The Mazda strafes the New Mexico desert like a red bullet, its tiny rotary engine spinning 80 times every second. Surprisingly, little of that mayhem gets to the driver’s seat. The heat, however, 101 degrees on this July day, assaults my whole body. The road is arrow-straight all the way to the horizon, and I peer ahead for signs of the law but see only mirages, syrupy lakes spilling over the asphalt. I grab for fifth, ready to bury the throttle and make the most of it. Then the engine cuts out.
Sadly, this isn’t the first time the engine has decided to take a breather. That was yesterday, Friday evening, as I made my way out of Phoenix. Going up a long hill, the power just went away, like it was out of gas, though the fuel gauge read half a tank. The car, a 1981 RX-7, was new to me and I hoped the gauge was just inaccurate. So I pulled into a gas station and added 10 gallons. To a guy with 2,000 miles to go to his Michigan home, that figure only strengthened the hypothesis. The next few miles were trouble-free, so I chalked the episode up to learning the idiosyncrasies of a 35-year-old machine and spent the night in Holbrook, Arizona.
Still, I was surprised at the flaw. The Mazda is a 49,000-mile all-original car discovered by a Craigslist-addicted friend while we were in Arizona for the January auctions. He passed on it, and I saw the pickled RX-7 as the ideal vessel for the cross-country drive I’d been yearning for. Plus, the interior aroma brought me right back to summer 1991, when for one dreamy spell between college semesters I lived in a tiny bungalow in Ocean City, New Jersey. One of my housemates had a 1985 Mazda hatchback that smelled identical. Funny how the nose is such a powerful time machine.
The RX-7 offered an awful lot of nostalgia for its six-grand asking price. I handed over the cash and found a place to stash the car until, I thought, May at the latest. But I couldn’t break free until July — kids, work, the lawn, etc. — so the car sat for six months. Since there was no sign of the hesitation when I bought it, I further reasoned that if the gauge wasn’t the problem, perhaps the fuel filter was partially clogged, with 35 years of who-knows-what in the tank. Reasonable, right?
Now, in the desert at high noon, with the fuel gauge near the “full” mark, I curse myself for not swapping the filter while there was an auto parts store nearby. My sweat, already quite a flow, ticks up a notch as the car bucks and shudders. My wife would not be surprised by this turn of events.
I like to play road trips loose and see what unfolds. Sure, it can be risky, but I remind her that we remember the calamities. Like the time I hustled our family minivan through the curves of rural New York having a surprisingly good time — right up until our daughter puked. We won’t forget that.
These kinds of episodes are fun… in hindsight. In the Mazda, I’m miles from help and now I smell gas, a good excuse to have a look under the hood. There isn’t a drop of fluid anywhere. The mystery, for now, remains a mystery. Back in the pilot’s chair, I accelerate through the gears. The Mazda’s 1.1-liter engine pulls cleanly and runs fine all the way to Durango, Colorado.
An overnight in the historic Strater Hotel is cut short by my 5 a.m. alarm. I’m heading north on Route 550, and I want to sample the mountain switchbacks free of the summer tourist parade. The road is gloriously empty, and while the RX doesn’t buck, the altitude here — roughly 7,000 feet — has sapped a considerable portion of the carbureted engine’s 106 horsepower. Running uphill, I keep the throttle buried for long stretches as the sun peeks over the ridges.
The first and last time I saw 550 was in 1992, when three buddies and I piled into a Jeep Cherokee after graduation and took off. We wanted to see the country before real life kicked in. I can’t remember what I hoped for my future back then, but I know I was relieved I had a job that paid $32,000 and could start paying off my loans. Perhaps I could swing a used Miata. I’m sure I never imagined that I’d someday spend my weekends driving a Miata in SCCA races. That was too much to hope for, as is the reason I’m back — a luxury purchase of a sports car I don’t need. Such reflection is just the sort of thing that long hours in a car produce, and I’m grateful for it. It’s like I’m in the vehicular version of Ferris Bueller’s sage advice, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
The road is just as I remembered, with breathtaking views around every bend and certain-death cliffs at the pavement’s edge. I have it all to myself for nearly two unforgettable hours. In Ouray, I grab a cup of coffee, take a stroll and stop to pet a German Shepherd named Bacon. The dog’s owner is a local and also owns a 2013 Camaro ZL-1. Car guys are everywhere. When I tell him my plan to continue on 550 north and then cut over to Route 149, he shakes his head. “You’ll only be following motorhomes.” He suggests an alternative, Route 141, which heads northwest to Grand Junction. I tell him I’m going east and need to meet a college roommate in Vail, but he waves this off. “Trust me. The road’s gorgeous and always empty.”
I’ve learned to take these kinds of suggestions with caution. One man’s perfect road is another’s snoozefest. But he’s got that Camaro… An hour later, on 141, it’s just as he promised, clear of traffic and a wicked combination of gorges, meadows and mountain passes. Some stretches of this 92-mile two-lane road have a generous 65-mph speed limit. That doesn’t feel overly slow, which is one of the benefits of driving an older car. Naturally, the one time I get overenthusiastic, a cop passes me going the other way, promptly flips around and hands me a ticket. No $250 fine, however, could dampen this day, and I revel in the road’s final 40 miles. A couple hours on Interstate 70 East gets gnashing. But in my cheap and cheerful Mazda, I don’t flinch and instead try — but fail — to pitch it sideways.
The shenanigans end at the western edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, where it is high tourist season, and the road across the park is jammed. It soon goes above the treeline, to 12,000 feet, and the cliffs at the edge are absolutely terrifying, even though I don’t go faster than 25 mph.
That evening, I pull into the Stanley Hotel, a sprawling white clapboard structure built in 1909 by F.O. Stanley, one of the brothers behind the Stanley steam car. The interior is a maze of hallways and staircases. It’s no wonder the place was the inspiration for Steven King’s novel, The Shining.
The next morning I drop off the Rockies and make haste for Michigan on interstate highways. Two days later, I’m home, the Mazda no worse for wear. And that engine problem never returned. Bad gas? Heat? Who knows? Maybe the car, like me, just needed to get out and look around.