Our MTTS (MINI Takes The States) trip for 2022 hit just a few months after I quit my job of 20 years and took what I call ‘semi-retirement’. What this meant for our trip was that I needed to take as few days as possible and to try and keep the costs from being stupid.
One of the other major factors for this trip is that it was further north-east than we had ever been and I wanted to spend a day in New York City and at least visit Salem, MA.
The plan I came up with was to start the trip from Huntsville on July 7th at 6 am and drive for about 14 hours to Sweetwater, TN. Driving this far meant that we could reduce the time to get to my first goal, NYC, from three days to two which reduces time off, reduces motel expenses, and reduces food expenses.
Day One 7/07 – Huntsville, TX to Sweetwater, TN
That first day was a rough day and you would be forgiven if you thought that the drive was the only rough part of the day, but you would be mistaken. Once we arrived at our hotel the check-in was fairly painless and easy. It became a little odd when the lady at the desk mentioned that it looked like she had a room door wide open on the front first floor. I walked out and looked at room numbers so I could tell her which room it was, and, yep, it was our room.
The lady from the hotel walked out and searched the room with me and everything was where it was supposed to be with no intruders. I thanked her and Sue Ann and I started hauling our overnight stuff into the room. I went into the bathroom and this time I, for some reason, looked up to see that a ceiling tile was not in place. I don’t mean just bumped, it had clearly been moved recently.
We were tired from the exhausting day of driving and our minds raced with insane thoughts like “what if someone crawled up in the ceiling and were waiting for us to go to sleep so they could climb down and rob us?” I told you the thoughts were insane.
So up into the ceiling went my phone and I took images to make sure there was no one and nothing up there that should worry us.
Finally, we laid down and got a few hours of sleep before the 5 am alarm went off. No time for a shower or shave, just a quick wipe down with a wet rag and a quick brush of the chompers and we were out of there like a herd of turtles.
I use the term “herd of turtles” because another facet of trying to save money was to drive at the speed limit or below to maximize fuel economy. When Buster (my 2015 MINI Cooper Countryman) only drinks premium fuel we were spending right above $5 per gallon on fuel so we needed to get the best MPG we could, and that was working out to 32-33 MPG which I thought was pretty good with all we had stuffed in the car.
Day Two 7/08 – Sweetwater, TN to Jersey City, NJ
The second day was non-stop to Jersey City, NJ. We checked in to the Holland Hotel which is, as you might guess, right at the entrance to the Holland Tunnel which runs from Jersey City, NJ to Manhattan in NYC. I picked this hotel on the recommendation of a local I talked to on a forum. It was a pretty nice hotel with parking and is easy walking distance to the subway.
About an hour after checking in, the fire alarm went off. Everyone wondered if it was just some idiot who lit a cigarette (or other smoking substance) in the room, or yanked on one of the fire alarm pulls in the hallway. The staff said we needed to evacuate just to be safe. This turned out to be a good idea as once we had grabbed our stuff and went outside we could clearly see the smoke coming from the bottom floor window.
Just a few minutes later the Jersey City Fire Department showed up in force and proceeded to grab equipment, hook up hoses to the trucks, put on the oxygen tanks, and head into the building. I don’t know if you watch shows like Chicago Fire but those actors have nothing on the real thing. These firefighters were there fast, ready for whatever, extremely professional, and very nice. There had to have been five fire trucks (two engines, two ladders, and one squad) and two pickups with “white shirts” in them (high-ranking officers).
It turns out that a dryer had caught fire in the downstairs laundry room. The fire department put it out quickly and had us back inside in about 30 minutes. It was very impressive to see them get things ready to fight a full-on building fire and then take it all back down when all they really needed was an extinguisher. Massive props to these guys.
We found out later that part of the reason for the lightning-fast response time was that the fire station two blocks down the road where Engine 6 and Ladder 6 came from was also the headquarters, so, yeah, we had everything from the big brass all the way to the normal grunts there in less than 10 minutes from the time the alarm first went off. Impressive.
Day Three 7/09 – New York City (Manhattan)
The next morning we got to learn how to use the subway systems in Jersey and NYC and it was a little bit of a learning curve. We did manage to get around and did not get on a single wrong train, or miss a single stop. That isn’t to say we didn’t have to ask questions a couple of times, but we got it handled.
As someone who had never been to NYC, it was a lot different than I expected. It was neater and cleaner, and the people were nicer than I had been led to believe. Of course, we only spent one full day there, but everyone was nice, the subway was easy to use and very efficient, and the things to see and do were endless. In one day there was only a small amount we could do so I chose to go to Central Park and bum around, and then go to Times Square.
Central Park is just drop-dead gorgeous. Pictures just do not do it justice. We toured the zoo which was very small but very nice and absolutely worth the visit. Then we walked over to the pond, across the bridge, and to Strawberry Fields (Strawberry Fields is neat, but it is a serious tourist trap). We ate hot dogs from a street vendor because that is a New York thing to do, and it was good but quite pricey. Two dogs with fries and two bottled drinks were $40. It isn’t something I plan on repeating but it was something I just thought I had to do once in my life.
Times Square is a big ole tourist trap whose whole purpose is to separate you from as much money as they can. Every corner is a gift shop, as are many of the intersections right on the sidewalk. This is where you get typical I Love NY shirts and miniatures of the Statue Of Liberty or Empire State Building. I am a weirdo so I got a T-Shirt about a cat.
When I say tourist trap, I mean there are not only a lot of things for sale, but there are guys “giving away” their demo CDs and then asking for “donations”. They are really good at making you feel like you need to make a donation without coming right out and asking for money. Remember that they do this to probably hundreds of people a day so they know what works and what doesn’t. Generally just ignoring them and walking on will get you past them.
Then there are the people who want to take pictures with you. They include people dressed as NYC police (usually in really skimpy “uniforms”), Spider-Man, Bumblebee, SpongeBob, and many others. I even saw a couple of ladies who appeared to be wearing nothing but body paint.
Lastly, there is the Buddist Monk who starts off with a “gift” of a golden card or bracelet of prayer beads. Once he gets you to take the gift he opens his prayer book and asks you to put your name in the book below the other names, then you are supposed to put what you want them to pray for such as “peace”. Then there is the space after that where they put your “donation”. He too is really good at getting you to “donate” to have them pray for you. If there are two of you, then there are two blanks and two donations. If you pull out a $20 for example (which seems to be what everyone before you donated) then that is for ONE of you, you are then expected to pull out another $20 for the second person.
Yes, I donated to the monk. Is it a scam? Probably. But here is the thing: on the off chance that this guy really is a Buddist Monk and that they really are going to pray for me to have more peace in my life, I am more than happy to fork over $20 for that. I have nothing but the greatest respect for true monks, and just in case he is one, I would prefer to be on his prayer list instead of his ….. other list 😉
Day Four 7/10 – Jersey City, NJ to Salem, MA
On the morning of July 10th, we left Jersey City at about 7 am. We took the Holland Tunnel and then went up the west side of Manhattan through Hells Kitchen turning right through the Bronx, and on up through up-state New York and on to Salem, MA. Part of our drive was on the Merritt Parkway which is just beautiful. Look it up on Wikipedia, it is worth the detour if you are in the area.
Arriving in Salem it was a lot of what we expected, a nice little northern town with a serious slant towards tourism. If you are into witches, whether it is the version with green skin from the Wizard Of Oz, Harry Potter and his friends, The Witches of Eastwick, modern Wiccans, or are just interested in the Salem Witch Trials from a historical view, this is the place for you.
One word of caution, there is no real parking in most places. What I mean is that where we are from, every store or every shopping center usually has more than enough parking in a dedicated lot. At the worst, old downtown areas may have a slightly limited amount of parking on the street. In Salem, there is limited street parking, almost no dedicated lot parking, and only a few, very packed, public lots. Be prepared to walk.
The good news is that the weather was amazing with highs in the mid-70s while we were there so walking was very pleasant. Winters there may be cold and snowy but their summers seem amazing.
We stayed at the Stepping Stone Inn which was right next door to the Salem Witch Museum. The owners are awesome and spent most of their time lounging on the couches letting us rub on their bellies. Their human servants did a good job at maintaining the inn and providing everything a feline could ever want. I am sure they reminded the peasants of what happened in Salem the last time humans stepped out of line.
One absolutely amazing feature of this particular location was the park right across the street. I went out late in the afternoon when it was about 75 degrees, sat on a shaded wooden bench, and read a book with the cool breeze blowing through the trees. It was simply incredible.
Day Five 7/11 – Salem, MA to Frederick, MD
This was simply a drive to a destination day. We needed to get to Frederick for the next morning’s MTTS Rise & Rally meeting where we could register, grab some breakfast, and start meeting people. Other than for lunch and gas we did not stop anywhere or do anything.
We got to see a lot of nice countryside going through MA, RI, CT, and NY before things turned more open and business/industry oriented. The Merritt Parkway that we had already taken north was just as beautiful going south.
Day Six 7/12 – Frederick, MD to Roanoke, VA
Our first Rise & Rally with the MTTS 2022 crew! Here we lined up at the Frederick Fairgrounds on their horse track. There were a lot of MINIs.
We knew where the meeting was but had no idea where the day would take us. MINI was not releasing the route until midnight. Since we hadn’t gotten the app up and running yet this meant we didn’t know the route until we picked up the printed map this morning. Kinda fun, and kinda maddening.
We hurried to register, grab our swag, get some breakfast (the single-size quiche was a favorite of mine), and get back to the car. Like everyone at all these big MINI gatherings, we needed to clean Buster up. You can’t have a dirty MINI at these things you know.
They had us leave down the track and head off into the mountains. This part is pretty messy no matter what you do as there are thousands of people leaving one right after another. That many people through any city’s traffic controls are just a mess for everyone, local and visitor alike. They didn’t do too much here and we got stuck at a lot of lights. While that may sound minor, with this many cars, it really is a huge mess.
Once in the mountains, things cleared up a bit. There were a lot of overlooks and that broke up the groups and made the roads less congested. It also made for a nice time to just pull off and enjoy the scenery.
There really is no substitute for being there but these images should give you an idea. The weather cooperated well and we had some beautiful days without too much heat.
Once we arrived in Roanoke we checked into our hotel and grabbed some dinner at the local Mexican restaurant which was literally a walk across the parking lot. After dinner, some clouds rolled in and gave us our first little bit of rain on the trip.
Day Seven 7/13 – Roanoke, VA to Bristol, TN
We were a little more prepared for our second day’s Rise & Rally which made things a lot easier. We also met many of our friends from Texas and from previous MINI events.
Leaving the meetup this morning was a little better than yesterday, with less traffic and obstacles before we got on the freeway heading out of town. It wasn’t long before we were seeing some beautiful scenery.
One of the things I like about these events is they tend to take you places you would have probably never gone otherwise. In the above image, you can see the road on the bridge above, which is the interstate highway. Our route runs underneath it here before turning back up the mountains.
Today we ran the “Back of the Dragon”. They say there are 438 curves in 32 miles of road with about 3,500ft of elevation change. They say it is more than the Tail of the Dragon (which everyone I know just calls “The Dragon”) with its 318 curves in 11 miles. While that might be true, there are a couple of things you need to think about.
First up, 438 curves in 32 miles is 13.6875 curves per mile. Compare that to the Tail of the Dragon at 318 curves in 11 miles and you get 28.9090 curves per mile. Over twice as many curves per mile await you in the tail as in the back.
Second, and more importantly to me, is that the difficulty of the curves on the tail is far higher than on the back. This may not matter if you are more of the type that enjoys the scenery and the wind whipping through your hair, but to someone who has taken pains to make their MINI corner like a banshee, the tail is a far superior stretch of road.
There is one huge advantage the back has, and that is less traffic. It is far easier to get a good run “at speed” on the back than on the tail, and the back even has some really nice overlooks nearby.
Regardless of how you want to drive the curves up here, the scenery is just amazing. This made it really tough for me as I had to choose between stopping for the jaw-dropping views or mashing the gas for the adrenaline-pumping curves.
Another thing I love about taking the road less traveled is you get to see some really neat stuff that you absolutely would have missed otherwise. This chance stop at this Citgo station was one of those.
Part hardware store, part auto parts store, part convenience store, and a little bit of grocery store all in one little building. You can find bolts for your gate, line for your string trimmer, belts for your tractor, feed for your horses, and get some fresh bacon all while gassing up your truck.
You won’t be using your credit card at the pumps though, they have no need for that here! The people inside were just as awesome as the place was, friendly and courteous, nothing like some of the stations we stop at on the interstate.
We stopped at one Marathon gas station on the interstate where my wife went in to find the restroom while I filled Buster with premium, the lady behind the counter said “no bathroom!”, over and over. Even when my wife asked where we could go to find one, “no bathroom!” This little Citgo was not at all like that.
Day Eight 7/14 – Bristol, TN to Asheville, NC
Today we are starting off at Bristol Motor Speedway, often called the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile”. Wikipedia says it is the fourth largest sports venue in the United States, seating 153,000 people. Fourth or fortieth, it was really cool.
There is just something special about lining up on a real race track. I am no professional driver, not even close, but I can feel Buster wanting to show what he is made of and it almost seems like any small press on the gas has twice the response it should. Or is that just the kid in me? Maybe a little of both 😉
The stands are massive and just seem to go on forever. I have been in large, professional sports stadiums like ATT Stadium in Dallas where the Cowboys play, NRG Stadium in Houston for the Texans, and the old Astrodome. The largest of those, ATT Stadium, seats 80,000 fans which is just over half of what would fit in these seats. Amazing.
The last time MINI let us on a race track (that I was involved in) was MTTS 2016. The first two tracks were Atlanta Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway (click the link to see the video) and they made us all really happy by pretty much letting us run wild. We could only make one lap, no passing, and they told us that we “should” stay off the banks because they were steep enough that our oil would all run to the side of the pan and not be picked up by the oil pump.
That would be true at 10mph, but when there is no speed limit, well, let’s just say I know how fast Buster will go before the computer stops me, and I also know that centrifugal force will keep the oil in the pan 😉
As you can see from the above video, they learned their lesson and that did not happen here. That is a bummer as that is one of the best memories I have, not only of MTTS 2016 but in driving Buster at all. Think about it, how many people do you know who drive sports cars that actually get to push them to their absolute limit on a real, professional race track?
Today was no different than the previous days when it came to views. No matter what your preferred type of terrain is, it is hard to argue with the beauty of the mountains. Add in some interesting clouds and you have views that can make you catch your breath.
We found this amazing little store called the Shady Valley Country Store right in the middle of a stretch of road called “Claw of the Dragon”. Looking on a bunch of maps it seems there are at least eight loops or areas that use that name. That makes sense when you think about it, how many claws does a dragon have?
They took a page out of the Tail of the Dragon’s playbook and started mounting parts to motorcycles on the ceiling. This was a much smaller display than the “Tree of Shame” at the tail, and it also lacked the memorials for riders who pushed too hard. I kind of wish they had some of those to make the less experienced who push too hard think twice. Losing a mirror or some plastic is one thing, let’s try and help keep it from going any further.
While not exactly one of the curviest roads I have driven, it was a whole lot of fun. We were coming from the north. We stopped at the store and then proceeded to make a run through that mess to the south. The problem was, that we got behind some Sunday drivers and our run became a crawl, for the entire time.
Finally, at the bottom, I pulled over, restarted the GoPro, turned north, and told Buster to do his thing. That climb back to the store was amazing.
After coming back down for the last time today we were making pretty good time behind a 2 door who wasn’t going fast but was a little spirited. Just enough to have a little bit of fun without having to work too hard. Low and behold I look in the rearview mirror and a classic is gaining! How awesome is that?
We were gassing up and commented on the price of their premium which was about $5.50 a gallon, the highest I had seen on the trip and certainly the highest in this area. Then I noticed the sign…
These people knew who would be running these roads and knew what kind of fuel those people really wanted. 93 octane with no ethanol, nice. Buster was pleased.
Day Nine 7/15 – Asheville, NC to Spartanburg, SC
I woke up early and checked the map for the day, this was it, the Tail of the Dragon. It would be a long day with some serious driving. Sure, if you were laid back and driving the posted speed limits, the day could be fairly easy. Buster wouldn’t stand for that, not on “The Dragon”.
We went to the Rise & Rally early and stayed just long enough to register for the day, get our paperwork, and scarf some breakfast. I don’t even think we took a single picture which is a shame because it was a beautiful ranch. We were in a hurry to hit the road. We needed to be there before the other 2,000+ MINIs got there, or at least most of them.
Just because you haven’t reached the Dragon yet doesn’t mean it isn’t beautiful. We made several stops to take a few minutes and admire the beauty. If we had a week to spend….but we didn’t.
Even knowing that The Dragon was just up ahead, some stops are just too beautiful to not take a moment and enjoy.
Overlooks, dams, and lakes abound. Finally, it was time to make a run.
One cool thing about running on The Dragon is that there are photographers there capturing some great shots of you as you take the curves. Yes, you have to pay for them, but between $7 and $9 per image I think is more than fair. The two best out there are 129photos and killboy. I have gotten the best shots on my trips here from 129photos (the one above is from them) although his shots could be a little sharper if he used Nikon gear (tell him I said so, just messing with him).
While I am going to plead the fifth (honestly I wasn’t looking at my speedo or I would have crashed), you can get an idea of the speed by looking at the lean angle on the front of the car. Remember that Buster has a wider stance than factory, with a racing strut brace on the front and a serious anti-sway bar on the rear (much bigger and stiffer than a JCW). That means for him to be leaning that much would require a heck of a hard corner, heh.
MTTS had us doing an out-and-back for the Dragon which of course means we had to stop at the end by the lake and take some pics. Since we were pretty early the run-out was very spirited and the stop at the lake was uncrowded. It really is a nice place.
Once we finished the run back to Deals Gap we had to take a picture with the Tree of Shame and honor those who lost pieces-parts, and a few who lost more than that on this road. Of course, we had to buy some stickers and talk to everyone there. We also ate lunch there at the restaurant. It is overpriced but not bad food and the people were very friendly.
On our way to Spartanburg we stopped several times to look at some of the awesome scenery, Buster even found this little old dirt road leading to an old bridge and he just had to show us he could go “off-road” too. Show off.
The last of the really curvy roads wound up surprising me. I think I might have heard of “The Moonshiner” or Moonshiner 28 before but never really knew where it was. It turns out that it starts at the junction of 129 and 28 at Deals Gap heading east. Just under three miles in there is a curve named The Widow Maker, a nasty (translated means fun in a MINI, potentially deadly on a motorcycle) decreasing radius turn. This part of the road was fun and all that but nothing other than one or two curves to really write home about. That is, until…
Keep on going east on 28 until you hit Almond, then turn left to merge into 74. This goes a little way until 28 breaks off right. Hold on to your hats people because this is where it gets real.
Everything is fine until that first hard left turn, then all heck breaks loose and you are swinging back and forth like a paint shaker at Home Depot. The roads are pretty narrow, there is no shoulder to speak of, and very little traffic. This means you can open up a little and have some fun but watch out as there are tons of driveways feeding into this awesome road.
Is it as good as the Dragon? Nah, but it is 90% as good for a much shorter run, and with the massive reduction in traffic you can really have a blast. You really need to be careful, but the fun is just insane.
The rest of the trip into Spartanburg was pretty uneventful as it was mostly roads we had already traveled until we hit interstates. Even though we left the morning meetup before 8:30 am we were still crawling in after 5 pm. That’s a really long and hard day when you are running roads like the Dragon.
Day Ten 7/16 – Spartanburg, SC
We did not attend any MINI events in the morning or afternoon as we drove to Columbia and spent time with my sister and her friend. It was the day after she received chemo for her lung cancer (she is doing well) and the day before the chemo made her sick as a dog so the timing was perfect.
But that night was a different story…
MINI knows how to throw a party! Fantastic live band, free alcohol (two drink max per person, no drunk MINI drivers allowed), free really good food, and great people. Nothing else you could ask for, well, except maybe for…
A laser light show! Sorry for my old phone video recording, but it should at least give you an idea of how utterly awesome it was. Way to go MINI!
As sad as it is to say goodbye to all our friends we have to get back to our real lives, back to our jobs, you know, so we can save up for the next MTTS!
Day Eleven 7/17 – Spartanburg, SC to Pensacola, FL
Today’s job is to get to Pensacola with as little drama as possible and I wanted to get there as early as practical. Our hotel has a pool and we called ahead to make sure it is open (almost all our hotels on this trip had pools, and exactly two were open). I really needed the relaxation that would provide.
I picked Pensacola for two reasons; because it was approximately halfway between Spartanburg and Huntsville, and because it has one of my all-time favorite restaurants, Peg Leg Petes. One problem with that is that Pete doesn’t take reservations, and he is extremely well-liked by both locals and tourists which means you get there, get a two-hour wait, and be thankful you aren’t one of the people who show up later and are told they have a three or four-hour wait or just can’t get a table that night at all.
In true form, we had a two-hour wait and it took them almost exactly that amount of time to seat us. That’s OK, I was prepared for that and since I never get the chance to eat here except for once every four or five years, I was good waiting.
The food was excellent, and the drinks were great but I had to drive back to the hotel so I could only have one, bummer. Back to the hotel we went to get some sleep for the last leg of the trip.
Day Twelve 7/18 – Pensacola, FL to Huntsville, TX
Our last day and pretty much a straight shot into Texas and then 105 up to 45. Easy and boring, right? I mean there is nothing but flat roads and things we have seen a dozen times, yawn.
Yeah, you didn’t think it would end like that, did you? LOL!
So around lunchtime, we decided to turn off interstate 10 onto Canal Street and then take a left on Bourbon Street. There was a Hard Rock Cafe with a table waiting on us (they just didn’t know it yet).
We love the Hard Rock as it is a reliable, easy, safe, and fun place to stop for a meal. It isn’t something we do every trip, but just on this trip, we hit two of them.
After lunch we walked down Bourbon Street for a while and stretched our legs, popping into a store every now and then to look around. Then we walked back to the car and headed home.
Said and Done
The day after we returned I was a little tired but work kept me busy. I had missed a lot and had to do a little catching up. The days after that got progressively worse as the insane wear and tear I put on myself started to sink in. I felt like I had been flung out of the car at high speed and rolled to a stop. Everything hurt. It is amazing what all adrenaline can cover up. It was two days before we even unloaded Buster!
Now, things are better, most of our stuff is put away and we are reflecting on all the fun we had. Not to mention already scheduling the next few MINI adventures 😉
Until next time, Motor On!