(This was originally written to be put on my blog, but since it's down, and I think at least 2 people on Oppo will enjoy it, here it is)
Yeah, you heard me. It's an alliteration.
Due to a combination of lucky circumstances, I had the chance (last summer) to drive from Las Vegas to Seaview, Wa. for a wedding, and then back. With two passengers. One was a six year old girl. It was wonderful, difficult and totally worth both the cost of the rental, and the insane amount of driving. I rented a Mustang, mostly because I was in the great country of America (F##k Yeah!) and felt like it was a good idea to drive a convertible through some of the most beautiful parts of it. I was totally right about that, even if I was told, repeatedly that "you can't camp/tour/take your family in a convertible! You'll run out of space for stuff/ get cold/ get wet/ be miserable!!" I don't know what these people were thinking, personally. We had at least 6 whole square inches of space for more stuff at the start of the ride, and it never rains in California.
We had planned to camp the whole trip, so the car was packed with tents, clothes and food, as well as formal wear (for the wedding), photo equipment, field guides (I'm travelling with a botanist) and a couple of computers. I should probably point out that the girl was my daughter, and the other passenger was her mother (The botanist). We'd also had to pack everything in to the convertible, because there was no option for storage at our departure/end point. We were driving on a deadline, too. This entire trip needed to take place between August 7th and 6 AM on the 23rd, when we'd fly back to Montreal (in the great republic of Quebec) so we could return to our normal lives. There was a 3-day wedding that we needed to get to on the 16th, too. I was warned that we'd need more time for sightseeing, and that the driving would be too much, but that just sounded like a challenge, so I did it.
The trip was nearly 52 hours of driving, stretched out over 18 days. During that time, we covered highways, back roads, camp driveways, and at least one or two places that I shouldn't mention if anyone from Hertz is reading this. We went through Yosemite, Inyo, Death Valley, the LA area's insane freeways, Big Sur, San Simeon, Klamath, Shasta, Mt. Hood, Tahoe, Portland, The Columbia River, Las Vegas, and the Mojave.
We got lost. We drove most of Highway 1 and 101. We hauled a keg of beer to a wedding in Washington State. We drove too fast in Oregon (which is easy enough… the state motto should be "slow down, boy"). We gave people sightseeing rides in San Francisco. We climbed active and dormant volcanoes, and slept under Sequoias, Salt Cedar and the stars. It was long. It was fun. It was anything but hard; car camping from a convertible is easy, and somewhat pleasant. The packing might have been a little tight, though. The kid in the back seat kept asking us to stop to put the top up, and then to stop to put the top down, when she wasn't sticking her hands up into the wind and waving at bikers, Singing along to the radio, or asking me to reprogram the ambient lighting so it looked more "purple".
Obviously, trying to summarize any of the places we stopped in a sentence or a paragraph wouldn't be worth the ink. Some of them have volumes already written, and the way others are overlooked saddens me in ways I can't explain. The landscape of the western United States is a place you could live in and never get tired of. Oregon, Nevada and California are beautiful, astonishing places. Doubly so when you're driving around it in a car that doesn't limit your field of view, or shut you off from the amazing environment you're in. We drove through everything with the top down. Even the forest fires in Yosemite, and the fog on the coast.
We discovered a few things about the car, too. The v6 Mustang seems to like going a little fast, but you can't tell from the driver's seat. 0-60 sometimes feels like it'll take a month, compared to other cars I've been in recently. I blame the automatic transmission, which is better suited to efficient driving than drag racing. On the other hand, this means that it sips gas. Our fuel mileage was somewhere around 32mpg for the trip. I have no idea why; the car was heavily loaded, and in the hills for most of the drive. It's ground clearance is enough to handle access routes to places in Death Valley and Mono Lake that I was told I should take a truck for, but sometimes it gets caught on gas station driveways. It's also got better weight distribution than a truck, especially loaded with stuff in the back. It won't get stuck on the beach in Seaview, Washington like that big Silverado we had to help dig out of the sand.
This car has quirks, though. It has a mildly alarming stopping speed for the size of it, but the brakes work well enough to avoid deer, dogs and drunks. It doesn't like the rumble strips that they use on the median of Highway 95 in Nevada, or the ones on the edges of some roads…. it gets sucked in to those when you're trying to pass a truck that's going at 55 in the middle of the darkest night you've ever seen. It's a little scary when you can't pull out of the oncoming lane. It's finicky about cornering at some speeds, but it's better than the last mustang I drove. It's tail probably gets loose pretty fast, but I never tried drifting it. I figure this has to do with the suspension (it's still using a live axle in the back, just like some trucks). It doesn't like cruising in 1st or 2nd, and it's automatic transmission (because rental car) is slightly better than the aforementioned '99 Silverado.
On paper, a v6 Mustang is an odd car. It's loaded with cheesy flashiness, huge horsepower and lots of plastic, but has the inner workings of a well sorted performance car. It seems like an American throwback; Bon Jovi before in the "Living on A Prayer" era, or Bruce Springsteen before Philadelphia.
Driving it, though, is a different story. It's an understated, deadly shark of a cruising car. It ~can~ chew up the pavement, but it doesn't need to. It basically insists that you get in, enjoy the trip, and see the sights. It doesn't sound or handle like a "real" muscle car, but it's still got that muscle car feel. It's imposing, but not too overstated. It's the friendly varsity running back who you know you wouldn't want to get in a fight with at the bar.
My daily driver is an A4 with a V6 engine in it. It has a nice cockpit, comfortable seats, and growls like an angry dog when you put the boot to it. The Mustang had none of these things, except the growl, and maybe the seats. I'd get out of it after an 8 hour drive and feel great, though. Even if the top had been down the whole time. I think there's a word for that- joy. I understand why people buy these cars.
The Mustang is the America I want as a neighbour. It's tough as hell, as storied as a cowboy and so friendly and welcoming that you stop caring about the plastic, cheesy design, or the weird manners. It's character makes you want to pull in to every little town, and just drift down the main drag with the top down, smiling at people, and waving. Other Mustang owners will wave at you when you drive by.
Of course, the 6 year-old backseat passenger felt the same way (remember: she was doing the waving) despite a few criticisms of the car itself. The focus of her critique was the wind noise- there was too much of it in the back seat, with the windows down, the top open or any variant of the two. She also didn't like how we couldn't get the cabin lights to match the dash and stereo backlighting. Both of those comments have a bit of merit, but complaining about wind noise in a convertible is like complaining about heat in Death Valley. We bought her a pair of headphones and a set of walkie-talkies so she could talk to us from the back seat without shouting. This worked for a while, and kept the noise down (for her). I joined her back there on the way back to Las Vegas from Seaview, somewhere near Astoria, OR. It was windy, and noisy, but not unpleasant. Like riding a bike, only without the effort of riding. Still, the wind wasn't too bad for our passenger. She often laid down (as children do) on the bags she was sharing the back seat with, and fell asleep under the sky. Even with the wind, there were very few complaints. Mostly just a lot of commentary. When I asked her what she liked, there was just this pause… "everything, dad." was the answer, usually given with a demure smile.
Robert Pirsig said that driving cars is like watching TV, while motorcycles are more like being there. I'd posit that this convertible is the happy medium. I also didn't need to limit myself to two pairs of underwear, or think about maintenance. I might have thought about Zen and art while I was driving, though.