Note: This journal is printed as it was shared on my previous website at StealthTDI.com. It was updated periodically and followed by friends at TDIClub.com. I duplicated the journey on this site because it was a good trip and still referenced as a basis for some of my travel-related decisions today. Enjoy! -Scott
In 2011, the annual TDIFest was held in Lexington, KY. This was an event I knew was close enough to take my daughter and still have her back by the first day of school. I also planned to combine this trip with a trip to Texas to visit my family there. In time, I decided to tack on a few extra miles so I could reshoot the car photos I had done in White Sands, NM. Before I knew it, the trip turned into a full-on photo tour with emphasis on car photos for my website. Unlike with our TOUR OF THE NORTHERN US, I shared and unfolded the trip in two discussion forums HERE and HERE. The photos in the threads are gone since I retired my old site, StealthTDI.com. This page was created after the trip and features all of the photos. I took THOUSANDS of photos using a camera that my wife gave me for the trip. I’ll share a lot of photos below. The map above depicts our planned route. At first, this was planned as a trip to Texas followed by a trip to the TDIFest on the way home. Then I added White Sands. Later, I decided to add Oklahoma since I had not yet tackled that state for my STATES TRAVELED MAP. During the trip, I was presented with an opportunity to attend my 25-year high school reunion. The rest was just stops along the way.
The plan changed fairly quickly. I had hoped to leave early in the morning, making a drive to Knoxville a cinch. However, there was a rather large and important task to accomplish at work. So, Diana and I packed up the car and headed in to the office. The task at hand was the retirement of my Branch Chief. He had served in the Coast Guard for over 36 years. There was no missing this ceremony. So I changed my plans and hoped to hit the road by noon. That didn’t work out so well. Thirty-six years of service means a lot of sharing. It was a big ceremony. He deserved the send-off! But it was after 2:00pm before I was finally able to hit the road. It didn’t take long for me to figure out I wasn’t going to make it to Knoxville. I set my sights for Asheville, NC. I stopped for a few photos along the way while Diana was asleep. This was a bit of a schedule-killer. But I’m happy with the way they turned out. Here’s a photo of my group at the retirement. Nearly a full work day followed by seven hours on the road wore me out in short order. I found a hotel and called it a night.
We slept in just a tad, but still managed to be on the road by 7:30am. Right away we found a problem with the voltage inverter, which keeps the laptop going. It appeared it wasn’t getting power since my APRS position encoder was dead, too. With no time to troubleshoot, I stopped by a Walmart and got another one. I planned to chase down the cause when I stopped at my folks’ place in Texas. It took about four hours to get to the base of the Tail of the Dragon (TOTD) in Robbinsville, NC. Yesterday’s setback, this morning’s technical difficulty, and a plan to take Diana to meet her friend near Nashville, TN meant there wasn’t enough time to drive both the TOTD and the Cherohala Skyway, as planned. So, I cut the Skyway and headed for the TOTD. Knowing the car would be photographed along the TOTD, I opted to stop and get it cleaned. I shared one photo from that drive here. There were at least two motorcycle crashes that afternoon, both within 15 minutes of my arrival. One may have been a fatality. Still, that didn’t keep at least one person from riding like an absolute jackass just minutes past the first crash. He rushed up behind me, was on my bumper for all of five seconds, and then passed me through a completely blind “S” turn. He rode in the center of the oncoming lane and was met by a pickup truck… all right in front of me. We all stopped without incident. The biker sped off to avoid further humiliation. I was recording on my Droid at the time. However, the incident was not captured because the turns were too steep to see everything. Oddly enough, I was diligent about using the pull-offs to let faster traffic pass. This guy would’ve had a clean pass just a few seconds later. I guess his life isn’t worth the wait. Darwin will get him one day.
We ate lunch at the top of the TOTD and then continued on to Fort Campbell, KY, where Diana had plenty of fun with her friend. We spent the night in Clarksville, TN. Keep in mind that I’m a very “scheduled” driver. So, in my head, we were still behind track and had a lot of ground to make up. My next “appointment” was to make it to White Sands National Monument before sunset in two days. That meant we HAD to make it to Oklahoma City the next day. We were in for two long days of driving…
Still worn out, we slept in just a little again. We hit the road before 7:00am and let ‘er rip. I wanted to make up some time today by NOT making a lot of stops or messing around. I hoped to not be too tired to push on to OKC. We stopped briefly at a Starbucks in Jackson, TN to meet a friend from high school for coffee. It was good to catch up. Neither of us could stay long. That was good for making up time. We continued and made it a point to stop at the Welcome Center in Memphis. I wanted to show Diana the “Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll” displays. I didn’t find it right away. But I did manage to slip onto the small Coast Guard base to get directions and take a few photos. Diana and I visited both London AND Paris today. She was not impressed, even when I told her we were eating “Parisian cuisine” and listening to “Parisian music.” In reality, we were eating ice cream at a Sonic and they were playing country music (which is “foreign” to both of us). We DID manage to make it to OKC. In fact, I went a few miles past OKC to ensure we didn’t get stuck in rush hour traffic the following morning. I guess I could say we were “on schedule.”
Today was another long day. We got up much earlier and hit the road before the sun came up. The police were up, too; so no speeding. We stopped at a few Route 66 attractions along the way. Route 66 wasn’t what I expected. I hadn’t realized it was essentially a “retired” road with no real “US 66” signs (the highway has new numbers). Finding a road sign with the famous “66” to photograph was a challenge! Still, we did visit a couple of Route 66 attractions. The first we visited was a mock-up of a town in Elk City, Oklahoma. It was cool, but (again) not what I expected. We also made a brief Route 66 stop in Shamrock, Texas. The next place was a section of old downtown Amarillo where the businesses were still going. The area had been run down a bit. We had lunch at Smokey Joe’s. It was nice to relax.
We got back on the road after an hour so we could make it to White Sands before sunset. We were off the Interstate for the rest of the day after leaving Amarillo and driving on four lane highways, with the occasional two-laner. We decided to deviate just a hair to see Roswell. The town is MUCH larger than I expected. It took a while to cut through town. It’s cool to be able to say we visited Roswell. But, to me, it wasn’t worth it… not with the crowds. Next time, I’ll take the bypass around it. 🙂 On to White Sands! I had taken some photos of the Jetta at White Sands about 10 years ago… back before my first digital camera. This was a chance to retake those photos in better quality as well as with the updated wheels. My goal was to get there before sunset; we just made it. I started shooting like a madman about 20 minutes before sunset. Diana had a camera as well and took photos from atop the dunes. I was hoping for that one really good shot. I’m not sure if I got it. I’ve shared an example here. What do you think? There are lots more with and without flash. I goofed and forgot to experiment with flash photos during the sunset as I was busy with manual bracketing. Regardless of whether my photography wins any awards, I’m VERY pleased with the results. Getting these updated photos was well worth the time, effort, and expense of going out there again. Diana had hoped to sled down the dunes. But we just didn’t get there early enough. We planned to go back the following morning before heading off to Carlsbad Caverns. She and I were able to turn in at a reasonable hour.
Today’s drive is short, just 150 miles from Alamogordo to Carlsbad. Since we got to White Sands so late yesterday, I promised Diana we’d return in the morning so she could slide on the dunes. The park opened late due to missile testing. But we were in by 9:30am. Diana played for about an hour before grabbing a quick shower and then heading off to Carlsbad. The drive from White Sands included 4300 feet of climbing to Cloudcroft, in Lincoln National Forest. We stopped for lunch in Cloudcroft (8600 feet) before continuing on to Carlsbad. Unfortunately, our time at White Sands and Cloudcroft pushed our arrival time to the point to where we were too late to enter the caverns. Instead, we checked into our hotel early and enjoyed a swim. We went to the cavern for the evening “bat flight” where the Mexican Freetail bats leave the cave each evening at sunset for a night of feeding on insects. It was cool to see, especially for Diana. However, since the bat population is down to about 1000 due to recent wildfires, the exodus wasn’t nearly as dramatic as it was ten years ago when 300,000 bats flew out. We returned to our hotel for our second early turn-in and planned to visit the caverns in the morning before heading to my parents’ place.
Diana and I visited Carlsbad Caverns today. We arrived right as the park opened. As a result, we practically had the Big Room to ourselves. We saw hardly anyone… perfect for taking my time to get good photos. I took over 300 in the caves alone. I’ve shared one here. We were there for about three hours… a bit of a surprise. We hit the road just before noon and headed toward Central Texas. The roads between Carlsbad and Interstate 10 redefined boredom. We got a few pictures here and there. There were some I wish I had taken such as the northern end of Pecos, TX. It was like a ghost town in some areas. You may notice a “ruins theme” in my photographs from this trip. There’s plenty of that in Pecos! There were lots of oil derricks and pumpjacks along Hwy 285. I wish I would’ve stopped to photograph one up close while I was still in an area with easy access to them. They were fenced in and/or harder to access by the time I thought about photographing one. I hoped to get lucky and find one before I left Texas. But I did manage to snap some of the scenery.
Temperatures across Texas were over 100 degrees for 63 days straight… no rain, either. A new problem with the car surfaced. We stopped at a rest stop and let the car idle. I stayed in the car while Diana went to the restroom and vice versa. As I came out, I noticed the car was idling strangely and the AC compressor clutch was cycling on and off. The car was beginning to overheat. I immediately turned off the AC and started driving the car to get air flowing again. Later, I noticed the car did this any time it was stopped and the AC was on. A quick inspection revealed that the fans were not turning. I suspected that my fan control module had failed. Ironically, I have two at home. That, combined with the fact that any replacement required special order meant I was going to tolerate this issue until we got back to VA. I hoped for no traffic jams, but planned to suffer in heat if I found one. The AC worked so long as the car was moving. We made to my parents’ place around 8:30pm. Time to relax!
I spent the first day off the road doing almost nothing at all. I had about 1500 photographs to wade through. So I spent the entire day eliminating duplicates and setting aside the best shots to share online. I spent the next day cleaning out the car and researching the availability of parts noted above. Sure enough, everything I needed is a special order item. I also got to the bottom of my inverter and position encoder issue. It turned out I had a break in a ground wire. That didn’t cause an immediate failure. The equipment was still working because it was relying on the ground supplied by a speaker wire. That eventually failed, too. It was a tough fault to isolate since I had buried my wiring so well. Regardless, I got it working again. Tidying up my wiring had to wait. It was hot outside again! I vacuumed the sand out of the car took cover inside with the AC. I spent the weekend in Houston with a long-time friend and attended my 25-year high school reunion… my first reunion ever. It was kind of cool to see old friends. It was even good to see some folks I didn’t run with.
I finally found an accessible pumpjack on my way to Houston. I also visited the Birthplace of Texas since it was presented as an authentic ghost town. It’s a great landmark, but not the place to see a ghost town. I thought I was going to see a drive-in theater along the way. I was interested in photographing my car at one since drive-in theaters are relics of the past. Unfortunately, the drive to the address listed on a “drive-in” website took me to a new apartment complex. I guess that website is out of date! I did manage to spot an old drive-in theater near Brenham which had been closed since 1985. Then I tripped over the Blue Bell ice cream factory and stopped for a few photos. If any single photo taken during this time sums up the experience of being here, it’s the photo shown with the previous paragraph. It says, “HOT and DRY” very well. This is NOT a dirt road. It’s a dry river bed and my car is on a crossing which sits two feet over the bed. This crossing is often under water. I think it had been 65 straight days with no rain and temps over 100 degrees! I was certain that returning home would feel like spring!
Diana and I visited Longhorn Caverns and drove around in the Hill Country during this time. The Longhorn Caverns are much different from Carlsbad. Although Longhorn has some “drip-formed” formations, more of the cave features smooth formations from water flow. I took plenty of photos. But there wasn’t as much to see there as in Carlsbad. It was interesting to learn the cavern often hosts concerts, dances, or other engagements where the cave’s superior acoustic properties make the night more lively. Upon leaving, we snapped photos on the property and then drove by Falkenstein Castle. The castle is a private residence and is not open to the public except for weddings or other special events. But we still managed to get a few good photos. We drove on a few other roads in the area. For the most part, we stayed at the house with the exception of catching a movie, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” I also managed to pass my vehicle inspection, renew my long-expired driver’s license, and register both cars for another year. The AC problem had worsened. I goofed up and left the AC on in the city. Odds are the system got too hot and purged off excess pressure. As a result, the AC no longer blew ice-cold. It was cool enough to make a hot day tolerable. I was a tad concerned about driving through major cities in case of traffic. But I chose to drive with the AC off under 35-mph and just sweat it out. I planned to install a new fan control module and get the system recharged when I returned to Hampton Roads.
We got on the road before sunrise and started heading northeast. We had a 600-mile drive on the agenda. So there wasn’t a lot of time for stopping to smell the roses. We did manage to see a few things, though. We went deeper into Dallas than expected since I found a VW dealer with a fan control module in stock. It did NOT fix my problem with the fans. The part is not returnable! 🙁 I planned to troubleshoot further when I got home. It’s possibly the fan motor itself. VW’s selling them cheap these days. Moving on, I spotted another traveling VW as I passed the 370,000 mile mark. I was beginning to think no one drives VWs on road trips any more. I also found a drive-in theater. This one had a parking lot for car viewers and a grassy area in front of the wall for walkers. It wasn’t a bad venue at all. We just couldn’t stay for a movie. Later, we stopped at the world’s largest McDonalds. We didn’t eat anything since we were saving room for a meal on Route 66. Our primary goal was to visit Miami, OK on this return to the historic road so we could eat at a famous restaurant called “Waylan’s The Ku-Ku.” It’s the last of a chain and still has an old-school vibe to it. We ate dinner at the Ku-Ku and continued on along Route 66 until we entered Kansas. We stopped for the evening near Springfield.
We got up bright and early and hit the road so we could make it to the main attraction of this tour: TDIFest in Lexington, KY. I had planned to visit St Louis and photograph the Gateway Arch. But somehow I actually listened to the navigator and veered “off course.” My path was not as planned, but it was still a good route between Springfield and Lexington. Instead of the Arch, we saw what are perhaps more interesting locations… more interesting than what would’ve been a superficial stop in St Louis, I mean. Instead of sticking to I-44, we spent a lot of time on US-60. We saw a sign for Jellystone Park and decided to take a small detour. I was going to just take a photo of Diana with a Yogi Bear fixture and leave. But then Yogi came out of the store… MUCH better!
Perhaps the least expected point of interest was Cairo, IL. You may recall me jesting with Diana about our “exotic” stops in Paris and London. It was getting close to lunchtime and I saw a sign for Cairo. I thought for sure we’d find a Subway, Sonic, or equally uninteresting place to eat so we could say we “dined in Cairo.” I was pretty surprised by how much NOTHING was there. The town was fairly run down. I initially stopped to snap just one photo at an old fire station. But, in keeping with my “ruins photo” theme, I got sucked into snapping more photos in what’s left of downtown. Cairo is the only city in IL that’s completely surrounded by a levee. All of the buildings in “historic downtown” were dilapidated and falling to pieces. The backsides of some of the buildings had already crumbled and fallen down. Some of these areas were starting to give me the creeps… and I’m not the kind of person who’s bothered by much. I could hear things in the abandoned buildings and didn’t want to stick around long enough to find out who or what was in there. I guess it could have been a cat or a homeless person. But I just didn’t care!
After leaving, I had Diana look up Cairo on Wikipedia and learned some interesting things. WOW! There’s a history with that town, without a doubt. It suffered economic and population collapse for a good reason. Political and historic opinions aside, I think it would be a lot cheaper for the gov’t to stop dumping money into this place and let it die or prosper on its own. To me, it’s more interesting as a ghost town than it ever will be as a restored town with a museum. There were a couple of other places there I possibly should have visited. But we were hot from the stop-n-go of shooting photos (remember… the AC only worked when the car was moving). So we left town to cool off. Like I said, it was perhaps the most interesting “accidental visit” of the trip. I wouldn’t ever go back. But it was an interesting find. We pressed on to Lexington. We finally made it to our hotel just before sunset. The parking lot was already packed with VWs, 99% of which were TDIs!
The long-awaited TDIFest was finally upon us. The TDIFest takes place over Labor Day weekend each year. The thing which makes TDIFest different each year is that the location changes. As a result, different organizers bring different activities into the mix and enables each Fest to be a little different. This year featured a dyno session, distillery tours, a timed scenic drive, and a pig roast in addition to the familiar raffle table, swap meet, vendor market, show-n-shine, and tech sessions. I chose to forego the dyno session and timed scenic tour due to my cooling system issue. Besides, I had done enough driving lately and wanted to just relax! Diana and I slept in Saturday and then got the car cleaned up for the show-n-shine.
Once I was satisfied with the car (I really did do just a “good enough” job), I took Diana to the salt water swimming pool and worked on some photographs while she burned off some energy. I took about 150 photos at the show and shared them below. Anyone who’s even a little observant should have been able to recognize there were A LOT of VWs there. The show-n-shine format was a tad different this year. Since there was often just two or three MK3s in attendance each year, I was usually a shoe-in for an award. It was nice, but not as satisfying as actually competing for a prize with a real chance of leaving without recognition. This year’s show featured a bit of class combining. I knew I might or might not win an award. I leaned toward NOT since there were a lot of newer, nicer cars there (mine’s starting to look beat). But I was a contender for the “Longevity Award.” My car’s not as old as the B4 Passats in attendance. But the 370,800 miles on my car may have given it some bonus points and improved my odds of snaring an award. Time would tell.
After the show, we attended a pig roast, hosted by Don Jacobs VW. The food was fantastic and they had the 2012 Passat TDI onsite for test drives. Diana was pretty tickled to be in this panoramic shot three times! Click the image for a closer look. The following morning was a group breakfast with proceeds to benefit TDIClub.com. BTW, one of the functions of TDIFest is to raise funds to support the site. I takes a lot of resources to keep a large discussion forum afloat. TDIClub.com does it only through donations and TDIFest. There are NO “banner advertisers” there. After breakfast came the tech sessions. This year’s sessions included, “Understanding the CAN system on your VW,” “CSI: PD camshafts,” “General TDI Maintenance/Repair Q&A,” a demonstation of how to insert rods/pistons into an ALH block, and general Q&A about the engine. Later, Diana and I returned to the pool for another swim…
Last night’s closing banquet and awards ceremony went well. TDIClub.com’s founder and TDIFest’s lead organizer presented certificates and recognition to our supporting vendors and club members who were instrumental in making TDIFest a huge success. As expected, I did not place in the Show-n-Shine. The competition was stiff and the awards went to the best of the best. The Longevity Award went to the owner of a 2000 Jetta with over 407,000 miles. Many of us stayed afterwards to socialize. Diana and I finally returned to our room around 11:00pm. I took only a couple of photos that evening. I was surprised to sleep in until 7:45am. Diana and I got up, packed the car, and were on the road by 9am. It had rained the previous evening, let up, and then resumed raining sometime during the night. It rained throughout all but the last 90 miles of the 580 mile trip home.
My Nuvi directed me off I-64 in West Virginia and had us traveling on US-60 once again. The route was certainly shorter and looked more efficient. However this was not the case due to the rain and fog. The detour paid off with some interesting scenery. I didn’t expect to take any photos in the rain. But I could not resist stopping for a few shots, particularly of a waterfall (photo above). We reconnected with I-64 and drove straight home in rain and moderate traffic. We got home around 9:00pm and practically went straight to bed since we both had to be up early the next day. Here are a few stats from the trip: Total miles driven was between 5435 (GPS) and 5376 (odometer), fuel cost was $447.66, total fuel used was 119 gallons for an average economy of 45-mpg. That’s not bad when considering the 85-mph speeds in West Texas.
It was fun and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. See a large photo album below.
(PS: Diana typed today’s report as I dictated on the road and demanded credit! 😉 )