Stephen Webster’s American Road Trip
May 23, 2014
As summer approaches, what better excuse is there to pack your bags and head out on a spontaneous road trip? One of our favorite British jewelry designers did just that and documented his driving destinations. Designer Stephen Webster set off on a road trip, traveling from New York City to Las Vegas, with his friend Jeff and brother David in a 1959 Thunderbird and 1986 Aston Martin.
Webster notes: “With thousands of road trip miles under our belts, this year . . . we decided to end up in Vegas.”
Day One: New York City, New York – Richmond, Virginia
On arrival in NYC the weather was atrocious, with rain the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the great rain scene in the latest biblical epic Noah. NYC was like a rude, muckier Venice.
An early start was required, heading out of Manhattan to collect the Aston from the service garage. After a Miller Motors shampoo and wax, the Aston was bursting to go. With two up plus luggage, we squeezed into the Aston and headed to our first stop – Maryland.
Earlier in the year, I met new clients while doing my duty at Neiman Marcus in Boca. Jerry and Lori had let slip that they owned one of the largest collections of vintage or unique American cars in the country, which was housed just off the I-95, the route we would be taking on the first leg of our trip. They insisted that if we stopped by we would not be disappointed. That, plus the lure of Lori’s proper homemade Maryland crab cakes, secured it as the first pit stop on the road trip.
Jerry’s collection is undeniably amazing, now and again he trades with another American car obsessive and famous, former late night talk-show host. The Corvette section is the most comprehensive, covering the entire fifty year history, including the first ever “little red one” (documented). Baby blue and orange, almost girly looking models from the 1950s; the far more masculine and iconic Stingrays of the mid ’60s; through to the steroid-infused, muscle-bound jocks on offer today. Jerry is obsessed with his cars; he will detail one to within an inch of its differential, and when complete if not 100% satisfied, he will strip it back and start again. OCD springs to mind, but then a lot of clever folk are.
Four hours later, our time was now about driving. We had to make Richmond, VA, another 145 miles, and it was already 7:30 pm. In theory, that’s two and a half hours; in reality, we rolled into the battlefields of the old Confederate capitol at 11:00 pm. Like Mary and Joseph, there was no room at the inn so we made do with the Marriott.
Miles driven: 300
Day Two: Richmond, Virginia – Asheville, North Carolina
I decided to change the route. Still needing to get to Asheville but also wanting to drive the Blue Ridge Mountain Parkway, meant backtracking a little. The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the world’s great drives whether by bike, motorbike, car, or RV. The road at 4000 ft elevation has a view east and west, and there is nothing straight about the full couple of hundred miles of it.
May is obviously the time to go as there were no other vehicles on the two-lane pass. As a consequence, I decided to pillion the Aston and film my brother feeling every curve in the T’bird. During a particularly complicated overtaking manoeuvre which involved me standing up on the passenger seat (the roof was down); a car did pass us – unfortunately it belonged to the Sheriff.
After a spectacular U-turn, the all-blazing vehicle was on our tail. The officer then understandably asked me what on earth I was doing. Admittedly I said I was standing, the car was speeding, I had no seat belt on and we were driving on the wrong side of the road, so thinking on my feet I apologized to Richard who was driving and handed over our pink UK driver’s licences. If anything, this experience has taught me that our pink UK licences throw the highway patrol out completely. After a good ten minutes back in her car pretending to process the offence, she returned to us and delivered the gravity of the situation address, which included the unique line “there are deer and bears on this road and you wouldn’t want that pretty little car to be wearing a bear.” I had to agree that this time of year fur would have been inappropriate.
We arrived in Asheville around 8:30pm. Asheville was put on the map by the Vanderbilts. Wishing to take the air in the mid-nineteenth century, the family built a pile and a half in the mountains. Still wishing to take the air, the leftfield of the United States have made Asheville their own. Like an orchestra of weird and wonderful instruments, the overall sound has a rhythm.
Miles driven: 550
Music: Faces, Bowie, Joy Division, Ian Hunter, Black Keys, a country music radio station.
Day Three: Asheville, North Carolina – Nashville, Tennessee
After yesterday’s marathon eleven-and-a-half-hour drive, the five-and-a-half-hour sprint to Nashville was a piece of cake. I had forgotten how beautiful the drive is on this stretch of the I-40; fast but winding through the mountainous terrain and with perfect spring weather it was blue skies all the way.
We stayed at the majestic Omni Hotel, connected to the even more majestic Museum of Country Music, which are both brand-new as is a lot of the downtown area. Nashville is booming, that’s official.
The early evening kicked off by watching California Chrome’s easy win at the Kentucky Derby on what has to be the world’s largest TV. Then it was some excellent flounder and soft shell crab at the Waterfront restaurant, followed by some bluegrass which I remember well and three or four venues which fall into the “we had a blast.” There was a lot of music, a lot of beer and even some dancing.
Miles driven: 250
Music: Gravelands, a genius album of songs originally recorded by prematurely dead artists and sung by an Elvis impersonator. The soundtrack to Death Proof.
Day four: Nashville, Tennessee – Memphis, Tennessee.
Thankfully this driving leg was the shortest of the whole trip – not even 200 miles. After a Desperate Dan portion at the Waffle House, it was straight to Memphis. On the road I had been called by Lisa, the director of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. She kindly offered to open up just for us.
I had always preferred artists who recorded on the Stax label over the more mainstream soul names of the much larger Motown. My favorite being Isaac Hayes but there was so many great artists; Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Booker T. and the MGs and many more. Today the museum has been perfectly rebuilt on the original site after it was demolished by the Church that bought it after bankruptcy in 1974. The rebuild now includes the Stax music academy and a proper school. The area surrounding the museum is a reminder that America is still very much a country of extremes.
Once inside we were treated to one of the greatest collections of music-related artefacts ever, we then realized that our cars were positively pedestrian compared to the white fur-lined, genuine 24-kt gold-plated Cadillac that had belonged to Otis in the ’70s. Pimp my ride. Like all good museums, the exit is through the gift shop and, of course, what a gift shop – vinyl and everything.
The town was hosting a massive music festival. Noticing the headline acts were Anthrax and Slayer, we opted for something equally as heavy but a tad quieter, at least on the way in: Memphis ribs, slaw, onion rings, fries and beer.
Miles driven: 212
Day five: Memphis, Tennessee – Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
The daytime temperatures have started to unseasonably soar to the high 90s and with only a small desk fan waving the hot air about, it gets well over 100 degrees F inside the Thunderbird. The Aston on the other hand at 27 years younger, a mere boy toy, has air-con and, of course, no roof. Emotionally only attached to the older bird, I spend most of my time with her but suffering from heat fatigue, this morning I opted for a stretch in air-conditioned comfort.
Putting Tennessee behind us and a chunk of Arkansas before noon was not a bad thing. This part of the journey is all about endurance. There are, of course, the landmarks: Little Rock, the main one, Bill Clinton’s old stomping ground.
We managed to get rooms at the wonderful Skirvin Hilton. Despite the name suggesting a condition caused by a lack of fresh fruit, the hospitality is grand in every way.
Thanks to a very ambitious developer, OK now has a spanking new 50-story skyscraper, the top of which is the restaurant Vast, the view from which confirms that the earth “is” actually flat, not even so much as a molehill for miles and miles and miles. My brother thought he could see his house but I think that was the Thunderbird and wine talking.
Miles driven: 425
Music: I don’t really want to talk about it – let’s just call it show tunes for argument’s sake.
Day 6: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma – Tucumcari, New Mexico.
The early mornings feel surprisingly good. Bright blue sky and warmth help. With about 300 miles of cornfields interrupted only by the parallel lines of the I-40 highway there is very little commentary other than to sit back, enjoy the ride, listen to the music and look forward to lunch.
Despite the caution I gave yesterday about roadside dining, there are exceptions to every rule. The Big Texan is one. Located in Amarillo, Texas, the restaurant is very big and yellow. Interior decor, Carry On Cowboy; a sort of make-believe saloon created for the movie Westworld. With taxidermy trophy heads occupying every inch of wall, there are certainly lots of places to hang one’s hat. Their claim to fame is the “Big Texan,” a challenge of eating a 72-oz. steak in an hour or under. If you do it’s free, if you don’t, it’s $72. I’m as competitive as the next man but as someone who has now and again had to admit defeat against an 8-oz. fillet at Hix, this was a bar too far. A lot of silly buggers have tried and failed, but a short list is on display of an elite few who have lived at least long enough to vacate the premises.
A short distance further is the art installation “Cadillac Ranch.” Ten Caddy’s buried nose down, tails in the air forming an orderly queue in a field, which runs parallel to the road. The thing is to take your own spray can and graffiti one or all of them. Over the years, thousands of budding Banksy’s have applied so many tags that the paint has kind of rounded off the edges, even the rocket tail fins of the ’59 are a bit blobby.
Today the wind was massive, 70-mile-an-hour gusts and twisters know as dust devils whipping up the bone-dry topsoil, a scene straight out of The Grapes of Wrath.
The longest functioning stretch of the historic Route 66 is a six-mile strip running through a town called Tucumcari. Everything you want from a road museum is represented there. Small motels with big signs – in fact small everything’s with big signs, all at one time vying for motorist’s attention.
The Safari Motel (surfing safari I assume) was spot on, a motel from the past with clean sheets and wi-fi though I declined the offer to buy the Safari compilation CD, Smash Hits of Route 66.
Miles driven: 345
Music: Kinks, Bowie, Clash, mixed rockabilly, mixed British electronic music, early ’80s. BBC John Peel sessions ’77-‘79.
Day 7: Tucumcari, New Mexico – Williams, Arizona
We really lucked out with the weather, since leaving the rain and fog of NYC one week ago it’s been nothing but blue skies. A week prior three tornados passed across the route we were on.
Finally we ran out of corn, and some hills started to appear. New Mexico is a beautiful state, the terrain is High Chaparral. We could have been dodging bullets from the Magnificent Seven at any moment. There are many Native American Indian tribes across the state, the most obvious are the Navajo, almost every billboard advertising something they make.
At a place called San Jon, we happened upon the most authentic 66 diner. Inside was an immaculate time capsule, the real deal, unlike most of the places on the route which tend to be tacky clichéd renovations. This one had never ceased serving, coffee, breakfast, steaks and Mexican food. Bacon sandwiches and coffee at the counter, the closest thing to a Tarantino moment without any weapons.
The plan was to get as close to the Grand Canyon as possible that night. For the first time the weather was changing with a chill wind and the steady climb out of Winslow – and the corner made famous by the Eagles – toward Flagstaff, AZ. It had started to rain, then hail then snow. The wrap around screen and tiny vacuum operated wipers of a ’59 T’bird, may look great in the showroom but the style over substance could never be more exposed that at altitude, in a snowstorm, at night. By the time we reached the Downtown Motel Williams, the snow had stopped but the rain was still torrential. All there is to be said about the Williams is that it’s quaint.
Miles driven: 559 miles and some change
Music: Early Ska, blue beat, Bowie again, Eagles because we felt obligated, Pretenders. Anything modern would just be weird.
Day 8: Williams, Arizona – Las Vegas, Nevada.
With 3000 miles behind us, and just over 300 left to go, we managed one last early start. Rain over, sun shining, the last day was going to be a good one.
The fast route to Vegas would be to continue along I-40 to I-93 into the city. However there is a loop of 66 that while being a bit of a detour is also a bit of gem. Pick up 66 at Seligman and rejoin I-93 at Kingman. Trust me it’s worth it.
The drive and scenery are beautiful and for some reason the 66 paraphernalia has a different twist – the twist being junk. Some cynics may say the whole route is full of junk, and to be honest, they would not be wrong, but we are here for the romance of it, which includes the junk. That was until we reached this stretch. Despite the mess, it’s still worth it, if not only for the chorizo burgers at the Seligman drive-through which for some reason is no longer a drive-through.
One last obstacle between us and Sin City: the largest concrete pour ever in the shape of the Hoover Dam. This deco masterpiece built in the mid ’30s was the largest civil engineering project ever undertaken in the US at the time. Modern and majestic, the dam spans the Colorado River, exceeding any fantasy fort Hollywood could ever muster.
At 7:30 pm, 3299 miles, eight days after having left NYC in two cars collectively 87 years old, driven by four old enough to know better, we arrived in downtown Las Vegas. For the sake of Richard who had never been before, we cruised the full length of the strip before valet parking at the shiny, golden Trump Tower.
As someone who has visited Vegas at least twice a year for 24 years, I feel obliged to share a few pearls of wisdom.
For the wannabe high roller – The Wynn executive suites are hard to beat.
For the non-gambler (of which there are a few apparently) – The Trump has no casino.
Best table in the city for food, view and Vegas theatrics – the balcony at Yellow Tail in the Bellagio.
Best full-on banging house club with superstar DJs – Lite at Mandalay Bay.
For a glimpse at old Las Vegas; Walk Fremont from the renovated Plaza hotel, past the original haunt of the Rat Pack, The Golden Nugget. Continue past the iconic neons to the hipster bars, live music venues and finally the brand-new Container Park, a shopping, eating and drinking spot created from old truck containers.
One last and perhaps most important thing. If you can’t believe your luck, you probably shouldn’t. Oh, and don’t forget to leave – it’s harder than you might think.