Everyone in Greenville recommends the shrimp and grits. But you have to get this lowcountry cooking staple at Larkin's on the River. They make it with peppers and heavy cream, and top it with a rich cheese sauce. The dish is heavy, but goes down agreeably with dark Dead Man Ale. In between mouthfuls, photographer Mike Shaffer and I plan the journey ahead.
Tomorrow, we're setting off on a 3000-mile road trip back to Los Angeles. Our chariot? The latest addition to the MT long-term garage, an X3 xDrive28i, which I just took ownership of through BMW's Performance Delivery program (see Part One). Shaffer has flown out to document the trip back, mostly because he really likes good BBQ.
Good BBQ, we plan on finding. That, and whatever interesting places are along the way. Like a traditional European delivery program, we get to play tourists. But because we're in our country, we won't have to say goodbye to the BMW at the end and hello to an overnight flight.
Our loose itinerary sends us south, giving us a distinct image of the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, a glimpse of the beginning and end of the Gilded Age and the depressions that followed. Caveat number one: We promised executive editor Edward Loh we'd be back in the office Monday morning, which gives us five days to cover near 3000 miles. Caveat number two: The X3's break-in period is 1200 miles. We'll have to stay under 4500 rpm and 100 mph until that point. According to the map, that's until somewhere in Louisiana -- we highlight the state vigorously.
Day 1: Greenville, SC to Pearl, MS
As we merge on to I-85 west, while the shrimp and grits continue digesting, we're wide-awake and eager, settling into the X3's leather seats. We're going to get used to them, as we'll be logging 10-to-11-hour days inside the cabin. But before fully acclimating, we realize we need guidance. All epic adventures have it, be it from prophets, sorcerers, or slabs of rock. Odysseus sacrificed a young cow to meet Tiresias; fearing for the BMW's interior, we search for alternatives.
If you don't keep a careful eye out on Interstate 77, you'll blow right past the Georgia Guidestones, which are just south of Lake Hartwell. Often labeled (like countless stateside rock formations) as the American Stonehenge, the monument consists of six granite slabs that tower 18 feet over the surrounding green fields and distant trees. Assembled in 1979, the project was financed by one R.C. Christian, which an explanatory tablet set off to the side proudly labels a pseudonym.
The stones' intention, as inscribed, is to lead humanity to an age of reason. There are 10 rules -- "Unite humanity with a living new language," "Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts," "Avoid petty laws and useless officials," to name a few -- that appear on the face of each rock in different languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, Hebrew, Hindi, Russian, Spanish, and Swahili). An air of mysticism is not uncommon with towering rocks inscribed with cryptic messages in foreign languages, but it's hard to mask our awe.
While the guidelines are intriguing, they don't aide our immediate concern: lunch. With stomachs growling, we zoom past Atlanta and enter Alabama, which might be the slowest state in the U.S. The speed limit drops to 55 mph immediately after crossing the border, and three police cars wait under the first underpass. The Valentine 1 doesn't get much rest here, nor do our hunger pangs.
Waiting is worth it, though, because Dreamland Bar-B-Que lies in Birmingham. One of a small, privately owned chain, the restaurant is a must-visit, if not for the specialty ribs, but for the sign inside that expressively forbids farting. Our appetizer consists of white bread slices and BBQ sauce to dip them in. We opt for pulled pork sandwiches in the restaurant's signature tangy, lip-tingling sauce, but the star is the banana pudding. Creamy and rich, it may be the best on earth.
Before banana pudding, Birmingham's prime natural resources were limestone, coal, and iron ore, which made it a prime location for iron making. James Withers Sloss realized this when he arrived in the city in 1876, and, with a group of investors, began constructing the Sloss Furnaces.
The furnaces, which produced pig iron from 1882 to 1971, now exist as an open-air museum . The 50-acre facility's towering smokestacks and tunnels are awesome relics of America's industrial growth. The facility traded owners numerous times during its run, but was deeded to the Alabama State Fair Authority in the '70s. That group decided to dismantle the site, but, through the efforts of residents who desired to keep the furnaces around, the location was deeded to the City of Birmingham. The site opened to the public on Labor Day, in 1983, as a national landmark. It is home to a metal arts classes, BBQ cook-off, and concerts. Every Halloween, it turns into a "haunted" attraction.
There's only an hour to visit before closing time, so with the sun setting, we make way to Mississippi. The Delta blues are calling.
Day 2: Pearl, MS to Marshall, TX
In 1911, Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. He moved from place to place, picked up a harmonica, played a guitar. He made 29 recordings that were poorly received. He died in 1938, at the age of 27, allegedly poisoned by the husband of a woman he had flirted with. His remains are in one of three places in Mississippi, depending on whom you ask.
Yet, Johnson's footprint forever changed music. Without him, there would be no Robert Plant, Eric Clapton, or Mick Jagger. Clapton called him "the most important blues singer that ever lived." Rolling Stone ranked him the fifth greatest guitar player of all time.
The Robert Johnson Blues Foundation Museum mirrors the blues player's life more than his legacy. Ten miles north of the musician's birthplace, it occupies a nondescript white building on the corner of a decaying street in Crystal Springs. We wait 30 minutes for a city employee to arrive and let us in. Once inside, we can't figure out how to turn on the lights.
In the shadows are paintings of David Edwards and Tommy Johnson, newspaper clippings, and art. Eight guitars hang from the wall -- six-string acoustics and Stratocasters. Some wear intelligible signatures. Our host can't tell us the significance of each, but it takes every fiber of my being to not grab one and start playing or, even better, run.
The museum is the unfortunate victim of neglect. Our host explains that isn't enough local support for the building to warrant a full-time staff (or more exhibits), though demand from tourists -- especially internationally -- is huge. Another problem is Johnson's mysterious and inadequately documented life; there is barely enough information for a factual biography, let alone a full museum. I leave with a picture of Johnson's life no clearer than the one I came in with.
Rumors of a ghost town in Rodney, on the west end of Mississippi, persist on RoadsideAmerica.com, calling it a fascinating exhibit of a forgotten American town. We search fruitlessly for an hour, only to find a ghost town that's populated by people. Or as it's more commonly referred to, a town.
But not far north, above Alcorn State University, we find a three-story colonnade that outlines the remains of the Windsor mansion. We blend in with a college class that's here on a field trip and learn that the mansion was built in 1861. It survived the Civil War but burned down shortly thereafter, leaving little standing other than the stairway, chimney, and Corinthian-style columns. All of the family's photographs and drawings were lost in the fire. A found drawing by a Union soldier made in 1863 is the only way historians know how the mansion looked.
Returning to Interstate 20, we cross the Mississippi River en route to Louisiana, running parallel with Old Vicksburg Bridge. The landscape instantly changes after we cross, morphing from rolling hills and dense tree cover to wide-open green fields.
Wait, why does Louisiana sounds familiar? The break-in period! A quick glance at the odometer indicates we're rapidly approaching freedom -- 1190... 1191... 1192... The miles tick by slowly. At 1199, we pull off and drive in circles around a trucker's station, eager to hit the magic number. When 1200 finally appears, I aim for the onramp and stand on the throttle.
The rest of Louisiana blurs through the windows as the 3.0-liter straight-six sings. It's an apropos situation, as Bonnie and Clyde passed through this area while on the run. And it was just south of Gibsland that they were killed. We pull off in the town and stop at the Bonnie & Clyde Ambush Museum, which holds pieces of their life and legacy and their place of death. A video plays the news reports following the ambush and a documentary of how it went down.
The museum is a shocking reminder of reality. We have a tendency to romanticize the pair as desperados who were madly in love and running from the law, lost and free in their own way. The museum tells us that they were simply two 20-year-olds fleeing from a series of murders, who were gunned down on an empty dirt road. The museum has on display a series of documentaries, newspaper excerpts, guns from the scene of the shooting, and photographs of the aftermath. After viewing all of it, the romance disappears. We solemnly -- and slowly -- make our way to Shreveport for dinner.
Yelp heartily recommends Herby-K's, which is located literally on the other side of the tracks and, from the outside, looks like a place where you'd get stabbed. The inside is a pleasant surprise, with cheerful friends and families dining. We find a friendly staff that's eager to take our orders and serve us beers. The most-recommended plate is the Shrimp Buster, a healthy (but not healthy) serving of butterflied shrimp that's fried and served on top of a buttered roll. It comes with fries, or, for a dollar more, homemade onion rings. I apologize to my stomach; this is no fine delicacy, but it's exactly the meal I need.
Day 3: Marshall, TX to Carlsbad, NM
With indigestion lingering, we set only one goal for Texas: Get through it as quickly as possible. So far, we've covered four states in two days, and we are keen to maintain that pace. So with the Valentine 1 cranked to full volume, we blast past Dallas/Ft. Worth, and the scenery begins to blend from green hills to brown plains. Interestingly, the speed limit changes from 70 mph in the day to 65 mph at night; we wonder how many lives are saved by that 5-mph increment. We also wonder why the night speed limit sign is black.
At this point, it finally dawns on us how competent the X3 is as a long-distance travel partner. Sure, it's missing the xDrive35i's turbocharger, but our X3 remains decently quick. It offers plenty of torque across its broad powerband, and returns competent fuel mileage, too. So far, we're averaging 21.8 mpg.
The compact SUV effortlessly sails down the freeway, but is decently agile along the few back roads we stumble across. It feels like a high-riding 3 Series, one with cargo capacity that easily allows for my luggage and Shaffer's infinite supply of photo gear. Its interior offers the kind of comfort you don't even appreciate until you've been inside of it for 11 hours straight. Every time we'd arrived at our next destination, we'd get out without body aches or tiredness. That, and the cupholders actually work, which is huge for BMW.
The Texas speed run goes on hold as soon as we approach Dublin. Why? Well, located here is a little place called Old Doc's Soda Shop, where, in 1891, Dr Pepper was bottled en masse for the first time. Today, the shop still serves the original formula syrup, which is made from cane sugar -- not high-fructose corn syrup. There's also a small deli inside manned by an irrepressibly happy staff that makes delicious and inexpensive sandwiches -- a PB&J is $1.50, turkey is $3.
While the staff won't name Dr. Pepper's ingredients -- though they swear prune juice isn't one of them -- they do claim that the Frosty Pepper is "life-changing." After eating my sandwich, I opt for the concoction of vanilla ice cream and Dr Pepper syrup, and, after eating half, I deduce that by "life-changing," they mean that it takes a number of years off the back end.
On the edge of a sugar-induced coma, I point the X3 west again, and after a few more hours of complaints that Texas drivers don't understand lane discipline, we enter New Mexico. We take a straight and empty two-lane highway towards Carlsbad, and our driving behavior on it nets us the worst fuel economy of the entire trip, a paltry 18.5 mpg.
While approaching Carlsbad, it dawns on us just how far the unstoppable march of technology has gone. We haven't used a paper map since we left South Carolina. We're able to find hotels through BMW's navigation system -- which thankfully doesn't limit operation while the vehicle is moving -- and call using Bluetooth to make a reservation. Then, whoever was passenger turned to their smartphone, where Yelp recommended the area's most infamous eatery.
That infamous eatery in Carlsbad is the Red Chimney Pit Bar-B-BQ, which from the inside looks like a log cabin and smells like smoked meat. Dinner? A heaping of fried okra, smoked cuts, hot links, and peach cobbler.
Day 4: Carlsbad, NM to Show Low, AZ
We head north along more barren two-lane highway, hang a left in Artesia, and make way for the Sacramento Mountains. We pass Cloudcroft, at 8600 feet, to find dormant ski lifts waiting for snow. The mountain range is short, and crossing it takes under 30 miles. Afterwards the road plunges into the flatlands that characterize so much of New Mexico. And then, in the distance, whiteness.
The White Sands National Monument and its 275 square miles of gypsum sand dunes highlight the horizon. The park entrance is west of Alamogordo, on Interstate 70, which also passes a missile range with the same name. You enter the park along an asphalt road that slowly winds its way into the sand. It's not long until the whiteness surrounds you.
We might as well be on Tatooine. The dunes go for miles, and kids sled down the hills. The dunes are in constant shift, but their movement is imperceptible. Climbing them takes some effort, but once you're on top the sand is firm enough to walk on. We get a few brief moments to admire the surroundings before heavy winds set in, causing massive, blinding dust storms that force us to take shelter in the X3.
We bear north again, make a left in Carrizozo and head west past Magdalena. Massive dust clouds hang in the horizon, and occasionally we have to drive through a wall of dust with visibility at zero. We pray the road continues after each brown wall. The X3 never feels unsettled, easily staying within its lane despite the 40 to 50 mph gusts.
After passing Pie Town, which we had hoped would be the home to a Willy Wonka-esque factory devoted to delicious dessert manufacturing (it was not), we press into Arizona. The temperature drops further and further, and soon, snow is falling around us. Shaffer insists we pull over for some photography; having planned expertly, he's wearing shorts.
Day 5: Show Low, AZ to Los Angeles, CA
Our intent was to make the Grand Canyon West the climax of our trip, to walk out over the crevice on the Sky Walk and do silly things, like jumping jacks. We set north, planning to catch Interstate 40 to Kingman, but nature has other plans. The snowfall builds as the elevation rises and the ground passing by our side windows turns white. The BMW beeps its low temperature warning, telling us to watch for ice. We receive a similar message from a wrecked semi truck on the side of the freeway, resting on its side.
As we reach Flagstaff, a sign above the freeway reads "I-40 closed." A clerk at a gas station confirms the message, and a call to Arizona's Department of Transportation informs us that a large wreck has shut down all lanes on the freeway just outside of the town. No alternative route we could find would get us to the Sky Walk without adding another day, and we promised we'd be back in the office tomorrow.
Shaffer and I sit in a parking lot, dejected and angry at the entire state of Arizona. Without I-40, our recourse is reaching L.A. via Phoenix, a 120-mile straight shot south followed by a 370-mile drive west. The ride is quiet, its highlight a late lunch at an In-N-Out Burger, the first one we've seen in days.
After turning west, for the last time, in Phoenix, the eternal crawl along Interstate 10 gives us ample time to reflect on our trip. What's most surprising is how easy it was to make. We've essentially crossed the USA in five days, without feeling rushed.
Trips like this are important. They give an understanding of the deeper characteristics of a car and an appreciation of the different facets of our nation. You understand how, given the space and time, different cultures within our borders grow and develop. Shaffer always wondered how the Ford F-Series and Chevy 1500s are continually the bestselling vehicles in the U.S. After this trip, he realized why: Everyone in Texas owns one or the other.
They'd be keen to check out this X3. After getting home, the red SUV will join our long-term garage for 12 months. I'm eager to drive it for that period. It's been an excellent travel partner, no worse from the wear from our 3000-mile road trip, save for one windshield chip.
We fill the tank one last time in Redlands and find that our trip average is 23.7 mpg. Pulling back on the freeway, we enter Los Angeles and point towards the ocean. As we meander through traffic, the sun sets on the taillights and the city.