John’s Great Cross-country adventure: The wrap-up

Great weather, great car, and great scenery.  The 2014 Kia Sorento in Grand Teton National Park.

Great weather, great car, and great scenery. The 2014 Kia Sorento in Grand Teton National Park.

John’s Great Cross-Country Kia Sorento boat delivery adventure is over, but here’s the wrap-up…..

To catch you up, I was driving across the U.S. to deliver my family’s canoe to my nieces near Raleigh, North Carolina and then hanging a right and driving to Miami, Florida.

Starting Point: Portland, Oregon

Boat drop-off destination: Farmville, Virginia

Final Destination: Miami International Airport, Miami Florida

The symbolic end of the cross-country trip, with my toes in the Atlantic ocean in St. Augustine, Florida, but I still had 6 days before I flew home.

The symbolic end of the cross-country trip, with my toes in the Atlantic ocean in St. Augustine, Florida, but I still had 6 days before I flew home.

Total Mileage: 4,990 miles, and yes, I thought about driving those last 10 to put it over 5,000.

States visited: Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida.  I’ve now visited 42 of the 50 states.

Vehicle: 2014 Kia Sorento SX AWD. Base price $24,100. Price as tested $38,550. (Vehicle for return trip: Boeing 737)

Mileage:  With 17-foot canoe on top, 20.0 mpg.  Without boat, 26.2 mpg.  Easily beat the EPA ratings of 18 city/24 highway for the Sorento, even at high Interstate highway speeds.

About the Sorento: Exceptional build quality, stability, comfort and driving dynamics. Electric power steering that did an outstanding job of managing wind buffeting and drift.  Comfortable heated and cooled seats.  Panoramic sunroof, used first to make sure the boat was still on top of the SUV, and then to absorb as much vitamin D as possible before heading home to the gray Oregon winter.  Fantastic Infinity audio system through which I wirelessly played every bit of music on my iPhone over and over and over again.

I would recommend the Sorento any day.  I’d replace my personal luxury SUV with this Kia in a heartbeat.

Sunrise at Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota on day 5 of the trip.

Sunrise at Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota on day 5 of the trip.

All cars sold today feature a system of tire pressure monitor devices. When they first came out, they were considered an expensive and largely unnecessary bit of technology.  After having a flat tire and experiencing the system in action, I’m now a huge advocate.  Without the system, I would not have gotten the early warning as the tire started to go down.  Instead of having the time to stop in a safe rest area, I would have been stuck on the side of a lonely freeway, in the rain.

Beard Status: Some of my former co-workers challenged me not to shave during my journey.  It’s been itchy since South Dakota, but the beard lives on.

Highlights of the drive:

You can't count on weather like this in late October.  Some years, the parks are closed by then.

You can’t count on weather like this in late October. Some years, the parks are closed by then.

  • Perfect weather to tour Grand Teton and Yellowstone National parks. The timing was excellent to see a variety of wildlife throughout the parks, including elk, bison, moose, and a grizzly bear (WooHoo)
  • Finding the Bighorn Scenic route between Greybull and Sheridan, Wyoming.  It’s one of the best roads I’ve ever driven, but I know it will be hard to ever find an excuse to go back there.
  • To have the freedom and time to see a sign pointing to Devils Tower National Monument and following it to see the huge monolith sticking straight up from the surrounding landscape. Remember Close Encounters of the Third Kind?  It was filmed at Devils Tower.
  • Early morning at Mt. Rushmore, being the only visitor in the park to watch the sunrise flow across the faces of the presidents.
  • The museum of the Strategic Air Command near Omaha, Nebraska where I snuck the Sorento around back and photographed it next to a B-1A Lancer bomber.
  • Morning at the St. Louis Gateway arch.  Riding the pod-like elevators to the arched observation deck on at the top of the monument.
  • Visiting the home of the Budweiser Clydesdales, also in St. Louis.
  • Bowling Green, Kentucky.  Home of the Chevrolet Corvette, and a fantastic public tour of the GM plant where it is assembled.  Just down the street is the National Corvette Museum, another car lovers’ must see.
  • South Beach in Miami Beach, Florida.  A great place to visit, but I sure wouldn't want to live there.

    South Beach in Miami Beach, Florida. A great place to visit, but I sure wouldn’t want to live there.

    The Jim Beam distillery, near Louisville, Kentucky.  This massive facility creates Kentucky Bourbon all day long, every day.  It’s kind of like the Budweiser of hard alcohol – more factory and less craftwork.  And once again, no, I did not imbibe.

  • The Kentucky horse country near Lexington.  Kentucky is definitely one of the places that I want to spend more time in.
  • Driving across West Virginia with the autumn leaves in full color.  I had to do way too much of this drive in the dark, and it bums me out because I’m sure I missed quite a bit of beautiful scenery.  Add West Virginia to the list of places to go back to.
  • Farmville, Virginia, where I was able to unload the big red boat and finally get to enjoy the Sorento’s panoramic sunroof, satellite radio, and efficiency.
  • Halloween with the nieces in Raleigh!
  • Saint Augustine, Florida.  I had heard how nice this historic city is, and the reports were true.  It’s a great place for a long walking tour, and don’t miss the old fort that fronts downtown.
  • Daytona, Florida.  Home of the Daytona International Speedway, and one of the few places in the U.S. where you can still drive on the beach.
  • Bears used to be seen all of the time in the park.  Now, it's pretty rare to see one, especially a Grizzly like this one.

    Bears used to be seen all of the time in Yellowstone National Park. Now, it’s pretty rare to see one, especially a Grizzly like this one.

    Walt Disney World.  Yes, I’ll admit it, I love this place.

  • Miami Beach, Florida.  Despite horrendous traffic, South Beach is just something you’ve got to see.  It’s like no other place I’ve ever visited.
  • Spending time with only my thoughts to guide me.

Places I never need to see again:

  • They advertise the world famous Wall Drug Store for hundreds of miles in all directions.  It’s 30 minutes of my life that I can never get back.  Perhaps a bit less marketing, and a bit more substance might be in order at this tourist trap to end all tourist traps.
  • Southern Illinois.  Idaho and South Dakota are pretty flat and boring, but they’ve got nothing on the Southern Illinois.  Unless you’re fascinated by table-flat cornfields, or actually being able to see the curvature of the earth, there’s just no reason to be there.  Plus it was raining, and I got a flat tire.  Strikes two and three.
  • Pedro’s South of the Border.  At the state line between North and South Carolina on I-95 lies Pedro’s South of the Border.  It’s a huge, brightly painted monument to every bad Hispanic stereotype imaginable.  And, no, I didn’t spend my money to visit the 200-foot Sombrero Tower observation deck.
How long can you stand this view?  Before taking a multi-day car trip, you need to understand your endurance for the road, and plan accordingly.

How long can you stand this view? Before taking a multi-day car trip, you need to understand your endurance for the road, and plan accordingly.

Best roads: Wyoming, South Dakota

Worst Roads: Iowa, Illiniois, Indiana

Slowest pace: Oregon, with its antiquated 65 mph speed limit on rural highways feels like you’re driving in quicksand.  I-65 between Bowling Green and Louisville, KY due to tremendous amounts of truck traffic.

Fastest pace: I-95 through South Carolina.  Apparently, the 70 mph limit is merely a suggestion.  I was one of the slowest on the road at 85, and was routinely passed by vehicles going in excess of 100 mph. It was like people were fleeing the northeast for the warm weather of Florida.

Best rest areas: Idaho, South Dakota, Virginia.  Clean and safe, with travel information and free WiFi.

Worst rest areas: Oregon, by far.  Desolate, basic, and populated with people begging for money.  There was no feeling of safety at the Oregon rest areas.

Best drivers: Idaho, South Dakota, Missouri. In all three states, the drivers were considerate and well-mannered, and they knew how to use the freeways.

A great feature of the Sorento is a navigation system that points out mileages to the next available rest areas.

A great feature of the Sorento is a navigation system that points out mileages to the next available rest areas.

Worst drivers: Washington, Florida.  You’re probably thinking “he didn’t even go into Washington.”  True, but Washington drivers are known for never yielding the fast lane on the freeway.  So here I am, driving south through Iowa and there’s a big lineup of traffic in the left lane. When I caught up with the blockage, it was, naturally, a car with Washington license plates. They’re everywhere. Florida drivers are just completely unpredictable, and many are “driving” massive sedans with underutilized mirrors.

Lessons learned: When looking at hotels, more expensive does not necessarily mean better quality.  Some of the least expensive were the best, and the most expensive the worst. The best thing that could happen to the expensive La Quinta hotel in Rapid City, South Dakota would be for the earth to open up and swallow it whole – staff and all.  On the flip side, one of my least expensive stopovers – the La Quinta in Omaha, Nebraska – was one of the best.

You need to have a good idea of your natural endurance for the road. Some people can drive on forever, some can’t. There was only one day where I questioned my decision to go forward to my planned destination. While I was able to stay alert and it turned out OK, I should have listened to my body and stopped earlier.  Driving at night is much more exhausting than driving during the day, and as the trip went on, the days were getting shorter and shorter.  Your two biggest challenges are fatigue and wildlife on the road – two threats that grow larger as the days go into evening.

I crossed the bulk of the country in a little over a week.  It should have taken at least twice that long.  There’s just so much to see, and you’ll never see it from the fast lane of the freeway. I don’t know if it will ever happen, but the next drive is already forming in my mind….

Days 13-18: Florida and home

Even the 2014 Kia Sorento got to play on Daytona Beach.

Even the 2014 Kia Sorento got to play on Daytona Beach.

I reached my lifelong goal of driving across the United States when I dipped my toes into the Atlantic on St. Augustine beach.  That was on day 11, and there was much more fun to be had before I flew home on day 18.

I headed south along Florida’s Atlantic coast, stopped at the Daytona International Speedway, drove on the famous Daytona Beach (the birthplace of NASCAR). It only costs $5 per day to drive on the bright white sandy beach, and it’s a whole lot of fun even with a speed limit of only 10 mph.

The sand is so well packed on the beach that the Sorento’s all-wheel drive wasn’t even tested, and there are hundreds of parking spaces right on the beach.

A three-story Mickey Mouse greeted me at the Pop Century Resort in Walt Disney World.

A three-story Mickey Mouse greeted me at the Pop Century Resort in Walt Disney World.

From Daytona, I headed across Florida on the busy Interstate 4 through Orlando and onto my in-laws home near Tampa. In addition to great football Sunday hospitality, they’re experts on the next part of my adventure – Walt Disney World. While I know many people consider it to be one of the most dreadful places on the planet, I love Disney World. The only thing that could have made it better is if my wife had been able to join me.

The resort is so immense and constantly changing that you need a plan to maximize your visit.  There are four major theme parks – the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, the Disney Studios, and Animal Kingdom.  Each could easily take more than a day to tour.  I had 2 days to cover all 4.  Fortunately, I’ve been there before and I knew the highlights to hit.

There are thousands of hotel rooms in the area around the resort, but you want to stay on Disney property to take advantage of the transportation system and other resort guest benefits. I’ve stayed at every level of Disney accommodations offered on previous trips, and you get what you pay for in terms of amenities and location. This time, since I was traveling alone and didn’t plan on spending much time in the room, I chose the least expensive of the Disney options – the Pop Century Resort.  Really, if you are doing Disney right, you won’t be in the room much anyway.

Disney Studios' Rock & Roller Coaster features stretch limos that are catapulted from 0 to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds before going inverted three times.  It's best to eat after the ride.

Disney Studios’ Rock & Roller Coaster features stretch limos that are catapulted from 0 to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds before going inverted three times. It’s best to eat after the ride.

It was a great time to be in the resort. Weather was mild and not too humid, and the crowds were tolerable.  I have no idea why anyone would go to the parks during the height of the summer season, while crowds are massive, and the weather oppressive.

Even the top rides had short waits, especially for single riders. At Expedition Everest, a roller coaster in the Animal Kingdom, I was able to ride a dozen times in about an hour! During peak times, it can take longer than that to ride once.  I even had time to visit “It’s a Small World” and put the insidious music into the minds of everyone who read my Facebook post.  You’re welcome.

Disney’s use of technology is almost scary, with everything related to your visited activated with an RFID wristband.  Park admission, purchases, and even your hotel room door lock are activated by the wristband.

Disney's Magic Kingdom was lit for the holidays on the last night of my visit.

Disney’s Magic Kingdom was lit for the holidays on the last night of my visit.

As I said before, the resort is huge. In two and a half days, I walked 74,822 steps according to my FitBit fitness wristband. According to the FitBit GPS app, that equates to about 35 miles.

My final evening in the park was in the Magic Kingdom which was lit up for the taping of a holiday commercial. It made me want to return to see the full spectrum of holiday lighting throughout the parks.

Heading south, I wheeled the 2014 Kia Sorento down the Florida Turnpike tollway, and into Fort Lauderdale. It’s much nicer without the boat of top – very quiet and rather efficient. With the great Florida weather the panoramic sunroof was wide open, and Jimmy Buffett’s Radio Margaritaville was cranking from the Infinity audio system.  Finally the next day, I headed to my ultimate destination of Miami Beach to cover the 2013 Miami Auto Show.

Cadillac's 2015 Escalade luxury SUV made its first auto show appearance at the Miami Auto Show.

Cadillac’s 2015 Escalade luxury SUV made its first auto show appearance at the Miami Auto Show.

The Miami Auto Show kicks off the U.S. Auto show season, and offered the first time to see many of the newest models coming to the market, including the 2015 Cadillac Escalade and ELR, as well as the 2015 Chevy Suburban. Maserati presented the new Ghibli sedan for the first time in a US auto show. The $65K sedan could be a game changer for the Italian car company.

Special thanks to the Miami Auto Show and the Southern Automotive Media Association for graciously hosting a number of regional automotive media association leaders from across the country. We were in Miami to discuss the formation of an umbrella organization representing interests of automotive journalists nationwide.

Thanks to Kia’s provision of the Sorento for the journey I didn’t have to turn around and drive home. I dropped the SUV off with the valet at Miami International Airport, settled into an airplane seat, and took the fast lane home.

Day 12: To the sea

My driving partner and I dipped our toes in the Atlantic this morning at St. Augustine Beach.

My driving partner and I dipped our toes in the Atlantic this morning at St. Augustine Beach.

St. Augustine, Florida is the oldest continuously occupied community in the United States settled by Europeans. It was founded in 1565 by a Spanish naval officer and changed hands several times amongst the Spanish, British, and finally America.  It’s now a major tourist attraction on Florida’s northeast coast, and the place where my cross-country journey reached the Atlantic Ocean.

After nearly 4500 miles, 17 states, and 11 days, I finally achieved my goal of driving across the United States. While I still have a few days to play around in Florida before I fly home, dipping my toes in the water at St. Augustine Beach was the symbolic end of the transcontinental journey.

It all went by way to quickly. To do it right, I should have taken at least a month, and even then there would be many things left to be seen another time. I went through Yellowstone National Park in a day. It should have taken a week. There’s a lot to do and see in Kentucky, and it’s probably worth another whole week. As much fun as it’s been doing the trip solo, it would have been better if my wife were along to share in the memories.

Located in historic district, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine was built in 1793.

Located in historic district, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine was built in 1793.

The weather has been fantastic for most of the trip, and this morning was no exception. After a long walk on the beach, I wandered through the historic section St. Augustine. The community has done a great job of keeping the businesses in the historic district local – there aren’t any national chain stores or terribly cheesy tourist traps.

On the St. Augustine waterfront is the Castillo de San Marcos, which was built over 100 years before the American Revolution and is now a National Monument.  It was another opportunity to use the parks pass that I bought in the Grand Tetons at the beginning of the trip. If you’re doing any traveling at all, buying this pass will pay off in short order.

From there I headed south to Daytona, Florida, the birthplace of NASCAR. The sport did not begin at site of the current superspeedway, but rather with racing on the beach. You can still drive on the beach, although at a much more leisurely pace. Just $5 buys you a one-day pass for access.

The sand of the beach is pretty well packed from the traffic on the beach, so it was no test at all for the Sorento’s all-wheel drive system. I tested the AWD a bit earlier in the trip, on snowy and icy patches in Wyoming, and it performed admirably. What I am using in Florida is the Kia’s large, panoramic sunroof. If I’m not careful, the top of my head is going to be redder than the car.

For only $5 per day, you can drive on Daytona Beach.

For only $5 per day, you can drive on Daytona Beach.

After my foray on the beach, I crossed the state to visit relatives on the Gulf Coast, and tomorrow I’ll be headed back to central Florida to visit Mickey Mouse.

 

Start:  St. Augustine, Florida
End: Tampa, Florida
Total miles: 243
States: Florida
Tomorrow: Orlando, Florida

 

Day 11: On the road again

Leading to Savannah, Georgia is a modern suspension span.

Leading to Savannah, Georgia is a modern suspension span.

After a couple of days of down time with my brother’s family in Raleigh I’m back on the road.  I was able to spend Halloween trick or treating with my nieces and it was a blast!

The days of heading east with the big red boat on the roof are behind me. I dropped off the boat, and now I’ve turned south towards the Miami Auto Show at the end of next week.

I-95 is a fast route down the east coast. It’s like a funnel leading from the northeast to Florida, and this time of year it’s loaded with snowbirds heading for their winter homes. Cars loaded with luggage from New York, New Jersey and surprisingly, Quebec, were plentiful along the route.

At the border of North and South Carolina lies the “community” of Pedro’s South of the Border. Even if you miss the dozens of billboards along the route south, there’s no way to miss the 200-foot sombrero tower. Besides the themed truck stop, motel, and shops there’s the Pedroland amusement park and reptile gardens.  Really, what more brightly hued assaults to good taste could a weary traveler want?

Continuing south on I-95 the pace picked up dramatically. While the speed limit was posted as 70 mph, most of the drivers on this stretch of road apparently felt this was only a suggestion.  The pace averaged around 85 clear past the Georgia border.  That tempo makes the miles fly by.

Yes, I was compelled by the giant sombrero to stop at Pedro's South of the Border at the north edge of South Carolina.

Yes, I was compelled by the giant sombrero to stop at Pedro’s South of the Border at the north edge of South Carolina.

The Sorento is more pleasant to drive at high speed without the boat than with all of the noise that the boat and the hold down straps made at speed. Now I’m back to enjoying the Sorento’s naturally quiet and refined ride. Fuel efficiency is up almost exactly 30 percent at the 70 to 75 mph pace.  Where it was getting 20.0 mpg with the boat, it’s now getting just over its rated 26 mpg. Plus now I can enjoy the included panoramic sunroof and satellite radio. The boat was like a huge tinfoil hat over both, not allowing light to reach the cabin or a radio signal to reach the antenna.

I don’t care how much music you have on your iPhone or iPod, it’s not enough for a cross-country drive. Satellite radio is a much better choice for the lonely stretches.

One of my favorite places in America is River Street in Savannah, Georgia. It was a busy Saturday on the cobblestones of the riverfront road, which is lined with small shops, restaurants, and craft sellers. It’s the place where I discovered pralines, the chocolate-covered southern confection that can test even the most diehard dieter.

Highway designers along the southeast coast seem to have embraced modern suspension bridges. Besides one leading to Savannah, I saw another on the horizon as I approached Brunswick, Georgia. One of the joys of this trip has been the ability to further explore whatever I want to. I saw a cool bridge, so I took a detour and drove over the 480-foot tall Sidney Lanier Bridge, the longest spanning bridge in the state of Georgia.

Crossed into Florida at sunset under clear skies and warm temperatures.

Crossed into Florida at sunset under clear skies and warm temperatures.

Now I’m within a stone’s throw of my goal of driving from coast to coast. Tomorrow morning I’ll dip my toes in the Atlantic to complete the transcontinental journey.  Then it’s off to visit more family and spend some time with Mickey Mouse before heading to the Miami auto show.

 

Start: Raleigh, North Carolina
End: St. Augustine, Florida
Total miles: 548
States: North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida
Tomorrow: Tampa, Florida

 

Day 9: Your ship has come in

The big red boat has arrived at its new home in Virginia.

The big red boat has arrived at its new home in Virginia.

Today’s the big day!  The day the boat finally comes off the roof of the car at its new home in rural Virginia.  For those who have not been following along, I was transporting my family’s old canoe from my parents’ house near Portland, Oregon to my nieces’ cabin near Raleigh, North Carolina.

After crossing 13 states and about 3,700 miles, I arrived in Farmville, Virginia late last night. I know what you’re thinking, and no, it’s not the FarmVille from your Facebook page. It’s a small town in rural south central Virginia. I wouldn’t have had to drive to the other FarmVille.  It’s everywhere.

My brother’s family has a cabin on a lake near town, and now the boat that my brothers and I thrashed about in as kids will be enjoyed by my three nieces.

I've seen 3700 miles of the United States through the triangular window of straps holding fast the canoe.

I’ve seen 3700 miles of the United States through the triangular window of straps holding fast the canoe.

Over the transcontinental journey, the boat was perfectly stable on top of the car, thanks in no small part to the very smart people at Kia and Yakima Racks who devised the various parts of the rack system that tightly mated the 17-foot craft to the top of the car.  Even driving at high speed across the northern plains with significant crosswinds, the boat didn’t move a millimeter from its perch.

As I suspected, however, the boat absolutely destroyed the efficiency of the 2014 Kia Sorento that I’m driving.  In the hundred or so miles I’ve driven since dropping off the boat, my mileage is up almost 40 percent. Yes, 40 percent! The boat is very lightweight, so the penalty was completely aerodynamic.

I can also now enjoy the panoramic sunroof in the Sorento, as well as Satellite radio. Both the roof and antenna were completely eclipsed by the big red boat.

Now I’m down in Raleigh, North Carolina where I’ll be spending a couple of days.  I’ll be restarting the blog when I embark on the next phase of the journey, from here to Miami, Florida.

 

Start: Farmville, Virginia
End: Raleigh, North Carolina
Total miles: 132
States: Virginia, North Carolina
Tomorrow: Raleigh, NC

 

Day 8: Corvettes and a long cruise

The Corvette factory in Bowling Green Kentucky is like a shrine to Corvette enthusiasts.

The Corvette factory in Bowling Green, Kentucky is like a shrine to Corvette enthusiasts.

For car enthusiasts, the town of Bowling Green, Kentucky is known for one and only one thing.  It’s the home of the Chevrolet Corvette. Since the early 1980s, all Corvettes have been built in GM’s Bowling Green assembly plant, and the 2014 Corvette Stingray is the only car they build there.

So passionate are Corvette fans about the area that there’s a massive National Corvette Museum is just up the road.

If you’re ever passing through, you must take the public tour at the plant. In two amazing hours you’ll see how their 900 employees and contractors take a pile of parts and assemble them into one of the finest sports cars available today. I’ve been through quite a number of personal auto plant tours, but this publically available tour was better than any of them.  Although it’s a large plant, the assembly line moves slowly. Today, only 146 cars were scheduled to be built.

Along the way you see all aspects of the car’s production, except for paintwork (which is done in a nearly clean-room environment.) No photos were allowed on the tour, but they have some display cars out front for that.

A short stop in the West Virginia capitol of Charleston.

A short stop in the West Virginia capitol of Charleston.

You might be wondering how I’m going to fit my test Kia into this story.  Here’s how: What do the Corvette Stingray and the 2014 Kia Sorento have in common?  They’re both built in the southeastern United States by American workers. We’re in a time where the definition of “American” or “foreign” car is unclear (at best.) I’d contend that the Kia Sorento is more of an American car than, for example, a Ram Pickup truck.  Ram is produced by Chrysler, which is owned by Italian company Fiat, and the trucks are built in Mexico.

I headed north towards Louisville, Kentucky to visit a different kind of plant. This one makes Jim Beam Kentucky Bourbon. Massive in scale, it’s like the Budweiser brewery of the hard liquor world.  Once again, I’ve driving, so I didn’t imbibe.  I did, however, purchase for later.

I-65 between the two cities is part of the cargo transportation spine of America. If you think you’ve seen heavy truck traffic before, you haven’t seen anything like this. I’d say the ratio of trucks to cars was at least 30 to 1 and you quickly learned to just get out of their way. Many industrial plants now operate with a “just in time” inventory system, so if those trucks don’t arrive precisely on time, the whole plant shuts down.

I asked the driver if he could just deliver these 2014 Corvette Stingrays to my house.  He said he's heard that joke, over and over again.  And the answer was no.

I asked the driver if he could just deliver these 2014 Corvette Stingrays to my house. He said he’s heard that joke, over and over again. And the answer was no.

From there I again turned eastward, crossing the hills of eastern Kentucky and its spectacular display of autumn color.  I know they call them mountains, but seriously folks, they’re just hills.

It was almost sunset before the mighty Kia crossed into West Virginia and on through its capitol of Charleston. Then came a long, foggy night drive across the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains (one again, they’re really just big hills) to the small town of Farmville, Virginia.  It was the last full day that the boat will be riding on the car, and I’m looking forward to driving without a huge red banana strapped to the roof.

Start: Bowling Green, Kentucky
End: Farmville, Virginia
Total miles: 642
States: Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia
Tomorrow: Raleigh, NC

 

Day 7: 4 states, 1 flat tire, bad karaoke

Day7No7

The St. Louis Gateway Arch stretches along the Mississippi River. A unique elevator system takes visitors to an observation deck at the top of the monument.

I never knew my Uncle Stewart.  He gave his life fighting for his country in World War II.  He’s buried in a single grave with the remains of 25 other servicemen at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis, and Tuesday morning I paid my respects. As happened with many deaths during the war, the circumstances of his death were never fully recorded.

The morning brought something I had yet to see on the trip – overcast weather.  Until, I’ve seen only a few clouds, which is pretty amazing for this time of year. The weather seemed to match the mood of the city this morning, after both the Cardinals and the Rams both lost critical games last night. Everyone from the morning TV anchors to the folks as the hotel front desk seemed just a little bummed.

Here's the requested photo of 5 days of not shaving.  Another day or two, and I can be an extra on the NBC show Grimm.

Here’s the requested photo after 5 days of not shaving. Another day or two, and I can be an extra on the NBC show Grimm.

Although I didn’t really have a plan of all of the things I wanted to see on this trip, there were a few things that I did want to do. That list included the St. Louis Gateway Arch.  I didn’t have any idea what to expect, and I was surprised at the sheer scale of the monument.  I’ve seen it from the air, but that doesn’t come close to the view from its base. The visitors’ center and access to the elevators are located underground, between the ends of the arch.

You ride to the top in these little white pod-like elevators. Each seats 5 and takes 4 minutes to get to the top. It would not be a happy ride for those with claustrophobia, and there’s no escape once you get moving. The “elevators” kind of tilt and shimmy their way to the small observation area. The arch was built in the 1960’s, and the elevators look like they came straight from a science-fiction movie of that era.

The view from the top is fantastic, through little rectangular slit windows with downtown St. Louis to the west, and the Mississippi River and Illinois to the east.

Day7No4

The 2014 Kia Sorento has made it to the World Series — or at least to Busch Stadium, site of the 2014 series.

By the time I descended to the park below, the rain had started. Fortunately, the next activity was mostly inside. The Budweiser brand started in St. Louis, and its largest brewery is still there.  I’ve seen macro-breweries before, and really had no desire to see another beer mega-factory. What I did want to see were the Budweiser Clydesdales, and their historic stable on the brewery grounds.  Add Clydesdales to the list of things that I think are just cool.

Budweiser ends the tour in the tasting room, but I was driving, so I didn’t inhale. Plus, it was Budweiser, and being from Oregon I’m really supposed to be a beer snob. (I’m really not, and I don’t drink coffee either.)

Then the slog east began, as it has on nearly every day this trip.  I’ll admit I didn’t plan enough time for this journey.  You could triple the time and not even have enough to brush all the highlights.

The drive today was challenging, as after leaving St. Louis the rain began in earnest and the freeway corridors in this part of the country have truck traffic like we never seen in the northwest.

The 2014 Sorento is equipped with a Tire Pressure Monitoring System.  Without it, I would have been stranded alongside a busy freeway.

The 2014 Sorento is equipped with a Tire Pressure Monitoring System. Without it, I would have been stranded alongside a busy freeway.

Then the trip’s perfect luck ran out. Fortunately, all new cars come equipped with a mandated piece of safety technology called a “Tire Pressure Monitoring System.” I’m cruising down the freeway at 70 mph and a low tire pressure warning light came on. Fortunately I was only a couple of miles to a rest area, where it was safe to work on the car.  Without the TPMS, I would not have known about the tire issue until the tire was nearly flat, and I would have been stuck on the side of the 70 mph freeway.

A couple of the lug nuts were too tight to remove with the included wrench, so a call to AAA was made and 30 minutes later a tow truck came along to switch me to the spare.  While many new cars don’t come with spares anymore, the 2014 Sorento does.  The tow driver, a proud NASCAR dirt track champion, led me to the small town tire shop where they found not a nail or screw, but a small animal bone had punctured the tire.

Here’s where it got a bit bizzare. These five crew cut Midwestern boys were working in the back of the shop loudly singing along to Ricky Martin’s Living la Vida Loca.  Badly.  I think what they were actually singing was Giving la Viva Local. Not kidding. It got worse when Adele came on. Much, much worse.

After a two-hour delay got moving again. In the rain, and the fog, and then the dark. Southern Illinois is a very flat place.

And tomorrow I do it again. But probably no Clydesdales. And hopefully no flat tire.

 

Start: St. Louis, Missouri
End: Bowling Green, Kentucky
Total miles: 353
States: Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky
Tomorrow: Somewhere East of here.

 

Day 6: Airplanes on the plains

Photobombed by an actual bomber.  The 2014 Kia Sorento with a B-1A Lancer bomber at the Strategic Air and Space Museum outside of Omaha.

Photobombed by an actual bomber. The 2014 Kia Sorento with a B-1A Lancer bomber at the Strategic Air and Space Museum outside of Omaha.

I’m writing this blog about my travels, what I’m doing, and what I’m seeing.  So what are people asking for more of?  Pictures of me with a scruffy beard, looking like a bad guy from a Die Hard movie.  Okay, I give up.  I’ll post one tomorrow.

My Monday started with a trip west of Omaha to the Strategic Air and Space Museum. I first saw the collection over 30 years ago when it was located on the ramp at Offutt Air Force base.  Now it has its own hangers several miles from the base. It’s dedicated (mostly) to the wing of the U.S. Air Force that commands the bomber and missile forces. You know it’s going to be a great aerospace museum when you open the front door and see an SR-71 Blackbird hanging in the lobby.

Unlike most museums, this one has no ropes separating you from the exhibits. You can get up close, and marvel at the mechanical complexity of the massive flying machines.  I love looking at this stuff.

There’s an active restoration shop at the museum, and the staff is pretty casual about letting the very few visitors today take a look at the boneyard behind the facility. I kind of snuck the Kia Sorento back there for a picture with a B-1A Lancer bomber.

An SR-71 Blackbird hangs in the lobby of the Strategic Air and Space Museum.

An SR-71 Blackbird hangs in the lobby of the Strategic Air and Space Museum.

From there I headed south towards Kansas City, Missouri with a short detour to Kansas City, Kansas.  Why? Because a) it was just a couple of miles out of the way, and b) I can now say I’ve been to Kansas. That’s the wonder of this trip – I don’t need any more reason than that to do whatever I want.  It’s going to be tough when I finally return to reality.

From there it was a long lateral across the center of Missouri. In a lot of ways, it looked like driving in Oregon. In fact, just outside Kansas City across were signs for Oregon. The town of Oregon, Missouri that is, population 897.  Sunset was spectacular, with the first clouds I’ve seen on the trip.

I thought about driving downtown St. Louis tonight, but they have a little baseball game going on – the World Series. Not only that, but Monday Night Football was in town for St. Louis vs. the Seattle Seahawks.  Go Sox and Hawks (but don’t tell anyone here that I said that.)

The gas prices in the region are consistently under $3/gallon, which is a wonderful thing. The aerodynamic drag from the boat on top continues to drag my mileage down, but it’s only going to be on the Sorento for another few days.  I’ll give you some real mileage numbers then.

A Missouri Rest Area with special spaces for Eco Vehicles.  The Sorento's very good on both counts, so I should have taken one of the slots.

A Missouri Rest Area with special spaces for Eco Vehicles. The Sorento’s very good on both counts, so I should have taken one of the slots.

There’s a lot of Ethanol in the gas here, but the naturally aspirated gasoline direct injected V-6 under to Sorento’s hood doesn’t seem to mind a bit. I’ve also noticed that the Sorento’s motor isn’t nearly as noisy on cold mornings as some direct-injected powerplants are. It appears that Kia’s done an admirable job with the thermal management that allows the engine to warm very quickly.

There’s a lot to do and see in St. Louis, and I’ll be trying to tomorrow morning. The Gateway Arch is on the to do list, and I’m going to try to visit the Budweiser Clydesdales before I head off to Bowling Green, Kentucky. Today was a four-state day, and tomorrow should be as well.

 

Start: Omaha, Nebraska

End: Suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri
Total miles: 599
States: Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri
Number of requests for beard photo: 7
Tomorrow: Gateway Arch, Budweiser Clydesdales, on to Bowling Green, KY.

Day 5: Sunrise with the Presidents

Day5No1

Close up of Abe Lincoln on the face of Mt. Rushmore. I never knew his pupils were square.

I’ll apologize for the short post tonight, as it has been a very long day. It started well before sunrise, and ended well after sunset, in another state, and another time zone.

Sunday started at Mount Rushmore National Memorial outside of Keystone, South Dakota. I arrived just before the sunrise and had the entire park to myself as I watched the morning light illuminate the 4 presidents. Although the trail to the summit is closed this time of year, the main loop trail to the base of the mountain is open. At 7:30 this morning it was just me and the chipmunks on the path. It’s not a National Park or Landmark, it’s a National Memorial, and so the peace was fitting.

When I go the parks, I try to make pictures that are different than every other tourist makes. Sure, I have a few more tools in the bag to help make that happen, but I also look for the different angle, a unique framing, or interesting light. Being alone in the park this morning gave me the opportunity to explore all three.

I was leaving Mt. Rushmore just as more people were arriving. I headed to the perennially under construction Crazy Horse Memorial. It’s another mountain carving, but it is operated by a private non-profit and the sheer scale of the project dwarfs Mt. Rushmore. The horse in the sculpture, if and when it gets carved, will be 22 stories tall. Carving started in 1948 and will continue for years, in ebbs and flows as financial conditions allow.

The 2014 Kia Sorento at the under construction since 1948 Crazy Horse memorial.

The 2014 Kia Sorento at the under construction since 1948 Crazy Horse memorial.

Then began a long haul, traversing South Dakota from west to east, then south along the eastern border into Iowa and on to Omaha, Nebraska. Today was the longest driving day of the trip so far with 599 miles covered. Days like today are not the way to see the United States, unless you enjoy the view of freeway stretching out for miles. I’m trying to punctuate each day with at least one off the freeway foray.

If you’ve ever spent time driving in the plains, you’ve no doubt seen signs for Wall, South Dakota’s Wall Drug Store – “The biggest drug store in the world.” They brag that they have over 1000 billboards spread across 4 states, touting their 5 cent coffee, pictures with a Jackelope, and an amazing inventory of the souvenirs and supplies that every traveler needs.

It is also 30 minutes of my life I will never get back.

Imagine the worst, schlocky tourist attractions crammed into one city block and you have the Wall Drug Store. Maybe it’s better in the summer when it’s all up and running. Or maybe not. I should have gone to the National Potato Museum when I was back in Idaho, it would have been more exciting.

The day started early and finished late.  But I'm not complaining about the epic weather.

The day started early and finished late. But I’m not complaining about the epic weather.

Driving into Iowa it was like the world slowed down. Not only are the speed limits only slightly better than Oregon’s molasses-like limits, but they’re enforced by photo radar, even on the freeways. No fair, at that point it’s just about revenue.

Even after 12 hours behind the wheel, the 2014 Kia Sorento continues to impress. The seats are comfortable, supportive, and highly adjustable. The navigation screen graphics are some of the best in the business, and the dashboard layout is so natural that your fingers find the desired switch or dial without so much as a glance needed. Driving with a 75-mph limit all day brought my mileage down a bit, but that’s to be expected. Now that I’m firmly in corn-growing country, it will be interesting to see what the higher levels of ethanol in the gas here do to the efficiency.

George Washington's profile isn't visible from inside the memorial area, but rather from a road a couple of miles away,

George Washington’s profile isn’t visible from inside the memorial area, but rather from a road a couple of miles away.

So my former colleagues at The Oregonian challenged me not to shave during this trip. I’m sending them a self-portrait each day of my progress.  I will not be posting one here, but suffice to say that on day 5 I’m starting to look somewhat homeless. No wonder I got a horrible room in the hotel last night.

Tomorrow morning I get to look at airplanes at the Strategic Air Command museum outside of Omaha. Then it’s onto Kansas City and a hard left to St. Louis, Missouri.

Start: Rapid City, South Dakota
End: Omaha, Nebraska
Total miles: 599
States: South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska
Tomorrow: On to St. Louis, Missouri

 

Day 4: Discovering an amazing road

The road was clear at the 9,033-foot summit of the Big Horn mountains, but snow covered the rest of the landscape.

The road was clear at the 9,033-foot summit of the Big Horn Mountains, but snow covered the rest of the landscape.

Even when you’re in your 40s, sometimes you just have to listen to your father. I was planning on one route, and he suggested another that would save me some miles. Not only did it save me some miles, but it put me on one of the best roads I’ve ever driven.

Instead of heading north of Yellowstone to I-90 in Montana, I headed due east, across the top of Wyoming. The first 50 or so miles was just OK – a nice, fast two lane highway. Everywhere in the west, except Oregon, the speed limit is 65 or higher on rural highways and not just interstates. Antelope romp across the prairie that the highway traverses.

Then it got more interesting. Nearing the town of Greybull, Wyoming I came across an airport that was actually more like an airplane graveyard than an active aerodrome. Until a few years ago it was home to a museum dedicated to aerial firefighting (for forest wildfires.) That museum doesn’t seem to exist anymore, but the airport is filled with a wide variety of antique military bombers and transport aircraft from around the world. Very few of them will ever fly again as they’re just sitting on dirt lots, rusting away. It’s sad.

The Greybull, Wyoming airport is a graveyard of antique aircraft, rusting away.

The Greybull, Wyoming airport is a graveyard of antique aircraft, rusting away.

The road out of Greybull towards Sheridan, Wyoming is the 58-mile Bighorn Scenic Route. It starts with a slow, twisty road through the narrow Shell Canyon, with its shimmering creek and the last spectacular remnants of fall color. Breaking out at the top of the canyon, the road opens up with a mix of sweeping turns and twisty switchbacks. It was time to put the “sport” in the Kia Sorento sport utility vehicle.

EcoMode off, steering to “sport” setting, transmission in manual mode and I was set for fun. Even with the top-heavy dynamic set up by the canoe on the roof, the Sorento performed admirably. I’ve been thinking this for a couple of days, but I would trade my luxury SUV for this Kia. In a heartbeat.  The Sorento is equipped with a whole suite of traction, stability, and braking aids, plus an effective all-wheel drive system. All of them got to play today, as the road featured the occasional icy patch.

The road topped out at 9,033 feet, and then dropped like a stone into the town of Sheridan. It was awesome. For someone who loves to drive, the route was like aerobic exercise, with an extra jolt of adrenaline added in now and then. Don’t get me wrong, there was no speeding or anything reckless involved, it was just the pure rush of becoming synchronized with the rhythm and the pace of the road.

Devil's Tower rises dramatically 1,267 feet above the surrounding landscape.

Devil’s Tower rises dramatically 1,267 feet above the surrounding landscape.

Northeast Wyoming thrives on one industry — Energy. Not only is there a strip coal mine just a couple of miles out of town of Gillette, but oil pumping rigs line the landscape. Long coal trains stream from the town, heading both east and west. Gillette did have the cheapest gas of the trip so far — $2.95/gallon.

Devils Tower National Monument is located in the extreme northwest corner of the state. I didn’t really even know it was there until I was looking at a map last night. So, what the heck, I took a little detour and I’m glad I did. The tower is a large columnar igneous rock formation that dramatically juts upward from the surrounding landscape that was created by a magma intrusion about 65 million years ago. It’s one of those parks that you kind of know exists, but you have no idea where it really is. Now I know. And it’s a very cool place.

I finished my day driving through the little town of Sturgis, South Dakota. For most of the year, Sturgis is a sleepy little mountain town. For one week per year, however, it’s the wildest town in America, hosting a massive rally of Harley-Davidson motorcycle riders. If you own a Harley, Sturgis is on your bucket list.

I’m now in Rapid City, South Dakota.  It’s the gateway to Mount Rushmore National Landmark, and feels like the gateway town to an amusement park. The hotel has a water park and a pizza parlor, and the gas in town is overpriced for the tourists.

I've crossed the continental divide with the 2014 Kia Sorento.  I should be able to coast from here, right?

I’ve crossed the continental divide with the 2014 Kia Sorento. I should be able to coast from here, right?

Tomorrow brings an early morning trip out to the monument before a long traverse of South Dakota. Then I’ll turn south along the Missouri River in Iowa and head towards Omaha, Nebraska.

Total miles: 422
Start: Cody, Wyoming
End: Rapid City, South Dakota
Next up: Mount Rushmore and east towards Omaha, Nebraska.