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 15 | Mt Vernon, Illinois to Lexington, Kentucky
States entered after today: 11
Distance driven today: 265 miles/426 km
Total distance driven: 3,381 miles/5,441 km
Another cruisy driving day today, heading to Lexington, Kentucky.
All along the different interstates and highways, we’ve seen funny names of towns, like No Name, YY, XX, Climax and so many others. Today we spotted a sign for the town of Santa Claus, Indiana, and immediately decided it was must-see. On checking, there are actually three towns in the USA called Santa Claus.
Coming into the town, I spy a massive roller coaster but find out the park is closed. The town only has a population of a few thousand, but there is a massive Christmas shop that’s only open May to December; in other words, it’s open today. We call in of course, and the place is huge, taking up the area of three shops joined together.
Driving around the town, the streets are named things like Holiday Boulevard, Mistletoe Drive, and Angel Lane. Even the lakes are called names like Lake Holly, Noel Lake, and Christmas Lake. Needing some cash, we call in to use a drive-through ATM. Yep, no need to leave your car to get your cash. So far on our roadie, we’ve also seen drive-through cannabis, pizza, chemists, and alcohol. And Americans wonder why so many are overweight.
Regretfully, we leave Santa Claus behind to head to Mariah Hill for lunch and stumble across the Chateau. Nothing too fancy – just a pub with a fancy name. But the food is good, the prices are good too and our waitress is funny, mainly because she can’t understand what we are saying. Good times.
We lose another hour as we cross the border into Kentucky, so that’s three hours in three days we’ve lost to time zone changes. We’re in Lexington for two nights, so will pick up the story again on Day 17.
2023 USA Road Trip: Day 16 | Install Skip-Shift Eliminator
But it has always been my plan to install the skip-shift eliminator on the Corvette today. As a background, in the 1990s GM installed an electronic device to make the manual transmission Corvettes force the drive to go from first to fourth gear, with no option to pick a gear in between. This was all in the name of fuel economy, but there are lots of times when you don’t want to go straight from first to fourth gear – especially on a hill start.
So along comes an aftermarket device called a ‘Shift Skip Eliminator”. This $10 device stops this happening, and I want this very much. It is supposedly a 5-minute job to install, so armed with a trolley jack and some blocks of wood for safety (in case the jack fails), on a hot Kentucky day I jacked the car up and crawled underneath.
I’m embarrassed to say it took me far too long looking for the connector on the transmission to remember that the Corvette has a transaxle – so the gearbox is at the back of the car. Doh! Around the back of the car I crawled, and found the connector on the gearbox that I needed to remove and then install the skip-shift eliminator. But the catch on the connector just would not let go, and of course, it’s on the top where I can’t really get to. Eventually, it did let go, but after some scraped knuckles. After that, it was very easy to install the eliminator – one piece goes on the gearbox, and the other connects to the connector that was on the gearbox. A quick drive around the block, and all is well. Not more forced 1-4 shifts. Awesome!
2023 USA Road Trip: Day 17 | Lexington, Kentucky to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
States entered after today: 12
Distance driven today: 206 miles/331 km
Total distance driven: 3,588 miles/5,774 km
Only 206 miles to drive today, although we will cross into Tennessee. We’re aiming to get to Pigeon Forge tonight; basically, we’re heading towards Spartanburg, South Carolina, as there is a massive BMW plant there and BMW have booked us in to get a background tour of the plant. But we will spend two nights in Pigeon Forge doing a few things in the town.
On the way, we decided to stop at a Buc-ee’s gas station. These gas stations are an experience in themselves, and we had to queue up with other traffic just to get into the parking lot. The parking lot is huge, and this is aside from what must be 50 gas pumps all full with cars and pickups.
Then you walk into the Buc-ee’s and stand in awe of the size of the place. It almost feels like going into The Warehouse, but with fresh food being made, and a massive amount of gas pumps out the front. The range of food items alone is astounding; a group of 4 employees are in the centre of the floor making pulled pork or brisket sandwiches (that’s a Buc-ee’s specialty), and every few minutes one of them calls something out, and they all burst into a planned routine of singing out something I couldn’t comprehend.
If there were less than 300 people in this gas station, I’d be very surprised. People are everywhere, and it’s a bit chaotic. I have to wait for gaps to be able to snap a few photos off.
My wife used the restrooms, and there was a full-time employee in there not only cleaning all the time, but for some reason calling out to all the ladies that if a toilet door lock is red, it’s occupied, and if it’s green it’s available. I’m unsure why it needs an employee to point this out, but there you go.
We grab coffee and I decide that I must buy a piece of the salted caramel fudge before we go. I ask the lady behind the counter for some, and she gets a knife to slice a piece off. I asked her to cut it in half for me, but she’s not allowed to. It’s company policy not to cut the fudge in half for people – even though she just sliced some off the big block of fudge for me. Standing there confused, she says sorry, but all she can do is give me a knife (a plastic knife that’s inside a plastic bag) and I can cut it myself. She nods and says yes, that is a huge waste and more plastic for the dump, but that’s what she’s been told to do. It’s simply crazy, but the fudge is good.
A quick FYI, the Sevierville Tennessee Buc-ee’s is apparently the biggest convenience store in the entire world. It’s almost 7,000 square metres in area and has 120 gas pumps and even then, Buc-ee’s is planning to build a bigger one in Houston, Texas.
Back on the road, it’s a really easy drive on the interstate and after crossing into Tennessee, we stop in at Knoxville to go up the Sunsphere. I thought parking might be an issue, but we found one and it costs a whole 30 cents an hour. I feel like it’s a little win for the day.
The Sunspehere was built for the 1982 World’s Fair and it’s now a tourist attraction. It’s not very tall at 266 feet high, but it’s only $5 to go up and walk around, so it was worth it for that. Some of the facts about the sphere are interesting, including it being used in a Simpsons episode, where it was called the Wigsphere. The views are sort of good, although a sign states that the glass is made with 24-carat gold for some reason. It makes them harder to see out of, but you do spot some landmarks, like the Smoky Mountains. There are some good displays up the top of the Sunsphere, showing the 1982 World’s Fair in action, being opened by the president of the day and having singers like Johnny Cash perform. Eleven million people visited the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville over its 6-month run.
After Knoxville, it’s just 26 miles to Pigeon Forge – but on a Friday at around 5 pm, it takes us over an hour. It feels like we are in the middle of the countryside, but there’s traffic everywhere. Pigeon Forge is known as a family-friendly Las Vegas, and it shows; there are people and cars all over the place.
2023 USA Road Trip: Day 18 | Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Our first stop for the day would be the Titanic Museum. Yes, even though it’s not in New York (where the Titanic was supposed to end up after its voyage), landlocked Pigeon Forge has a Titanic Museum.
It’s reasonably priced too, at US$74 for us both including taxes. You do need to book a time slot in advance, something we are seeing more and more. The Sunsphere in Knoxville yesterday also required us to book online – you can’t simply rock up and buy a ticket.
Parking in the car park was not a great start. Pumping loudly over the speakers in the car park is some bastardised, watered-down version of “My Heart Will Go On” and it plays over and over. This was putting us off going inside – what if they played that terrible elevator music the whole time in the museum? Luckily, they did not and the Titanic Museum was much better than we had expected. The entire museum is housed within a building that looks like the Titanic, complete with a fake iceberg hitting it on the side.
There’s a nice chronological flow to the self-guided audio tour, starting with the design of the ship, moving on to its building, then launch, voyage, hitting the iceberg, and then sinking. After that, you move into more rooms with displays about the survivors and then the expeditions to find the ship.
As you move through each of the rooms with displays and screens, there are also real Titanic artefacts dotted throughout each. It’s seriously impressive, and the details and thought behind the museum extend to visitors going into a room that represents outside the Titanic just before it hit the iceberg, and the temperature “outside” is the same as it would have been on that night, and you can dip your fingers into the water that’s set at the same 28 degrees Fahrenheit it was when the ship sank. This feeling of the water really propels you into feeling what it would be like to be in the water, at night, not knowing if you are going to live or die. Quite sobering stuff.
Further on, there are three different replicas of an area of the deck, each representing a different angle the deck would have been on as the ship slowly sank. Climbing onto each of the decks gives you a much better perspective on how steep the passengers and crew had to climb on that night.
One of the other exhibits is a 26-foot-long scale replica of the ship, made out of Lego. It was built by a 10-year-old boy from Iceland who is autistic. The short movie, narrated by the boy, goes through the building of the 56,000-piece Lego ship and how it helped his autism. The movie is heartfelt and eye-opening into the world of people with autism, and he ends with “Humanity is my lifeboat”.
We took just under two hours to complete the tour, and it was well worth it. Highly recommended.
By this time it was lunch, so we headed to the Sunliner Diner, which looks like it is right out of the 1950s. The prices sure aren’t 1950s but not too bad overall. Inside the diner is a pink fibreglass replica Cadillac that you can sit in to eat your food.
if pink is not your thing, there’s also a red Ford Sunliner. It was a Saturday at 12 when we went to eat at the Sunliner Diner, and it was packed. We didn’t have to wait for a table, but definitely a popular place. By the time we came outside after lunch, there were 20 people outside waiting for a table.
After lunch, we headed to Alcatraz East Crime Museum. Yes, confusing. Long story short, someone has created a building that resembles Alcatraz and has filled it with crime-related info and displays. It cost us another US$75 to go on the self-guided tour which included an audio tour.
As you enter the building, instead of using ropes to guide you through, there are joined-together handcuffs which is pretty cool.
Essentially, Alcatraz East is separated chronologically, much like the Titanic Museum to the point they may be owned and operated by the same company. So it starts off with things like the Salem Witch Hunts, then moves into outlaw cowboys, prohibition, gangsters, fraudsters and liars (like Frank Abagale and Bill Clinton), serial killers, and the KKK.
Each section has boards you can read and some have an audio tour option, and the information they give is pretty comprehensive. We only read 50% of what was on display, if that. There are artefacts from whatever you are looking at, and nice, clear explanations in case (for some sections) you aren’t American and have no idea what they are talking about.
Past the history sections, you move into forensics, fingerprinting, current policing methods and jails/prisons. For example, in the prison section, there are a number of jail cells recreated to show what they might have looked like, with things like shanks and homemade ropes.
For the kids, there’s quite a bit of interactive stuff including a police car they can get in and turn the lights on. Okay, that one might not only be for kids. There are some ‘drunk goggles’ that you can put on, and try and walk a straight line. It’s pretty much impossible.
It was another 2 hours spent at Alcatraz East, and while you could find all the information that they have on the internet, it’s nicely done and might actually keep kids entertained. If you were keen enough to read everything that’s there, you’d need to allow for say 6 hours to complete it.
2023 USA Road Trip: Day 19 | Pigeon Forge, Tennessee to Spartanburg, South Carolina
States entered after today: 14
Distance driven today: 165 miles/265 km
Total distance driven: 3,753 miles/6,039 km
In some ways, we’re glad to get out of Pigeon Forge. Okay, we arrived on a Friday night but man, this place is crazy with traffic. It’s relentless, all night long. Adding to the amount of traffic is the phasing of the traffic lights, which seem to be on a constant go-slow, so getting through any intersection can take an age. Luckily, there is that excellent American law which says you can turn right at a red light, as long as you stop first, nothing is coming and there are no signs saying you can’t. I adore this rule but I can imagine in New Zealand it would be abused greatly. Our drivers have enough problems stopping for red lights as it is.
We’re heading to Spartanburg, South Carolina today via the Great Smoky Mountains via Newfound Pass. I did wonder about the name of the pass and apparently, there was a higher pass that was discovered first, but then this lower one was found so they called it “Newfound Pass” because it was newly found – and the name stuck. I love stories like this.
Leaving Pigeon Forge, we had full intentions of spending some time in Gatlinburg, less than a 30-minute drive from our hotel. Surely Gatlinburg would be less busy and less commercialised than Pigeon Foege. But that’s not the case and just getting into the town is a mission. Admittedly it’s Sunday, but the traffic is thick, the traffic lights slow to change, and there are cars and people everywhere. We actually spot a parking lot but baulk at the US$20 cost, so drive further into the town.
I’m keen to go visit the old cabin that’s right on the main road it was built in 1807 and still stands there in its original location. But the traffic is driving us crazy, there’s no more parking and the Main Street just goes on and on, with many of the same attractions as Pigeon Forge. So we drive on and enter the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to go towards Spartanburg, our stop for the next two nights.
The road over the Great Smoky Mountains is superb; smooth, with lots of corners and stunning scenery. It looked just like this for most of the short 35-mile drive.
I guess the only downer here was Sunday drivers; I know I said it before but Americans struggle so badly with corners – even a corner that could be considered to only be a bend in the road causes them to brake – even going uphill – and this is when they are doing say 10mph on a bend rated at 15mph. They are so slow! It’s a great test of patience.
Getting to the top saw stunning views out across the range, and then an easy drive down the other side, and it’s at the top where the state goes from Tennessee to North Carolina. There’s no parking at the side of the road unless there is an actual place to park, so that makes it tricky to take decent photos. But the road and its corners make it worthwhile. Along with the scenery, I’d rate this road right up there in my top five of best roads. It is stunning.
We’d decided to stop in Cherokee for lunch, at Granny’s Kitchen. This is an old-school buffet lunch and the clientele in the place reflected that; I think we were the youngest there. But it did mean good home cooking and actual vegetables for a change. At US$14.75 each for the Sunday buffet (other days it is $11.75) it’s not bad value, with a good spread of salads, vegetables and meats. We came away satisfied and not just because we felt younger than everyone else there.
While sitting at our table, I mentioned to my wife how we had not seen many people open-carrying a pistol, when she nudged me. Directly across from our table was a guy, having lunch, pistol ready to go. I’m very happy this isn’t normal or even legal in New Zealand. At what point does he decide to shoot and potentially kill someone?
After Cherokee, it was a 3-hour, 180 km drive to Spartanburg. Why so long to go a mere 180 km? Roadworks. At one point, the roadworks went on for around 30 miles (50 km), with stop-start traffic all the way. It was today that I did not enjoy a manual transmission. Eventually, we arrived in Spartanburg, South Carolina – our third state for the day.
2023 USA Road Trip: Day 20 | Spartanburg, South Carolina – BMW factory tour
Today would be spent at the BMW plant in Spartanburg, you can read all about that visit to this incredible plant on this link.
2023 USA Road Trip: Day 21 | Spartanburg, South Carolina – Pinehurst, North Carolina
States entered after today: 14
Distance driven today: 241 miles/388 km
Total distance driven: 3,995 miles/6,429 km
You’d think that going into North Carolina, we’d be upping our state count by one, but we’ve actually already crossed into North Carolina and then back into South Carolina, so today we’re simply going back into the state.
We’ve got a very easy 4-hour drive today, covering just 388 km. Well, we could have done it in 4 hours but again – roadworks. While it’s great that the USA is trying to maintain its highways and interstates, those roadworks can go on for SO LONG – the roadworks we went through today were 30 miles long and yet we could only see work being done on a very small section.
That meant ‘crawling’ along at the posted and reduced 55mph speed limit. Well, one car was sticking to 55mph, and everyone else was going past us much more quickly, and we’ve seen this across all roadworks in the USA. The interstate we were on today had a normal 70mph speed limit but was reduced to 55mph for the roadworks. Honestly, most of the traffic was moving at 80mph or more. One one point we passed a slower truck so I sped up to 70mph so I wouldn’t have to hold any traffic up, but within seconds, a pickup truck was a metre off our bumper. They tailgate so badly here at all times, at any speed, and they leave no space for anything bad that might happen. It’s bloody scary at times.
During our travels today we get an ‘AMBER Alert’ on both our cellphones. This system of alerts was created when sadly, 9-year-old Amber Hagerman was kidnapped while riding her bicycle in Arlington, TX, and then brutally murdered. So both our phones go off with a hell of a shriek, asking us to look out for a tan Buick, potentially on our section of the interstate. If we see it we are supposed to call 911. It makes it almost impossible for someone to abduct a child when every single person on the road is looking for your car. Still, it’s a great way of keeping kids safe – or at least finding them if they aren’t safe.
Getting on to some side roads we call into a small gas station for coffee and as I go to pay, I grab change from my wallet and find I still have a New Zealand $1 coin in my hand, along with American coins. The woman behind the counter spies it and her eyes light up. She and her children collect coins from around the world, and she’d never seen a New Zealand coin before. I don’t have the heart to tell her that it’s only worth 61 cents in US currency but give her the coin to add to her collection. It makes her day.
Mid-afternoon we arrive in the gated community of Pinewild, North Carolina, to stay with friends. After eventually getting through the guards at the gate (I think he mainly let us in based on our “awesome accent”) and drive through Pinewild. It’s basically a gated community and private country club for people who are addicted to golf. I’ll give you a rundown on this place in the next entry – it’s worth hearing about it, and the town of Pinehurst that it’s part of.