Ride with us as we buy and 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 8 | Albuquerque, New Mexico to Durango, Colorado
States entered after today: 6
Distance driven today: 220 miles/354 km
Total distance driven: 1,500 miles/2,414 km
Another cruisy day today with an easy 354 km drive to Durango. First up, time for more fuel. We have actually managed to get 500 miles (800 km) out of a single tank of gas, although that tank is 18 US gallons. But at least petrol is finally dropping in price, as we paid US$4.60/gallon. Surprisingly, our fuel consumption is still dropping and at the start of the day, it’s 8.3L/100km. By the end of today, it’s down to 7.9L/100km, and that borders on unbelievable for a 5.7-litre V8.
Just out of Albuquerque, we turned to head North on the 550, as SatNav told us to follow the 550 for 150 miles (240km). It’s a nice 17 degrees Celsius outside and that makes for far more pleasant travel in the car. There’s almost no traffic on the 550 but we stick to the 75mph speed limit. We’re not in a rush and don’t have that far to go, so no point in doing anything but the speed limit although we are getting passed by EVERY other car and truck. They don’t muck about on the interstates here.
The vistas today are stunning. Wide open, with amazing views and nothing like home. It’s fairly varied too, as it starts out rocky and barren and by the end of the 550 it’s trees and green.
We stop at a gas station in Turtle Mountain, New Mexico for a toilet break and notice that now we’re 7,000 feet above sea level, the packets of chips have all expanded out to full size. It’s a weird sight to see.
We continue on, and at times have the four-lane highway to ourselves with few other cars. Eventually, the traffic builds up but it’s still so easy. Four lanes, straight roads, even my wife could drive the Corvette on this road (but she declines).
We pull into the town of Aztec, mainly to go to the Aztec Ruins National Monument. We’d spied this on the internet and thought it was worth a visit. It’s free to visit and beautifully presented. The Aztecs lived here between about 1000 and 1200 AD, and then just up and left. There are different views on why they left, but according to the surviving ancestors, this location was just another part of their journey.
Basically, there are over 400 ‘rooms’ here built by the Aztecs and a number of ceremonial Kivas including one huge (restored) one. You can use QR codes to listen to an audio tour as you go, and that was definitely worthwhile.
After the tour, we sat in on a 15-minute video and then did a walk around the museum. The museum itself was built in the 1920s, and some of the beams for it were ‘borrowed’ from a Kiva. The beams are enormous and still bear the axe marks from being cut down around the year 1,000. In fact, the roof of the main Kiva is said to weigh 95 tons, and all the beams for this roof were hauled from 50 miles away, by hand. There were no wheels at that time, so it was manual labour. Incredible stories and I strongly recommend going to this site if you are passing through.
After checking into our hotel in Durango, we headed across the road to Serious Texas, a food joint. You pick what meats you want and they make your burger or sandwich to suit. Your stomach starts growling as soon as you walk in the door, as the smells are incredible. We shared a stuffed ‘tater’ and that was enough for two people. Texas-sized food here, for sure.
That evening, we met up with our guide, Jewel, in central historic Durango for a ghost tour – she was representing Ghost Walk Durango. We love doing ghost tours in any cities we visit; not to see any ghosts (we never have) but to hear stories about the town we are in at the time. Jewel, in her early 20s, was bubbly and engaging, even though she does the same tour almost every night of the week. Since we were the only ones on the ghost tour, we got her to ourselves and could ask lots of questions.
As we walked the streets, she had story after story of houses along the way, including the mortuary and the (old) high school that was built in 1916. Her knowledge of historic Durango was astounding. She goes on to tell us how Durango was built; in the 1880s the Denver & Rio Grande Railway wanted to build a railroad in the town of Animas, just up on the hill above Durango. But they were surprised and put out to hear that the people of Animas didn’t want their new railroad, thank you very much. So the railroad threatened to build their own town just a mile down the road, and they did. So Durango was built out of spite – true story. Eventually, Durango got so big it basically swallowed up the town of Animas, so the railroad won.
She told us sad stories too, and tales of the last duel in the streets of Durango in 1947 (!). It was two newspaper editors with differing political views who decided to take it to the next level. So out on the main street, pistols in hand, one died and one did not. Since they both had guns, the surviving editor did not get charged with anything. I doubt newspaper editors would be this committed in 2023.
Ghost tour over, it was 13 degrees and for the first time on this trip in the USA, I’m wearing a sweatshirt.
2023 USA Road Trip: Day 9 | Durango, Colorado to Grand Junction, Colorado
States entered after today: 6
Distance driven today: 180 miles/289 km
Total distance driven: 1,680 miles/2,703 km
After breakfast and checkout, it was back on the 550 highway to go to Grand Junction (Colorado) for the night. Once again, the 550 is very easy to drive, although we know we have the San Juan Mountain Range to climb today.
And climb we did. It’s still relatively easy driving and I could often stay in fifth or even sixth gear. At one point we passed the 10,000-foot mark, with stunning scenery all around us. At Coal Bank Pass we got to the peak at 10,640 feet above sea level and went for a short walk out on the platform that was behind the restrooms. It’s all a bit ominous, as signs tell you that Colorado state kills the most people each year with avalanches. It’s 10 degrees Celsius, so no danger of that today but I’m glad we’re not driving the mountain in winter, although we can see the tops of some mountains covered in snow.
Going down the other side of the Coal Bank Pass, we strike that American trait; crawling around any corner in case you spin out. Honestly, most American drivers just can’t handle a corner. We crawl down behind an SUV (there are double-yellow lines so no passing even if we could) and eventually come to the town of Silverton. We’d last been to Silverton over a decade ago, and it hasn’t changed at all.
It’s lunchtime, it’s raining, and it’s 8 degrees Celsius! We are not prepared for the cold and I’m still in shorts. I won’t put on any sort of long pants until I absolutely have to, and I can handle 8 degrees easily. But it is time to put on a sweatshirt. There is no denying that Silverton, a town from the old cowboy days, is totally cashing in on its history as you pass multiple shops all selling tee-shirts, fridge magnets and anything else they can stick the word ‘Silverton’ on. Can’t blame them though, they have to make a living.
We call into a Rocky Mountain Funnel Cake Factory, which is selling some apparently iconic cakes, called Funnel Cakes. I watch the guy make them on the spot, using what looks like donut dough and pouring it into a vat of hot oil. You can pick from multiple options, of course, I choose the Salted Caramel and my wife picks the Boston Creme. Within minutes the Funnel Cakes come out – they are huge and delicious. Also very unhealthy, but I’m only going to eat one.
After a Funnel Cake and coffee, we head out onto the town’s (sealed) main street for a walkabout. Some of the buildings are from the mid-late 1800s and still look fantastic. The town is packed with tourists, and we see a bunch of motorcyclists hanging out in a cafe, likely waiting out the rain.
Once back in the car, we head off to one of the side streets to look behind those old buildings on the main street. Our first revelation is that only the main street is sealed – all the other streets are just, well, muddy. There’s no seal but I wonder if this is so the huge number of ski mobiles we see can use those side streets once the snow comes. Needless to say, the Corvette gets filthy, and of course, we just had a car wash in the morning before leaving Durango.
Some of those side streets are still pretty interesting too, with lots more buildings looking like they were built in the 1800s and are on a lean. Those ones aren’t going to meet our Healthy Homes standards.
It’s off in the Corvette again as we head east and after more mountain driving, end up in the town of Ouray (and look, another bookstore for my wife to visit). Ouray is much like Silverton, with old 1800s buildings and lots of souvenirs for sale. But it is quaint, and the view of the mountains overlooking the town is breathtaking.
Also like Silverton, only the main road is sealed. I doubt any resident of Ouray ever cleans their car; it wouldn’t stay clean for long. After Ouray, we decided to stay in Grand Junction for the night.
2023 USA Road Trip: Day 10 | Grand Junction, Colorado to Keystone, Colorado
States entered after today: 6
Distance driven today: 380 miles/611 km
Total distance driven: 1,825 miles/2,937 km
Another easy driving day today as we go from Grand Junction to Keystone. It’s only 200 miles on the I70 interstate (that has a 75mph speed limit) so we’ll be taking it slow, and stopping off in the odd town for a look around.
Of course, for my wife that means visiting bookshops, and our first stop is in the town of Rifle, Colorado. While she goes to two bookshops in the town, I take a walk and look at old buildings. Some of them look restored but original, while others look pretty run down. If this store had been open, I definitely would have been going in. I’m sold on the name, but it’s shut.
After Rifle, we continue on passing through canyons like you see in the movies. It’s a stunning drive on this road and the scenery changes from rock cliffs to hugely wide-open spaces with trees for miles.
Our next stop is for lunch, and at last (thanks, internet) we visit our first small-town diner in the town of Glenford Springs. The 19th Street Diner is old-school, and we absolutely love old-school diners. When we get out of the car in the parking lot, a lady driving past yells out “I love your car!”. I already like it here, the people have good taste.
The 19th Street Diner has some Bob Seger playing as we walk in, followed by other 60s and 70s music. It’s perfect.
The people in these diners are more authentic and friendlier than those you find working in one of the chain diners, like Dennys or IHOP. Of course, coffee is via a bottomless cup, and the menu shows some prices that are more realistic after recent visits to Dennys and IHOP. My large omelette with a side of vegetables and toast is $12.90. Our total bill with two coffees is less than $30, and that’s for some good, healthy food.
After our delicous, “home-cooked” lunch we head back to the I70 for the easy drive to Keystone, and our hotel for the night.
Keystone is definitely a ski resort town with many chairlifts almost right down to the road. In the summer months, they offer mountain biking rentals and trails, horseback riding, canoeing, and hiking if that’s your thing. We’re staying here two nights, so we can go to our Rockies train ride in Leadville tomorrow. It’s just an hour’s drive away so it makes it easier to camp out at the 3 Peaks Ski Lodge.
We discussed in the first travel blog about the prices of everything going up in the USA since we were last here in 2019; the laundry at tonight’s hotel is proof of this. In 2019 we were paying around $1.50 to wash a load of laundry and another $1.50 to dry it. Tonight we paid US$4 for each. Ouch!
2023 USA Road Trip: Day 11 | Keystone/Leadville Train Ride
States entered after today: 6
Distance driven today: 140 miles/225 km
Total distance driven: 1,965 miles/3,162 km
It’s a low 2 degrees Celcius outside when we get up, and all the cars in the car park are covered in white – but the weather says it’s going to be 13 by lunchtime. Still, not quite the 40 degrees we had in Phoenix just last week.
Since we aren’t due in Leadville until 1:30pm at the latest, we take the long way there via the towns of Fairplay and Buena Vista. Even taking the long way to Leadville will only mean a 225km drive today.
Cruising up over the mountain, we get to the continental divide at the top, where the water will flow into one ocean on one side of the mountain, and into another if rain falls on the other side. Still seems like a foreign concept to someone from New Zealand. It’s cold at the summit, just 2 degrees Celsius, but the sun is out, there are no clouds and it’s a beautiful sight.
We continue on to Leadville and find that it’s a town much like Ouray and Silverton that we saw a few days ago; red-brick buildings, lots of tourists and shops selling souvenirs and the like. Many of the buildings here were built in the late 1800s and it’s a really nice place to just walk around.
Since we’re still early, we grab lunch at the Silver Llama Market and Eatery and have some delicious food there. Even though it’s busy, we don’t have to wait long and all the staff are friendly too. That doesn’t happen in all places in the USA.
Post lunch it was time to board the Leadville Colorado & Southern Train. It’s only a tourist venture now and is most popular around this time of year when the leaves start to change colours on the poplar trees. We’re a bit too early so they were still green, but our ‘conductor’ tells us the time when the leaves change colours varies from year to year, so there’s no way to set a date for it.
Still, it’s a great ride and you can sit out in the open carriages and marvel at the views of the valley – they are views to die for.
I guess on that point, if you are going to do this ride then sit facing the centre of town. That means as the train goes along, you’ll get unobstructed views out to the valley. Then again, it’s not just views you are looking for, as black bears are known to be seen now and then, along with deer, elk and bobcats. We don’t see any today but with the weather we are having, it doesn’t matter. It’s the perfect temperature outside in the open.
Our conductor on the train is still in high school (true story), but is extremely confident and outgoing, and certainly has all the dates and history of the train down pat as he rattles them off on the PA system, along with a terrible collection of dad jokes. He mentions that the town is called Leadville because even though silver had been found there, there were so many other towns with ‘silver’ in the name, he wanted something different – so he founded Leadville.
With the conductor being so young, I see that all the staff on the train are very young. The train driver, Sean, is just 23 but seems to have the controls sorted out. I chat with him when we stop at an old water tower on the way back down the mountain, and he mentions that the diesel-electric locomotive pulling the carriages is from 1955, and everything still works. All the controls are from 1955, and nothing has been modernised. The engine holds up to 1,400 gallons of diesel, but the average trip uses about 70 gallons. With the price of diesel in Colorado at about $4.50 a gallon, that’s still a lot of passenger tickets to pay for it.
After our train ride is over, we take the shorter route back to Keystone. The corners are easy and it’s sixth gear most of the way. The roads themselves are patchy at best; sometimes they are excellent and other times they pound the Corvette. I can see why a lot of drivers just sit in the left lane, as trucks have made a mess of the right-hand lane on a lot of highways here.
2023 USA Road Trip: Day 12 | Keystone, Colorado to Estes Park/Stephen King – The Shining Tour
States entered after today: 6
Distance driven today: 190 miles/ 290 km
Total distance driven: 2,155 miles/3,468 km
We’ve got a Stephen King Tour booked in at Estes Park at 5:30 pm today, so we have a fairly easy day. It’s only 2.5 hours to drive straight there, so we are going to take an alternative route which is apparently an extremely scenic drive – one of the best, they say.
Our first stop after Keystone is the town of Central City. We only planned to spend a little time walking around the town, but ended up spending a few hours here and don’t regret it at all. Just winding down into the town’s main street caught our eyes; it’s like the town has just been built, as the buildings on that main street are all immaculately presented.
While all the buildings on that street are pretty much as they were on the outside in 1874, they aren’t the original buildings on each site. That’s because like so many other old towns we’ve visited, fire swept through Main Street in the 1800s and took all the wooden buildings out. After that, brick was the preferred cladding of the day, and for many years to come.
Then we got hit by the sadder (for us) part of town. Walking that main street, all those amazing buildings from the 1870s are now casinos. While Central City was originally a gold mining town, when that ran out they turned to milling, and then eventually the casinos came. We called into the visitor’s centre on another street and the lady there made the statement, “We only have 6 casinos compared to 17 in Blackhawk just down the road”. I’d prefer no casinos, but that’s just me.
We got convinced by a local to go and visit the Central City Museum and since the town centre is so small, we walked and it took two minutes. We got hooked on the idea of going to the town’s museum when that local told us they have the town’s submarine there. Uh, what? Central City is obviously nowhere near the ocean or any other large body of water, so a submarine? With that, we had to go check it out.
The museum is inside the town’s old school building which was built in 1860. There are photos in the museum of students studying there, and one of the old classrooms is still there, complete with the original blackboard and school chairs from almost two centuries ago.
But it’s the submarine story I came for. In the late 1800s a Central City local, Rufus T. Owen, decided to build his own submarine. Remember that Central City is a mile and a half above sea level and has no large bodies of water. But it does have a small lake. Rufus built his submarine and secretly launched it in the lake. He didn’t want a lot of people watching in case it sank. Before he was about to get inside it, his friend suggested it may be safer to load it up with rock as ballast, as a safety test first. So, they put three tons of rocks inside the sub and launched it. But because they had placed the rocks in the wrong position, the sub simply sank to the bottom of the lake. In the late 1800s, there was no way of retrieving the sub so Rufus left it there. Over time, this became a town legend, and no one really believed it was true.
But in 1944, some men decided enough was enough and went looking for the legendary sub and found it. They hauled it out of the lake, and now that very sub is in the museum at Central City. It’s a fascinating story on so many fronts. The fact that he built his own submarine, in a town a long way from the ocean, and it would have worked if they had loaded it with rocks correctly. And then it became an urban legend and then it was found. It’s the stuff movies are made of. It felt a privilege to see the sub in person – what a story.
After Central City, we hit the road for the town of Nederland. We’d been recommended to go there for lunch by the same local who suggested we go to the museum. It’s only 30 minutes to drive there from Central City and on arrival, the town is pumping. There’s a farmer’s market on today, so much of the parking is already gone. But we happen to find a park in a street very close to a guy selling “New Zealand Pies”. A town with a population of 1,500 and there’s a guy selling New Zealand pies here?
I’m not sure how long he has been in the US because we asked him if he was a kiwi and he said ‘yes’. We had to say “So are we” – so maybe he thought we were Australians or something. So what about his pies? He claims they are flat-out making and selling kiwi pies which are apparently very popular in Colorado. I spy his sign; they also sell sausage rolls, and pie flavours include steak and cheese, and New Zealand pies. You might ask what a New Zealand pie is, because I did. “Uh, yeah, that’s a mince pie,” he says. “If you tell an American it’s a mince pie, they think it’s a sweet pie.”
We’re not keen on a pie for lunch, so head to Decent Bagels. I see a bagel called “Full Send” and have to have it. It was delicious! As you can imagine, it had just about everything you could fit into a bagel.
After Nederland we get back on to the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway. This is a famous road mainly because of its scenic vistas. The only problem is there is no stopping and very few places to get some shots of the natural beauty of Colorado. We do get to Loveland Pass, another Continental Divide and this one at 11,990 feet. That’s just 228 feet short of Mt Aoraki/Mt Cook.
The corners on the other side of the pass are amazingly smooth and tight, meaning some fun cornering in the C5. It was made for roads like this, although the gear change is a little slow.
We eventually get to the highlight for today; Estes Park, and The Shining Tour. That tour is held at the Stanley Hotel, which is the hotel that was used as the inspiration for Stephen King’s novel, the Shining. There was also a movie in the 1980s based on the book, but it wasn’t filmed at the hotel. But then Stephen King wrote, produced and directed a mini-series for TV and that was filmed at the Stanley Hotel.
First though, we’re hours early for the tour so instead do some of the river walk in the town’s centre. It’s a nice walk, and a lot of cafes have opened up along the walk to cater for all the people strolling along it – and there are lots of people walking, far more than I had expected. Even away from the river walk and into the town itself, there are people everywhere. And that means shops too, so many shops – most of them selling the same thing; Estes Park tee-shirts, hoodies, jackets, hats, keyrings, etc etc. You get the idea.
We were last in Estes Park in 2007 and it has changed so much since then. Far more commercialised now and that has taken something away from the town.
But it’s The Shining Tour we came for. The story goes that in the 1970s when Stephen King had writer’s block he and his wife were driving through the town, it was snowing heavily and they ended up staying at the hotel as its last guests for the season. There was no one else staying there and they had the last room – the only one with sheets still on the bed – and it was room 217, which features in The Shining. The caretaker was there and as the season’s accounts had already been done, when Stephen King tried to buy a beer in the bar, it was only him and the caretaker there and the caretaker said “Your money is no good here” because the accounts had already been finalised. It’s scenes like this that made it into the book.
The tour itself is excellent and runs for an hour. You get to tour a room that room 217 is based on, complete with the green bathroom.
Our guide goes through the history of the Stanley Hote; incredibly, it was initially built not as a hotel but as a summer guest house. For that reason, there was no heating at the beginning because it was only used in summertime. It’s one extremely impressive guest house.
I won’t give away all the stories that our guide told us, but it was definitely the best part of today. Needless to say, if you are anywhere near Estes Park or in Colorado and you are a Stephen King fan, this tour is a must-see.
We decided not to stay in Denver tonight as it’s a lot further drive than simply staying in Longmont, Colorado, and then hitting the I70 tomorrow for our big drive.
2023 USA Road Trip: Day 13 | Longmont, Colorado to Topeka, Kansas
States entered after today: 7
Distance driven today: 568 miles/914km
Total distance driven: 2,693 miles/4,333 km
Since we’re driving 914km today, it’s an early start by leaving the hotel at 8am. Once we get on the I70 interstate the cruise control is set at 75mph, and then I simply hold the wheel straight. There aren’t many turns to take today, just steady as she goes.
Crossing the state line into Kansas, we lose yet another hour of time so our ETA in Topeka today is moved out an hour. On the good side of things, we gas up in Kansas and find our cheapest premium gas yet at US$4.36/gallon, or NZ$1.72/litre. It doesn’t hurt as much to fill the Corvette’s large petrol tank at that rate.
We stop at the Kansas visitor’s centre for a free coffee and a toilet stop. Generally as you cross a state line, there is a visitor’s centre there just over the border. The Kansas one is a little flashier than some we have seen.
Into Kansas, we stop in at Goodland but only to see the giant Van Gogh painting that’s mounted on the world’s largest easel, at 80 feet tall. We were last here in 2007 so it was mainly nostalgia that brought us back to the Van Gogh. Still, we’d already seen the world’s tallest thermometer, so why not the world’s tallest easel. The Van Gogh is one of his sunflower paintings, as Kansas is known as the Sunflower State.
There’s not much else to report today; I’m happy to see these motorway speed signs. Doing less than 40? Get off the interstate!
When we gassed up at a Love’s truck stop, there was a guy refilling the ATM machine with cash, and of course, that means he’s got a pistol on his hip. Really can’t get used to seeing such an obvious display of guns.
Temperature-wise it’s been 33 degrees all day, and at 7pm when we go for dinner in Topeka, it’s still 27. For dinner, we went to Cracker Barrel. This is one of our all-time favourite American diners, ever. Maybe the most favourite. The food is always excellent, the prices (still!) very good, and the staff are friendly. Every Cracker Barrel also has a store attached, selling all sorts of things that my wife loves. And yes, the boot on the Corvette is filling more by the day.
2023 USA Road Trip: Day 14 | Topeka, Kansas to Mt Vernon, Illinois
States entered after today: 9
Distance driven today: 422 miles/680 km
Total distance driven: 3,100 miles/4,988 km
Today is fewer miles than yesterday’s marathon but still, we’re simply driving across America on the I70 at this stage. We’ll hit nearly 5,000km by day’s end, or 5/12 of the total expected distance by the end of this road trip.
We skirted around Kansas City and halfway across, entered into the state of Missouri, since Kansas City is split across two states. I have no idea how they manage the different laws of those states, if you cross the road and the law is different. Seems a little crazy.
It’s 31 degrees outside, but the Corvette’s aircon is coping just fine and the miles just fly by. While we could actually do the 422-mile drive in 6 hours if we drove straight through, by the time we stop for coffee, food or toilet breaks, it takes a lot longer.
One of those stops is in a small town that doesn’t even have a name, but we find the cheapest premium gas yet at US$3.89/gallon. That equates to NZ$1.48/litre, and it costs less than US$60 to fill the Corvette’s large tank from almost empty.
Along the way, we cross from Missouri into Illinois, our 9th state to enter. Tomorrow it’s another short 260-mile drive from Mt Vernon to Lexington, Kentucky where we’ll be spending a few nights with friends.
The next week’s travel blog will be posted soon!