In honor of the recent end of production of the Beetle, I’m going to take a break from my COAL and regale you with the road trip story of driving a 2000 New Beetle from New England to Los Angeles, CA in the summer of 2018.
Among my friends, I am known for my reputation for taking road trips. In the last decade, I’ve taken several cross country trips (both East to West and North to South), and I often take shorter vacations from my home in RI in one of my cars. I’ve also honed my skills of a fly-drive-camp road trip as well, packing all the necessary camping gear in one suitcase, flying out to a West Coast city, renting a car and spending a week wandering around.
So in early Summer 2018, my friend J. asked me if I would be willing to drive his brother’s car from Boston to Los Angeles. The brother and his partner were both moving out to LA for jobs, but they didn’t have time to drive their car out. Shipping was considered, but I quickly quoted them a price that was much cheaper than any transport company. I couldn’t say yes fast enough – a free road trip? As luck would have it, I had already secured the time off from my new job for another road trip that fell through.
The details were quickly ironed out, and I was soon meeting with B. just outside of New Haven, CT to pick up the New Beetle. The VW was a 2000 1.8L turbo 5-speed with around 120,000k on the odometer. It was in decent shape both cosmetically and mechanically. J.’s brother had a thorough mechanical check of the car before I picked it up, so I was confident that this 20-year-old VW wouldn’t leave me stranded in the middle of Nowheresville, USA. I consoled myself with the thought that by this time the best-built VAG products must be the only ones remaining on the road.
After spending the day on Friday, June 29th with my son in New Haven I headed out into Friday night rush hour traffic on the Merritt Parkway in CT. My first night would find me in Philadelphia with one of my best friends on her couch. The trip through NYC wasn’t as bad as I had feared, and I made it down to PHL in just over 5 hours. I always find getting out (and returning to) the Northeast one of the most boring and frustrating parts of any cross country road trip. The first few and last few hours of the trip are driving on roads that I have driven many times and it just doesn’t feel like I’m going anyplace special. By the time I hit western NY or PA, I am starting to feel like I’m actually on a trip and I can settle into a road trip routine.
Saturday morning started off with a plate of scrapple and a warning from the meteorologists that I would be heading into a July heatwave across the country. No matter, the AC was functioning in the VW. The rolling hills of I-76 throughout PA gave me a chance to assess my home on wheels for the next 7 days. The seats were fairly comfortable, the AC, cruise and radio/tape deck worked as advertised – the basic necessities were in good order. The engine was strong and the shifter worked without any fuss. There were no untoward wobbles or shakes from the front suspension, and air noise around the greenhouse was minimal. All in all, for a nearly 20-year-old car the VW was a decent ride.
As I was heading to my sister’s house in Lexington, KY for my second night, I veered south into Maryland and WV. In Huntington WV I stopped at one of my favorite road-side food stands, Frostop Drive-In. I found this place by accident on a previous road trip, and now I make an effort to go out of my way to stop there whenever possible. Their hotdogs and homemade rootbeer floats are wonderful and the epitome of summertime road trip food.
I made it to Lexington in time to venture out to a street festival in downtown Lexington and enjoyed the opportunity to catch up with her and her husband (and their myriad of pets). The next morning as I was loading the VW, I went to check the oil and air pressure in the tires. It was then that I noticed something rather alarming: the tires looked pretty badly weather-checked. I took a few photos and sent them to my mechanically inclined friends back in New England. The assessment was “Yeah, those don’t look great, but you should be okay.” A vote of confidence it wasn’t, but we have a saying in our group: “The Triumph of Hope Over Experience” (TOHOE).
I said my goodbyes and headed out to another of my favorite road-trip meals: Waffle House. This would be my only chance to enjoy Waffle House so I didn’t want to miss the chance. I wandered around the countryside for a few minutes hoping to get a photo of the VW out in horse-country and then quickly got back on the road. I was excited to be heading into new territory – my goal for the evening was a state park just west of Kansas City, KS and my first night of camping.
An obligatory stop in St. Louis for a few photos of the Arch gave me a much-needed break in the afternoon, but the temperature soared to well above 110 that afternoon. A massive thunderstorm slowed down traffic near Florence, MO to a standstill, but the rain brought a much-needed drop in temperature down to a reasonable 88 degrees. At 7:21 that night I crossed into Kansas, which was a milestone for me. Kansas was one of four remaining states that I have never been to (Alaska, Hawaii, and Louisana are the others) and I was excited to be marking it off my list. As I noted in my journal, “I’m more excited about being in Kansas than I think any non-Kansas person ha ever been, ever”. I had changed time-zones somewhere during the day which allowed me to drive later into the evening. I ended up stopping at Clinton State Park, about 35 miles into Kansas. I quickly made camp and cooked myself some sausages and potatoes over the campfire. The park was a lovely Army Corp of Engineers designed place built in conjunction with a large dam and reservoir.
Monday, July 2nd dawned bright and early, and after a camp breakfast of eggs and sausages, I packed up my gear and headed off to drive across Kansas. I was still pretty psyched, as it would be a new experience. In all of my previous trips I have either driven a more southern route (OK-TX) or northern (SD) so cutting through the middle route would provide me with many new places to see. The first stop was in Topeka, the capital of Kansas. Next to highway rest areas, visiting the state capitals and seeing the architecture of the seat of state government is one of the things I enjoy most about road trips. Topeka didn’t disappoint, the capital building was perched on top of a hill, surrounded by gardens and other state buildings. It was not particularly busy and had a small-town vibe to it that I very much enjoyed. Unfortunately, I had to press on, as my destination for the night was a campground in the Rocky Mountains and I had a long day of driving ahead of me.
After Topeka, I continued west on I-70, including on the first 8-mile length of the US Interstate System that opened. As Kansas is the home state of President Dwight Eisenhower, and the Interstate system is inexorably linked to him, I’m guessing the first stretch of interstate was built to honor him. The land started to flatten out, I had originally thought that all of Kansas would be as fat as a board, but the eastern part of the state was gently undulating hills. I stopped at a rest area and wandered around the grounds, stumbling upon this vista. Views like this remind me why I take road trips and why I like rest-areas so much.
The next stop on the trip for the day was Ellis, Kansas. Part of the reason I had decided to finally tick this state off of my list was so I could go to this city. What is so special about Ellis, KS? It’s my son’s name, and I wanted to take a bunch of photos of a place named after him. It’s also the birthplace of Walter P. Chrysler.
I drove around and took a bunch of photos of things adorned with the city name, and even stopped by the Chamber of Commerce to see if they had any postcards. The woman at the counter was exceedingly pleased that I had stopped and was chuffed that my son shared the name of their city. It was a pleasant little community that felt like it was thriving, a stark contrast to many other small towns and cities I have seen on my travels.
I pressed westward after this stop as I still had a long way to go, and I was going to make a deviation from the monotony of I-70. At Oakley, KS I exited the interstate and drove the rest of the way into Colorado on US 40. This gave me a chance to see a lot more interesting things, and I have found that out in the plains you can make excellent time on the US routes as you can on the highway. The speed limits are often the same (70+) and there is much less traffic. US 40 would link me back up to I-70 just east of Denver so I wouldn’t have to deal with stop-and-go traffic throughout the city. I took the opportunity to stop and take some photos of the VW out in the farmland near McCallister, KS. The temperature were in the low 90’s and there was a steady dry wind that caused dehydration in me and higher fuel consumption in the VW.
As we crossed over into Colorado, near Kit Carson, I saw a sign indicating that the elevation was 4900 feet. I didn’t realize that I had slowly been heading uphill the entire day, but it made sense. Denver itself is a mile high, but it is perched on the edge of the flatlands of the prairie with the Rockies hard on to the West. I know these things may be common knowledge for many people, but growing up in NY and living in RI, the wide open spaces and wildly different topographies always astound and please me. This is why I love road trips!
I made it to Denver by 6:30 PM and passed through without any difficulties. I would be coming back to Denver tomorrow after camping as I was getting a traveling companion for the remainder of the trip. My partner M. was flying out to meet me tomorrow, and I was terribly excited. The original plan was for her to make the entire trip with me, but the logistics of her job didn’t allow that to happen, so this was the next best thing.
After a quick stop at a grocery store for supplies, I headed further up into the Rockies to Golden Gate Canyon State Park. Heading up into the hills, I was enjoying the winding drive and the scent of the trees and the cooler air were wonderful. I finally got to the turn off for my campground (Aspen Meadows) and a sign cautioned me that the grade ahead was 19%. They weren’t kidding, and occasionally I had to drop all the way down to 1st gear just to maintain momentum.
I finally made it to the campsite and set up shop. Some nice folks next to me came over and introduced themselves and we chatted for a few minutes. They gave me a packet of stuff to make the flames in my campfire different colors, explaining they always gave them to neighbors at campsites to make friends. I was pleased, even though keeping my campfire going at that elevation was a challenge, as well as breathing. The campsite was at 8800 feet, and I sure felt it. I was planning on having a steak and beer for dinner, but halfway through the beer I just started feeling cruddy so I quickly finished my steak, drank a bunch of water and crawled into my tent for the night.
Stay tuned for part 2!