It was starting to get embarrassing--the last time I showed up at a major national Corvette event in a Corvette was four years ago, at Mid America Designs' Funfest in 1999, and the Vette was a new coupe that the regional zone office was kind enough to lend to me for a few days. I spout off about driving your Corvette, then make an appearance at the NCM, Carlisle, or Funfest in a Grand Am or whatever comparable transportation module Avis is passing off as an "intermediate" sedan. It becomes both frustrating and humiliating to be an enthusiast, owner, and (fer cryin' out loud!) editor of VETTE Magazine and not show up once in a while in a Corvette.
After buying a used C5 coupe last fall, I knew I'd have to make a road trip at least once, if for no other reason than to get it out of my system. Plus, a road trip would be a great opportunity to see parts of the country I've only viewed through a dinky window from 30,000 feet up.
I gave some serious thought to participating in one of the 50th Anniversary caravans but finally decided against it for multiple reasons. The whole caravan thing looked like a logistical nightmare when, first and foremost, Nashville was to be a working trip. It would also cost me more time away from VETTE's palatial world headquarters (I'm being just a wee bit sarcastic) than I felt I could spare at that time. Plus, I'm not a good follower; I don't have herd instincts. When I'm on the road, I want to go where I want, when I want, at whatever speed I feel like (or feel I can get away with), and stop when I want--and those aren't good traits if you're spending five or so days in a pack of several hundred cars. So, we (Rob and I) flew to Nashville, were ferried to the various activities by General Motors (thanks guys!), then rented a car (a baby Buick this time) for the 50th finale in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
As time drew near for making travel arrangements for the 2003 Funfest, it began to look feasible to drive--rather than fly--to Effingham. The C5 had very fresh rubber on the ground, and a trip two-thirds of the way across the country would be a good test for the Wilwood "Big Brakes." A little preventative maintenance and some slightly-ahead-of-scheduled services, a few pieces of precautionary gear, and a batch of maps and tour books from the SoCal AAA affiliate and we'd be good to go.
I didn't want to head out on a multi-thousand-mile trip without changing the oil in the LS1, so I got a K&N Performance Gold oil filter (it's a personal thing, but the only oil filters I'll put on an LS1--the C5, my '99 1LE Firebird, or next year the C5 Shark--are either the original equipment AC PF44 or K&N's HP1007, and the "wrench nut" on the end of the K&N filter simplifies filter changes so it gets the nod) and picked up eight quarts of Mobil1 5W30 oil, 6.5 quarts for the engine and the extra "just in case." I also checked and topped off all the fluids, inspected the car pretty thoroughly and, since the coupe is no longer equipped with run-flat tires, bought a couple cans of the largest size "flat-fix" aerosol stuff I could find, as well as a dinky air compressor that's powered off the cigarette lighter. One thing I didn't do and definitely should have (more on this later) was replace the windshield wiper blades--if you're taking a road trip and the wiper blades have been on your car for more than about six months, replace them.
The rear storage compartments on C5s hold a lot of small stuff--I was able to stow a fairly large assortment of hand tools, the extra oil, two jugs of Dex-Cool coolant, a spare serpentine belt, all sorts of car-care and car-cleaning products, a large bottle of Windex and two rolls of paper towels, a load of soft cloth towels, and the cans of flat-fix and mini-compressor--all in the three compartments.
I've never been a fan of "masks" or "bras" for the front ends of any cars and have never put one on a car I've owned. On the other hand, a mask on the coupe's nose would be a lot less unsightly than damaged paint or the detritus of multitudinous multi-legged flying things smeared across the Corvette's prow. I am a firm believer in car covers--they protect the car's paint and interior, and when the car is parked in a hotel lot overnight, make the car a little less visible. Shame on me; closing in on a year's ownership and I hadn't gotten around to buying a cover, so...I called Mid America Designs and ordered both a PN 611-812-D Performance Choice Triguard All Season Car Cover and a PN 602-240 (any color you want, as long as it's black) Mini Mask. Both items were priced at a quite reasonable $89.99 (plus shipping) in MAD's latest catalog, which struck me as a lot of bang (or protection) for the buck.
Day 1 - Wednesday, September 17
Amazing the amount of stuff that can be crammed into the luggage compartment of a C5. We figured we'd be "on the road" for 9 or 10 days and packed accordingly. Effingham can be both hot and humid in mid September, so both Rob and I took along a couple extra changes of clothes, just for good measure. Add in two sets of camera gear--a total of four cameras, at least five different lenses, tripods, reflectors--and about 40 rolls of film, plenty of CDs to keep us entertained, a small cooler for beverages, a grocery bag of munchies, and the load of AAA maps and tour books, and the coupe was jam-packed right to the bottom of the rear glass.
We'd aimed for departing by 5:00 a.m., but it was more like 7:00 a.m. when we pulled out of the driveway. First I cleared the "B" trip odometer as well as the average-speed and elapsed-time functions on the Driver Information Center--figuring there might be some interesting data. Our goal for Day 1 was Albuquerque, New Mexico, 800 miles and 11 to 12 hours away.
We got on I-10 and headed east through Palm Springs, over the Chiriaco Summit towards beautiful Blythe, which is perched on the western bank of the Colorado River. By the time you get into Palm Springs, you're in the desert, and you stay in the desert all the way into Phoenix. If you love vast vistas of bone-dry nothing, it's beautiful--if you don't, well, bring along a good selection of CDs. Actually there are some striking rock formations and mesas in western Arizona, but it's still roughly 380, mostly boring miles from Los Angeles to Phoenix.
I go to Phoenix about once a year for work purposes. On my first trip, almost a decade ago, I liked what I saw. The climate's a little extreme for my tastes (I can do without three or four straight months of daytime temperature that hover about 110 degrees, sometimes even higher), but the city impressed me. But every time I return, Phoenix seems to look more and more like L.A. with cacti--boundless urban sprawl with cookie-cutter tract homes, strip malls, and all the clutter that makes my hometown, the Los Angeles megalopolis a crowded, less and less pleasant place to live in spite of an almost ideal climate. The sprawl now extends at least 20 miles to the west from the center of the city, and to this pilgrim, Phoenix is losing its attractiveness.
We stopped for gas and burgers in Scottsdale, then jumped onto State Highway 87 and headed north-northeast into the Sierra Ancha Mountains and the Tonto National Forest. For anyone who thinks Arizona is nothing but a vast desert, a drive north out of Phoenix on I-17 to Flagstaff or on our route--Hwy. 87 to Payson (a modest-size community nestled amidst lakes and dense coniferous forests at about 4,900 feet above sea level), east on highway 260 to Heber--then northeast on highway 377 to Holbrook, will change your opinion rapidly. Early on we passed through miles of saguaro cacti, which occasionally attain almost human forms and can grow, under optimal conditions, as tall as 30-40 feet and live for up to 200 years. None of the ones we saw were anywhere near that height, but the saguaros are still fascinating to look at. As the elevation rose, much of the terrain we passed through was very similar to California's Sierra Nevada range--with much less extreme elevation--with its sweeping vistas of pine and fir forests and rugged peaks reaching 7,000 to over 8,000 feet into the intensely blue sky. The drive from Phoenix to Holbrook was, for the most part, quite scenic and entertaining, and it would've been a blast except for several road construction zones that slowed and severely congested the traffic. By the time we reached Holbrook--an old west railroad town--we were out of the forests and on a high and relatively flat plain with scattered rugged hills and buttes and just a few miles west of the Petrified Forest National Park. It was time for a pit stop, and once we merged onto eastbound I-40, time to make time, as we were a couple hours behind schedule thanks to all the construction-related delays on the 87 and, mostly, the 260.
Much of the run eastward toward New Mexico was through the Navajo Nation. It's a region with incredible historical significance and there are some marvelous archeological sites, like the Canyon de Chelly National Monument, where five distinct Native American cultures thrived as far back as 2500 B.C. Within the 83,849-acre monument are the ruins of several magnificent cliff-dweller communities. Unfortunately, we had just a little more than two days to get to Effingham--roughly halfway between St. Louis and Indianapolis. So our sightseeing was limited to savoring views of the Painted Cliffs, intensely colored mesas that thrust hundreds of feet straight upward out of the high desert floor, as we hustled along at 85 to 100-plus mph--depending on traffic and occasional warning signals from my Escort radar detector.
The westernmost part of New Mexico looks a lot like eastern Arizona--gee, what a surprise! We passed through Gallup, along the fringes of the Cibola National Forest and, 47 miles into New Mexico, crossed over the Continental Divide (that's the line running roughly north/south along the spine of the Rockies where on one side rivers run westward, and, on the other side, they run to the east). By the time we reached Albuquerque, the sun had gone down. We'd gone from the Pacific to the Mountain Time Zone, driven 807 miles, and did it--meal and gas stops plus the road construction delays--in under 12 hours total time. A good dinner, a couple glasses of wine, and bed beckoned.
Day 2 - Thursday, September 18
Oops! When we unloaded the Vette Wednesday night we discovered that neither Rob nor I had stuffed one of our tripods in the car that morning. Rob's girlfriend Elisa is a graduate student at the University of New Mexico, has lived in Albuquerque for over a year, and knows her way around town pretty well. Per "Lady E" a well-equipped photo supply shop was located just a few blocks away from the UNM campus. We had no idea where or what we'd find later on, so a side trip was in order before we could head east again.
We also hadn't found time to install the "Mini Mask" on the car before departing L.A., so we debugged and rewaxed the car's nose, attached the mounting hardware, and fitted the mask to my coupe--right there in the La Quinta Inn parking lot.
Our original plan was to hit Albuquerque and get the biggest chunk of miles out of the way on Day 1. The plan for Day 2 was to again head east on I-40, passing through Tucumcari, Amarillo (Texas), and into Oklahoma City before heading northeast on I-44 (the Turner Turnpike) to Tulsa. If things went according to plan, it would be a jaunt of about 650 miles, and we should be able to complete it in about 9 hours. If...
By the time we got done with goodbyes, masks, tripods, and topping off the tank, it was nudging 11:00 a.m. and we were at least three hours behind schedule. Tulsa was still do-able, but it would be another fairly late night.
The eastern half of New Mexico along I-40 is pretty flat and kind of blah. The highway runs almost perfectly straight for one stretch of roughly 75 miles (it's about 175 miles from Albuquerque to the Texas border), but there was just enough traffic that we couldn't really run speeds much in excess of 85 mph for more than a couple minutes at a time. So we set the cruise control, kept changing CDs, talked about politics, and in general did whatever we could to keep from getting too badly bored. I cannot imagine what it must have been like 150 years ago, traversing this part of the country in a wagon pulled by oxen and progressing at a rate of maybe 20 miles a day! On the other hand, it was nice just being away from the Southern California traffic and bad air, and even if I was occasionally bored with the scenery--or lack thereof--Rob and I were both getting to see the immensity and variety of this great country. That made it very worthwhile!
Things did change, albeit not for the better, when we crossed into the Lone Star State. The terrain didn't seem to change, but it seemed as though half of the 180 or so miles of I-40 as it passes across Tejas was torn up or being repaved. You don't make good time in one-lane-each-direction construction zones that go on for miles. However, the stretches of road that weren't under construction (new concrete paving being poured) were in beautiful shape, as smooth as any section of road we would pass over during our entire trip. There's a lot to see and do in Texas, but the only reason we had for a stop on this trip was to gas up in Amarillo, then continue eastbound for Oklahoma.
Oklahoma has been many things to millions of people during the past two centuries--"Indian Territory," where many Native American tribes were forcibly relocated during the 19th century; prime farmland; rich oil fields; and a dust bowl for desperate "Okies" to flee during years of severe drought in the 1930s. It's sometimes known as Tornado Alley, at the crossroads of America, and an intriguing blend of Old South, Midwest, and the Old West. Western Oklahoma is primarily high and dry plains, much like the part of Texas we'd just passed through. The legendary Route 66 bisected the state, from the northeast corner to the southwestern border with Texas, and sizable portions of the "Mother Road" (as John Steinbeck called it) are preserved and still in use today.
Route 66 roughly parallels I-40, as we headed east across the plains to Oklahoma City, then it parallels the Turner Turnpike (a.k.a. I-44) northeast to Tulsa and the Will Rogers Turnpike (still I-44). If Rogers, the Oklahoma-born "cowboy humorist," could be resurrected, I'd love to hear his opinions about his home state naming a toll road, of all things, for him--I bet they'd be pithy and pungent.
As we blasted eastward across the plains on I-40, we watched a massive storm front move toward us from the southeast. We skirted the storm, but by the time we reached Oklahoma City, it was well past sunset, we were tired, and it didn't seem to make a lot of sense to push the additional 100-plus miles towards Tulsa on strange roads in the dark. When we reached the northeast corner of "OKC," near the junction of I-35 and I-44, we called it quits for the night.
Day 3 - Friday, September 19
Following two late starts, we got rolling out of OKC early, after topping off the C5's tank and stocking up on bad coffee, preservative-laden breakfast snacks, and some sodas and bottled water for the ice chest. Amazing, we've been consistently running at, shall we say, extra-legal speeds, with the A/C on all the time, and in a car with an automatic (not exactly the most fuel efficient), and the pewter coupe's actual gas mileage (based on miles driven and gas needed to top the tank, not the DIC) is hovering around 25 mpg. The Turner Turnpike is smooth, straight, and fast, and we made it to Tulsa in just over an hour, toll booth stops included. The country gradually changed from flat and semi-barren plains to gently rolling hills with a lot of lush greenery. We saw a couple of regional (at least to this California native) oddities: fuel and food stops are located in the wide center median (complete with parking lots) and several times we saw a sign for a picnic area with NO restrooms, above a sign for the next rest area (a cute euphemism for public potties) many miles farther down the road. I don't know...it just seems kinda incongruous to me.
We made a quick stop for some very specific souvenirs in Tulsa, then jumped back onto I-44 (now called the Will Rogers Turnpike, and again a toll road) and continued northeast, along the fringes of the Ozarks--toward the Missouri border. I like green rolling hills and mountains, and this region is beautiful.
The last 100 or so miles of Oklahoma flew by. The only way to ascertain that we were departing or about to enter Missouri was the exit tollbooth at the border. Then it was onward, through Joplin to Springfield, where we made a gas stop.
Missouri is often referred to as the gateway to the west. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark began their epic journey across the then-unknown western half of the continent in 1804 from St. Charles and ended the expedition in St. Louis. St. Joseph was the base and staring point for the short-lived but legendary Pony Express. One of my personal favorite writers, Samuel Clemens, was born and raised in Missouri and based several of his best-known novels there. Kansas City and Independence (now a suburb of K.C.) were the trailheads for the Oregon and Santa Fe trails. And it's a state of incredible natural beauty, bordered by the Mississippi River on the east and the Missouri River for the northern third of its western border with Kansas, and the hills and valleys of the Ozarks occupy a vast swath of the south and southeastern parts of the state.
Because of time constraints, we had to stick to I-44, all the way from the Oklahoma border until we arrived in the western edges of St. Louis.
While the Corvette had received a lot of interest and attention, and had caused the start of several gas stop conversations during the prior two days, it was during our refueling break in Springfield that we actually talked with some Corvetters who were heading out to Effingham for Funfest--and they weren't leaving until Saturday morning. And during the 200-mile run to St. Louis, we finally saw several Vettes--loaded with luggage and heading northeast towards our weekend Mecca. After spending most of the previous two days of driving through desert and arid high plains, the lush forested hills of the Ozarks were a splendid and refreshing sight.
Even though I'd never driven into St. Louis from the west, I've flown into, stayed in, and driven east out of the Gateway City enough times to know that we'd be facing gridlocked traffic if we tried driving through the central part of town after 3:00 on a Friday afternoon. So, as we got into the western suburbs around Kirkwood, we jumped onto the northbound I-270 and followed it as it crossed I-70 a few miles east of St. Charles then east (still on I-270) as it skirted around the northern edges of St. Louis heading for the Mississippi River and Illinois.
This was familiar territory--I've found that if I fly into Lambert St. Louis International Airport and want/need to go east into Illinois, it's a lot quicker to head north out of the airport to the I-270 and take it east about 15 miles into Illinois, where it merges with I-70. We made our final gas stop in suburban Bellefontaine then, like a hound that's caught the scent of its quarry, again headed towards the east for that concluding 100-mile sprint to Effingham.
The rural, southern parts of Illinois are mostly gently rolling grasslands, punctuated by a lot of farms and literally hundreds of small communities. My maternal grandmother was born in a similar sort of town, Carthage, in the northwest part of Illinois--so I feel some slight ties to the state. The Shawnee National Forest covers most of the southern tip of the "Land of Lincoln." Effingham is fortuitously situated at the junction of I-70, roughly halfway between St. Louis and Indianapolis, and the 57. Slightly more than 200 miles to the north on the 57 is Chicago, and roughly the same distance south, following the 57 and continuing onward when the 57 merges with I-55, is Memphis.
None of that mattered. We were on the last stage of the first half of our trip. We inadvertently wound up in at least two different Corvette caravans as we sped east-northeast, and watched the "B" trip odometer click over the 2,000-mile mark somewhere around Vandalia. And it was almost anti-climactic to roll into Effingham an hour ahead of schedule with time to check into our hotel and clean up before joining Mike and Laurie Yager and a couple dozen of their friends for dinner.
Funfest or bust! Our road trip was not a bust in any respect. Although blasting along interstates is definitely not the most scenic or entertaining way to travel, we did manage to cover 2,043 miles in just three days, and even on a semi-banzai run, were still able to see a vast part of the Southwest and Midwest. The car behaved perfectly--in fact the only casualties were a wiper blade (probably original equipment) that disintegrated when I attempted to used the windshield washer at close to 100 mph, and the batteries in both keyless remotes--which died at almost the same time while we were in Effingham. It's not often that a father and adult son get to spend several days together, and the trip was well worthwhile just for the quality time Rob and I shared.
And it was a tremendous feeling the next morning when I got to drive my Corvette onto the grounds of Mid America's "campus" with several thousand other Corvette owners and devotees. (Next month: We play tourist on the road home.)