Autobiography: Corolla Memories

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer

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 toys that never really get off their leash. I knew the basic formula intuitively in my youth.

As previously chronicled, I rambled around the eastern side of the Continental Divide for years in my (free) Corvair and (cheap) VW Beetles. At twenty-two, I almost lost it. Driving a transit bus in Iowa paid a living wage, and I was sorely tempted to follow my cohorts to the car dealers and sign my freedom away. Luckily, I instinctively knew that I needed a different role model. And I found it: my girlfriend’s mother.

After her divorce, 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. It was a Corolla 1600 sedan.

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 recover it for her in a U-haul truck. And when she rolled-out the welcome mat, I quit my job and made it a one-way trip. Although the San Diego area was gorgeous, too many others were having the same idea. It turned out to be a temporary idyll…

One day, out of the blue, Elinor said, “Let’s go for a drive up north”. Near the end of what was supposed to be a day trip to Redlands, she said “let’s keep going, to Death Valley.”

It was hundreds of miles away, and we hadn’t even brought toothbrushes. But why not? And there, on that impulsive drive to Death Valley, in the early evening twilight somewhere north of Shoshone, I found nirvana.

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. The 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.

Imperceptibly, the little Toyota’s speed increased: eighty, eighty-five, ninety and still it crept up. Somewhere north of ninety-five, the Corolla entered warp speed; simultaneously, we were hurtling down the road and yet not moving at all. 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.

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.

For the next couple of days, we roamed through Death Valley, and 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. You’d be hard pressed to find the equal of it in the Himalayas.

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

Paul Niedermeyer
Paul Niedermeyer

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  • Joeaverage Joeaverage on Mar 12, 2008

    I miss travelling in one of those minimalist vehicles! Maybe it was my age (20-something) or the fact that I was in Italy but my Beetle was fun for road trips that never had an itinerary. Noisy, slow, and plenty of heat summer and winter but the car was fun. Working towards putting her back on the road her in TN. Several times rolling along some remote stretch if Italian highway or by-way I'd get this rush of excitement wondering what we would see down the next mile of road or around the next corner. Now back in the state 15 years later with a laundry list of responsibilites I don't have as much fun driving the back roads like I did. I've thought alot about it and think that it is a combination of being over familiar with this area, a TN landscape which doesn't lend itself to long views down the highway - always a curve or hill in the way - and the never-ending supply of modern day crap everywhere I look. Miles and miles of billboards, McDonalds, strip malls, and the same franchise storefronts everywhere we go. Gone are some of the interesting stuff left over from the early 20th century that seemed to be everywhere when I was a kid. Maybe it's a regional thing, maybe I'm concentrating too much on the traffic and missing the good stuff... Whatever the case we gotta get out of town for a few days later this year!!! Dad had a series of Toyotas (3 Celicas and a Landcruiser) that were A+ back in the 70's and 80's. Never any real problems. Only the Landcruiser was as minimalist as the Corrolla was back then.

  • Racefangurl Racefangurl on Dec 25, 2017

    Corolla in disguise, you say? Do you mean a Chevota? My mom has one, an '02 Chevy Prizm LSi.

  • Varezhka The biggest underlying issue of Mitsubishi Motors was that for most of its history the commercial vehicles division was where all the profit was being made, subsidizing the passenger vehicle division losses. Just like Isuzu.And because it was a runt of a giant conglomerate who mainly operated B2G and B2B, it never got the attention it needed to really succeed. So when Daimler came in early 2000s and took away the money making Mitsubishi-Fuso commercial division, it was screwed.Right now it's living off of its legacy user base in SE Asia, while its new parent Nissan is sucking away at its remaining engineering expertise in EV and kei cars. I'd love to see the upcoming US market Delica, so crossing fingers they will last that long.
  • ToolGuy A deep-dive of the TTAC Podcast Archives gleans some valuable insight here.
  • Tassos I heard the same clueless, bigoted BULLSHEET about the Chinese brands, 40 years ago about the Japanese Brands, and more recently about the Koreans.If the Japanese and the Koreans have succeeded in the US market, at the expense of losers such as Fiat, Alfa, Peugeot, and the Domestics,there is ZERO DOUBT in my mind, that if the Chinese want to succeed here, THEY WILL. No matter what one or two bigots do about it.PS try to distinguish between the hard working CHINESE PEOPLE and their GOVERNMENT once in your miserable lives.
  • 28-Cars-Later I guess Santa showed up with bales of cash for Mitsu this past Christmas.
  • Lou_BC I was looking at an extended warranty for my truck. The F&I guy was trying to sell me on the idea by telling me how his wife's Cadillac had 2 infotainment failures costing $4,600 dollars each and how it was very common in all of their products. These idiots can't build a reliable vehicle and they want me to trust them with the vehicle "taking over" for me.