Updated: Dec 18, 2019
Generally, I can last until the first morning back in the office until the hangover hits me. But on that first day back, freshly home from shipping out of Seattle, waiting for the elevator to arrive so I can slip out downtown and grab a sandwich, that first pang of reality comes slamming back. Fifth rally out, the hangover seems a bit worse each time. Surely, there is a 12-step program, maybe some time-release medication, or maybe just some greasy foods, a Gatorade, and a Sunday afternoon huddled in the dark watching cartoons? Who damn knows, I sure haven’t found the cure yet. Maybe that’s the point of the whole thing – maybe this throwing on some starched slacks, turning on Excel, and playing business-speak bingo is unhealthy in excessive dosages and requires a hard reset every once in a while? Suppose we should start at the beginning, figure out just precisely what I’m going to tell all those more-responsible and less-alive folks about mainlining adrenaline and the magnificent parade of shots in a foreign country. I’m not sure if this will make the hangover worse, or maybe just reliving the memories will get the last drops of whatever it is that gives me some sort of gonzo adventure energy, but, I’ve got to start somewhere.
Dustball Rally starting line, T-minus two days: Dallas outbound
I suppose I could include all the gritty details of preparation, hectic logistical arrangements to make sure the dogs get fed and loved in our absence, and our first fuel stop immediately outside the traffic hypertension outside the city. Team Radar Love and a rookie team out of Dallas driving an M4 are pulling an all-night haul from Dallas into Las Vegas on a single shot. The first vestiges of the rally before us manifest somewhere in the dark on I-40 somewhere outside Flagstaff. I’m curled up in the passenger’s seat letting my co-driver take a late shift before a final fuel stop in blast into Vegas. Drifting gently out of sleep to the First Team All-American orchestra that is my obnoxiously loud LS2 singing RPMs that signal it must be hovering near double the already generous speed-limit. There’s nobody out here except us and that M4, clicking along in the other lane, looking menacing in its own right.
“Go back to sleep,” she says. She’s good.
We swap spots just over the New Mexico border, one last fuel stop before tearing into Vegas. I-40 winds through the mountains here. It might be desperately early and we might be exceeding the speed limit, but between the exhaust of that M4 and Kavinsky’s ProtoVision, this transit stage slog is turning into a warm-up.
Hello, sweet rally. I missed you.
Dustball Rally starting line, T-minus one day: Las Vegas inbound
One night in, Las Vegas, a city doing its best impression of Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island and the Biff’s dystopian nightmare from Back to the Future II, left a rather weak hangover given the potential here. With the lack of windows or anything to give you the impression that life exists outside your immediate vicinity, this city must be the first to be LEED-certified for hangover friendliness. This year, we received the decals the day before the rally begins. An early morning spent at the car wash finds us climbing to the fourth floor of the Palms hotel and casino for an impromptu sticker party.
It’s a scene reminiscent of the requisite garage car show meets inexplicable Daikoku/6th Street Viaduct/Gatebil “underground/something-illegal-feels-like-it’s-about-to-happen” scenes from every one of the Fast and Furious franchise, but with more of a first day back at college vibe. We’re there early, applying vinyl with much more dedication than skill, and trying not to succumb to the whiplash each time a new exhaust note creeps up the ramp. If you’ve done the Cars and Coffee scene, it’s a lot like that level of variety, but with people who actually drive their cars to places other than Cars and Coffee.
The Dustball family – no, really, family, yeah, I know, strong words, but stick with me to the end here – has a bunch of veterans meeting the new folks. The publicity last year means this veteran-heavy rally has the most new entrants I’ve ever seen attending. I’m fawning over an R32 Skyline GT-S with these delectable period-correct and out-of-production Volk Rays 2-piece wheels, and followed closely by a first generation NSX with the most otaku-in-Akihabara JDM tail lights, followed by a VW Golf TDI with the fuel pump off of a 5.9 Cummins and the most hilarious, giggle-inducing power band driven by the most charming couple out of western, Missouri. Good people. Car people.
Doing stickers in a city that hits 90 degrees before 8:30 AM with all the reliability of a Marine haircut ends up being a blessing in disguise as we’re warmly greeted by friends both old and new. It’s as if “The Boys are Back in Town” was sung by the Hellcat in the garage.
We’ve got a short afternoon before the driver’s meeting – what is this rally, precisely, for those of you who read this article on Jalopnik and had a “Field of Dreams” lapse of judgement and sent some guy in El Paso a credit card payment? It’s Sunday, you’re in Las Vegas. Thursday afternoon you’ll cross the border into Canada. Each morning, you’ve got a set of directions that will be passed out to you in a sealed manila envelope. The best roads in the country are written in-between the lines on those instructions. You’ll need to follow your co-drivers’ directions to get you to where you need to go. You have a hotel room each night in a different city. 2,000-ish miles to get there. 40-something teams.
Andy spends the remainder of his stage time going over the basics of rally etiquette. Someday, these will be codified into law and you’ll be required to recite them from memory before you can take possession of a driver’s license, but until that day, here are the remedial notes for those who missed last week’s lecture:
Drive only as fast as you can see, as fast as you are comfortable, and as slow in town as posted. Locals, cyclists, and truckers are more common than the population density in this part of the world would suggest. They all have cell phones, and are on a first-name basis with local law enforcement. Double yellow lines are religious artifacts in this particular denomination, be patient and assume the traffic engineers had their reasons and sufficient education behind their decisions. Don’t be an asshole, and, to be more specific, don’t be *that* asshole.
This will be on the test this week.
The co-driver and I spend an intermission tagging everyone’s car with team decals. In the streetlights’ glow, I take just a moment to enjoy the company of these cars. This is the cleanest and quietest these machines will be this week. There is something to be said for the exposed weave of carbon fiber, those stained titanium exhaust tips, millions of hours of engineering and passion and education and hours toiled at work and research and currency that went into this moment, this parking lot. I get the sense that while this misfit group might be demographically, geographically, ethnically, economically, and philosophically diverse, there is this common bond of adventure and appreciation for what drove us here, literally and metaphorically.
Once we’ve tagged everyone, it’s quickly to bed, forever to sleep. Tomorrow always takes an eternity when I’m in the office, and the night before seems blow by at the speed of light.
Dustball Rally Starting Line: Day One
I’m up 15 minutes before the alarm goes off. The sun rises early in the desert, and I’m two time zones from when I usually wake up, so I’m already a bit more amped than usual. Pulling back the curtains, if I strain my neck, I can see some cars fresh from their early morning fuel stops, as they start to gather on the roof at the starting line. I love today. Fifth rally in, I still get butterflies.
After spending a lifetime reading everyone from Jack Baruth to Csaba Csere to Mark Donahue to Bob Lutz to Brock Yates to David E. Davis, Jr., to Dan Neil to Ezra Dyer to Travis Okulski, anyone and everyone and anything written, recorded, or so much as suggestively implied about cars, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best stories aren’t actually about the cars. After these years, the best writers come off as just documentarians. The cars just play narrators to the story written by the characters that drive them. The journey provides the plot. All the world’s a stage, indeed. This story begins on the roof of the Palms hotel parking garage. Looking at the cast, I imagine this will be an adventure story.
Our Corvette is joined on the roof by an ever-present Teutonic contingent. Stuttgart, Wolfsburg, Munich, and Inglostadt natives are all well represented. The Porsche delegation has showed up en masse: a GT3, GT4, a pair of 997 911s, a 981 Boxster, a Stormtrooper-white Panamera Turbo with Lime-a-Rita colored brake calipers, and a Cayman GTS that I’m involuntarily drawn to. E60 and F10 M5s, that M4, an M235i, and a 135i. There is an S5 that in typical Audi fashion has attracted some exquisitely clean modifications, a VW Jetta that’s had a green and black wrap straight out of the psychedelic Beyond Jupiter sequence at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey is here. A couple from LA brought up one of the darlings of the rally – an S52 powered M-Coupe, referred to as “Clownshoe” on all subsequent radio communications. Half of the exceedingly talented camera crew is rolling in a modified VW MKV GTI (daily driven, at that) which will more or less impress everyone at one point in time or another over the course of the next 96 hours.
The delegation from the Far East has also arrived in strong numbers, in addition to the aforementioned NSX and R32, there’s a black and chrome gold wrapped GTR wearing 335 section tires and looking like it needs every last millimeter of grip and a WRX wagon (wagon! This guy gets it.). Some good friends from Dallas make their way to the roof in their G35 that’s seen most all of this country at speed. A trio of Italians make their way onto the roof – a 458 that sounds glorious and a Gallardo Superleggera that sounds glorious a Fiat 500 Abarth that sounds every bit as glorious.
And can we talk for just a second about this Volvo V60 Polestar? It seems everyone up here is in on the secret – every gas station, this Polestar blue Swedish delight draws a crowd, as it damn well should. What a magnificent machine.
Being born into a GM family means I have a genetic predisposition to cars built by the country that helped win dubya-dubya two, birthed Kid Rock, and put a man on the friggin’ moon. A C6 ZR1 and the Devil’s Own fifth gen Camaro (100,000 supercharged miles, and a noise at full bore that sounds like the landing at Normandy mixed with a Saturn V at full chat) represent the modern Chevrolets. A 1965 El Camino – let me repeat that – a Chevrolet El Camino produced in the year of our Lord nineteen-hundred and sixty five will join us for this rally in what is unquestionably the most Real American Hero sense possible. A pair of Mustangs that are very much in on the joke – a GT500 with many, many horsepowers and a heartily-tracked Boss 302 Laguna Seca – represent the Ford contingent well. Dodges? Yes. Chargers (one rented and one owned and very, very green) and Challengers, and, dammit, a Plum Crazy Hellcat. Look – I’m going to level with you – if you’re going to buy a seven hundred and seven blessed horsepower muscle car as American a Bruce Springsteen singing a duet with John Denver, you get the damn thing in purple. That is the correct answer. Magnificent.
There are others, but no time now. No, the instructions have been distributed and the cars are fired up for the first time in anger.
As the flag waves, we’re thrust immediately out of town. Las Vegas isn’t just an oasis, it might as well be on Mars. Neon and bachelorette parties and free drinks even if you’re just playing the penny slots gives way with record time to complete desolation. I’m sure the Baptist preachers in Clark County have no shortage of sermons dedicated to the geographical proximity of the City of Sin to mouth of hell itself. Coming from the city of no windows, several dozen businesses claiming “the loosest slots in town”, and an entirely engineered and artificial existence to the dead, disembodied silence of the Death Valley National Park gives you some sort of appreciation for the bizarre and enchanting diversity of lifestyles inhabited on this continent.
The Corvette is feeling the heat as well, down on power from sucking in what feels like pre-combusted air. But ahead of us is the road out of the desert. The desert was hiding this secret mountain pass, and downshifting from 6th, to 5th, to 4th, to 3rd means playtime has arrived. The long climb into the mountains around the valley with a Porsche 911 driven by a couple from Dallas who are no strangers to adventure and endurance racing as well as our rookie-cum-veterans after the morning’s hijinks in the M4 provide more than formidable opponents in these canyon roads. The climb is breathtaking, these curves, the first really technically stuff in a long, long, blessedly long list of technical roads is a fantastic first indulgence. These desert mountains feel like making a canyon run in Schiaparelli crater. After a little while, the mountains level back out, and we’re back in the valley.
A half an hour of fooling around in cooler temperatures brings us to our first stop. Lunch seems like a victory in and of itself. Everything that entered the desert makes it out. A rural Burger King with a troop of Boy Scouts ready to camp and retired folks is where we reconvene, thankful and unaware of the gifts this Nevada/California border has to offer just down the road. The vegetation begins to change as we proceed out of the desert. Where there was nothing but silence and unrelenting heat in the morning, suddenly some shrubberies, then small, squat trees, then ranch land appears. It’s clear we’re headed out of scorched earth and into the fertile embrace of California’s Inyo National Forest
The topography near the outskirts of Yosemite is outright perplexing – gentle sweepers and extreme dips and crests run the suspension through the full travel. I’ve got not question one of the more adventurous groups snuck some air time. We’re running in a fairly large group, the sole American car in a group of Germans and the WRX Wagon. But between the tenor flat and inline sixes and unequal length headers on the wagon and our V8 for the baritone harmony, this landscape absolutely sings. We dart into a forest where you can see the cars and their decals dart in and out of the trees. The death and heat from this morning seems a galaxy away from the ranches we uncover out of the forest. We’re running in a canyon for a short period before we hear some static on the radio. There is a camera crew ahead with drone deployed above us ahead shooting footage. We’re not the first to figure out what that means. The Porsche and Audi ahead downshift.
My co-driver tells me to take a quick left, and then I see her brace herself in the seat. Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war. Hairpins and sweepers and short straights followed by late braking out in this rural nowhere as we climb back into the sky, and back down again. The singing in the valley is a full chorus now. This afternoon – the months of anticipation, preparation, logistical wrangling – this is what it’s about, right damn here.
In the blink of an eye, we’re headed into “downtown” Tahoe, if you can properly call it that. Showers, beers (Outside! In August!), and pizza. Sleep, unlike last night’s restless battle, is a gift. Tomorrow requires refreshment.
US 50 (Do Not Divert): Day Two
I’m a creature of mind-numbing habit. When I’m at home, on any given Tuesday, my alarm goes off at 5:00 AM sharp. By 5:04 AM, I’ve got my teeth brushed and I’ve got one of the dogs outside. By 5:25 AM, I’m showered, putting on my shoes, and preparing to walk uptown to work. By anywhere between 5:45 AM and 5:50 AM, I’m sitting at my desk, where I start working and wait until 6:30 AM to have a cup of coffee and two of those single-serving boxes of Frosted Flakes. I’m predictable, minimizing those inefficient deviations between my bed and this desk.
Today, at 6 something Mountain or Pacific in California or Nevada, I’m awake. I look out the window and onto the lake. Lake Tahoe is a spectacular, what, azure? Blue just seems too pedestrian for that color. Lapis lazuli is probably the best approximation I can give. I’m in a place that I didn’t know I’d be 24 hours ago. I don’t know where I’ll be 24 hours from now. This sort of daring into the brutal unknown is that breath of fresh air and impetuousness that just wraps around me like a blanket. If I never came back, maybe that’d be alright.
The start line is a frenzied jaunt down the coast of the lake, down delightful four lane roads lead us out of town and on to US 50.
Folks will wax poetic (pot calling the kettle black, but stay with me here) about Route 66. It was an important trade route, an iconic TV show, and a road that’s the subject of as many songs as Crenshaw Boulevard. However, as much chintz and legend and attention as Route 66 gains, the 3,008 miles that make up modern U.S. Route 50 are as close an approximation of an overture of America as you’ll get. Running from the coast out in West Sacramento, California, all the way to Ocean City, Maryland, this sea-to-shining-sea route touches exactly one quarter of the contiguous 48 states. The route was built long before the interstate system came along and moved most drivers and truckers off these 90 year old pathways from Atlantic to Pacific, amber waves of grain, abandoned deserts, all the way through the heartland of the Appalachians.
Most other Tuesdays, I’d be midway through my morning routine.
Today, we’re running at triple digits coming out of Fallon, Nevada, back into the desert. F-18s and F-35s out of Naval Air Station Fallon are buzzing at low altitude overhead.
This route is like a trip to the planetarium – the scale is somewhat daunting, and you’re going to leave feeling really, really tiny. The group we’re running with are like a group of young kids out running around – pick a point in the distance, and I’ll race you there. We’ll be driving along at a constant pace before someone will drop two gears and just stretch their legs. All that freedom that’s built into every classroom and baseball game and apple pie is oozing out of this route. It’s my annual reminder that, no matter what happens out there in the real world, as a country, we’re going to be just fine.
The co-driver and I, as we crest hills and can see seemingly into Nebraska, pick points way out in the distance and guess how far they are away. We can see the road go right up to them, 5 and 10 miles into the distance with nothing but these sprinkles tearing off into the distance, renewing an awakened sense manifest destiny after 200 some odd years. US 50 is a national treasure.
Lunch today comes at a burger joint in a truck stop off I-80. As is customary with Dustball, our time on the interstate is short, and we’re off on a seemingly random exit as we re-enter Idaho. Just like yesterday, and the years before, I’m quickly learning that in certain circumstances and in certain places in this country, great roads are hidden. My co-driver will scroll head on her route she’s got programmed into the iPad she’s mapped out, and, from time to time I hear from the passenger’s seat, a muffled “Whee!”
Somewhere in the hills about two hours outside of Boise, there is small chasm for about 20 miles where the earth just seems to be torn violently open, and an engineer took up the challenge to somehow squeeze a road down between a creek and the two sides of chasm out in the middle of no place in particular. From fourth to third to second and rowing back up through the gears, we snake down what seems to be this oddly placed canyon for miles and miles. It’s delightful break from the mesas and plateaus that lead us the rest of the way into Boise.
Arrival in Boise means going to a place known for their French fries because of course we’re in Boise going to a French fry place. The group of nerds I’m with immediately begins figuring out the number of permutations of spices, salts, ketchups, sauces, and the 10 or so varieties of potatoes available before us. A freeze frame of this moment would find this table with people from all over the North American continent with a myriad of backgrounds, multiple master’s degrees in a silly number of subjects, drinking the finest craft beers Boise has to offer (not pulling any punches here, they’re solid, good work Boise), discussing the microcosm of possibilities offered by this 12 table French fry joint. It’s moments like these that are impossible to describe to coworkers upon arrival back home. The number of stars that would have to align in the universe to get this outcome is astronomical. What a wonderful thing.
On our way home, the couple in the deviously stock-looking Golf TDI gives us a ride. I adore this car for the following reasons:
Torque Torque It makes funny noises when delivering torque
Tonight, we call it a night early. There are rumblings among the staff and participants that tomorrow has an ace up its sleeve.
As it turns out, yes, in fact, it does.
The Best Day of Driving That Doesn’t Require a Helmet: Day 3
I was born into cars. My dad picked up his Matador Red 1970 Oldsmobile Cutlass back in April of 1970 - right around when Apollo 13 was tearing off into the abyss. He’s still got it, and it’s still immaculate. It’s the car I learned to drive stick on. When folks ask what moment it was I became a car guy, I can’t tell them. I must’ve been too young to remember as this was a genetic (and contagious) obsession.
As it turned out, that obsession ended up bleeding over into everything around me. My closest friends in high school, my family, the identity I built for myself: all tied around this big dumb hobby. Back in the days of 56k modems and Gran Turismo 4, when we’d stay up all night racing 24 hours at the Nürburgring because we had enough Mountain Dew and White Castle and youthful idiocy to do it, we’d talk about days like today.
Back in Mike’s basement – he was the co-driver for my first rally in 2011 and will be the officiant at my wedding to my co-driver for the last 3 years – we’d talk about how we’d build houses on opposite sides of the mountains and race these canyons, touges, passes, and whatever we could find all over the world in whatever the flavor of the week was, be it 911s, Corvettes, or GT-Rs (once we could get them here). The talks we had would last until we’d pass out on the couch, unable to try Mission 34 one last time (we never did beat it) or stop looking for S13s and CRXs on Craigslist out of pure exhaustion.
I’ve don’t know if I’ve ever talked with those guys about those nights, but those discussions stoked my dreams. They’d get me out of high school, working my ass off in college and at my internships, and they are what keeps me getting up at 5:00AM every stupid weekday morning. I worked to finally get there – to be able to take those drives in the canyons with all that exotic hardware, to get thrown around by weathered roads and absolutely nail that heel-toe into four-three-two, apex, and unwind as the motor unleashed a cacophony of noise and violence. The late nights studying in the library would give way to me searching for Best Motoring videos, or reviews on SixSpeedOnline from guys who finally had their F355 delivered and could only offer the advice to “stay in school because hot diggity is it worth it”.
And that brings us to Day 3.
If you’re curious as to why this recap took so long to put together, day 3 is one of the reasons. There is only so much you can say about great drives. Speaking from a literary sense, I’m trying to distill the essence of what makes going out on twisty roads so memorable and wonderful. Certainly, that’s not something that appeals to everyone, but even writing to enthusiasts, trying to communicate even just the elements of it presents a unique challenge. The physical act of climbing into a car and going out and hustling around some fast sweepers and technical sections in a part of the country where the view out the windshield around each turn is right out of a damn postcard is difficult to portray in this medium simply because there is a sensation of speed and scenery and camaraderie that just doesn’t make it across.
I’ve done a slew of track days, a couple of endurance races, and enthusiast drives all over. This fifth rally chalked up 10,000 miles I’ve done with the Dustball group alone. If I might be blunt, the challenge of trying to transcribe the experience is simply that much more difficult because, without hesitation or question, the drive out of Boise, through Eastern Oregon, Western Idaho, and Eastern Washington was the best day of driving I’ve ever done
Leaving Boise, the terrain quickly gives way to hills, and then into mountains. Charging hard down a 4 lane divided highway headed directly westbound, we’ve got a big group running together just across the border of Idaho into Oregon. The day begins to get picturesque about an hour in and won’t abate until about 10 minutes away from the hotel where we’re staying. After a stop for fuel about an hour and a half into the day, we’re grouped up with somewhere between 10 and 15 cars, and we make a turn off the highway. Seeing the hills in the distance, and that we’re headed straight for them, puts a little pep in our step, and our fleet of fast stacked up behind me, downshifting a gear or two seems only appropriate.
The road drops down a couple stories into a valley and begins to track through the hills in a high-speed course that’s sandwiched between a trio of national forests and straddling the border between Oregon and Idaho. Esses and sweepers with what seemed like just us and a white contractor pickup every ten minutes. Coming around every turn, a quick glance in my rearview mirror I can see our trail of Skittles keeping up.
Saying that the Corvette was built for this is an understatement: this is exactly what those crafty folks in Detroit and Bowling Green had in mind. Sure, it’s cheap, resale is garbage, and the interior is roughly the same quality you’d get in any variety of rickshaws. But the purpose is clear – and it’s clicking along, goading me faster around every bend.
After what must have been 45 minutes of torching through the valley, my co-driver informs me that we’ve got a rather surprise left turn coming up. Turning off Highway 86 just outside Pine, Oregon, we’re more or less the only folks out here. There aren’t a bunch of campsites, or scenic overlooks, or any semblance of civilization. Just unfettered access to some of the most technical and demanding roads I’ve driven. In contrast to the 4th gear sweepers, this forest hides miles upon miles of 2nd and 3rd gear series decreasing radius lefts and rights, giving into hairpins and hard braking.
The grasslands we were driving through give way to a deep Alpine scene, with the car filling with the scent of Ponderosa Pines as we climb the side of this mountain range. There are only a handful of straightaways, mostly covered by the shade of the pines, as the temperature quickly drops into the upper 60s. At the co-driver’s suggestion, we roll the windows down and take in the fruits of our adventure.
About an hour into playing, it’s just us out here. This is exactly what we talked about back in Mike’s basement. Pacing the German, Swedish, and Italian metal behind me, who are all unable to be shook free despite my best efforts, I’d catch the note of something Superleggera’s soprano wail or the Cayman GTS’ exhaust popping downshifts echoing off the forest.
This is bliss.
This magnificent road – remind me to send some Edible Arrangements to the engineers and workers who laid it here – delivers us into a the tiny mountain town of Joseph, Oregon, for lunch. You’d be forgiven if you thought that there was some Narnia action happening out in the forest, because it would appear that we’ve been transported to the Swiss countryside. Snowcapped peaks run into green fields dotted with red barns. Fresh, still, mountain air only interrupted by our comically loud troupe gives us further pause about just not going home. I’d be lying to you if I told you I didn’t have some houses for sale pulled up in another window right this very minute.
Lunch is quiet, everyone is trying to collect themselves at the mid-point of the day’s journey. I’ll stress mid-point here, because, as Joseph is a town at elevation, we still have to work our way down. We’re blasting out of Joseph and into the forest through a string of towns, each as stereotypically picturesque as the next. Looking at the GPS, I can see the snake that lies ahead.
Elevation is shed quickly. The high-speed canyon driving and technical forests ahead mean we’ve only got a couple more topographical gifts left to traverse today, but my heavens are they memorable. The canyon right on the Washington/Oregon border is one that appears to simply be a ledge cut into the side of a mountain just wide enough to fit two lanes. Miles and miles and miles of driving where you’ve got rock to the right and a guardrail holding back the view on the left. We’re able to see the BMWs and Porsches two turns ahead as though they were models placed on a shelf. Hairpins on the map just mean the guardrail will change sides of the car. We’re at the canyon floor in what feels like no time, but the sweat on my palms and co-drivers exhale of relief lets me know it’s been a while.
We’re back to fast sweepers through honest-to-God Amber waves of grain on these foothills. We’re behind the purple Hellcat watching it pour into turns, roll slightly, plant, and absolutely explode out of the turns. Trying to keep up is silly, but it sure is fun. Located just across the banks of the Snake River, right outside of the twin cities of Clarkson, Oregon, and Lewiston, Idaho, the historical reference of which I just got typing this out, is the Old Lewiston Grade. My co-driver informs me that this is called the Spiral Highway, which immediately makes sense upon the first turn. A quarter mile ahead, I can see our group on two separate turns dancing along the edge of the hills. The view back south into Oregon is increasingly spectacular as we climb through the banks. A quick jaunt in Idaho gives way to Washington.
Our arrival into Washington has been preceded by some exceedingly enthusiastic drivers who, upon meeting with local officials, have given some direction to perhaps enjoy the scenery at a more leisurely pace. This is not a difficult challenge. Windmills and wheat are just painted onto the view out the windows. Words here aren’t going to do this justice. They won’t. Pictures can scratch the surface. When you have the opportunity you must go
Spokane gets here too quickly, but, after all our adventuring today, a shower and a cup of coffee and an Old Fashioned and a steak seems only appropriate. Today was just wonderful.
Exactly How the Play Was Drawn Up: Day Four
Okay, when I say yesterday “was just wonderful,” I might have been omitting some brief instances that’d stretch the definition of “just wonderful”. There were a couple of incidents on day 3. I’d call them casualties, but, see, we all made it to the finish, so I just won’t do that.
As luck would have it, we turned out to have a minor instance of our own, although the consequences wouldn’t be felt until the starting line the next day.
Coming down out of the valley, and following the purple Hellcat, our radar detector begins to flicker on and off. Brushing it off as dirty leads to an electrical connection, I’m a bit startled as the full infotainment system dies at speed, followed in short order to a full shutdown of the car. Huh.
It’s a bit startling, but we safely glide to a stop, open the hood, notice nothing obvious, and restart the car with no trouble. At the next fuel stop just a mile down the road, I attempt to move the car up to a fuel pump, only to fail to restart the car – not even a click of the starter. With the help of several resident wrenches and talented mechanics, it is immediately pointed out that the negative lead has come off my battery. Assuming this is the only issue, it is reconnected, the car is jumped, and we continue on our way, making it all the way into Spokane before the car started tossing out weird codes that intermittently came on and off.
Leaving Spokane on day 4 was smooth for about 20 minutes until, upon reaching our first fuel stop, I notice the voltage gauge on our car flickering dangerously low. The infotainment system started to flicker on and off. We dart to a Chevrolet dealership only to have the car run out of electricity in the service line. After a couple hours of diagnosis, we’re informed that not only had the battery gone bad on us, the alternator was shot.
Through the 4 hour wait at the dealership for a fix for a dead battery and alternator, some friends from Dallas, the couple in a G35 sedan, had decided to wait for us so they could cruise with us the rest of the way into Vancouver. I’m not the most sentimental person, but this sort of kindness is genuinely moving. The fact that they’d take 4 hours out of the final day to stay behind with us and make sure we got moving again is a gesture that I won’t forget any time soon. I owe you guys – I really do.
This isn’t our first time breaking something rather major on this rally. We had an instance a couple years back where a shop forgot to properly torque both upper rear control arms to the car after installing a clutch, which lead to a simultaneous failure at both points doing about 80 mph on I-30 out of Dallas, which meant that I was more attached to the car than either of the rear wheels. Fortunately, nothing spectacular happened in our circumstance, but immediately thereafter, we found ourselves on the side of the highway waving people on. Half a dozen fellow folks stopped to offer assistance or guidance or a ride on to Memphis.
I just can’t shake moments like that. Virtual strangers just a matter of hours prior coming together through nothing but kindness and this sort of empathetic (or sympathetic, in some cases) bond you have with good car people. You can certainly enjoy a rally like this running your own race speed, but it’s that banter on the radio, your buddy getting the next round, and the folks taking time out of their vacation to make sure you’re going to see this whole damn thing through that really make it wonderful.
We’re outbound on the route just after lunch, and reading on the Telegram thread that the roads ahead aren’t something we’d want to skip in the interest of time. The roads out of Spokane are just as spectacular as on the way in. It looks like the fertile plains out in Iowa or Nebraska, but if you laid them across the biggest ski moguls you’ve ever seen.
We catch WA-20 that afternoon, and my co-driver informs me we’ve got more than half the state on this single road. The Cascade Mountains arrive in the windows and stay there for several hours. We wind through several picturesque towns, making a solemn promise to come back to Winthrop, Washington one day in the future when we’ve got a week. These lakes and trees as we dance along the Canadian border are the spectacular Pacific Northwest you can imagine if you just close your eyes and imagine exactly what you’d think a mountain range basking in the afternoon sun would look like. In North Cascades National Park, we meet up with a lost couple in a CLK55 who will stay with us until we get to the hotel several hours later.
Judging by the time, our position, and our route, the realization sets in with the group that we’re going to reach the coast right at sunset. Our morning misgivings with the Corvette inadvertently give us perhaps the most picturesque final rally stage possibly imaginable.
Washington Route 11, called Chuckanut Drive in parts, runs from Blanchard to Bellingham, and follows the coastline of Samish Bay and Bellingham Bay. As the sun darted in through the trees as it raced toward the coast, my co-driver found a restaurant with a patio overlooking the bay. We arrive with not a moment to spare. Our group, running as the caboose, had one of the most memorable dinners, as we recount the day over some local beers and wines.
The only thing that lies ahead was a short stretch up I-5 to a border checkpoint about 25 miles outside Vancouver. Dustball was officially going to Canada.
Several hours after the main group arrives, we cross the border into Canada, making official our international rally status. Switching the cars into metric, I keep the speedometer pegged at the 100 km/h speed limit due to a genuine fear of driving a stickered-up car with Texas plates into a foreign city and having seen too many episodes of Locked Up Abroad. Our arrival onto the peninsula at night allowed us to drive through the lights of downtown Vancouver, bathing in neon and downright cold ocean air.
Another 2,000 miles in the books. Hugs, high-fives, and a handful of beers and a double tequila shot from a bartender named Ian who was fascinated by our travelling circus slipped me into bed around closing time at 3AM.
A Party and Sendoff: Day Five
Somewhere between the awards lunch at a brewery on the coast and the finish line party at a club in downtown Vancouver, I find myself trying to get a grip on just exactly who these people who do this are. I know I’m an odd bird with a fiancée who just so happens to be the most talented co-driver on the continent (officially, now), but these other folks, and what motivation they had to come along for this adventure?
At the beginning of the trip, it seems like these are just a group of people who have the opportunity to take a week and turn into these caricatures of their own personalities. It’s like a week for introverts to spend out of their shell, and extroverts to thrive. Car fans of the highest order, certainly, but some of the most genuinely fascinating people I’ve met. I’d tell you that it’s the cars and pageantry, the stickers and the roads and the opportunity to burn gasoline in exchange for memories. But that’s only half the story.
These people are the ones who make the memories concrete – who make it the adventure it is. I’ll never understand the Harley and Goldwing guys that tear off across to Sturgis or Glacier Mountain National Park or Key West alone.
Some of these folks are inspirational posters come to life as empire builders. Charismatic and brilliant researchers. Tough-as-coffin-nails shop owners. Bar owners with delightful personalities contagious enough to be classified as epidemics by the CDC. An honest-to-goodness geologist who is about as at home in the middle of nowhere as anyone I’ve met. Blue collar, white collar, no collar, whatever collar that Sailor Moon outfit had. Devout Porschefiles and crowd-devouring Mustang owners. Dustball is the ultimate equalizer.
At the club that night, and in between the Assault course of shots, I’ve got a chance to stand back and take these folks in and just bask in the warmth they bring. It’s not difficult to see how this group gets to bond. From the lows of breakdowns to the highs of tearing across the desert at triple digit speeds and running through the forest up and down mountains with the entire world just to ourselves, there is no better way to get to know people than to enjoy one of the most demanding and fantastic weeks together as a group.
In the club that night, and starting to feel that my motor and speech skills are letting me down a bit, it starts to set in: this rally is a team sport. We made it here as a group, and, as the antithesis to the Top Gear challenges, we finish as a group.
I love these guys, I really do.
Epilogue: Day Six through Three-Hundred and Fifty-Nine
The first time back in the office feels like I’ve been thrown off a train into a telephone pole. Going from driving my ragged LS2 down every corner of the Pacific Northwest in search of good fortune and in the company of the finest group of fellow ne’er-do-wells in the world to driving a desk isn’t an easy task. Settling back into a routine that doesn’t involve a police scanner just seems unfair to ask of a person. Maybe we need a rally detox program. Just a slowly diminishing IV drip of tequila and adrenaline and 93 octane a couple times a week for the next couple of months before that next big hit.
Speaking of which, if there’s anything that kills the hangover faster than pouring myself into regaling a rally in excruciating detail, it’s talk of the next one around. For those of you who can’t wait for the next hit, the Dustball gang strikes the Southwest again for a 1,000 mile run from El Paso to Vegas and, as someone who has heard a rumor about the route, it will be simply astonishing. A return to the magical roots of the roads in the region that made Dustball a legend, this trip will certainly serve as another dose of that high that keeps us coming back.
It’s probably a little late in the story to mention that this Vegas to Vancouver run is the last 2,000 mile event that will take place for the foreseeable future in the Dustball story. Next year, we go in search of the holy grail of continental road trips.
As of the final draft of this story, there are 17 slots left with 335 days to go until the next driver’s meeting in Manhattan. Team Radar Love will be present. See you there, you deviant adventurers.
Until then, good luck with the hangover.