The fog that obscured my vision on the morning of Monday, July 16th was not the result of a rare weather phenomenon in New Orleans. It was a by-product of the previous evening’s festivities and what my unindicted co-conspirator, Jiri Marousek, dubbed “The New Orleans Nightcap.” At my advanced age, you’d think the wisdom of experience would lead me to make better choices. But the night was warm, the drinks were cool, and watching people more inebriated than me ride a mechanical bull was so entertaining. Thus it was two hours and four bourbon and sodas after I first said, “goodnight” that I finally made it to my room at the Royal Sonesta.
This is the kind of thing that happens on MINI Takes The States. It’s almost inevitable. All those fun-loving MINI owners. All those interesting places. All those stories accumulated from the day on the road. And this was before we had even turned a wheel in the MINIs we would be driving for 800 miles over the next two days. This was my third go round on MINI’s biennial celebration of motoring. In 2014 I accompanied the party from Chicago to Buffalo. In 2016, I cruised from Salt Lake City to Palm Springs.
New Orleans is a bad place to try to be good. Especially if you’re staying on Bourbon Street. Our evening started innocently enough with a lovely dinner at Sylvain, a casual restaurant serving contemporary southern cuisine in an old converted carriage house. Our group of eight journalists, four of whom were heading home after driving from the start of the Eastern Route two days prior in Orlando via Tallahassee, kicked off the evening with Southern Antipasti – seasonal pickles, artisan cheese, pickled farmer’s egg, house-cured meats, house-made mustard – some deviled eggs, and gulf fish tartare. I chose to wash it down with a classic New Orleans cocktail, the Sazerac. My entree was a simple but delicious shrimp and grits and the conversation turned to stories of traffic jams, roadside attractions, and random acts of kindness.
It seems our host, MINI USA Head of Sales Tom Salkowsky, had stopped for gas along the way and another MTTS participant pulled up behind him at the pump. They struck up a conversation and before the owner had a chance to pull his credit card out of his wallet, Tom swiped his corporate card at the pump and MINI bought him a tank of gas. These types of things don’t happen at every encounter, but often enough that the stories have become legend.
Tom told the story of an encounter he had during MINI Takes the States 2016. He was crossing through Minnesota and saw a young woman standing by a disabled older MINI at the side of the road. He stopped to help assuming she was part of MINI Takes The States. She wasn’t. It turns out she was a college student making her way back to school when her car broke down. After looking the car over, Tom realized it had not been well maintained in part because the woman was a cash-strapped college student. He took it upon himself to call a tow truck to take her car to the nearest MINI dealer. Once the car was there, they ascertained the total repairs needed to make the car reliable and safe again including new tires, the cost of which was significantly more than the young woman could afford. Tom talked to the dealer and told him that the entirety of the repair bill would be paid by MINI USA. The young woman was understandably overwhelmed with the generosity, and no doubt, MINI now has a customer for life.
Stories recounted and dinner consumed, it was time to head out onto Bourbon Street for a taste of New Orleans or what most tourist come to the city to experience. I was worried that this being a Sunday night, the revelers would be a bit subdued. I shouldn’t have been. What the crowds lacked in size, they made up for in enthusiasm. People come to this street to let loose and it doesn’t matter what day of the week it is. So it was that after having a beer at Sneaky Pete’s and stopping by the Carousel Bar, we found ourselves at Fat Catz Music Club listening to an ‘80s cover band doing a very credible job of playing everything from Poison to Bon Jovi and White Snake. When they started playing Journey, however, it was time for me to say good night, so Jiri and I headed out with every intention of going right back to the hotel to get what was left of a good night’s sleep. Plans changed when we saw the folks riding the mechanical bull at Bourbon Cowboy and went in for that nightcap. What happened after that is anyone’s guess, but checking my phone the next morning, I was happy to see there was no photographic evidence of bull riding or any other indiscretions that may or may not have occurred.
The sun rose over a warm and humid city as I, coffee in hand, folded myself behind the wheel of the MINI Cooper S 2-Door Hardtop we’d been given for day one of our drive. Our first stop was NOLA Motorsports Park for the “Rise & Shine.” Somewhere between a pep rally and a flea market, it’s where all the participants gather before hitting the road for the next city on the route. I picked up my city pin and walked the parking lot where over 400 MINIs were lined up and ready to roll after everyone had their fill of breakfast and much needed coffee. We connected with some friends who were driving all the way from Orlando to Keystone, Colorado. The suggested route for the day would have heading west of the city and then catching Interstate 55 North, I like to avoid the freeways on trips like this and explore the back roads so we made our own itinerary.
We left the Rise & Shine and headed north through the city across the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway bridge, 24 miles of roadway over the brackish water of the lake that gives it its name. It’s the world’s longest bridge over any body of water and as long as you’re driving north, it doesn’t cost you a dime to cross. Heading into the city, you’ll have to hand over a $5 bill to enjoy the experience.
Once out of the city, we had the opportunity to let the MINI stretch its legs and figure out what the day would bring. We had hoped to make a couple of stops along the Mississippi Blues Trail, specifically the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49 in Rosedale where Robert Johnson reportedly made his deal with the devil. After checking the map and timing, however, it became clear we couldn’t stray that far from the proscribed route and still make it to Little Rock in time for dinner. So we headed North on State Highway 25 past Franklinton, across the state line where it became Highway 27, continued on through Tylertown stopping for lunch in Monticello where – now fully recovered from the previous evening’s exuberance – we gorged ourselves on all manner of smoked meats at Joe Walts Smoking Grill. Solid, if not spectacular, it was definitely the right choice versus the Sonic across the street. It’s not that I’m philosophically opposed to fast food joints, it’s just that one of the best parts about a road trip is sampling the local fare.
The rest of the afternoon was just a long slog over two-lane highways through Mississippi and Arkansas. In hindsight, had we stayed on the interstate we could have made it to the Devil’s Crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi, but we would have missed the barbecue and spent a lot of time with cruise control activated – not my favorite way to experience a MINI. As it was, after the detour we’d be cutting it close. So we mapped out the most direct route from Monticello and hit the loud pedal. Having spent a lot of time in other variants recently – the Clubman, Countryman, and Convertible – It was good to get back into a two-door hardtop. The little MINI was just as peppy and and fun to drive as I remembered. I’ve long been a fan of the two-door and have driven them a lot over the years at previous MINI Takes The States, the MINI Performance Driving School, and other events.
We arrived about 30 minutes before our scheduled rendezvous at the West Little Rock Hilton Garden Inn, plenty of time to get cleaned up and change for dinner. We met up in the lobby, shared a few notes on what was an enjoyable, but for the most part uneventful day of driving. No tickets. No breakdowns. No accidents. No excitement.
That was about to change.
We hopped in a Countryman to head over the restaurant. I was in the backseat as we started to motor through the parking lot. All of a sudden I heard the sound of screeching tires and looked up to see a black Dodge Challenger flying into the hotel parking lot headed right toward us. I could see the eyes of the driver of the Challenger go wide with panic and he cranked the steering wheel hard to the right in an attempt to avoid us. Fortunately for us he was successful. Unfortunately for him, he lost control of his car, jumped a curb, and slammed into a light pole in the middle of the parking lot. His car now steaming from the burst radiator, the driver threw open his door, rolled out of the car, got to his feet and ran as quickly as he could around the corner of the hotel.
As he disappeared from view, two police cars, sirens blaring, entered the parking lot in hot pursuit. They stopped just short of the corner of the hotel and four officers got out of the two cars, guns drawn. As they hustled around the corner, I looked over to the other side of the parking lot where a maintenance worker had been using a leaf blower to clean the parking lot. Seeing that the police were occupied trying to catch the driver, (watch video of that here) he nonchalantly walked over to the black car, stuck his head through the open front door, and began rifling through its contents. Stuffing a few items in his pants, he then opened the back door to search for more loot. Just then one of the officers came over and cuffed him as we sat there stunned and more than a little amused by what we just saw.
We looked around for cameras just to make sure we hadn’t stumbled into the filming of an episode of Ozarks, Then our host and driver, Rob, exhaled deeply, emitting a little nervous laugh, put the MINI back in gear and continued on to downtown Little Rock. After all, we had reservations and didn’t want to be late. We found out later that the police did manage to catch the miscreant, but after a search of the local news weren’t able to find any details on the story. Apparently a high speed police chase ending with a crash in a parking lot is not newsworthy in West Little Rock. As a friend of mine who used to live near that neighborhood commented on my Facebook post about the encounter, “Welcome to Little Rock.”
The first order of business at dinner was to order a Martini to calm my nerves. Hendricks gin, dry, two olives, up. The aromas emanating from the kitchen at Samantha’s Tap Room and Wood Grill were so enticing I had to take advantage of the grill. I ordered herb crusted lamb chops along with some grilled vegetables. Even though the food and service was excellent, this wasn’t one of those long epic dinners for two reasons. First, I was still a little low on energy after the previous evening’s festivities. Second, we had another event to attend after we dined. As often happens on MINI Takes the States, the local dealer and owners’ group was hosting a party. This one was on the lawn of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum and featured live music, local beer, and merchants. In addition to mingling with the MINI owners, some who had just joined for the one leg, others who were going all the way to Keystone. Also in attendance was the director of the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau who was happy to talk about all the wonderful assets of the river town. Being a gracious guest, I didn’t mention our little episode earlier in the evening. The party ended early enough that we were back to the Hilton Garden Inn at a reasonable hour and called it a night before the drive to Dallas the next day.
Day two began with a Rise & Shine on the tarmac at the Clinton National Airport, just a few miles from our hotel. All the cars parked on the runway made – not unintentionally – quite a sight. These are media friendly events, and the local media ate it up. While Jiri was mugging for the camera in front of the closed runway beacon, I was trying to find a way to take a few high speed runs on the nearly two-mile long stretch of pavement. I knew the answer before I asked, but hey, how often does an opportunity like this present itself. Ah, well. After coffee, breakfast sandwiches from Chick-fil-A, and a morning pep talk, we hopped back in our car and headed off to our first destination.
It’s a short hop from Little Rock to Hot Springs. I took the wheel for the first leg and had a lot of fun driving the little MINI up the winding road to the Hot Springs Mountain Tower. These are the kind of roads JCWs are made for. Twisty and tight with blind corners and enough space in between to give it a little throttle before braking into the next. Being a National Park, the speed limits are low, and you have to check your exuberance a bit or you’ll find yourself with a big ticket. So we had some fun, within reason. We swapped cars and were now driving a four-door hardtop S JCW. When I first drove this car a few years ago, it wasn’t my favorite MINI. The addition of two doors always seemed to make it a little softer and a little heavier. Maybe it was the JCW bits. Maybe it was me wanting to like it more. All I know is that I enjoyed the ride, the performance, and the handling of this car more than I had expected. And the extra two doors made getting cameras and other gear out of the back seat much easier.
We stopped to join other MINIacs at the top of the mountain to check out the old observatory, though we didn’t take the elevator to the top. The line was just a little too long and while it would have been nice to get an overlook of the entire area, the postcards in the gift shop gave us a good idea of what we would have seen. While Hot Springs is scenic, its history is really more interesting to me. From native Americans to the earliest European settlers, almost every visitor that came to the area thought the mineral waters that bubble to the surface had restorative powers. A huge therapeutic bathing industry grew up in the area and the town of Hot Springs became known as the Spa Capital of America. Even the U.S. Army built a hospital and rehabilitation center here in the 1930s sure that severely injured veterans would find “a rapid and permanent recovery from the use of the waters of the spring.” While most of the bathhouses are closed now, the two of the original houses are still open to the public: Quapaw Baths & Spa and the Buckstaff Bathhouse. We didn’t have time to dip into the waters, unfortunately, so after a quick stop at the park and a walk through the gift shop, it was back on the road to Dallas.
Following the route, we found ourselves at the tail end of a long line of MINIs on several occasions. Not everyone on the tour drives with our alacrity so we often found ourselves safely, but aggressively passing a few cars at a time. After being stuck behind about five cars during a particularly lovely stretch of winding road on Highway 27, we hit a downhill straight and seeing a passing zone with no oncoming traffic, Jiri decided it was time to pick them all off which he did easily though his exit velocity was just a bit over (okay, quite a bit over) the posted speed limit and when a county sheriff came over the hill in the other direction just as we were pulling back into our lane, and he quickly flipped on his lights. Knowing we were busted, Jiri immediately pulled over, lowered his window, and prepared for the worst. The sheriff walked up to our car and leaned down so he could see into the car. His first question was, “How many of ya’ll are there out here?” referring to the long line of MINIs he had to wait to pass before he could turn around. We told him we were with a group of about 500 owners driving across the country. With that he looked Jiri in the eye and said, “I clocked you at (speed deleted to protect the guilty). Slow it down just a bit, be safe, and enjoy.” In case you’re wondering, being stopped at that speed should have resulted in a fine of thousands of dollars and an overnight stay at the Graybar Hotel. Why the sheriff was in such a forgiving mood, we have no idea? I wasn’t about to question his motives. The last thing I wanted to do was to have to call our host to bail us out of jail. We’ll just chalk it up to the cuteness of the MINI and his incredulity at the speed we were able to achieve.
With the last bit of drama out of the way, we toured within shouting distance of the speed limit into the town of Murfreesboro looking for a place to eat. It’s at times like this I curse Yelp! and other crowd-sourced review apps. I know the wisdom of the crowd is supposed to guide us to the best restaurants, but between all the fraudulent reviews and users who rate McDonalds, TGI Friday’s, and Olive Garden highly, I can’t trust them. So I revert to my tried and true method of finding an eating place in a small town: drive the main drag and stop at the joint where the parking lot is full of cars. Damned if it didn’t work.
We found a more than serviceable little Mexican cantina, Los Agaves. It’s a family run restaurant, with authentic dishes made from fresh ingredients at a price that has me wondering why anyone would ever stop at a Taco Bell. My tamales were as good as any I’ve had at independent restaurants in El Paso, San Diego, or Cancun. Served with a side of beans and rice and a glass of fresh squeezed lemonade, it was a solid lunch stop, and one we needed to calm ourselves after our brief encounter with the law.
From there it was a short jaunt to I-30, where we put the MINI in cruise control and moved with the flow of traffic through the 100 degree heat until we reached our destination in the shadow of JerryWorld, aka AT&T Stadium, in Arlington. It had been a great couple of days driving a fun little car, seeing a lesser traveled part of the country for me, and picking up a few stories along the way. As an added bonus we helped MINI raise a few bucks for Feeding America, the official charity of MINI Takes the States. It’s an impressive undertaking. At the end of the tour, the group had covered 5,030 miles through 14 states and raised enough money to buy 1,100,000 meals for those who need them. For these reasons and the camaraderie found along the way, I look forward to MINI Takes the States every biennium. If you’re a MINI owner and have never been, you’re missing out. I can’t encourage you strongly enough to drive at least a leg or two in 2020.
It’s the best way to share your love of the bulldog with your tribe.