I thought the lockdowns and travel restrictions of 2020 wouldn’t get to me. I’ve never been very outgoing or open with my thoughts and generally stick to my introverted, socially awkward ways. So having the ultimate excuse to stay in my comfort zone should have been easy. Let me tell ya…it absolutely was not.
About a year ago, I broke out from my own mental prison and set out on a road trip that I had been dreaming of for about as long as I can remember. It was an eight-week, eight thousand mile road trip to California and back with my Mustang. It took me this long to try and put that experience into words because this wasn’t an ordinary road trip and it didn’t exactly begin on the best terms. A lot happened leading up to it, so much that I’ve not been looking forward to revisiting it for this story. This drive was an escape in every sense of the word, and doing so is probably what saved me.
When the pandemic reached our shores and plunged the nation into chaos for only the 9th time that month, things had already been extremely difficult on my end. Things had gotten very dark towards the end of 2019. Stress from my day job became overwhelming, my parents got divorced, and my outlook on life was the worst it had ever been. It wasn’t easy for anyone in my family, but being the only other family member my parents had for support in the same state was a massive challenge. I wasn’t ready for it. At all. I had extremely uncomfortable thoughts and conversations during that time and like a moron I thought I could handle it all on my own. I instead carried that baggage into 2020 hoping that somehow things would magically improve. And you know what happened after that.
Spring 2020 came around and I, like everyone reading this, was trapped. I was stuck inside my room with no way to escape my own thoughts and even attempt to fix things. I relied heavily on family and friends to keep some sense of human connection alive. But I needed more. That Mustang of mine was the only thing that gave me more.
Each trip to the essential liquor store with my Mustang GT PP2 gave me a few moments to row some gears, make some fun noises, and just forget about everything that was going on around me. It was my own space where I was in control for once. When travel restrictions eased a bit, I went up into the north Georgia mountains as much as I could. It was the closest thing to freedom I felt all year at the time. And I needed more.
By Fall, some family members were asking me about travel plans – the divorce had been finalized and they wanted to cheer me up with copious amounts of beer and sunshine. My entire extended family is out west and I would always do at least one trip out there each year. But with so many unknowns around air travel at the time, I didn’t want to risk anyone else’s health. I was going to have to just skip that vacation like everyone else. But then I had an idea.
I was working remotely indefinitely. What was stopping me from doing that where I wanted to? If I’m there for the long term, why not just drive and live out there a while? My manager didn’t even ask what time zone I’d be in before giving me approval.
I’ve driven across the country before after buying my grandfather’s 2002 F-150 and bringing it home the hard way. But I’ve never done that in a Mustang. I’d have the experience of blitzing across America in a car practically built for it. Along the way, I’d get to enjoy the best roads and scenery in the world. And crucially, I’d get to see family in the safest way possible. I had a lot of trepidation around logistics and whether it was really a good idea, but I felt I didn’t have a choice. I needed to get away.
As one of my favorite songs puts it, “I don’t care where, just far“.
Not Cannonball, but close
I wasn’t planning on a leisurely stroll out west. I knew I’d be desperate enough to pull some crazy hours and get out there faster than what is recommended. I was initially planning on a four day drive. When driving the truck home with my father, we did it in five days with scenic detours. I felt a straight shot in four was doable while doing all the driving myself, so I planned time off accordingly.
The plan changed almost immediately. I had been invited to a press event to drive the GT500 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. On the day I was planning to leave for California. It was an opportunity I did not want to pass up, needless to say. But with others working around the leave I had already committed to, I couldn’t change my dates without postponing.
I then decided, “well, why not just drive across the country in three days instead”.
It was a tall order, but I had a route planned with stops that I felt I could manage. After driving to Charlotte, NC and back, I would start in Atlanta the following day and drive to Oklahoma City, then Flagstaff, AZ, and finish in San Jose, CA. That would call for between 11 and 14 hours of driving each day. I was crazy, stupid, and desperate enough to try it. Even though I knew it would be rough on me, I welcomed the punishment.
The Charlotte trip was sort of a test run. I’m no stranger to road trips with my Mustang, but I’ve never done anything like this before. Getting through the miles and leaving enough time to rest at night meant minimizing stops throughout the day. So I set a goal to pace myself with the caffeine and make just one bathroom stop on the four-hour drive to Charlotte. I didn’t make a stop at all.
One kickass session with the mind-blowing GT500 later, which was the hardest I had smiled all year, it was back to Atlanta. I packed the trunk to the brim and tried to get sleep. A mix of excitement and nervousness kept me up for hours. I was about to do something I knew I was going to enjoy, but I also knew the risks. Simply driving across the country isn’t simple. Lots can go wrong. And my Mustang has the Performance Package 2 option which meant everything was more stiff and the 305/30ZR19 tires would be impossible to find if I had a blowout in the middle of nowhere. But for all the reasons mentioned previously, I had to do this.
And I wouldn’t be alone. My mother was going to tag along too. Since the beginning of all this *gestures wildly* she didn’t have the chance to see her family either, and she really needed to, just as much as I did. So she would ride out there with me, see the people she needed to see, and then sometime later she’d fly home with double masks and as much hand sanitizer as the TSA would allow. I would do all the driving and she’d be there for much needed moral support.
So on October 20th at 6 AM, we jumped into the Mustang and I pointed it west. I didn’t look back.
Driving West – Day One
I had left early enough to avoid the calamity that is Atlanta traffic and got onto I-20 West around the time the sun began to rise. I passed all the familiar sights including the dealership where I got the Mustang. The further away from Atlanta I got, the less crazy the drivers were. But that didn’t stop a Chrysler 300 SRT8 from trying hard to get me to race him, while I was directly behind someone who was camping in the left lane. Genius.
I made my first stop just before Birmingham, AL at an exit I never intend to use again. I normally use travel centers or truck stops like Pilot or Love’s exclusively on these long drives, but the shot of caffeine we both took out the door meant we couldn’t be picky. I then got through Birmingham with a bit of rush hour traffic, but it paled in comparison to what I’m used to. From there I jumped on I-22 which managed to be more boring than I-20, which I didn’t think was possible. It took me through some beautiful rolling hills at times, but there was absolutely nothing around. There were never more than a handful of other cars within sight of me. Before I knew it I was in Mississippi and the boring nothingness continued. I knew the sights would change in a few more states, so I was just grinding through it. At our next rest stop, the trip computer showed 26 mpg, which even surprised me.
At about 6 boring hours or so on the road, we caught 55 and went into Memphis for the first big stop I had planned for the day. Until then we had just done rest areas and truck stops for a quick fuel and bathroom stop. But in Memphis we’d be going somewhere much more grand and opulent.
The muthafuckin Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid. As soon as I saw this along the route I knew I had to go. Some executives must’ve thought taking over this previously abandoned event space to sell clothing and boats was the ultimate flex, and it was. It was exactly like every other BPS I’ve ever been to, except taller. Some additional amenities like supposedly good restaurants and a bowling alley were all closed because *gestures wildly*. We left underwhelmed but also somehow impressed.
Back in the car, I jumped on I-40 and crossed the Hernando de Soto Bridge over the Mississippi River. The same bridge that would later be found to have a massive crack in it that had been there for years. But impending doom aside, I was finally west of the Mississippi and into Arkansas. Having never been through this state before I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was the first true change of scenery on the drive so far, so going through the vast, flat landscape wasn’t as boring for me. I’m not used to seeing much from the highways in Georgia because of all the trees, so being able to see more of the horizon was refreshing. The openness of this part of the country is what I was looking forward to. The Mustang, despite it not being in the most highway-friendly specification, felt like it was in its element. It was truly getting to stretch its legs in this part of the country as its badge would suggest. And I was too. 7 months of staring at a wall makes literally any change of scenery refreshing and liberating.
But it was around this point where I began to feel the miles, physically and mentally. The Recaro seats get a bit softer over time, but the lack of adjustable lumbar becomes noticeable. But even worse was the pain in my shoulders from the aggressive bolstering in the upper part of the seat which pushed my shoulders forward, far more than in a normal car seat. Then there was the mental aspect of staring at the navigation screen as the miles slowly ticked down from 400+ miles until the next turn. It felt like they were going by more slowly over time. As we progressed further west, the scenery changed again as flat open spaces turned into green rolling hills. A lot of it looked just like what I’m used to in the southeast, but there were plenty of absolutely gorgeous views from I-40. It was around this time that I began to think of how far we’d gone in just a day.
And before we knew it, we were crossing the border into Oklahoma and I almost immediately began to hate my life. Not because I have anything against the fine people of Oklahoma, but because of the miles of intermittent road work that was scattered across the entire length of I-40. It seemed like every 30 minutes or so I would be detoured onto the shoulder of the east-bound lanes. It was rough, undulating pavement, so the exact opposite of what a Mustang GT PP2 likes. Having 305s on the front means tramlining, where the front wheels follow cracks or dips in the road. It was horrible on the factory Cup 2s, but I was on a much more tame Conti Extreme Contact Sport which mostly eliminated that. But not here. I’m on a shoulder lane barely wide enough for trucks with a metal barrier on the right and a concrete k-rails on the left, and I’m fighting to keep this thing straight. I lost count of how many of these sections I hit. It was awful and not what I was looking forward to doing after a dozen hours on the road.
As for the rest of Oklahoma, at least the parts I could see from I-40, absolutely lovely. I can see why people would think it’s boring, but not to me. We were approaching sunset as we crossed over state lines, and it was a gorgeous way to end off our day. In between the very fun bits of road work, the magnitude of what I was doing began to sink in. We had come a long way. We passed through Oklahoma City and into the town of Yukon for the night. The hotel we were in was practically brand new, having opened just before the pandemic. I was one of maybe 4 cars in the parking lot.
Day one was complete. 919.4 miles and 6 states in 13 hours and 40 minutes. I had been on the road since before dawn and well into the night and traveled to what might as well be considered the middle of the country. And somehow I was managing 27.1 mpg, though it’s possible my car was just a tad optimistic in its scoring.
It was a surreal feeling knowing that just that morning I had woken up in Atlanta and was now going to bed in Oklahoma City. It was a proud feeling too, but I still had to do just as much driving for another two days in a row. Each new state was one state further from the problems I had left behind, so I was eager for day two.
Driving West – Day Two
We woke up around 6 AM and enjoyed the free breakfast in the hotel. It was the first time I can remember ever having the continental breakfast all to myself. While checking the weather ahead I noticed numerous dense fog advisories. We get those in Atlanta once in a while, so I didn’t think much of it. So we woke up the Mustang and plugged in the next destination – Flagstaff, AZ. After jumping back onto I-40, I saw the biggest number I’ve ever seen on navigation: “next turn: 843 miles”.
About five minutes later…. “Oh yeah… those fog advisories”. Whatever views there would have been in the rest of Oklahoma, they were completely obscured by the thickest fog I had ever seen. For several miles I had to hang behind a semi and let him clear the way. Following at a safe distance given the conditions, I regularly lost sight of the truck itself and could barely see the trailer lights. The shot below was nowhere near as bad as it got. The fog had eased up quite a bit as we said goodbye to Oklahoma’s torturous roadwork and said howdy to Texas. I don’t have much to report on here because I still couldn’t see very much until we got closer to Amarillo for the first stop of the day.
I only have two things to say about Amarillo, TX. One, their gas stations only go up to 90 octane. Of all places that would have a lower octane available than California, a town on a major highway in northern Texas? The only other thing I can say about Amarillo is Cadillac Ranch looked incredibly cool as I accidentally drove by without stopping for the second time in my life. West of Amarillo, the skies opened up and I got the same “stretching of the legs” feeling as from the day before. There were times when I’d look out my side window and see absolutely nothing but grassy plains and sky. And I-40 at that point was also Route 66, which the nerd in me appreciated as well.
I had also met a new friend at this point. He was in a purple Charger with window louvers and veteran plates. As a MOPAR sometimes does around a Mustang, he goosed it a little just to say hi. He was going much faster than I had dared to, but don’t worry, we’ll see him again later.
The rolling plains turned into high plains as we crossed into New Mexico. The rocky landscape with its plateaus and mesas gave me something new to look at for a while. This rustic part of the country is one I rarely get to see. Something about viewing this terrain out of the window of a Mustang just felt right. Not long into New Mexico did we see our Charger friend as he passed me a second time. Then the boredom hit. I can only look at pretty scenery for so long. I took a friend’s suggestion and began listening to a five-part podcast series on the history of Jonestown, and my mother being likely just as bored as I was didn’t say no – or at least she didn’t say it loud enough.
After an uneventful stop in Santa Rosa, we saw an RV advocating for marijuana legalization and some Route 66 tourist traps. That road was always a fascinating topic for me while growing up and would’ve loved to experience it in its heyday with a classic Mustang. But driving a faster version of the road in a modern Mustang would have to do.
As we weaved through some gorgeous mountains on our approach to Albuquerque, our Charger friend passed us for a third time. He didn’t seem to acknowledge me this time around but I suspect he was getting a lesson in choosing endurance over outright speed. I would stop for gas by around the time I hit half a tank. That would coincide with when we were both ready to stretch out for a bit and ensure I never got below half a tank, which made me feel better about driving deep into the loneliest parts of America. I can only imagine this guy was drinking too much. A rookie mistake.
Crossing through Albuquerque was fortunately the only traffic I had hit the entire day. Seeing that many people all of a sudden was a bit jarring. My shoulders had begun to hurt quite a bit by that point and I could feel the mental effects of being on the road for so long. We climbed out of Albuquerque and the scenery changed a bit more. This time it was pretty enough that it didn’t get boring. The sun began to get low on the horizon and the epic feeling of screaming through the desert (sort of) in a Mustang was even cooler. I could also feel the eyes of passing motorists wondering what the hell a Mustang from Georgia was doing way out here.
We crossed state lines into Arizona as the sun became deep orange dot on the horizon. It’s hard to put into words just how epic the views over my hood were. Sunset turned into dusk and it was hard to keep eyes on the road on account of it being absolutely gorgeous all around me. It was just…. incredible. Racing a desert sunset to the horizon was a really special experience. Everything around me had a glow to it and the skies were more vivid and colorful than I’d seen anywhere else. With the low rumble of the exhaust behind me and this beautiful expanse in front of me, I was truly in a dream sequence.
This was the moment I began to feel that what I was doing was worth it.
I had thought about stopping numerous times for a proper shot of what I was seeing, but I’m always too focused on the driving for that kind of patience. That’s why most of the images in this post aren’t that artistic – my mother and I were literally just snapping shit as we went. One of the many things I picked up from my father, which he picked up from the Navy and the airlines, is an unbreakable focus on the mission. I get into that kind of zone whenever I have a destination set. I’ll enjoy the journey as much as I can, but I don’t like making unnecessary stops that add time. There’s a reason he’s so successful as a pilot. But that was a part of my brain I was going to switch off when I got to California.
Meanwhile, my Charger friend passed me a fourth time a dozen or so miles into Arizona. This would sadly be the last time I saw him. My heart will go on.
The rest of the drive into Flagstaff would be in sheer darkness. Every once in a while I’d look up and see more stars than I’d ever see here in Atlanta, which was a view I wish I had spent more time taking in. Looking up at night is such a simple thing, but out here in the middle of nowhere it was mesmerizing.
I began to see light pollution from the city of Flagstaff as we kept climbing up. We had reached roughly 7,000 feet and my naturally-aspirated car could feel it. We jumped off I-40 after 843 miles and reached our hotel for the night. The shoulder pain was pretty bad at that point, so I laid in a hot bath for about half an hour while the ibuprofen kicked in and I unwound a bit.
It was about twelve-and-half hours and 877 miles on the road according to the trip computer, which I’m positive was a little off. Despite the elevation and all the climbing I had done, my average mpg was up to 27.4 and I still didn’t know how, regardless of whether the trip computer was 20 miles off or not.
Driving West – Day Three
It was a cold night so I let the Mustang warm up a bit as I plotted the drive for the day. The next destination was San Jose, CA – or technically Cupertino where the hotel was, but it’s all San Jose to me. It was just one state away. It felt so close, but frustratingly far. At 723 miles according to Google and under 11 hours, it should have been the quickest drive of any at that point. But it absolutely would not feel that way. We pulled out of the hotel and said goodbye to the insanely beautiful town of Flagstaff. Back on I-40 it was.
The drive began with a little bit more of a climb up to 7,200 feet, but then it was downhill from there. This area was the prettiest yet. Winding through the mountain range as we got down into the desert floor was a real treat to see in the morning light. If I wasn’t hellbent on getting through this drive as quickly as possible, I’d have stayed near Flagstaff for hours. This was the second time I’ve used Flagstaff as an overnight stop. Next time I’m definitely doing this town justice.
As the winding descent turned into flat desert floors, I got to once again see the other side of Arizona’s beauty. The car felt at home once more as I chased distant mountain peaks through the increasingly desolate landscape. Every now and then I’d break from my “focus on the mission” mindset and just absorb what was around me. My thoughts ranged from how beautiful this area was to “holy shit I’m a long fuckin way from home”. Arizona ranks up high on my list of prettiest states I’ve ever been through.
But the state at the top of that list was coming into view. I crossed the Colorado River into California – finally. I had a fist out the window and some uh… dust in my eyes when I saw the sign for the state line. Very soon after that I began to see signs warning of an inspection site ahead. The road veered to the right for what turned out to be an agricultural inspection station, and despite all the flashing signs that warned us of what was about to happen, the car ahead of me nearly ran straight into a barrier that had blocked off the way ahead. Dumbass.
But the farmland was still hours away. We had a lot more desert to cross and mountains to weave through. It was more of the same that I had experienced in the western-half of Arizona and I was loving it. For the first time since Memphis, it was time to leave I-40, the road that had taken me most of the way across the country and through some unforgettable views. At Barstow we caught CA-58 and went further into the desert. I knew we’d be passing Edwards AFB and that there was a test flight museum there, but sadly it was closed due to *gestures wildly*. So the next best thing was stopping at the Love’s nearby as a KC-135 entered the pattern above us. It wasn’t a Raptor or B-2, but it was just as cool for this aviation nerd. That place has a rich history and I would have loved to explore it a little. And being that far into the middle of nowhere, it was easy to see why so much testing is done there.
As we passed through the town of Mojave, the mountains I was seeing in the distance came into view. We climbed up and saw green stuff for the first time since Flagstaff. We were supposed to follow this route to Bakersfield but I didn’t want to deal with traffic and the weird series of turns just to get to the 5. So my mom found an alternate route that had us jump off at CA-223 instead and run through some farming towns. The road took us down a steep hill into the valley below. It was such a long way down that I was able to just coast in neutral and give the engine a break. And it was a great view too with mountains to the left and the vast San Joaquin valley to the right.
We passed through sleepy and dusty towns on our way to the 5. And then the least fun part of the drive that day began. I’ve driven that highway numerous times and it’s the only road I know that offers good views while also being boring as shit. I think the locals are just as tired of it as I am, because everyone was doing 90+. We passed signage for Buttonwillow and Lemoore. Way off in the distance was Fresno, where my father’s side of the family mostly lives. I’d be going there after about two weeks and I couldn’t wait. One of the things I had been looking forward to the most was showing off my car to my muscle car-loving grandfather. We always talked cars and he always had a story to share about something ridiculous he once did behind the wheel.
But it felt like I had been on the 5 for ages when a produce truck decided it really wanted to be where I was. He turned his blinker on, noticed the car ahead of me was in that spot, and cancelled the blinker. After the spot had cleared, he stayed put. That told me he changed his mind, so I moved up. He changed his mind again and began to move over without a signal. I wish I could say it was the first time I stuck my middle finger out the window. Let’s just say I was no longer on autopilot after that moment.
As I took the exit for CA-33 and CA-152, things began to feel surreal. Every summer for the majority of my life involved flying into San Jose to see my mother’s family and then driving, typically in that F-150 I bought, over Pacheco Pass and into Fresno for my dad’s family. After jumping onto this road, it got real. I was in familiar territory for the first time in three days. I was on the home stretch.
Night had fallen by the time I climbed up past San Luis Reservoir and hit the twisty bits of Pacheco Pass. After half of the state’s bug population got a closer look at my car, I jumped onto the 101 in Gilroy for the final sprint into the Silicon Valley. This last hour or so was probably the longest of the entire trip. I passed the exit for my grandfather’s house, passed where my late uncle used to live, and found the exit for our hotel. It was right across from Apple Park, that giant glass donut they built several years ago. Even though we had family nearby with room for us, we opted for a hotel instead because *gestures furiously*. This was before the vaccine was available so we took no chances. My grandfather, like a G, helped us out by donating Hilton points he wasn’t going to be able to use.
After 37 hours and 43 minutes, 2,557.9 miles, 10 states, and 3 days on the road, I pulled into a spot near the back and shut it down.
We were in California. My Mustang had just taken us across the country without skipping a beat. I was mentally exhausted and my shoulders were still sore as hell. It was a kind of tired I had never felt before. We celebrated with a hug, some pats on the hood of the car for a job well done, and I found myself a shower beer.
We had done it.
Even though I was staring back at my car in our Cupertino hotel, it still didn’t feel real. Since getting that car two years ago at the time, I had dreamt of taking it around the best driving roads that state had to offer. Every trip out west since buying it, that was all that was on my mind. “How good would my Mustang be on this road….” And there it was, sitting right in front of me in California.
My Georgia tags felt like a badge of honor. I had gotten it to the other side of the country the hard way and everyone would know.
Let the healing begin
I went to bed that night feeling like a tremendous weight was taken off of me. It wasn’t just because I had pulled off something huge without anything going wrong. It was also because I had left my troubles 2,500 miles in the rearview mirror. I could forget about all of that bullshit and focus on what I wanted to. I was around family that were all eager to see me and there was an entire state to explore all over again from a new perspective – from my Mustang.
The goal of this trip was to escape from what was bringing me down at home, and I had done so in a big way. I got about as far from home as I could on four wheels. For the next 8 weeks, nothing else would matter except healing. Much-needed family time and blasts down my favorite roads was all I had on my mind. When I wasn’t signed on for work, I’d be out doing what I had been dying to do all year, which was be anywhere but home and surround myself with happiness and positivity for once.
If you get anything out of this story, which isn’t quite done, I hope it’s some new appreciation for the power of driving. There’s a level of freedom and adventure with hitting the open road that only people like us could truly appreciate. But there’s one last thing I want to touch on here because it’s what kicked all this off – don’t try to get through hard times on your own. It took the biggest road trip of my life to fix what was wrong with me, but it doesn’t have to be the same for you.
Stay tuned for part two…