Montreal to Las Vegas in a Mazda Miata

by Derek Grout -

"How soon can I leave?" is my first reaction.

I had registered with a Montreal-based driveaway service for a car to the southwest, and I was prepared to take some snowbird’s boring land yacht to Phoenix or Los Angeles. Imagine my delight when I am offered a Miata…to Las Vegas.

The car is a white 1990 with just 63,000km on the clock. It is clean and tight, and doesn’t look as though it has ever been driven in the winter, for the block is still shiny. I check the tires (a bit low) and oil (fine). The owner has left two litres of synthetic oil in the trunk. Obviously a man who treats his car well.

I pack light. The Miata’s trunk is too small for anything more than a couple of grocery bags. I gather a few maps and settle on a route through ten states and two provinces which will keep me off the interstates as much as possible, and take me south of the Colorado snowbelt.

I’ve got a week to enjoy this car, and I intend to do just that. My plan calls for a couple of long days at the beginning, followed by a few days of easy touring before the final leg to Las Vegas. The weather will play a role in my plans and I cross my fingers for good luck. In November, anything can happen.

Day 1 Saturday, Nov. 6

I leave in the dark, following 401 toward Toronto and Windsor, a road I know too well. As the sun rises, I am treated to stubble cornfields and Vs of geese headed south. The car hums along at 120km/hr, turning 4000rpm, well short of its redline. After an hour I feel more comfortable with the car, sensing what it can do and how it likes to be driven. I am pleasantly surprised by the quick, responsive handling. The low center of mass gives me an impression that the car is glued to the road. There is power to spare here, for the Miata’s horses don’t even start breathing hard at this speed.

With the dawn, I turn off the headlights, relieved to get rid of the annoying pop-ups that partially obscure my vision. Past Brockville I turn off and follow the 1000 Islands Parkway. It is still early morning and—yes, I admit it—I am going faster than the posted limit. But it feels so nice to drive this sports car. A few joggers and walkers look up as I pass by.

Thankfully there are no accidents in the Toronto area, and I breathe a sigh of relief as I leave the city behind. I don’t know it at the time, but the drivers here are the worst I will encounter in the whole drive.

I gas up again and take a lunch break near Woodstock. A quick calculation shows I’m getting about 33 mpg, about what I had figured on.

My first traffic jam comes at Windsor’s Ambassador Bridge, as we funnel toward U.S. Customs and Immigration. The car is a pain in traffic, as the idle speed is set at an annoying 1700rpm.

At last it’s my turn. "Canadian citizen?" a burly immigration officer asks.


"Where are you going?"

"Las Vegas, Nevada," I answer. I am expecting problems and I’ve got the car’s paperwork on my knee just in case.

He waves me through. "Good luck." As I pull into the traffic, I wonder whether he means on the drive or at the gaming tables.

Detroit on a Saturday afternoon is quiet. I pick up I-94 west and go around the city. At Ann Arbor a Goodyear blimp hangs over the University of Michigan football stadium, and I encounter heavy post-game traffic. The 4x4s and other cars are festooned with pennants and bumper stickers. Some of these fans have come a long way to cheer on the team; they travel with me for the next hundred miles.

It is dark when I arrive at Benton Harbor on the shore of Lake Michigan. I am surprised that, after 1100km and thirteen hours behind the wheel, I don’t feel stiff or tired. The temperature has dropped in the last hour and I go for a walk to stretch my legs before attacking supper.

Day 2 Sunday, Nov. 7

It is dark when I set out again. There has been a frost overnight and I have to scrape the windshield after I check the oil. The wind is an icy knife, cutting into the driver’s compartment. I set the heater to MAX, to no avail. I remain bundled up. Only when the sun rises over Indiana do I start to get warm. The expressways outside Chicago are empty, and I make good time. The downtown skyscrapers appear in the distance, reflecting the early morning light. At Joliet I pick up I-55 and head south. The landscape is pancake flat, repetitive but not boring. The farms look prosperous and the crops have been gathered.

Outside Springfield, I leave the interstate and follow a portion of historic Route 66, the first long-distance paved highway in the United States that meandered over 2000 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles. The old route survives here and there in short sections, but the rest has been paved over by interstates.

In Springfield, the capital of Illinois, I make a pilgrimage to Abraham Lincoln’s tomb and the home where he lived before becoming President. It is a glorious autumn day as I park the car and walk around the historic area of Springfield. The streets are almost deserted, a far cry from the crowds of summer.

After a snack lunch, I decide to try driving with the top down. Once on the road, I am exhilarated by the rush of wind and the sheer pleasure of driving. There is no reason to be bored in this car. It demands to be driven.

The miles flash past. St. Louis comes and goes, I cross the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers, pick up I-70 and head westward toward Kansas City. I pass another top-down Miata. We wave at one another. Outside St. Louis a sign informs me this was the first stretch of interstate built in 1956. Other signs inform me that I am following portions of the old Santa Fe Trail that took traders and settlers across the prairie until the coming of the railroads.

As dusk creeps up, I cross the Missouri state line and enter Kansas. I bypass Kansas City and head southwest. The last half-hour is in the dark, and I find a place to stay in the small town of Ottawa. This is a good season to travel: there are only two other cars in the motel parking lot.

After dinner, I drive a mile out of town, turn off the engine and wait until my eyes adjust to the darkness. In the city, stargazing is a waste of time. Here, with no light pollution, I am rewarded with a great bowl of dark sky studded with stars. Jupiter and Saturn are high in the east, chasing each other across the heavens. The familiar constellations of early November, Orion and Pleiades, wink down at me, reminding me of my own humble place in the universe.

Distance, 1067km.

Day 3 Monday, Nov. 8

Time to slow down and get off the four-lanes for a while.

I leave at sunrise, munching on rolls and cheese as I drive. The countryside is even flatter than Illinois, if that’s possible, and trees are scarcer. Browns and golds are the predominant colors, for the grasslands look burned from lack of rain.

Putting the top down, I pick up a succession of small roads. They are arrow-straight and go through or around the kinds of small towns that one associates with Middle America, Norman Rockwell-type places where everyone knows everyone else and no one ever locks his front door. The towns are dominated by grain elevators, visible for miles in every direction. Time seems to have stood still here. Signs for fraternal lodges and 4H clubs greet me outside each small town.

My route takes me west, following Route 56 and the Santa Fe Trail. The road is like a ribbon, better than anything in Quebec, I realize ruefully. The farming looks good. Fields are dotted with stripper pumps drawing oil and gas from the earth. Red-tail hawks perch on fence posts and power pylons, searching for small prey in the cornstalk rows. Massive center-pivot sprayers create circles of green amid the brown. The driving is relaxing and I can absorb the details of what I am seeing.

It is only on the ground that the vast distances of America sink in. One can only admire the pioneers who trekked here a century and a half ago, taking months to accomplish what I can do in a few short days.

The winds are strong and tumbleweeds are blowing across the road. They are as rootless as I am. Despite strong gusts, the Miata hugs the road. Drivers are courteous. Farm tractors and slow-moving vehicles wave me on. Not that they need to. The roads are flat and there are few oncoming vehicles. I wave my thanks as I pass.

In the small towns I obey the speed limits. Some of these towns live off the money they collect from speeding tourists, and they enforce the limits rigorously. Once out of town, I cruise happily at 100km/hr. It’s a comfortable speed and I am in no hurry. The gas mileage improves and the engine loafs along at 3000rpm.

I halt at Larned, where a fort built by the Army in 1860 to guard the Santa Fe Trail now watches over open prairie. I am alone in this time warp of well-preserved buildings. Apart from the wind, there isn’t a sound to be heard. Now run by the Parks Service, I try to imagine the fort in its heyday.

I steer southwest, a giant arc across the prairie. Kinsley, Kansas, bills itself as the mid-point of America. A sign informs the traveler he is exactly 1561 miles from New York and San Francisco. I stop outside town and count the contrails in the sky: eighteen jets criss-crossing America. The passengers are missing the grandeur and beauty of the land. And all the fun, I think, as I re-engage the clutch and move up through the gears. I wonder how many times I’ve flown over this particular spot on my own travels.

The towns flick by. I don’t bother checking the map. I pass through Dodge City, the notorious frontier town at the end of the cattle drives from Texas. Things are pretty tame these days, and I wander around the faux-western section of the city near the rail depot and the cemetery at Boot Hill. Tombstone, in Arizona, gives a better impression of the old west, I think, as I watch the elevators of Dodge City retreat in my mirrors. Outside Dodge City I cross the Arkansas River. On my map it’s a thin blue line. On the ground, a dry bed that’s seen no water for many weeks.

By this time the car and I are old friends. It fits me like a glove, and we are getting to know each other’s bad habits. The afternoon passes quickly, as a succession of grain elevators rise up on the horizon and disappear behind me, to be replaced by another. The harvest is in and there is so much wheat it’s piled on the ground beside the elevators in cones of brownish gold.

My next stop is Liberal, Kansas, on the Oklahoma border. Here, in World War II, the Army Air Corps established a large airbase and today there’s a good aviation museum on the same field. I spend two hours here, the only visitor in the place.

The sun sets directly in my eyes, painting the land in burnished copper and casting long blue shadows. I squint and tug my cap visor lower, happy there’s not much traffic. In short succession I cross the Oklahoma border—the Dust Bowl of the ‘30s—and, as night falls, the Texas border.

I spend the night in Dalhart, Texas, a crossroads town and rail junction in the Texas panhandle. It reminds me of The Last Picture Show, just another of the many small places slowly fading away on the great prairie.

Distance, 815km.

Day 4 Tuesday, Nov. 9

I have been on the road for an hour before I greet the sunrise at the New Mexico border. For the fourth straight day, the sky is clear. I stop for a few moments to eat breakfast and a buck comes to within a hundred feet of the car. He sports a nice set of antlers, a fine trophy for some lucky hunter. I wave my arms and he retreats across the grassland.

In a few miles the landscape changes dramatically. Endless flat plains give way to eroded hillsides and red-rock mesas.

I gain another hour as I enter New Mexico, and the tiny settlements I pass through are deserted at this time. Sixty miles of easy driving brings me to Tucumcari. In the distance, sunlight reflects off the windshields on the interstate, and I am glad I do not have to join the westbound traffic on I-40. Not yet, anyway. At Tucumcari, I turn off US 54 and pick up NM 104, a minor road traversing a hundred miles of desert and leading toward the town of Las Vegas. No, not Nevada. There’s a Las Vegas, NM, about 60 miles from Santa Fe.

I put the top down and revel in the spectacular scenery unfolding before me. Desert and dry arroyos give way to high table lands. There are scrub forests of juniper and stunted pine, green against the dusty brown soil. Further on is the Conchas reservoir, a recreation site that is deserted at this time of year. Only three vehicles, all pickups, pass me in the course of a hundred miles.

Twenty miles from Las Vegas, the road snakes up a hillside, and I work the gears for the first time in an hour. This is real driving. This is…well, fun.

I emerge onto grassy prairie, the westernmost portion of the Great Plains, where the last of the Rocky Mountains meet the Plains. Las Vegas—"The Fields" in Spanish. Easy to see how it got its name, I think, as the wind ripples the grass. A mile from town I head toward the Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge, a haven for migratory birds. At one of the ponds, I am in luck. With my binoculars I spend an hour watching a flock of sandhill cranes, and a hawk hunting.

The sky is a brilliant blue and the temperature has climbed into the mid-70s. The air is so clean and crisp I wish I could bottle it.

I have been to Las Vegas before. I park in the restored Plaza area where I have a snack, and then head toward Santa Fe. After thirty miles of interstate, I turn off toward Pecos. Here at 6500 feet there are scrub pine forests, and the views northward toward Elk Mountain are stunning.

Once over the Glorieta Pass, Santa Fe spreads before me. The architecture of New Mexico’s historic capital is low-rise adobe-style. Earth tones prevail and the city seems to blend perfectly into its surroundings. To the south, Sandia Peak marks Albuquerque, fifty miles away. Spread to the north and east are the pine-covered Sangre de Cristo mountains.

Santa Fe is a city I know from earlier visits, and this trip gives me an occasion to fall in love with the place all over again. For the afternoon, I abandon the car and stretch my legs, walking through the Plaza area and admiring the silver and turquoise jewelry sold in front of the restored Palace of the Governors. Here, at the Palace, is the traditional end to the Santa Fe Trail which I’ve been following.

Distance, 556km.

Day 5 Wednesday, Nov. 10

Morning is cool as I set out along NM 14, the Turquoise Trail to the small town of Cerrillos—"Little Hills." It’s utterly quiet as I walk around this small hamlet, where pre-Columbian Indians quarried turquoise which they traded all over the southwest and as far as the Valley of Mexico. Movie directors like Cerillos: it still looks like it once was, an 1870s mining town with western storefronts and adobe buildings. Dirt streets and overhanging cottonwoods add to the atmosphere.

A few miles further on is Madrid, which locals pronounced MAD-rid. It’s a one-time coal-mining town, where souvenir and art shops line both sides of the single street and sell a variety of arts and crafts. In the early morning there’s no one about, apart from a girl smoking on the steps of a store. "Mornin’," she says brightly as I go by. "Hi," I reply, enveloped by a cloud of marijuana smoke.

Outside Madrid, I cut across a plain dotted with junipers. In a few miles the paved road ends and degenerates into washboard. I slow to a walking pace, for the Miata isn’t built for this. It hasn’t rained here for weeks and the soil is like fine powder. A few minutes later a pickup, moving fast, passes me, leaving a choking cloud of dust to hang in the air. With the top down, the interior of the Miata acquires a beige film. Half an hour later, the car and I emerge at Lamy, on the rail line between Albuquerque and Chicago. The return to Santa Fe is fast, on hard blacktop. The Miata responds gratefully as I accelerate through the gears.

Distance, 215km.

Day 6 Thursday, Nov. 11

Early morning finds me heading north from Santa Fe. It is clear again (amazing!) and cold as I climb into the hills, following the old Spanish road up the Rio Grande. After Nambe I turn off, following the High Road to Taos, much more interesting than the fast route up the valley.

The road climbs away from the river, offering stunning vistas with each turn. The first village I come to is Chimayo, site of an 1816 adobe church and the scene of religious pilgrimages. On through more tiny villages, little changed in two centuries. In Truchas, perched along a ridge, Robert Redford filmed the Milagro Beanfield War. Most imposing of the adobe churches is eight miles further on at Las Trampas, where the 1760 church of San Jose de Gracia dominates a dusty plaza.

I retrace my route, cross the Rio Grande at Espanola, and head south toward Los Alamos. At Santa Clara pueblo I stop to admire the distinctive black ceramics produced by local potters, whose museum-quality work is shipped around the world to discriminating collectors.

I skirt Los Alamos and pick up NM 4, one of the finest scenic byways in the state. The road climbs past the ancient cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument, and enters forests of tall ponderosa pines. In an open-top car, the aroma is exquisite. The road twists and turns, finally emerging at the rim of an ancient volcano. The views across the meadows of Valle Grande, the caldera of the volcano, are stunning. A fine contrast to the desert that comprises most of New Mexico.

Though not signposted, Spence’s Hot Springs are well known. I park the Miata between mileposts 24 and 25 and follow a worn trail from the parking lot. It leads across the narrow Jemez River and up the opposite bank. After a short hike through the pines I arrive at the first of a series of pools. The water, an exquisite 105 degrees, bubbles out of the hillside and is trapped in small pools. There are a half-dozen people soaking in the water or basking in the sun. Bathing suits are non-existent. I strip and lower myself into the water. The tension of a cross-country drive slowly dissolves.

Two hours later, the Miata and I are back on NM 4. The road winds downhill into the hamlet of Jemez Springs, and thence into red-rock canyons. Ten miles later, headed toward Albuquerque, I emerge onto a flat plain dotted with a string of Indian reservations.

The rest of the afternoon is an anticlimax as I pick up the interstate again. Traffic on I-40 is heavy and I join a long procession of 18-wheelers heading into the sun. We parallel the railroad and I race with the long freight trains rushing westward across the plains to California. The landscape is austere, oddly beautiful. Rock and sand, sand and rock. The road skims past jagged outcrops of black lava, the malpais—the badlands. Good name. In the distance are dry creek beds where the wind kicks up dust cones.

At dusk I pull off into the town of Gallup, a short distance from the Arizona border. Historic Route 66 is Gallup’s main street and I feel I have entered a time warp. The street is lined with vintage motels, whose prices look unchanged in thirty-plus years. Singles are as low as eighteen dollars.

On the high plain, with no cloud cover, the temperature drops to just above freezing overnight.

Distance, 550km.

Day 7 Friday, Nov. 12

Hard to believe this is my last day on the road.

No need to get up too early, for Las Vegas is an easy run of 740km.

Brilliant sunshine again. My fears of bad weather on this trip were misplaced. New Mexico gives way to Arizona, though there is no difference in the scenery. I stop briefly at the meteor crater outside Winslow (looks better from the air!) and have a snack outside Flagstaff amid the pines of the Coconino National Forest.

Near Ash Fork I leave the interstate to pick up the longest surviving portion of old Route 66, a 140-mile stretch through the back country of Arizona. Hardly a car passes and I slow down, determined to enjoy this last day to the fullest. Seligman is a small town wallowing in the past, living off tourists. Souvenir shops sell Route 66 memorabilia, and a ’55 Chev and a ‘59 Edsel parked outside these shops deliberately create an impression of frozen time.

Historic Route 66 rejoins the interstate at Kingman. Las Vegas is a hundred and six miles away across the Colorado River. The road is straight for almost twenty miles and I climb steadily across the barren edge of the Mojave Desert, brown and austere looking. There are joshua trees and hundred-mile vistas as the road winds toward Hoover Dam and Lake Mead. Traffic is heavy and I slow to a crawl as we snake over the dam and into Nevada. A sign reminds me we’re now in Pacific Standard Time.

Las Vegas appears in the distance, sunlit hotel towers, improbable as ever, covered by a pall of smog that I have not seen on previous visits. My destination is near Las Vegas Boulevard—the so-called Strip. I wheel into the rush-hour traffic and pass the landmark hotels, monuments to excess. The Miata is just one of many top-down convertibles, except that mine looks dustier than the rest. Most have California plates.

Two blocks from the Strip is a large, gated apartment complex. I wheel into the parking lot with mixed emotions. I’m happy to have arrived safely. But, after 5119km, I’m sorry to give back the car, for it has performed flawlessly, never missing a beat, burning not a drop of oil.

There’s just one consolation. The car needs to come back in the spring.

And I’m first in line!

Derek Grout
Montreal, Quebec
December 1999