he could work on the Mustang. The serendipity just kept happening. Within a matter of hours, Claude had ordered in the necessary replacement part and completed the repair. Even better, the station serviced the Mustang with an oil change while waiting for the part to be delivered.

Some people tend to go a little crazy when unexpected issues crop up. I’ve learned to just roll with them, no pun intended. It seems that most issues work out okay if you let them—and you might just meet some genuinely nice, helpful people along the way.

You can decide whether I’m the benefactor of serendipity, God’s grace, or just plain good fortune. The outcome was good, and I personally take no credit for that.