Saturday, February 13, 2016

My Big American Road Trip

I am happy to report that my big American Road Trip in May - June 2015 panned out a lot more successfully than my big Aussie Road Trip had, although it was not without its incidents - as all story-worthy road trips are.
There was enough "epic-ness" to this journey to fill a whole book... and maybe I will one day!

After months and months of preparation, the time had eventually come for our epic American road trip to begin. My awesome hot rod mechanic Dave Jobe had installed brand new disc brakes, a new radiator and exhaust system and given the Hudson a full going over to make sure it was ready for the trip. I was sent off with gallons of fluids and strict instructions to check the oil, coolant and automatic transmission fluid every day. The prize giveaway 1956 Mercury was all packed and I had plenty of room to stash clothes and supplies to last me for two months on the road.  All that was left for me to do was to hook up, and hit the road.

On the 4th of May, I set off from Oakland Oregon, meeting up with my Sister on the Fly travel buddy Linda Hutt in Portland on the first leg of the journey to Chicago. We travelled via Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Minnesota checking out some amazing sights along the way. By the time we got to Deadwood in South Dakota, we advised by the KOA campground staff to move on as quickly as possible as they were expecting eight inches of snow the next day. After checking out the Presidents carved into the rocks of Mount Rushmore, we hightailed it on to the Badlands, keeping one step ahead of the storms, or so we thought…

The next morning Linda knocked on my door. 
"Lisa, what do you call this?" she said. 
It was snowing - a lot! Resembling an arid moonscape, the Badlands under snow was quite a sight to behold.  The storm had hit a day earlier than expected and when a motorhome pulled in piled high with snow that had just made a hasty retreat from the blizzard up on the highway, we knew it was time to move on.  The Hudson wipers struggled to keep the snow off the windshield and at the Pioneer Auto Museum in Murdo I had to pull over to scrape the snow off so that I could see where I was going.  

We finally managed to get ahead of the storm and by the time we reached Sioux Falls, the snow had subsided to heavy rain with wind, lightning and thunder.
The next day we planned to continue east to La Crosse, Wisconsin. A chance encounter at one of my many gas stops (the Hudson only has a fifteen gallon tank and towing was running at about ten miles to the gallon, so my petrol stops were frequent – thank goodness for cheap American petrol!) saw us make a change of route.

The Hudson always drew plenty of admirers wherever we went and at one stop in a small place called Albert Lea in Minnesota we met a lovely hot rodder called Brian who recommended we take a short cut through Iowa to Joliet to avoid the traffic and tolls around Chicago. He had a Willy’s Jeep in a truck and was heading that way, so he cruised with us for a while through the acres and acres of cornfields of Iowa until we pulled off at Waterloo for the night and he carried on. Brian had also told us that if we continued on this way we would drive right past the American Pickers Iowa store; Antique Archeology, so we made sure we stopped in there on the way to Joliet. Although they were closed for filming, Rob Wolfe (Mike’s brother) and Danielle Colby saw the Hudson and the caravan and came out for a chat and a photo.  American Pickers is my favourite TV show, so this was a definite highlight for me.

 On the 12th of May, after one week on the road, we crossed over the Mississippi river and cruised into Joliet, Illinois for the “Sisters Get their kicks on Route 66” kick off party with the rest of our Sisters on the Fly. On Wednesday we all went into Adams Street, in downtown Chicago for our group photo with the official start of Route 66 sign before hitting Route 66 with our caravans in tow and heading towards Springfield, Illinois.

We stopped at the Gemini Giant in Wilmington and the quaint old Standard Oil Gas Station in Odell with its blue and white Winnebago parked out front and in Pontiac I got a cool photo of the Hudson and the caravan with the Route 66 mural that is painted on the back of the museum wall. About thirty miles before Springfield, on some remote stretch of Route 66 in a place called Braidwell I heard a bang, smelt burning and the car seemed to be stuck in first gear. Not good!

I pulled over outside a rather scary looking abandoned old Motel to check the transmission fluid when a couple of my caravanning Sisters stopped to see if I was OK. I topped up the fluid and added some trans conditioner and managed to follow them to the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield where I camped the night with the two Connies (Yes, they were both called Connie!) who had stopped to help me.  

The next afternoon we set off to catch up with the rest of the Sisters but as soon as I pulled out I knew that I had a serious problem. The car would not budge out of first, so I pulled over and asked some locals if they knew of any transmission shops nearby. By some miracle, Steve’s Transmission Service was just around the corner from me, but by now it was 3pm on a Friday and Steve said he wouldn’t be able to work on it until Monday. So, much to my dismay, the Connies went on without me and I ended up back at the fairgrounds on my own. I called my mechanic back in Oregon and he called Steve and told him of my mission and how important this trip was, and Steve agreed to work on it over the weekend for me. Thanks Steve! In the meantime I had a new camping neighbor called Dorian Santiago who was resting his weary feet having begun his Hike for Humanity walking tour of Route 66 a week prior and that made me feel a lot less sorry for myself.

By midday on Monday the burnt out 700R transmission had been replaced with a reconditioned Turbo 350 and I was back on the road again and racing like Doc Hudson from the Disney movie Cars to catch up with the rest of the group. I drove straight through St Louis and managed to catch up with them all in Springfield, Missouri just in time for dinner that night. Phew - Crisis averted!

After two nights in Springfield, we hit Route 66 again taking in the thirteen miles that go through Kansas and Doc got to lead the parade of caravans as we came into town. I stopped in to see Melba and Dean at the Cars on the Route store on the corner where I got a photo of Doc with the tow truck that was the inspiration for “Tow Mater” in the Disney Pixar movie Cars before heading west to Claremore, Oklahoma. That night we all camped up in the rodeo grounds and had an awesome catered dinner at he Will Rogers Museum. I got a new neighbor called Kim and when we hit the road again we ended up travelling together stopping in at the Blue Whale in Catooza, for lunch at the Rock Cafe and marveling at the roof of the Round Barn in Arcadia before making it into Oklahoma City.

By this stage it had been pretty much raining non-stop since I had left Oregon and we were all getting a bit fed up with it. In Oklahoma City we were camped in the fairgrounds where we were invited to participate in the OGRA Rodeo with our petticoats and stick ponies.  The next day the rain got heavier and heavier until the campground was awash with puddles. Then all of our phones started honking with warnings about flash flooding and tornados.  I had no idea what to do but figured sitting in a caravan probably wasn’t the best place to be during a tornado, so I packed a small backpack with a few essentials such as my laptop, mobile phone and hard drive (so the business would be safe!) and a change of clothes and a bottle of whisky (to keep me warm!) and was about to head across the bathroom block (figuring a concrete structure would be safer than a fifteen-foot aluminium shell on wheels) when there was a bang, bang, banging on my door.

“Get out, NOW! Come on We’ve go to get out of here, there’s a tornado coming!” I jumped in the car with some other sisters and we were directed by security to the main auditorium of the fairgrounds and told to take shelter under the covered concrete stairs with a film crew from the New York who had been covering the rodeo. The large roller doors were closed and we were warned to listen out for the sound of a freight train that would indicate the tornado had struck. We watched live streaming weather reports on phones and i-pads as the tornado hit ground just thirty miles from us but thankfully it skirted around us and after a few hours (and a few shots of whisky) we were free to go back to camp.

The next morning the rain had subsided and we all packed up and hit the road as quickly as possible, keen to head towards Amarillo, Texas and promises of sunshine. On the way there, we stopped in at the Redneck capitol of the world in Erick, Oklahoma and were entertained by the hilarious Harley at the Sandhills Curiosity Shop before crossing the border into Texas where I got a photo of the Hudson at the U Drop Inn in Shamrock. Both of these iconic Route 66 stops were also featured in the Cars movie, so you can see why it was that I chose “Doc Hudson” to make this trip with me. 

That day, we took parts of Route 66 that had been closed due to floods the day before. We drove down over washed out bridges and across huge potholes on the original stretch of road that rolled up and down hills like a roller coaster through some lovely countryside but that gave us, the cars and the caravans some serious shaking. Doc had started sounding a bit like a Mack Truck and it became clear I had knocked a hole in my exhaust somewhere. The next day I was lucky enough to get on to a local hot rodder in Amarillo; Skeeter and his buddy Andrew who took Doc back to their workshop and fixed up the hole in the exhaust for me and gave the car a bit of a tune up. Thanks Skeeter and Andrew!

I finally pulled into Amarillo at around sunset (Yes, there was sun – and it was good!) and stopped in at the Cadillac Ranch that was just around the corner from our RV Park.
From Amarillo, we headed to the midpoint Café and crossed the line that meant we were half way across Route 66 before crossing the border into New Mexico. 

I stopped to check out the awesome car and memorabilia museum at Russell’s Truck Stop and really enjoyed driving through the town of Tucumcari with its old neon motel signs like the Blue Swallow Motel and the Palomino Hotel – Classic Route 66 at its finest.  From there I went to the Blue Hole at Santa Rosa and took a refreshing dip in the vivid clear blue natural spring that is icy cold all year round before heading up to Santa Fe.

After a couple of days in Santa Fe, I stopped in to see Vicki and her Hudson at Enchanted Trails RV Park & Trading Post and cruised solo along old 66 taking lots of photos of the abandoned old Motels and service stations along the way that I find so intriguing. I felt so right at home there on the Mother Road in my old car, and really enjoyed the freedom and exhilaration of plotting my own course and took my time to appreciate as much of it as I could and at around sunset I pulled into the historic El Rancho Hotel in Gallup for a well-deserved Margarita.

The next day we set off for Arizona taking in Holbrook and the Wigwam Motel and the Jack Rabbit Trading Post with its “Here it is” sign before heading into Winslow to stand on the corner.

That night we cruised on through Flagstaff and stayed in Williams where we were treated to a great night out at the Wild West Junction Saloon the first night and at Twisters Soda Fountain the next.

After Williams I drove through Ash Fork and Seligman to Kingman where I opted to stay at the Kingman KOA campground. As soon as I rolled into the KOA and checked in, the Hudson died right there in the driveway and I couldn’t get it started. The KOA manager towed me into my site and called a mobile mechanic friend of his who agreed to come and check it out the next morning.
So, once again, the sisters moved on to the next town while I stayed behind getting a new starter motor put in by the very reasonably priced Greg from Simplified Automotive. Thanks Greg!

I was back on the road by 2pm and decided to do what we had been advised not to do, and tow the caravan up an over the steep and winding “make or break” hill climb over Sitgreaves Pass that had been the end of so many early Route 66’ers “California or bust” journeys.  This part of the road was the most important to me, and the sense of achievement and satisfaction I felt when Doc, the Mercury and I made it to the top was indescribable. I was on top of the world and I felt it! Across in the distance lay the deserts of California and Nevada and below me the old mining town of Oatman, where descendants of the donkeys used in the mining days now roam free in the main street. I had made it and the end of the journey of a lifetime was nearly over.

I continued on old Route 66 for as much of it as I could across the dips and rises and bumpy, bumpy roads that shook my bones although some parts were closed due to flood damage. I managed to make it across the border to California and to the Bagdad Café just in time to watch the Sunset over the wrecked old Airstreams made famous in the 1987 movie Bagdad Café starring Jack Palance before getting into camp at Barstow at around 8pm that night.

The next day I was thirty-eight miles from our final destination of Ventura, California, when I realized I had no power and was just coasting down the big hill on the highway.  I pulled over but could not get the car to start at all. Of all the incidents that I’d dealt with and taken in my stride, this one got me.  I’d come this far and was determined to make it right to the end. Despite having taken out maximum AAA coverage before I left, this was the first time I actually had to call in for a tow. Willy the very funny and sweet tow truck driver thought it was my fuel pump, but I wasn’t so sure.
“You’ve got no fuel in your fuel filter,” he said and towed me to nearby Calabasas Car Care and told them to order a fuel pump for me. Being 350 Chevy powered the Hudson was always easy and cheap to get parts for, so I knew it would be an easy fix. Problem was it was now 4pm and they closed at five.

“You’ve got no fuel in your fuel filter,” the mechanic said. “We’re trying to get the part now”
Once again I assured them that I did have fuel in my fuel filter, but that it was clean and the filter was new. But they weren't convinced, so they unscrewed the connector hose and lo and behold fuel spurted out. Feeling quite smug with myself at this point we then had a new problem. If it wasn’t the fuel pump, what was it that had stopped the Hudson in its tracks? It turned out to be some dodgy old wring that had shorted the ignition out when it had broken loose and been touching the engine, probably from the bumpy roads I had been on the day before. About half an hour, a few new wires, $210 and some handy welding later, I was back on the road and feeling victorious. I drove straight to the beach, took off my shoes, walked across the sand and dipped my toes in the Pacific Ocean. We had made it!

Over the next day or so, a sense of real sadness swept over me. I had spent so long dreaming of doing this trip in an old car and caravan, and this was the end of the my journey on the Mother Road. I was exhausted beyond belief but feeling very proud of myself and totally in love with the car and caravan that had made my dreams come true.  Including my journey back to Oregon, I had drove almost 6,000 miles from one side of America to the other and back again and was on the road for two months. I made so many new friends and saw so many amazing sights; things that photos or words will never be able to fully recreate. It felt magical and surreal and I didn’t want it to be over yet.
I guess I’ve ticked a pretty major achievement off my bucket list now, and it’s going to take some time to recover, but I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

 Thank you to all of my wonderful, amazing Sisters on the Fly sisters who partook of this epic journey across Route 66, to all the hard-working organizers and especially Maurrie & Becky (sisters #1 & #2) who started this whole crazy thing. What an amazing trip it was! There were almost 300 of us at the end of it, and 39 of us who "went all the way". I have made friendships that will last a lifetime and created very special memories that will never leave me...