By on December 17, 2010

The West Virginia road trip was five years in the making, five days in the doing. The blurred photo captures the spirit—often the most memorable things are those that aren’t entirely planned. In the end, everyone wanted to do it all again next year—with one notable exception. We’ll get to that.

First, the beginning. Back in the spring of 2005 I chanced across a lightly used Honda S2000 with a thought-provoking mod: a cut-off switch for the passenger airbag, with a URL on it. Perhaps I could reconcile owning such a car with having three children after all. In the end, I almost bought a Mazda RX-8, finding it at least as fun to drive as any of the other cars I considered, and much more practical. Add an airbag cutoff switch, and I could carry all the kids!

Almost, because my father entered the equation. He had bought a 2003 350Z on impulse when they first came out, then hated how the car beat him up so much that he rarely drove it. After a year and a half he sold it with just a few thousand miles for almost as much as he paid for it—the hot new Z was still in short supply.

My thinking about a sports car got him thinking about a sports car again. He also test drove the S2000 and RX-8, and similarly enjoyed the RX-8 more. It didn’t hurt that the Mazda is far less expensive to insure. I wasn’t quite ready to put my money where my mouth was, and we both figured that he would tire of this car as well within a year or two. So we started looking for an RX-8 for him to buy.

The old man found a steal. A woman a few hours away in northern Virginia had won a silver 2005 RX-8 Sport (all the stuff you need, none of the stuff you don’t) in a contest. She wanted to sell the car so she could buy her minister a Harley. For religious reasons (just repeating what I was told, I could not make this stuff up), the minister was unable to drive a car, but a Harley was okay. He’d been getting by with renting a motorcycle when he needed one. She wanted to save him the trouble.

The Harley would cost $20,500, so that’s how much she wanted for the car, which had just a few thousand miles on it. This was two to three grand below market at the time, so I advised my father to jump on it. And so he did.

A few months later I drove my kids to Virginia so they could spend two weeks with my parents, and returned to Michigan in the RX-8 via the most challenging roads I could find, most notably WV 16 and OH 26. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, recounted here. The RX-8 might lack low-end grunt, but on curvy mountain roads the chassis is the limiting factor. And the Mazda has a spectacular chassis: agile, perfectly balanced, and yet also forgiving. I’ve driven over 600 different cars in the past decade, but can think of no other car I’d rather drive on a challenging, unfamiliar road.

I told my father he had to take a similar drive, since the straight, flat roads of Virginia Beach were not the optimal habitat for the Mazda. But he never got around to it.

A year or two after my father bought his car, my best friend (since we were both five back in 1973) went through the same sequence. We drove the S2000. We drove my father’s car. Trey’s father, a state judge, had owned a classic Z back in the late 1970s, and had been thinking about buying a sports car again. So the judge ended up buying a loaded red 2004 RX-8, which he and Trey (mostly Trey) then also drove exclusively in the Virginia flatlands.

Something had to be done about this intolerable situation. So in the fall of 2007 I suggested meeting up in DC. I would catch a cheap flight, they would drive the two cars up to meet me. The four of us would then take a drive through the mountains so I could demonstrate how and where RX-8s are supposed to be driven. Trey and I were both turning 40 in early November, and this seemed a great way to celebrate the milestone. Everyone signed on.

Well, not everyone. My wife threw a fit. I was going to go off and have fun, leaving her to deal with three kids alone? There were other circumstances I cannot recall at the moment, except that they were all in her favor. So I called off the trip.

A few months later, with taking up more and more of my time, we got an au pair to help with the children. So a major impediment to the trip went away. But discussions didn’t get very far in 2008 and 2009. I was busy, and it seemed like something we could just do “next year.”

More fun to drive and much more livable, the RX-8 sustained my father’s interest far longer than the Z had. But this past fall he called to say he was, at long last, tiring of it. Would I like it? Absolutely, but not until the following spring. There’s no point in owning such a car in Detroit in the winter.

With the RX-8 coming my way, this would be our last chance to take that drive together. Time to make it happen. I got in touch with Trey, and both he and his father signed on. We settled on the weekend of October 23rd.

Time for the details. I wanted to do as much driving as possible, and made extensive use of google maps to select the twistiest roads. The others, having never taken such a trip, weren’t sure they wouldn’t get bored after a few hours. So I scaled back a fantasy of making it all the way down to Tail of the Dragon. Then scaled it down again, settling on a 500-mile loop through the mountains and hills of West Virginia.

One way for me to get more driving in: travel there by car rather than by plane. The car had to be well-suited to challenging roads. After a fair amount of back and forth I persuaded Nissan to provide a six-speed Infiniti G37 coupe, with the condition that I keep the total miles near 800.

Consequently, I wouldn’t be able to drive the G37 all the way to the Blue Ridge Parkway, where I had initially planned to meet the others. Instead, my father and I would start a day earlier, on Friday morning. We’d meet up in Bridgeport, WV, selected because it’s about 400 miles from Detroit. Early Saturday morning we’d drive his RX-8 back down US 250 to the Blue Ridge Parkway, meeting up with the others. We’d then travel in the two cars down the BRP to Lexington, get lunch there, then head west, stopping at Summersville for the night. Sunday we’d head a little farther west to pick up WV 16, drive north on it for a bit, then head east to spend the night in Staunton, VA. Monday Trey and the judge would return home, while my father and I returned to Bridgeport. Tuesday I’d return to Detroit in the G37, taking a slightly longer route to include OH 26.

Plans like this have a way of falling apart. Things come up. To prevent this, and to save a few dollars, I got everyone’s okay to prepay the hotel rooms (most of them through Hotwire), and did so. Five years in the making, the trip was happening.

Follow Michael’s journey in part two of this piece here.

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23 Comments on “A Road Trip Five Years In The Making: Part One...”

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Awesome.  I want to be like you when I grow up.

  • avatar

    Sounds like a blast! Southern OH freeways and State Routes are absolute heaven to drive on and probably some of the most challenging and fun roads you could ask for. I love taking golfing trips down there just for the ride…lord knows it’s not because I’m any good at golf.

  • avatar

    Michael, Great story! I’m bummed that Part II isn’t already posted.  This is the type of 40th bday I want to do as well!

  • avatar

    Some good family friends live in West (by god) Virgina and I can’t think of a better place to drive a sports car. Me and the wife drove our Civic EX from S FL to northern central WV for a summer vacation and once you escape the flat lands of FL driving becomes alot more entertaining. It goes up another level once you get off the highways and onto the back roads of WV (as pictured above). The big thing I noticed was the lack of guardrails, in FL any turn or road any higher then 3 feet off the ground is surrounded by metal to keep you safe. Not in WV… there are blind hairpin turns that snake up & down the mountains where the road just drops off into tree filled valleys. When it snows people simply stay home as most routes become impassable. For a city boy like me I never knew such roads existed in the US anymore. Plus the state has a ton of Civil War history, so a road trip is a great way to explore and learn.

  • avatar

    Wonderful roads and, depending on the time of year, absolutely gorgeous scenery. WV-16 is a great drive.

  • avatar

    We spent many hours on Virginia back roads in the TR 4, and enjoyed every minute .

  • avatar

    I grew up about 5 miles from OH-26 down by Marietta, and I have been telling anyone that will listen it is one of the best driving roads anywhere in the country.  Several years ago, I believe AAA rated it in their top 5 of great drives for fall scenery.  One bit of advice, in early spring, be careful on motorcycles.  They use cinders on the road in the winter, and in the spring all those cinders tend to end up in piles that don’t mix very well with only 2 wheels.

  • avatar

    I think I’m going to have to make that trip.
    Hope you enjoy that RX-8
    btw, according to a musical prodigy from Iceland who played in Boston recently, who spent a lot of time in Michigan, the latter is colder. Despite the fact that the difference in lattitude between the two is about the same as the difference between Maine and Miami.

  • avatar

    One of my favorite drives is Skyline betw 66 and around Charlottesville. I haven’t done the snaky roads of WVa.

  • avatar

    I need to get a sports car.  There are too many beautiful roads here in WV to not have one.
    Or I just need to get the wife to share the MINI S more often.

  • avatar

    “A woman a few hours away in northern Virginia had won a silver 2005 RX-8 Sport (all the stuff you need, none of the stuff you don’t) in a contest.”
    Good Grief! I can’t even win $10 on instant lottery tickets…
    “She wanted to sell the car so she could buy her minister a Harley. For religious reasons (just repeating what I was told, I could not make this stuff up), the minister was unable to drive a car, but a Harley was okay.”
    Well, maybe I should have gone into the ministry… Steven, you’re right, you can’t make this stuff up.  (having posted this, I should note that I truly respect ministers, their job is pretty tough at times, but like they say their reward is in the afterlife)
    Good job, Steven. Nice to see that you are able to spend some quality time with your dad and friends. My dad passed away when I was in my teens, I’d give a lot to have been able to do something like this with him. In the next life…

  • avatar

    Oh crap, that great big post, and I forgot to mention that I’m fairly familiar with that part of the country. I’m from the Youngstown Ohio area, my wife has relatives in Wheeling, and we’d hop on I-77 and go see my sister in Charlotte, NC during the summers. Too bad you didn’t make it over to Beckley or the Bluefields area, that’s my favorite part of WV. Absolutely stunning scenery there.

  • avatar

    What a great post.  This is why I come back.  I get pissed so often at the Union bashing and GM bashing and political undertones in many of the posts.  Then a true car enthusiast post like this wins out and keeps me check TTAC about a dozen times a day.

  • avatar
    M 1

    The Blue Ridge Parkway is a great drive. At least once a year I try to run one of our sportier cars up to my dad’s place in PA, with a significant detour to the left to hit Blue Ridge. Then we pick up one one of the decent hotels in Roanoke at the far end, because driving isn’t all that exciting from that point north, so why rush it?
    I once took my E55 to Blue Ridge and that was probably the only car that ever felt like it was struggling. I should have guessed given its curb weight, but I thought the Germans were supposed to be good at the mountainy-twisty thing. Of course, the flip side is that the maximum fun has been my one two-wheeled trip up that way. Getting a little too old to spend that much time on a bike though, unfortunately.

  • avatar

    Excellent story to far Michael.  I look forward to the rest.
    It might be hard to arrange, given that it took 5 years to pull this trip together, but, if you still have the RX-8 in the spring, I highly recommend the Deals Gap Rotary Rally.  I made the 2600km each way trip down last year with my RX-8, and I’m planning to do it again this spring.
    200 or so (mostly) RX-7s and RX-8s makes for a heck of a gathering.  The RX-8 makes an excellent road trip car (other than the fuel mileage) with good space for stuff, and being so smooth, and the chassis absolutely eats up the Tail of the Dragon.

    • 0 avatar

      Awesome. We’ll have to check into this.

    • 0 avatar

      Before I forget (just reading part 2 reminded me about this) the dates for the event are final now, although the website probably won’t update until registration opens in January.
      April 28th to May 1st at a resort just outside Bryson City. (The entire resort is booked out for the event.)
      As I recall from last year, about 300 people registered with close to 200 cars.
      This year it’s the same weekend as The Mitty at Road Atlanta, where Mazda is the featured marque, so there is a movement afoot to have a mass road trip down to the track (about 2 hours) on the Sunday.
      Anyway, enough advertising (not like it’s my event) but figured any RX-8 fan should know about it, and worst case, probably a couple of articles in it.

  • avatar
    Mike C.

    Back in the day I wish I’d thought of that gambit… Mom, Dad, for ideological reasons I can’t drive a Ford or Chevy but a Ferrari or Porsche would be O.K.

    • 0 avatar

      Hey you laugh but I heard a story about a friend of a friend who went to an expensive private college. His Mom asked him if he would like to have a new car. Why of course he said but he’d need a Porsche b/c all the other kids were driving expensive cars.
      And… she bought him one… Brand new AWD 911 of some sort I think it was. This was about ten years ago.

  • avatar

    Enjoyed the story!
    In my younger days I had several RX-7s. I loved them for road trips. Fun to drive and just big enough for a hot girl friend and I to drive around the Rockies in. And wow did I love a good canyon to speed through. I miss those cars and someday would like to pickup an RX-8 myself.

  • avatar

    Another WV resident here.  There are some real great routes around this state, combining exciting roads with breathtaking scenery.  I’m looking forward to the trip report.

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