|Sunday, April 8, 2007
20:36 - Less than a ton of fun
So this weekend, after much disconsolate wailing and gnashing of teeth over my lack of inherent spontaneity, and after much prodding from a friend who shall remain nameless unless he chooses to identify himself, I rented one of these:
And drove up to visit my folks, up in Mendocino County.
They were both quite entertained by the car, which I hadn't warned them about in advance. And open-top motoring about a wine-country valley is a great conversation starter under any circumstances. So that went very well.
On the way home today, I eschewed the usual freeway (wouldn't you?) and sought out the twistiest of backroads that would carry me back south to the Bay Area.
First order of business was Scotts Valley Road, south from 20 to 29 on Clear Lake:
Virtually free of traffic and humanity, though there were a number of gigantic wild turkeys wandering about the road; a great little farming-and-ranching canyon with modest little creekside curves to get the car warmed up.
Then, south of Lakeport and Kelseyville, on the flanks of volcanic Mt. Konocti, I turned south on Bottle Rock Road, which parallels the more traveled 175 as far as Cobb:
I kept expecting to see a tall rock formation shaped like a bottle or something; but the whole length of the road to its end at Cobb (the little notch you can see in the distance under Cobb Mountain, which hulks over the huge geothermal complex that gives Geyserville its name), the landscape was marked by conical, volcanic hills and ridges that all told the same story as Konocti: that this area had all been part of a weird outlying volcanic system at the far fringes of the Cascades. The road cut through some banks with outcroppings of dark, shiny rock:
... Aaah. "Bottle rock" ... Obsidian. I get it now.
Descending from Cobb on 175:
I got down into the flat valley of Middletown, and the approach was strung with green pastureland with these really cool spreading oak trees:
From Middletown, Highway 29 cuts sharply through the range that forms the eastern wall of the Napa Valley, slipping over a shoulder of Mt. St. Helena, where Robert Louis Stevenson famously had a home for a couple of months (there's now a monument there, which was being very heavily visited today). You can see the mountain in the above aerial shot, and here's a crappy photo:
A better view of Highway 29 that gives you some idea of the twistiness of the road as it wends its way over the ridge and into Calistoga, at the head of the Napa Valley. The Lotus really started feeling its oats here.
I had lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Calistoga, home of the mineral water and hot springs (all part of the same volcanic system that feeds the geysers and made the obsidian); then set off southward down the Napa Valley, which—despite growing up right around the corner—I'd only been to once, and that when I was about ten years old and unable to really enjoy it. Calistoga is one of those quaint-by-law places where they forbid any roads with more than two lanes or any fast-food franchises from setting foot near the town:
The valley southward. I took the Silverado Trail, which you can see as the road that hugs the left side of the valley as it heads south and a little east.
Typical Napa Valley scene: vertical bluffs frowning over green vineyards.
About halfway down the valley, on my dad's recommendation I cut across to the west side on the Oakville Cross Road:
....And on up the Oakville Grade, which is an even more challenging little black-diamond sort of road, which narrows to a single lane in a few places to traverse ancient bridges or skirt washouts. There were a few intrepid bicyclers on this road, much to my astonishment; and some isolated vineyards at the top of the ridge, which I found equally gasp-worthy. Here's a better overview of the road as it vaults from the Napa Valley to the adjacent Sonoma:
From that point southward it was less scenic and more populated, as the vineyards of the Valley of the Moon gave way to towns like Agua Caliente and then Sonoma, and then I started seeing eucalyptus and cypress trees and smelling that familiar San Francisco/Marin smell. After a few country-road turns (121 and 116) I found myself at the Infineon Raceway at Sears Point, and then on to 37 which took me along the tidal north edge of the Bay across to Vallejo.
And then it was 80 and 680 southward home, as I'd done so many times before. Yet it's oddly different when you're in a car that's so cramped inside that one's foot can't help but span the brake and gas pedals at the same time, there's no dead pedal at the left side (it's fortunate that the clutch pedal is as heavy as it is), and the engine makes a constant, almost undeadened buzzing wail behind you. It's a car where you appreciate the digital readout displaying the engine's temperature—it fluctuates a lot. it's not just a green light that lets you know when the engine is ready to release the rev limiter that keeps you below 6000 (and thus below any of the engine's interesting powerband region) until it's warmed up enough.
And when it is, and you can tap the engine's full potential, it sure gets you moving in a hurry. I didn't time myself or anything, and in a car this high-strung and finicky it was all I could do to keep the wheels pointed in the same direction on those roughly-paved vineyard backroads of my youth; but when they say it does 0-60 in 4.mumble seconds, I'm in no position to argue. The kid who came out to gawk and chat excitedly about it as I filled up the tank for the return journey was surprised to hear about its little 1.8-liter inline-four (the same as you'd find in a Toyota Celica), but since it's power to weight that really matters, and the thing's only got 1900+ pounds to sling around, well... nobody's arguing.
No tickets and no mishaps, but even so it's not the cheapest weekend outing I've ever indulged in. Still, I'm well pleased with the results: I'm feeling a good deal more relaxed than I was. I may be 31 already, but at least I can't say I've never driven a Lotus Elise through the California Wine Country. I do recommend it.
UPDATE: Getting back in my A3 afterwards felt like I was climing into an SUV. It was just like back in 2000 when I stepped out of that rented Ferrari F355 and into my Jetta: the clutch felt like it traveled to Ohio and back, and the engine sounded miles away; and I'd become so used to my eyes being down at door-handle level with the cars around me that suddenly being able to see into other people's faces made me feel like I was perched up on a stagecoach.
Even so, though, the A3's acceleration is nothing to sneeze at—quite respectable, and with a lot less fuss than the Elise. Sure, it won't corner as much like a go-kart, but somehow I don't think I'm going to feel deprived now that I'm back in its posh, leather-swathed, iPod-integrated cockpit. Plus I won't feel like every cop in the world is glaring at me, waiting for me to cough or something.