July 21, 2024

Louis I Vuitton

Savvy Car Technicians

Breaking Free – Driving a Mustang to California and Back, Part 3


After spending well over a month and a half in California with family that I had driven all the way from Georgia to see, I planned a detour to Los Angeles before hitting the road for home. I wanted to have one final blast on some good roads before going back to whatever reality was waiting for me. At the end of part 2 I mentioned I would have to cut these plans a little short because of the small matter of the devastating global pandemic that was occurring. I’d only have one day of play before leaving this amazing state, so I planned to make the most of it.

Despite it being my first time driving the canyon roads in LA, I sort of knew where to go from watching Matt Farah of The Smoking Tire all these years. From Interstate 210, or “the 210” as I guess LA people are required by law to call it, I caught Angeles Crest Highway at the base and began to climb to the promised land. I would have to deal with a few road closures on this road but it ended up working out in my favor. I reached a pretty well populated area with loads of hikers and people who said “fuck your approved activities” and of course saw plenty of other sports cars on the way.

I turned onto Angeles Forest Highway which is when things started to pick up. There were fewer “normal” cars and more sports cars and motorcycles around. I blasted through the Hidden Springs Tunnel at redline because I just had to and turned on to Upper Big Tujunga Canyon Road. And that is when things went from fun to absolutely sensational.

Pictured: not Upper Big Tujunga

This road is insane. There are no slow corners here. It’s all fast and medium-speed sweepers that reward those who know their car and the road well. I didn’t know the road well. Fortunately, I had a friend. A stranger in a modified 135i with one of the loudest turbos I’ve ever heard had caught up to me, so I let him by and had him set the pace. It was a good pace.

The road took us up to Angeles Crest Highway again, the part that was open. Between Angeles Forest Hwy and Upper Big Tujunga, Angeles Crest was closed and it’d be closed again further up the road just past Newcomb’s Ranch. So that meant absolutely no one was going to be on this section except for dinguses like me.

It may have been the closest thing to heaven on earth that I’ve ever experienced. The road wasn’t a private race track by any means, but Upper Big Tujunga and this sensational stretch of Angeles Crest was occupied exclusively by sport bikes and sports cars. And there were lots of them.

LA enthusiasts take these roads and their canyon etiquette seriously, and I know why. These roads are beautiful and absolutely thrilling to drive, but also present a lot of opportunities for things to go wrong. But everyone I encountered that day was courteous and as safe as they could be, and I was too. No double yellow lines were crossed and almost everyone pulled over for faster cars.

Despite it being a chilly day and threats from LA officials fresh in our minds, Newcomb’s Ranch, a popular meetup spot, had attracted a big crowd. Some people noticed the Georgia tags on my dusty ass Mustang and asked if I really drove it all the way here. A gentleman with a GT350 Heritage Edition asked about the Tail of the Dragon, the east coast’s most famous driving destination. “It’s wonderful”, I told him. “But it’s got nothing on this”.

The roads in this area are such an integral part of LA car culture that have a culture of their own. So many enthusiasts in the area make this drive a regular part of their schedule and tons of automotive content is created here. A mad lad even recreated the entire area in Assetto Corsa. These roads just have that much significance about them and I was right there in the middle of it all. I felt like it was a right of passage to park in front of the Newcomb’s Ranch sign and get a crappy cell phone shot.

Tons of groups came and went while I was up there. I spent a solid 2 hours running Upper Big Tujunga and Angeles Crest back and forth. Of all the cars I encountered, literally a handful weren’t sports cars. It started to feel like an online Forza Horizon lobby. I did so much driving that I had to cruise down off the mountain to fill up. And then I started again. This time I went a bit further on Angeles Forest instead of turning onto Upper Big Tujunga. Then I decided the roads I was driving earlier were a bit more fun, so I turned back for one more circuit. These roads truly are some of the very best. LA car enthusiasts are lucky to have them.

The sun had started to go down when I began to head back to my relative’s house. A fairly fun but seriously bumpy trip down (Lower) Big Tujunga put me back in civilization and within short distance of one final thing I wanted to hit up while in LA.

I went just north of Santa Clarita to a business park to pay respects to Paul Walker. There’s a very unofficial memorial set up in the spot where he and Roger Rodas lost their life on November 30, 2013. I remember that night well as it was the first celebrity death that really affected me. I was big into cars long before I first saw The Fast and the Furious as a young pre-teen, but that movie sort of felt like validation. Paul by all accounts seemed like a real one. And I was devastated that night. At an early morning car show I went to the next day you could tell that it had affected everyone.

It’s hard to really spend much time at this memorial because the only parking around is private property at these businesses. And they very much don’t want you to park there. Absolutely no one was around so I just stopped next to the site for a moment without parking. “You were the best, Paul”, I shouted as I sped away.

With that over, I headed back to Thousand Oaks to spend the evening with the family that was hosting me. I pet their dog and my cousin’s boyfriend’s dog. A lot. The long haul back home would begin the next day.

The way home – day 1

My journey began by being farted on in a gas station in Thousand Oaks. In fairness, I did sort of sneak up on the guy as I walked behind him to grab a spare quart of 5w20. He sort of turned right afterwards when he definitely heard me walking through the air he had just laid claim to. I ensured we did not make eye contact or even acknowledge each other.

With that out of the way, I set off for my first overnight stop in Las Cruces, New Mexico with a case of my favorite California beer in the back (Firestone 805, for those wondering). I believed I could repeat the same sort of drive I had done on the way over, where I minimized stops and just pushed through a full day of driving in order to get the drive done in just three days. This time though I’d be taking the more southern route via I-10 and I-20 in order to avoid the colder regions in northern Arizona and New Mexico. The day was December 7th so winter weather was a real threat. The weather in LA was cloudy while the rest of my route was dry, but cold.

This time I was completely on my own. I planned to take advantage of that by stretching my driving stints even further as I wouldn’t have to worry about anyone’s comfort but mine. I would go through at least half a tank of gas before I even thought about stopping. That’s a bit over 200 miles in my car. As you can tell, I don’t take my own comfort that seriously.

As I eventually left the outer reaches of LA, which felt like it took half a day on its own, I found myself in the sort of environment I had felt the most free in during the drive over – out in the desert. With few trees in the way of the view, I felt like I could see all the way to the next county. The drive out of California was uneventful.

Arizona, as always, is just gorgeous. Mountainous terrain eventually turned into open, flat-ish lands as I approached Phoenix at dusk. I was planning to keep track of how close I was to home by looking for the first Waffle House I saw. I figured I would be most of the way through Texas before I saw one, but no. They exist as far west as Phoenix. With my grand plans of a Tweet exclaiming “I am now within Waffle House-distance of home” ruined, I pressed on and was once again taken out into the middle of nowhere. Tucson came and went as did most signs of civilization.

I-10 became very flat and pretty straight at this point. “How nice would it be to just open it up here”, I thought. Frequently. I was thinking back to how I went right past Edwards AFB on my way out here and could have seen the Air Force Flight Test Museum had it not been closed for the virus. It would’ve been easy to achieve some wicked speeds out here as if I had no speed limits and the guts to do it. Coincidentally, I learned of the passing of Chuck Yeager on one of my last stops that night.

Pictured: not nighttime

With nothing but my headlights illuminating my drive through the desert, I could look up and see more stars than I’ve ever seen before. I’d glance out to my right and wonder how far away I was from Mexico. I’d see maybe a couple of light sources around me, but they were just dots that were many miles away. Maybe even in another country. It was one of the most peaceful drives I’ve ever had. The road became even more lonely once I crossed into New Mexico. Under a starry night in an empty part of the world completely on my own, I had once again found peace. Or at least it felt like it.

It gave me plenty of time to think about what I had done and what I was in the middle of doing once again. The drive over felt like such a huge deal because of how risky and insurmountable a three-day drive across the country in a car like this felt. Yet there I was doing it all over again, but completely solo. It felt routine. It didn’t feel like a huge ordeal, but just a nice and calm drive through the desert in a horse with no name.

My last stop of the night was at a random rest area in New Mexico. I walked towards the bathroom and saw signs warning of rattle snakes. I no longer had to use the bathroom.

I got back on the road and eventually saw the lights of Las Cruces in the distance. I got to my hotel just before midnight. I wasn’t keeping track of miles this time, but Google says it was about 800 miles and 12 hours on the road.

Day 2

The next morning I got to witness the stunning landscape that had been shrouded in darkness the night before. For such a remote area that you wouldn’t think would be gorgeous, Las Cruces was beautiful. From there it was a short drive across the border into Texas, where I’d be spending the next 24 hours or so. When driving across it via I-10 and I-20, Texas can take a full day on the road. I entered in El Paso and had picked the town of Longview at random as my stop for the night. I marked my hotel reservation as a very late arrival.

Driving through El Paso provides the unique opportunity to see a different country from each side of the car. The contrast between what was to my left and right was substantial. Mexico would be within view for the next couple dozen miles as the city gave way to the desert. Just off in the distance I could begin to see some mountains. But the best thing I saw was an increasing speed limit. Signs would say 65, 70, 75, and eventually 80. I was happy to take full advantage of that.

The mountains came up fast, as did the Border Patrol checkpoint on the highway. I was let go without a full cavity search or having to explain what all the beer in my trunk was for. My first stop of the day was in Van Horn, which is just so damn far from anything that I can’t believe it’s even there. Like some sort of old western town that exists purely to serve travelers on their way to lord knows where, this place was an oasis. I filled my cupholders and passenger seat with stuff from Love’s and kept pushing on.

I caught I-20 which took me to the northern-ish part of the state. This is when the drive became monotonous. And very flat. Podcasts helped keep my mind engaged even as there was nothing around me that provoked any sort of thought. I remembered that the Commemorative Air Force had their main hangar in Midland at the time, but that ended up being closed for tours because of *gestures wildly*.

The sun started to go down on my second-to-last gas stop. I was sticking to my plan of burning a half tank of gas before getting off the road. It made for an extremely long day and at this point I was only halfway through the state. The closer I got to Dallas the more often lanes and other people began to appear.

I was born in this area and lived in Highland Village for the first seven years of my life. When my dad and I drove my grandfather’s F-150 home, we made the detour to see our old house. I had thought about doing it again but decided to save my energy. That’s because I had made a planned detour just on the other side of Dallas.

That’s right, I went to a motherfuckin Buc-ee’s.

I began to see signs for the golden beaver as I approached Terrell. I could see that cheery little bastard on his lit up sign from miles away. As I saw multiple signs to exit now, I did as the beaver commanded. I had only heard of these up until this point but none existed anywhere near me at the time. I knew I’d have the opportunity while traveling through the heart of Texas and I took it. I was not prepared.

I pretty much exclusively use travel centers like Pilot and Love’s when I’m on the road. This made all of them look puny. I filled up at gas pump number 236 and then headed inside where the real magic is. I was here at 9PM on a week night and they were still chopping up barbecue on site. For gas station food it was amazing. This place was the size of most grocery stores and it was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen.

I had been on the road for 11 hours at this point, so this place felt like a warm hug for my soul. “There there, traveler, there there… the beaver is here for you.”

I filled up whatever space was left in my trunk with beaver-branded stuff. I resisted the urge to buy the beaver onesies, but only just. I plugged in the address for my hotel in Google Maps and realized it wasn’t that much further down the road. I almost went back inside for the onesies.

But with barbeque and some seriously good in-house soda by my side I trekked on. By this point of I-20, any sort of nice view is long gone. I loved driving through the plains and through the desert because it gave me something, anything, to look at off in the distance. I didn’t feel like I was just driving through a tunnel of trees as I’m used to on the east coast. The fact that I started the day in said desert and ended it in dense forests put that drive into perspective.

I got to my hotel after 10 pm. I had been on the road all day and still hadn’t cleared Texas. Google says it was another 800 miles that day.

Day 3… and 4, and 5

I don’t have any pictures from Longview. Therefore Buc-ee’s.

With happy memories of Buc-ee the beaver fresh in my mind, I walked out to my car and fired it up for what would’ve been the last day on the road. Home was easily within reach (by my standards), but I had decided to take advantage of the route and swing by my dad’s place near Auburn, Alabama. It wouldn’t be that long of a detour and I’d get to spend a few days unwinding from the road. So why not.

I said so long to Longview and learned that the distance to the border wasn’t very long at all. I had almost cleared Texas in a day. I entered Louisiana for the first time on this entire journey as I pulled into Shreveport. I then left Shreveport feeling much better about myself. I then came upon the Mississippi River as I awoke from my state of half-consciousness that had taken me the rest of the way through the state. Legitimately all I can remember about driving through Louisiana is that I got to finally try a Raising Cane’s, and it was damn good. Had I written this portion the day I got home I still wouldn’t have anything else to add.

Crossing the Vicksburg Bridge was a huge moment. It meant that I was back east. In my mind that marked the true beginning of the end for this journey of mine. But more importantly it meant I no longer had to drive through Louisiana.

I would’ve loved to spend some time in Vicksburg, but I was in “just get there” mode. That was made easier by the fact that Mississippi is equally as boring to drive through. I only made one stop for fuel in this state. That was enough for me.

Because I was detouring to Auburn, I got off I-20 after nearly a thousand miles on it alone. I’d be taking US 80 through some very rural parts of the state until Montgomery. The lower speed limits were hard to get accustomed to after two-and-a-half days on nothing but interstates. But going through very small towns and open land was a nice change of pace. There was only one town I recognized on this route.

Selma. I ignored Google’s directions to follow US 80 around the city and went through the heart of town instead. Having never been there before but certainly knowing of its history, I couldn’t pass this up. It was a slow and somber drive across the Edmund Pettus Bridge knowing the horrible shit that happened 55 years ago (at the time).

Darkness fell as I rolled past Montgomery and caught I-85 for a short blast up the road to Auburn. I got off and made my way towards my dad and stepmom. They were living in a condo at the time as their new house got built, but the first familiar place in three days sure felt like home.

I’d work the next couple of days from their back patio and tell them the whole story of my trip. The night I got there I broke into my case of 805 and shared a beer with my dad. After the kind of journey I had until that point, it felt right. For the record, my dad thought I was fucking crazy too. But he then reminded me of the time he drove from San Jose to Atlanta in two-and-a-half days. Game recognizes game I guess.

On what was technically the fifth day of my three day drive home, I woke up early to drive the final two hours home. This part felt like a cake walk compared to everything I had just done. However I had mixed feelings when I hit Georgia asphalt for the first time in nearly two months. Georgia will always feel like home, even though the home I had was anything but. I’d be going back to my shitty apartment and my even shittier roommate. I’d be going back to the new life I had run away from where the family I had known my entire life was fractured. I wanted to be home, but I also didn’t.

The temptation to just turn around and go back was hard to ignore. Ultimately though, I knew I couldn’t keep running forever. All this time I spent on the road in California was just a temporary pause. None of my problems went away for good, they were just waiting for me to come home.

After 55 days, 8,882.8 miles (a third of earth’s circumference), 11 states, and 172 hours behind the wheel of my Mustang, I was back home. I still felt like I had accomplished something big even with my mixed feelings about it coming to an end. The car never once skipped a beat and it was no worse for wear. And it now had an unforgettable story attached to it that spanned an entire country.

My car was proudly wearing its California dust and bugs from multiple states. And I was mentally drained. I signed back on for work and slowly began to slip back into reality.

Final Thoughts

Back in the garage, still showing all its battle scars.

It’s now been over a year and a half since this journey came to an end. Even as I look back at it now, it still doesn’t really feel real. Rough origin story or not, this was the sort of thing I could only dream of not too long ago. But I actually pulled it off. I got all the way to the other side of the country and back in my Mustang without anything going wrong. Not many other cars have seen two oceans under their own power. I had loads of new memories all made possible by that silly blue horse car of mine. And these are memories I’ll hold dear for the rest of my life.

I would debate whether this drive was truly a good idea for quite a while. Given how desperate and miserable I was at the time, I felt it was easy to justify going to an extreme like this. I knew going for a road trip wouldn’t magically fix my problems but I also knew I just had to get away and give myself some space. The driving itself was nothing more than a fleeting sense of peace and enjoyment. The real benefits came from the people. The lessons they shared, the love they gave me, and the feeling that I could still turn to my family for support no matter what was invaluable. They gave me the emotional strength to come home again.

My uncle, the one with the mountain property outside of Fresno, has always been able to keep a smile on his face – even as we cleaned up from a devastating wildfire that took away most of his own sanctuary. If he could manage that in the aftermath of a literal wildfire, I figured I could maybe do the same as I picked up the pieces from my emotional wildfire. And in the following months, I sort of did.

Things since then have improved substantially. I’m no longer sharing a space with someone I hate and my relationship with my parents is about as normal as it can be now. We focus on the good things and what lies ahead rather than the painful past. And while we continue to experience our weekly once-in-a-lifetime historical events, I just try and focus only on what I can control. And my Mustang is still the best sanctuary I know. Only now I have unbelievable memories tied into it. I’d unfortunately be reminded of that just five months after coming home.

On April 14, 2021, grandpa Henry passed away after 88 remarkable years.

Had I not taken the chance on this drive and had my Mustang not gotten me there, I wouldn’t have been able to say goodbye. And I wouldn’t have the memory of his laughter and his smile – which I thought I’d never see again – seared into my mind. I think of his reaction to seeing a dusty blue Mustang with Georgia plates in his driveway every time I get in the car. The burnout sequence plays on repeat in my mind constantly. What I’d give to go back and do it all again. The tire marks were still there when I flew out for the funeral. In a life full of V8s and loud pipes, I was the last one to give him that experience and it was in the car I always told him I’d get someday. We didn’t know it at the time, but we got to say goodbye to each other on our terms – filled with smoke and louder than hell.

That was all the validation I needed. The benefits of this journey were immediately clear. Besides the incredible experience that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to have again, I learned so much during that time and especially from the incredible family I have all over California. I could have done things better. I could have been more rational. I should have sought professional help instead. But I have absolutely no regrets. Throughout this journey I came to learn that I already had everything I needed to get through those dark times. I just needed a Mustang to help me find the answer.

I’ll be forever grateful that mine didn’t lead me astray.


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