Corolla Memories

615639368 Corolla Memories

For me, driving bliss is all about the setting. Give me an empty road, spectacular scenery, good company and the freedom to explore without an itinerary or time constraints, and I’m in Heaven. Sure, a nice set of wheels enhances the pleasure. But if it came down to it, I’d take an inexpensive reliable car and an endless open road over a garage full of under-used toys that never really get off their leash. I knew the basic formula intuitively in my youth.

As previously chronicled, I rambled around the eastern side of the Continental Divide for years in my (free) Corvair and (cheap) VW Beetles. At twenty-two, I almost lost it. Driving a transit bus in Iowa paid a living wage, and I was sorely tempted to follow my cohorts to the car dealers and sign my freedom away. Luckily, I instinctively knew that I needed a different role model. And I found it: my girlfriend’s mother.

After her divorce, Elinor sold the farm, the thoroughbreds and the big ‘69 Plymouth Fury that pulled the horse trailer. The former Studebaker dealer– who’d started selling Toyotas out of desperation– had just what she was looking for. It was a Corolla 1600 sedan.

Elinor and the little Toyota hit the road. The wide-open spaces of the southwest beckoned them, and they rambled through the deserts and canyons, eventually settling in San Diego.

When she was ready to reclaim her furniture, we offered to recover it for her in a U-haul truck. And when she rolled-out the welcome mat, I quit my job and made it a one-way trip. Although the San Diego area was gorgeous, too many others were having the same idea. It turned out to be a temporary idyll…

One day, out of the blue, Elinor said, “Let’s go for a drive up north”. Near the end of what was supposed to be a day trip to Redlands, she said “let’s keep going, to Death Valley.”

It was hundreds of miles away, and we hadn’t even brought toothbrushes. But why not? And there, on that impulsive drive to Death Valley, in the early evening twilight somewhere north of Shoshone, I found nirvana.

California Highway 127 runs straight as a draftsman’s line for twenty, thirty or more miles at a time, in the broad desert valley between the hulking backbones of the Greenwater and Nopah Ranges. The ribbon of road was utterly deserted on this weekday evening in October.

As we rolled northwards alone on the high seas of the Mojave, the usual cues to gauge time– distance and speed– began to melt away. We sat gazing, mesmerized by the Technicolor sunset unfolding all around us; the naked mountains turning obscene shades of scarlet, ruby and purple.

Imperceptibly, the little Toyota’s speed increased: eighty, eighty-five, ninety and still it crept up. Somewhere north of ninety-five, the Corolla entered warp speed; simultaneously, we were hurtling down the road and yet not moving at all. Everything associated with driving a car was now transcended, and the Corolla became a space probe, guided by the stars that appeared with surreal intensity through the last fading purple glow.

Who knows how long did we floated, all thoughts utterly suspended, until a curve finally brought me back to the reality at hand?

And when conscious thinking resumed (a sudden curve at high speed in a Corolla will do that), my only thoughts were this: I will never live more than a few hours away from the deserts, mountains and canyons of the West. I will always heed the call of the road. And I will always keep a toothbrush, toothpaste, and a change of underwear in the trunk.

For the next couple of days, we roamed through Death Valley, and then headed west. And where Highway 190 crests the Panamint Range, one of the all-time mind-blowing views suddenly appears: the whole Sierra Nevada range, rising like a wall 10,000 feet straight up from the floor of Owens Valley. You’d be hard pressed to find the equal of it in the Himalayas.

I’ve made good on my promise. Even when we had kids, a demanding job and a shiny Mercedes, more than once, a day trip turned into two or three (“I won’t be coming in the office today”). The stash of diapers and dirty underwear I found in the 300E’s spare tire compartment as I was cleaning it out for the last time was the smelly proof, and brought back a flood of memories.

And when the paycheck suddenly ended, I never considered the job offers from Dallas and Chicago. I just moved on to the next level of driving nirvana: Oregon. These days, I’m driving a Corolla in disguise. And I’m still ready to answer the call of the open road.

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