Happy Birthday America

Happy Birthday America and Happy Birthday MINI USA. AOL Autos set out on July 4 with MINI USA on its MINI Takes The States cross-country rally. We hit 16 states and traveled almost 4,000 miles. As part of the celebration, AOL Autos in June held a Facebook sweepstakes to give away a 2012 MINI Countryman.

The MINI Takes The States 2012 rally began at MINI USA's headquarters in Woodcliff Lake, NJ. The caravan of MINIs headed down the NJ Turnpike to Philadelphia and then to Washington DC that night for the most spectacular fireworks display in America.

R.I.P. Andy Griffith

Senior Editor Scott Burgess and Assistant Editor Colin Croughan, who began the trip in N.J., were in the area of Mt. Airy, NC days after Andy Griffith died.

Mt. Airy is the town on which the fictional Mayberry was based, and the town has a litte industry connected to preserving a part of the town to be Mayberry-like.

This is a statue of Andy Taylor and Opie Taylor taken from the familiar opening credit sequence of the The Andy Griffith Show. Fans of the show might like to know that Frances Bavier (Aunt Bee) pretty much called it a career after the show went off the air and lived in Mt. Airy thereafter. And Betty Lynn (Thelma Lou) moved to Mt. Airy in 2006, leaving Hollywood for quieter surrounds where she undoubtedly enjoys  her celebrity status.

Love Them Corvettes

From North Carolina, the rally went to Tennessee and Kentucky. Scott and Colin stopped at the Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. This is where Vettes are built, and the museum is a Vette lovers dream.

If you are passing through, and you love American cars, this is a must-stop.

Ann Arbor Handoff

The leg of the MINI Takes The States trip that I  signed up for took me from my driveway here in Ann Arbor, MI to Los Angeles by way of Chicago, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.

The car was was meant to be a blue MINI Countryman that AOL Autos has had as a long-term tester since last year. But that car, as we said earlier, blew a clutch in N.J. MINI was kind enough to lend us this replacement. This car, with stars-and-stripes on the roof, would get us a lot of salutes along the way on our westward journey. At least, I think they were salutes.

Don't get the idea that there is much if anything wrong with the MINI clutch. Having a dozen auto writers, each with their own style of driving and clutch habits, drive the car over twelve months is a very hard way to break in a car. We heard from our friends at one of the car enthusiast magazines that their long term test MINI Countryman gave up its clutch at around the same mileage tick on the odometer--23,000 after they had put a dozen different writers through the clutch and stick. Clutches and shifters tend to like to get used to the same driver over the miles.

Field of Dreams

There was something about the lush greenness of the irrigated cornfields in Iowa that made me want to walk right into one. Maybe I was thinking of Cary Grant in North By Northwest, or the scene in Field of Dreams when Shoeless Joe Jackson walked out of the corn-field and onto the ball field.

The midwest is dry as a bone these days. Thank God for underground aquifers that these corn farmers can draw on, and pump water through the enormous, 100-yard long irrigators.

Roadside Folk Art

As we were leaving DesMoines and headed for Lincoln Nebraska, we got onto a secondary road of small villages and farms. Assistant Editor Colin Croughan spotted this birdhouse. I'm glad he did. It is a great example of recycling car parts into something useful. I wondered if a kid, about ten or twelve years old, put it together in his garage on a slow day--of which there are many in rural Iowa.

Roadside America

There were signs for the Danish windmill for miles before we drove roughly ten miles off the highway to find it. I have to say I thought it was pretty disappointing. But the beauty of such tourist traps is that they force you off the highway, and you never can tell what you will find or discover. It is cool to see these ethnic enclaves'--in this case fifth-generation Danes-- in this pocket of Iowa still nurturing their Danish roots.

Hoover Museum

I am a geek for U.S. Presidents. When we planned the trip, I saw that Herbert Hoover's house and library was on the route. I was able to add this to the list of Presidential museum/libraries I have been to including: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Garfield, Rutherford B. Hayes, Franklin Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford. In an election year, it was good to visit Hoover's. A Republican, Hoover is often held up as a failure because of his inability to cope with the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash.

Hoover was a small government Republican who was nevertheless considered a "progressive" of his time. From Iowa, his specialty was figuring out how to get food to hungry people, something he did after World War I in Europe. He was called on to help again after World War Two. He is considered one of the great ex-Presidents of all time, having lived more than thirty years after he left office, devoting his retirement to various public service projects and causes and writing numerous books.

Thar She Blows!

There are many people who are anti-wind-turbine for a variety of reasons. Some say they are unsightly on the landscape. Others resent that they get government subsidy. Well, guess what, oil and gas companies get subsidies too.

I think there is--if I can use this phrase--an industrial beauty about these wind machines.

We saw them throughout Iowa and again in California as we drove out of the desert. Wind farms aren't going to displace oil. But as we write about wind, natural gas, solar, it all feels worth it to keep nibbling away at oil's market share. And one of these days we can "just say no" to having to buy oil through governments who are hostile to the U.S.

Yes, You Can Eat That

We avoided eating at McDonald's, Burger King and the like throughout the trip. The one concession we made was the occasional Starbuck's and one Subway in Iowa that was attached to the gas station where we stopped. We were hungry, and that's all there was.

We had a book along with us: Roadfood: The Coast to Coast Guide to 800 of the Best Barbecue Joints, Lobster Shacks, Ice Cream Parlors, Highway Diners, and Much, Much More by Jane Stern and Michael Stern. We made use of it to find Joe Tess Fish in Omaha. I, indeed, had some locally caught catfish. But what caught my eye on the appetizer menu was the gizzards. This is the organ in the chicken that breaks down the food because chickens don't have teeth. To the uninitiated, it is part of the giblets in the bag inside the package of chicken that either gets thrown away or used for making broth or gravy.

It is not my favorite of the organ meats, as it is kind of tough. But I couldn't resist, and it beats eating McNuggets any day.

I Love Lucy's

On the way out of Nebraska and just into Colorado, we were looking for iced coffee. It was 100 degrees at 4:30 in the afternoon.

Still avoiding-fast food joints, we stopped at Lucy's. I wish we had had time to eat lunch or dinner here. It's the kind of place you get a steak and potatoes, or meatloaf or even liver and onions.

It may not look pretty from the outside, but Lucy was very welcoming and made us giant iced coffees for the last leg of our ride to Boulder.

Jim McDowell

Jim McDowell is the VP of MINI USA. I have known him for about fifteen years or more. McDowell is one of the most genuinely happy people in business I have ever covered. Why not? He spent many years as head of BMW marketing. And now he heads MINI USA. How many car executives would you think would have breakfast in one hand and a water-gun in the other, while he talking to a customer, and call it work?

Manifold Cooking

We used the rear hatch cover as a handy place to prepare our lunch to be cooked on the manifold. Usually, these hatch covers are always in my way, but this proved to be a handy use not specified in the owner's manual. Our cooking venture started out with such promise.

Manifold Cooking Result

Cooking on the manifold of the MINI Countryman seemed like a great idea given that we would have many hours a day of driving in the heatwave of the midwest. We found a package of pre-marinated beef on skewers, wrapped in heavy-duty-foil as advised in the book Manifold Destiny, and left in the engine for about 2 hours. We also had small new potatoes, which we wrapped in foil with a bit of water to create a steaming effect.

The beef was done, but kind of chewy. I immediately realized that we would have been better off with meat that had some fat--sausages or Brats, or maybe a hunk of pork shoulder. But I also wonder if modern cars like the Countryman get hot enough, even in 95-degree to 100-degree weather, to cook the food. The potatoes were under there for about seven hours and never did get done.

Canyon Driving

Between Albuqueque and Phoenix, we drove through the Salt River Canyon wilderness area. Alternating that day between flat desert and rocky mesas and pine forests really brings home the diversity of the landscape you can experience in one day. These areas feel like a part of the country where people who want to "chuck it all" come. It's beautiful and as you are in no man's land between major metro areas, housing can be very cheap. More than once on the trip, I thought…"Well, if I lose almost all my savings some day, and I can't live where I choose, there are places out here where you can turn the middle of nowhere into some place pretty cool.

Arizona Horses

Somewhere near the Arizona-New Mexico border, we pulled over to photograph the Countryman, and we found these beauties. Nothing more to say here.

The Petrified Forest National Park

Our first visit to the Petrified Forest, my only touch-point with this national park was watching the movie of the same name starring Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart.

I also recall a reference to it in a Bugs Bunny cartoon that depicted the park as being made up of giant trees that had turned to stone. Actually, the park is desert, and holds the geological remains of an ancient forest.

Looking out from this look-out point, we could see the barest of tree fossils. The park is very much an active scientific study area with researchers continuing to study Late TRiassic fossils, and remnants of native Arizona grasslands. Scientists even study the air in this park.

Mojave Desert

Here, we are paused in The Mojave Desert. We weren't keen to drive up this road to explore. But on another day, we might have, as long as we had a full tank of gas.

The cell-phone coverage was surprisingly good around here. We spotted a few cell-towers on the horizon.

But very near where we took this picture, we saw a Chevy stopped, with the trunk and one of the doors open. We also spied a tractor trailer truck idling nearby. The whole scene gave us the willies, and we tried to piece together a possible scenario of the two vehicles. that would fit a Quentin Tarantino script.

Then, we left, in search of more water or iced coffee. It was 100-degrees.

Desert Home

We stopped at an area that had been advertised for 40 miles or so as "Desert Center." We thought there would be gas, a place for a drink, etc. What we found was a seemingly working post office (but we aren't sure), a couple of abandoned cafes and gas stations.

This abandoned rail car, as we found out when we climbed the steps to check it out, was home to someone as we saw a sleeping bag, pillow and jug of water.

Desert Gas

The gas pumps at "Desert Center" have not been used since, I would estimate, the early 70s at least. They are branded Chevron, and have the crank along the sides of the pumps that I haven't seen since I was a kid.

The thing I will long remember about this stop is that a guy in new Ford Explorer drive up to us while we were shooting the picture and asked me, "Is it closed?" "Seriously? I thought. "Yeah, since Kennedy was President I think."

What you can't see in this picture is that the two service bays had no doors and were strewn with trash. He even asked, "is there any place to pee?" I answered, looking around, "Just about any place you want dude."

"I Read Your Book You Magnificent Bastard"

That's a line from the movie Patton, and is spoken by the General when he sees he is getting the better of German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's army in a tank battle.

I am a geek for World War Two history. My father was a reporter for the Stars and Stripes newspaper during the war and covered, and met, General George S. Patton. So, when we saw the sign for the General George S. Patton museum in the desert, I had to pull in.

This photo board is the kind of cheesy touches to small roadside museums that I love.

The site of the museum is at a former Army training center. It was here, in Chiriaco Summit, CA on Rt. 10, that the army trained armored divisions in advance of invading North Africa in 1942.

George Patton Museum

The temperatures and terrain in this part of California are very similar to that of Tunis. It proved to be just the right place to put soldiers, as well as the Detroit-built tanks, through their paces.

It is what I call a small, and well-intended, museum. You can learn a few things about tank battle in WW2, Korea and Vietnam, as well as about "Old Blood and Guts" himself.

Santa Monica Pier/LA

The sun was setting on our day and our whole long trip, and so while the lighting in our picture here is not perfect for a photo, we were very happy to reach our destination. Assistant Editor Colin Croughan, pictured here, helped me get the Countryman into an entirely illegal spot for the photo. We were not going to be denied a shot with the Pacific and beach in the background.

It was the first time Colin, 20, AOL Autos' summer intern, has traveled across country. It was the first time for me driving the left side of the country. Traveling with someone you don't know well (Colin started with us a week earlier) who is of a different generation, is an enlightening pleasure.

With lots of time to talk in the car, I educated Colin about Hank Williams, Humphrey Bogart, the Affordable Healthcare Act, the over-throw of Iran's democratically elected President in 1953 by the U.S. and British Intelligence, and more. He gave me great insight to what life is like these days at my alma mater, Fordham University, as well as how he and his friends are viewing politics and the election issues these days.

I considered it a great victory when he said he was freshly motivated to go back to school and tell his friends and peers that "we had better engage and engage now" in the political process.

Perhaps the best part of a cross-country trip is the conversation with the right riding partner.

Colin made use of headphones and Ipod when I had MSNBC or CNN on the Sirius radio for too long. But then I went to the 60s channel on Sirius, and he was cool with that. Some of the music he introduced me to sampled some 60s music, so there we found another common ground to explore.

Driving across the country, a country that seems so divided in this election year, I kept thinking that there is an awful lot of common ground we should be talking about instead of always harping on what separates us.

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