$1,000 Car Cross Country Road Trip

by Michael Satterfield

I spent the holidays with my sister's family in Wisconsin, having flown out with no real schedule or plan I decided to hunt up a cheap car and attempt to drive back to California. It would have been far cheaper to fly or take the train, but for me, road tripping is my favorite form of travel. You get to see more, get lost, and experience backroads and small towns. Plus a one-way rental car would have cost over $1,400 because of the fees.

So I gave myself a budget of $1,000 and I started hitting up Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace in Neenah Wisconsin. After several "runs good but isn't currently running" and "other than the floors being gone the rust isn't bad" cars, I found the one. A 1995 Ford Thunderbird, she had just turned 21 and was ready to party all the way to California. The owner of the T-Bird was selling it because "He was owed a V8 rear-wheel-drive car" and this is what his friend paid the debt with. I didn't want to dig deeper into why his friend owned him an oddly specific car, or why they didn't just settle their debts in US dollars like the rest of us? But for 10 crisp $100 bills I was on the road and headed to the local Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles.

Ready to put Wisconsin in the rearview mirror.
In Wisconsin for $3 plus a $5 processing fee, you can get temporary registration for out of state transit. In less than 20 minutes I had paid the clerk and was headed out the door with a temporary license plate, after making a call to my insurance, I was ready to hit the road.

The Thunderbird itself was an impressive machine, under the hood was a smooth-running 4.6 liter V8, backed up by an automatic transmission, the LX model it featured premium AM/FM/tape, power seats (the driver side would only move back not forward), power windows, door locks, cruise control, and most importantly a working heater. With the car loaded up, I said my goodbyes and started heading south.

Iowa is a lonely and stark place in the winter, endless miles of farmland covered in snow, with only a gas station or big red barn every so often to provide some contrast. I stopped in the city of Des Moines for the night, at a hotel called 'The Village Inn'. It looked nice enough but left much to be desired. Like a bad night I had once in Barcelona, one night in Des Moines was enough to put me off the entire state and it was time to get out of Iowa.

I made my way back to the I35 with the goal of fleeing the state, but I found myself distracted by tourist signs for "The Bridges of Madison County" so I pulled off to see where Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood made a terrible movie about an Italian woman living in Iowa who had an affair with a balding photographer. While I was there I also stopped in and visited the John Wayne birthplace museum, it turns out Winterset Iowa was also the small town that gave us The Duke. But if you are really looking for a thrill you need to check out the Iowa Quilt Museum, which is also in town.

Winterset, Iowa might be the actual middle of nowhere. 
 I push on into Missouri and drive through Lexington a quaint village I might one day call my hometown. Then on to Kansas City and beyond to the state of Kansas, at this point, while making my way toward Tulsa Apple Maps decided a faster route was available, however, this took me down some gravel roads and after a few miles, I decided to head back to the main highway and turned towards Oklahoma.

Now the worst thing about Oklahoma is that the interstates are toll roads, which I don't know what is more annoying paying to drive on the interstate or having to stop all the time to drop 85 cents into a basket, that and tornados are enough to keep Oklahoma off my list of places I ever want to live. I stopped off to visit my cousin in Talihina and we ate at Pam's Hateful Hussy Diner. Honestly, I was surprised that such a controversial name would be allowed in this part of the state but it seemed everyone in Talihina loves their hussies.

Escaping Oklahoma into the warm embrace of the Great State of Texas a place that is high on my list of possible places to live. I had always heard about the Paris Texas Eiffel Tower, but you have to be going to Paris to really get there, lucky for me it was in between Talihina and my next stop in Dallas. It's much smaller in person and calling it a "replica" is a bit of a stretch, firstly because the real Eiffel Tower is a little bigger and this one really just looks like a fancy oil derrick wearing a hat.

I spent some time in Dallas with family and then headed south to see friends in the Hillsboro area, then on to Lampasas to look at some buildings. I must admit that Lampasas didn't really measure up to how nice Lexington was and the pricing for the buildings wasn't even close.

I push on into the night and stop in Van Horn a small town on the US/Mexico border. After making my way through the infamous Sierra Blanco checkpoint the next morning the Thunderbird and I power our way across New Mexico, Arizona, and back home to California. The car made it without any issues proving that if you buy the right $1,000 car you can buy a car cheaper than renting one.

I did shoot some video while making my way home in the Thunderbird, check out that video and more photos below.

The Lord blessing the Thunderbird at a stop in Arizona.

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2,800 miles.