After our late night (!) we decide that we need a big sleep in on Sunday morning. We also come to the conclusion that we hate Las Vegas enough not to bother with the Grand Canyon – after three national parks have we become blasé? Will we regret this decision?
Instead we head south out of Vegas for LA, rather than via Death Valley as the sat-nav suggests, stopping only briefly to buy me a pair of 32x38 Levi’s at on outlet mall. The rest of the journey is uneventful, save for Bond finishing off Goldfinger at 20,000ft and the missus having a drive in the Bullitt. After three miles of my constant nannying I’m told in no uncertain terms to get lost, so we switch back.
As we reach LA we turn off I-15 to I-10 and the Mustang thumps and bumps over every expansion joint as we head into the City of Angels. In the end we pick a place to stay, the Jolly Roger, less than a mile from Venice Beach and a reasonable $99.
It’s been an exhausting day of just driving but as we curl up in bed I’m treated to two brilliant adverts – Brooke Shields promoting the VW Routan and Mercedes' tyre-shredding C63 AMG video. Why can’t we get adverts like this in the UK?
We’re up at 7am today (just as the sun is rising) so we can get in and out of Death Valley before it gets too hot. From Ridgecrest it’s about an hour north on I-178, before you join I-190 and head into the park.
The views are amazing, the mountain miles away and the roads dead straight. The only problem we have is with the sun – when we pull over at Stovepipe Wells village at noon it’s actually too cold just to wear a t-shirt. Maybe that’s why we don’t see any prototypes out hot-weather testing.
From there it’s another two hours to Vegas but soon after leaving the park we’re into Nevada. You can tell – at 2pm we stop at Pahrump to refuel and inside the mini-mart is a row of slot machines, each being used.
Vegas is visible from 30 miles out, the huge hotels that rise up on The Strip sitting amongst the urban sprawl that is Sin City. But rather than heading straight for our hotel we aim for the Hoover Dam. It shames O’Shaughnessy and will be even more spectacular when I-93, which winds down to the dam, is divereted over the top of it.
It’s late in the day though so we head for our hotel, the Sahara at the eastern end of The Strip – and it’s the first place we’ve stayed that doesn’t have free internet.
Vegas is not for us. We set out to walk The Strip, then give up as it’s freezing – the day we arrived in Vegas it was 65, after two weeks of 100-plus. We try the Deuce, a bus service that runs up and down The Strip, but the traffic is horrendous. So we walk again, moving from hotel to hotel and casino to casino, trying to keep warm.
We try to gamble, wanting to use up all our spare quarters, but all the machines want dollars bills. We give up, watch two performances of the Bellagio fountains, and head for our hotel. At 11pm on our first night in Vegas we’re tucked up in bed.
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We’re off to another national park this morning – Sequoia, to be precise – but not before breakfast. At a local pancake house we pick waffles, but watch in awe as a neighbouring family tucks away steak and chips at 9am.
From Fresno Sequoia National Park is about 90 minutes due east in I-180. Though while you may be thinking we’re off to the wonderful wilderness, apparently Sequoia has the worst air pollution of any park in the country – blame the winds blowing L.A.’s smog into the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Once we’ve paid another $20 we’re into the park and soon we’ve found the world’s widest tree, General Grant, an American national shrine and the only living memorial to those who died in war for the USA.
From there we head south through the park to the world’s biggest tree (by volume), General Sherman. It’s not the oldest, or the tallest, but ideal living conditions mean it is the largest.
But the General doesn’t get much attention from us, or any other tourists. The reason? There’s a bear walking around the base of the tree and of course, rather than keep at a safe distance we all crowd round. Luckily he’s more interested in food than us foreigners.
We had also planned to take a tour of Crystal Cave but a fire, caused by a lightning strike earlier this month means it’s closed for the season.
As we’re heading for the edge of Death Valley tonight we decide to plough on, but not before we encounter some of the best roads in the world. I had thought I-40 running south of Yosemite was good, but Generals Highway and the start of I-198 is truly amazing. It’s how I imagine the Japanese roads that gave birth to drifting must be. It’s just a pity the lifeless steering on the Mustang means I end up taking two stabs at every corner.
Our overnight stop at Ridgecrest is four hours away, down I-99 and I-58 to Mohave (which the sat-nav lady particular struggles with, reverting to Stephen Hawking pronunciation mode), then up I-14 and I-178. With over four hours ahead of us we give up on local radio and break out our talking book – Goldfinger.
We hit Ridgecrest at 10pm, find out from our hotel proprietor that sunrise is at 4am, abandon plans to be in Death Valley for dawn and go to bed.
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Day three dawns and we’ve almost died. Flicking through the paper we’re met with a shock – the campsite in Yosemite has been crushed with a landslide. Yes, yes, the rockfall was the previous day, but we actually left San Francisco a day late. So had we arrived here on time... Still, no one was killed and it explains why we couldn’t get accommodation in the park last night.
Lugging our bags out to the Mustang I notice the escape handle on the trunk lid for the first time. Strange – who gets stuck in their own boot? Anyway, we’re up early today to do justice to Yosemite. First we’re off to Hetch Hetchy valley, where you’ll find the O’Shaughnessy Dam. Built in 1923 (and raised up to its current height in 1938), it supplies most of San Francisco’s drinking water. Unfortunately, the waterfalls are dry at this time of year and the water level is correspondingly low. Once we’re done we head for Yosemite Valley 40 miles away, but the twisting nature of the (very smooth) roads means we don’t reach our destination until midday. What a hardship...
Alas we’re foiled again, our arrival late into the year meaning all the Valley’s waterfalls are dry, so after another burger lunch we head for Glacier Point. From 3214 feet up, the view is stunning.
But I’m more of a basketball fan than a naturalist – and we have a date in Fresno for a pre-season NBA game between the LA Lakers and LA Clippers. The sat-nav says it’s 2.5 hours and 94 miles away, off down I-40. The race is on… And we're straight into our first stop, pausing at Mariposa Grove at the park’s south entrance to see the Giant Sequoias. But with bigger and better trees ahead of us tomorrow we push on, along the wonderfully tight roads that lead us down and out of the Sierra Nevada mountains and into the sunset. If I lived anywhere near this area, I’d have something rear-wheel drive and visit every night.
We arrive in Fresno with ten minutes to spare. The game is good, Baron Davies leading the Clippers to a win, but the night's not perfect. I can't get my lookalike (Pau Gasol, the Lakers center) for a picture, and the hot water in our Travelodge shower isn't working.
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Day two of my road trip blog is really day four of my American holiday, and because this is CAR and not a Rough Guide I won’t go into detail about our time in San Francisco. Still, I would recommend wondering through the Castro, Chinese and Italian districts, going to the top of the Coit Tower for its views of the city, and visiting The Rock to experience the harshness that the prisoners of Alcatraz faced everyday, all the while being able to look across to the hustle and bustle of life in San Fran.
But the morning of the fourth day means we’re down to business. We once again squeeze our luggage into the Mustang’s tiny boot and point the dabadged nose east for Yosemite National Park – a World Heritage site since 1984, and famous for its granite cliffs, waterfalls and Giant Sequoia groves.
Immediately we’re into stop-start traffic, and it appears the whole of the Bay Area is trying to join us. Alarmingly, after less than 20 minutes the Mustang appears to have gobbled a quarter of a tank of fuel. I had thought about making this road trip in a Mercedes E320 Bluetec, to see if diesel would work in the United States, but the heart screamed V8 muscle car. I just hope I won’t come to regret that decision when I tot up our fuel bill in two weeks' time.
As we cross the Bay Bridge there’s a gorgeous view across the, er, bay and – thus distracted – I immediately take a wrong turn. But we have sat-nav, and while the system looks antiquated, it’s found Yosemite National Park and soon gets us back on track. I remain doubtful if the 192 miles will really take us five and a half, as the sat-nav claims – even if American speed limits are notoriously low.
It ends up being accurate almost to the second. We arrive at the I-20 entrance to Yosemite five and a half hours later, although that did include a lunch stop at In-N-Out Burger and another at Manteca – to buy some fruit to cleanse the system.
My fuel fears have also been slightly abated – after miles of highways, and even the twisty roads leading to Yosemite, the trip computer is showing dead on 24mpg (American gallons, mind). It’s because the Mustang cruises at less than 2000rpm, and on the twisting roads of the Sierra Nevada mountains, 325lb ft means you can burble up in third, fourth or even fifth gear.
We pay the $20 for a seven-day Yosemite pass and head into the park. With only a few hours before sunset we head for the Tioga Pass. Originally built in 1883 by the Great Sierra Consolidated Silver Company, it was a wagon trail and traverses the northern end of the park, running up to over 10,000ft. It closes down in winter, so arriving in October we’re lucky it’s still open.
Due to the windy nature of the road, and the fact that we stop, awestruck, at every viewing point, we only make it a third of the way across before we have to turn back. We reach White Wolf, and while it’s not the more famous (and higher) Tuolumme Meadows, even the cooler temperatures at over 8000ft haven’t stopped the summer sun from drying the meadows.
Unable to find last-minute accommodation in the park, we phone from the park entrance, find a room at Hotel Charlotte for $116.64 and head for its location in Groveland. It’s an old wooden building, but the couple running it are lovely, the bed is comfortable, the bath huge and the wi-fi free.
The latter is a godsend, because we’ve hit our first problem with the Mustang. The interior reading lights won’t go out, even when the car is locked up – the last thing I want high up in the mountains is a flat battery. With no manual in the car I get online and find a Mustang forum where others have had a similar problem. Apparently, if you turn the dimmer switch for the dashboard lights all the way on, the reading lights won’t go out, ever. Luckily, one click back knocks them off and doesn’t touch the brightness of the dials. Sorted.
I blame myself for playing around with the MyColour adjustable lights (I've got white dials, while the girlfriend has selected pink for the ambient lighting), but while that problem is solved, constant locking and unlocking of the Mustang has already got me fed up with the horn beep you get on the second click on the keyfob. I don’t know if this deadlocks the 'Stang, as on most cars, but it’s a force of habit for me, and as that manual is missing I’m only going to keep doing it.
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We’re here, we’ve landed, passed through immigration and – after a brief delay at customs while I declare a six-pack of mince pies I’m importing as a gift to my auntie - are legally allowed on American soil. Then we find the appropriate shuttle bus, exchange a few codewords with the driver, and settle down in our seats while we’re taken to our vehicle for the next two weeks.
The car in question? For a fortnight’s foray between San Francisco, Las Vegas and Los Angeles I only ever wanted a muscle car, and I only ever wanted a Mustang. Yes, I know the Challenger and Camaro are newer (and the ‘Stang is about to be facelifted at November 2008's LA show), but the first car chase I can ever remember watching involved a certain dark green 1968 GT racing through the streets of San Francisco.
But which Mustang to pick? Just like the original pony cars, the current crop is available in a myriad of different combinations. On my wishlist was a Shelby GT-H or the tier-topping GT500 KR, with its 540bhp supercharged V8. But a more realistic target (as Ford was providing the car) was a V6 convertible – to give the girlfriend a tan and stop my wallet from wilting under the weight of fuel bills.
In the end I got neither a drop-top nor a V6, but the latest Bullitt special edition. Launched in 2007, it was actually designated as a ‘08 model by Ford, to coincide with the 40th anniversary of that famous film. But as CAR drove the Bullitt nearly a year ago, and just 7700 were made, it didn’t even register on my radar as potential transportation.
But we’re in San Francisco, one day shy of the one-year anniversary of the death of Steve McQueen’s stunt driver Bud Ekins, and I’m glad Ford kept 008M156 on its press fleet – no other car could be more apt.
In the parking lot, it’s instantly recognisable amongst the plethora of bland Japanese saloons and big American trucks. First impressions? The Mustang Bullitt looks gorgeous in green, while two big twin pipes, black five-spoke alloys and the absence of a rear spoiler sets everything off nicely. But then I see the low-tech key, which is cheap and has a separate fob. I guess it’s the (low) price you pay – Mustangs start at just $19,735 (£11,270) in the US.
I pop the trunk (noting my instant immersion into American terminology) and find it rather small. Our two big bags barely fit, and things don’t get much better inside. For a car that’s longer than an Alfa Romeo 159, it’s not what you’d call spacious.
But the Mustang is wide. Just negotiating the parking lot makes me nervous, and when we reach my uncle and aunt’s home it barely squeezes into the drive. I end up clambering out of the passenger door.
What have I learned from my first 15 miles in the Mustang? Not a lot, so worried was I. This was my first driving experience in the US and I've been adapting slowly. Lane discipline appears non-existent over here, while the freeways running into San Francisco resemble UK motorways, albeit ones that have been stripped for resurfacing.
The Bullitt? It burbles along nicely, the thick sidewalls soaking up the worst of the bumps, but a road tester’s tap of the dash makes it sound hollow, while the turned-aluminium trim is in fact nothing more than plastic.
But the Mustang has a certain effect on me. When I go inside for supper I look back at the Bullitt and smile, as I survey its achingly cool debadged nose and hear the 315bhp 4.6-litre V8 ticking under the hood. It's a world away from my long-term test Caterham, but it’ll surely make the following fortnight very interesting.
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