After a long, wintertime layoff from touring, it was time to put aside the income taxes and get the valiant BMW 335i convertible back out on the road. My goal was to visit some new spots along the original National Road in western Maryland and southwestern Pennsylvania—and to break an automobile hill-climb record that has stood for 105 years. Along the way, I found a Half-King, a Half-Brother, and the usual amount of scandal, murder, and mayhem. What more could I ask for?
On December 21, with Christmas fast approaching and much remaining to be done, I decided that it was the perfect time for another Aston Martin road trip. I was in search of the prelude to the Battle of Antietam in the American Civil War. At the risk of offending Mr. Dickens, my trip would involve “A Tale of Two Mountains and Three Cigars.” Even better, I found many places bringing back memories of my childhood.
Being long overdue for another BMW road trip, I eagerly set off in late September for a tour of Virginia’s mansions, a search for a lost river, and to ponder the nature of yesterday’s heroes. As one of the oldest colonies, Virginia has a wealth of history—much of it in plain sight, but some of it lost in the hills and valleys.
On August 5, 2017, I pointed the intrepid 2007 Aston Martin V8 Vantage in the direction of the famous Lincoln Highway. I found the historical thoroughfare I was expecting—along with the tragic story of Wesley, Jack, and Ginnie, plus a fun lesson regarding 89 years of automotive progress.
You all know the old joke, right? “Why does New York have all the lawyers and New Jersey all the toxic waste sites? Because New Jersey got first choice.” Well, New Jersey gets a bum rap; it actually has at least several scenic or historic places that are perfect for exploration…
Okay, all joking aside, it actually has hundreds or even thousands of such places, and I managed to find quite a number of them.
So what is the best way to check out a newly acquired 2007 Aston Martin V8 Vantage? In the immortal words of Otter from Animal House, “Road trip!” Accordingly, in early May I set off to do two of my most favorite things: go for an exciting drive, and look for historic, scenic, and otherwise-interesting places in the Mid-Atlantic area.
Everyone knows the Civil War battles of Gettysburg and Antietam, but not many know the significance of the Battle of Cedar Creek. Yet it was a critical point that almost produced a decisive victory for the South, which would have jeopardized the reelection of President Abraham Lincoln. Ultimately, it proved to be a major Union victory, sufficient to end the Confederacy’s potential to win the war.
Only an idiot would look for Fall Colors on the first day of Spring. And certainly no BMW owners are idiots. So what was I doing on March 22, 2017 driving through acres of snow in Pennsylvania looking for Fall Colors??
Nothing eats up miles faster than a turbocharged BMW. Not everyone would agree with this statement, but, to quote Mark Twain, “The rule is perfect: in all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane.”
On this trip, I was looking for the “cottages” of the rich and famous. It took 3 hours to get to Haskell, New Jersey—and shortly thereafter, I was on foot and hopelessly lost in the woods.
“Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.” In the late 1700s, neither the American Indians nor the colonial settlers paid the slightest attention to this well-known scripture. I thought of it often as my best friend Buzz and I toured Ohio, searching for the locations of once-great Native American villages and finding the many areas where brutal depredations were traded between the warring parties. Vengeance was repeatedly sought—and found—by both groups.
Looking over the side of the road at the tops of trees, it was easy to imagine that I was on the very roof of the world. The absence of guardrails, and the toy-like appearance of farms and cows far below, only reinforced this impression. In reality, the elevations were only a fourth of so of the roads I’ve driven in the Alps, but the impression was no less vivid. West Virginia is still one of the most visually vertical places anywhere, and that implies that it also has some of the most interesting roads anywhere!
I know that my BMW 335i is a mechanical object, devoid of personal feelings. Yet I sensed that this extraordinary car shared my excitement at—finally—setting off on another road trip. What else would explain its over-eagerness? A slight push on the accelerator unleashed far more power than I intended, and the car urged forward at a faster pace through every corner. Such are companions in adventure.
You might well ask what I was doing, driving my pristine 2013 BMW 335i convertible up a steep hill through a cornfield… Well, it was all in a day’s work in my continuing pursuit of lost and forgotten history—and great driving roads.
I stood on the banks of the Hudson River, just across from New York City. But I wasn’t after cities—I was searching for Lavender, Sam, and Alice. Poor, lost Lavender would be the hardest to track down: she became the protagonist of America’s most enduring ghost story back in the 1940s. Sam was one of the country’s best racing drivers in the 1960s and 1970s. And Alice was a colorful and free-spirited counterculture icon in the 1960s, immortalized in Arlo Guthrie’s magnificent song “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.”
West Virginia is justifiably famous for its mountains, rivers, and (among driving enthusiasts) its superb mountain roads. My goal in late April was to sample more of these roads—and to see what was left of the coal mining industry that used to predominate in the southern part of the state. In addition, I was pretty sure that I could find a good story or two among the forgotten towns and beautiful rural scenery. In the process, I went far underground twice (although the BMW stayed topside and out of trouble, for once!)
Wherein Yr Fthfl Srvnt recounts the second day of exploring the New Jersey Pine Barrens in his intrepid BMW 335i, on some of the worst roads imaginable. Fortunately, no BMWs—or Fthfl Srvnts—were harmed in the making of this story.
I’d heard all the sensational stories about the New Jersey Pine Barrens: how the company towns had all died out, how the residents were “feeble-minded, uneducated drunkards” (to quote a 1912 heredity study), and how the infamous winged “Jersey Devil” had terrorized the area for more than 200 years. It all sounded too good to be true! Keeping in mind the cautionary advice of the Soothsayer to Julius Caeser in 44 BC (“Beware the Ides of March”), I set off on March 15 to see these things for myself. I was not disappointed…
I couldn’t wait to start the second day of my search for Virginia’s “fortified houses” from the 1700s. As detailed in Part I of this report, early settlers often built stone houses designed to protect their families in case of Indian attacks, and a few of these places still exist. After a hearty breakfast at the Mimslyn Inn, I was eager to find more of them. Little did I know how very lucky I would be on this second day: a guided tour of the finest such property in the state, by a (probable) descendant of its original builder.
A few weeks ago, with Christmas rapidly approaching and much yet to be done, I decided to squeeze in a BMW road trip to Virginia. Practicality be danged! On December 20, I set off in search of forts, both natural and manmade. In particular, I was looking for any remaining “fortified houses,” built in the mid-1700s as protection against raids by hostile Native Americans. The result was 2 fun-filled days of driving, exploration, and photography—the perfect antidote to the “holiday blahs.”
BMWs are great for spirited riding or driving—and if you use that ability to visit scenic and historically interesting places, then you have an unbeatable combination. With that goal in mind, I set off in late October to find out whether Pennsylvania or West Virginia had the best Fall Colors. Along the way, I encountered no small number of historical haunted houses, just in time for Halloween. My path first took me through Gettysburg.
In fairness there aren’t really all that many castles or palaces in West Virginia. But on my trip through the upper panhandle of the State, I managed to find one of each—along with many other scenic places and a host of interesting roads.
As I hurtled the 2013 BMW 335i through the unending corners of the “Tail of the Dragon,” I thought of my friend Phil. I pictured him in his 1957 Porsche Speedster, executing a flawless heel-and-toe downshift and sliding the beautiful black sports car through similar corners. Before riding in Phil’s Speedster, and in his father’s 1962 Austin-Healey 3000, I never knew that cars could perform like this. Those rides were an awesome revelation to a car-crazy 14-year-old. This trip to Tennessee and North Carolina was in honor of Phil—and, sadly, to attend his funeral.
Rodney Dangerfield: In my house I can’t relax. I told my kid, “Someday you’ll have children of your own.” He said, “So will you.”
Like George Burns, Woody Allen, and many others, Rodney Dangerfield was a regular performer throughout the Catskills “Borscht Belt” circuit. Now the resorts are closed and the stages are in ruins. But there is beauty, even in yesterday’s forgotten and deteriorating places, not to mention the mountains, lakes, and rivers for which this area is famous. The second half of my tour was every bit as exciting as the first.
A man is hit by a car while crossing a Beverly Hills street. A woman rushes to him and cradles his head in her lap, asking, “Are you comfortable?” The man answers, “I make a decent living.”
Milton Berle got laughs from that joke on stages throughout the Catskills Mountains in Sullivan County, New York. In 1952, the prime of the “Borscht Belt” Golden Era, Sullivan County had 538 resort hotels, 1,000 rooming houses, and 50,000 vacation bungalows. By the late 1960s, the great majority of these buildings were abandoned, burned, and/or bankrupt. But the land, the walls, and their stories remain—making for an extraordinary modern-day tour.
As I gazed at the vintage racing car, my thoughts immediately turned to the late actor and racer Paul Newman—and a conversation I’d had with him about this very car. My trip through Connecticut was to evoke many fond memories of cars and acquaintances, here and gone, as well as generating some new ones.