Thursday, February 28, 2013

Got a Sense o'Yuma?

Road Trippin’
with Steve McCarthy

Got a Sense o’Yuma?

Well, we’re still Darting about, getting acquainted with the new beastie and I have to say, we’re both pretty pleased. We took our first Big Drive in it t’other day, and after 540miles in a day, neither of us were anywhere near as tired as in the Mustang. So where’d we go?
How about Yuma? For lunch. And of course breakfast and dinner along the way there and back. We didn’t do the usual O’Dark-Thirty start, but still managed to get to the Wheel Inn in Cabazon for a good breakfast. This is the place with the huge dinosaurs, just off the I-10. Great Place! Waitress called us “Hon” and the pancakes were good. Decor dates to the 60s and the wood grain on the formica tables is worn away from decades of plates. We naturally took some touristy photos of the BRONTOSAURUS (don’t give me that crap about renaming it. Just like don’t give me crap about Pluto not being a planet!) and of the T-Rex and headed out, south on the 111 past the Salton Sea, then east on the I-8.

Odd towns in the Imperial Valley! You have the dying resort of Salton Sea, the thriving cities of Brawley and El Centro and the twin border towns, Calexico and Mexicali. In between are odd little nubbins of towns like Calpatria. Who knows why or on what they exist, eking out a hard scrabble existence. What’s fantastic is what a little water will do. Year round agriculture keeps things humming and the less than documented employed.
One of the things we wanted to see along the way was the Old Plank Highway. Or the remains thereof. This was a marvel of improvised engineering to build a road over the trackless wastes of the Imperial Dunes. Shifting sands have befuddled road builders for millennia. At one time, there were even CAMEL caravans through our own mini-Sahara. Along about 1913, it was decided to lay down boards, 12’x8” planks and nail ‘em together. This was OK, but around 1916, they built sections that were connected by iron straps and pieced them together. This allowed the road to “float” on the sand. Pretty Smart!
Now, about this time you should be thinking, “HEY, that road is 12” wide. Even a Model T is too wide to pass another car on this. Was it one way? Did they lay two lanes?” They did not. Every mile or so, they put in a wide spot for passing. If you met in the middle, you flipped a coin or argued it out as to who should back up to the wide spot. Apparently, this was done without Road Rage. Yep, we’re SO much more civilized 100 years later.
To find this gem, head east on the I-8 almost to Yuma. There is a turn off for Gray’s Well. There is a rest stop in the middle of the highway (?) and an off road park set in the dunes. You don’t have to pay the park fee if all you do is go see the Plank Road. Just stay on the pavement. The Road is back to the west. Way back. When the pavement ends, turn around and drive back a bit. There’s a couple of clumps of trees and it’s easier to see the Plank Road off to the south as you head back east. Park, get out, and marvel at the ingenuity.

Back on the highway, we headed for Yuma, not really knowing what we’d find. In the Old Town (which doesn’t look all that old, it’s been over-spruced up) there was a slightly sad “Art and Craft Show”. Marianne didn’t even find any worthwhile turquoise to by! We had a decent lunch at a bar that had about a hundred kinds of beers, then set off to see what else was there. Aside from the remains of the old Territorial Prison, there wasn’t much. Yuma seems to be a nice enough place to stop on the way to somewhere else.
We left a bit after 3:00pm, and sure enough, a train was pulling through. At 3:10. I’m NOT kidding! Heading back west on I-8, we decided that what the hell, let’s get PIE in Julian. This gave Marianne a chance to exercise the Dart and learn about the manual mode on the gearbox and we went up S-2 to the 78 and to Julian. This is SUCH a neat road. It’s a shame that Wanker, Pillock, and Prat, those Top Gear guys missed it on their recent trip through the area. See? They shoulda called me!
In Julian we of course hit Moms for a pie to bring home, then headed back north on the 79. It was getting dark and dinner was calling. Hmm, where to eat. Not much out there. And of course, St. Serendipity came out of the night and revealed to us the County Line Cafe.
What a find! Place looks like a one time Biker Bar (and probably was) but for the last three years by a couple and WOW have they got it right! Jacque (I think) is the chef and he’s come up with wild game brats that are to die for! I had the wild boar and Marianne had the bison. Each comes with a specific sauce that they developed and as a result (get this!) KETCHUP AND MAYO ARE NOT AVAILABLE!  WOW! The lady at the table next to ours GRUMPED about this the whole meal! Silly Philistine! We split a side of potato salad that turned out to be more like roasted spuds and dinner cost us under $30. FOR THE TWO OF US! This place makes a trip down that way well worth it!
From there, we just used the GPS to guide us to the 1-15 and home. Not bad, 540 miles and averaged 32mpg and that included some fairly brisk mountain twisty road driving. Yeah, we LIKE this little car!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Darting About

Road Trippin’
With Steve McCarthy

How do you go about finding a new car? The ’07 Mustang that featured in some of our longer trips is no more. Victim of a moron who’d never heard of hydroplaning. The good news was everyone was OK. The other good news was that the insurance payout was enough to put a healthy down on something tasty. So, what to get?
More importantly, how to go about picking a car that would not only be a good commuter for Marianne, but would also be a great road trip for those jaunts that we didn’t want to take in the TR? Ya know, stuff like Okiehoma in July.
The “Round-The-Block-Test-Drive” will tell you that you hate a car. The Hyundai Velostar was a case in point. As soon as she sat in it, Marianne HATED the back window and it’s lack of vision. Sure, it seemed like a neat car, but all it takes is one “I really hate that” to kill the deal. The Elantra had crappy seats. At least to me. Same vision thing with the Mazda and the Subaru hatchback made Marianne think it was a “Mom Car.” She was done with kid haulers.
But still the question of a livable road trip car was unanswered. We both liked the Mustang, but having lived with it for some REALLY long flogs, we’d found what had become major irritants. It was too tank like. The seats weren’t that great, needing LOTS of lumbar assistance. It handled decently and had power, but was really just not that well thought out. If we’d had a chance to live with it a week...BINGO!
Why not test drive cars until we found a highly likely suspect, then RENT one for a week? OK, it’s not an original idea. People have talked about it, but other than media types who get a car for a week to test drive, no one I knew had actually done such a thing.
The next flash came when I remembered that Dodge had just hit the streets with their Alfa-in-Amurican-Clothing. The Dart. And there’s a new Dodge dealer in town. So we went for a look see. Nice car we thought. Comfy. Lotsa Bells and Whistles. Doesn’t look like every Camry/Corolla Wannabee out there. The test drive went well, so I looked about to find a rental.

That wasn’t as easy as I wanted it to be. Rental companies don’t really care what specific kind of car you want. It’s easier for them to have a lump of “mid size” and a herd of “compacts” and they give you what ever is next in line. This is triply sure at airports. Finally, I got a helpful human who was actually in this country (I think) who told me that their subsidiary, Enterprise, through their local branches would have what I needed. After trying one near buy and getting nowhere, I tried another and struck pay dirt. They had one due in the next day. Two hundred for the week.
The whole thing would work out great because I could pick the car up on Friday, Marianne could have it for work instead of stealing one of the kids’ cars and on Sunday, we could take a road trip. Cool.
We set off Sunday AM for a bit of a flog, letting the road take us where it would. We started up Angeles Crest, wanting to give the new kid a bit of a flog, and discovered that the traction control does a good job on ice. That’s always a good sign! At the back end of Angeles Crest, we kept north on the 14 and stopped for a pee in Land-Scatter and a driver swap. Marianne took over through Mojave and across 58 through the Tehachipis.
“What’s that weird rain stuff?” Mari asked.
“Uh, dear, that’s snow.”
“Uh, ok, what do I do?”
“Just drive and be careful.”
And she did and she was and the car worked fine. By this time, I’d had enough seat time on both sides to know that the seats were pretty nice. In fact, this was a concern. One of the things mentioned in almost EVERY early road test were “lumpy seats.” REALLY? Not that I could tell. I figure that the morons who test these things spend too much time with the donuts and lattes and those “lumps” they feel are the side bolsters that their Hams are slopping over.
This was of course a basic rental. Not many of the trick cool stuff, but essentially the same car as the loaded one we were considering. Reaching the snack bag and the small ice chest was easy, the radio/CD player worked well, and the car was pretty zippy. Marianne was feeling good about it too. Most important that. After all, it’s to be her car.
Past Bakersfield, we kept heading west on 58 and were getting a bit hungry. Good ol’ St. Serendipity was looking out for us as we hit the thriving Oil Town of McKitterick. There was the McKitterick Cafe and Hotel, home of the Penny Bar, a good burger and what smelled like excellent chili.

This place is a worthwhile stop. Just the kind of funky local place we’ve come to love. The bar is the highlight. Everything. I mean EVERYTHING is covered in pennies. Seems the couple who own it had a catch phrase “Why for two cents, I’d…” and eventually they did, buying the place. To commemorate the event, they began glueing pennies all over the bar. Over a million of ‘em. It’s pretty cool.

After lunch, I took over the reigns and kept on 58. This road to the Coast is a great one. I turned off the traction control, put the tranny into manual mode and FLOGGED it. That Dart, well, DARTED. That road has lots of switchbacks and tight curvie bits as well as some good long sweepers. The Dart handled them all with grace under fire. Like anything of Italian heritage (and yeah, I know, the engine is pure MoPar, but it sure acts Italian) it liked the upper rev ranges and needed to be there to give it some umph. The automatic has this semi-manual, shift for yourself mode that will keep it in gear until redline and won’t let you go down a gear if it means buzzing the motor too much. It didn’t take long to make it work. It’s also sequential. A bump forward and it shifts down, a bump back and it shifts up. Easy-Peasey.
We hit Santa Marguerita, headed up to Atascadero and swapped drivers again. Marianne took us over to Cambria where we poked around for an hour or so, then down 1 to 101, and to Santa Barbara. We ate on Sterns Wharf at the Harbor Restaurant. The mussels were great. Then off to home.

We managed about 600 miles and averaged 29 mph, despite the flogging I gave it on 58. The car was comfy and well laid out. Yep, we bought one. Screaming Italian Red with all the gizmos. That alone will take us a few months to figure out. The sat-nav is a Garmin (YIPPEE!), it has voice commands for most everything which is good because although the 8.5” touch screen might be oh-so-hip, touch screens are a BAD idea in a car. You HAVE to look at it to push anything. With knobs, you can feel which one is right. The other good deal is that the controls that aren’t on the screen (and some that are) are also on the steering wheel! Makes ya feel real Jet Fighter Pilot Guy. We got the sunroof, which is cool, BUT took a bunch of headroom away, leaving me wish the seat lowered further. Did I tell you it has heated seats AND a heated wheel? There’s also a lot of other niceties that show that with a kick in the arse from Fiat, MoPar has FINALLY figured out that small cars don’t have to be CHEAP cars!

So, we’re happy with “Tony”. And in fact, instead of watching that Commercial Fest known as the Stupid Bowel, we’re leading a little jaunt to Santa Paula on Sunday.
Now, let's add those Autodelta stickers and confuse folks.