Mustang vs the States: leg two
After a relatively smooth first stint, leg two begins with a less auspicious set of circumstances. Dan Read (and veteran co-pilot Piers Ward) take the reins...
On my last trip to the Deep South, I found myself on the wrong end of a biker's handgun. Let's just say I upset his oversized wife with ambitious overtaking, which was disciplined by a .45 pointed at my kneecaps. But all was well, and after a few diplomatic words and some hysterical pleading, he let me go so long as I promised never to return.
This feature originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Top Gear Magazine.
Words: Piers Ward and Dan Read
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
This time, I'm welcomed by the sight of a dead teenager, pulled from a hotel pool after a drinking session ended up in the deep end. They wheel him through the lobby on a paramedic's trolley, all damp and limp like a supermarket fish. I should've learned. It might have been a few years since I was around these parts, but the mood hasn't changed much. And it doesn't get much brighter when we eventually hit the road...
Indeed, if you were to judge the South by the roadside signs alone, you'd think this was a place of overweight firework enthusiasts who spend their lives a) sleeping with people they shouldn't and b) sorting it out in court. In the first few miles of our leg, most timber comes not in forests but instead as pillars supporting vast billboards - those great canvases of consumerism. Once upon a time, the Marlboro Man kept an eye on passing traffic. Today, he's replaced by cheap lawyers and cheery reminders that the Lord is watching so - remember folks - don't murder anyone and be sure to keep that surprise baby! And firework stores, hundreds of them, right through the belly of the United States. What on earth are they celebrating?Advertisement - Page continues below
Of course, you must venture beyond the truck stops to discover anything other than a damp hamburger or a woman called Steve, but we don't have time for that. As we leave Atlanta, the Stang has already done 1,608 miles, but by the time we hand over in Denver, it'll need 5,300 under its
belt if we're to tick off 19 states between here and there. We have five whole days to do it, which sounds rather romantic, but unfortunately the other crews bagsied the pretty sections around the edges, which - for the most part - leaves us with the middle bit where cereal comes from. Honestly, between the Appalachians in the east and the Rockies in the west, there isn't much apart from grass and wheat and corn and other things that taste alright with milk.
There are some landmarks, but we'll miss most of them. That's the thing about collecting states: to get 'em done on deadline you must follow a weird and meandering route that avoids most of the interesting places. And even if you do drive through such a town, you'll have to guess what it's like beyond the roadside food joints and pyrotechnics wholesalers. Over the next few days, we'll come teasingly close to New Orleans, St Louis, Chicago and many other places that surely contain cultured, well-nourished citizens. I must go back and see them sometime.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. First we must leave Georgia in a south-westerly direction towards Alabama and the swampy southern coast where the Gulf of Mexico oozes inland. Set the big red Stang to cruise - a steady 70mph to keep the cops' pistols in their holsters - and sit tight. The interstate cuts a clean line through the pine-lined swamps, out of which have crawled various creatures that now lie partly squashed, turning the verges into a sort of grim butcher's window. Should you feel peckish, your roadkill barbecue would contain choice cuts of armadillo, turtle breasts and perhaps a side of raccoon paw.
Next, it's history's shortest visit to Florida before nipping across Mississippi and into Louisiana, where everything above sea level is on stilts, including the road. They put up little green signs that tell you what's below, most of which inspire you to drive as fast as possible to the next state line. Because while the frontiersmen to the north-west named their places with cheerful optimism, the southern settlers took a more literal approach. Murder Creek. Gashland. Turkey Foot. In fact, according to some roadside literature - spelled out letter by letter on Countdown-style squares outside churches - the only hope in these parts is that Jesus will return to sort things out. Probably from a southerly direction, skiing barefoot over a bayou with a smoke on the go. Feeling safe in that knowledge, we hit the outskirts of New Orleans and drive the Mustang to a levee, but it didn't rhyme... so we left. We do the rest of Louisiana in darkness, which is probably for the best. Heading north-west on I49 we make a quick pit stop near the town of Alexandria (turns out three minutes is plenty of time to be attacked by a plague of randy locusts) before an overnight stop in Texarkana, which straddles two states. Ten points if you can guess which ones. That's six states down today, 25 in total, and 25 to go. Each of which will have its flag glued to the Stang's fuselage in the style of an old bomber's mission markings.Advertisement - Page continues below
On Monday morning, the clammy swamps give way to cattle ranches as we touch upon cowboy country. The temperature has dropped from a hundred degrees to a more comfortable 80ish, and the Mustang is gulping down the morning air as if it were a strawberry smoothie. Yes, it's coming to Europe with a four-cylinder engine and that's all very sensible, but - let's be honest - you can't beat the lazy churning of a big V8. Out here in its homeland, anything else just wouldn't feel right. It's actually quite comforting knowing it's up there, all five litres, stirring its pistons for mile after mile like a ship at sea. At least the petrol's cheap, mostly because it's awful low-octane stuff that explodes in the cylinders with the fury of a party popper.
This morning shall mostly be spent in Arkansas, which of course is famous for Bill Clinton and... that's about it. It's an attractive place with surprisingly deep, wooded valleys that cradle red barns and tidy farmhouses straight from Sylvanian Families. Those shouty billboards have thinned out, and middle America is looking like a more pleasant land, after all. We're off the interstate for a bit, sweeping through the hills, where the road occasionally bends to resemble a very mild corner.Advertisement - Page continues below
Left into Oklahoma. Up into Kansas and a quick right towards Joplin, Missouri, where we pick up the old Route 66 for a while. Back in the day, this is where you'd have found real America, in the rail-car diners and pink motels serving road-trippers as they zipped around the highways in chromed Hudsons and Studebakers. It's very tempting to add the good ol' Mustang to that list, but it arrived much later in '64, by which time Eisenhower's interstates had begun slicing up the landscape and, with it, American road culture itself. You can still piece together the old route, but it's now mostly four-lane freeway that starves the towns the Mother Road once fed.
Indeed, our Stang is doing a fairly good job of shrinking this big old place. Just yesterday morning we were rolling out of Atlanta, now here we are driving north-east across Missouri, which is serving up the mother of all thunderstorms. The sky pulses with the electric whites and purples of a warehouse rave, and great sheets of light turn the nightscape briefly into green fields and golden bales. Then comes the rain and the spray as the trucks roar past, and the only way to keep a straight line is to thump the cat's eyes. We cross into Illinois, the car seems happy enough; its human contents, less so. Time for bed.
We awake on Day Three in Terre Haute, Indiana, home of Ron Burgundy and - perhaps more interestingly - just a short drive, by American standards, from Indianapolis Motor Speedway. An old lady with a puff of white hair waves us merrily through the gates where we take some pictures and spread the map over the hood. Would've been nice to do a lap of the oval, but there isn't time. Instead, let's divert 180 miles north for a brief stop at the Mustang's birthplace, Michigan, where the sober messages of the South are replaced by ads for sex and gambling emporiums - separate establishments, although the billboards suggest otherwise (Buffalo Ben Casinos: The Loosest Slots in Town!) We've come a long way...
Plenty of miles to do, though. Before bed today we'll be stuck in Chicago traffic, misplace a credit card at a gas station - doubling back 30 miles and a timezone to retrieve it - and cross Wisconsin and Minnesota, both of which look like autumnal Oxfordshire, if autumnal Oxfordshire had skunks and Harley-Davidsons.
Day Four. North and South Dakota? Pretty much in Canada. Grassy. Occasional bison. Heading due south now and across another state line to Iowa. The author Bill Bryson once wrote: "I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to," and although we're some way west of his hometown, you can see his point. So my notepad takes an extended break before we cross the border to Nebraska, where, if your dog ran off, you could see it for three days. (I might have fast-forwarded a bit here - it actually takes the best part of 10 hours to cover the miles described in this paragraph, but let's just say I saved you the tedium).
We overnight in Grand Island, which is neither grand, nor an island. But it was the location for an exciting series of tornadoes that swept through town in June 1980, on what was dubbed the Night of the Twisters. Six people were carried away and 200 more were hurt, while those who made it to shelters emerged to find their houses on different streets. As a memorial to the souls who were blown away, they piled the debris in a park outside town and called it Tornado Hill. There's no plaque. So in quiet contemplation, we head off in search of a nice breakfast and a way back to the laser-straight I80 for the final run to Denver.
Not only does I80 - otherwise known as the Lincoln Highway - trace the first transcontinental road across America, but this part also follows the Oregon Trail, an old pioneer's route from east to west. Thousands of wagons once came this way, following one after the other through ruts so deep they're actually still here, carved out of the chalky riverbanks that run alongside the modern road. Crossing America back then was a more dangerous business. This wasn't the wildest part of the west, but if the bandits and Indians didn't get you, the freezing winters probably would.
This may explain the historic job advert we find in a well-preserved Pony Express station just off the freeway near Gothenburg. "Wanted: young, wiry fellows. Must be expert riders and prepared to risk death daily. Orphans preferred." The successful candidate would become a postman on horseback, responsible for carrying mail and messages from east to west as quickly as possible. The best of them would cover over 100 miles a day, stopping at a wooden station every 10 miles to swap horses. While they used all sorts of tame thoroughbreds, for a really fast blast across these lonely plains there was only one suitable steed. A wild Mustang.
With horses doing the hard miles, news had never travelled so fast in America, but despite heroic efforts - and with a team of riders including Buffalo Bill - the whole endeavour lasted only 18 months, when the men and ponies proved too costly and were eventually replaced by telegraph wires.
How things have changed, eh? Our Mustang has so far travelled a whopping 5,360 miles in seven days and only demanded a drink or two. While it's good to go for a while longer, these particular riders are a bit saddle-sore. So it's a relief when - on a dusty road linking Wyoming to Colorado - we approach a figure on the horizon. Looking like some sort of hairless hitchhiker, our very own Ollie Marriage has turned up as promised, and will take things from here. So from this crew, it's over and out. For you, the journey continues...
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