The journey is indeed the reward

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Courtesy Jay Ward

As the Covid Pandemic picked up steam through the late spring and early summer of 2020, the reality began to sink in that my family would not be doing our typical vacation travel together. While many of our friends had retreated to National Parks and off-the-grid campsites, our kids were more accustomed to flying to Disney World or Concours car events for our yearly family vacations.

The realities of masked & sanitized air travel and hotels with 6-foot distancing did not sound like a fun time, so how could our family get out and yet stay in our little bubble? A Road Trip, that’s how!

But not just some day trip in the family station wagon, or even an interstate jaunt in a rented RV would do. No, we needed to go big for this one, and really show Covid who was boss. That’s when a crazy, ambitious plan hatched in my head: A two-week, 13 state, trailer tour leaving our home in the San Francisco Bay Area, heading straight across the country, and then meandering back home slowly on Route 66. Even better, the 15-year anniversary of ‘Cars’ was approaching, so why not stop at some of locations on the Mother Road that inspired our story crew when creating the movie? With an RV or trailer, we could stay the night at campgrounds along the way and ‘boondock’ when accommodations were less than ideal… or non-existent. Now the fun part, picking the perfect truck and travel trailer to keep the family as comfortable as possible and maximize the fun. Fortunately, as an automotive journalist, I’m able to access media vehicles, so there were some very compelling options.

Courtesy Jay Ward

The luxury road warrior’s weapons of choice, you ask? How about a 2020 Ford F250 Platinum 4X4 Powerstroke diesel with a Tremor Off-Road package pulling a brand new ’27 Airstream International? Sure, I had a little experience with full size trucks towing car trailers over the years, but nothing even close to this ambitious. Luckily, we could not have dreamt up a better vehicle combination for our epic journey. The F250 that Ford provided was a Crew Cab with copious amounts of leg room for the kids, heated and cooled leather seating, panoramic moonroof, Bang & Olufsen stereo and most importantly, onboard Wi-Fi. The 6.7-liter diesel provided an astonishing 30,300 gross combined weight rating, so there would be no shortage of pulling power with a sub-6,000-pound Airstream behind us.

Courtesy Jay Ward

By the time our ideal F250 Tremor and Airstream were secured for the trip we were well into late September and summer break was over, which actually turned out to be ideal. Although the kids were back in school, they were still remote learning (told you the truck’s Wi-Fi would be important!), but this meant roads would be emptier, RV grounds less crowded, and crucially the weather would be that perfect period after hot and humid days, but before the rainy season began. The local Airstream dealer helped us get the brand new International hitched up to our Tremor and installed a set of Rock Tamers mud flaps to protect the trailer’s smooth aluminum skin in any unsavory road conditions. The slickest part about the Ford Tow Package was entering the trailer size so the blind spot mirrors would then compensate for the overall length when changing lanes. It was now time to head back home, pack up the Airstream and prepare to roll out at dawn! I added a set of small  ‘Piston Cup’ decals to the front fenders and taped a Lightning McQueen die cast on the dash, just for luck.

Courtesy Jay Ward

Day 1: The first day would be a very long leg of the journey at over 600 miles, with the goal of reaching the Bonneville Salt Flats in Wendover, Utah by bedtime that night. The natural beauty of this massive expanse combined with its saline-bleached foliage feels like you’re camping on another planet! The 27 foot International was a perfect size for a family of four. The layout had a Queen bed in the nose for my wife and I, and a fold-out twin bed from the dinette in the back for my daughter. My son was perfectly content sleeping on the long side couch, mainly because he wouldn’t have to spend time making his bed in the morning!

There’s something special about camping an Airstream. Maybe it’s the beauty of the curvaceous design, the quality and comfort of the interior, or perhaps it’s just the amount of natural light pouring in from so many windows when you’re out in nature. When you see another Airstream on the road, there’s always that knowing nod and a wave as you pass.

Day 2: We lucked out that it was the SCTA’s World Finals, so we were able to watch some cool land speed racers heading out to course. From there we headed straight to Salt Lake City to visit an ‘a-maze-ing’ Toy Story-themed Corn Maze, and ended up staying with old friends at their ranch in Spanish Fork. Surveying the wide open spaces of this country, I toyed with the idea of picking up a new Honda Monkey Z125 for the kids to ride along our trip, but after visiting a local dealer, I realized the retro-style Monkey was much more of a grown-up’s bike that had been shrunk down, rather than a street-legal kid’s dirt bike. The plan changed to look for a decent 1970s-era Honda CT70 at that point, since Honda made 725,000 CT’s for over three decades, I figured there must be a decent Trail 70 somewhere along our journey. We got out of S.L.C. by the late afternoon and headed due east for 500 miles.

Day 3: After a good night sleep and learning how to dump our grey water in Cheyenne, Wyoming, it was time to burn some serious fuel and make our way to my hometown of Kansas City, Missouri. This would be our last day of really eating up major highway miles before hitting Route 66 and slowing down. Driving from early morning till late evening we were able to cover that 660 miles in the Tremor. Ford’s Power Stroke diesel pulled like a buttery smooth freight train, and didn’t mind having the trailer behind it one bit. Along the way, I called my KC family to let them know we were closing in that night, and the conversation revealed that our super-long truck and Airstream combo would not fit anywhere at the house. After a few more panicked calls to find the local RV parks were booked, a new plan was hatched with some help from friends: Camping at the Kansas Speedway RV grounds!

Courtesy Jay Ward

Day 4, 5: Hanging out in KC. Waking up on the infield of the empty Speedway was surreal. It was about 2 weeks before their NASCAR big race, so no one had arrived yet. We unhooked the F-250 and went into town for a few days of good BBQ and time with family. I checked on a ’70 Trail 70 from Craigslist but it was an absolute beater. The search continued!

Day 6: This would be the first day to connect with the actual Mother Road for our journey back home. Rather than head straight, we zig-zagged south-east bound on the rolling, scenic Highway 7 (which runs through Tightwad, Mo.) and then on Highway 5 to the little town of Lebanon, right on Route 66. It was a chance to visit more family, eat even more BBQ, then head west on the Mother Road to Joplin for another KOA camp night.

Day 7: This was our first day hitting the towns that really inspired ‘Cars’ starting with the Route 66 Drive-In in Carthage (sadly closed for COVID), then heading across the state line into Galena, KS. Route 66 covers a scant 11.27 miles of Kansas, but this town offers up so much to see, including the gas station tow truck that inspired Mater, and lots of newer ‘CARS’ vehicles added since the town became a bit famous.

From there we picked up some lunch and ate waterside by the Blue Whale, of Catoosa, Oklahoma. Then on to Tulsa to connect with Michael Wallis, who guided our ‘Cars’ story teams on the Route 66 research trips and became the voice of Sheriff in return. Just outside of Tulsa, I found a great shadetree mechanic that only restored Honda Trail 70s and Z50s, and ended up nabbing a very original metallic gold ’71 CT70 with a scant 750 miles on the odometer since new. My only concern with the near-mint bike: Would it actually be too nice for the kids to ride around (and potentially crash)?  We celebrated with lunch at the Rock Café in Stroud, OK where we met the owner Dawn, who’s warm personality inspired some of the loveable Porsche 996, Sally Carrera. She remembers the ‘Cars’ team coming in for lunch 20 years ago in the early research days of the movie. Although the Café had a fire in 2008, Dawn reopened a year later and is still thriving. As she spoke, my kids began to realize how important the movie had been for the businesses along Route 66. Over the past 15 years since it’s release, ‘Cars’ has almost become part of the culture of the Mother Road, and you didn’t have to look too far before spotting yet another hand-painted Lightning or ‘Team 95’ mural.

Onto the town of Arcadia, but unfortunately, we got there late in the evening and the Red Barn was closed. We fueled up on diesel, topped off the DEF, and as a consolation prize, grabbed a 6 pack of drinks at Pops 66 Soda Ranch, before setting up camp for the night.

Courtesy Jay Ward

Day 8: We really enjoyed staying at the wonderful El Reno KOA just outside of Geary, OK. The kids got to take turns riding the Trail 70 for the first time, getting their balance and working on shifting and braking. We headed 2 hours to Shamrock, Texas, for the U-Drop-Inn Conoco station (the iconic architecture inspired Ramone’s House of Body Art). From there, we made our way further down Route 66 to McLean to see one of the oldest Phillips 66 gas stations (1929) and a marble copy of the Ten Commandments (Understandably, the kids wanted to pass on the Devil’s Rope Barbed Wire museum in town). Next up was Amarillo for family selfies at the Cadillac Ranch and souvenir shopping at the Big Texan steak house.

Courtesy Jay Ward

Day 9: Woke up across the road from the Mid-Point Café in Adrian TX, more dirt bike riding, then on to visit the neon-clad Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico. We were very excited to stop in Santa Rosa for a cool dip in the “Blue Hole” swim spot, which was sadly closed for Covid. The beauty of the Airstream was a clean bathroom and cold drinks were always on hand! Then we drove on to Albuquerque for antique shopping and to visit an old friend.

Courtesy Jay Ward

Day 10: Woke up at the Grants, NM KOA, played on fields of volcanic rock, then over to Gallup for lunch at the El Rancho Hotel. We visited Holbrook, Arizona including stops at Joe & Aggies, The WigWam Motel (reminds me of Sally’s Cozy Cone), the Rock Shop, then the amazing Jack Rabbit Trading Post in Joseph City. The whole family stood on a corner in Winslow, AZ, had a fuel stop in Flagstaff, before stayed the night in the charming old west cowboy town of Williams, AZ.

Day 11: After a morning of dirt bike riding in the RV park and shopping in Williams, we headed to Seligman, AZ, which is one of the most iconic towns along Route 66: Delgadillo’s Snow Cap, Angel Delgadillo’s Barber Shop, The Copper Cart Restaurant (which is now a tourist shop and the owners vintage motorcycle collection), then ended with lunch at the Roadkill Café. There was a stop for drinks at the Hackberry General Store (perhaps some inspiration for Lizzie’s Curio Shop?), fueled up in Kingman then across the state line for a camp night at Desert View RV Park in Needles, back in our home state of California.

Day 12: Drove to Amboy for the gas station picture, visited friends in LA for dinner at ‘The Idle Hour’ in West Hollywood.

Day 13: Camped with family on Central Coast then headed home up 101!

As we approached home, it was bitter sweet. Every day of the trip was it’s own adventure: The charming little towns we visited, the friendly people we met everywhere, and the laugh-out-loud fun times we had together, as a family… All strung together on a very special strip of old asphalt called Route 66. There’s a moment in ‘Cars’ when Sally takes Lightning up to a bluff and explains the history of Radiator Springs and how traveling was before the Interstate went in, “Cars didn’t drive on it to make great time. They drove on it to have a great time.”

Indeed.

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