This is the final installment of a five-part series chronicling our Great Lakes Circle Tour in the 2014 Chevrolet Impala. We started with Lake Erie. Day two brought us around Lake Ontario. Then we hit Lake Huron. Thursday we skirted Lake Michigan.
We're in the tent and trying to find any warmth in this sleeping bag when we notice that co-driver and (former) best friend Mike is missing. We stopped last night to camp just outside Marathon, Ontario, even though several residents of the small mining town advised us not to. Now we're wearing every article of clothing in a sleeping bag and still our toes are numb.
Finally we hear the idling engine of the 2014 Chevrolet Impala. We peek out of the tent flap and see Mike, asleep in the front passenger seat of the Chevy, our vessel for this trip around Lake Superior.
So we run from the tent, open the driver's-side door of the Chevy, get in and turn on the heated seat, and then wrap our hands around the heated steering wheel. And we think, "All right, this Impala is growing on us."
Duluth: City of Angels
During our first day of driving, rain clouds and fog followed us 500 miles north from Chicago to the port city of Duluth, Minnesota. There's cool architecture, and Canal Park Brewing Company has good beer, plus The Inn on Lake Superior has free s'mores and a rooftop hot tub. Aside from the barges of iron ore, this about sums up Duluth's magnetism.
The quick road out of town is Minnesota Highway 61. But since we'd already soldiered through hundreds of highway miles with the 2014 Impala, we figured the car needed to see something more interesting than more mile markers on a big divided highway. We opted for North Shore Drive, a curvier road that runs along the west side of the lake.
We saw huge piles of iron ore, deer with mangy fur, bizarre front-yard sculptures, and an unambiguous sign that read, "Feed Tame Animals Sandwiches." Small towns with names that ended in Harbor or Bay popped up every now and then. When they did, people couldn't believe that the snappy car at which they were staring was actually a Chevy Impala.
Impala: It Means Handsome in Duluth-speak
Just as the stares from the pale Minnesota locals (spring comes late this far north) indicated, we were driving some handsome hunk of lard.
But even though this is a much prettier car than its predecessors, we couldn't shake the feeling that it doesn't drive much differently than before, as if it were still a car built for wrinkly old people who've recently started wearing shoes with Velcro straps instead of laces.
The Impala got the border patrol's attention, though. After a background check came the vehicle inspection. At least we got to see if they'd check the Chevy's secret cubby stashed behind its touchscreen display. They didn't, and we were free to go. It seemed a missed opportunity to smuggle something into Canada.
Canada: Crossing Over
We stopped into the welcome center to buy camping permits for Crown Land, the equivalent of national forests. We also met the Canadian version of Valley girls, who add "eh's," not "a's," to the end of words. Sadly they escaped us.
Canada immediately felt different than the States. There was graffiti on the rocks (more rocks than buildings, eh?), poutine on menu at Burger King, and colorful huts for crossing guards at intersections. The biggest difference, though, was that Canadians didn't pay much attention to the Impala, even in metropolitan Thunder Bay, Ontario.
Americans bought around a half million examples of the Impala in the last two years, even when the car had far exceeded its freshness date, so our country's enthusiasm for the Impala is obvious. We felt kind of bad that the car wasn't getting the gawks it deserved as we drove around the biggest city on the shore of Lake Superior.
Impala: The Value Proposition
Maybe the 2014 Chevy Impala might had got more gawks from the Canadian locals if its pricing sticker were still in the window.
This fully loaded LTZ model has the features of a pricy German sedan for just forty grand, including: power-adjustable steering column, full-leather interior, panoramic sunroof, rearview camera, navigation system, lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring, HID headlights, keyless entry, 11-speaker Bose audio system, and heated and ventilated front seats.
We hit the road. Even if the Impala is not a car for all passersby, it's definitely for all passengers.
Rossport: Scenic Attractions
The road that runs from Thunder Bay to Rossport, is scenic, but it lacks any attractions. With nothing to do, we explored the inside of the Impala.
Big, cushy front buckets that recline nearly flat. Teal stitching that matches teal accent lights. Climate-control dials with digital readouts. An accurate navigation system that makes it easy to type addresses. A classic thin-rim steering wheel. An anime-inspired display for the touchscreen interface.
Before we knew it, we were in Rossport, a four-star shantytown. Ten minutes east of there is Rainbow Falls Provincial Park, one of the most beautiful places we've seen yet. Tucked away behind pine forests are waterfalls so huge that you'd never even be able to imagine them. We laid belly-down on a rock at the edge of the falls and watched white water violently rush by.
Marathon: Ice Hotel at No Extra Charge
An hour east of Rainbow Falls, we arrived in Marathon, the last town on the north shore of Lake Superior. With the sun quickly setting, we had little choice but to call it home for the night.
We stopped by a local bar before turning in. The bartender wanted to know about our trip in the Impala, but the schizophrenic with wine-stained lips gave no mind to the bright red car as he stumbled past it. We headed to the campground, where no one else was dumb enough to pitch a tent. Using the car's headlights, we gathered tinder and managed to make a small fire. It didn't help. We bundled up and got ready for one hell of a cold night.
Impala: It's Morning in America
It's morning now, and our hands are still thawing on the Impala's heated steering wheel when Mike stops snoring and wakes up. The tent comes down much faster than it went up, and we're back on the road in no time.
The car feels completely different today. And since the car hasn't changed, we know that we have changed instead. We're seeing the appeal of this big American land-yacht on these smooth, tree-lined roads in the middle of nowhere. Driving it is not a bore; it's just not a job. The car bounds along open stretches of road, and its big gas tank allows 400 miles between fill-ups.
There's no strain -- physical, mental or whatever -- while driving the 2014 Chevrolet Impala out here. It inspires the confidence to focus on things other than driving. Like the Led Zeppelin song that's playing. Or the small, manmade rock sculptures on both sides of the road. Or the sparkling blue lake that's just popped into view on our right.
We pull off at Katherine Cove, which is an hour south of Wawa. There's shallow water, fine sand, and huge rocks that we climb and then jump from one to another. We get back into the Impala and start driving on the best stretch of road we've seen yet as we head toward the border crossing at Sault St. Marie.
Marquette: See the USA in Your Chevrolet
It's much easier getting out of Canada than it is getting in. We go west toward Marquette, Michigan, via County Road H58, which starts in Grand Marais. It takes less than a mile for us to fall in love with the road. A magnificent tree canopy covers the curving two-lane with great elevation changes and absolutely no traffic.
For a moment we wish for a smaller, more dynamic car, but when the road straightens for a bit, the Impala is plenty fun. The 305-hp V-6 engine has no problem moving this full-size sedan, and we almost bury the speedometer's needle on a particularly long stretch of pavement.
We stop at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore along the way. It's cool, but not a fraction as cool the moment when we encounter a black bear face to face as we're driving out of the park. We pass through Au-Train and Christmas, and finally arrive in Marquette. We find a parking spot right in front of the Landmark Inn and get us a room for the night. While coming down the hotel's front stairs, we stop and take a good, long look at the car.
We're a little amazed that the 2014 Chevrolet Impala never once upset us. Not up here in the woods along Lake Superior, anyway. In the urban scrum or stop-and-go traffic back in Chicago, we would've hated its light-effort steering, compliant, easy-going suspension and especially its large size. But not up here.
The Chevy Impala plays best in the places where cell service doesn't exist and moose crossings are taken seriously, which is another way of describing those vast open spaces between American cities. Back in the city, we'd be pretty indifferent to the Impala as we tried to squeeze through traffic or slingshot through a freeway on-ramp. Not up here. Not going around the great Gitchee Gumee.
The Statistical Record
Start: Tuesday, May 21 - 9:00 a.m.
End: Friday, May 24 - 5:30 p.m.
Miles traveled: 1819
MPG observed: 24
Music: "Trouble Will Find Me" by the National
Best beer: Kessel Run ESB at Canal Park Brewing Company in Duluth, Minnesota
Best bar: Blackrocks Brewery in Marquette, Michigan
Favorite road sign: "Moose on the loose!"
Best things about Chevrolet Impala: Its front fascia, its airy interior, and how easy it is to steer with your knees.
Worst thing about Impala: Kept hitting myself with the driver's -side door every time I tried to get into the car.