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.