Shortly after I finished the trip—like, three weeks later—I took off on another road trip in the car. This time, it was for yet another LeMons race, and the venue for this one was Sears Point (aka “Sonoma Raceway”, but I could never quite bring myself to call it “Infineon” back when they sponsored it, and ‘Sonoma’ is only marginally better…for me, it’s still Sears Point.) I had been invited to join my friend Jim and the gang again to flail beater BMWs around the famous racetrack, much as we did back at the beginning of the trip at Buttonwillow. There were two major differences this time that promised to produce a better experience—first, it wasn’t 112 degrees outside, and second, we had two BMW E36s rather than a collection of a BMW, a Volvo 240, and a Volvo/Chevy hybrid, so in theory there’d be more track time due to higher reliability.
First things first, though; I had to get there. I opted to drive the Datsun because, you know, why not, so I changed the oil, fixed the leaking rear differential seal, re-packed a somewhat abbreviated version of the big trip pack, and got ready to go. The big deer dent in the fender was still there, but that wasn’t really a problem. I gave myself three days to get up there, as I know I tend to wander a bit.
I took off westward toward lovely Pahrump, NV, cut over on the back roads through the desert to Amargosa, then turned north toward Death Valley. If you want to visit Death Valley and experiencing the scorching heat isn’t part of the experience you’re after, you could do a lot worse than to visit in March. It was warm enough to have the top down the whole way but cool enough not to be debilitating, and it made the whole Death Valley experience a lot more enjoyable. I’ve been out there in both the summer and the winter, and this was a pretty nice change of pace.
I stopped at the first overlook to check out the view, and met Nina and Maximillian there, a couple from Austria and Germany (respectively) traveling through the American west in a rented RV. As usual, the car was the conversation starter, and we discussed road tripping in general and places that they should stop to see specifically, then had some “genuine American chocolate chip cookies” that I’d made at home and brought along for snacks. (Afterward, I got an email from Maz saying “thank you for the best (homemade) cookie we've had ever in America”, which was nice.) After cookies, we were on our way. Later, they sent me an email with some nice pictures and compliments for the cookies. It was nice to see that the Datsun had not lost any of its social icebreaker charms.
People usually think of empty desolation when they think of Death Valley, and to be sure there is definitely some of that out there. However, there is also a lot of really majestic scenery to go with it—big eroded flats and features, mountain vistas in the distance, huge wind-sculpted sand dunes, and giant dry lake beds. Like a lot of the features of the southwest, the whole place also tended to change dramatically as the sun went down and the light changed, so if you do go, make sure you catch a sunrise or a sunset to get the whole show.
I made my way out through some really fun roads to the west, then turned north toward Yosemite when I hit Route 395 at Lone Pine. At this point, I was re-tracing my route from earlier in the trip when I headed up to Yosemite from Sequoia National Park, and it was interesting to see it at a different time of year, as it was springtime and all the desert wildflowers were in bloom. I had contemplated camping for the evening, but opted to grab a room at a little lodge right near the entrance to the park, and had a nice night’s sleep out in the whispering pines.
I got up early the next morning to catch the sunrise at Mono Lake, which was uncharacteristically deserted. I had come through in early July last year, which was pretty heavy tourist time, but here in late March there weren’t any vacationers wandering around, so I had the place to myself. The peaks to the west were still covered with heavy snow, and CalTrans and the National Park Service had still not re-opened Route 120 through Yosemite and over to the other side of the Sierras, so instead I headed farther north to try to find an open pass. Worst case, I’d end up crossing over at Interstate 80 north of Lake Tahoe (which is open all year), but I hoped I’d be able to find one of the smaller mountain roads that was clear of snow.
Luckily, I did find a good one a bit north of the park at Topaz; Routes 89 and 4 were both open (more or less), and that would take me over the Sierras and dump me out at Angel’s Camp. It turned out to be a really spectacular drive, and although the road wasn’t totally clear of snow and gravel in spots, for the most part it was open tarmac, blue skies, pine trees, and snow drifts. Overall, there was actually less snow than I expected up at the peaks. At this time of year, there would generally be maybe three to five meters still up there waiting to melt off, but I never saw more than maybe a meter or two. That low level of snow promises a pretty dry summer for central and southern California, which is not great news considering their current drought status.
I passed through Lodi, where spring planting planting was in full swing, then through Vallejo and around San Pablo Bay over to Jim’s place in San Rafael. The next day, we got up and headed over to the track for practice, where I got some good time in with the car (which was very fast and handled great, which is almost an unfair advantage at a LeMons race), and then we packed it up and went home with high hopes for the next day of racing. Unfortunately, those hopes were dashed when one of our drivers put the #1 car into the wall in Turn 1, damaging both the front of the car and the rear suspension. Luckily for me, I had taken the first stint (before the crash), so I got some good seat time in, but the other guys were not as lucky. Parts were available for a fix, so Jim ran back to his garage to grab those for a repair. Meanwhile, the #2 car had developed a cam sensor problem that was keeping that car from running, so by the end of Day 1, we were down one car and repairing another. We got the #1 car fixed and back out on the track, albeit slightly bent and not quite handling as well, but it was going around and making laps, and that’s what counted. One of the other fun things from the day was that lots of people there recognized the car from the Petrolicious article and video (and the unmistakable giant dent), so I got to talk to a lot of blog readers who I hadn’t met in the flesh before. I suppose it shouldn’t have been surprising being surrounded by hundreds of wacky car nuts, but it was definitely a lot of fun to have the car be a little celebrity again.
On the morning of Day 2, we had a guy from one of the other teams who is a BMW technician bring the magic BMW diagnosis box over, plug into the car’s computer, and verify that it was in fact the cam sensor. He’d also brought a new cam sensor with him (since the symptoms had indicated that), and after a swap to the new part, Car #2 was back in the game. Sadly though, Day 2 of racing was also going to be a short one for us. The #1 car experienced a dramatic and fatal engine failure that was well beyond anything short of a motor swap to fix, and the #2 car went back to its wayward tendency to develop car-stopping gremlins, so by mid-day they were both parked and our race weekend was over. Still, it’s always fun to get out on the track, and everybody did get a chance to drive, so it was not a lost weekend by any means. Next time, we’ll hope for some better luck.
I had promised my nieces that I’d come up to visit them right after I was done racing, so after one last evening at Jim’s house, I headed north back up to Occidental to visit. Between the pre-trip shakedown run, the visit during the trip, and this visit, I’d spent more time with them than I had in the previous several years combined, which was pretty great. We reprised our “ride home from school with the top down” adventure from the previous visit (which never fails to stick an indelible smile to their faces), then had a nice dinner in downtown Occidental. After hanging out a while longer for some quality niece/uncle time, I took off again for points even farther northward.
I continued to re-trace my steps from the big trip through some fairly unpleasant weather up the coast, through Mendocino, and into Eureka, where I stayed again with my second Airbnb hosts from the trip, Jen and her fabulous dog Nikita. Jen was in the process of putting together a new gallery for her artwork in downtown Eureka, so I hung around for a couple of days and helped out with a trip to the lumberyard and a few other tasks, but for the most part I just hung out. It’s really a great area, and I enjoyed both returning to see the scenery and returning to hang out with a couple of good friends that I had not known before the road trip adventure. Sadly, Nikita has passed away since my visit there, as she was very elderly for a dog and in a slow decline even when I first met her. I was glad I got to sit by the pond with her and rub her belly and do some enthusiastic exploring around the sawmill on this visit. She was a great dog, and she’ll be missed.
After leaving Eureka, I started the loop back toward home. I figured I’d go back over the Sierras there in the north, then drive south down through the deserts of Nevada (as opposed to going back down the California coast and cutting east.) The weather was still not great, ranging into really pretty bad; mostly torrential rain and high winds. I’d chosen what would normally be the scenic and fun drive through the Sierras on Route 299, but with that kind of weather and visibility in a car with somewhat marginal wipers at best, it did turn into a little bit of an ordeal. Once I’d finally crested the mountains and started heading down the east slope it got a little better, but it never really cleared up. That east slope also came back to bite me in another way as well, as I got my first speeding ticket in the past 40,000 miles or so while heading down through the forests. The officer was friendly but a little perplexed as to what I was doing out on that road in that car in those conditions. He asked where I was coming from, and when I said Eureka, he asked which route I had taken. When I said Route 299, he slowly shook his head and said “Not a good idea today…that road isn’t in great condition from the winter, and it’s even worse with this weather.” I agreed and said it was definitely not a lot of fun coming over, and that I was looking to get out of that storm and down into the desert for a change. He nodded, then wrote me a ticket for a considerably slower speed than I was actually going, and sent me on my way.
The northwestern parts of Nevada once you get outside of Reno and Carson City are some of the most desolate parts of the country that I’ve ever driven through. The land looks like what it is—ancient dried-up seabeds, and it’s just horizon to horizon nothingness. It’s a majestic looking desolation, but it’s still desolation, and it’s not someplace where you find a lot of people driving 46 year old cars. By this point though, I had an enormous amount of faith in the Datsun, and of course it didn’t let me down, doing the whole monstrous cross-desert trek in one shot without so much as a hiccup. We went past the giant military ammunition depot at Hawthorne, down around Walker Lake (where one is cautioned to keep the exploring to a minimum as there’s plenty of unexploded ordnance lying around from when it was part of a bombing range), through several tiny outposts and ghost towns, into the semi-ghost town of Goldfield where there are plenty of remnants of its mining past, including a big abandoned hotel, and through the relative metropolis of Tonopah. Desolation notwithstanding, it’s definitely a drive that I enjoy, as you really do not get to see that sort of terrain and population dispersal in many other places in the US.
I got back home to Vegas about a week and a half and 1650 miles after I’d started out, which in the big picture sort of made this a mini road trip for me and the car. It was really great to be back in the saddle again, and as usual, the car was a trouper, having zero problems mechanically or otherwise. The exposed steel from the deer dent was quite a bit rustier than when I’d started out (that’s “patina” to you old car guys), but otherwise it was just a quick run around the block, more or less. The first part of the trip also doubled as a quick scouting trip for an upcoming road trip a few weeks in the future to Solvang, CA for the annual Roadster show ‘n shine, as I was expecting some fellow Roadster enthusiasts to join me on that journey and wanted to pick a fun route there. But that’s the next post…