See how tiny my car looks in that picture? I drove half-way across the country in that thing. It was the time of my life.
In October of 2011, I applied for, and got, a job in my original hometown of Westlake Village, California. After three decades of living in Texas, I was finally moving back to the place I'd always considered home. I would be driving out there from Dallas on my own. Most of my belongings were boxed up and in storage, to be sent for once I found an apartment in California. It was just me, a couple bags of clothes, a box of books, and my Miata.
The Miata had some big tires to fill. It was the replacement for my beloved Acura Integra, a car that had been my vehicular soulmate for 12 years. The Integra had won my heart by doing everything I wanted from a car extremely well, and being almost flawlessly reliable. For the first couple of years of Miata ownership, I was caught between the near-unmatched pleasure of its driving dynamics, and the wallet-draining hell of catching up with all the deferred maintenance that had stacked up on an almost 20-year-old car.
We were off to a difficult start, but I knew there was something special about the car, and committed to a restoration, with some modifications along the way. I won't bore you with the list of changes, other than to mention the Maruha chromoly flywheel, and Bilstein/FM/FCM suspension upgrades, since those significantly alter the driving character of the car. The flywheel was the first mod made to the car, installed along with a fresh OEM clutch. The suspension, on the other hand, was installed less than a week before I left Dallas.
Other than the fresh suspension components (read: everything but the control arms!), the car didn't offer much to worry about. Yeah, by now it was more than old enough to buy its own beer, but it had also been gone over for the past three years to eliminate potential problems. The car was ready.
I, on the other hand, wasn't so sure.
I'd been on long road trips before, but I'd never taken one alone that lasted more than four hours or so. Not only that, but I'd be taking a route I hadn't taken before. I'd planned to take the northern route via I-40, since I was familiar with that drive, but snow and ice on parts of that route convinced me to take the more southern I-10. What I did know was that regardless of the route taken, I'd be driving through a whole lot of empty-ass nothing between Dallas and the coast. Alone.
The Miata and I left the suburbs of North Dallas on a clear, cool Saturday morning in the beginning of November. It was my favorite kind of day in North Texas, and I considered it an appropriate send-off. The new suspension was stiff, and the car was even lower than it had been stock. I'd have to be careful. But it cornered like ... well, I'd just think what I wanted it to do, the rational part of my brain would scream, "That's not possible, you crazy fuck!" and the car would just do it like it was nothing, like it was no more difficult than pulling into a parking spot.
Although the car had been largely restored, the stereo was not among the refreshed parts. I was going to get beaten up aurally between the wind noise and the engine buzzing away at a more-or-less constant 4,500 rpm. I had to find ways to keep myself entertained. First lesson learned: Even a car as fun to drive as a Miata has a hard time shining on perfectly straight, flat roads through the middle of nowhere. Even triple-digit speeds couldn't make that stretch less boring. Uh, not that I would know, of course. But really, they couldn't.
Near as I can remember it, there's about six hours or so worth of pure boring in that drive out of Dallas. Somewhere around the intersection of I-20 and I-10 things got geographically interesting. For me, they also got intensely scary. The Miata has a gas tank smaller than some sodas, and I hadn't seen a real gas station, like one that was still in business and actually open, since sometime before Odessa. The needle was edging ever closer to E, and I was driving through BFE without a gas pump in sight.
I finally found a gas station and pulled in for a fill-up. I took a moment to enjoy the view, and it felt like a scene out of Easy Rider, or Two Lane Blacktop. The station was built in the '60s, or early '70s, and the desert landscape beyond was melting into the shadows as the sun edged closer to the horizon. I took a deep breath, and for the first time felt as if I could relax and enjoy the dream I was currently living out. I added a bit of oil to the crankcase before rehanging the fuel nozzle and getting back on the road. El Paso can't be far.
I drove all damn day and just barely made it out of Texas. I got a hotel room in Las Cruces, NM. Distance-wise, I was already pretty damn close to half-way. Not too bad. I ordered a pizza and, while I waited for that, walked over to the gas station nextdoor and bought a sixer of Stella, and a Bic lighter to open the beers with. There was a race in town that weekend, and the hotel parking lots around me were filled with rigs and trailers full of race cars. I felt like I was in good company. For the next couple of hours, I'd unwind with pizza, beer, and basic cable TV. Then dreamless sleep for as long as I could manage.
To my great relief, my car was still in the parking lot when I woke up the next morning. I loaded it back up, checked out of my room, and drove over to the gas station nextdoor to fill up and get a candy bar for breakfast. It was another clear, sunny fall day. The car started right up, and ran like a puppy tugging on its leash. It was a little scary around the big trucks sometimes, but it was quick and nimble enough to inspire confidence in one's ability to get away. No, my biggest fear wasn't mechanical failure, or being crushed by a bigger vehicle. It was potholes. Huge, vicious, oilpan-shattering, potholes. I wasn't used to driving my car at its current ride height, and what scared me most was the idea of ripping the bottom off the damn thing.
But the roads were pretty smooth, and so was the driving. I made it all the way across Arizona and into California well before sunset. I'd like to say it felt like a victory, crossing the border into California, but I knew I still had almost four hours left to go if I wanted to make my destination tonight. It was doable, I thought.
Mother Nature thought otherwise. Shortly after driving through Coachella and Palm Springs, I encountered a hail storm. All of a sudden, marble-sized pebbles of ice were everywhere. At first, I thought it was just heavy rain, but as I slid to a stop on the off-ramp, I realized it was something trickier. Accelerating around the next corner without spinning out was a challenge. I pulled over in the parking lot of a coin-op DIY car wash to wait it out.
It's not stopping. And even if it does stop, this shit isn't melting away anytime soon. Time for a Plan B. I used my phone to look up hotels nearby, and there was one just around the corner with a vacancy. Getting around that corner in my almost-weightless, summer-tired, RWD car was going to be a bear, but there really wasn't another choice. We'd have to do this together. I took a deep breath and got back in the car. With a very gentle touch, I was able to coax the Miata back onto the road, around the corner, and into the parking lot of the hotel without spinning or hitting anything. We did it. We were safe for the night.
The hotel was one of those old-school setups, where each room is its own cabin. Pretty cool, actually. I ordered another pizza, walked to the liquor store nextdoor for a half-pint of Jameson, and enjoyed the icy, cold, still night I seemed to have all to myself. My first night living in California again. I looked at the little car that got me here, and couldn't help but be impressed by it.
The next morning it looked like the roads are mostly clear again. I swung by the lobby for a donut and some coffee, payed my bill, and reloaded my car. Gassed up again on the way out. I was less than three hours from my destination, and shouldn't have to stop again until I get there. It was a Monday morning. The Miata was running like a top. Eager to get up to speed on the open road. Many will extol the virtues of the big, cushy cruiser for long freeway trips, but I'm not so sure. There's something about driving a car that's hard-wired to your senses over a long distance that changes your perspective. You start to think of the guys who had to fly P-51s into Germany: They didn't have autopilot, but I doubt very many of them hated the job.
The way was clear for the duration of the trip, aside from taking the wrong ramp and having to turn around in Burbank. Now that the hail was gone, it looked like a typically beautiful Southern California day. If my car weren't full of clothes, I'd put the top down. I hit the In-N-Out in Moorpark for lunch, then drove the last 15 minutes or so to my aunt's avocado farm in Ventura County, where I'll be staying until I find a place. The air was scented with citrus and pepper trees, a smell I've always associated with home. It was a good day. The first full day of the rest of my life.
I pulled slowly up the long gravel driveway to the house and parked. After saying my hellos and bringing my stuff in, I cracked open a beer and walked back outside to the Miata. I opened the trunk and removed a bottle of spray detailer and a few fresh microfiber cloths. It's been a long drive, and I don't want the bugs to mar the finish.