Solo Road Trip: one man, one Miata, one big country.

I’m pleased to welcome Michael Smith as a guest blogger. How I met Michael is interesting. He posted an ad on Craig’s List looking for someone to teach him to ride a motorcycle for his upcoming solo trip to Guatemala. He was willing to pay $50 but my son offered to teach him free if her wrote about his trip for Solo Traveler. (Always thinking, my boy!) Turns out, Michael writes professionally and already had this story ready to go. Enjoy!

Westbound on the QEW, leaving Toronto.

Westbound on the QEW, leaving Toronto.

Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay – the hip-joined luminaries of epic Hollywood moments – couldn’t have arranged for a frozen instant of tear-jerking Americana more moving than the one just delivered through a stone-scarred Miata windscreen.

Envisioned weeks earlier in my home city of Toronto, brought to fruition on the Arizona-Utah border, and spurred by the larger-than-life strains of composer Hans Zimmer’s Days of Thunder score, I charged up a hill in third gear, crested with a satisfying backhand into fourth – and suddenly forgot about fifth and sixth as the awesome buttes and mesas of Monument Valley unfolded ahead.

Having already seen America’s best during the previous three weeks, the magnificent views afforded from US 163 – sights associated with freedom, John Ford and the endless frontier – still managed to humble and wow like none before.

Zimmer segued into Santana and the melancholic riffs of Europa filled the air as I cruised dusty 163. A Ford pickup loomed close in the rearview, unwilling to pass despite light traffic and miles of unbroken opportunity. This was my perfect moment – my reverie, my meditation, my climax. The very last thing I needed was a bully F-150 on my six.

Seeing an upcoming flareout in the narrow shoulder, I pulled off to let him pass. His
third gear kickdown registered just as my steering lightened. I quickly lost speed, easing to a tire-spinning halt on the soft shoulder-cum-sand dune.

With the rear end submerged in sand, nary another soul in sight and zero bars of mobile service, I trudged off in search of help. This was an adventure. I was smiling.

Three rules for this road trip: no interstates, no top, no cares.

I had departed Toronto nineteen days earlier with three simple rules:no interstates, no top, no cares. Combing through countless guidebooks and hundreds of forum posts, I assembled the perfect route – one that would snake me through the country’s best twisties, across landscapes mainstream and iconic, under suns angry and tender and to places friendly and hostile. I was to plumb the Appalachians, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Great Smokies, the Sonora, the Mohave and the Rockies in my Mazda Miata.

A car better suited to the task does not exist. To paraphrase John Denver, the Miata fills up your senses like a night in the forest. It melts time in a way that more isolating cars – closed cars, numb cars, heavy cars – cannot mimic. Simultaneously jarring you awake and calming your nerves with a magical blend of vibrations, tactility, adept wind management and humble 4-cylinder buzz, it becomes an appendage – the most natural and capable suit of armor ever worn by knight or plebe.

Posing in Death Valley near the Stovepipe Wells dunes.

Posing in Death Valley near the Stovepipe Wells dunes.

The Tail of the Dragon

That organic personality became apparent during the first of several attacks on a section of U.S. 129 in North Carolina and Tennessee famously known as the Tail of the Dragon. The Miata – previously possessed of a fun-but-twitchy oversteering personality in round-town driving – dug its heels into the banked curves and caught fire, inspiring a sort of overconfidence last felt during the waning years of homeroom and hall passes. Even for an experienced amateur, the Dragon was akin to acid-spiked punch at a teetotaler’s party.

Unfortunately, after seven miles of pure joy, the fun stopped.

I couldn’t have smelled guiltier. A cloud of singed brakes and melted Toyos hung heavy around the suddenly-halted Miata as a Blount County, Tennessee Sheriff’s deputy approached. I’d been caught with my whole arm in the cookie jar. Powering into his radar’s sights, engine whipping at upwards of 6,000 rpm and rear tires starved for traction, I was expecting something far worse than a 42-in-a-30 warning. This was impossible – and impossibly lucky.

Road trip through Texas, Arizona and California

Driving pleasure only increased as the weather warmed. Following thousands of miles of Texas flats, Arizona peace and California crowds, the map turned crook as I began a tour of the Sunshine State’s epic assortment of serpentine B-roads. After clinging to the coast for several hours heading north from San Francisco, I cut inland through the redwood forests and pressed south via gold rush country. At no point was the driving anything less than incredible, the days filled with bolster-crushing bends and grin-making lunges. When conditions allow, the MX-5’s perfectly spaced pedals, riflebolt-crisp gearchange and telepathic steering blur the line between dream and truth, ordinary drivers transformed into skilled practitioners of refined violence.

Grand Canyon from the South Rim -- Bright Angel Trailhead

Grand Canyon from the South Rim -- Bright Angel Trailhead

The Miata attracted some memorable speeding buddies in Northern California, most notably an early Chrysler minivan intent on leading the way through an interesting set of ridge roads. Pushing the limits of a limited performance envelope, the short-wheelbase Magic Wagon lifted its beam-axle-suspended inside rear wheel as I casually kept pace. When the old van’s turn signal finally glowed, a knowing look washing across my face – the look of a junkie about to get his fix. I hung back and grabbed third as my friend made his turn, rolling into the meat of the 2.0L four’s powerband and pulling forward with a rush of satisfaction. I was free to heel-toe my way through the mountains until the next obstruction – and the next blissful exercise in delayed gratification.

Death Valley offers an unexpected garden of driving delights.

Yardstick-straight desert flats beg for speedometer winding while a combination of long sweepers and medium-tight third-gear corners await those who press further into the national park’s arid expanse.

I angled my left-hand mirror downwards and leaned on the windowsill to watch the rear suspension articulate its gunmetal burden over the undulating pavement, compressing in dips and drooping when jumped. Stopping momentarily to run around in the Stovepipe Wells sand dunes, I punctuated the driving bliss with a hands-on taste of the desert’s visceral heat.

Beyond the bucket seat.

Great as the driving was – and it was quite great – a real trip involves more than steering and stopping.

I pulled over and swam in the Merced river, almost getting caught by the current and thrown over a natural dam. I hiked for a day in Yosemite National Park, covering 15 miles and reaching the peak of Cloud’s Rest. I stood on mountain summits and cliff faces feeling like a Dark Age peasant crossing the threshold of a great cathedral. Hiking miles into the Grand Canyon, I disregarded ranger warnings and ascended in one quarter the rated time. I hopped on a moving freight train and rode like a hobo, laughing and tumbling my way back to solid ground. Drifting to the summit of Pike’s Peak, I hiked the mountain and saw clear to New Mexico. I walked Route 66 in the pitch black, staring upwards at the endless night and celebrating spontaneity.

After all of it, I fell into my bucket seat and flattened more hills. I lived the road.

The kindness of strangers

So, nineteen days after leaving Toronto, I stood before my beached car on a lonely stretch of US 168. Top up, bag packed and I was walking. Some miles down the road, a lucky encounter with a truck full of locals set free the captive Miata from its sandy perch. I keyed the car to life, rolled a few feet to check for strange noises, then took off like the nomad I was: singing that tough inline-four to its 7,000 rpm limit and rowing uncertainly into a Monument Valley sunset.

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  • Interwest Safety

    I’ll have to give a roadtrip like this one a try this summer. The Grand Canyon looks amazing, I’ve never been before. I wish I didn’t have to work so much so that I could spend more time traveling – how do you do it! 😀

  • Daniel

    What an amazing post! So evocative you can nearly feel the Miata humming over the blacktop. Thanks, Michael. Would love to discover your exact route!

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  • admin

    I love driving and road trips. But I’ve never designed a trip so specifically about the drive – it’s been more about the destination. Love this post.