The e-mail popped into my inbox one morning, buried among the intraoffice notes and the poorly worded Nigerian ads for male enhancement. There wasn't much to it--no real introduction and no greeting, just a simple question. Is there anywhere in the United States where I can go surfing and skiing in the same day? We get asked stuff like this all the time. People tend to think the offices of car magazines are stocked with spare copies of God's Answer to Everything, and so we receive all kinds of queries on all kinds of subjects on a regular basis. They run the gamut from the ordinary ("What's the capital of East Upper Furbuckle?") to the sublime ("How can I weld the rear axle into my Camaromino SS so it doesn't curl my mullet northways durin' clutch dumps?"). And while we don't always know the answers, we read everything we get.
That said, on the surface, the surf-and-ski answer was an easy one: Southern California. People claim to do that sort of thing all the time there, but then, Californians also pay for purified oxygen in bars and elected a single-minded robot death machine from the future to be their governor. Stuck in the middle of a drab Michigan winter, we couldn't help but wonder: True snow and surf in one day?
If you take a look at a map of the Los Angeles Basin, it becomes fairly obvious: At first, yes, such a trip seems feasible. Beaches line the coast, and L.A.'s city center is only a hundred miles away from snow-capped mountains and a few big-name ski resorts. One catch: Those hundred miles cover some of the most traffic-snarled highways known to man. My curiosity was piqued--could you really leave Hollywood during the morning rush, hit the slopes at lunch, and make it back in time for a beachside dinner? A few phone calls to gloating West Coast friends ("It's seventy-five degrees outside! How's the snow?") indicated that, under the best of circumstances, it might be possible. Hanging up the phone, I stared out the window and tried to see beyond the blanketing gray skies. Running home at lunch, I threw some clothes into a bag, hastily booked a flight, and decided to get the hell away from Detroit's winter to find out for myself.
On a clear day, Los Angeles wakes up with a bang. The sun hits the hills, the colors burst into life, and boom--everything looks perfect. It doesn't matter if you hate California; the landscape sparkles, and you immediately love L.A. You forget that for much of the year, the town's skyline is coated in more brown muck than a stockyard's floor. You want to soak up the fabulous, and soak it up now.
For this reason, few things are more fittingly L.A.-esque than a convertible. Enter the new Mazda MX-5 (ne Miata) Power Retractable Hard Top (PRHT). Essentially a standard MX-5 equipped with a three-piece folding steel roof, the hardtop Mazda is the perfect car for a cross-town, mountain-climbing mission. It's small enough to dart in and out of holes in traffic, making it easy to navigate L.A.'s jumble of freeways and car-clogged surface streets. The MX-5's folding roof is quick to lower in the summer and makes the cabin both warm and quiet in the winter, which means the Mazda is comfortable regardless of season or location. And finally, unlike many hardtop convertibles, it's fun to drive. The $24,350 MX-5 is a sports car in the traditional sense, one that trades gut-thumping power and torque for nimble reactions, excellent steering, and forgiving handling. It's been said before, but the clich is still true: think of a modern, reliable Lotus Elan, and you've got the general idea.
Leaving Hollywood at the height of the morning rush hour, the sheer size of my task immediately becomes apparent to me--from the moment photographer Alex P and I pull out of our hotel on Sunset Boulevard, we're surrounded by a sea of immobile cars. It takes half an hour before we become ungridlocked and climb on the southbound US-101. By the time we reach I-10 east--the main interstate that will carry us to the other side of the L.A. Basin--we've already used up forty-five minutes and traveled only eight miles. It's a quarter to nine in the morning.
Things are not looking good.
You notice a lot of things when you're stuck in traffic. One of those things is that our MX-5 (a six-speed automatic model, chosen because Mazda's press fleet was oddly devoid of manual-transmission cars) handles stop-and-go chores surprisingly poorly. Pedal placement and a narrow footwell mean that your thighs are painfully unsupported if you're on the throttle or brake pedals. After five or ten minutes, your hips begin to ache and your left knee throbs from rubbing up against the awkwardly placed, door-mounted cupholder.
Another thing you notice is that the mountains--on days clear enough for you to see them--are everywhere. The largely flat, smoggy, and brown Los Angeles Basin is bordered by a range of broad-shouldered, imposingly green peaks, and they're often blue-hazed and capped with snow. It serves only to emphasize how much Southern California is a land of contrasts.
As if to illustrate my point, right as this thought crosses my mind, a man in a Hummer cruises by with a Save the Whales bumper sticker. A Toyota Prius flies past in the commuter lane doing a hundred-plus, and some dude in a slammed Honda gives me the finger for no reason at all. It's 9:30, and in spite of traffic lifting as we move farther east, we're still seventy-five miles from Big Bear City--the closest major ski town on the map, and directly behind the last mountain peak visible on the horizon.
Thankfully, we soon carve our way down I-10 through the remaining maze of cars and reach our exit at the base of the mountain range. The MX-5's top--raised as we got on the freeway because Alex's bald British head was cold (it's a balmy sixty-two degrees)--comes down with a pleasing clunk, neatly folding itself in front of the borrowed snowboard lashed to the luggage rack.
As we climb up the San Bernardino foothills on Highway 38, the view out the windshield doesn't seem to change much. Desert scrub soon gives way to more desert scrub, and at first, the road just seems to go around the mountains without really going up. At 10:15 on a Tuesday morning, traffic is nonexistent. Nonexistent, that is, until the Hyundai appears. It comes barreling out of a fold in the landscape like some sort of possessed Korean fastball, painted white and veering briefly into our lane. Right as it passes us, a poster-sized chunk of paint flakes off, revealing a gray-colored hood underneath. The white chunk flies through the air, hits the MX-5's hood, and explodes into a million powdery pieces. They scatter around the windshield, and one of them lands on the back of my neck with a cold little whuff.
This is how it is, then: We're in the middle of desert mountain flatlands, surrounded by sand and dirt, and down comes a car absolutely covered in winter. Cool. Then the coup de grce: a filthy, sand-encrusted black Dodge Ram, jacked up a foot and a half, on knobbly mud tires, wearing . . . chains. Fantastic.
It's right after the Dodge passes us that the road goes crazy. We turn a corner, and suddenly the temperature drops twenty degrees. Birds no longer perch in the trees. The pavement jinks and winds and climbs between stark rock faces, and my knuckles start to burn from the wind. Alex and I, horribly unprepared in shirtsleeves and jeans, shiver endlessly and decide that rather than put the top up, we'll simply drive faster. Snow appears, first plowed into little piles on the side of the road, then covering the surrounding ground.
Even with the six-speed automatic rather than the manual transmission we'd prefer, the MX-5 is a relatively capable companion. The Pirelli Snowsport winter tires seem to gain grip as the ambient temperature drops, and throttle-on oversteer in the wet decreases. Like all MX-5s, the PRHT isn't screamingly fast (it shares the softtop model's 170-hp, 2.0-liter four, along with its drivetrain, suspension, and most of its trim) but a 2602-pound curb weight and near-50/50 weight distribution ensure that pure speed isn't missed. The folding steel roof adds only 75 pounds to the Mazda's weight and trunk space isn't affected, so there's little change in terms of overall feel or practicality.
As we climb, the air clears and the sun grows hotter. My hands grow more numb. Alex utters little except the occasional laugh and a "Barking mad!" when a lowered and chain-shod Prius passes us in the outside lane. Shortly after eleven, we hit Big Bear City. Frozen lakes, small Alpine-style villages, and lifted Mercury Capris on Super Swampers dot the landscape. Three Pinzgauers pass us going the opposite direction, followed by a seemingly endless succession of snow-tired Mitsubishi Evos and Subaru WRXs. All things considered, it's a little like the Disney version of the Alps: rednecky, a bit odd, and packed with stores selling bears carved from tree stumps.
At this rate--and assuming it takes us an equal amount of time to get back to L.A., plus time to get to the beach and then return to our hotel before dark--we've got only an hour or so to play in the snow. I yank the snowboard off the trunk, run up to the lift ticket booth, and proceed to make a fool of myself on the hill for posterity. Mission half-accomplished, we bolt back to the car after half an hour and proceed to bug out of town.
Although we chose Highway 38 on the way up because it was rumored to be less trafficked and thus more open for higher average speeds, we decide on the more commonly traveled Highway 18/330 route back down the mountain. Mistake. Although faster at first and blessed with better scenery (at some points, the road overlooks stretching canyons, skirts sheer rock faces, and doubles back on itself many times in a mile), it becomes clogged with traffic after five or ten minutes.
Still, the road and its mind-boggling grandeur overwhelm any complaints about having to stop for broken-down cars and stuck SUVs. (Strangely, people are getting stuck on the side of the road as they stop to take pictures--not actually on the pavement, which is plowed and dry.) When Los Angeles finally rears its hazy head below, it's like returning from the moon; everything below is brown and green and covered in shrubbery. Litter dots the foliage as we merge back onto the freeway.
Thanks to the perpetual traffic, we're severely behind schedule. As we roll back through San Bernardino and crawl down I-10 again, the clock ticks ever closer toward evening; by the time the MX-5's wheels hit Los Angeles proper, it's almost four o'clock in the afternoon. To make matters worse, leaving the snow-capped mountains for the dry and dusty inland has hit me with something like Seasonal Affective Disorder in reverse--sun and beaches sound depressing, and all I want to do is climb back up into the hills and take a nap.
The deeper we get into the evening rush, the more the sun sinks and the more clogged I-10 becomes. By this point, the Mazda--covered in sand and salt marks and reeking of winter--stands out in traffic, so much so that kids in adjacent cars are pointing and making faces. In desperation, and coupled with an intense, fulfill-the-quest need to hit the beach before dinner, Alex announces that he's taking over. We trade places, and he crawls the Mazda toward the next exit, dismounting us from the freeway. Lacking true direction, he points the car at the sun--which, he reasons, sets on the water, which is to the west, which is where the beach is. (Naturally. Why didn't I think of that?)
An hour later, after an endless series of 'round-the-block turns and panicky detours in order to avoid both traffic and a trudge back onto I-10, Alex finally announces that we're in Venice. Venice, he proclaims, has a beach. I look past his head and catch a glimpse of water. The Mazda's clock reads 5:22 p.m.
For a midwesterner, Venice Beach is something of a surprise. It is everything and nothing you expect, a poster child for a California you thought existed only in movies. Women wearing next to nothing (Alex: "Tea cozies!") swing by on Rollerblades, and open-topped Ferraris drive by nonchalantly, piloted by girls who look younger than Dakota Fanning. An Aston Martin Vanquish sits at a stoplight with a grandmother at the wheel. Surreal.
As fascinating as the scenery is, we waste little time staring. I jump out of the car, toss the keys at a valet, grab a beer from a sidewalk caf, and stroll off in the direction of the sand. Tall palms sway overhead, framing a sunset-filled orange sky. Traffic memories melt away, leaving little in my head but the lingering smell of the ocean. I think for a moment about everyone I know at home, immersed in the funk of a midwestern winter, and begin to wonder if maybe I should haul out the laptop and write an e-mail or two. Maybe find the answers to a couple of new questions.
I mean, really--if a guy sold everything he owned, how much do you think it would cost to move to California? And what's a good, cheap roadster go for these days, anyway?