Autobiography: Corolla Memories

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
autobiography corolla memories

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.

Join the conversation
2 of 40 comments
  • 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.

  • Keith Maybe my market's different. but 4.5k whack. Plus mods like his are just donations for the next owner. I'd consider driving it as a fun but practical yet disposable work/airport car if it was priced right. Some VAG's (yep, even Audis) are capable, long lasting reliable cars despite what the haters preach. I can't lie I've done the same as this guy: I had a decently clean 4 Runner V8 with about the same miles- I put it up for sale around the same price as the lower mile examples. I heard crickets chirp until I dropped the price. Folks just don't want NYC cab miles.
  • Max So GM will be making TESLAS in the future. YEA They really shouldn’t be taking cues from Elon musk. Tesla is just about to be over.
  • Malcolm It's not that commenters attack Tesla, musk has brought it on the company. The delivery of the first semi was half loaded in 70 degree weather hauling potato chips for frito lay. No company underutilizes their loads like this. Musk shouted at the world "look at us". Freightliners e-cascads has been delivering loads for 6-8 months before Tesla delivered one semi. What commenters are asking "What's the actual usable range when in say Leadville when its blowing snow and -20F outside with a full trailer?
  • Funky D I despise Google for a whole host of reasons. So why on earth would I willing spend a large amount of $ on a car that will force Google spyware on me.The only connectivity to the world I will put up with is through my phone, which at least gives me the option of turning it off or disconnecting it from the car should I choose to.No CarPlay, no sale.
  • William I think it's important to understand the factors that made GM as big as it once was and would like to be today. Let's roll back to 1965, or even before that. GM was the biggest of the Big Three. It's main competition was Ford and Chrysler, as well as it's own 5 brands competing with themselves. The import competition was all but non existent. Volkswagen was the most popular imported cars at the time. So GM had its successful 5 brands, and very little competition compared to today's market. GM was big, huge in fact. It was diversified into many other lines of business, from trains to information data processing (EDS). Again GM was huge. But being huge didn't make it better. There are many examples of GM not building the best cars they could, it's no surprise that they were building cars to maximize their profits, not to be the best built cars on the road, the closest brand to achieve that status was Cadillac. Anyone who owned a Cadillac knew it could have been a much higher level of quality than it was. It had a higher level of engineering and design features compared to it's competition. But as my Godfather used to say "how good is good?" Being as good as your competitors, isn't being as good as you could be. So, today GM does not hold 50% of the automotive market as it once did, and because of a multitude of reasons it never will again. No matter how much it improves it's quality, market value and dealer network, based on competition alone it can't have a 50% market share again. It has only 3 of its original 5 brands, and there are too many strong competitors taking pieces of the market share. So that says it's playing in a different game, therfore there's a whole new normal to use as a baseline than before. GM has to continue downsizing to fit into today's market. It can still be big, but in a different game and scale. The new normal will never be the same scale it once was as compared to the now "worlds" automotive industry. Just like how the US railroad industry had to reinvent its self to meet the changing transportation industry, and IBM has had to reinvent its self to play in the ever changing Information Technology industry it finds it's self in. IBM was once the industry leader, now it has to scale it's self down to remain in the industry it created. GM is in the same place that the railroads, IBM and other big companies like AT&T and Standard Oil have found themselves in. It seems like being the industry leader is always followed by having to reinvent it's self to just remain viable. It's part of the business cycle. GM, it's time you accept your fate, not dead, but not huge either.