The last leg of the ride, New York to Boston, was a well-worn path I had driven many times living in the Northeast. Compared to the nation-spanning conquest we had just completed, it felt like a ride up the block.
I took the wheel with my knees as I wolfed a breakfast sandwich from one hand and sipped lava-hot coffee from the other after a Dunkin’ Donuts stop I demanded. I delegated horn-honking and finger-giving to Birdie who was reading me the GPS’s instructions from the passenger seat.
Try as I might to convince him the drive wheels were in the wrong place he seemed happy with it. I asked him how awesome a light bar would look on Birdie’s ML and he shrugged as she rolled her eyes. Maybe they’ll be convinced when I get that Jurassic Park paintscheme on there…
The last stop before our final destination was Mike’s Pastry- an exceptional canoli purveyor and Boston institution. Bringing home a take from Mike’s for my family would win me some points right off the bat.
Just over an hour later we were pulling into my parent’s lawn. I had been dreaming of ripping a big, ignorant donut to announce my arrival but I aborted when I realized dad had just put down grass seed. I’d need to stay in his good graces a little longer if I expected him to let me use his tools.
A couple days of showing Jess around the North Shore and she was on a plane back to LA. I was left with a very tired SUV that was clamoring for a detailing and an oil change.
Thus concluded the longest and somehow most incident-free land expedition I’d accomplished yet. I don’t care if it was build in ‘Bama or Bremen, those boys at Benz know what they’re doing. Forget selling this rig, I’m adding it to the fleet!
The End • ML Across America
On our last morning in Louisiana we got breakfast at an apparently famous joint called “Mother’s” which was conveniently located about a hundred yards from our hotel. Stoked.
We enjoyed some grits and pancakes while we left our Benz to regale other cars in the Lowes garage with tales of its adventure so far.
Mother’s certainly had the motif and waiting time you’d expect from a famous establishment, but Jess and I had to agree that it might have poured the worst. Coffee. Ever.
Including that time Austin Powers drank poop thinking it was coffee.
Imagine brewing a gallon of coffee, letting it sit for a day, microwaving it, letting it sit for another week, draining the waste oil out of a New York Taxi into it, microwaving it again, and serving it a week later. Unfortunately for Jess, the milk had gone off as well so she was in for an even more trying experience.
Needless to say, we hit Starbucks as soon as we crossed the Alabama state line.
“That’d be a cool photo op,” I thought to myself, but I quickly became distracted as my phone reminded me it was someone’s birthday.
Before I could finish the obligatory wall post a giant Mercedes-Benz emblem rose out of the horizon, foreshadowing the enormous facility it was mounted atop of.
I almost suggested we stop, but Birdie was at the helm and therefore we were WOT in the left lane.
I shifted from Facebook to Google and discovered that not only was there a Mercedes factory here in Tuscaloosa, Alabama- it was where the M-Class was built!
We had inadvertently driven right past the very birthplace of the car we were riding in. Awesome.
We took advantage of the last Bo’Jangles restaurant we would see on a trip (heartbreaking) and proceeded to arrive at the Nashville Econolodge around 10:00PM.
“It’s $42 for a double bed or $47 for a king,” said the surprisingly cheerful dude behind the counter.
“Meeeeeehhhhhhhhhh we’ll take the double.”
Boom, that’s a beer right there.
Like New Orleans, Nashville had three standout qualities that happened to be alliterative. Those being- bands, buskers, and babes.
The last time I passed through Nashville I left with a favorable impression. And that was on mid-week night right after a catastrophic flood.
Tonight was a Saturday, in the throes of college basketball finals, and the scene was unbelievable.
Live music poured out of every door, and when we weren’t in earshot of a bar the street musicians were out in force. And not just your typical gutter punk with an upside-down bucket and two spoons, these were full-fledge rock bands occupying the sidewalk.
I don’t know if there was a convention in town or if the local population is just well-presented, but the women of Nashville are flatout jaw-droppers. What is it about a dress and cowboy boots?
The beads, the booze, the boobs; all tossed in your face like pennies into a fountain.
Unfortunately we were doused in rain as much as debauchery, but a little weather never hurt- uh, nevermind.
We started our experience by ticking off the boxes we knew we had to- streetcar ride (I resisted the urge to try Brando’s bawl), coffee and beignets (say “ben-yay”) at Café Du Monde and a self-guided tour of the French Quarter.
We met up with Cliff again and he showed us his lab in what was, as our cab driver warned en route, “not a good neighborhood to be going to.”
The facility took me back to senior year of college… red dust on everything, tiny fragments in plastic bags, dudes in black t-shirts scribbling notes. Good times.
“You get used to stuff like that living around here,” said Cliff, in his perpetually unfazed Louisiana drawl.
Lunch was, of course, fried shrimp on a sub- which they call a “Po’ Boy” for reasons I never learned. What I didn’t expect was that it was served at a Chinese restaurant. That also sold cereal. “The Chinese setup shop here, and figured out what people wanted to eat,” explained our host. “I guess they stuck with the dragon décor just ‘cuz.”
He also introduced us to a new genre of city dwellers referred to by contributing members of society as “gutter punks.” The gutter punks are part hipster, part flower-child, rolled in under a motif of homeless. They invariably have lots of tattoos, a dog, and rancid hair. Curiously they seem to disappear in bad weather suggesting a “homeless by choice” scenario, which earns them scorn from both sides of the poverty line.
After sharing that cultural gem with us Cliff had to get back to work, so Jess and I were on our own again for sight seeing.
Instead of aquatic creatures, these bowls contained vodka, light rum, 151, amaretto, triple sec, gin, a dash of grenadine and few sneezes of juice.
Despite the fact that this unique container included a necklace-string, by the vendor’s own admission it was not up to the task of supporting the beverage’s weight.
“Hold the bowl from the bottom, don’t wear it around your neck. Because then you’ll be wearing it all over your shirt.”
Based on the jet-exhaust smell the elixir was emitting, I had a feeling it wasn’t going to matter.
Drinking from a fishbowl full of liquor while strolling down Bourbon is perfectly acceptable, almost expected if you’re from out of town. But the practice felt decidedly more embarrassing when we crossed the line out of tourist town and into the abutting residential areas.
Just walkin’. Sucking down a gallon of liquor. Don’t worry about it.
We circled back and landed at another weird restaurant for dinner. I couldn’t resist a menu item called the “Dead Cajun”- a fried burger (yep) injected with cheese and jalapeños, toped with fried onions, fried fries and what I’m pretty sure was just fried lard. Jess Instragramed a picture of it while I called my mum to tell her I loved her before committing to what would surely lead to a heart attack.
To my left a few fellows were cheering on a March Madness NCAA game. Out the window to my right, a woman in sequined sweatpants was beckoning pedestrians to enter a building with the text “LIVE SEX SHOW” over the door in, you guess it, flickering neon. Instead of windows the building had TV monitors looping content that I gathered was taking place inside.
You’d think I would have lost my appetite, but I was starting to get used to the spectacle that is New Orleans.
In case you’re wondering, yes there is an Uptown where locals go. It’s chock full of its own great nightlife and reminds you that NOLA does in fact have residents. But if you’re in town for one night, that’s not where you’re going to end up.
For some reason I remembered Waffle House being awesome… was this the first time I’d been in one sober?
Decidedly undercaffeinated we pressed east toward the state commonly known as Little Weeziana and the legend that is New Orleans.
As soon as we crossed the border the lush flatlands of Texas gave way to swamp. The first giant puddle we saw was literally stagnating below the “Welcome To Louisiana” sign. By the time we had driven fifty miles in I was convinced we were going to get passed on the right by a fanboat.
Birdie scanned the terrain for something to Instagram and commented; “I’m not sure this place is inhabitable.”
I was inclined to agree, as we had yet to locate a Starbucks within reasonable distance from the highway.
Determined to have an authentic Louisiana experience by lunchtime, I scanned Google for the deep south’s favorite chicken and biscuits- Popeye’s.
Actually I was hoping for a Bo’Jangles, which is a superior purveyor of basically the same thing, but we wouldn’t be in their territory for another few days. It’s like being stuck with Krispy Kreme when all you want is Dunkin’ Donuts.
So we ventured into the bayou, wedged our Cali-registered Mercedes between a Silverado on 33’s and a Taurus that looked like it spent all twenty five years of its existence under water.
Territory remained unfamiliar as we tried to order. The chick behind the counter was speaking some dialect of English I was sure couldn’t exist outside of parody skits about this region, and yet…
Anyway we got the chicken and got the hell out of there, charging into a torrential rainstorm on the way to our final destination.
Birdie’s mum had been exceptionally kind and sent us a first world care package in the form of a couple nights at the Loews Downtown. Our rig would be getting valet parked for the first time since W163 was the current M-Class chassis code.
The place was spectacular- and downright majestic in comparison to the Dallas Motel 6 we had inhabited the night before, where I had tried to microwave Ramen noodles in the ice bucket in an effort to conceal the dead-body odor emanating from under the beds.
We hit the hotel bar before we met up with a bro of mine for just long enough to spot no less than four Tommy Bahama shirts. I was surprised we didn’t see more, considering that there were five dudes in the place.
With that scene exhausted we caught a cab uptown to a place I can’t remember the name of and linked up with Cliff, an old friend from my archaeological field school. He’s a NOLA native who works in cultural resource management in town.
Giving us an expedited rundown of the city he told us that while Bourbon Street and the French Quarter were worth seeing, the city’s life spread far beyond what I’d seen on Girls Gone Wild. From what I could see he was right… but I wasn’t that concerned with seeing how the locals lived. Bring on the beads.
Despite having come across favorable weather for the first time since L.A., an unlimited supply of lattes could not have kept me awake on I-20. In fact, I’m pretty sure we didn’t pass a commercial establishment on this road that would know what the hell a latte is.
We stopped in a town called Tatum to stretch our legs and refuel the Benz. I poured out of the car and tripped to the fuel bowser.
INSERT CARD OR PAY INSIDE.
ADD CAR WASH?
ADD HOT DOG TO YOUR PURCHASE FOR $.99?
ADD GIANT SLURPEE TO YOUR PURCHASE FOR $1.99?
CASH OR CARD?
CREDIT OR DEBIT?
ERROR PLEASE PAY INSIDE
By about the third question on this SAT-level refuel I had had a feeling that I was going to be lured/forced into this sketchy establishment somehow.
I kicked down the sliding door and was overcome with the smell of chemical-based floor cleaner, fried food and little hint of stale fart.
Fluorescent lights flickered overhead while a few ancient corndogs rolled lazily on a heater looking about as enticing the idea of Kimbo Slice babysitting your kids.
But all was forgiven when I made eyes on the Hostess Fruit Pies, and soon enough we were on our way with a full fuel tank and high-fructose corn syrup in my gullet.
I had eaten the whole Pie before I realized my debit card was still sitting on the counter, now almost a hundred miles behind us.
“Hey Birdie, how much money you got?”
Luckily her cousins were buying dinner in Dallas that night, so I thought I’d be able to refrain from racking up international charges on my Australian debit card for at least a few more days.
Sadly I could only hold on to that dream until we discovered Elm Street- the Dallas nightlife hub locally known as “Deep Ellum” which I learned later referred to the phonetic spelling of “Deep Elm” when read with a southern drawl.
With the famous last words; “Cheapest single-malt you got with two ice cubes in it,” out came the Commonwealth MasterCard, $7 transaction fees be damned.
The Dallas nightlife might have been one of the biggest surprises of the entire expedition. Blocks and blocks of bars and music venues are packed into the Deep Ellum district. It has the gritty-warehouses-converted-to-party-spot vibe and therefore was crawling with hipsters (I didn’t think they knew Texas existed). Even downtown had a few good places that were kind enough to oblige us with service moments before last call. The Texans sure know how to party.
The lack of a Chuck Norris sighting and the pungent odor of our hotel room were really the only negs of the Dallas stop. Yee-haw.
Back on the main street I detected a strong concentration of old hippies as we passed more than two art galleries with hand-painted signs. My suspicions were confirmed when the guy running the coffee shop was rocking round specs and an Indiana Jones hat. At least he was kind enough to recommend a place for breakfast.
Westbound again we took US-180 towards Texas. Kind of.
I was at the helm and kept the revs high enough to keep myself interested, which meant another workout for the 4×4’s well-exercised suspension. Sway bars creaked as I loaded the left, powered on, braked, loaded the right, powered on again… and carried on for another hour or so until, as if by divine intervention, somebody ironed out the road and we were gunbarrel straight again.
The Merc settled out of the last corner and I put the hammer down. The usually subtle V6 made itself known with a kitten-roar as the MPG gauge plunged into single digits and the rev counter surged. Tunnel vision set in and we figured out about how quickly the SUV could travel before its drag coefficient got the better of it.
Despite the throat-clearing I allowed our engine, the ride to Roswell seemed to take forever and a half… an annoyance amplified by the disappointment that occurred at not seeing a single alien in the entire ten hour period we spent in town.
Which is, by the way, well worth skipping next time you’re passing through the region.
Kicked off our first morning outside California with a tour of Mesa, AZ courtesy of my uncle Bob. The place is pretty much exclusively populated with massive mansions and gated communities… all of which had just had a brown/tan/reddish brown paint bomb dropped on them from 32,000 feet. At least that was the case on the side of the highway we saw.
The city abuts national park land, so suburbia backs right up to wide open desert. It’s bordered on the other side by golf courses, and everything gazes westward at the Phoenix skyline.
I was pretty eager to get on the road, because one of the free maps we snagged from AAA in Los Angeles laid out a spiderweb of dirt roads all over this state, and I was keen to see Birdie’s skills on wheels when conditions get primitive and there’s no Starbucks for 1,000 miles. Well, maybe 100 miles.
We deviated from the main highway shortly after leaving Mesa and proceeded down US-76 which, despite being a state highway, is a long and lonely dirt track. Beyond ruts, puddles, blind corners, and oft-flooded dips, there ain’t much out there.
I wasn’t exaggerating when I described it as “lonely.” In about three hours we passed one other truck, three dogs, and about a million cacti (Which were, much to Birdie’s amusement, dusted with snow). Somewhere during hour two it occurred to me that I hadn’t checked to see if the Benz was carrying a jack- or even a spare tire for that matter. Naturally this was a concern I dared not voice, for fear of jinxing the integrity of our Michelin Latitude HP’s.
Thankfully, the issue didn’t come up. Birdie took to the dirt like a regular Colin McRae (RIP), skipping the ML over loose granular like the world’s biggest flatstone on a halcyon lake. The amber “/!\” light flashed in the speedometer as the 4ETS worked up a sweat pushing power to the tracting wheels to keep the car in motion.
We cleared the dirt without injury or damage and if that weren’t enough good luck for the day, the trail intersected with the main road at a Dairy Queen/western novelty store.
The car was now sporting a healthy dose of mud splatter, and I was confident our off-road street cred had increased substantially (from zero).
We spent the rest of the day on main roads and wound up in Silver City, New Mexico.
When we arrived it was dark, snowy, and miserable. We had some apprehensions but didn’t want to drag ass another 100 miles to the next settlement, so we shacked up at the Motel 6.
In another brilliant stroke of luck the previous occupant of our room had left three microwavable dinners in our minifridge.
“Hell yeah, free dinner!”
We dined on Stouffer’s finest and headed back into town. You don’t come to a weird, creepy looking place like this and not hit the bar.
We took two laps down the main drag and settled on a place called Buffalo Bar- The only place open.
Turned out to be a good call, because as soon as I crossed the threshold I worked out that I was the least badass bloke in there.
Two enormous country boys were holding down the bar, while a Boss Hog lookalike was orbiting the pool table with a bolo tie around his neck and a shortbarrel shotgun slung over his back.
I went for a Bud Light and Birdie braved the cocktail menu. The bolo guy, a sophisticatedly-haggard looking gentleman in maybe his 60’s, sauntered over to order something similar. The drink came back, he dropped his firearm on the bar next to me and returned to his pool game.
With facial scars, toothpick hanging off his lip and a cowboy hat arresting a greasy flow of grey hair he was easily the most interesting feature of the Buffalo Bar. I couldn’t help but overhear his discourse with one of the other patrons; it sounded like they were trying to complete some kind of transaction. Regardless, it was the old man’s response that was priceless; “I only deal in guns and gold,” he grumbled in a Jeff-Bridges-in-True-Grit voice. Which was of course, exactly how I had hoped he’d talk.
The bartender seemed to transcend the stereotype though, with an orderly appearance and understandable dialect. He was even kind enough to send us off with a six pack of “to-go” beers (Motel 6 minibar was out of Bombay Sapphire).
Two nights in L.A. gave us enough time to see some old friends, get a few maps, and hit Sprinkles in 90210. I also convinced Birdie to do my laundry- it was an easy sell when she realized the alternative was to be trapped in her SUV with my unlaundered ski socks for two weeks.
We made it out of la la land by mid-morning and rode through torrential, seat-heater blasting, latte-fogging-my-window, rain for a couple hours.
It cleared up by the time we hit the desert, and when signs for Joshua Tree National Park made themselves apparent we veered off the highway and headed into the bush.
Turns out “the Tree” is a hopelessly inadequate moniker… because of trees, there are a shitload.
The moment you pass into National Park land the scenery goes full Dr. Seuss. The surface is a patchwork of coarse sand and rocks punctuated by monolithic heaps of smooth stones the size of our Mercedes. And between those commanding bouldermounds are hundreds of strange little trees that bear resemblance to an inverted cross-section of a human lung.
Thanks to the brochure we acquired in exchange for paying the park’s road toll I was able to identify these as,
wait for it;
Boom, box ticked.
These weird plants aren’t really trees- they’re Yucca Brevifolia, which is a derivative of agave (the stuff you get tequila from). I’m guessing because they taste as gross as they look, the name “yucca” comes from the reaction of pioneers who tried to eat it.
You’re probably thinking; “Yucca Brevifolia has such a nice ring to it, why change the name to ‘Joshua Tree’”?
The answer to that is decidedly less exciting than I had hoped. The Mormons, in their infinite desert-crossing wisdom, reckoned the weirdly shaped tree looked like the biblical figure Joshua with his arms outstretched in prayer. Of course it does.
The only biblical figure I’d ever heard of is Jesus, so I’m gonna have to take the National Park Service’s word for that one.
Semantics aside the park really is spectacular, and even has a few 4WD-only routes for stalwart adventurers. The ML did fine in loose sand and soldiered down miles of track without a complaint, even with the road tires it was wearing. In fact, the ride was smooth enough for me to wolf the rest of our Sprinkles cupcake cache while at the helm.
Having popped out at the eastern end of the Tree, we linked up with US-10 again and dropped the hammer across the barren wasteland of southeastern California and western Arizona to the city of Mesa, AZ where my aunt and uncle were staying at their place.
Third night of travel and we had only made it one state over… but we hadn’t broken anything. Chalk it up to good luck so far.
On March 15, 2012 the day had finally arrived for Birdie and I to pack up our rig and push off for Boston. But since my co-driver had PSIA testing until late afternoon, I made the most of my last day in Mammoth Lakes by getting on the sauce and hitting the slopes.
Uh, not in that order of course.
My roommates and I had returned from the bar the night before and decided we needed to record a music video to a song our new roommate Eli had written. By the time we were satisfied with a tenth take, the sun was starting to creep up and the lifts would be open in a little over three hours.
The decision to forgo sleep altogether was made when I realized Netflix had Hot Dog available for streaming- just what I needed to get amped for my day on the hill.
With daybreak officially in progress I rallied the crew they same way whoever wakes up first in Apartment Five always did- by yelling incoherently at the fridge and revving the coffee grinder like a Hayabusa.
Lanton and Dominic powered on, Eli was less responsive.
Nevertheless, we were on the hill by 9:00.
Well… at the lodge. Reviving ourselves with Bloody Marys.
By the time we had finished breakfast Eli was ready to join the living, and we headed straight for the summit. Despite low visibility at the top, the snow was great if a bit chunky. We were able to get some great turns in on the steepest stuff I’d hit all season.
The summit had been disappointingly bare for most of this year, and I was pretty stoked to be able to leave Mammoth with at least a taste of what it’s really known for.
Unfortunately the warm weather turned the snow into flypaper by mid-afternoon. My wax was literally melting again and had about as much glide as 10-grit sandpaper running over an old brick.
With my co-driver still preoccupied with her snowboard-certification test I had a few hours to kill, so I got dragged back to the bar for my last Mai Tais in Mammoth. A few minutes (hours?) later Birdie showed up; sunglasses on, car keys in hand.
“You ready to go?”
Still in my ski gear I thought back to my apartment, where the rest of my belongings were scattered like… well, not like I was about to move out, that’s for sure. So I came up with an evasive answer I thought would buy me some time.
“Uh, are you ready?”
“Aaalright. Fellas, it’s been real.”
When we got back to my apartment, Birdie was less than pleased to see that I had yet to initiate the packing process.
“Also, you’re driving to L.A. tonight,” I said as I crammed my ski wax, a few shirts, and two pairs of Calvin Kleins into the last cardboard box I had saved for this occasion.
Six hours later we had made it to the Shannon family’s West L.A. house, where we were greeted by two pint-sized dogs and a massive TV.
This would be our staging area for the 4,000 mile expedition we were looking down the barrel of.
Hope there’s Red Bull in the fridge.
Freshly jobless again at the end of my west coast ski season, I was able to talk Jessica “Birdie” Shannon into spending the second half of March 2012 co-driving to Boston with me. In her car.
And this was not another ski-bum beater… she had a beautiful(ly dented) black-on-black Mercedes ML that I had been eying hungrily since the first time she gave me a lift to the slopes.
Apparently her family was keen to unload the 4×4 they affectionately referred to as “The Champ” …a title earned by surviving nearly fifteen years of shenanigans from Lake Tahoe to Beverly Hills.
The Benz was marred by substantial body damage to the starboard side (maybe from its time as an extra in Jurassic Park II?) but I was convinced I’d be able to sell it for them easily enough on the east coast.
I mean, a double-black Mercedes with California tags? I reckoned the lot of “boston.craigslist.org” would be stoked on it.
I’ll write the trip up in subsequent posts as we did it- in about ten stages. Enjoy…