The Highway Men - USA Road Trip
The story began seventeen years ago when I spontaneously bought at the side of the road in Newport beach, a shabby 1959 Thunderbird, for the simple reason that I’m also a 1959. After a few false starts including missing an appointment with Madonna due to overheating on the 101 highway, I sent the faded wagon to my friend Jeff in NY who took his time but eventually oversaw the full restoration of 'The Bird'.
Over an eleven-year period, starting in 2007, Jeff Feero and I have taken ten US road trips. Covering over 33,000 miles, from east to west and north to south, we have seen more of America than most Americans, plus three Canadian provinces which is probably more than most Canadians. Always commencing immediately after The Couture jewellery show in Las Vegas, at which we both exhibit.
Initially our exclusive carriage was my, now our 1959 Thunderbird, since Jeff has poured so much money into it. The T’bird was the inspiration for the first east coast to west coast trip. The route that suggests freedom and escape. A dream of being Jack Kerouac or Thelma & Louis.
Since that first trip I assumed responsibility for the ever so crucial sound track. I tried to keep the tunes as varied as possible, ramping up the volume as the day wore on, rocking out as we were rolling in to that sections overnight stop.
Back then I would bring piles of CD’s, The Clash, The Cult, Beck, Bowie, Stone Roses, Massive Attack, Nick Cave etc etc, each one road trip vetted by me. Thankfully the luggage load became lightened when the CD was replaced by my fully loaded iPod.
Of late, the now expanded but heavily vetted additional members of the highwaymen, not only bring the basic requirement of a classic car but with it their own playlists. Sometimes when being passenger in another vehicle I regret this but overall, it has added to the trip. I like to think my musical taste is eclectic, often surprising some of the others with tunes or playlists that they might not have me down for, however I now enjoy being entertained by what they consider to be terrain, climate or even state appropriate, when in Rome, as the saying goes. A perfect example, last year whilst staying overnight in Atlanta and all in one car for the evening, the over productive speakers where blasting out Migos at volume 11. This year while in the Montana mountains I’m certain I picked up some Glenn Campbell and even Wayne Newton while overtaking Richards Aston followed by Jorgia Smith and Frank Ocean while being passed by Freddie in the Ferrari, all competing with the ever-present background rhythm of old engines, open tops and the wind rush which no matter the tune is always the chorus to the classic car road trip.
This year’s line-up was the most impressive to date - 1956 300SL convertible Mercedes, 1986 convertible Aston Martin, 1968 365 Ferrari GT and the leader of the pack our 1959 T’bird.
Day 1 Las Vegas, Nv - Grand Canyon, Az
We learned early on that when travelling across the hot states an early start is a must. Nevada being up there as one of the hottest, the cars and drivers gathered outside the tower suites of the Wynn hotel by 8am, gassed up (including the drivers) and ready to roll. Fuelled, we pressed on to the overnight stop at the Grand Canyon. The last time we drove through the world heritage site, we took the helicopter flight across. This is not a sightseeing amusement for the faint of heart. It’s petrifying. After a short flight over the pin forest, the floor falls away until the ground including the Colorado River is a mile below, helicopters should never be a mile above the ground. With persistent high winds, the return to the rim cannot come fast enough.
This time we took a late evening hike for an hour, barely scratching the surface but still in ore.
Day 2 Grand Canyon National Park, Az - Durango, Co
Next day another early start 7.30. It’s not so hot in the Grand Canyon Park but we had a good 7-8-hour drive ahead, most of the journey spent crossing the massive Indian Navajo and Hopi Indian reservations. Stopping for lunch at one of the trading posts in Arizona. Great coffee. Overnight stop in the old silver mining mountain town of Durango, Colorado.
All these old frontier towns have managed to retain an element of their 19th century charm, we always try to book the original Grand Hotel in the centre of town. This one came complete with girls dressed in corseted plunging bustiers!
Dinner at the ‘Ore House' (referencing silver ore and not ores of course) made the experience complete.
Day 3 Durango, Co - Salt Lake City, Utah
In the morning a heavy covering of smoke hung over the town due to the forest fires raging to the east where roads were closed but we were now headed North/West toward Salt Lake City.
The must-see section of this leg is Monument Valley National Park. The red stone sculptural configurations of cathedral like proportions are simply awesome.
Nothing could have prepared us for the searing heat of the valley, despite it only being early June, the temperature was 105/110F. I forgot to mention that a preoccupation when driving old cars is heat management, both under the bonnet and under the passengers. Pre the luxury of air-conditioned climate control and with outside temperatures capable of barbecuing short ribs, the only thing to do is keep clothing to a minimum and think of Canada.
Salt Lake City has very wide, very clean boulevards, reminiscent of Bella Russia and a temperance like view of alcoholic consumption unlike Bella Russia. It is illegal to serve a person more than two drinks at any one time. Killjoys. Here we picked up the fifth member of the band; Mark.
Jeff booked us a table at the swankiest restaurant in the city Valter’s Osteria. We were persuaded by chef Valter to allow him to prepare us courses of his recommendation which were delicious, especially his unique version of soft shell crab, scallops and a ravioli topped by plenty of white truffle and a very large tab. Still recommend it.
Day 4 Salt Lake City, Utah - Jackson Hole, Wy.
The drive is mountainous and spectacular, the road winding through the valleys, for the most part hop scotching over a river in full spring runoff, our pacing even the Ferrari which out of the three cars was built for roads such as these, the Aston a close second with the T'bird having to be negotiated around each bend.
For the first time the temperature dropped, and the vegetation changed completely from desert to alpine. We stopped for lunch at a “gastro service station” on the bank of Bear Lake for proper solid fuel and for some reason, a ride on the kart track, kind of pedestrian up to our fleet, but boys and toys.
Not sure about the rest of Wyoming but the stretch we covered was mostly rural, the towns we did pass through appeared to have seen more prosperous times.
All that changes as the road turns into the wealthy ski and mountain resort of Jackson Hole. The deceitful name doesn’t give too much away, because hole it isn’t. Jeff and I have stayed overnight here before on a trip from Boulder, Co - Vancouver, Canada. Familiarity took us and the other straight to the million-dollar cowboy saloon. Pool and cowboy dancing was the name of the game in this rhinestone drinking hole. We enthusiastically embraced both. Videos need to be destroyed!
At Jackson Hole we were joined by the forth and by far the most valuable car, the 56’ 300 SL Mercedes. And the owner Charles and co-driver Cliff. The car is truly magnificent, the quintessential combination of elegant design, style, detail and performance. We later found out that this 63-year-old is still good for almost 120 when the wind is in the right direction, which it always is.
Day 5 Jackson Hole, Wy - Big Sky Resort, Mt
Lots of questions from the more rookie British contingent as to why the Big Sky stop. Jeff quite rightly pointed out that the US is a lot bigger than the UK and consequently, nightlife cannot be on hand at every stop. The 320 guest ranch appeared at first to be an overnight where we would be the entertainment. In some ways we were, and now that we were seven, (the most ever accumulated on one of our road trips) between us and the bar staff we are more than capable of showing ourselves a good time.
In a hunting and fishing lodge one would not be expecting a vegan menu, thank god, it was as expected meat, and for the vegetarians, bison or fish. The food and stay, excellent.
The morning came with a heavy mountain frost meaning the Aston wouldn’t start, half of us abandoned the plug cleaning and head scratching, assuming all would be fine when the day’s heat kicked in, and we found the Gallatin River guides, who took us for a mornings deep wading, fly fishing on the iconic Gallatin River. Freddie had never fished in his life, Richard, not for 26 years, Jeff regularly and myself, fly fishing twice.
All things considered we all scored well 18 trout and 2 rocky mountain whitefish. Best part was we all four caught, even first time Freddie.
With the Aston now fired up we hit the road.
Day 6 Big Sky Resort, Mt - Helena, Mt
As we had now become accustomed on this trip, the drive was just perfect, mix of mountain passes, valleys, rivers and breath-taking views. The same could not be said about the final run into Helena the state Capital of Montana. Flat and appearing to be the supply store to the mining and fracking industries, the long outskirts was not throwing down the welcome mat.
Our hotel was in a newly created downtown, built as a tribute to when the railroad was instrumental in not only establishing these western towns but also a lifeline for provisions and population. The 18-year-old new down town themed as the great western railway without portfolio, was soulless, however a short evening excursion took us into old downtown. The streets were almost deserted but the old mid-19th century buildings were still grand. A clue to the vast mining wealth that was accrued during those copper, silver and gold mining heydays.
What used to be the most elegant department stores purveying the latest in NY and European fashion to a remote but wealthy community, desperate for chic sophistication, are now a mix of funky vintage stores, some small fashion stores and galleries and pawn stores. The usual mix you find in a place where people are taking advantage of the low retail rents.
About to quit and eat in a dodgy bar, we happened upon the “New York” wine bar and tasting room. The wine selection was excellent as were the bar snacks. Another road trip hidden gem.
Day 7 Helena, Mt - Spokane,Wa.
Today was the day for me to get behind the wheel of the newcomer to the group, which happens to also be the eldest, Charles’s 56’ 300SL. An immaculate and totally original red and tan leather beauty. Valued at a cool $1.5m. I was paying attention and keeping my eyes on the road. What a sweet ride it is. The stick shift moved with the lightest touch. Everything is tight and grounded about this car, gliding around the endless curves, gradients and steep downhill bends, never missing a beat as they say. My 200 miles went like a red flash.
Earlier in the morning Richard had decided to get a very early start to visit his “import car attorney” in Missoula. After breakfast the rest of us set off. After an hour a sheepish Richard called in to say he had decided to take his 1986 Aston Martin ‘convertible’ through an automatic car wash. What happened was not what you might expect that the roof was ripped off, no, it was the exhaust system.
Being a practical man and Australian to boot, he got the phone book out and by 9am had found an old school welding shop, the owner and his 19-year-old apprentice daughter got under the car and completely welded the system including all new brackets back in place. By 11am he was on the road and catching us up.
In Spokane, that nights stop we picked up the 8th and final member of the group, an old friend of mine of some 35 years, Marshall, for the next days last leg to his home and our resting place Seattle.
Day 8 Spokane, Wa - Seattle, Wa
The 300SL peeled off and headed to Portland were Charles was attending the opening of an exhibition of cars and bikes from the 1930’s at Portland Museum of Art called the Shape of Speed. His 1939 shark nose Graham was to be featured among the examples of cars built with aerodynamics. 2 days later Mark, Marshall and I visited the show. The cars may not have gone faster than previous less sleek models but even standing still in a museum they were exceeding the speed limit.
On route to Seattle we passed through the dramatic landscape surrounding the vast Columbia river and gulch, flowing toward the Pacific at Vancouver, apparently teaming with giant size sturgeon. First stop in Seattle was Marshall’s home where we parked the cars ready for the trailer ride back to base in NY.
We then headed downtown for our last night out. I haven’t been to Seattle for 16 years, what a changed and hugely expanded city it is, driven by job opportunities at Boeing, Starbucks and the many, many tech companies, a 1000 people a month settle in Seattle. It’s physically stunning and now a massive hub for all things modern including great food. I’ve been to many cities with a wilder side but this one still holds its own as a great place to visit and of course let off seven days of road trip steam, so we did.