7 Weeks, 7,000 Miles in a Mini Cooper from Alaska to Baja
It started on a clear morning in August:
I was running a minute or so late. Living on an island with fourteen or so miles of paved road, I tend to leave about the time I need to be at a place. Video gear loaded in the car, personal floatation device on top of the camera, tripod, sound. Heading for a video shoot for a PBS documentary to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Marine Highway, our state ferry system.
I drove around the local roundabout in a rusting red Subaru Legacy wagon with mold growing around the edges of the windows and caught a glance of a perky green Mini Cooper with a for sale sign on it. I like to bike and walk and have a rule, much like a New Year’s resolution, to drive four wheels when hauling people or gear and to walk or bike as much as I can. In the past, it tickled me when someone would stop and offer a ride because they didn’t think I owned a fossil fuel guzzling vehicle.
Along with a love of my legs and a trusty bicycle was a recurring thought that it would be fun to have a car that started when you turned the key. A set of wheels that didn’t look ready to drive to the dump or to a demolition derby.
Hours later, after returning from the film shoot, I told Spencer about the Mini. Used cars in good shape with a decent price tag can go fast here. In fact, when someone gets ready to leave this island town the questions on what they are keeping and what they are selling can come soon after they let out the news. The Mini, keep in mind, was not just another Ford Ranger , Subaru Wagon or four doored bubble car dotted with dents.
We went to take a look. The Mini Cooper was still in front of the auto parts store with the sign telling us it was a 2006, very clean with a little over 50,000 miles. A lot of locals seemed to notice us. I got a text soon after we got there from a friend asking me if we were serious or just looking. That’s what happens here when you do something public like look at car on the side of the street on a dry summer evening.
Spencer knew about that other side of me, the side that wanted to have a little fun and turn the social justice button to mute or pause.
About 4 months later we were on the road. We drove the Mini Cooper on to the ferry and a few days later hit the pavement in Washington, then Oregon and California, into Baja and back again. 7 weeks: 5 437 miles in the car and about 2,000 miles more on the ferry from and to Alaska.
Since we got the Mini Cooper and took it on the road, in some urban places, we blended in and spotted Minis –minus the lump on the roof with our camping gear-quite frequently. In other places, or when someone caught our license plate, we generated questions, smiles, and comments including:
“That’s not an Alaskan car.”
“That’s not a Baja car.”
“Not much room for a road trip.”
“That’s a city car.”
To read a commentary called “Bicycling in Rubber Boots,” written for an on-line magazine years ago, click here.
To see more images of the Mini Cooper on the road trip from Southeast Alaska to Loreto Baja, click here.
On the road, we visited family and friends, camped in the woods and on the beach, stayed in roadside and waterside motels. We checked out a couple photo exhibits, hiked and drove down the coast in the rain. We consumed lemon meringue pie and onion rings on Christmas Day at the Palm Café, on 101 in Orick, California followed by Tex-Mex on Valencia Street in San Francisco and quesadillas that we made with fresh tomatoes and avocados by the Sea of Cortez.
We heard stories of barely getting by and stayed in motels where the empty rooms far outnumbered the full ones. In Baja, there were also far more Canadian tourists than ones from the U.S of A. Spencer described Baja as “empty.” We had a hunch, underscored by some worried comments we got about safety, that the decline in U.S. tourists was not just the economy, but a fear of drug cartels.
Back to California: there was a week going in and out of a convalescent home with a memorial service for Spencer’s sister. The motorcycle from last year’s adventure we tried to sell, but didn’t. Queries that didn’t turn into reality.
We wandered through malls, witnessed natural beauty, endured traffic and drug, guns and immigration checkpoints and stayed behind a gate in a 55 and an over RV park. We petted and threw toys to dogs from Huskies to Chihuahua mixes. The times we loaded and unloaded the car partially or totally are beyond count. We broke a wheel bearing on roads we should not have traveled.
Spencer, I ask, ” What will you remember?”
He replies, “Waffles,(because so many seemed to be offered to us on this trip), your cough, the Mini Cooper.” He is saving the long answers for others, I can tell.
As we traveled, Spencer was tickled to be able to witness the changes in trees. Spruce, hemlock, yellow cedar becoming red cedar. Then mighty fir trees, redwoods, tan oak, madrone, Oregon white oak changing to live oak. Royal Palms planted on boulevards. Then Sycamore, tumbleweeds, huge varieties of cacti, changing from lowlands to the mountains in southern California and Baja.
He turns the question around, “You?”
“Camping at Big Sur and in Baja,” I reply. ”A stormy Christmas morning in a motel overlooking the Oregon Coast. The herons, grebes, pelicans, turkey vultures and egrets on the beach. The Elephant Seals at Point Lobos.” He reminds me to add feeding the tuna with a fisheries biologist in Monterey, CA to the list.
I pause and continue, “Lots of public time. Living out of a car. Laughing with cousins. Seeing kids growing up. Including the height checks to see how close they are getting to passing me.”
It was like a slide show on super speed. It was a Rolodex of family and friends.
Where are the lessons and epiphanies?
We filled the car tank 21 times and discovered our mileage was closer to 25 mpg in most situations rather than the 32 we hoped. Our Spanish is rustier than we’d like. Since we live in a temperate rainforest, days with out rain are deeply appreciated. As is being anonymous. Though I wondered if some kind of cover was blown when I noticed a woman repeatedly looking from the display of yogurts to me at Trader Joes’ in Bellingham. Just as I was starting to feel like someone in a witness protection with a blown cover, she came up to tell me she loved my hair.
Living on the road, with a small car, shopping gets old.
We’re home now and the lists are back. I didn’t blog much on the road, because we were on the move and visiting people so much–except a few entries to a photo series called “Words to Stand On,”
I look out the window: there is a bit of snowy slush on the ground and the Mini is parked. Inside the cat’s been purring a lot and it is time to stick a loaf of bread in the oven, but I’ll post because if I don’t do it the present will splatter paint time and memory.