How the hell did we end up here?
Last winter my highschool friend Masterchef, who long ago moved to Chicago, was visiting me in PA. “Hey, do you want to buy an old car and drive Route 66 this summer?” Why yes, yes I do- and a couple of weeks ago we landed at LAX and set off to do just that.
I’m going from memory here, so not everything is going to be entirely accurate in terms of time/location (did that happen in AZ? NM? I can’t remember, so I’ll just pick one).
In the weeks leading up to the trip, we constantly traded emails listing cars we thought were suitable. Cheap, old, and reliable enough to make it, but sketchy enough to make things interesting were our main concerns. And with a month still to go, way too early to reasonably expect a car to still be for sale when we arrived, we found a “70s yellow” Ford Maverick.
Not that it doesn’t already seem perfect, but a specific line of the ad really hit home with us:
I’d drive it to New York tomorrow.
Also worth noting, he used the keyword “shagadelic”. So I emailed him:
So, you want to put that whole “drive it to New York” thing to the test? A friend and I are flying into LA, buying a car, driving the entirety of Route 66 to Chicago, and then I’m driving back to the east coast. I would love for your Maverick to be our car, but you’d need to hang onto it until August 1st.
Now, this is where things get a little strange. It turns out the seller is a huge Route 66 buff, and just wrote a novella about a haunted car traveling Route 66... and onward to NYC. Of course he’d hold it for us- he called it “road karma”
Having arrived the night before and caught about 3 hours of sleep at a friend’s place, we went to look at the car at 8 AM. The car was mostly as described, but the tires were low, there was no coolant expansion tank (did they have them in ‘77?), the trans fluid was high, and it had an unpleasant pull to the right under braking. I was hesitant, but during the test drive Masterchef and I agreed on what we wanted to pay for it- after all, we didn’t want something boringly reliable and solid, right?
The seller didn’t want to come down to our offer, so we met in the middle, on the condition that we could have the sweet roof rack which wasn’t originally going to be included with the car. I didn’t feel great about this, but I’m only 50% of the equation, and my friend seemed pretty excited:
It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that I was the one responsible for keeping the thing running. We went straight from the seller’s house to Harbor Freight, where we bought a crap set of tools, some rope, tape, wiring supplies (did I mention this thing appears to have been rewired by drunk rodents?), a machete, and, most importantly, a gas can, because the instrument cluster is missing and in its’ place we have a speedometer, a temp gauge, and a tach held onto the steering column with hose clamps.
Yep, no fuel gauge. We had a notepad we’d write down mileage on, but the odometer is of questionable accuracy. From HF we drove straight to AutoZone, where we bought spark plugs, oil, atf, carb cleaner, and spares including a starter solenoid, u-joint, and various other bits I thought might keep us from dying in the middle of nowhere. Then it was back to our friend’s house to work on the thing. Also, at some point here we got burgers at In-N-Out, which everyone raves about. They were good, but everyone fails to mention one important point- they were also REALLY cheap. Best fast food burger for the price, without a doubt.
I changed the oil and spark plugs while the other two handled the coolant tank situation- we needed an expansion tank if we were going to drive this beast through the Mojave in August. The original thought was to use a plastic milk jug, but there were concerns about melting, and at some point a vodka bottle appeared, and with duct tape, rope, and zip ties, we had an expansion tank:
Why yes, that is some really nasty rusty coolant, but thanks to LA’s water situation, one does not simply flush a cooling system while parallel parked in a residential area. We topped it up with water and called it good. While that was happening, I discovered a couple of fun things: 1) cylinders 2 and 4 appear to run much leaner than the rest, and 2) our oil drain plug was stripped. At least we know (maybe) why it was low on oil.
So it was back to AutoZone for a new oil drain plug (thankfully the plug itself stripped instead of the pan) and a little red LED light. Why? Well, I had hoped to hook up the idiot lights from a second instrument cluster which the seller had included with the car, but it was the wrong year, not compatible- so it was time to make an oil pressure idiot light myself. We returned to the car, installed the nice new drain plug, and I wired up our new idiot light to my best guess at the correct pins of the old instrument cluster plug. I think it works, but honestly have no way of knowing.
Also, we replaced a ton of vacuum lines. There was all sorts of nonsensical bullshit happening under the hood, and it wouldn’t idle properly, so we pretty much connected every vacuum port to every other relevant looking one, and it improved drastically. Success!
We went out and got dinner at a delicious taco truck. Why don’t they have those everywhere? Then, as it began to get dark, we ended the day by driving the first 5 miles or so of 66 from Santa Monica pier- not the best idea on a Saturday night,, and it took forever to go those few miles, but our trip had started, and the car was running better than when we picked it up.
We made our way back to our friend’s house and figured we’d pack the car up and get rolling early the next morning.
We got up around 6:30 and went to pack the car, but ran into a slight issue. Masterchef brought a lot more stuff than I did, since he not only had the nice DSLR we shot most of these stills on, but a bunch of video gear as well (youtube movie coming hopefully soon), and as such, not everything would fit in the trunk. The solution? Put the spare on the roof!
Everything fit in the trunk perfectly after we made that decision.
Leaving LA was relatively uneventful, and we only made one stop at Target to get a blanket, some emergency food and water, and glow sticks. Why glow sticks? We needed a way to see the instruments at night, and they’re a convenient size to wedge into the dash board.
As we got further from the city, we started gaining altitude, the temperature (coolant and air) got hotter and hotter, and Route 66 stopped just being another maintained, well used road, and started looking like this:
The constant bumps had the Maverick’s trim rattling everywhere, the outside air temp was around 110F, and our coolant temp was getting alarmingly high, but we were finally really out on Route 66, this was what we were here for!
It’s worth mentioning at this point that the AC didn’t work, not even a little bit. We only planned to make one stop out in the Mojave, for fuel, but the Maverick had other plans. Maybe an hour after our fuel stop, the contant high-temperature high-altitude climb took its’ toll, and with the coolant temp creeping above 250, I pulled off and shut the car down. The car puked brown coolant out of the vodka bottle for a solid 10 minutes.
We let the car cool for about 30 minutes, maybe more, giving us plenty of time for more pictures. There are certainly worse places to overheat, at least it was pretty.
Note the lovely brown color from the coolantsplosion all over the fender. At some point, a man in an F150 pulled over and asked if we needed water- we thanked him and said we were fine, and as he drove off, he said “I did it for Jesus!”. Now, obviously, this water was for our engine, so from that point forth, our engine was named Jesus. But it didn’t sound like Jesus, so we named our exhaust Richard Nixon.
Having topped up the water and finished debating the names of the Maverick’s components, I turned the key, hoping we hadn’t hurt anything. Jesus came to life immediately, Nixon barking triumph into the desert, and we continued onward to Arizona. On the way out of California, we saw what happens when you have construction on the only major road through a desert with no exits and no detours- thankfully it was all going the other way, but imagine being stuck in that with no A/C when it’s 110 out!
California had been good to us, no issues with police, only one (completely predictable) overheat, and a beautiful desert landscape. But as we entered Arizona, all of that was put to shame. The Western Arizona section of 66 is everything you could want from a trip like this- if you only ever get a chance to drive one section of 66, make it this one.
This is what Arizona 66 looks like near the border:
We drove maybe 5 miles of that before arriving in Oatman, a town populated by a large number of donkeys (and probably some humans but I honestly couldn’t tell). Not sure why I can’t find a picture of them, but it’s probably because we were too busy filming as about 6 donkeys walked right up to the car, sticking their heads in and generally mooching for food. Masterchef embarassed himself by loudly proclaiming that they were goats before we got close enough to clearly see that they were not. It was awesome.
We then drove out of Oatman into (onto?) Sitgreaves pass. 30 miles or so of incredible scenery, and roads which, when driven at the speed limit in a ‘77 Maverick, result in tire squeal, body roll, and just an excellent time all around.
These roads took their toll, however. The car developed a miss and generally ran like crap at anything but WOT. No problem, with 88hp on tap WOT was the name of the game. We stopped for dinner at some place that had our car on the menu:
After dinner, with a glow stick ziptied to the instruments and the car misfiring constantly, things got a lot more boring- the roads became straight, and dumb Burma Shave ads became a regular occurrence. It was pretty cool to pace the massive freight trains running on the tracks adjacent to 66, though.
At one point, we came upon a large rabbit sitting in the road. I drove around him, not slowing much since he was completely motionless, but when we were maybe 10 feet away, he made a huge corkscrewing jump right into the bumper. We decided to name him Goose, since he died from ejecting and we weren’t sure if it was Maverick’s fault. RIP Goose.
At maybe 11 PM, we were getting tired and were close to where we wanted to sleep. A truck began tailgating us, and despite varying our pace a bit, he wouldn’t back off or pass. After maybe 3 minutes of that, the red and blue lights came on- he’d run our plates. We weren’t sure of the legitimacy of the plates on the car, they had a current registration sticker, but the seller had referred to them as “outlaw plates” so we didn’t really have a warm fuzzy feeling. Luckily, the officer was very understanding, told us we were supposed to have bought transit plates in CA, but there was nothing we could do now that we were out of state, and sent us on our way.
It getting was really late, and we were looking for a suitable spot to sleep in the car. We were relatively close to our destination for tomorrow, the misfire was getting even worse, and we had driven around a campground but couldn’t find anywhere to put the car. I was getting annoyed and generally being an asshole, and we were having no luck finding a good spot, so eventually I just pulled off the road and declared we’d sleep there.
That lasted all of an hour before a nice police officer knocked on our window and informed us that we were going to get robbed if we slept there. He had us move to the gas station a couple miles away, and we spent the rest of the night there, listening to coyotes howling in the distance.
We woke up in the car, not exactly feeling great. My back was pretty screwed up, and Masterchef had had nightmares about getting murdered pretty much all night and kept waking up- he didn’t see “sleeping with the key in the ignition” as a good enough insurance policy I guess. But at least the scenery was nice!
I immediately set about trying to figure out our misfire issue. The plug on cylinder 2 was damaged from running super lean, and I decided we had most likely sloshed some poo around in the carb during our spirited drive through Sitgreaves Pass, which was causing fueling issues. So I pulled the carb apart, cleaned everything as best I could, and slapped it back together. I also replaced the cylinder 2 spark plug, and cleaned the cylinder 4 plug. Cylinder 1’s plug looked good so I assumed the rest were too, and that we were following the pattern I had seen when we replaced the plugs in LA. The result? The car ran better than it did when we left!
So, we drove just a couple of miles down the road to our destination for the morning:
I mean, sure, it was a couple of miles away, and sure, I just cleaned it, but I’m going to claim this: I rebuilt a carb at the Grand Canyon.
Neither of us had ever been to the Grand Canyon before- it was incredible. Your sense of scale gets all fucked up and then you get used to it and then you see a fat squirrel sitting on the edge, looking at the same thing you’re looking at, and you decide it’s just not going to get any better so you get in your ‘77 Maverick and leave.
We then drove to the highest altitude of the entire trip- I think it was just over 8000ft but of course we failed to take a picture of the sign. The main thing is, the road from the Grand Canyon to Flagstaff looked like this:
Flagstaff basically looks like somebody took a chunk of Colorado and plopped it down in the middle of Arizona, which looks like Mars just about everywhere else. Very cool. We had been looking for a sharpie and a fire extinguisher since leaving LA, and could find neither in Flagstaff. That still confuses me.
The remainder of Arizona 66 was dirt roads and highway frontage roads, which occasionally required the annoying hop onto or over I-40, but it was still fun, and the scenery was still great. At one point, on a dirt road, we came upon a water crossing. The truck in front of us crawled through it, hugging the side, so naturally I did what any reasonable person in an unsuitable vehicle would do, and hit it at about 30mph, splashing all over the place and making truck guy feel like a giant pussy. Good times.
The last stretch of 66 in Arizona is mostly dirt, with an abandoned town before the crossing into New Mexico. We were excited about this, so naturally we hauled all sorts of ass on the dirt section, bombing across old bridges and letting the Maverick’s incredibly floaty suspension do its’ thing. At this point we were pretty much immune to the various noises the Maverick, Jesus, and Nixon made on rough terrain- that’s just what driving sounds like, no big deal.
At the end of the dirt, entering the ghost town, we came upon a police SUV, lights flashing, parked in the road. As we approached, the officer got out and waved us over. Shit, this is it, he knows about the registration, or someone called about the way we were driving, or something even worse... we’re never making it out of Arizona.
Just kidding! He was super friendly, and informed us that the old town was shut down for a movie shoot. He then went on for a solid 15 minutes about how hot the girl in the movie was, how cool our car was, and how we could totally drive as fast as we want on that road as long as we tell them “officer [clearly not his name] said we could”. Eventually we were allowed to drive through the town- it must have been a horror movie, since the girl the officer had been going on about was covered in blood. Unfortunately, I don’t think they were rolling at the time, so the Maverick will probably not be making a cameo in whatever B horror movie that was.
The roads in New Mexico were slightly less exciting, and it was beginning to get dark. But, great scenery:
At some point between that last picture and our destination for the night, we were following a pickup, and as we were about to crest a hill, a car coming the other way flashed his highbeams frantically. The pickup, upon reaching the top of the hill, whipped a u-turn so fast he nearly went off the road, and hauled ass the other way. We, of course, drive right over the hill to see at least a half dozen police cars, officers tucked in behind their armored doors in “shit about to hit the fan” position, pointed at a beat up trailer next to a questionable shack that might as well have had “METH” written on it. So that was interesting.
It started to get dark, and we went back to drag racing freight trains for a while.
Around 9 PM or so, we came around a bend to be greeted by a new landscape: the sprawling lights of Albuquerque, the most annoying city in the world to try to spell! It was actually really great- lots of neon Route 66 signage, a nice motel where the owner actually invited me to haggle the price down a bit, and delicious food at some place called Tractor Brewing Co. We settled in for a considerably more relaxing night of sleep.
I walked out of our motel room to the sight of our trusty Maverick and a ton of hot air balloons, which I of course failed to get good pictures of. Albuquerque (the official city of “copy and paste the spelling”) doesn’t look as nice in daylight, but if those hot air balloons are always there then they get a pass. We grabbed breakfast at The Grove, which I didn’t think was anything special until I walked in and realized that some scenes from Breaking Bad were shot there- cool!
We stopped at a Tractor Supply shortly after leaving the city and I finally found a fire extinguisher, but still no sharpie.
No wonder all your shit’s on fire- you can’t even buy a fire extinguisher without driving all the way to Albuquerque. I feel for you.
We also bought spray paint.
The rest of New Mexico was pretty but uneventful. We went to a roadside store, definitely because I needed to buy something for my girlfriend, and definitely not because the Maverick had overheated again (3rd time I think, I must have forgotten one on Day 2).
Before we made it to Texas, we stopped at the Lewis Antique Auto and Toy Museum. I’m pretty sure it’s just this one guy’s car collection, and one day he decided to just charge admission- it was great, you should go.
Masterchef insisted that we eat at Whataburger. That mistake will be covered more fully in the video. The Whatafarts and Whatashits were foul and frequent.
Texas was largely flat and boring, and Route 66 is almost entirely just frontage road for I-40. That said, some of the Route 66 relics there are great, and we were driving next to a huge wind farm most of the time, which was cool.
Also, the locals appear to have an excellent taste in cars.
We were lucky, and made it to our main destination in TX before it got dark:
Amusingly, that last one will probably take longer to get painted over than our trip synopsis, despite being easier to reach, since it looks so serious.
Then onward, into the night, through what appeared to be some sort of Biblical plague. There were frogs all over the road, and we were driving through swarms of bird-sized grasshoppers. What the berkeley, Texas? We had to pull over and clean to windshield because I couldn’t see through all the bug guts.
We didn’t have a specific plan for where to stay, but when we rolled into Shamrock, the decision was made for us:
Look at that place! Those are Tesla chargers on the right. This is a small piece of the future that the 1950s thought we would be living in today. Our motel was across the street, and other guests came out to take pictures of us taking pictures of our Maverick in front of this station.
I started the day with my normal routine of cleaning the cylinder 2 and 4 plugs, tightening the roof rack bolts, and checking fluids. We left Texas via some dirt roads and bridges.
As we entered Oklahoma, we finally found a sharpie, and did what we had planned to do the entire trip, but couldn’t find a writing implement for:
We should have done it from the start. All of a sudden, people understood what we were doing, and the car got a lot more positive attention. Oklahoma was, well, OK, and the roads weren’t terribly exciting, but Route 66 was clearly marked which was nice, since our maps had shitty directions with them that had a tendency to get us off track. We stopped in Oklahoma City, went karting, and got the best barbeque I’ve ever had at a place called Iron Star.
We decided it would be funny to try to sleep in Kansas that night, so we paced ourselves to arrive on time. It was hot and muggy, and actually more unpleasant than the dry 110 we experienced in the desert. At some point we passed through a crappy little town which had this thing parked in a line of cars which included a Testarossa on the side of the main drag:
The last section of 66 in Oklahoma includes a piece of original Route 66, which is all of 9 feet wide. We did it at night, then passed into Kansas.
Trucks with confederate flags on them and a hotel that smelled like pee. That’s what Kansas had to offer. I did the morning Maverick routine, skipping the spark plug cleaning, and we got out of there. Before we made it out of Kansas, the cylinder 2 misfire came back, and I pulled the plug at this shack:
We ran it with the cylinder 2 plug removed for a little while- the electrode looked like something hit it, so I wasn’t sure if there was something in there bouncing around. Results inconclusive.
Honestly, once you get this far North/Northeast on Route 66, you’re doing it just to say you did the whole thing. Missouri was pretty boring, but like Oklahoma, had done a great job marking 66 so we could stay on it without worrying about getting off track. Speaking of tracks, we found an oval:
We didn’t get to run any laps, but it was cool to just happen upon I-44 Speedway, and I had no idea it was there. Onward!
The goal was just to make it to St. Louis that night- it was my girlfriend’s mom’s birthday, and she lives in St. Louis, so we dropped by as a surprise and she generously let us stay at her house. But first, we got dinner at a combination brewery/motorcycle museum called Triumph. Check out this art:
The food was good too.
We got breakfast at Rooster, which I strongly recommend you do if you get the chance, and went to the City Museum, which I insist you do if you get the chance. It’s basically a combination jungle gym and art installation, and it’s incredible.
On top of that, the parking attendant let us hide the Maverick way in the back of the indoor parking, because “somebody’s grandpa is gonna be all ‘here sonny look how we used to steal these back in the day’.” That guy was great.
It was 1 PM, it was Masterchef’s birthday, and we wanted to be in Chicago in time to celebrate a bit. Route 66 across Illinois is supposed to take roughly 8 hours- operation “Tear White Hot Ass Across All of Illinois” was in effect. The next 8 hours were full of balancing the throttle and the coolant temperature, pushing the Maverick as fast as it could go without overheating.
There was nothing worth slowing down for anyway- it was just corn, and soy, and flat, and straight, and corn, and soy, and corn, and more corn. Holy fucking shit Illinois sucks.
Entering Chicago, Masterchef was getting annoyed because I wasn’t freaking out the same way he was. This was the end of the trip for him, but as far as I was concerned, I was just visiting- we had decided earlier that day that I would drive the car home. We got to his apartment around 10 PM, and were greeted by his friends, who were blown away at the excellence of the vehicle we had just completed our journey in. The next morning was sort of when it hit home (for me at least) because this was parked out in front of my highschool friend’s Chicago apartment:
Mission Accomplished. The Maverick and I would get a short break, then time for the Bonus Round.
Chicago was fun. Masterchef has a Miata, which was a welcome change from the barge I’d spent a week driving, and we worked on his motorcycle, went karting, ate a ton of good food, all that normal “visiting a friend for the first time” stuff. I think I spent 4 days there? Then it was time for the Maverick to bring me home.
I woke up at 4:30 AM- my alarm was set for 5 but I was anxious to get going and didn’t sleep well. The plan for the day was an all out, 750 mile cannonball run back to my house in PA, and I was sure the car would make it, but I knew the lack of a stereo, open windows, and Richard Nixon were going to take their toll on me. Plus, the car didn’t like going much over 70 for any sustained period, and there was an annoying steering vibration which came and went as it pleased.
The drive was pretty uneventful until I got to Ohio. Now, I HATE Ohio thanks to previous run-ins with their lovely State Patrol, and I know that, if I’m going to have trouble with the law, it’s going to be here.
I pulled into a rest stop to take a piss, and when I came back out, there was definitely some serious Ohio happening. A white Charger had pulled up to block the Maverick, and when I got closer, I could see it said “Customs and Border Protection” on the side.
^Not the actual car, but I realize I have no pictures from this part of the trip.
Apparently he had decided the car warranted a closer look, and after running the plates, decided he needed to have a conversation with me. He explained how the car wasn’t legally registered, how not OK that was, and how people like to traffic drugs along I-80- in turn, I explained the trip, how I had bought the car 10 days ago, and asked if I could take a picture of our cars together. He told me that wouldn’t be a great idea.
At this point, I was asked if I would consent to a search of the car by their drug sniffing dog (doesn’t that sound like a dog that’s addicted to coke or something? Always thought it was a silly name). The implied deal was that, if the car was clean, I was free to go, but if I refused, it might be impounded. My concern, of course, was primarily that one of the previous owners might have left something fun in there, but I went with the search- rolling the dice was a better option than the car being impounded.
The car was clean! Suddenly, we were all friends, and as the Customs officer handed my documents back to me, he told me that he’d always wanted to do Route 66, but not in a car like mine. He then informed me that I was the craziest road tripper he’s ever met- I took it as a complement, then got the fuck out of Ohio.
Upon getting the fuck out of Ohio, I piled on the speed. That Customs debacle had cost me over an hour, I was back in my home state, I was fairly certain I could spot police before getting in front of their radar guns, and running wide open barely had me passing anyone anyway. That lasted for about 45 minutes before I got the car hot enough that I had to pull over.
After the car cooled down (thanks to me dumping water on the radiator, then in it), I resumed my 70 mph max pace. I made the exit off 80 onto 476, drove through the Lehigh tunnel, and was almost home.
I started to understand how Masterchef was feeling when we hit Chicago: a trip always feels disconnected from reality. Normally, you go on vacation, you return home, and there’s a distinct disconnect there- but I was driving this thing back into real life, the cheap car nearly twice my age that I bought 10 days ago on the other side of the country! It’s a unique feeling, and one that I think everyone should experience at least once.
Pulling onto my home street I was nearly tearing up- it was actually going to make it! I pushed the car hard around the last few corners to my house, and entered the driveway with the tires squealing, locking them up in front of the garage.
I couldn’t believe I had made it- but this was my house, with my girlfriend standing at the front door, and this impossible yellow Maverick idling in the driveway.
So I had been home for a few days, and I have to say, I’ve never enjoyed just being at home so much in my life. Doing a trip like this really makes you appreciate your return to real life. But this wasn’t done yet.
I’d drive it to New York tomorrow.
I said I’d test that. So I did.
As I drove through the tunnel, a funny thing happened. I was trying to record an extra bit for Masterchef’s video, and just after I said “You know, this car could die the moment I get into New York, and still be 100% as advertised. I’d be OK with that.” the misfire returned, stronger than ever, and my GoPro died. “Road Karma?”
A Wrap Up Or Something
After getting into NYC, I pulled into a parallel parking space, snapped the above picture, wrote “LA-CHI-NYC” on the bumper opposite our Route 66 tally, and changed the cylinder 2 spark plug one last time.
The trip back to my house was uneventful. The only other trip it has taken since getting to PA was to go out to dinner for a full recap of the adventure.
The Maverick runs better than the day we left LA, although it has a few new squeaks and rattles, and the steering definitely doesn’t feel quite the same. The pull to the right under braking is gone though, and it actually tracks straighter in general.
Was it worth it? 100% yes. Sure, I could have spent this time and money on racing, or a more “worthy” vehicle, or a more traditional vacation, but the trip was a great experience. I got to see parts of the country I’ve never been to, I got to become familiar with a completely different sort of car than what I’m used to, and probably most importantly, I got to live a life so different from my normal day-to-day routine that coming back to it felt great.
On top of all that, it was actually easy!
The car held up great, there were fewer issues than I expected, and all in all, not only would I do it again, I would do it in a worse car next time.
The Maverick’s future is not with me. I have since sold it, and its’ new owner plans to drive it into the Canadian wilderness next summer.