It’s a Really Big Country!
The Road Trip Itch
Just under four hours will get you to Detroit from Los Angeles on Delta non-stop. If you need to drive a car you found in Meadville, Pennsylvania, from Detroit to Gig Harbor, Washington, it’s whole different story. It took us three days and some heavy driving.
I am no stranger to such road trips. I once did 7,300 miles in a VW starting in Fairbanks Alaska and stopping in places like Columbus, Ohio, and Pensacola, Florida, before finally landing in Southern California. But I was young and dumb then, and I’ve learned my lesson now – mostly.
Chilkat Pass, 1970. About 500 miles into a Road Trip that would eventually eat up 7,300 solo (not counting hitchhikers) road miles – all in a 1968 Volkswagen with Automatic Stick Shift.
You never really lose the itch once the Road Bug has bitten you. Even marriage and kids doesn’t quiet it. We once did about 5,500 miles in just two weeks to take the kids to a Wallace family reunion in Central New York State, killing our overloaded car. That’s fodder for another blog, though.
This story is about a car of course – a 2008 Mercedes-Benz E350 Station Wagon. That’s the one with Mercedes’ version of All-Wheel Drive, “4Matic.” For the literary-minded, that last bit is what’s called “foreshadowing.”
My brother found the car, a replacement for his similar 2001 model with 170,000 miles on it, in a nationwide AutoTrader search. It was in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and while the economics of the choice may be questionable, cross-country auto transport was rejected in favor of driving the car home. Since my brother’s airline pilot career had wrecked his back, a solo trip was out of the question, but what are brothers for?
He buddy-passed me onto that Delta non-stop and met me at Detroit Metro on Wednesday night. Then, after closing a nearby Italian restaurant (we forgot about the 3-hour time difference), we sacked out in the Fairfield Marriot.
The Henry Ford Museum
Thursday we picked up a rental car and drove to the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn. Wow! What a place! Worthy of several blogs by itself!
Acres of exhibits range from the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile to the prototype Richard Buckminster Fuller Dymaxion Home. In between are enough displays showing home life, agriculture, industry, transportation and social justice through the history of the United States to keep you occupied for days.
It took a huge steam plant to produce a whopping 150 horsepower in the mid nineteenth century. All that power had to be transmitted to machinery with shafts and belts. Still, it was an improvement on water-driven machinery. I attribute the Gothic style to an expression of industrial-age exuberance.
Powering machinery with electricity offered huge advantages in plant layout flexibility and production efficiency. This is a steam-powered electrical generating plant installed in 1912 at Ford’s Highland Park plant, one of several. Compare its 6,000 horsepower to the steam plant of a half century earlier.
The visitor with even a casual interest in trains, planes, and automobiles can find something to inspire awe, delight, and somber reflection here.
The Pinnacle of Steam Train Power
Brother Duncan provides scale for the huge Chesapeake & Ohio Allegheny 2-6-6-6 Locomotive 1601 that hauled coal trains in the mountains of West Virginia. Although the Union Pacific Big Boy 4-8-8-4 locomotives had more drive wheels and climbed steeper grades (1.14% in the Wasatch Range), the larger fire box of the Alleghenies allowed them to produce more power, capable of hauling as much as 7,600 tons up the 0.57% grade east from White Sulfer Springs to Allegheny.
Firsts and Favorites
Ford Motor Company has a rich history of exciting automobiles, from the commercial success of the Model T and Mustang to racing victories in multiple formulas. As you’d expect, most of these are represented at the Museum’s Driving America theme exhibits, along with other significant cars of all kinds.
The Summers Brothers’ Goldenrod, a thirty foot long hot rod streamliner powered by four fuel injected Chrysler Hemi engines (note the four exhausts, duplicated on the other side), went 409.277 on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats in 1965, and held the Land Speed Record for 27 years.
A four cylinder engine based on a design by Harry Miller, mounted in front and driving the rear wheels, had powered most of the Indianapolis 500 cars since the ’30s, when Colin Chapman showed up in 1963 with his Lotuses, with Ford V8s mounted behind the driver. It took two years, but in 1965 Jim Clark drove this car to a win, ending the roadster era (and the superstition against green cars) for good.
Legend has it that Henry Ford II wanted to buy Ferrari, but was rebuffed by Il Commendatore Enzo Ferrari in a way that left him determined to beat Ferrari at his own game. The result was the Ford Mark IV, designed for but one purpose – to win the 24 hour race at Le Mans, France. They did it four times. AJ Foyt and Dan Gurney drove this car in its only race, winning in 1967 and covering about 500 miles farther in 24 hours than we went in our three day Odyssey. Then it went straight into the Museum. It remains the only win at Le Mans by American drivers on an American team driving American cars.
1961 Lincoln Parade Car SS-100-X. This is the Presidential Limousine in which President John F. Kennedy was riding in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. After the events of that day, it was rebuilt as it is shown here, with armored enclosure for the passengers.
There’s Something in the Air
Ever since the Wright Brother first powered flight in 1903, Henry Ford had been fascinated by flight. He even tried to create an airplane with the mass appeal of his Model T. That one never really worked, but the Trimotor did. While aluminum aircraft construction was not unknown, the Trimotor was unusual for having some aluminum control surfaces. The Douglas DC-series aircraft made it obsolete.
The Henry Ford has not one but two replicas of the Wright Flyer. This one depicts the First flight in 1903. The one that duplicated that flight on its 100th anniversary, hangs in the Lobby of the IMAX theater.
Only 199 Ford Trimotors were made, but it prepared the way for acceptance of passenger air travel.
The Douglas DC-3 inaugurated the era of practical commercial passenger flight. Over 14,000 were built, and they were used for just about every conceivable mission. When this one was hung in the museum (yes, the whole airplane) it had flown more air miles (more than 12 million) than any other aircraft. It taxied over 100,000 miles!
Down to Business
Museum browsing is great for passing the time, and I enjoyed the Henry Ford as a diversion while I waited for Duncan to get back from Erie with the Mercedes, but if we were to get me back home to meet a scheduled appointment the following Wednesday, we needed to hit the road.
We did, leaving at about 05:30 the next day. Breakfast near Battle Creek (no Kellogg’s cereal at McDonald’s) and then Lunch in Princeton, Illinois, deep into the Midwest plains. We’d done about 350 miles in six hours and crossed into the next time zone.
Skies in Michigan were exactly what I remembered as a kid in Grand Rapids and Battle Creek – leaden and depressing. What I did not recognize were the bare fields. I am guessing there will be little serious flooding of the Missouri and Mississipi in the spring, because we saw only a few flakes fall and practically no snow on the ground.
Crossing that Mississippi headed into Iowa, I snapped a cell phone pic and sent it home, only to confuse my wife by not saying “river.” Skies ahead were clearing and we were feeling pretty good as our average speed climbed on roads with 75 mph speed limits.
Sunny skies, a smooth road, a luxurious car and NPR on the radio – what’s not to like? Beware! Hubris can smack you upside the head at the most unexpected times.
One hundred thirty miles west of Princeton, Duncan was cruising at a calculated margin over the speed limit just west of Iowa City when there was a sudden rush of noise. Looking back I saw the broad vista of the great plains unobstructed by our car’s tailgate. It had opened, seemingly of its own accord.
Duncan gently and judiciously pulled far off the roadway onto the shoulder and we surveyed the situation. Nothing had flown out. The heavy bags were back there and the lighter stuff was in the back seat where we could reach it. But the powered tailgate would not close on its own, and would not latch when closed manually.
There was not much to do but proceed cautiously and see if we could get it attended to. It was about a quarter to one so if there was a Mercedes dealer nearby, we should be able to find it and get help.
Ah, technology! When I packed I had forgotten the car had a GPS Navigator, so I had brought our Garmin portable GPS unit. I input “Mercedes-Benz” and it quickly found the dealer in Des Moines, with a phone number. They said they had a station wagon expert who they assured us could quickly find and correct the problem.
We were pretty sure it was our unfamilarity with the car that was the problem, and an hour and a half later we were proved right, sort of. The tailgate expert looked at it and mumbled something about relays and switches, and reached up, grabbing the hatch handle. There was a “thunk” and two buttons on the lower edge of the hatch lit up. He punched one, and the hatch smoothly excuted a graceful arc, settling into place and securely latching itself.
Whether it was dirt or a bit of ice (temperatures were holding steady in the low twenties) or whatever, the latch handle had been stuck in the open position. All were immensely relieved, and in typical luxury dealer fashion, they responded to our query about a car wash by offering to wash the car for us. All this without a mention of a charge.
The whole incident might have taken only a few minutes but for a distraction sitting on the showroom floor. It was another E350 wagon – a brand new 2011 in white with luscious leather inetrior the color of Lindt Extra Dark chocolate. It had a deeply discounted price on the windshield, and Duncan was sorely tempted. He was on his phone to his credit union and insurance company, trying to see if a deal could be thrown together on short notice.
About half way through our first day’s drive, we had an unscheduled stop. Cudos to Mercedes-Benz of Des Moines, Iowa, for extraordinary service. They found the stuck handle that caused the hatch to fly open just west of Iowa City, and gave us a free wash. This is the white 2011 version of our car that had Duncan seduced – almost. The photo can’t convey the depth and richness of the special order “Chestnut” leather.
It did not work out, and we hit the road once more, having burned precious daylight.
Nebraska is a Loooonnnggg State.
We crossed the Missouri, passing Omaha around dinner time, and I was remembering the last time I was there. We’d had the strange idea that being in that particular town, we ought to be able to find a terrific steak. We did not then, and we did not this time. Maybe they ship them all out of state. Maybe you just have to be a native to know where to look, but Garmin was no help and I ended up with an overcooked imposter at a hotel restaurant.
I suppose if one were looking for tourist attractions there would have been something here and there to break up the trip, but when you are just trying to get somewhere by a certain time, Nebraska is just long. With the road mostly following the North Platte River, it’s understandable that it would be nearly flat driving, which it was for the 360 miles to Colorado. The upside is that the road was good and we could make good time.
Snow in Colorado in February – What a Surprise!
Almost the minute we crossed the State Line into Colorado, it began to snow. It was just light flurries, blowing across the road at first, and we thought we’d be able to make the Denver Suburbs before calling it a day. Not quite. The snow got thicker, and we started to see snowplows going the other way. Still, the accumulation on the road was minimal, and our all-wheel drive gave us confidence – up to the point when we could no longer find the centerline in the road.
About 11:00, Garmin found a Ramada Inn at Sterling, Colorado. We’d driven about 1,125 miles that day, on the road maybe 17 hours. Beds never felt so good!
Side Trips and Snack Stops
With his youngest son attending the Air Force Academy, there was no way Duncan was going to pass this way without a visit. That’s why we took Interstate 74 south from Nebraska instead of staying on I-80 to Idaho. Duncan was an F-4 jockey in the Vietnam era, so Martin will wear the gold badge granted descendants of officers who flew in combat.
We were well and truly into the Rockies these days, with temperatures as low as 3 degrees. We drove straight north back to Nebraska, turning west on I-80 into Idaho following the route of the fabled Lincoln Highway. It was good to leave the plains and see some real mountains, at least what we could see of them under the lowered skies.
Route 66 gets all the press, but the Lincoln Highway was first to cross the continent. We pulled off at its summit in Wyoming and took a couple of pictures. Most of the passes over the Rockies are higher than this one, currently at 8,640, so even though its’s farther north, we figured it would be open. It was. There’s an information center there and a 35 foot high pillar of rock with a huge bust of Lincoln on the top.
Duncan and his E350 4Matic. Its all-wheel drive was useful for a few hours at the end of our first day’s drive. We were too wimpy to slog through the snow to get a better picture of the Lincoln Highway Monument in the background, with its huge bust of Lincoln.
The stop in Colorado Springs cost us daylight and 200 miles compared to the first day’s drive. Wyoming is even longer than Nebraska, mostly on a high plateau, but there is some variation in the terrain to break the monotony. Not that you’d see much at night, when we drove most of it.
It’s strange to drive a hundred miles and see no more than an occasional twinkle from a remote ranch building in the middle of a snowy nothingness, and come upon a brilliant glow on the low clouds, signaling the huge Sinclair refinery by Rawlins, about half way between Cheyenne and Rock Springs. Used to four dollar plus premium gas in California, we were gratified to find that the local source provided the same stuff at $3.199 a gallon. When we stopped I was tempted to buy a cowboy hat that fit perfectly, just so I could say I’d got it “Somewhere West of Laramie.” If you’re into advertising history, you’ll get what I mean.
We passed by the eastern side of the northeast arm of the Great Salt Lake, and stayed the night in Burley, Idaho - a railroad junction along the snake river about half way beween Twin Falls and Boise.
I was the one with the opportunity to pick them up, while Duncan was off getting the car, so there’s no one else to blame for the dearth of snacks the first day. All we had were some pretzels and a small bottle of V8. We remedied that in Laramie at a Walmart, where we bought a cheap foam cooler, milk, bottled drinks, juice, bread, peanut butter (and a knife to spread it with), fruit and a tray of finger food veggies. From that point we seldom stopped at restaurants, except for breakfast.
The rest of the trip continued trouble-free, with the addition of absolutely gorgeous weather for driving through Eastern Oregon and Washington. It started snowing as we got near the Snoqualmie pass, but it was above freezing by then so we motored on and made it to Gig Harbor in time for a dinner of Cuban style pork roast ala Sylvia.
Gig Harbor Washington, northeast of Tacoma. That’s Dunc’s boat, Good Thunder, under a tan cover on the left side of the dock.
Duncan and Sylvia (and his daughter Regan while she attends school nearby) live on Good Thunder, a 62-foot wooden twin-diesel-powered boat. She’s a beamy 17 feet wide, so accommodations are snug but comfortable - compared to Sea Legs, the 32-foot old Chris-Craft on which we spent summers as kids on Lake Macatawa, near Holland, Michigan.
Good Thunder. It has all the mod cons – three cabins, two (very compact) baths; two generators; galley with stove, oven, full-height fridge, dishwasher, microwave, and compactor; laundry; and sewage treatment plant. We watched Downton Abbey on their flat-screen TV.
The Fun Stuff
To bookend the trip there was more car stuff. Duncan is a Ford man (So was Dad.) with a special soft spot for sixties’ Mustangs, Shelby GT350s and Cobras. His most recently completed project was a very special ’66 Mustang.