The Thing About Car Blogs
Original Content and Recommended Reading

Ross Robbins regales us with tales of utter madness driving his Lotus cars all over the USA: long distances, how to avoid breakdowns by carrying spare parts, why ‘the car knows,’ and how to make Hydraulic Cheese. Is the electric Microbus finally about to be real? We share a worst car story that’s pretty hard to beat, and Grand Trivia Auto freezes us out.

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I have heard a story (probably untrue) that the city we know as Atlanta, after having been known previously as Marthasville and Terminus, was eventually re-named Atlanta as part of a plan for a pair of railroad hubs on both US coasts. The name Terminus came from the railroad history, as the city was a major railroad hub from the beginning. Pacifica was to be the western hub but it was never established, as the story goes. The modern city of Pacifica, near San Francisco, wasn’t incorporated until 1957. It was never a railroad hub but it is popular with surfers. But that’s another story. This story is about a much smaller Pacifica, but like the railroads I mentioned, it made coast-to-coast travel possible although on a much more modest scale.

My wife Jennifer has a grandmother and other extended family in Spokane Washington, which has become one of my favourite places to visit. I always look forward to getting up into that fresh air of the Inland Northwest, a beautiful region that feels so delightfully different to the southeast where I’ve lived most of my life. Sometimes I just can’t get enough of the volcanic rock and blue spruce that define the landscape up there. And in March of 2021 we found ourselves making a trip to Spokane, but it wasn’t the usual getaway vacation. This time the focus was getting Grandma moved into a different apartment at the senior facility, and because the new apartment was smaller, we’d be bringing some of her stuff home with us.

It all started with a chair. It’s not an antique, not particularly valuable, not significant in any way that the rest of the world would care about, but Jennifer always liked it. It’s a little glider-type rocker, the seat suspended above the base on a quartet of links that allow the occupant to rock in a nearly straight back-and-forth motion rather than the pronounced arc of a traditional rocker. It’s made of wood, probably in the 1970s, has a fairly traditional style with spindles in the backrest, comfy cushions, and a matching ottoman that also glides. It’s super-comfortable, and Grandma had promised it to Jen when the time came that she wouldn’t have use for it. And since the new apartment didn’t have much space for extra furniture, that time had come.

We’d been anticipating the need to get the chair down to our house in the ‘burbs of Atlanta for some time, and I’d looked into various shipping options but none proved to be practical. Then I remembered that thanks to the road-warrior nature of my dayjob, I have a stupendous pile of airline points, hotel points, rental car points…rental car points…that was it. I reserved a minivan at the airport in Spokane, to be returned no more than ten days later at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, our point of departure, and where my car would be parked in the meantime. After returning the van I could drive home, nice and easy. I used points for all of the travel and lodging, making this a really affordable trip: fuel for the van would be the biggest expense. As the saying goes, I love it when a plan comes together!

After a year of life being interrupted by Covid-19 we were both looking forward to this, even if it wasn’t going to be all fun and relaxation. Due to Covid we wouldn’t be staying with Jen’s aunt and uncle as usual, so I booked a room at the downtown Holiday Inn Express. With the flight booked as well, we were ready. We’d fly up to Spokane, stay for probably four nights then hit the road for Atlanta, approximately 2400 miles away. I’d taken a week off work with the understanding that I might need to extend by a day or two, although the extension proved un-necessary. I’m really good at playing it by ear so the stops along the way weren’t planned in advance, probably a good idea since some of the places through which we’d be passing were still in the last part of winter. And we didn’t know how well that van would work for us or how long we’d feel like driving on any given day, plus I wanted to have a full day at home before returning to work to allow for returning the car and getting everything unloaded and sorted, the kitties out of boarding, the laundry done, the usual post-travel stuff.

The day before departure was the day that the reality set in that we’ll be away. Not just the packing, but we also had to drop our three sweet kitties at boarding. Their absence from the house the night before departure is always sad, but then morning comes and we’re in the groove. Get ourselves up and ready, drive down to the airport, get parked, get through security, find some breakfast and our gate, get boarded, and finally relax for a bit. Change aircraft in Houston, stop again but stay aboard in Sacramento, then the home-stretch to Spokane. Plenty of good western scenery to see from thirty thousand feet, at least when the clouds aren’t in the way. Then we land in Spokane. It’s a sunny day, the temperature is perfect, and the rental car clerk is friendly. This trip is definitely off to a good start!

I was expecting to be handed the keys for a Dodge Caravan, the usual work-horse in that segment of the rental car fleet. And I would have had no complaints about a Caravan; I’ve driven them many times in my biz-travels and found them to be excellent companions for long miles. Easy to drive, lots of room for obnoxiously tall people like me, and generous space to haul stuff. Not the most exciting vehicle, but endearing in its own way for sure. But no, I was instead handed keys for a Chrysler Pacifica, a decidedly more up-market ride. This trip was getting better and better!

We knew at first sight that this Pacifica would be a sweet ride! Styling has had a minor refresh for ’21, especially up front.

Introduced as the replacement for the Town & Country van for the 2017 model year, the Pacifica is the latest generation of the minivan genre invented by Chrysler in 1984, a revolution that would change the face of family-hauling as we knew it, an epic leap forward from the station wagon as well as being yet another successful variation of Chrysler’s superbly versatile K platform. Those first minivans were small and basic by today’s standards, but it didn’t take long for them to grow into roomier, more luxurious vehicles and today’s Pacifica is proof positive of how successful that revolution was. It’s a real starship as seven-passenger vehicles go, with touchscreens and copious USB sockets and powered doors and seats that can disappear into the floor to make a HUGE flat-decked cargo space. There are plenty more cool features too, and ours was a nicely-equipped 2021 model, the styling refreshed for this year. The thing looked great as it shone in the sun on the lot at the airport. It was nice and new and had a mere 1300 miles on the clock, which we’d triple by the time we were done with it. In addition to all the luxurious features it also had the Pentastar V6, a popular engine used in a surprising range of vehicles including Jennifer’s Challenger and even several vehicles not produced by FCA/Stellantis. This engine is relatively economical when treated gently and makes plenty of power when you put some foot into it. Perfect for what we had in mind.

Stylish appointments.

When we arrived at the hotel we got another nice surprise: we’d been given an upgrade to one of the really snazzy suites, a welcome place to conk out after full days busy with all the things we needed to get done. Over the next few days we got Grandma moved, and we wound up with more stuff to take home than just the chair- good thing our Pacifica had such generous gobs of space! A second chair and several boxes of various stuff got added to the cargo. We also took the time to do our usual Spokane stuff- see the pretty neighbourhoods and scenic views, daily walks in Manito Park, Breakfast at Frank’s Diner, afternoon tacos at SeƱor Froggy, etc. We also spent a wonderful evening with Jen’s aunt and uncle and some of the cousins, and we were given more stuff to take home with us: an old upright console-style radio from the 1930s, and a bronze bell that Jen’s dad had stolen from a US Navy ship in Alaska several decades ago- thankfully the statute of limitations has most likely expired by now, but our cargo space had not quite expired and we were able to fit them into the load.

We always see an interesting variety of old cars in Spokane; this 1958 Cadillac was a great example!
Our Pacifica looked good in Manito Park.

The timeline I planned worked. By the end of Tuesday everything was done and we were ready for The Big Drive. We stopped by the local Costco and gathered a good load of snack foods, as no proper road-trip would be complete without them! We spent our final night in the hotel then rose before the sun to get some miles behind us. Half an hour down the road we passed Coeur d’Alene Idaho, which we visit just about every time we’re in Spokane. Beautiful scenery, and the hiking trails on Tubbs Hill are one of our favourite ways to spend a few hours. But no stop this time, as the sun was just breaking the horizon and we wanted to get as far as we could on the first day to prevent being rushed at the other end of the journey. I’d never been east of Coeur d’Alene, not that there’s much more Idaho before reaching reaching the Montana state line, but I’d also never been to Montana. It was a great introduction, as the scenery along I-90 was impressive with snowy mountains and conifer forests. By late morning we were ready for a stop for food and fuel, so we did just that in Missoula. Seemed like a charming town, and we saw a decent piece of it since the Waze app decided to take us on a scenic route from the off-ramp to the restaurant.

Leaving Spokane before sunrise.
Coeur d’Alene is beautiful, but no stop there for us this time.

Crossing Montana was enjoyable. The snowy mountains were with us most of the way and ever so slowly got smaller and smaller, the sun shone all day, and by mid-afternoon we’d reached Billings, where Jennifer lived for a few years of her childhood. We saw the house where her family had lived as well as just cruising around a bit and taking in the town. Billings had charm too. We could have stuck around longer and seen more, but it was too early to call it a day and there weren’t a lot of places ahead to choose from for stopping for the night, so on we went.

The speed limit drops to 75 mph as you enter Wyoming.

I clearly remember having that thought and pondering how unusual that sounds to an outsider to the region. 70 Is the fastest we see in the southeast, and the nearest place with a higher limit is the far side of Louisiana. The speed limit dropped but the snow, which had disappeared from the scenery as we crossed Montana, returned, covering the rolling hills. There was plenty of it to crunch through at one scenic overlook along the Bozeman Trail. We were ready to stop for the night by the time we reached Gillette. One thing I found amusing is that three of the cities I’d been in that day -Gillette, Billings, and Spokane- had all been host in different years to my motorcycle club’s annual International Rally. I’d attended the rally in Gillette, making this my second visit to the city.

Somewhere in Wyoming.

The next day we left Gillette and not long after that, we were able to spot Bear’s Lodge in the distance, more famously known by the name that the white man gave it, Devil’s Tower. I wish we’d had time to take a diversion and see it up close. I did visit while attending the motorcycle rally in Gillette years earlier and I remember really enjoying the walk on the trail that circles it. Soon after that we were in South Dakota, another state I’d never before visited. The Black Hills and Mount Rushmore were close by but again, the diversion would have cost us too much time and it wasn’t really the right season to see much anyway. We also passed by Sturgis, home of the biggest annual event in the universe for Harley-Davidson fans, but from the highway it looks like just another town. As with Wyoming, snow returned to the scenery in South Dakota and thinned somewhat over the better part of 400 miles that it took to reach the eastern end of the state. Somewhere along the way we saw signs for Wall Drug, a well-known landmark. It was only about two minutes off the highway and we were due for a leg-stretch, so we took the exit and checked it out. Spoiler alert: it’s not really worth stopping for. What started out many years ago as a sleepy little small-town pharmacy that gained fame by offerring free ice water to passers-by in the hot summer is now a mini-mall of tourist kitsch. Thankfully it wasn’t very crowded thanks to being the off-season for tourism. Jennifer napped much of the way across South Dakota, a good lazy drive for a passenger to do just that. Somewhere along the way I spotted signs for the Corn Palace, but decided to skip it.

Most of South Dakota looked like this.

At the other end of South Dakota we turned south at Sioux Falls. It had been cloudy most of the day but the sun was starting to come out, and the snow disappeared for the last time as we neared the southeast corner of South Dakota. Interstate 29 goes right down the middle of a pointy appendage at this corner, then enters Iowa at Sioux City and follows the ‘west coast’ of Iowa (the bank of the Missouri River) all the way to the Missouri state line. As far I know, Iowa is the only state to have such ‘coasts’ entirely define both its eastern and western boundaries. We spotted the Omaha skyline to the west, and stayed with 29 until reaching Kansas City Missouri and deciding to stop there for the night. We found a really yummy barbeque place for dinner and got to see a little bit of KC’s charm before reaching our hotel. Kansas City is a bit of an unknown to outsiders but during a business visit last year I was pleasantly surprised at just how much charm it has in the older neighbourhoods near downtown. A college sports team was checking into the hotel just ahead of us, and thankfully the desk clerk gave us a room that wasn’t right below them.

Our departure from the northern plains also marked the return of the Left Lane Bandits: those idiots who insist on staying in the passing lane despite moving more slowly than most or all other vehicles and refusing to move aside to allow for proper passing on the left. The most egregious LLBs often have Florida plates on their cars for some reason. We saw none anywhere before Missouri; all the drivers up until that point were courteous and respectful of the proper use of highway lanes. I was behind the wheel until this point, but leaving Kansas City Jennifer took a turn for a couple hundred miles until she had to take a phone call. From here to home it would be increasingly familiar territory for me, having driven all of these roads in the past year, the last few hundred miles being a regular part of much of my business-travels. We stopped for lunch a little before St. Louis at a Lion’s Choice restaurant, a regional chain of roast beef sammich places. They forgot to put the Provel cheese on mine, but I didn’t feel like going back through the drive-through and making them make another one. Oh well. Waze took us around the south side of St. Louis, more direct but not as good for views of the Arch as you reach the Mississippi River.

Across the river and we’re back in the eastern US. Smaller states, more trees, familiar. The road took us through the southern tip of Illinois, then down past Paducah and through the western tip of Kentucky. Not long after that we passed Nashville, our route going right past the Grand Ole Opry’s big modern facility, which is right next to the Bavarian Bierhuas that Jen and I enjoyed visiting a couple of years ago during a motorcycle club rally nearby. Then down through the middle of Tennessee, then things get more interesting than most Interstate highways. I-24 goes up a mountain ridge, getting curvy as it climbs, then just south of Monteagle the northbound and southbound sides diverge from each other for a few more curvy descending miles then rejoin at the bottom. A few miles later it crosses the Tennessee River at Nickajack Lake, then enters Georgia, then three miles later turns back up into Tennessee again, past Lookout Mountain (SEE ROCK CITY), along a big bend in the Tennessee River then into Chattanooga before passing over another high ridge before splitting toward either Knoxville or Atlanta. We felt our stomachs rumbling and exited into Chattanooga for a bite. We found a good little pizza-place and satisfied those rumblings, then Jen took the wheel again. It wasn’t as late in the evening as we expected it to be by this point in the journey so we decided to knock out the final stretch and sleep in our own bed that night rather than spend one more night on the road. Home at last.

The next day we unloaded the van then used it one more time to spring the kitties free from boarding. Oh, the trauma they suffer there, poor things! I think they were more glad than we were to be back home. After that I took the van down to the airport and relinquished it with some melancholy in my heart. It had performed admirably and delivered us in comfort. How much comfort? In three straight days of 800 miles each, I didn’t feel the slightest lumbar discomfort or butt-ache. Heated seats and steering wheel, good audio system- and we got lucky with that, since even though I didn’t order access to the Sirius XM satellite radio, it was turned-on anyway and that saved us from total boredom through some of the more desolate stretches. Say what you will about minivans, but this one was nice enough that I wouldn’t object to driving it every day. We definitely liked the Pacifica! And if you’ve ever wondered how rental cars with plates from the far side of the continent wind up at your local airport, now you know.

It was with some sadness that we said goodbye to the Pacifica. We couldn’t have asked for more from a vehicle for this trip.