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Ditching planes for an American road trip

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After various attempts to catch connecting flights in America failed, James Baggott decided to give up on planes and undertake an epic road trip from Phoenix to Las Vegas in a V6 Ford Mustang

If I’ve learnt one thing about travelling to America, it’s this: Don’t ever get a connecting flight anywhere. Ever.

OK, so there are plenty of other things I’ve learnt along the way too. Like the fact you can turn right on a red light, that you have to pay for fuel before using any, and they like to put cheese on everything. Even fruit.

But when I write my memoirs of life on the road as a motoring journalist (which will be never), that key connecting-flight point will ride high in the chapter list.

Why? Well, I write this after 46 hours of travelling to Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show. It should have been a simple journey but turned into one from hell – thankfully, however, made a little sweeter by a car.

Avis came up trumps with a Ford Mustang – sadly not a V8, but a decent V6 (Blackball Media/PA)
Avis came up trumps with a Ford Mustang – sadly not a V8, but a decent V6 (Blackball Media/PA)

Let’s rewind a few, painful hours to where it all went horribly wrong. I’d got off a BA flight from Heathrow to Dallas. I’d enjoyed free wine, watched a not-altogether-terrible film and slept soundly for a good few hours. Life was good.

But then Dallas took all that away. Thousands of people stood in the queue for immigration, and despite some high-vis, queue-jumping ticket thrust into my hand, entering the promised land was tough.

Quite why America still has a ridiculous problem processing visitors is beyond me. This is the home of Google, of Apple, of some of the greatest business brains in the world. Why one of them can’t put some of their cranial activity to one side for a week and solve the issue of getting humans through its immigration halls is beyond me.

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To be fair, the orange fast pass helped, but still the process took too long. Time was ticking away for the connecting flight to Vegas. And then all hope of catching it evaporated with the sight of thousands more people trying to get out of the baggage hall.

American borders are cruel, you see. Once you’ve escaped the hell of immigration they make you stand for hours in another queue to get out of the baggage hall. A man has to stamp a piece of paper that says you’re not bringing two-headed chickens into the country.

I felt like moaning, but then realised he’d only call me ‘sir’ a lot and had a gun. And if we know one thing about Americans, it’s that they like to use guns.

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I ran for the flight but missed it by minutes. And so began a chain of events that would see me eventually crossing states on an epic road trip to Nevada.

A man behind a counter frowned a lot at me but said he’d done me a favour by getting me on a flight to Phoenix and then on to Vegas.

I made that flight, took a seat next to a huffing man, but it took off two hours late, ruining any chance of me making my next connection in time. There was only one thing for it: I joined the man next to me in the huffing.

A woman behind a counter at Phoenix told me I was stuck – very cheerfully she did, too. How Americans can keep their happy faces on when delivering bad news is another mystery. I can only imagine the same falseness is used on death row. ‘OK, sir, here’s your needle. Have a nice day!’

She booked me on to a flight the next morning but couldn’t guarantee I’d get a seat. I took the ticket from her, smiled, and threw it in the nearest bin.

Driving is hungry work - time to stop off for a well-earned burger (Blackball Media/PA)
Driving is hungry work – time to stop off for a well-earned burger (Blackball Media/PA)

Google Maps told me a road trip to Vegas would take about six hours, so the hunt for a car began. Avis came up trumps with a Ford Mustang – sadly not a V8, but a decent V6 – and within half an hour I was driving it to the cheap motel the airline had booked for me.

It’s incredibly easy to book a car in the States – a driving licence and credit card are all you need – and they didn’t even sniff at the fact I’d be driving it 300 miles away from where I picked it up.

The next morning I hit the road. Driving past Phoenix airport, I rose a salute to the planes reaching skyward – this Mustang had a way of improving a rather desperate few days.

With some soft rock on the radio I was on my way, heading north towards Kingman on I93, the dual carriageway bumping and grinding its way through huge landscapes and a forest of Joshua Trees at the roadside swaying gently as huge articulated trucks thundered past.

My Mustang settled into a cruise, the comfortable seats worn cosy by the hundreds of borrowers who’d already added 19,000 miles to the Ford.

Good grub, this! (Blackball Media/PA)
Good grub, this! (Blackball Media/PA)

It’s not until you take to the road that you realise quite how big America is. It’s not just the portions or the soft drinks that are super-sized – the roads, the skyline and scenery are all of epic proportions too.

I watch countless RVs rumbling down the road. These don’t tow Fiat 500s or Smart cars behind them like in the UK – I spot one towing a Volvo S80 saloon and another a Range Rover.

On the Arizona radio station I’m tuned to, a dust storm warning is issued. When it strikes, it says, stop the car, wind up the windows, turn on your lights and sit it out. All I see ahead, though, is rain sweeping its way across the plains like a shower curtain.

I stop in Kingman for some reward lunch. The famous In N Out burger illuminated sign rises high above the freeway, showing me the way. American motorways are brilliantly signposted for food (funny that), with huge signs telling you what delights can be found off each junction.

I’d been holding on for an In N Out. Their simple menu – burgers with or without cheese, and fries – is something even the country’s floppy-haired leader can understand. It’s delivered in baskets and is deliciously dripping in calories. Needless to say, the burger joint is rammed with happy clientele.

As I leave Kingman, still heading north on the I93, I start to see signs for the Hoover Dam. I’m late for the CES show in Las Vegas now and have missed most of the action so decide to stop. Let’s face it, how often do you happen to be passing a landmark as iconic as this?

I pull off the freeway and roll up to a security post. There the guard tells me I can drive across the dam and park for free on the Arizona side.

Creeping over the huge structure, built in 1931 during the Great Depression, in this modern Mustang feels surreal. I park up, jump out and marvel at the sheer scale of it. Pictures do not do it justice.

Six hours later... (Blackball Media/PA)
300 miles later… (Blackball Media/PA)

An hour later, I’m pulling up at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas at rental car returns. The 300-mile journey has taken me around eight hours and has been far less stressful – and a lot more memorable – than a few more awful hours in a tin can in the sky.

I rescue my bag from the airport – it made it to Vegas long before I did – and find an Uber to take me to the bright lights of the city. It’s pouring with rain as I arrive at Trump International Hotel, the gold and chintz of the place as tacky as the rest of Vegas.

It’s nearly two days since I left home, I’m still wearing the same clothes, but I’m smiling. Coming to America shouldn’t be this tough, but when it is, a Mustang and the open road can make things feel a whole lot better. Maybe missing those connecting flights wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

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