How To Cross The Country In Your Daily Driver

I come from a long line of people who travel across the country because they can. From my parents and I driving to visit Mom's side of the family all the way back to "So, I hear Oregon's going to have a bunch of sweet wagon trails and a cheese factory!" we're no strangers to overland trips. My car, however, is.

This is the Lancer that does a lot of things that front-wheel-drive automatic Lancers weren't really made to do. Often. It's a weekend? Harris Hill Raceway is open? Well, there's probably going to be a Lancer on it. Fluffy Bunny usually rides in the back seat. It's been deemed "The Lulzcer" for its involvement in great acts of hilarity. It is my car. My only street-legal car. It has to do everything or else.

How To Cross The Country In Your Daily Driver

It also recently passed 100,000 miles and had a growing list of fix-its and maintenance work that I needed to do before attempting to go at least 5,065 miles (per initial calculations) and driving to work the next morning after it's all over.

If there's one thing that LeMons racing has taught me, it's that in order to finish well, you have to at least finish. Woe be unto the team who retires early for an avoidable mechanical failure. You don't want to waste a lot of time and money to end up stranded in East Fartsghanistan, do you?

This year was my ten-year high school reunion in Seattle, and I've always thought I should drive there. Sure, it's less expensive and takes much less time to fly into Sea-Tac, but I've seen that view a few times already. It's nowhere near as impressive as seeing everything from the ground. I had to drive this—and I had to drive it in the car known for conquering everything else I threw at it.

I needed to ensure that the Lulzcer wasn't just passably semi-roadworthy, but in excellent condition before taking it on a long journey into the vast American west—where phone coverage goes to die.

How To Cross The Country In Your Daily Driver

Step 1: Acquire Co-Driver

Jalopnik, meet Matt. Matt, meet Jalopnik. Matt (Rhoads, not Hardibird) is used to being suckered into unnecessarily difficult and bizarre projects (see above), and is also used to highly detailed planning and other vehicular shenanigans from co-driving rally cars.

In comparison to anything remotely involving the word "Porschelump," driving to Seattle and back from Austin was an easy sell. "I've never seen the West," he said. ("It will be fun," he said. HAHAHAHA.)

You mentioned this in the road trip edition of Answers of the Day, and you're right: road trips are exponentially easier with another set of eyes and another capable driver in the car. Tired? Swap drivers. Unsure about directions? Have the passenger look them up. Need to be hand-fed Munchkins without dropping sprinkles in the console? Consult thy passenger.

It's safer, cleaner, more fun and all-around better to bring at least one passenger along for a lengthy road trip like this. Must be human, and preferably able to drive. Puffalumps do not count.

How To Cross The Country In Your Daily Driver

Step 2: Plan a Route

You can't figure out what to pack if you don't know where you're going.

Digital maps have gotten incredibly precise now with not only estimating travel times, but factoring in things like construction and other hazards that users can spot. Figure out how much time off you're taking to do your insane trip, roughly how long you're willing to drive per day, and any needed stops along the way, and then work out convenient stopping points for the evening.

Our predicted drive times ended up looking a bit like this:

  • Day 1: Austin to Raton, NM - 11 hours, 714 miles
  • Day 2: Raton, NM to Salt Lake City, Utah via Independence Pass - 11 hours, 655 miles
  • Day 3: Salt Lake City, UT to Tacoma, WA - 12.5 hours, 840 miles
  • Day 4: Fart around Seattle
  • Day 5: Tacoma, WA to Eureka, CA via US 101- 12.5 hours, 622 miles
  • Day 6: Eureka, CA to Santa Monica, CA via US 101 and either CA-1 or I-5 as time allowed - 11.5 hours, 702 miles
  • Day 7: Santa Monica, CA to Albuquerque, NM - 11.5 hours, 807 miles.
  • Day 8: Albuquerque, NM to Austin, TX - 10.75 hours, 700 miles

Our directions were all done via Google Maps. Google — luckily for those of us who stop to take a pictures of Bunny atop the World's Largest Jar of Spit — drives like a grandma. The only problem is that Google's imaginary directions grandma will beat you there if you take too long trying to get the lighting right through that glass container of loogies.

In other words, you have some leeway time-wise for small breaks and detours, but not much leeway. If it's a bigger detour ("Hey, Laguna Seca is just to the west of this"), add it into your route now or you'll suffer later. Also, factor in some extra time into each day for food, pee, gas and other mundane stops.

How To Cross The Country In Your Daily Driver

Google Maps' directions from a computer can be easily saved by copying the web address once you have your route configured as you'd like. You can force it onto roads that you'd rather drive by clicking and dragging Google's suggested route over to where you'd rather go.

If you're navigating things like a real twenty-first century digital person, it's best to have your route available on multiple devices in case one fails. Everything we ran also had verbal commands, just in case either one of us needed to snooze in the passenger seat.

First, we had a Garmin, which was able to pre-load our routes using Google Maps' set waypoints so that we didn't need to be connected to the Internet to access our route. In practice, this often didn't show what was next after you reached one of the Google Maps waypoints until you were already driving past one. While it proved our paranoid need for duplicity, it was still useful enough to get most of the turns right. It was the easiest to see and hear out of anything we were running, largely in part to the fact that we could suction cup it to the lower left corner of my windshield. It was within sight, but not a distraction.

Secondly, we had Matt's Android phone, which played nicer with the original Google Maps route links than any of my iThings and could open our exact planned route in the Google Maps app. Google has perhaps the best mobile map interface out there. If you're not using the app version of Google Maps, I'm sorry. I really am. It has the clearest voice directions and gives details down to what lane you want to be in on its screen. Matt thinks the audible directions are read a bit slow and come on too quickly before you need to take important turns or exits. I am a bit slow, though, so they work for me.

Thirdly, my iPhone was running Waze. At first, I just wanted to pwn it with excessive mileage for the week and see how far my "Baby Wazer" account would level up. Then I realized that it's a genuinely useful app. Waze is like a grown-up Trapster: no longer merely concerned with speed trap locations, but rather anything that could be a potential setback or timesuck. Its maps and directions aren't as detailed as Google's, it lacks a satellite view, and its voice directions can be extremely clunky at times, but overall, this is the app that will keep you out of trouble on your trip. Unfortunately, there is no way to program in a custom route in Waze, too, so I set its voice commands to "Alerts Only" for when there was debris in the road, police ahead, construction or any other hazards in the way. It wasn't following our exact route, but as long as I put start and end points in every time I started the app, it was able to figure out what we were doing.

On second thought, perhaps we should have highlighted our route in a conventional printed map. At times, I wished we'd brought a good, detailed printed map to be able to tell what some of the landmarks were when there was something interesting along the way, but no Internet for miles. Oh well.

How To Cross The Country In Your Daily Driver

Step 3: Prepare Your Car

If your car breaks in the great wilderness, there is no friendly crew of tow-people with a nice winch waiting just off-track to haul your hooptie to safety. Nope. You're going to be stuck in one place for longer than you'd like to be, and you don't even get to pick the place.

If you're lucky, you'll wait an annoyingly long time for a clean, articulate, and helpful soul with a flatbed to show up. If you're slightly less fortunate, you'll wait a couple hours for some dude who's missing a few teeth to haul you into The World's Most Expensive Backwoods Garage Ever, named such for being the only shack with tools for miles. And if you've found some way to anger a vengeful God, you'll be somewhere desolate with no food, no services and absolutely zero cell reception to call someone to fetch you.

The level of preparation your car will need before a road trip depends highly on what it is and how well it's been maintained. PCA's Cross Country Cayman only needed four new tires and a new battery.

The Lulzcer wasn't going to be that simple. It's not that I've been lazy with maintenance, but I just happened to hit 100,000 miles at precisely the wrong time. See, your car is a nice mechanical object, and such objects usually come with documentation. Always read the friendly manual. Not only does it go over the various functions of your car, but there should be some guidance as to maintenance intervals for things like oil changes, transmission services and the like.

There's a whole lot of things that you should do on or around 100K for a Lancer that experiences "severe use." Also, the air conditioner was starting to growl whenever I hit a bump, the tires were almost bald and the front bumper looked like it had been hit by a rock.

Fixing the Air Conditioner Growl

The Lancer had a bit of growling from the HVAC system. It did this a little in the winter, but it didn't do it all spring and now had returned to become a regular nuisance. I could get the growling to stop if I turned it off and back on again, but then it would fire right back up.

My air conditioner still worked, although it seemed like it didn't blow as strong as it used to. I tried shaking out the dirty cabin air filter. That did nothing. I looked for rocks or twigs in the fan below the filter. Nada.

Finally, I asked a friend who'd owned a previous-gen Lancer at one of the Spokes autocrosses if he wanted to spend his break time digging into my dashboard. The extent of my HVAC knowledge is "you don't need that in a racecar" and clearly, "rip it out and sell it on the Internet" wasn't a solution for a daily driver. I needed a second opinion.

After some awkward fumbling around while trying not to stick a wayward finger directly into any moving parts, we isolated the source of the noise to the directional flap that diverts air to the upper or lower vents.

"Your cabin air filter is disgusting," he said. Yeah, yeah, I know. I don't have any allergies that I know of, so I don't really think to change the cabin air filter as often as I should. Maybe the directional flap was getting sucked against the hard parts of the HVAC system because the air flow through the filthy filter was blocked.

I replaced the filter. I still get a little growl every now and then from the directional flap vibrating in there, but it's much less frequent now. I really have to hit a huge bump to set it off now, so meh. It goes off when you switch the HVAC system off anyway.

How To Cross The Country In Your Daily Driver

Fixing My Stupid Bent Wheel

The last thing I wanted to feel over 5,000 miles was the telltale vibration of my borked wheel. Earlier this year, my car hit a pothole just over the crest of one of the roads in my neighborhood. They've made a total mess of nearly every road in north central Austin replacing some water line (and turning my water off in the process several times without warning), and I'd love nothing more than to vote out and/or fire every irresponsible fartknocker involved with that.

I couldn't see the pothole, so it was basically unavoidable. I complained to the city: "Your road crews' negligence bent my wheel!" The city sent back a snotty form letter about how they're not legally responsible for their road crews' inability to clean up the messes that they make.

That's not right.

Regardless, I was on the hook for either replacing or fixing my bent wheel. Another new one from Mitsubishi was over $5o0. I couldn't find a replacement at a junkyard, either. So, I was forced to get it repaired.

I sent it off to a wheel repair shop that several other locals who've met similar fates recommended, which meant I had a few annoying days of rolling around on a doughnut. I hate doughnuts, but it would be worth it to finally have a straight wheel.

How To Cross The Country In Your Daily Driver

Delicious Fresh Tire Meat

My tires were bald, so it was about time for my yearly tire change. Given the fact that it's a yearly tire change on a daily driver, I briefly thought about getting a more durable set than my usual 200-treadwear Dunlop Z2s.

Then I saw that they were discontinuing the Z2s and they were on sale.

Well, then...fine. You can't just dangle that in front of me and expect me not to go for it. I know these tires on this car pretty well, anyway. Had I been going anywhere colder, I might have looked at something that wasn't an amusingly sticky summer tire, but it's August. The lowest temperatures we encountered for the entire trip were in the 50s, so a summer tire for this time of the year is more than safe.

I'll probably hoon through them in about a year again, and I'm completely fine with this.

The only problem was with my one repaired wheel. I waited a few days between getting my wheel back and putting it on the car, just to let the paint set. The second the shop went to torque down the lugnuts, the new paint around the lugnut holes warped up and cracked off in several spots.

I'm livid. Just livid. This wheel repair place came at the recommendation of nearly everyone I asked about where to repair my bent wheel, and it looks like they didn't even sand down the wheel before they tried to paint it.

I didn't have time to get my wheel re-repaired before I left, but I did make a highly unamused phone call to the wheel repair shop. It's straight, so it was fine for the trip. I'll be fine if they can make it right now, but if not, ugh. I guess I'll go back to looking for a replacement, or maybe plastidip them all neon purple out of spite.

...

Have I mentioned my all-consuming desire for the genuinely incompetent members of Austin's Public Works division to be fired, or at the very least, reassigned to shoveling giant piles of elephant dung? Because that would be great.

How To Cross The Country In Your Daily Driver

Vehicular Dingleberry Prevention

Somewhere this summer, a rock, cone or errant varmint flew up into my front grille. I didn't notice it immediately, so I have no idea what was responsible for the Lulzcer's derpy face. This was another item on the list of "Reasons Why Stef Is Not Amused With Things That Keep Happening To Her Poor Car."

My ten-month-old front bumper now had the side of the bumper popped out of place and the front of the grille was popped in at the bottom. I couldn't just pop either back in place. The lower part of the bumper was warped and the side of the bumper kept popping out almost immediately after I pushed it back in place.

Back to the body shop I went, hoping it was just a few misplaced connectors. Nope. Whatever smacked into the front of my car did a good job of it and bent the interior bumper support in the front.

A little over $170 later, I no longer had to worry about my bumper falling further and becoming the world's largest vehicular dingleberry while on the road.

This was probably all cosmetic, but just in case, I went ahead and had it fixed.

How To Cross The Country In Your Daily Driver

They washed the exterior, too, so that was another item I didn't have to work into my schedule. Part of me sort of wanted to give the interior a good detailing, too, since it was going to be where I spent most of my time for a week. It was still mostly clean from its last full detail, though, so it was fine that the interior had a little bit of dust here and there.

How To Cross The Country In Your Daily Driver

General Lulzcer Maintenance

A 100,000 mile car has a whole host of annoying service requirements come due right about now.

I had several days in a row where Uber and/or Lyft had to take me to work because my car needed to be in the shop, and the shops I wanted to use weren't open when I wasn't at work. I kept getting drivers who were relatively new to the city, which seemed odd for those sorts of services, but they weren't axe-murderers, so it worked out fine.

The car needed an alignment pretty badly from driving on rough roads, regular hoonage and other vehicular shenanigans. If you're going on a long road trip, get a fresh alignment done. My car went from being a jerky handful to drive to tracking in a straight line on its own.

If your stock alignment settings suck, seek out a shop that handles a lot of track and autocross alignments. I sometimes refer to Soulspeed as "the alignment whisperer" for doing a better-than-stock job on my alignment. The stock alignment settings for the Lancers are notorious for pulling to one side and being a bit understeery, which again, would be annoying on a long road trip, especially one that goes through the Oregon Coast Highway and a bunch of mountain passes.

The Lulzcer also needed an oil change, a fresh battery in my remote and the brake fluid bled, which were all fairly inexpensive, but needed to be done.

The big, bad evil was the CVT service. I like that I have a CVT that pegs it in its powerband without trying to fake shifts like a regular automatic transmission. I hate its maintenance costs, though. Every time I have to get the CVT's fluid changed, I want to put a "WTT: Lancer for Tow Cayenne" ad up on Rennlist and see who bites. Ugh. UGH.

I briefly thought about doing it myself. I helped change the 944's transaxle fluid once, but this CVT is a bizarre system of belts and fragility that I really didn't want to test my mechanical abilities on before a long trip. The fluid for a normal consumer was silly expensive, too.

I called the dealership, and they quoted about $200 more for the CVT service than I'd remembered. Ouch!

Finally, I went to a friend's shop that sponsors our local autocross group, who said he'd do the big evil CVT service for about a fourth of what the dealer quoted.

Lesson learned: always reach out to the places that partner with or sponsor the various car clubs you're a part of first. Not only are they keeping your opportunities to hoon going, but the amount I saved on that CVT service alone was enough to pay for my Spokes membership for the next ten years.

I took the Lancer out for a few laps on Harris Hill once all the work was complete. Not only did I have to burn the outer layer of slippery rubber mold goo off of my new tires, but I needed to see that everything worked as it needed. That was my excuse, anyway.

Test laps: not just for race cars.

How To Cross The Country In Your Daily Driver

Step 4: Plan Where To Stay

Unless you're an utter lunatic, you're probably going to want to find places to spend the night along the way.

One lesson I learned in my trips with my parents is that you should always look info availability before you set off on the road. There have been at least two occasions where we'd decided to spend the night in Idaho only to find out that some city was holding a festival, and that hotels were booked along nearly the full length of I-84 through southern Idaho because of it.

The first and most obvious place to check for overnight stays is with friends. Make sure they're okay with you possibly coming in later than planned, and offer to bring something in exchange for the place to rest.

Friends are the best option because they're local. You don't have to try and fish through Yelp reviews to find good local spots—you can just ask your friends.

Secondly, check hotels or campgrounds along the way, double check reviews to ensure you're not staying at a total sketch-hole, and be sure to check what kinds of discounts are available to you before calling to make reservations. Again, the same clubs you go through for hoonage often have a discount on hotel stays as well. After all, you can't get to track weekends if you have nowhere to stay.

This is another reason to call ahead for hotel availability. Some of the SCCA and BMWCCA hotel discounts require that you call ahead to a national booking number to use.

Less hoon-oriented car clubs such as AAA as well as military IDs can get you cheaper rooms, too. It's usually worth asking before agreeing to your rate for the night.

How To Cross The Country In Your Daily Driver

Step 5: Pack Accordingly

If you're traversing a wide variety of climates and terrain—even in a car in the middle of summer—you need to be prepared for anything that could happen along the way.

Water bottles and portable munchies are must-haves. I usually don't eat in the car, but packed away some granola bars just in case we got stuck between two distant outposts of civilization and needed a snack. Large water bottles that you can refill when you stop for sleep are also great back-ups for those points in the trip as well. You are venturing into areas of the country where there is no Starbucks on every block. You've been warned.

How To Cross The Country In Your Daily Driver

Refill your stash of drinks and munchies as needed when you stop. (Dude, I miss Tim's chips, even if I do recommend munchies that leave fewer crumbs when you're traveling.) Try to eat fairly healthy even though most gas stations are a magical wonderland of junk food. The last place you want to have the farts is in an enclosed vehicle. Likewise, the last time you want to need a post-meal nap is when you're driving. Eat things that won't just sit in your stomach like a rock of pain and make you miserable for the whole trip.

Take different climates and temperatures into account as well. Bring extra layers, even in the summer. We wanted to take the highest pass over the Continental Divide, and it was in the fifties up there. The coast is also cool and moist. Bring a waterproof shell of some sort, a couple different pairs of comfortable walking shoes, and perhaps one or two more changes of clothes in case any of yours get too wet or dirty at any point throughout the trip. Bring a swimsuit in case you'd like to cool off in your hotel's pool.

Furthermore, bring pajamas and all of your usual toiletries that you'd need to get ready in the morning, plus sunscreen. I usually just walk through my routine for the morning when I pack to make sure I don't miss anything.

Check the weather along the route that you're taking to make sure you're planning for the coldest, crappiest weather you could encounter along the way.

If there are any special events or activities you'd like to do, plan for those, too, be it by tossing in a pair of hiking boots or including a nicer-than-usual outfit for the high school reunion where you're going to brag about your sweet Porsche racecar.

If your running gag is putting vintage stuffed animals on racecars, give your Puffalumps a bath and pack them, too. Fluffy Bunny and my Chicken had to come since they were part of my high school experience. Matt's Chicken came, too, as did Theo Bunny, who was named after my best friend in high school. Best of all, I had a fabulous pile of Puffalumps whenever I needed an in-car nap. Victory.

Make sure you have all the technology you'll need for the trip and many charging outlets available in the car, too. Plug-in USB outlets are the best: the more you have, the more you can keep plugged in without playing Musical Phones. You also can swap cords plugged into those easier than you can move around a bunch of dedicated car chargers. Some USB car adapters even come with multiple USB outlets in one device, which is really nice when you have a lot of toys to cram in one car.

Bring tons of music, too, else you'll end up knowing all the words to Iggy Azalea songs. Don't just bring your usual selection of commuting music, but bring along a larger collection that you won't get bored of. I dug out my original iPod Mini from 2005, for Pete's sake. I think it was last updated in 2008, right around when I got an iPhone. I found a lot of music on there that I'd forgotten I had, and I didn't get bored. Matt brought 64 GB of randomness as well.

Install all of the useful mobile apps you'll need to find places to eat, cheap gas and other necessities. Some of the ones we found useful:

  • Google Maps and Waze: I am by no means a Google fan-girl. They just work.
  • Yelp: While Yelp and like services aren't without their flaws, a good local review service makes it easy to find good places to eat and other things to do along the way. Reviews tend to be left by people who are either really happy or really angry, with too few people willing to write up a good "meh." There are some fake reviews, but they're easy enough to spot (0-friend accounts with not much activity, and not enough detail given in reviews). Regardless, a decent number of enthusiastic and detailed reviews for a place to eat usually means it's worth a try. While we mostly stuck to Yelp, Urbanspoon works well for this, too.
  • GasBuddy: This brings up all of the gas prices and fuel locations within a given area. It's brilliant, especially if you've got 5,000 miles to go or have a gas light go off in the middle of nowhere.

Bring along anything else that may be necessary for your trip, too. If you're bringing a camera, bring along a laptop to upload photos onto every now and then. You may also want to bring something to read or a good travel pillow (in case you don't have a Puffalump) in the passenger seat, too.

How To Cross The Country In Your Daily Driver

Finally, keep in mind what you want to have easily accessible in the car. Lotion and lip balm are great to keep on hand, even if you usually don't use either. You're going to be sitting in a little box getting blown on by your HVAC system all day, so you will have dry skin after one or two days in the car.

Take some hand sanitizer, too, because you never know when you're going to accidentally touch something gross. Keep napkins easily within reach in case you spill anything and get a trash can to keep garbage from overtaking the interior. Your interior is not a trash can.

How To Cross The Country In Your Daily Driver

Basic car maintenance items are good to bring as well. An extra quart of oil for your car is good to keep in the trunk, as is extra windshield wiper fluid. You will run into a lot of bugs, and you will need to wash them off just to maintain decent visibility.

Knowing we were venturing into both grackle and seagull territory, I picked up a box of Autoglym Bird Dropping Wipes from work (shameless plug) to toss in my glovebox. I never got to try them out, though, because we didn't get a single turd on the car for all 5,506.8 miles of the trip. Thanks for the jinx, Bird Dropping Wipes!

I probably should have brought along a good portable tool set and a torque wrench with the 21mm socket needed for my wheels, but I forgot. I have roadside assistance coverage on the Lancer, too, but that's only usable if you break down somewhere with phone reception. Oh well. If you're doing this, be smarter than we were and bring some tools.

Most importantly: have fun. Stop at the tourist spots, but skip the ones that don't catch your interest. Take the scenic turn-outs and detours. Eat things that you can't get at home. If it's not fun, don't do it.

This, however, turned out to be well worth the mad dash of maintenance and packing.