driving coast to coast usa
personality goes a long way
ANDY ENRIGHT PUTS 7,500 MILES ON A BEETLE IN 12 DAYS, SPANNING THE US TWICE.
'Is she dead?' I asked. 'I don't know. Did you hit her?' co-driver Ian Brown enquired. I hadn't, but there she lay, barefoot in the crawler lane of Highway 50, showing no signs of life. It was approaching midnight and snow had started falling. Boldly taking the initiative, Brown poked her with his tripod, whereupon she rolled onto the verge, murmuring incoherently. After propping her against a tree, we rang the Placerville sheriff, who identified her as a well-known local lush. And so marked our first encounter with the law on a two-week journey that would see Volkswagen's latest Beetle clock up over 7,500 miles, taking us from Pacific to Atlantic and back again.
The route was being calculated on the fly. After picking the Beetle up in San Francisco, weather reports had scotched any chance of visiting the northern states, but as we headed into the Sierra night, past the unblinking blackness of Lake Tahoe, the car was creating a good first impression, its eerie blue and red displays marking swift progress. I battled jetlag, anxious to put a few miles on the clock. When rest finally came at the silent village of Lee Vining, both Brown and I were hallucinating through lack of sleep.
As we left California behind and struck out across the high deserts of Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico, so sightings of other Beetles diminished. If ever a car seemed to typify one city, the attitude and zeitgeist of one snapshot in time, the new Beetle is turn of the millennium San Francisco. Haight Ashbury is clogged with them, their determinedly alternative drivers reacting with weary resignation as they become swallowed by the mainstream. Strike east into the real America of the old Route 66, and the ecosystem becomes alien, dominated by eighteen wheeled rigs and four wheel drive sport utes, where folk in petrol stations don't know at which end the engine resides. Everywhere the car stopped east of Las Vegas, it would draw attention, some of which was decidedly unwelcome. Come the Texas panhandle, the police stop score read Brown 2, Enright 2, although on each occasion, the officer was more interested in the car than any moving violation. Darkness proved a welcome ally. Entering Amarillo, the fifth stop looked routine. Travelling at 75 with the rest of the traffic, the police Camaro on the shoulder had accelerated up to a point on our rear three quarter and hauled us in. Not a problem.
After licence and registration formalities, the policeman cocked his head curiously, bug-eyed aviators staring at my tee shirt. Somewhat unfortunately, I was wearing a souvenir shirt from a famous US road race, emblazoned with the legend 'Anyone Can Run Flat Out On A Public Highway.' 'You really believe that, do you boy?' he barked. 'Well, no. No, not really', I temporised, English buffoonery personified. He changed tack, staring contemptuously into the car whilst questioning our sexual orientation. I found this quaintly amusing; an error which resulted in a citation for laughing at a Texan police officer. Half an hour later and $90 lighter we were back on track.
Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas were despatched without further interruption before spending a humid night in Memphis where cockroach crushing in the Elvis Presley Boulevard Inn marked a personal motel nadir. Next morning, we drove into the rising sun over the great muddy artery of the Mississippi, as barges headed south to the soupy waters of the Gulf. The Mississippi defines America, and marked the end of the monotonous plains and the beginning of the South Proper. From here, the road arced southeast, towards Jacksonville and the Sunshine State. Looping down through Daytona, Miami and back up to Tallahassee via the impossibly dreamy Biloxi, Mobile and New Orleans it was time to sample the famous Cajun cuisine. Brown unearthed a Swine Tasting evening at Scuttlebutt's Restaurant, which was effectively a medieval orgy with barbecue sauce, and was the debauched precedent to the grimmest morning I ever care to experience.
So far, the car was bearing up better than we were, although a warning light on the dash informed us that our indicators didn't work. They did. When they did later go on the blink, the warning light staged a no-show. The cream cloth trim is a bad idea, getting grubby remarkably quickly, and the automatic gearbox suffers from a heavily pregnant pause when switching between drive, park and reverse. Interior quality is generally good, although a few plastic fittings, such as cup holders and glove box are prone to failure. Chief sources of annoyance were the omnipresent warning chimes and the obtrusive wind noise above 70mph, but the car had personality, and that goes a long way.
Eight hundred-mile days took huge bites out of Texas, as the Continental Divide was passed in the opposite direction. The cool beauty of White Sands, the dry heat of Tucson and the coruscating sun of the Sonoran desert were all imperiously bested by the VW's air conditioning. California rolled past, a scrolling, north facing theme park, greener by the hour, punctuated by fuel, food and photo stops. As the Golden Gate hove into view through the keening rain, exhaustion was replaced by anticlimax and the penniless realisation that this journey which had so comprehensively depleted our reserves had run like Pacific rain water from the Bug's back. It was better than we were. Way better.