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Friday, Nov 25, 2005, day one of "Der Bitter Tour, Across America"
Johnny Bitter found another car. That's always how it starts...
Erich Bitter was a German race car driver in the 60's who had a dream, one shared by other stubborn iconoclasts like Preston Tucker and John DeLorean. The dream was to defy long odds and realize their ownvision of automotive nirvana. But while Tucker and DeLorean felt the path to success was to attempt greater leaps of innovation than the more conservative mainstream car makers, in short, to carve out market share by building a better mousetrap, Erich Bitter had a different goal in mind. He would build a car that simply does what a decerning driver wants, and do it in supreme comfort. It would compete with the Beemers, the Benzes, and the Porsches on their terms, and do it with a distinctive flair.
By 1985, however, Bitter Automotive was in its endgame. His American distributor, having sunk $13 million to import 400 cars from West Germany, pulled the financial plug. And Bitter's company and dream went down the proverbial drain. Like Tucker and DeLorean, his dream of beating the big boys at their own game ended up a brief footnote in automotive history but was arguably the most successful of the three, having kept his company alive and turning out superb sport touring cars for over 10 years.
So, when Johnny Bitter discovered there was an 1985 Bitter SC for sale in LA, it was only a matter of time until the deal was struck. This was obviously Destiny at work, and you don't mess around with the Big D. Ever since the untimely demise of The Mighty Lincoln Achiever at the hands of a 16 year old in a van who hadn't quite grasped the concept of "keeping your eyes on the road", Johnny has been looking for a "daily driver" that would relieve him of having to muscle around one of the other semi-sized vehicles in his driveway. I could see the signs; a new adventure would soon beckon.
Our flight for the City of Angels left at 7:45 AM. This being the day after Thanksgiving, one would think that at 5:30 in the morning we would have the roads to ourselves as the rest of humanity slept off their tryptophan buzz from the previous day's feasting. But that would severely underestimate the moxie of the American Consumer. Carolina Place Mall opened at 1:00AM and the parking lot was full! Amazing.
Plenty of seats on the plane as the Friday after Thanksgiving is usually a light travel day. We upgraded to first class for a modest fee and it was worth every penny. First time for me seeing how "the other half flies". The 5 hour trip flew by (ouch!), thanks in part to wide seats, lots of leg room, and those little mini bottles that kept magically appearing out of nowhere.
We met a couple of interesting people on the flight. A guy named Kirby had a "service dog" (complete w/ doggie vest warning "do not pet"), a not-so-gray greyhound. Greyhounds may be the most mellow of all dog breeds. - when they're not racing, they're not moving. They make cats seem like whirling dervishes. This one can "sense" when Kirby, a narcoleptic, is about to nod off and keep him awake long enough to get him out of any dangerous situations. "Thunder" has, in essence, given Kirby his life back. A dog's sense of smell is 150 times more sensitive than ours and gives them abilities we can scarcely imagine nor understand. Is there anything we can't adapt this most remarkable and willing animal to assist us with? Good thing they're not unionized.
We also met a young dude named Jerold, a Charlotte thespian who plays a recurring role on TV's The Gilmore Girls. He had been spending the holiday with his family in Ballentine and was on his way back to the grind of being semi-rich & famous. Nice guy. He said his character used to be a bad guy but now he's sort of a good guy. It's nice to know people can change.
Ed Swart, the soon-to-be-ex owner of Johnny's white Bitter SC, showed up in a red Bitter SC, so we got a little "sneak preview". Ed was the west coast distributor for Bitter Automotive and owns two of them, plus the last remaining inventory of parts. Not much left, and no body panels - Johnny better be real careful to avoid any future fender benders. I could not own this car.The car itself is a real peach. It's in great condition and Johnny had some additional work done by Swart's mechanic including 4 new Pirelli P6 tires (a must after the last trip when The Achiever had a blowout at 70 mph). We completed the purchase and hit the road - those famed LA freeways beckoned! We visited Hermosa Beach, sadly under populated by late afternoon, no vollyballers, no roller-bladers, no slinky starlets. Bummer.
We checked into the Malibu Motel, a 60 year old structure recently renovated in a style I can only describe as "neo-funky". It obliterates just about every design convention of the typical motel room: futon-style beds, hardwood floor, no black-out curtains, no real table lamp in lieu of ceiling downlights, a small LCD TV stuck to the wall, a wire storage rack instead of a wardrobe or closet, shower instead of a tub, no desk or chair, and worst of all much to Johnny's horror, no coffee maker! We shall endure.
Had a great meal at the Chart House Restaurant overlooking Malibu beach. Major chow! Crashed (us, not the car, fortunately) about 11:00, 2:00 AM Charlotte time. A long a productive day. Johnny was ecstatic. I'm exhausted, off to my motel futon. The upside is if you fall out of bed, it's a short trip.
Saturday, November 26
Awoke to a beautiful Malibu sunrise over the Pacific Ocean (well, somebody's got to do it), unaware that sometime during the night the earth must have reversed its rotation. Normally, such a cataclysmic event would slosh the oceans right out of their basins and wipe out all life on the planet but things seemed curiously normal. Or maybe the sun rising in the east was just one more thing they lied to us about, like evolution. And here I thought Sheryl Crow was nuts when she sang about "the sun coming up over Santa Monica Boulevard". Turns out, it does! Who knew?
Leaving Malibu and its puzzling geography behind, we pointed the Bitter SC east and bid adieu to the City of Angels & Smog. The LA freeways are kind of like the German Autobahns, speed limits optional, so our steed felt right at home. The car is very smooth and stable at 80 mph, which is probably what we averaged on the 5 hour trip to Las Vegas, getting our doors blown off all along the way. But we were extremely happy we weren't in the westbound lanes of I-15 as there was, literally, bumper-to-bumper traffic in all three lanes as Los Angelinos returned home en masse from their holiday "abroad".
You can see the sky glowing behind the mountains 60 miles away. Las Vegas must use more electricity per capita than any other city on earth. We arrived at about 7:00, after dark, which is the proper, organic way of experiencing this city for the first time, which it was for me. Johnny, however, is a Vegas veteran and set us up with a great room at Caesars Palace and dinner at Binion's Penthouse Steakhouse.
Our Garmin GPS unit tried to tell us to make a right turn into the Caesar's Palace complex but we ignored her (the unit speaks in that ubiquitous female voice - we've dubbed"her" Garmina) and spent the next half hour just trying to circle around the block to try again. It looked like Times Square, teeming with cars and people, all moving in a landscape of lights and glitz that turns night into perpetual day. The sensory bombardment is just indescribable to anyone who has never been here. Every hotel is more outrageous and over-the-top than the last, and they all have these huge stadium-type display screens blaring out their attractions and performers. Flashing lights ring the eaves, dormers, and corners of every building; neon flashes in every conceivable color and shape. You are not so much surrounded by it as immersed in it. The effect is almost numbing, sensory overload. I just stared in slack-jawed wonder at the cacophony around me, marveling at the monumental excess on conspicuous display. As John Locke might say, it was ...beautiful.
We dropped our stuff off in our room in the "Augustus" wing of Caesar's. Never have I seen so many naked people. Naked people everywhere. They're made of marble, at least some of them, and others plastic that looks like stone and they're all over, peering down at you from parapets and pedestals and niches where ever you turn. It's like living in this big Roman orgy for a night.
We picked the Bitter back up and headed to Binion's Penthouse Steakhouse. It's "old school", eschewing glitz for conservative, quiet dignity. Perhaps time has passed them by; the restaurant was nearly deserted. But we had another great chow and a spectacular view of the city, light filling the windows all the way to the very foot of the mountains that ring the city, forming a natural bowl. Vegas is very big, and Vegas is very bright.
After dinner we went for a drive to the old 'hood where a 16 year old high school runaway spent a formative half-year. Somehow Johnny survived and ended up making a little something of his life. But while you can take the boy out of Vegas, you can't take the Vegas out of the boy, and it was time to do what you're supposed to do here: lose money!
Johnny's favorite gambling palace is The Palms. We walked around taking in the sights - acres of slot machines and all the usual games. We had played some roulette at Binions first, and I got on a lucky streak, winning about $70. So, naturally I was looking for a way to give that back to the nice folks. Found it at the poker table at The Palms. Johnny and I played for a couple of hours at a 2/4 table, meaning the mandatory blind bets are $2 & $4. After the dust settled Johnny had dropped $20, me $60, leaving me a big winner on the night by $10! I own this town.
It's interesting to note that Las Vegas tried and abandoned an attempt to portray itself as a wholesome family friendly destination resort a few years back. But like Dick Cheney trying to be honest, it just wasn't in its nature. Vegas has now happily re-embraced its birthright as a mecca of hedonism and vice, and the Chamber of Commerce has crafted a bold new marketing slogan: "Your money that comes to Vegas, stays in Vegas", or something like that.
Sunday, November 27
After a good night's sleep, we walked around and took in the sights in the daytime for a few hours and then off to our next port of call, Hoover Dam. Hoover dam has been called one of the modern wonders of the world. Built during the Depression form 1931-1935, it dams the Colorado River and creates Lake Meade behind it, which supplies water and hydroelectric power for, among other places, Las Vegas which requires staggering quantities of both. Approaching the dam, traffic slowed to a crawl because of new security checkpoints. They're also building a new parallel road that will carry thru-traffic away from the dam including, we must presume, those pesky terrorists. We couldn't get a good look at the front of the dam but we finally got over the top to a good vantage point on the other side. The thing's that most impressive, aside from the sheer size and scale, is how well it's designed. Lots of art-deco, very well detailed and thought out. There's a nifty new visitor's center as well, but we didn't have time to stop, what with the traffic jam around it.
On the back end of Lake Meade begins the Grand Canyon. It stretches for 277 miles and ends in another massive hydro-electric dam forming Lake Powell. In between is one of the most impressive and humbling sights on earth.
Monday, November 28
We stayed in one of the lodges on the Grand Canyon's south rim. Development is severely limited, even to the point of not allowing cell towers for obvious and entirely understandable reasons. We arrived after dark and it was "bitterly" cold. We thought we'd get up at dawn (seemed like a good idea at the time) and watch the sunrise slowly reveal the Canyon to us. Naturally, the alarm didn't go off and we missed the very start of sunrise, but got out there about half an hour later.
It was just stupid cold, about 6 degrees, but the sight was worth it. Words can't do it justice; it's simply spectacular. The Canyon averages about 10 miles wide and is nearly a mile deep - an unimaginably huge, jagged slash in an otherwise flat desert. The rock is mostly relatively soft limestone and sandstone stretching back half-a-billion years, although the Canyon itself is estimated to have begun forming about 6 million years ago. The soft rock just kept breaking off from the top as the river cut a deeper and deeper path in the ground, and the Canyon kept widening.
We spent the whole day there; there's a lot to take in. If you have a few days or a week you could hike, camp, even fly over in a helicopter (Johnny's done this on a previous Vegas trip) or take a raft trip down the Colorado through the gorge. We'll definitely be back, and bringing our families. Everybody needs to see this at some point in their lives; it's a real national treasure. After we left the Canyon, we had 5 hours of road-time to our next stop - Durango, Co. One of Johnny's customers has a brother who lives there and it made a good stopping point for the night.
This leg of the trip presented me with my first experience in the Captain's Chair. (I had to pry the wheel from Johnny's fingers - LOL). The car is quiet, solid, very responsive and the 5-speed gearbox is smooth and precise. This is a fun car to drive! So, naturally, I had to hit something.
Was it a big dog? Small deer? Who knows, but two things were certain - it was already roadkill and uncomfortably large. This is an altogether frequent occurrence out here in the "wild" west. It all happened so quickly at our 80 mph cruising speed that there was no time to react, just try to center it up and go over the top, hoping the bottom of the car was higher than any part of the animal. It wasn't. We heard/felt a loud "thump", and were just hoping it didn't do any damage. Everything seemed fine, but we'll have to find a garage tomorrow morning, put it up- on a rack and take a look. Could have been a lot worse. Car/critter collisions occur often out here and it's especially dangerous at night 'cause them critters are real stubborn about wearing their reflective vests and looking both ways before they cross the street. And them critters are larger out here too - they have these big 'uns called elk that are like deer on steroids. Don't want to hit one of those suckers. Hopefully, that will be our last intimate encounter with the local wildlife (or wiilddeath in this case).
We got a room in the historic Strater Hotel in downtown Durango, Co. Very "old school" & stately, period furniture and more wallpaper than a Home Depot. We looked up Ike, and had a break from the culinary indulgence we'd been experiencing thus far, picking up a pizza and 6-pack from a local speakeasy. Hung out with him (real nice guy and a Lebowski fan!) for a couple of hours and then back to the hotel for the night.
Tuesday, November 29
Spent the morning working on the blog (takes up a surprising amount of time, even now with the Mac) and then off to the Pat Murphy GM dealer (the Bitter SC has a lot of GM parts since GM owned Opel at the time and they built the chassis and drive drain). They put the car up on the rack and there was no sign of the previous night's encounter with western-size roadkill, not even a tuft of fur to remember him by. Johnny was happy at this revelation and I could finally exhale. We dodged a bullet there.
After a trip to WallyWorld to pick up some supplies, we had another glitch - car wouldn't start! The ignition, working like a champ since we got the car, was jambed-up somehow. Having a manual transmission means you can always start the car if you have a pusher and a downhill grade. I provided the push and the Wallyworld parking lot had sufficient drop, so back to the terrific folks at the Pat Murphy dealership to see if they could help us once again. Their ace mechanic Darrell took apart the '79 Camaro steering column which quickly revealed a simple solution and we were soon back on the road, heading toward our next stop, Boulder, Co. Two events that could have proved to be major problems passed with little more than minor inconvenience. We've been lucky.
We've also been pretty lucky with the weather so far. A big front has been moving east ahead of us, and our weather has been gorgeous, if cold. Our route today is to drive up along a two lane road to hook up w/ I-70 which will in turn take us through the Vail pass and into Boulder, about an 8-hour drive. But when we got up to 10,000 feet, the roads began to get a little dicey, snow covered from the day before. Plus, since we got such a late start, it was already turning dark and guard rails were in short supply. After dodging two bullets today, we figured discretion might be the better form of valor, and decided to stop in a little town called Ouray, Co., only 2 hours from our starting point in Durango. We'll hunker down here for the night and try again tomorrow morning.
Another unpleasant development - I've apparently picked up a bug, perhaps on the flight out. I've gone rapidly downhill today and am hoping that a good night's sleep and some zinc-based medication can get me back into the pink by tomorrow. At the very least, I hope I don't give whatever it is to Johnny!
Wednesday, November 30
Well, the good night's sleep didn't happen for me; woke up with the dizziness, headache, and scratchy throat that are hallmarks of.....well, I don't know what, the "creeping crud" or whatever. Just have to gut it out. We awoke to find the two mountain passes we inched down yesterday afternoon have now been closed! Having been stranded for 3 days by a freak Rocky Mountain snowstorm in the Denver airport a couple of years ago, I'm well aware of how your plans can suddenly change out here because of Momma' Nature. Just have to gut that out too. Fortunately, it looks like the road ahead of us is okay, only requiring chains for commercial vehicles. We have about 35 miles of 2-lane mountain roads before we get to 4-lanes and then I-70, which will surely be plowed and cleared. Looks like we're going to lose a day off our schedule, but we may be able to make it up later. Our confidence is high!
The weather cleared and turned into another beautiful day! We motored on without any sign of snow, hopeful that we could make up our lost time... until we got up to the Vail Pass. The problem with driving 'cross country is that eventually, no matter what route you take, you're going to have to cross the Rocky Mountains at some point. As we kept climbing, up and up, we started to see signs of snow. By the time we crested 10,000 feet at Vail Pass, the roads had become snowy & icy and commercial trucks had all put on their chains as the Highway Patrol insists. I-70 became so treacherous, in fact, that it turned into a 15 mph white-knuckler as we hoped we could just keep our relatively light, rear-wheel drive, and snow-tire-free European sports car on the road and out of the ditch. For me, it became a sort of deja vu as I remember a similar trip down this very road from Vail to the Denver airport with my buddy Kevin two years ago as we did the best we could but eventually ended up submerging the front end of our rented Taurus fully into the 6-foot high snowbank on the side of the road and had to be towed out. That was a pretty tight spot, as they say. I was praying for history not to repeat itself! As it turned out, Johnny did a masterful job with keeping the Bitter on the road and after a tense couple of hours, we finally made it down the mountain in one piece and arrived in Boulder.
We had dinner reservations that night at the Flagstaff House, an old, top-tier restaurant perched up on the foothills of the Rockies with a spectacular view of the Bolder/Denver metroplex stretched out filling the plain below. It's one of those places that has at least one ingredient in each menu item that you've never heard of and where they bring you little mini-courses between main courses of scrumptious little hors de vors, custards in little cups, etc. Unfortunately for me, I felt terrible and had no appetite at all. Johnny had a fabulous meal of buffalo tenderloin and all I could do was choke down a couple of spoonfuls of duck broth as this night represented the apex of my illness. Figures, don't it?
We found a Residence Inn that had a couple of bedrooms as I didn't want to keep Johnny up all night with my hacking and coughing. I hit the hay about midnight while he went out to find a car wash to get all the road salt and grime off the car from our trip out of the mountains. I guess one thing the Bolder police don't expect to see is someone trying to wash their car at midnight when it's 25 degrees out! Johnny managed to put the cop at ease, however, and found a car wash where the soapy water promptly froze and had to be practically chiseled off with a high-pressure wand. Never underestimate Mr. Bitter's drive to keep his new car clean, however; by the time we left town the next day, that puppy was spotless!
Thursday, December 1
I woke up feeling much better and convinced myself my illness had peaked and I was now on the road to recovery! My appetite had even come back (one day too late, unfortunately as I wistfully recalled the Flagstaff house menu from the night before). We had a long day of road time ahead of us as we attempted to make up some of the time lost in the mountains. I felt good enough to take the rains again later that afternoon and was purring along at 77 mph (70 mph speed limit on Kansas interstates) when we passed a trooper in the left lane going (we clocked him later) about 65 mph - what's up with that?? I panicked and, knowing that you never want to let them see your brake lights as you zoom past them, fumbled with the cruise control and kept hitting the "accelerate" lever instead of the "off" lever. Glancing down at it to see what the heck was going on, I then started to drift over the line into the lane in front of the trooper. This was going very badly, very quickly. Sure enough, he soon hit his lights and we pulled over. What happened then was remarkable - an encounter with a with a kind and sympathetic state trooper! We explained what had happened and he explained he had been concerned when he saw me drift over the center line that I may have been getting sleepy. He wrote me a warning ticket, something I had not gotten in about 30 years! Everybody else I know gets warning tickets occasionally. Not me. Not only do they always throw the book at me, they usually throw several of them, and occasionally the whole library. This guy was just terrific and even let us take his picture for our Blog (he probably liked the car too - he, like everyone else, had never seen its like). Let me say this load and clear: Officer RL Taylor of the Kansas State Patrol is the country's nicest police officer! God bless him.
So, with a clear highway and the feeling of euphoria that comes from knowing you've dodged yet another bullet, we decided to try and make up some time and blew past our scheduled stop of the night and on to Kan-Sas-City! We throttled our speed down a couple of mph's to a pedestrian 75 to avoid any more incidents with the local constabulary and finally arrived at the Southwest Avenue Best Western in Kansas City about 1:30 AM. We had lost another hour as we moved into Central time. We were stunned by the condition of our $100 room; absolutely the worst motel room I've ever seen. I was so filled with righteous indignation, in fact, that I did a "punch list" for them on the room that had more items on it than is typical on one of my finished architectural projects. Warning to all travelers out in the blogosphere: Do not stay at this motel!
Friday, December 2
Woke up feeling lousy again; can't seem to get this pesky bug licked. No matter; just got to "suck it up" and motor on. We'll attempt to make up more time today and get back on schedule, arriving at Louisville tonight. We'll miss the tram ride up the St. Louis arch again; just no time with a 10 hour drive ahead of us.
Saturday, December 3
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