Autobiography: Driving Nirvana — In A 1975 Corolla

CA desert red road

(an oldie, re-posted for Toyota Week)   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, over-priced toys that never really get off their leash. I knew the basic formula intuitively in my youth, but at least once, I needed a reminder.

As previously chronicled, I rambled around the eastern side of the Continental Divide for years in my (free) 1962 Corvair Monza and (cheap) VW Beetles. But at twenty-two, I almost lost it. Driving a transit bus in Iowa City paid a pretty good living wage, and there were times I was sorely tempted to follow my cohorts to the car dealers and sign my next 36 months of freedom away. Luckily, I instinctively knew that I needed a different role model. And I found it in a perhaps unlikely source: my then-girlfriend’s mother.

CC 23 042 800

After her divorce from John, who drove a 1971 Toyota Mark II, 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: a 1974 Corolla 1200 sedan. It served her well around town, but it wasn’t exactly a long-legged road warrior. As fate would have it, she swapped cars with some friends so that she could use their Travelall to facilitate the move into town, and someone creamed the Corolla.

CC 64 032 800

So a 1975 replacement was drafted, the new E30 version, which was a tad bigger and, and had the optional 1600cc engine. Good call, as that tough hemi-head 2T engine was pretty hot for the times, making 102 hp. That engine would play a big role in cementing the Corolla’s reputation.

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 move it out for her in a U-haul truck. And when she rolled-out the welcome mat, I quit my job and we made it a one-way trip, towing my ’68 Dodge A100 van behind the truck. San Diego in the winter was like paradise, and the first months was spent at the beach, almost every day.

Blacks Beach, as a matter of fact, famous at the time for being pretty much the first public nude beach in a major American city. It was strategically located at the base of a giant cliff, so it took some serious commitment to get down there. The dirty old men stayed way up at the top, with binoculars, or even telescopes. Sad.

1975-1976 was the warmest (and driest) winter on record in California, which gave me the false impression it was like this every winter. But the timing was perfect: a lifetime of cold winters bundled up in parkas and gloves was ready to be melted away. But eventually I longed to see more than surf and skin.

Mt San Jacinto

I hadn’t yet seen any of the interior of California properly. Then one day, out of the blue, Elinor said, “Let’s go for a drive up north”. Near the end of a long day, which was supposed to be a day trip to Redlands that included a hike on Mt. San Jacinto, she said “Let’s just keep going, to Death Valley.” What?

It was some 250 miles away, and the three of us hadn’t even brought toothbrushes. But why not? What was keeping us, other than clean clothes and toiletries? And there, on that impulsive drive to Death Valley, in the early evening twilight somewhere north of Shoshone, I found driving nirvana.

CA 127 straight

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.

CA Hwy 127 a

The endless 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.

death valley sunset720x461

Imperceptibly, the little Toyota’s speed increased: eighty, eighty-five, ninety and still it crept up. I wondered if Elinor thought I was pushing it, but she was as entranced in the scenery as I was.

Death Valley sunset

Somewhere north of ninety-five, the Corolla entered warp speed; simultaneously, we were hurtling down the road and yet not moving at all.

CA desert DV stars

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.

CA desert moon

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.

CA DV amargosa hotel

We pulled into Death Valley Junction, and got a room at the Amargosa Hotel, built in 1925 by the Pacific Coast Borax Company. And we saw Marta Becket do her one-person performance at the Amargosa Opera House across the square. Now that was unexpected, out in the middle of nowhere. She moved there and started performing there in 1967, often to an empty theater, until she was “discovered”. And she kept it up until 2012.

CA Death-Valley-Sunset-prints

For the next couple of days, we roamed through Death Valley, a sensory nirvana in the daytime too, and then 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. It’s much more dramatic than any photograph; one of the most impressive mountain vistas this side of the Himalayas. And having only read and seen pictures of the Sierras, my first exposure to them couldn’t have been more dramatic or better orchestrated.

CA Mount_Whitney_2003-03-25

We drove across the valley and took the steep road up into the high country to Whitney Portals, where the trail starts to Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the continental US. Given the time of year, going up was out of the question.

Well, 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 boxy disguise. And I’m still ready to answer the call of the open road.

(Note: all the beautiful pictures (except for the Corollas) are not mine. They were found on the web, and over time I’ve lost the original sources. Thanks to you all!)