KC to LA, part 3: American Le Mans
October 15, 2013—As I diced through slower Grand Junction traffic in a silent, blind rage, Ben began to snicker. Surprisingly, this did not improve my disposition. It was around this time that we discovered that the 911’s headlights we as effective as birthday candles. I turned on the high beams and they weren’t much better. On a positive note, I don’t think they were powerful enough to blind oncoming cars.
In response to his laughter I felt compelled to share my disappointment and question his constitution and necessity for comfort. While I was furious, I also realized that simply abandoning the trip was more trouble than it was worth and I resolved to see the drive to its end. Accordingly, I recognized that by making a point, such as forcing us to eat at a Carl’s Jr., the tension would only escalate. Also, one of us might shit our pants in the Utah desert (my money was on him).
I turned the Porsche into a restaurant called “Texas Roadhouse” that looked like a pseudo-twangy version of TGI Friday’s or Applebee’s. It was. We walked in to discover a long wait for a table and decided to eat at the bar. We sat in temporary silence waiting for the bartender to take our order; but preferring to resolve the matter, I tried to explain to Ben just why I was so upset, “When we talked about this drive, we spoke about it in terms of the Cannonball Run and hoped to MAYBE get a couple hours of sleep, if we were quick enough, and still arrive at Supercar Sunday at seven AM.”
He nodded and I continued in a measured, clipped manner, “stopping at restaurants, getting a table, sitting down, these are all things that just kill our time. My priority, aside from our safety and the car’s, is minimizing our time. Seeking out some diner, miles from the freeway, is just foolish if we’re really trying to manage our time. Then, arriving there only to discover that they’re closed for dinner is beyond absurd. This whole episode makes me question your priorities and understanding of how difficult it is to drive for roughly twenty four hours straight.”
Ben replied that he is at a point in life where he values his comfort and that he’s less than willing to forego a proper meal for a day. “Look, it’s a good opportunity to get out of the car, stretch, and be comfortable for a moment. We’ve been driving for twelve hours. Why not enjoy it?” The argument ended, my anger left me. I didn’t agree with him and it was obvious that we had different priorities, but further bickering would only make the second half of the drive that much harder and solve nothing.
We finished our chicken sandwiches and Ben paid. He also thanked me for my commitment. I was almost embarrassed. We walked out to the car, snapped some pics, refueled (since we were already off the highway) and we found I-70 once again. Thankfully, the dark road was practically empty west of Grand Junction. The headlights were dangerously useless and I couldn’t see very far ahead as we pierced the darkness. I had to toss my gloves off the dashboard because of their reflection in the windshield.
Dimming the dash lights didn’t help much either. There was a bit of starlight as the Milky Way illuminated but it was a new moon and hence there wasn’t enough light to make a difference. Some time in the darkness we crossed into Utah. In my opinion, southern Utah is the most beautiful area in the continental US. It pained me to cross it while the lights were out—the scenery is incomparable. If you’ve never been, you owe it to yourself to visit and drive, hike, climb, moonwalk, whatever.
Our headlights would illuminate red sedimentary cliffs fading to black, backlit towers high above. The stars would be obscured behind this jagged, soaring curtain and the road would become twisty. I kept my foot in the throttle even after Ben spotted a ram peering out of the darkness as we sped by in the little 911. The fact that the temperature was rapidly dropping in the desert, and inside the car, was keeping me alert but my eyes were beginning to play tricks on me. As we approached underpasses I’d first spot the grey horizontal walls, above and perpendicular to our path, seemingly unattached to anything and for an instant think I was seeing a ghost.
The first time it happened I was shaken. But remembering that I’d only slept about five hours the night before and that I had now been driving close to sixteen hours I realized that I was just responding to poor lighting and fatigue. By the third or fourth time I saw a “ghost” I just chuckled to myself. Anyway, we had a fuel stop coming up and Ben would be taking over.
We stopped in Richfield and I didn’t bother climbing out of the car, I just jumped over the shifter, let Ben pump the gas and left the key in the ignition. In the brief stop I had become quite cold (not just alert), zipped up my leather jacket and put on my newly-acquired gloves and a bandana that I used to cover my head. It wasn’t a hat, but it would have to do. Giving Ben some quick directions back to the freeway, I pulled up my coat’s short collar and tried to cover my chin and mouth with it. I don’t remember falling asleep but it couldn’t have been long after.
I felt the car slowing down and Ben was saying something. “What?” I asked, my eyes still closed. “I think we’re being pulled over,” he replied urgently. Regaining consciousness, I was immediately struck by how cold the cabin was. Blue and red lights and an intense white flooded the dashboard and headliner. I could see my exhaled breath hanging in the air. “What makes you say that?” I asked sarcastically as I once again tried to retreat into my jacket like a turtle.
Ben brought the car to a stop and it was dead silent. I cranked the window down and checked my watch. It was exactly midnight and it was freezing outside. The cop walked up and asked for Ben’s license and registration. Ben handed him his license and explained that the Porsche wasn’t registered as he had just purchased it. He asked the officer for permission to open the glove box and then pulled out the bill of sale.
The officer asked if we had any weapons and told us to sit tight. Normally, I might have made some joke about a howitzer, but I think my teeth were chattering too loudly to be intelligible (this is not hyperbole, I was becoming hypothermic). When he returned he handed Ben a ticket and said that he had us doing 96 in an 80.
Ben asked him if he could do something about the ticket because technically it wasn’t his fault as the speedo wasn’t working, oh and we’re freezing our asses off because neither does the heat. The officer replied that he wondered why I was in gloves and shivering. He said that he’d knock the ticket down to the minimum. He also suggested Ben have the speedo fixed as soon as we got back to LA.
We thanked him and I rolled up the window. “If the car catches fire, we’ll deal with it. We need to turn the heater on,” I declared. The temperature was down in the twenties according to my iphone and that was in the nearest town, not in the middle of the desert. Although we didn’t really have a way of dealing with a fire I figured that if the car burned, well, at least it would keep us warm. Ben agreed, started the engine and I pulled the lever in front of the shifter all the way back until it was vertical.
Ben let the clutch out and we were underway again without flames appearing in the mirror. More importantly, in less than thirty seconds the interior was noticeably warmer. The heat put me to sleep quickly and I dozed in the dummy seat until Ben nudged me awake an hour later, for another fuel stop. I ran inside, used the restroom and bought a large black coffee. I’m not under the impression that cream or sugar decrease the amount of caffeine; I just like to taste what I’m drinking. I did my best impression of a Le Mans start—I ran outside, jumped in the driver’s seat, left hand on the key, coffee in the right (that’s not very Le Mans, don’t worry about it) and fired the engine.
The 911 came to life with its now familiar report, I slammed the transmission back into first gear and floored the throttle. Ben had gotten us through Utah and Arizona’s corner and we departed from Glendale, Nevada for a late dinner in Las Vegas. I was still tired, but buzzing from the coffee and the finish line was almost in sight.
Eventually, the stars began to vanish as the glow from Las Vegas intensified. We were still twenty or so miles out, but damn, that city is bright and there’s nothing around but dirt and rocks and coyotes. In the distance, a discernible single beam of light ascended to the heavens from the Luxor.
A few minutes later we were crossing Las Vegas on the I-15 looking for our exit. My drowsiness had left me and I was ready for a real meal. When we initially planned this drive, I thought we’d hit Las Vegas later and thought a breakfast would be appropriate, but as I researched I realized that we’d be arriving around two to three in the morning. This means dinner to me. And here we were arriving at about three AM. We exited the highway on to Russell Rd. and saw our restaurant just a bit ahead—Crazy Horse III.
That’s right, we were going to have a late dinner at a strip-club. I’m sorry, ‘gentleman’s club’. After all, we’d heard that they serve sushi and what better place to eat raw fish than at a ‘gentleman’s club’ in the middle of the desert? We parked the car and headed for the door, but were detained because I had my camera bag slung over my shoulder. It was not permitted. You’ll have to forgive me but the bouncer was not swayed even after I explained that I was an up-standing member of the media, so no photos of the sushi dinner.
I ordered California rolls, “best to keep it simple,” I thought, “and skip the maguro and hamachi.” Ben opted to skip dinner altogether, I guess the Texas Roadhouse chicken sandwich had been enough. How was the sushi? Well, I didn’t get food poisoning, which is about the highest compliment I think I could ever give to strip-club sushi.
We skipped the pretty ladies’ advances (I think the brunette really liked me!) as we had a date with car nerds like ourselves. Vegas was our last stop except for gas before Supercar Sunday. It was almost 4:30 AM.
At least now the road was familiar. I had driven this route at least ten times and recognized all of the small towns: Jean, Primm, Baker, Yermo, Barstow. The sun began to rise around Yermo, I think. I caught the first rays in the Porsche’s small, cracked wing mirror and even though we were chasing darkness I pushed the 911 harder. This was our backyard and I was feeling good.
We stopped for gas once more in Victorville and I bought a bottle of Diet Mountain Dew. No reason to skimp on the caffeine now, I thought. Ben was too drowsy to drive so I committed to completing the drive myself, which I was happy about. Traffic was mercifully light entering the Los Angeles megalopolis and the last three freeways were very fast.
Pulling into Supercar Sunday, we felt like conquering heroes. The honored marque was Shelby, but it could have been Yugo for all we cared. I backed the neunelfer into a spot carefully and shut the engine off. I leaned my head back and closed my eyes for a moment until some guy knocked on the window and asked if the car was for sale. I just laughed.
We got out and Ben began telling people how we’d just arrived from Kansas City. “Yup. Cannonball straight.” Well, I might debate the Cannonball part, but yeah we did it straight: a classic Porsche 911 and roughly 1650 miles in about twenty-six hours including the Great Plains, the Rockies, a fight over dinner and differing philosophies, almost freezing, strip-club sushi, a blast through the Mojave and a lot of caffeine. That’s what I call American Le Mans. [kiWO]