“Today is one of my favourite days” is a phrase that anyone who has ever toured with Noddy Watts will know well, and you quickly learn that he really means it. If you are fortunate enough to spend a month on one of his tours, you will hear this every morning and never tire of it. Noddy’s passion for the USA and the places visited on these tours is apparent from day one, and will last through to the last day of the trip — he is a man who loves the USA, and Route 66 in particular, and loves to share this passion.
Knowing Noddy from events like Beach Hop and Jalopy Dust Up — and seeing the fun that he and the participants have on these tours — was one of the reasons we went on one of his tours. While a lot of companies offer Route 66 tours of differing lengths and in various modes of transport, for us it was always going to be the self-drive tour, Kiwis on Route 66. The business is obviously doing something right, and has the balance of cars, history, and scenic stops just right for guys and gals alike. Kiwis on Route 66 is now in its sixth year, and the tours are so popular that they are already booked out for 2016 and are heavily booked for 2017. We were looking forward to finding out if the trip would live up to our expectations.
Day one is a long one, as this holiday starts with a flight from Auckland at 4pm, which — thanks to crossing the dateline — arrives in Los Angeles at midday the same day. Feeling a tad weary from the 13-hour flight — and with our bodies thinking it was 5am — it was great to see Noddy and the rest of the expectant travellers at LAX. After a quick re-acquaintance with a few familiar faces and introductions to those we didn’t know, we were whisked away to the Marriott Hotel Los Angeles. With Kiwis on Route 66 being targeted squarely at the Kiwi market, we were a bit surprised to have a few brave Aussies come along; before long, there was the usual trans-Tasman banter going on at the pool and then the bar.
After a few hours of relaxation, we had our first ‘formal’ get-together, which consisted of everyone giving their own introduction and expectations of the trip before being issued with a cellphone, chilly bin (‘Esky’ for the Aussies), and two-dozen bottles of water. We also got the rundown on the Mustangs we would be collecting the next day — if we were lucky, they would be new — and a briefing on driving in the USA, consisting of simple guidelines on etiquette, speed limits, and what not to do if stopped by the police.
Noddy also made us aware that, being rentals, the Mustangs would probably be speed limited to 100mph, which, he said, is a good thing, as, while the police are more tolerant than their New Zealand equivalents, anyone caught doing more than that speed would miss at least one night of the tour due to being behind bars. This warning was duly noted by most! Another ominous warning was that, while this was a holiday, it would sometimes be hard work, and there might be tears — we were told there were some long days ahead; we would be averaging 450km a day for the next few weeks, with around 700km some days!
The next morning began with nervous expectation, as we would get our cars and hit the road. The trip we had been planning for more than a year was suddenly becoming very real! The Marriott has a Hertz office in the foyer, so getting our car was no more complicated than filling out the paperwork and going outside where the cars were waiting to be collected. I’ll say upfront that I am not a Ford guy, but the sight of 21 brand-new 2015 Mustang convertibles is a fine one. The cars were already getting a lot of attention from the hotel staff, guests, and locals — something that would continue for the next few weeks.
In the pre-tour information, we had been given the dimensions of the boot and advised to have soft suitcases that could be squeezed into the diminutive space. There is a reasonable amount of space there; it was just a matter of figuring out how to fit everything in. After a few attempts, everyone found a way of getting all, or at least the majority of, their gear in.
After a quick training session on the Hertz ‘Never Lost’ GPS, we left in convoy for the freeway to Bakersfield, which, despite it not being rush hour, was one heck of an introduction to USA driving for many of the group. The instructions were simple enough: head to the 405 north, onto the I5 towards San Francisco, up and over ‘The Grapevine’, then onto Highway 99 to Bakersfield. What could possibly go wrong! With heavy traffic and varying levels of confidence, it didn’t take long before we were scattered across all the lanes of the interstate, with some couples seemingly on a mission to get to Bakersfield as quickly as possible, and others content to cruise along and enjoy the drive. This pretty much set the pattern for the days to come.
Most organized tours are set around routines, but, being self-drive, this trip had a degree of flexibility that was one of its attractions. Starting each morning with a daily briefing, at which we were given the planned itinerary for the day, we would hit the road for varying hours of driving, stopping at points of interest and arriving at the hotel somewhere between three and six. A session in the pool would be soon followed by another at the bar, before we headed to an evening meal either in-house or at a local restaurant. This might sound a bit mundane and repetitive, but, right from day one, we discovered that when Noddy was involved, it was anything but.
Arriving in Bakersfield after a few hours of cruising with the top down and the temperature in the low 30s, we certainly felt the pool calling. After a couple of hours of relaxing, we were off to the Buck Owens Crystal Palace next door. Bakersfield’s version of the Grand Old Opry had live music, cold beer, and served a damn fine steak — what more could you ask! The line-dancing locals had us a bit concerned, but after a few beers and cocktails there were soon a few wobbly Kiwis amongst them — and I think that, by the end of the evening, we had scared all the locals away. It could have been the impromptu ‘Ten Guitars’, sung with more enthusiasm than talent, that finally did it. Whatever the case, we had a great time.
The next morning began a bit earlier than a few people wanted it to, with a combination of jet lag, fatigue, and a big night reminding them that this trip was a marathon, not a sprint. Soon we were on the road again: a mere 287 miles to Las Vegas through the Mojave Desert, stopping there to visit a living legend, Gene Winfield. Gene has been building hot rods, customs, and racing cars since before most of us on the tour were born. Opening his first speed shop ‘Windy’s Custom Shop’ in a rebuilt chicken house in 1948, he has probably forgotten more than many of us will ever know about customs, but the enthusiasm is still there — Gene is still building and painting cars despite being 88 years old. Having done a bit of research before the trip, I thought I knew a bit about Gene and his career. However, on meeting the man, I soon realized how little I knew, and was amazed at how much he has crammed into his life, with movie and TV cars and props, models, and so much more. Hearing Gene talk about cars he has built and people he has worked with left me in awe of this amazingly talented yet humble man, and I felt truly privileged to have met him and had him show us through his museum, which is also his home. (Read more about Gene here).
From Windy’s, it was off to ‘Peggy Sue’s’ — a really neat ’50s-themed diner — for lunch, before the run into Las Vegas, which we managed to hit at rush hour. If people found the traffic intimidating, the nightlife in Las Vegas was certainly an experience that would blow their minds, with pretty much anything and everything there to be enjoyed. We were staying at Harrah’s, smack in the middle of Vegas, and Noddy offered to take anyone one who wanted to come on a walking night tour that started at ‘Toby Keith’s I Love this Bar and Grill’ in the hotel. This is a great country and western–themed bar, with the actual bar laid out in the shape of a giant guitar, and some really talented bar staff who make the efforts of Tom Cruise in Cocktail look tame! The barman’s signature trick was walking around the bar with three bottles stacked one on top of the other on his forehead! Noddy then played the Pied Piper, waving a little orange flag and leading the rest of us astray through the various casinos and clubs, past the fountains at Bellagio, before we wound up with a meal in downtown Vegas — an amazing night out!
Having the luxury of spending two nights in Las Vegas meant we were able to do a bit of sightseeing, with a few ‘must see’ tips from Noddy. First on the to-do list was the Hoover Dam on the Nevada and Arizona border, a simply staggering bit of Depression-era engineering that was completed in just five years. Standing more than 700 feet high, and consisting of 6.6 million tons of concrete, the dam generates power for more than a million homes and was built in the ’30s for around $50 million. It’s an engineering marvel even by today’s standards, and it is hard to believe that it was completed way back in 1936!
Leaving the dam, we had time for a quick lunch at one of Las Vegas’ discount outlet shopping malls before most of the blokes ditched their wives and headed for the Shelby Museum, a true mecca for the Ford lovers — and it’s free! The museum provides a unique opportunity to learn the history of Carroll Shelby — his connection to racing, and his inspired engineering in fitting the then-new small-block Ford into the AC Ace to create the Cobra. The museum has some stunning examples of Shelby vehicles, from the ’60s to the present.
Last car stop of the day was the Quad Auto Collection — just a few steps from Harrah’s — which is billed as ‘The world’s largest and finest classic car showroom’. I don’t know if it is the largest, but it sure does have a fine collection of classics and muscle cars on display, and just about everything you see is for sale. Although you would need to have had a good day in the casino to afford some of the cars on display, there were also quite a few reasonably priced examples.
It was interesting to learn that Bill Harrah once had the world’s largest collection of cars, specializing in rarities. He bought cars of which there was only one built or only one left in existence, or the first and last model of car, or those with interesting features, history, or celebrity owners. When Bill opened his museum in Nevada to the public in 1962, he had 325 of these cars. As his hotel and casino empire prospered, his collection also grew. At the time of his death in 1978, he had more than 1400 cars in his collection. Sadly, when Holiday Inn acquired his hotels and casinos, the bulk of the collection was auctioned off — for more than $100 million — with only 175 of the rarest cars kept to create the National Automobile Museum in Reno, the town where Harrah opened his first casino.
After such a long and busy day, and a drive of around 400 miles to look forward to the next day, the smart thing to do would have been to have an early night. But we were in Vegas, and, with the assistance of our illustrious leader, our group was going to make the most of it. Leaving Toby Keith’s, we were greeted by the craziest party bus I have ever seen, complete with a lava lamp pole that changed colour as we drove, and a sound system loaded with Kiwi music. Once we were back on the Vegas streets, it was party time — this time in the older parts of Las Vegas, well away from the strip and the casinos. With street after street of music, performers, ‘celebrities’ posing for photos, partying, and people generally just having a good time, we got to see how crazy Las Vegas can be, and learnt that this really is a city that does not sleep — although we soon needed to.
Leaving Las Vegas at way-too-early o’clock — OK, it was 9am — we regrouped 30 miles out of town for a briefing on the day, and it was pretty quick and to the point: It’s a long day of close to 400 miles, so set the GPS for the hotel, watch out for the cops, and slow down in the small towns — typically to around 20mph — as they will be there waiting for you. We were to discover these were very different roads from the interstates we had been travelling on so far; more like our own State highways, but in a desert with a lot of big trucks and a higher speed limit. The recommendation for getting past the big rigs was to nail it, get out, pass, and get back in as soon as possible, while remembering the 100mph warning! This proved to be a bit of fun, with some taking full advantage of the wide open spaces to give the little V6-powered Mustangs a run. It was soon discovered that they were not speed limited, and it would be very easy to end up with an appointment with a judge!
Thankfully, the first big day of driving passed without incident, and we rolled into Wendover late in the afternoon. What an interesting place it is! Situated on the border of Utah and Nevada, with Wendover Will watching over it, Wendover is a town of two halves — gambling and money on the Nevada side, with the Utah part of town more reserved and, sadly, appearing broken by comparison. Even the casinos on the border have their car parks in Utah, as the dirt is apparently much cheaper there! That’s not to say there is not plenty to see, as Wendover is home to an active airfield that is very popular with the fly-in gamblers, and is steeped in history as being the prep site for the Enola Gay and the missions that ushered in the nuclear era through the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945. The museum at the airfield was a little hard to find at first — it’s beneath the tower near the car park — but it was well worth the effort, as it contains a wealth of information and models, and, best of all, it’s free.
Also free at this time of year is a visit to the Bonneville Salt Flats — or, in our case, salt lakes, as there had been a heap of rain in the previous week and the flats were under a foot of water. Even with the added water, they were a magnificent sight, and, as has been mentioned by so many people, they are one of the few places you can actually see the curvature of the earth — although the sight of the water curving really messed with my head. While we still had a great photo opportunity with the line-up of Mustangs, the lake was a bit disappointing, because many of us had intended to kiss the salt at this great place. There was one small patch of salt above the water near the famous Bonneville sign, but when someone bent down to kiss it, they found a dog turd and quickly thought better of kissing the ground around it! Also let down were the group from General Motors, who were driving across the States in their prototype electric vehicles — all very stealthy, except for the crazy camo-style paint jobs that made them stand out a mile away. They had been hoping to have a blast on the salt to see how well the vehicles went, but ended up driving them in the salty water instead.
From Bonneville, it was a fairly relaxed drive of 120 miles or so across Utah to the state capital of Salt Lake City (SLC), arriving with plenty of time to get out and explore the town. After hearing how broke Utah was, we found the busy downtown district of SLC a revelation, with plenty of construction going on, including new apartment buildings — it seemed like much of the USA: many rural areas in decay but the cities apparently thriving.
Utah is well known as the home of the Latter Day Saints church, so, after a couple of hours wandering the town, we had to check out Temple Square, which is literally the heart of SLC. Open to the public, the centrepiece of the 10-acre square is the magnificent Salt Lake Temple, which towers 210 feet over the square. Started in 1853 and completed 40 years to the day later, the 250,000-square-foot temple cost almost $3.5million to build back in the 1800s! Surrounding the temple are assembly halls, administration buildings, a visitors centre, and the famous Salt Lake Tabernacle.
As luck would have it, in this relatively dry state there was a boutique brewery over the road from the hotel, which welcomed the thirsty Kiwis and Aussies, who were in need of rehydration. This kicked off a great night in SLC, with a moment of humour when our John decided to recreate another John’s ponytail incident, which caused much hilarity for us but left the server a bit confused.
SLC has a strong cycling community and has bikes for hire for a couple of bucks an hour, with unmanned pick-up and drop-off points throughout the city — this reduces traffic and helps people to keep fit. Pedestrian safety is taken seriously, with bins of flags on either side of the road at crossings, so that people can wave the bright orange flags as they cross the road to make themselves more visible to motorists — another simple but very effective idea.
On Sunday morning, we were fortunate to be allowed in to see rehearsals of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir prior to their televised show — the longest regularly broadcast show in the world, with performance number 4472 being televised that morning. The rehearsal was an incredible experience — to hear the huge choir and orchestra in one of the most amazing venues in the world was truly moving.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay too long, as the longest drive of the trip awaited us — more than 400 miles to Casper, Wyoming. This was possibly the most boring drive of the tour, with interstate all of the way and a view that consisted of mile after mile of nothing more than scattered scrub-covered desert that reminded me more of the Australian outback than my expectations of the USA. Given the hostile nature of the area, and temperatures in the high 30s, we were stunned to pass a cyclist towing a trailer as we crossed the continental divide at 7170 feet. He was one brave soul, as he was quite literally in the middle of nowhere, and at that altitude his lungs must have been burning.
It was also quite bizarre, given the altitude and temperatures in the high 30s, to have snow-covered peaks around us as we drove through the desert with the top down. The only plus for us, with all the open country’s miles of visibility and the lack of traffic, was the opportunity to confirm that the Mustangs were definitely not governed. Several of us took advantage of the opportunity, with figures of 128mph to 130mph being thrown around the hotel pool in Caspar that night.
Casper is the second largest city in Wyoming, and is nicknamed ‘Oil City’. While it has a long history of oil and the cowboy culture, it didn’t seem very tourist focused. For us, it was just a hotel stop in the middle of nowhere. One poor bloke forgot we were 2000 miles from the coast and ordered the oysters when he saw them on the menu. He was surprised at how tough and overcooked they were — I guess he hadn’t eaten mountain oysters before! With a few beers and a bit of ribbing, he eventually got through them all.
If the drive to Casper had been boring, the drive from Casper to Rapid City, in South Dakota, was nothing short of sensational, starting with some great roads winding through the hills to Mt Rushmore. The actual Mt Rushmore National Memorial was a bit underwhelming — a bit like Stonehenge, where you have an expectation and, sadly, the reality doesn’t quite measure up. The carving of the faces of the four presidents is around 18 metres tall, but, from the viewing area a few hundred metres away, it looks far smaller, which lessens the impact of what was an amazing feat for the Depression-era sculptors. Also surprising was that this rock carving took almost three times as long to create as the Hoover Dam took to build — although the cost was far lower, at ‘only’ $1 million.
Leaving Mt Rushmore, we headed through the quaint town of Keystone, a proper ‘old West’ town, before our last scheduled stop of the day at Bear Country, where we would get to drive through the wildlife park with bears and plenty to look at. Some may question the sanity of driving through a wildlife park in a convertible with only a soft top to protect us, but Noddy assured us that he hadn’t lost anyone yet. So, most of the party followed him through. It was quite an amazing experience to watch the 200kg-plus black bears wandering across the road and along the side of the car, literally inches away, yet we felt safe as houses. Seeing a 400kg grizzly was a bit more intimidating! Last stop in the park was the juvenile bear enclosure, where a dozen or so young bears were playing, fighting, and just having fun. We could have watched their antics for hours but we had places we needed to be.
The day we drove from Rapid City to Sioux Falls was a busy one, with heaps to see on the 350-mile plus drive, starting with a visit to the town of Wall — a real Western town with some of the best Western outfitters in the country. If you wanted some snakeskin boots or a Stetson, that was the place to find them. After a couple of hours of shopping, it was time to regroup for one of the few convoy drives of the tour — into the Badlands. The landscape of this sacred Native American area is stunning, eroded by water and wind over the centuries to create a natural masterpiece that we humans could never replicate. I can imagine that many a Western movie has been filmed there, as the surroundings are perfect for it.
From the natural beauty of the Badlands, it was off down the I90 to the tiny town of Murdo, home of the Pioneer Auto Show — the most amazing collection in such an unlikely place. Way back in 1954, Dick Geisler opened a Phillips 66 gas station on what was a busy corner at the time. To entice people to stop and buy gas, he displayed a few vintage cars in the parking area. It didn’t take long for Dick to realize that people love old cars, and he began collecting them in earnest. Now run by his son Dave, the collection is housed behind the gas station, and the Geisler family has a revolving stock of classics, muscle cars, tractors, pedal cars, models, and memorabilia that has to be seen to be believed. At any time, the family has around 275 cars, 60 tractors, and a similar number of motorbikes in the 30 buildings that house the collection. There is even an old tow truck from the Lambrecht collection, which we featured back in NZV8 Issue No. 99. It looks right at home amongst the other vehicles in the yard. From the Pioneer Auto Show, it was a mere 210 miles to our night’s stop near the South Dakota / Minnesota border.
So far, the trip had been planned so that a long and tiring day was usually followed by a shorter and easier one. After the action-packed marathon the day before, we had been hoping for a quieter day for the run to La Crosse. Sadly, that was not the case, and the run sheet at breakfast showed we had a second consecutive day of travelling more than 300 miles. The upside was that we would be on the interstate for some of the way, so the driving time would not be too bad. We could expect to take around five hours to get through the three states, with a couple of stops on the way.
Check back here later for part two, as Kevin and co explore the depths of rural America, drool over incredible custom machinery, and carry on down the all-American tapestry that is Route 66.
This article was originally published in NZV8 Issue No. 124. You can pick up a print copy or a digital copy of the magazine below: