Disclaimer: Fiat wanted me to drive the 2012 Fiat 500 so badly that they sold it to my friend Alison, who needed it delivered from DC to SF at the same time my employer wanted me to burn off a week of comp time.
The open road is a rite of passage in America. From sea to shining sea, thousands upon thousands of miles of glistening tarmac stretch endlessly over mountains and plains, running on infinitely across the Midwest, to snaking in tight little coils around mountains. It’s the subject of infinite stories, of seemingly infinite miles in a land that seems to be built upon nothing more than the freedom to go as you please. And, thus the story begins, of one woman, one tiny Fiat and an epic 3000 mile journey from sea to sea.
The week of 28 May began like many other Memorial Day weeks; the Indy 500 was a glistening spectacle of machinery and speed to distract the relentless masses and I, the madwoman at the wheel, set off to Oakland, to deliver my daily-driven Mazda into the safe hands of my older cousin for a week, while I took on the great American road trip, head-on. The miles were a blur, traveling up the Central Valley, the relentless drone of the unmuffled Skyactiv-G resonating throughout the cabin; 400 miles of snarling little Mazda, Ani DiFranco and the obligatory 6-month phone call to my aunt, complete with criticism of life choices. All in all, a standard trip, but that’s not what this is about...
Day 1: Oakland -> DC -> Pittsburgh.
By this point, I’d gone through the TSA checkpoint, obtained my (very necessary) Starbucks Venti Pumpkin Spice Latte, complete with extra shot of espresso and settled in. I’d spent the night at the airport, because I knew I’d need to be up and moving before my cousin, and I really didn’t want to deal with late-night Uber drivers and their incessant creepiness. Security was tight, and this was a good thing; I’d stricken a rapport with the airport police, and they left me be with my iPhone and my social media habit. The Delta flight boarded, and thus I was off; back to DC for the first time since July of ‘14, flying into Washington National, which was (unfortunately) renamed for the second-worst President of our time. I refuse to refer to it by the name of Simi Valley’s disgrace, though. Not even an airport deserves that indignity.
The flight was relatively uneventful - Delta is pretty terrible compared to Southwest, but I wasn’t going to complain about a free flight; not when I had something far more important to consider - 3000 miles in a Fiat 500, without anything to stop me.
Arrival in DC, after one miserable layover from Hell in SLC, was relatively painless... Years of travel have condensed even my packing routine down to one backpack; makeup in the front pouch, kept permanently in transparent quart-size Ziploc for TSA inspection, underwear in the middle pocket with the ominous green military-issue hardcover notebooks I’ve carried for years and clothes in the main compartment. Just a single black backpack, slung over one shoulder, combined with a loose skirt and t-shirt for comfort rather than style. I could worry about how I looked later; I just needed to get there, get the car and get out.
Alison met me near the exit with the warmth and familiarity of an old friend, even though we’d only known each other for a couple of weeks at this point, pressed the keys into my hand with a careful, motherly warning to be careful, and then we were off. She, to the Metro and myself, to San Francisco.
Plug in the iPhone, point the car to Pittsburgh, let it roll. DC rush hour was slow, tedious, and it got worse as I crossed from VA to DC to MD, but once to the 270, the road cleared, the sweet sound of AURORA drowning out the traffic around and I let Mocha stretch her legs for the first of many times on this trip. Western Maryland was a blur; no stops, no need to stop, just push, push, push to a 9PM dinner date with an old friend in Pittsburgh. I didn’t want Jen to wait up for me, and I didn’t want to delay seeing her any more than I had to.
Pittsburgh was where the 500's Achilles’ Heel came to light; a fuel tank that was roughly the size of an espresso shot. First fuel stop came and went after the meal, indicated range: 0. This was a number I’d see several more times on the trip, and I learned quickly that the 10.5 gallon tank was going to be the one limiting factor on how hard I could push the little car. I didn’t care at that point, though. I just had to get to the pub, get to Jen, and then I could handle getting fuel on the south side of Pittsburgh later.
Conversation ebbed and flowed, two old friends discussing the fallacies of men, women and others’ coming up; years upon years of reminiscing about Volvo memories, about club meets, meets that we’d both regretted missing and about those in our tight-knit little RWD Volvo circles who were such an influence on our car-loving history. Vegan shepherds’ pies, vindaloo chips and conversation were the theme of the evening, from technical discussions of the finer points of Bosch K-Jetronic to dating mishaps, and we talked over and over and over, until the publican asked us to leave, well past midnight. Then came the rush to find fuel, after we walked to our cars, bid our final fond farewells until another time, and then... Off to find fuel and sleep, which eventually came at a rest area just west of the Ohio/West Virginia state line.
Day 2: Ohio -> Leavenworth, KS
0700 came early on this day, and my eyes fluttered open from the front passenger seat of the tiny 500; the little car having proven to be a surprisingly comfortable campsite for my first night of the trip. Wednesday’s goal was to make it to Leavenworth, where I’d have my first actual bed of the journey, with an old friend and former coworker on the south side of Leavenworth, KS. This was going to be a hard day, 11 hours of pushing the little Fiat across the eastern expanses of the Midwest, across states that wouldn’t look too kindly upon a weird chick from California driving a little Fiat with liberal stickers all over the back. Still, these were things I could handle later, because first, I needed breakfast. Specifically, I needed Waffle House. Though Ohio Waffle Houses are but a pale facsimile to their southern sisters, I didn’t have time to be choosy, nor did I have time to deviate from my planned course, long enough to even consider going to an actual, honest-to-goodness southern Waffle House.
Still, this pale facsimile delivered everything I needed, in bulk, from the bottomless cup of plain, black coffee to the over-medium eggs to the server with false sincerity hiding behind her nails-on-chalkboard southern accent, to the close proximity to the 70 freeway, and I was in and out of this weird pastiche of southernness in the suburbs of Columbus. My only real regret from this trip is being unable to deviate long enough to stop by Midwest-Bayless and see their fleet again, but... That’s for another trip, when I have another Fiat of my own.
Western Ohio was a blur, taken at speeds which would border on felonious, and it showed when the shot glass that mockingly calls itself a fuel tank reared its ugly head, just west of the Indiana state line. The EZPass was swapped for its California equivalent, and the miles continued to fly by.
Indiana was also where I discovered, to my happiness, that my spironolactone and my water bottle could happily coexist in the cupholder together, which made things much, much happier for this wild woman in a tiny car. My only regret from this leg is that I couldn’t stop and see my BFF whose newborn was busy coming into the world, but there’s always the next trip for that.
Western Indiana blended into eastern Illinois, which blended into western Illinois, relentlessly dreary, flat landscape atop relentlessly dreary, flat landscape that made me miss the west dearly; that made me think of the dreary hopelessness I’d spent years trying to escape when I lived in Kansas and Missouri.
The one bright spot came when I made a carefully calculated fuel stop in Effingham, IL, knowing that I could make Kansas City without stopping if I fueled there. It was a calculated move, because St. Louis rush hour was fast approaching and I had to get past the western 64/70 interchange before 3:30, else I’d be stuck in a traffic quagmire. Not quite LA-bad, but STL has its own peculiar brand of road rage that I didn’t want any part of. But, they did have coffee-based touchup paint for the little Fiat!
STL flew by, well in excess of the posted limits, as did large parts of eastern Missouri. Columbia was a flash, western Missouri even moreso, until range anxiety set in, about 30 miles east of KC. I knew that if I backed out of it a little, I could make it, but the range kept decreasing and decreasing... Turned off the A/C, which helped a little, but the range was still going down, and I knew I’d come up short... The range clicked to zero just past the western 670/70 interchange and the areas of KC Kansas between myself and the 73 weren’t the best parts of town, so I pushed. I was relying on there being just a tiny bit of reserve in that thimble-sized tank to make it to my exit, and I got lucky, just.
Day 3: Leavenworth -> Kansas City, MO -> Nebraska
This was another relatively early start. I had to run by the company office in Leavenworth to stop in on former colleagues, then head on-post to see some folks with my previous client before setting off on a further journey west. After the professional pleasantries, the trip began again in earnest. First was Kansas City, partially to catch dear friends in the city, and partially because it gave me a chance to prove why the Fiat 500 is probably the most adorably instagrammable little city car on the market right now, despite what one of my fellow Oppos believes...
Western Missouri, Iowa, eastern Nebraska flew by in a delerium induced by the dangerous combination of Mountain Dew and curly fries, throwing your author’s system into a carbohydrate haze, her ability to stay awake being pushed to its very limits, until she arrived safely at another friend’s place in rural Nebraska. All in all, a relatively tame day compared to the pace of the previous day, or the next two.
Day 4: Nebraska -> Laramie -> Salt Lake City
Compared to the previous few days, I was up a bit later than normal. Up, breakfast with my friend, on the road again. I had two goals for this day; eat a Runza for the first time since leaving the Midwest and see my friend Erica in Laramie. Past this, I knew I’d have to make it to the Utah line, in order to make my target delivery date, but I figured it could be done. I didn’t anticipate actually getting to SLC, but it was a really good chance to learn the little 500 well.
First stop: Gothenburg, NE. According to the t-shirt, it’s the Pony Express Capital, but I can’t confirm nor deny that. I can, however, confirm it was a conveniently placed place to fuel the little 500 and get a Runza, which checked off my entire Nebraska to-do list. Of note; I’m pretty sure I had the only vehicle in town that wasn’t either a full-size SUV or full-size truck of some sort.
Post-lunch, it was time to crank up some Lesbians on Ecstasy and discover exactly why the flyover states are just that, flyover states... Western Nebraska is nothing but cows and bugs, and I’m pretty sure most of those bugs were on the front of the little 500 by the time I got across NE. Goddess, it’s beautiful, though, even if there’s nothing but bugs and cows to look at.
Eastern Wyoming was naught but construction; 45 zones marring what would’ve otherwise been an 80 mph wonderland, but it was okay; it provided plenty of time for the scenery to sink in; to relax and unwind for a moment after hundreds and hundreds of miles at a fairly rapid clip. And then, I was moving again, past Cheyenne, through the driving rain and up to Laramie. The tiny little car became less and less happy as the altitude climbed; as she passed 5000, 6000, 7000 feet, the performance dropped considerably, struggling to breathe the thin, mountain air, until I decided to give the little car a break in Buford, WY. I mean, PhinDeli Town Buford, WY... Population: 1.
From here, it was downhill into Laramie, where I filled the shot glass again, caught up with my dear friend Erica in Laramie, and got a few good Instagram shots along the way.
Go west, go west young woman!!!
Western Wyoming faded into night and I faded into a set rhythm. Cruise control on 80, coffee at my side, Modest Mouse on the stereo. Over and over and over again, the darkness broken only by the dim glow of the headlamps as I pierced through the rural Wyoming darkness, and from Wyoming into Utah. A quick stop for fuel in eastern Utah, and then it was up to SLC for the night, a quick respite in a hotel, and then a nice, mid-morning departure.
Day 5: Salt Lake City -> San Francisco
This was a hard push. 700 miles across the rural West, deserts upon deserts upon deserts; some of the most beautiful landscape in America. The Bonneville Salt Flats are especially beautiful for their starkness; for the crisp white in contrast with the blue skies above and the mountains off in the distance.
The day began well; the little 500 running in top shape, cruising at 90-100 across the salt flats with nothing seemingly able to stop us... Crisp, blue skies, plenty of fuel, relatively little traffic, and then... Crack. A rock struck the lower left corner of the windshield, a couple miles east of the Utah/Nevada line and put a six-inch crack in the windshield. Oh, well, we can’t win them all.
Nevada was gorgeous, though. If you do nothing else in your life, drive across northern Nevada at least once, preferably going west. Vanishing Point never felt so real, nor did I ever want that feeling to be as real as it was that day. I couldn’t maintain Ed Bolian’s pace, partially because of a lack of fuel capacity, and partially because I had some serious power limitations compared to his CL600, but it didn’t stop me from trying. Faster, faster, as the thrill of the speed combined with the limitless horizons to overwhelm even my fear of death; as I felt infinitely powerful upon the internal combustion waves that propelled me ever-faster, across Nevada, across the deserts through Elko and onward toward Reno.
By the time I reached Reno, I was mad; mad with the thrill of the open road and of high speed and the perpetual thousand-yard stare of the wizened road veterans, a dark-haired goddess of the road, self-important, self-glorifying, existing for nothing but the hum of the wheels on the tarmac below and to eventually find out what exists at the end of the open road. I was an addict, high on the very substance that brought me to this weird automotive obsession; not speed or thrill or racing, but the very freedom that the automobile represents to us. The end was fast-approaching, just a few hundred short miles away, just over the Sierras and past Sacramento, would be the end of my 3000 mile journey with the little 500, and where the 180,000 mile journey with my Mazda3 would resume.
Up through the Sierras I pushed, past Tahoe, past snow-capped mountaintops and CHP officers and down through the beautiful, bureaucratic wasteland that calls itself Sacramento. On and on until I reached the East Bay, traffic becoming denser and more needy, more demanding of my attention as I traded the desolation of the inland West for the incessant city life of the Bay Area. Still, there were a couple of things left on my to-do list before handing the little car back. First, In-N-Out, then a quick cleaning to get my things out of the little car and a trip through the Marin Headlands and to the Golden Gate.
Day 6: San Francisco and Surrender.
This was the final morning with the little 500; a quick rise in my hotel room, dress, makeup... Brunch. Reunion with Alison and her daughter, surrender of the keys. Uber back across the Bay to my little Mazda. It was bittersweet having to give up the little 500 after 3000 miles, but I’ll live. I’ll live, because I got to have the experience of delivering a tiny car across a big country for a friend, and I came out of the experience a better woman than I was when I went into it. That, in and of itself, made the whole experience worthwhile.
What makes a car truly great can’t be summed up in numbers like 5/10 interior quality, in horsepowers, torques or any of the various objective measures that those of us in the automotive scene get so wrapped up in. What makes a car really and truly great isn’t even the car itself, but the human experiences and stories that you build in it. For at least one dear friend of mine, it’s a silver, automatic Fiesta sedan, for another, it’s a little Scion xB, not because they’re objectively great cars, but because they have so many memories and emotions tied up in them. At the end of the day, it’s the stories you make in them that turn good cars into great ones, not the numbers.
I honestly can’t objectively review this little car, because I like it too well. I liked it before I got in, and I spent 3000 miles making memories, seeing the beauty of America and experiencing vast pieces of what makes me love this country so. Are there better cars out there? I’m sure there are, including a good friend’s brand-new C300. For me, however, I’m starting to hunt for a little, manual 500c for my next adventure across America.