US Road Trip Travelog: 8th February 2005

Despite a serious lack of sleep, two great milestones were passed this morning:

  1. I bought a paper from one of those sidewalk vending machines. You must know the kind, they feature in just about every film where the main character is returning to his apartment in the early hours but hasn't got any change so he hits the machine on the side and gets a paper for free.

  2. I ordered 'eggs over easy' with my breakfast.

Ok, so the paper - USA Today - wasn't much good and the 'eggs over easy' were even worse. As far as I can make out 'over easy' means fried, but not quite enough. Still happy though. These things must be done. Breakfast was in a Bob Evans 'We're Famous For Our Eggs' restaurant place on the edge of the shopping precinct over the road from the motel. I wasn't expecting much but the atmosphere in there was great because everyone seemed to know everyone else. One guy had become a grandfather the night before and every new arrival (me excepted, obviously) was greeted with the news and went to talk to him about it. The waitresses would also take time between orders to go and sit down with the regulars. The free coffee refills may have helped my opinion of the place.

Needing to sort out a post box address - see the 'Practicalities' page for details why - I then waited for the local Mail Boxes Etc place to open and went and organised that. Really friendly and helpful people. I was a bit spooked, however, when the post box number allocated - 326 - was the same as the house number I'd shared with a number of mates whilst at university. The same mates who'd gathered to see me off (or to make sure I left the country) a few weekends ago.

Back in the car and off from Decatur to Springfield to get a pay-as-you-go mobile phone (essential tool for old car owner - or in my case only tool) and have a chat about car insurance with a contact I'd spoken to a few months ago. The search for the mobile phone shop was a bit tricky as the White Oaks shopping mall was actually about 3 miles of shops set well back from the road. Impossible to find the one I wanted. On my third or fourth pass up and down I saw a Verizon Wireless sign and, knowing from my web searches that they did the same thing, I went in for a chat. Very helpful, but I thought I'd better shop around and finally managed to find the Target shop with the T-Mobile franchise inside. A few hopelessly useless assistants later and I was back in Verizon Wireless and now equipped with a 'cell phone'. The fact that Lisa in Verizon Wireless was as cute a basket full of kittens had absolutely no impact on my decision-making process.

Next stop was Hollis Neff & Bomke Insurance. You just have to love that name. It's not the reason I want to use them - Lynn Jr (it's a he) was very helpful on the phone - but the name is almost enough by itself. Lynn Jr wasn't in but his assistant told me all I needed to know.

Now, finally, I can head south down I55 and go and have a look at some cars. First stop is Country Classic Cars.

Country Classic Cars
A giant oval mud track, lined with cars on either side in various states of decomposition. This picture shows a small part of one quarter of the oval.

They charged a Dollar to get in but they could have charged 20 and I would have paid it. 5-600 cars with the most knackered ones outdoors, the better ones under cover and the best ones in huge barns. You pay your Dollar and then you can walk anywhere you want with no-one bothering you. It's like a living history of the American automobile walking around there. Very evocative, as each car is 'as found' and some obviously have great stories to tell. If ever an American band needs a picture for the CD cover, this is the place to come.

CCC Buick Riviera
The '64 Buick Riviera in one of the barns.

When I'd last checked their website they'd had 3 cars I was interested in - two '64 Rivieras and a Mercury Cougar convertible. One of the Rivieras had gone and this is the other one. The Cougar is interesting as it had been for sale for about $9000 but a bit tatty. It now had a new paint job, hood and some interior work and had gone up to $14000 or so. Hmmm.

I knew shortly after wandering around that I would not be buying a car from this place. Almost all the cars would need work of some sort before going back on the road. The Riviera, for instance was missing a few bits from the engine that had obviously been taken to get some other car working. For somebody with the time on their hands before setting-off there may well be a bargain here, but it's not for me. Fascinating, though, and I may well spend another Dollar next time I'm passing.

Pickup with seating in the back
An inventive solution, I think, to the 'how to keep the kids quiet in the back on long journeys' problem.

Next stop is Gateway Classic Cars further down the I55 towards St Louis. I've got great expectations of Gateway since speaking to them on the phone a few months ago as they seemed to have a 'can do' attitude towards the whole thorny registration / licence plates problem. As an authorised dealer of some sort they can issue licence plates themselves, which means I will hopefully never have to deal with Illinois DMV in person if I buy from them.

Gateway Buick Riviera
'63 Buick Riviera at Gateway Classic Cars.

Another Dollar to get in and another huge great building full of cars. This time, however, you can get a good look around the cars and they all seem roadworthy. After wandering around for a bit I stopped and chatted to Sal, who owns the place, and his assistant Charlie (a Tuesday afternoon in early February is, as I'd hoped, a good time to get maximum attention). I'd been interested in a '78 Corvette on their website, amongst others, but that car had gone. Having explained the whole 'road trip' thing, both tried to convince me that a late-80's Corvette or Mustang would be a better proposition for what I have in mind. I don't want to go down that road unless I have to as I'm not particularly keen on either, however sensible the suggestion.

Having done a fair few miles on American roads in the last few days, and thinking a bit more about things as I've been going (driving is great for that), I'm beginning to shift my priorities slightly:

Sal went off to talk to the Illinois Department of Motor Vehicles on my behalf (and his, because if he does anything improper he'll lose his licence) and came back with the news that it all ought to be ok. I'm reserving judgment on that one myself, but we'll see. After we'd wandered around all the cars they have on offer - they don't own them, it's all sale on commission basis - there was one obvious choice. I may have to go back for a test drive.

Gateway convertible car
Can you guess what is yet?

I've put a line up there because all the above is quite different from what follows. As this is a 'Travelog' I know I have to recount the bad as well as the good. Having left Gateway I thought I'd try a different route back to the Interstate, and then got a bit lost. The area I drove through can probably best be described as a shanty town. I didn't stop to take any pictures, I think to do so would have been wrong, but basically the road was lined with either older boarded-up buildings or wooden shacks. Apart from the, seemingly thriving, bars and strip joints. It went on for miles, on both sides of the road.

I followed a rusted-out pickup truck driven by a black guy - from what I could make out it was an all-black area - who was obviously pissed out of his brain. It was almost like a parody of drunk driving, veering off towards a bridge then over-correcting into the oncoming traffic. How he never hit anything I'll never know. The strongest memory, though, is of one of the shacks having racks of old clothes out the front for sale, in a dirt front yard. Maybe I should've taken a photo - I obviously can't describe it in words - but it just looked so much like images of a very poor third-world country.

I've been to the US before and seen downtown Detroit and the south side of Chicago, both of which are scary places to be, but I don't think I've ever seen a part of the US (or the UK, or Europe for that matter) quite so impoverished. I don't know quite what else to say about it, so probably better for the moment to say nothing.

Back on the Interstate and into the road junction from hell on the Illinois side of St Louis. Imagine the Spaghetti Junction in Birmingham but with four times as many roads and twice as high. Not only that, but the roads are just slabs on concrete with the road markings worn away and all the other drivers are Mad Max. Eek! I'm glad I was driving a hire car as I didn't care about fighting for my square feet of concrete along with the rest. I think I'll try to avoid that junction in future. You know that bit in the film Duel where he keeps seeing that big Mack truck bearing down on his little car yet again? Well that happened too many times today for my liking.

I'm staying in a little place called Waterloo (insert own Napoleon / Abba joke here) south of St Louis. It's a bit out of my way, really, but I chose it because my Super 8 Motel guide said it had wireless internet access. Which it did, so I could update the website and send emails earlier this evening. The motel itself is actually really nice - it's also listed in the Super 8 Motel 'Top 8' in the country - but unfortunately it's in a parallel universe.

One where everyone drives giant pickup trucks. On the road down I noticed the number of cars was decreasing in proportion to the number of pickups. I then went to the local Sports Bar for some food and a few beers - feeling very English without a cap or checked shirt - and the car park was probably 80% pickup trucks. All the adverts on the TV were for pickup trucks, doing macho things like jumping over stuff and pulling stuff. The crowning glory, however, is that my motel room looks out over the acres and acres of a pickup truck dealership. If you never hear from me again, try driving up and down State 3 near Waterloo Illinois. I'll be the one in the cap and checked shirt driving a pickup truck.

US Road Trip Travelog: 9th February 2005 >