Ride with us as we buy and then drive a 2002 Chevrolet Corvette for 12,000km across America and into Canada over 7 weeks. Then we ship it back to New Zealand!
2023 USA Road Trip: Day 4 | Los Angeles, Baker, Las Vegas, Boulder City
States entered after today: 2
Distance driven today: 300 miles/500km
Total distance driven: 450 miles/725km
At last, we’re starting our road trip. Today’s leg wouldn’t be too hard – we’re heading to Boulder City, about 30 minutes east of Las Vegas. It only takes 4 hours to get to Las Vegas, so we’ll do a few things on the way.
Managing to get organised early means leaving our BNB at 8am so we can avoid traffic on the freeways. It seems everyone else has the same idea, as the traffic levels are about the same as any other day (today is Saturday). But at least it’s flowing, and we don’t actually have to stop on the freeway at all. On leaving LA, our fuel economy around town has been 17.2mpg (13.7L/100km). I’m hoping that’s going to improve hugely after today.
In the four years since we did this trip in a C4 Corvette, Los Angeles drivers have definitely got worse. They’re far more aggressive now, and someone just cutting right in front of you on the freeway is common; you really have to be on your guard the entire time driving. They are bad at tailgating too, no matter what the speed is. They will sit there less than 2 metres from your bumper. Crazy. And if you thought New Zealand drivers are crap at indicating, they’re worse here. Those lane cutters rarely indicate, they just zip right in front of you. I’ll be glad when we’re out of California and away from this.
One bonus of the long motorway miles today is that the car is running smoother now; it’s been a long time since it had a decent long drive, and it feels a lot better behind the wheel. At 110km/h on a flat road, the Corvette is using fuel at just 5.3L/100km – that’s outstanding for a 21-year-old 5.7-litre V8. Part of this fuel economy is down to the car’s gearing with the 6-speed manual gearbox – at 70mp/h (113km/h) the engine is turning over at just 1,500rpm. That, along with the car’s relatively light weight (<1,500kg) and excellent aerodynamics equals excellent fuel economy.
Our first stop for the day is Baker, still in California. It has the honour of having the world’s tallest thermometer at almost 41 metres high. When we get to the thermometer, it’s 34 degrees outside and the sun is baking us. I get talking to the young guy who runs the visitor centre and he asks about the Corvette. I tell him we’re heading to Boulder City and he suggests we up our speed from this point on. Apparently, there are almost no cops patrolling from Baker to Las Vegas as once you get to the state line, they can’t chase you anymore – so they don’t even bother. He says he did the 1 hr20min drive in 22 minutes on his motorbike, averaging 155mph. I listen to him but I’m still not keen to get locked up in jail, so we’ll stick to the 70mph speed limit (well, sort of close to it anyway).
Continuing on we get to the Nevada state line and go to get lunch and fuel. There’s an IHOP (International House of Pancakes) in a local casino, and since I’m a sucker for IHOP, that’s lunch sorted. I mentioned increased prices earlier, and IHOP has taken this to heart. Their prices have risen dramatically since our last visit, for example, filter coffee is now priced at US$4.50 a cup. With our basic meals, two cups of filter coffee and the obligatory tip, the cost is US$54, or NZ$93! So not worth it, meaning that was a once-only IHOP visit.
Speaking of tips, they have also risen. When you go to pay, you are asked how much tip you want to give; the options are now generally 18%/20%/22%. The tip rate used to be 15% for excellent service but it seems those days are gone.
Heading out of the casino to the car, it’s now 36 degrees and our dash-mounted screen won’t even turn on – it’s just too hot. We go to get fuel at the Chevron next to the casino but drive away when we see the price; US$5.95/gallon for regular fuel. That equals NZ$2.69/litre. I hate to think what premium fuel costs there so we continue to Las Vegas in the hope of cheaper petrol.
We stop at another Chevron just before the Las Vegas Strip and pay $5.34/gallon, a bit more palatable. It takes US$83 to fill the Corvette from near empty, and fuel consumption has dropped from 13.7L/100km when we left LA to 9.4.
As I’m filling up the car, the temperature has risen to 38 degrees; I feel like Vegas is preparing us for the 46 degrees it’s going to be in Phoenix tomorrow.
A short time later we get to Boulder City, a place that was built from nothing to house the thousands of workers who built the Hoover Dam. We decide it’s time for an ice cream and pull into Chilly Jilly’s. This place has some awesome internet reviews, so I ordered a Southern Blackberry Cobbler (blackberry flavour ice cream with flaky pie crust pieces and a blackberry sauce swirl) while my wife ordered the Salted Caramel Brownie (creamy vanilla ice cream with chocolate brownies and a salted caramel swirl). You can’t sit inside Chilly Jilly’s but there’s a nice tree-covered area outside, and unbelievably our ice creams don’t melt too quickly in the 38-degree desert heat. A highlight for today appears in the form of a shy chipmunk who comes for a look. We want to take him home.
From there, it’s a short drive to our accommodation for the night, Hoover Dam Lodge and Casino. We picked it because it’s not too expensive at US$135 for a night. Initially, we had planned to stay on the Strip but all accommodation there now starts at US$300 a night, and that’s crazy money. The other benefit of our hotel for the night is that it’s just ten minutes from Hoover Dam. We’re aiming to be at the first tour of the dam tomorrow at 9am, so getting there early means we should get parking in the underground carpark, keeping the Corvette out of the sun for a bit.
Our “lake view” room at Hoover Dam Lodge and Casino is nice and big, but the internet is too weak to work at all. The lake view is there if you peer out sideways through the window. Still, at 12 stories up it’s a pretty nice view out to the desert. Dinner downstairs in one of the 4 eating places is excellent; actual vegetables come with meals, and the prices are what you’d expect them to be at a casino. My burger that came with “Bighorn Fries” is $8.49. Bighorn Fries are fries in the shape of the bighorn, which is the restaurant’s name. As far as the fries’ shape goes, you need a lot of artistic license to see the bighorn. Our total bill comes to US$21.11 (plus tip) so that makes it half the cost of IHOP with far better food.
So that’s our first day’s drive over with. Surprisingly, the car is more comfortable than I had imagined. As mentioned it rides better than the C4 we last did a cross-USA trip with, and even my wife commented on the seats – they are soft and comfortable on a long trip. Our C5 Corvette comes with the sport seats option, so that also means electrically adjustable side bolsters and electrically adjustable upper and lower back lumbar support. It’s easy to get the seat in the perfect position and great support for a cross-country drive. But ask me again in 11,500km.
2023 USA Road Trip: Day 5 | Hoover Dam and Phoenix
States entered after today: 3
Distance driven today: 350 miles/560km
Total distance driven: 800 miles/1,300km
Because Hoover Dam is built right on the Nevada/Arizona state line, we’d end up switching between states many times during our Hoover Dam Tour. Later in the day, we’d go into California while driving, then back into Nevada, into Arizona then into California and back into Arizona.
We’ve driven over the Hoover Dam before the new bridge was built in 2009/2010 and then on other trips driven over it on the new bridge, but we’ve never actually been inside the dam at all. This trip, we wanted to change that. We’d read that the first 9am tour was the best one to get; no queues and plenty of parking in the underground garage.
Well, that was the plan. Even though we did get to the visitor’s centre before 9am, there was a long enough queue that we would miss the 9am and 9.30am tours and would be in on the 10am tour instead. But it was worth it and if you are heading to Las Vegas, make sure you allow time to go to the dam and do the tour. The full tour which includes the power station and a dam tour is US$30 and lasts for around 90 minutes. You get to visit the power station and its 17 turbines (enough to power 1.3m homes) and hear some of the facts and figures around how the power is generated.
An interesting fact I didn’t know is that along with the 17 turbines – 9 on the Nevada side of the dam and 8 on the Arizona side – the dam also has two Pelton wheels (one on each state side of the dam) that actually power the dam and its own electricity needs. These Pelton wheels are driven by the water of course, meaning the dam is self-sufficient for its power. Sales of the power generated by the 17 turbines and the income from the tours means the dam pays its own way and gets no funding from the government.
The highlight is the dam tour. It’s amazing to go down inside the workings of the dam and see things like one of the huge pipes that was used to divert the Colorado River while the dam itself was being built. We also got to go and peer out from a vent that is halfway up the dam wall
The guides on both the power tour and the dam tour are extremely knowledgeable and no question thrown at them went unanswered. Brilliant stuff, and well worth the money.
After the two tours, we headed out on top of the dam for a look around, and then to the visitor’s centre to check out the displays. By now (11:30am) the visitor’s centre was packed so I didn’t stay long. On the way back to the parking garage, I spied the tomb for the dam mascot, a lone dog that befriended all the workers and spent each day wandering around the dam site in the 1930s, riding the lifts with the workers and barking when he wanted to get off. Sadly, the dog got run over by accident, and apparently grown men were bawling their eyes out as they jackhammered his tomb out of rock. The little tomb is still there, and a sign explains what happened to the dog. Quite a few dam visitors were taken by the story of the dog, perhaps forgetting about the hundreds of men who died during the dam’s construction.
The construction company building the dam only counted workers who actually died onsite as a statistic, so if you got hurt, went to the hospital and died, they didn’t count you in the numbers killed in the construction. Initially, if you died during construction the company would declare you had died of pneumonia so they didn’t have to pay out the widow, but this all got settled out of court later. One of the saddest stories of the day was about the first and last workers who died at the dam site. They died 13 years apart to the day, and by a complete coincidence, they were father and son.
The parking garage itself is actually built on the same site as one of the cement factories that supplied the huge amounts of concrete needed for the dam’s construction, and the parking garage itself is finished in a nice art-deco style too. Even the signs directing traffic have a font in an art-deco style.
Now 38 degrees, we hit the road towards Phoenix, our stop for the night and about 5 hours away. That meant not taking the interstate at times and that’s a worry. While we normally love getting off the interstate and going through small towns, the roads can be brutal. To start with it was fine, as we got onto the I95 and set the cruise control at 75mph for two hours. I barely turned the wheel at times, as the straight road disappeared off into the distance. At one point, we passed through a massive solar farm with literally hundreds of thousands of solar panels on each side of the road. It’s an impressive sight and a good use of otherwise useless land.
We ended up in the town of Searchlight for lunch and not seeing much we wanted to eat on the run, opted for Maccas. To be honest, a quarter-pounder combo is now exactly the same price in the US as in New Zealand, once you do the conversion. It’s no better either and never looks like the picture.
We passed through the town of Parker and then followed SatNav directions to Needles. The roads after Parker were awesome. Dips in the road for a bit of excitement, as well as actual corners. Finally, a chance to see what the handling of this car is like. It sits beautifully on the bends, with excellent turn-in and nice steering feel. It tracks very well, and overall handling is neutral. I can see why C5 Corvette owners rave about the handling of these cars. No doubt the 50/50 weight distribution helps this, as does the height off the road (i.e. not much).
It was 2019 when we went through Needles. Needles has the title of the hottest place in California, and it was sitting on 38 when we passed through there. In 2019 it was 42 degrees when we drove through this town.
We entered the northern side of Phoenix at 6pm after sitting on the I40 interstate at 75mph for 2.5 hours, never changing out of sixth gear. At that time, it was 40 degrees outside. Thank God for air conditioning in cars. That evening we went to dinner with some friends in Phoenix and after leaving their house at 10.30pm, it was still 34 degrees. Welcome to Phoenix.
2023 USA Road Trip: Day 6 | Phoenix to Holbrook
States entered after today: 3
Distance driven today: 200 miles/320km
Total distance driven: 1,000 miles/1,600km
Today would be a bit of a simpler day, drive from Phoenix to Gallup. We’re not going to Gallup for any reason other than it’s on the route and it’s about a 5-hour drive, so a nice number once you add in stops for photos and lunch.
First things first, time for fuel. I was hoping for massively cheaper fuel than the last fill-up, but the best we could find was at Circle K for $5.09 a gallon, meaning US$77 to fill the car from near empty. On the plus side of things, the 5.7-litre V8 Corvette is now averaging 8.6L/100km, and that’s outstanding. The car is loaded up of course, with the trunk/boot almost full, adding to the surprise fuel consumption figure. According to the trip computer, we should see 500 miles/800km from one tank of gas.
The GPS is not sending us straight onto the interstate, so instead we head out of town via Bulldog Canyon. The roads here are amazing; sweeping bends, on camber and a perfect road surface. It’s a dream driver’s road, with dream views of the landscape. If only my wife wasn’t with me I could have a lot more fun with the car.
Mile after mile, the scenery changes from desert landscapes and by the end of the day, we’ll pass through forests in comparison. Following our digital instructions, we end up in Payson for lunch where we decide a healthy Subway sub is the go. We’ve mentioned already about the prices having risen so much since 2019, and a 6” sub comes in at NZ$16. That’s not any sort of a combo, that’s just the sub. Ouch. And then at the counter while paying, it is suggested that I pay for a tip as well. Tipping at fast food outlets where there is no table service is just not on, but Subway is trying it on.
After Payson we hit the road again, setting cruise control at 65mph (the limit on this road) and take a direct line to Holbrook. That’s because we didn’t quite make it to Gallup, and instead stopped at Holbrook, around 95 miles south-west of Gallup but still on Route 66. No real reason for the earlier stop other than we have plenty of time up our sleeves as we have a train ride booked near Denver on Friday, and today is only Monday. Even with two nights in Durango (Colorado) we still have one spare night to use up.
So Holbrook it is for the night; we’ve booked a room at the Days Inn at US$60 for the room including breakfast. We can’t complain about the price, and honestly, we’re happy to get out of the sun for a while. It’s only 34 degrees when we get to Holbrook but it’s beating down on us in the car. I’m now regretting keeping the translucent top on the Corvette, rather than the painted top that we’ve had sent back to New Zealand.
In the early evening, I took a drive around Holbrook to take some photos but came away feeling a bit sad for the residents of this town. While some shops (mainly food) are cashing in on Route 66 and its tourism dollars, there are a lot of run-down houses that are still standing somehow. I didn’t see any homeless people like you would in LA, but there’s a sense of poverty everywhere you drive.
That evening we stopped in at the first diner we come across, Tom & Suzie’s Diner. In a weird coincidence, we park right next to a Ford Falcon – right-hand drive and complete with an Australian flag sticker on the side window. The rear window is covered with different American places of interest, so it seems like there are some Australians who shipped their Falcon GTP to the USA for their roadie. Idea noted for future reference? I think so.
It’s Monday night and Tom & Suzie’s is packed to the point where we have to wait ten minutes to get a table. Surely that’s a good sign of good food. No sign of the Australians – I thought we’d hear their booming voices over Americans, but the chatter in Tom & Suzie’s is almost deafening.
2023 USA Road Trip: Day 7 | Holbrook to Albuquerque
States entered after today: 4
Distance driven today: 240 miles/386km
Total distance driven: 1228 miles/1,976km
An observation from this morning’s (free) hotel breakfast. America is still in love with plastic, so very badly. You want a spoon for your breakfast? It’s a plastic spoon, inside a plastic bag. Want a cup for your juice? It’s plastic and wrapped in plastic. A coffee cup? Inside a plastic bag. Plates? Plastic. Knives, forks? Plastic, inside a plastic bag. Want to stir your coffee? The plastic stirrer comes in a plastic bag.
We’ve also seen this plastic love affair when you go to Walmart, Dollar General or any store. They give you far too many plastic bags for your stuff, and one clerk seemed very confused when we said we didn’t want a bag because we could just carry our stuff. That really threw him a curveball. He probably still talks about those weird-speaking people who came into the store and didn’t want a bag. His grandchildren will likely hear the story, with some embellishments no doubt.
Hopefully, the USA will follow our lead and start reducing the amount of plastic they use, but I doubt it will be in my lifetime.
Then there’s the hotel breakfast. We’ve seen massively varying quality on our numerous trips to the USA. We still recall a hotel that offered a free breakfast with your stay (that’s quite common) but the breakfast was a muffin, and that was it. Other places have a large range of foods including fruit, which is always gratefully received. But the quality of the cooked foods is, well, not the best. We’ve never seen anything except powdered scrambled eggs and they taste like rubber. Here is a picture of those eggs, and some sausages that look like a certain appendage on a small dog:
At the Holiday Express we stayed at yesterday they had turkey sausage available, which is a flat patty that looked like it had been run over by a truck. It looked terrible and I didn’t try one.
But there are generally some good points about the hotel breakfast; most places have a waffle maker where you can make your own and in Texas, you can have a Texas-shaped waffle (and I always do. It’s in the shape of Texas!). Boiled eggs are generally available so they should be safe to eat. Cereals can range from a choice of one to many. The only problem with American cereals is the amount of sugar they contain – and you can’t get away from it. Even bread tastes sweet.
Anyway, today was all about heading to Durango, Colorado, and we’re spending two nights there. We’ve visited Durango twice over the years but never felt we had enough time to give the place justice, so this time we’re seriously going to have a good look around.
But then we started looking at the calendar and realised we had too much time to spare, and we didn’t really want to spend two nights in Durango, as we’d get there in the morning and then have two full days as well. So today we’re going to head to Santa Fe via Albuquerque. Why Santa Fe? Why not? We’re not absolutely set on our route, except that on Saturday we’re due in Leadville, Colorado to do a train ride in the Rockies, so that’s the only place at this stage that we have to be at on a certain day and time. So – Santa Fe, here we come.
Within 2 minutes, we’re on the I40 interstate, in 6th gear and cruise control set at 75mph. It’s actually a nice 24 degrees outside and it makes travelling that much more enjoyable. Along the way, we eventually change down from 6th gear and pull into Navajo Gas Station for a coffee and toilet stop. They have half the store selling Navajo trinkets and souvenirs even though the gas station has nothing to do with the Navajo people – it’s just a gas station that happens to be in the town of Navajo. It feels so wrong.
But we do grab a coffee. It’s well known Americans like their large cups and this is reflected in the coffee cup sizes at any gas station. The smallest cup is 16oz, or 473ml. A standard cup size is 250mls, so you can see how much bigger their “small” cup is. The next size up is 20oz (600mls, or an old school bottle of milk) and the large size is 24oz (710mls). We always get a small cup and it’s always too much coffee to drink.
I mentioned the other day that drivers in the USA are not very good – and they aren’t. We still get drivers tailgating us at 75mph, right up your ass. But I’ve got to say, the majority will drive with their headlights on when on the interstate, so I appreciate them for this. If only they all used their indicators.
We crossed from Arizona to New Mexico, our fourth state to enter. After crossing the state line, we lost an hour due to the time zone change, which is a bummer. Getting to Gallup, we parked up and took a walk around the historic town centre. I was really expecting more from Gallup, but the historic town centre was fairly dull and just ‘normal’. No Route 66 shops selling stuff, no cafes; just everyday businesses. We didn’t end up spending too long there and hit the road east.
As our hunger grew we pulled into the next town off the I40, which is Grants, still on Route 66. We tried a few diners, but they were closed down. Our friends in Phoenix mentioned that lots of small-town diners closed during the COVID lockdown, and never reopened. So it was Dennys again for lunch, as well as an obligatory photo stop at this sign:
Before leaving Grants, we took a look at what hotel to book in Santa Fe, and quickly made a change of plans. Almost all the hotels in Santa Fe are US$150 and up for a single night. That’s crazy money when you convert it to NZ$. So we changed our plans again, and instead booked into a hotel in Albuquerque at US$77 for us both, including taxes and a cooked breakfast.
That done, we headed back on the I40. It’s 75 miles to Albuquerque and the speed limit is 75mph so again it was into 6th gear and cruise control set. An hour later we arrived; I mention this as it’s extremely difficult to travel that distance in New Zealand without something slowing you down, whether it’s a town to pass through, or major hills to climb. It’s so easy to cover large distances in a short time in the USA.