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25 Years Ago – Winter 1990

“A Greater Awareness”

By George P. Burdell

Mention driving up Interstate 5. Through California’s San Joaquin Valley. In the middle of June. Given that scenario, most enthusiasts will have the same reaction: B-O-R-I-N-G. Visions of an arrow-straight ribbon of asphalt stretching to a parched barren horizon, certainly not much fun in any car, let alone one as seemingly ill-suited to that type of road as the Mazda Miata.

And yet that is what I drove from Los Angeles to San Francisco and back earlier this year. Know what? It wasn’t at all bad. I had made the drive before in a number of other cars, all closed coup’s and sedans, and so I felt I knew I-5 well, a mind-numbing drone of 350-400 miles where the real trick is to try to stay awake while watching out for the CHPs and their airplanes.

Having driven I-5 in a Miata, it turns out I really didn’t know it at all, or at least the Miata gave me a greater awareness of the beauty and richness of the countryside I was traveling through.

I left L.A. after work, crawling through the usual bumper-to-bumper madness that we call (ironically) rush hour. I had decided that I would try to drive

the entire trip with the top down, but I really didn’t hold out much hope for that goal once I reached the heat of the San Joaquin Valley. As I began the climb out of the L.A. basin over the Grapevine, the traffic thinned out dramatically and I was able to bring the Miata up to a more suitable cruising speed.

Once I got into the mountains the air cleared, and I began to realize that with the top down the first of your senses to reawaken is the sense of smell. No more of that artificial, climate-controlled air, this was the real thing, unfiltered, unspoiled and unbelievably refreshing.

As I dropped into the valley the sensations kept coming. The oil fields around Bakersfield. The cotton fields near Buttonwillow. The freshly-tilled earth around Kettleman City. The cattle feedlots near Harris Ranch (maybe there is something to be said for filtered, sanitized air!). The grassy hills around Tracy. Always a new smell that had gone unnoticed on previous trips. The view from the car was exceptional, as expected (very helpful when looking for black and white airplanes). Somehow there is a different look to a sunset when seen from behind the windshield of a convertible singing along at 80 mph. Certainly other drivers view you in a different light. The people I passed, and was passed by, all seemed to look at me with a mixture of envy and enjoyment, especially the children in the back of the family wagon or minivan. I have never before

driven a car that elicited such wonderful smiles from children and adults as a Miata.

In a convertible you are so acutely aware of the temperature. During the course of the trip the temperature inside the car varied as I drove from cool in the mountains to warmer in the valley, cooling as the sun set. I didn’t really need to use the heater until I hit the Bay Area’s famed Altamont Pass, where the air, cooled by Bay Area fog (the world’s largest air conditioner), rushes through a gap and into the warmer San Joaquin Valley.

I finally reached my destination at about 12:30am, but so far from being tired I felt amazingly awake and refreshed, every detail of the trip a vivid memory.

The next day, I was able to share some of the same sensations with my very pregnant sister as we drove the Miata into San Francisco. It should be noted that she experienced no discomfort from what the Miata’s critics have called its choppy ride.

I retraced my path a couple of days later, and the experience was just as invigorating and life-giving as it had been on the trip north. I was left with a new appreciation for the Miata’s abilities as a long-distance tourer. If the Miata can make a previously boring drive seem like a new adventure, think what it can do on a true driver’s road!

Copyright 1990, Miata Magazine. Reprinted without permission.

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