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
My friend Molly works at an animal ER in town, and met up with us around midnight to show us a few bars. I didn’t expect much on a Sunday night, but the local law enforcement certainly did. As we made our way back to the cars after last call we must have passed twenty Interceptors holding down Capitol Street containing what could only have been an invisible riot.
Talk about a sea change- it doesn’t get much more American than waking up in West Virginia and wrapping up in a Jersey City highrise overlooking New York’s skyline.
Birdie’s friend Brad brought us over the river (actually under it, on a subterranean commuter train) and to a kickass place in the East Village simply called “Frank Restaurant.”
The $4 ATM charge was well worth the experience of great food, stylish atmosphere and a surprisingly impressive wine list.
Actually, I shouldn’t have been surprised because rich hipsters love places like this.
Back at Brad’s apartment the nighttime view from the living room was downright inspiring. In the garage the car once again got to rub shoulders (er, fenders) with M3’s and AMG Merc’s… all of which were undoubtedly jealous of our humble ML’s epic expedition.
Even though we still had a couple hundred miles ahead of us, seeing the Atlantic meant we pretty well had this trip in the bag. And despite a few trying moments on those empty highways, we had had smooth sailing from one ocean to another.
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.