Mustang vs the States: leg three
With the Midwest done and dusted, Ollie Marriage takes over as the Mustang's epic adventure heads up and over the Rockies, then across the deserts beyond...
Ha, bloody ha, Dan and Piers. I thought I'd heard chortling in the background when they'd asked me to meet them at the junction of Jefferson Avenue and Iris Hills Lane ("it's only a bit north of Denver..."), and alarm bells should have rung when my taxi driver looked positively gleeful when I informed him I wanted to go to "a suburb called Wellington, it's a bit north".
This feature originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Top Gear Magazine.
Pictures: Justin Leighton
Mustang vs the States: leg one
Mustang vs the States: leg two
Mustang vs the States: leg three
Mustang vs the States: leg fourAdvertisement - Page continues below
Some 90 minutes later I'm standing at a crossroads on a dirt track in the precise middle of nowhere, Colorado, $100 lighter and cursing my colleagues. They turn up, grinning like the berks they are, but not grinning quite so widely when, handover complete, I drive off, leaving them with no more than their bags and the number of a taxi firm. It wouldn't have been right to subject them to the tyranny of the back seat a moment longer.
So now it's just Justin and I and a couple of hundred miles of Colorado before the next sleep and beyond that, mountains, desert, salt, two types of tyre damage, more mountains, forest and finally the Pacific Ocean. Two thousand two hundred miles lie ahead, and it's a hell of a lot more varied than the territory encountered by the plainsmen who have just exited the Stang. It's now Thursday evening; we have to be in Seattle by Sunday lunchtime. Back through Denver, hang a right, tune radio to Godrock FM (the message of the Lord through the medium of metal...) and drive straight at the Rockies that loom ahead, darker through the broad windscreen than the inky sky. Denver's already a mile high, and the Grand Army of the Republic highway (aka I70) takes a suitably military approach, spearing upwards along the path of least resistance to the highest point the Stang'll hit on the entire, massive 50-state extravaganza - an Alpine pinnacle-matching 3,496 metres.Advertisement - Page continues below
For neither the first nor last time, the Mustang crosses the Continental Divide. I already like this big coupe for its vastly improved ride quality and lazy, easy mile-covering ability, but it is struggling on these high-topped hills. A combination of long gearing and altitude is robbing breath from the Mustang's lungs and forcing regular downchanges. Hadn't expected that. And when you do downshift, it's not like you're accessing rolling exhaust thunder - for a thumping V8, it's a bit tame.
We overnight in the upmarket ski town of Vail, dining on a takeout Chinese in the Holiday Inn's darkened timber lobby. We calculate we need to do over 900 miles tomorrow. Hell's teeth.
By 7am, we've already done nearly 100 miles, passed signs for Bellyache Ridge, Blowout Hill and No Name, dived through a gorge alongside the Colorado River and found ourselves vainly chasing a dawn sun around Carbondale. It's a cool mountain town, rustically fashionable, the kind of place where it's impossible to spot a Subaru without a bike rack. That becomes our Colorado challenge. We succeed twice.
We're off the interstate now, and I've got itchy throttle leg. Not because I want to see what the Stang can do, rather because 250 miles of B-road is going to play havoc with our average speed. Route 133 is not only stunning, but also fortunately empty, wide, sweepy and rapid. The all-new rear suspension has transformed this car. Gone is the back axle skitter-skatter, while the front end aims itself obligingly - it's stable, secure and more pleasing than I expected. We crest passes, flow with silvery rivers and 243 miles of foresty, mountainy goodness later, we emerge into a very different landscape at Cortez. The wholesome-mountain-to-bare-desert transition happens shockingly quickly. Green fades to yellow, yellow to brown, and as the colours dry up, everything fades away: vegetation, towns, life. All that's left is a road, and then just off the 160, a place called Four Corners: Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.Advertisement - Page continues below
It surprised me to learn that this is the only place in America where four states meet, but in terms of sticker efficiency, it's great. We drive down to the collection of cubicles flogging tourist tat that surround ‘The Spot' that Colorado butts up against New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. I play solo Twister across four states and then contemplate how feasible it would be to drift the Mustang round the outside of the whole complex. Very feasible. But likely to end with four kinds of state troopers taking umbrage.
New Mexico: in a state that measures maybe 300 miles north to south, we do about 750 metres. Amazingly, it looks very similar to Colorado and then... Arizona: after 39 empty miles relieved only by a health centre and a school, both notable mainly for their incongruity in this sun-blasted place, we flick back north and cross into... Utah. Utah is clearly rather proud of itself. The sign welcoming us ("Life Elevated") is big and colourful, the smaller sign next to it informing us we are still 1,634 metres above sea level (we won't drop below 600m of altitude until the final run into Seattle).Advertisement - Page continues below
Gutting though it is, we simply don't have time to chase rainbows on this trip. I look out the driver's window and can see the bastions of Monument Valley edging past, 20 miles west. I point it out to Justin, who tells me of his disappointment when Piers refused to divert to Little House on the Prairie. A gloom settles on the car, that only lifts when we spot some lonely horses out across the scrubby desert. Must be mustangs.
There's a dirt track, so I spear off for a closer look, towing a healthy cloud of dust. Whereupon they leg it, and we're alone in an even more lonely bit of desert. And unable to see where we're going until the dust clears.
Next stop is Arches National Park. There are two decent towns in the 130 miles between here and there. Two towns and a million Hollywood cliches. But those cliches are just life occurring out here. Big bearded men do ride Harleys, trucks do honk at each other, tumbleweed does blow and the blacktop does run laser-straight.
No one bats an eyelid at the Mustang. It only gets recognised as being the "twenny-fideen" car twice on our stint. People are interested in the stickers though, so we tell them what we're up to, and they just think that's cool. Imagine telling your average Brit you were driving around the UK touching every county - they'd think you were barking. But Americans are open and accepting, less judgemental, and that runs through their whole attitude to cars and how they use them. It's why road-tripping out here is so good.
As the sun lowers, we conduct a whistle-stop tour of the Arches National Park. For an hour, our minds are bent by the shapes wrought by wind, water and sandstone. Then we realise it's 7.30pm and we have the small matter of 350 miles to do before shut-eye.
Driving the Mustang is like receiving a warm, reassuring hug. The large Recaro seats are beyond perfection for their expansive support and comfort, and it smashes great distances to smithereens. It does so now, as the sun drops out of sight and we finally, for the first time since it rose this morning, get on a multi-lane road. And then off it again. Another 125 miles of unlit single-lane stuff. Towns pass, time passes, the treeless scenery is constant. We keep rolling along. The Mustang is a metronome and will do 320-350 miles between fills, the occupants somewhat less hardy. The motor hums, hours are consumed, in the temporary flash of bright lights that is Salt Lake City, we glimpse the Mormon Temple. Then, at around midnight, I lose my perspective. Red and blue lights flash ahead through the featurelessness of the crystal-clear night, so I back off immediately. It takes six miles to reach the cop car. Relief and exhaustion wash over me when we pull into Wendover at 1am.
And out at 5.30am. With good reason: dawn on Bonneville Salt Flats. I've been wanting to come here for a dose of salt fever for so long, and I'm mesmerised. It's the colour, texture and scale of the place, soft blues and lilacs tinging the distant dawn mountains. The gentle burble of V8s is lost across the miles of whitening salt as the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association early birds crawl out through the puddles in search of dry salt. Bonneville is a cultural, as well as natural, wonder.
Skirting close to Nevada, we pick up Route 30, my favourite road on the whole trip. In 70 miles, we see four cars, a tree hung with bottles and one vast train whose haunting horn echoes across the valley. We cruise alongside it, then zap ahead and stop at the crossing. The bell rings, and we stand as close as we dare (not very) as the leviathan thunders by, a couple of unprotected metres away. It's a rush. Yee-hawing and caught up in the road-trip vibe, we stop and do a burnout on what turns out to be a phenomenally abrasive road surface. We've lunched the tyres, which calms us down even more effectively than entering the next state.
Idaho: Utah is a cool state, has an extrovert gene and is chock-full of people having fun in the wacky landscapes. Idaho is its polar opposite. Life Elevated gives way to Potato State. The territory here has been cultivated, agriculture has tamed the wildness, there's irrigation, and regular towns that all morph into one. You know how Scooby Doo runs through a house and every third door is a repeat? That's Idaho. Groundhog scenery. It's interminable, but at least the authorities allow you to hurry through it - the interstate limit is 80mph.
Montana: this, photographer Justin and I decide, is our favourite state. We even like the bus graveyard just east of the state line on I15. To be honest, we find ourselves occasionally wishing that Americans would clean up after themselves a bit better. No rural homestead anywhere seems to be complete without the wreck of a half-rotted pickup in the yard. But Montana is a majestic place that wears man's intrusion lightly. There's something reassuring about this lofty state in its stillness and tranquillity. Like the Scottish Highlands, there's a sense of ancient calmness. The peaks are proud and solid, the hillsides blanketed with velvety grasslands, the air warm and fresh. It's both wild and welcoming. I90 swings west after Butte, there's a very twisty-turny bit when we run alongside the Clark Fork River which the Mustang is more than a match for, the sun sets, then a two-foot section of tyre tread flicks up from the car in front and crashes through the front foglight. No harm done. We pass back through Idaho (it's a weird shape) and finally cross into our final state.
Washington: just the 16 hours and 830 miles in the car today, to add to the 19 hours and 920 miles yesterday. Pooped, we hole up for the night in Spokane. Washington then catches us by surprise the next morning by being a repeat of Idaho. We'd thought Pacific north-west, tall trees, mountains and piney goodness, but that's all tucked into a narrow band by the coast. Apart from a zone of interest around the Columbia River Gorge, Washington only gets interesting when snow-bound Mount Rainier puts in an appearance.
From there it's a gorgeous run into Seattle on a sparkling Sunday. Green, wealthy and welcoming, Seattle is a sunny Scandinavia of a place. We come in on the Alaskan Way Viaduct, waterfront on our left, skyscrapers high to the right, and promptly get lost when the on-board satnav lets us down for the first time in 2,140 miles. But our destination isn't hard to find, "Just look for The Jetsons' skyscraper," Tom had said. We find him and editor Charlie in the shadow of the Space Needle. Ten minutes later, the Mustang rounds a corner and disappears. I feel forlorn. Justin, who's called it home for more than a week, looks empty. We find a bar. Above it hangs a T-shirt that reads "Step aside coffee, this is a job for whisky." Now's the time.
Click through the gallery for more images from this leg, then hit the blue words below for the next one.
Mustang vs the States: leg one
Mustang vs the States: leg two
Mustang vs the States: leg three
Mustang vs the States: leg four