The typical press car loan is a week. Because of an ill-timed business trip I've barely driven the bright red 2012 Porsche 911 Carrera S taunting me from the parking space in front of my place. I have one day to plan out a road trip worthy of such a car.
Little do I know a few hours later I'd be one friend, two pounds of BBQ, four ghost peppers, and a speeding ticket richer. I'd also be fairly close to getting my ass kicked in rural Virginia.
But I get ahead of myself.
Central Virginia lacks many things. A good, non-Shakespearean regional theatre company. A great art museum. A passable Vietnamese restaurant (although, I hear that's changing). What it doesn't lack for is roads. The Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive intersect in Central VA and, while neither road is particularly great for driving, countless little roads spread off it like capillaries from an artery.
Road trips are ruined by too much planning, so I leave a lot of the details open and hope for the magic to happen somewhere in between.
My hope is to tack northeast towards Culpeper through mostly deserted backroads, pick up über photographer and car guy Douglas Sonders, track back to Gordonsville for BBQ, back up to Culpeper to drop him off, and then finally arrive back home, sated.
I start out on the twisty VA State Route 20, fighting my way past church biddies in Buicks, waiting to depress the little Sport Exhaust Button that leads to ultimate aural excitement. I just have to wait for space to clear lest I frighten the biddies.
The expensive Porsche option transforms the Old Testament 400-horsepower sound into something downright eschatological Revelations. Some Four Horseman shit.
It works, and 90 minutes just melt away as I connect with the 911 through terrain that rotates between flat, undulating, pastoral, wooded, twisty, and straight. Through the little town of Orange I notice a State Trooper. He turns the other way. I'm lucky… for now.
I get to Culpeper around 11:30 AM and find Sonders sitting on his Stasis Audi S4, waiting to depart. He's got all sorts of camera gear, but he wants to try out the Snapseed app on his cracked, GameBoy-cased iPhone (Sonders does some work with Snapspeed).
Whatever. I just want some BBQ. We're barely out of Culpeper when we spot a County Mountie in a Crown Vic. Right behind him is a bright red Boxster. The driver in the Boxster sees us and pulls off the road. We follow.
"Nice car you got there," the man explains.
"Not ours," I have to reply, explaining to him that this is my job. When you tell people that they sort of look at you funny. It's a mix of "how the fuck did you get so lucky?" and appreciation, as if I must have done something right in my life to end up with this job.
By the way, it goes without saying you never get that look when you're in a Kia.
"That's a real Porsche," the man says, fumbling in the back for a hat, trying to downplay the car he actually owns.
They're both real Porsches, I think, but I get his point. Unless you've got a Carrera GT or something with RS in the badge, there's no faster Porsche around. Douglas jumps on the ground to take some photos. I now get how he broke his iPhone case.
I should mention that, for all the times I've spoken with Sonders, I've never actually met him. Is there any better way to bond than over BBQ and sports cars? There probably is, but I'm married, so this is the best I can do.
Further down 20 we come across what used to be an Esso gas/service station that's been converted into an HR office. I don't know who did it, but it's a genius development. Sonders hops on the ground again after setting up the car exactly where he wants it. The shot turns out beautifully.
We're just a few hundred yards from James Madison's home, Montpelier, and I can't help but think of the amazing freedom we have as Americans to drive wherever we want. Was the possibility of tearing ass across these verdant fields in a German car without restriction what made Madison work so hard for Federalism?
I like to think so.
A few moments later we've engaged Sport Mode and are twisting our way down the Blue Ridge Turnpike. I've driven the road before so I carry more speed into the turns than most and am rewarded with an excellent, steady response from the 911. The steering feel is quite different from the outgoing 997, but there's enough feedback to stick to the road.
I've got the third gauge in the cluster set to the g-meter and, while I'm sure it's bouncing around like an ADD third-grader after a six-pack of Bawls, I don't dare look. My intellectual curiosity is being outweighed by my desire not to pancake this car into a ditch and have to endure the schadenfreude of all those other journalists I've written about when they did the same.
We arrive at the other side of the road, happy and starving and ready to enjoy some BBQ at The Barbecue Exchange in Gordsonsville. There are three things that make this my destination: delicious pork products, ghost pepper/bacon sauce, and the owner.
Chef Craig is a Porschephile himself, having spent more time and money than he wants to recount on his Porsche 928. I deposit Sonders and pick up Craig, tossing him the keys. A few minutes later we're on a back road I didn't know about learning just how good a flat-six Porsche engine can sound.
He's all smiles.
Did I mention the sauces? On the menu is Colonel Bacon, which is a Virginia-style sauce that uses something like 20 pounds of bacon to make. It's mustardy and smokey and awesome.
And then there are the sauces not on the menu.
"We can't put them on the table for fear someone plays a joke on his little brother," Chef Craig explains.
A trio of the spiciest BBQ sauces you're legally allowed to sell including Napalm (habaneros reduced down in sugar) and their Ghost Pepper sauce made with the Naga Bhut Jolokia — an Indian pepper said to be the hottest pepper in the world. They serve it in a tiny cup.
I'm well familiar with it, having tackled it a few times. Today I'm more interested in Napalm because I haven't had it yet. It rewards with a sweet flavor offset by a lot of heat. Not too different from the 911, actually.
After scarfing down our pulled pork sandwiches, homemade garlic pickles, and a lot of beve we're about ready to go when Chef Craig trots out with four mean looking chilies in a plastic container.
"Wear gloves when you use these," he says. They're ghost peppers. Basically, weaponized food. A little "thank you" for giving him a ride. He tells me to try a little bit on my own with "lots of milk on hand" and preserve the rest in vinegar or use them fresh in something unholy.
Sonders takes over driving duties as I settle in to the passenger seat. The 911 is sort of the perfect road trip car (as I've already proven). It's still a sports car, but it's gigantic. It's almost a GT. If you need more room for your stuff than what you can fit in a 911 you have too much stuff.
We shake back up 231 and are almost in the clear when we hit a train crossing and Sonders notices a bright field with a ruddy road slicing across it.
"Time to get the cliche gravel path shot," he says. At some point, I think we're going to stop, but Sonders keeps driving deeper and deeper into this unmarked road.
"We'll be fine," he assures me, but the path suddenly ends and we notice a trio of large men next to a pair of trucks staring us down. We're laughing, but they aren't.
We do a quick four-point turn on the grass and he sets the car up on a slight rise. The photos are turning out great. It's why he's so good at what he does. It's the perfect angle for the car. After getting our fill of photos we hop back in the car just in time to see a Toyota Tunrda pulling up danger-close to my passenger seat.
Have you ever seen Justified? The guy who rolled down the window to stare us down looked exactly like Johnny Crowder, only bigger and more pissed off. I swear it seemed like he was wearing the same cap.
He didn't say much. He just stared. Instead, he let the guy I couldn't see in the passenger seat of the truck do the talking, but his angry eyes said more. So much more. And what they said was something like:
"This is my property you hipster piece of shit. What are you doing with this Porsche here? You probably think I'm some dumb redneck fuck, and maybe I am, but you're trespassing and it's all I can do not to pull out a shotgun and club you over the fucking head with it until whatever passes for brains explodes like watermelon guts at a Gallagher show. I like Gallagher. That guy is funny."
I'm trying to stare back and let Sonders do the talking.
"Uhh… we just pulled off to get a photo. This is one of two Porsche 911 Carrera S's in the country. You're looking at something rare."
This doesn't seem to impress him. Also, it's complete bullshit.
"It's a driveway" is all we hear back.
"No harm meant," Sonders says and he puts the car in drive and pulls out onto the road. I notice the guys in the truck are still following us and reach out and push "Sport Plus" hoping that whatever the fuck that button does — short shift times I hope — it gets us the hell out of there.
We fly off, leaving a cloud of gravel and dust in our wake. We're free!
Except, damn, those guys in the Tundra aren't backing off. We've put about 20 car lengths between use and the rouge-necked fellows, but they seem willing to go just as fast as we're willing to go.
It's not until we get to the turn-off that we realize they've given up. Or, we tell ourselves they've given up. From their angle it probably looks like we ran away before something happened to the $125K car that we don't own.
We just laugh it off, though, as we look forward to enjoying a particularly flat, empty, and fast part of rural Virginia. A place made for going fast with few consequences.
Most of the conversations I have with Sonders are about road trips. The ethos. The concept. What it means. He starts thinking about how the 16-year-old version of himself might enjoy this. Sonders gets to drive some amazing cars, and he says that it helps to think back to what the part of himself that isn't desensitized to this lifestyle might think.
"He'd be really happy right now, but he'd probably be afraid of getting a speeding ticket" he said as the speedo started inching its way up to autobahn speeds.
"But, hey, I can afford it. Getting a speeding ticket wouldn't be the worst thing that could happen."
Famous last words.
Either Sonders was lucky or the State Trooper who spotted him was in a generous mood, because the ticket came out to 72 MPH in a 55 MPH zone. Ooops.
Turn off the car. Put your stuff on the dash. Keep your hands in plain sight. Try to find the registration. Hope the officer notices the manufacturer tags.
"Sorry, lost track of the speed officer, we were just talking about the car. Only one of two in the United States," Sonders says. I'm starting to wonder if he actually thinks that's the truth, but the trooper isn't having any of it. We hand him the registration and he returns with a ticket.
Sonders laughs it off but I feel like a dick. He's my guest, of sorts. I'd have rather have gotten the ticket (sort of).
We pilot the car slowly back the last few miles to the Starbucks and Sonders politely poses with the evidence.
I turn back around and head for home. Whole Foods. It's a bit of a let down from the high that was the road trip, but I'm not looking to get into anymore trouble. And then a guy in a blue 996 Carrera 4S chomping on a stogie pulls up next to me.
Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit. How many tickets does this car need today?
(Full Disclosure: Porsche wanted us to drive the 2012 911 Carrera S so badly they gave us one for a week to go on this adventure. We brought it back in one piece... barely.)
Photo Credit: Douglas Sonders, except for the Tundra and Doug with a ticket