By Ken Brady
I'm a car person. I love cars. To look at them, read about them, build and mod them, race and rebuild them. I love to talk about automotive culture and history – sometimes ad nauseam. Having so far owned almost 100 cars – American, Japanese, German, British, and Italian – and having driven many hundreds more – from econobox rentals to temperamental supercars – I have lots of opinions.
Most of all, I simply love to drive, often just for the sake of driving.
Maybe this explains why I'm the community manager and digital strategist for Dodge at Wieden+Kennedy. I'm a car geek, so how could I pass up working with a company that has been such an influential part of car culture?
It definitely explains why, when the opportunity came up to drive a car that isn't for sale yet across the country, I didn't just say "Yeah," I said "Hell, yeah."
I'm a car person. However, I'm not an SUV person. My worry in driving the Durango across the country was that it would be one of two things: 1. a big, bouncy, soft, sluggish, gas-guzzling (read: typical) SUV with lots of body roll and zero personality, or 2. an emasculated, underpowered wannabe, a lifted economy car with zero personality. I've driven my fair share of SUVs, and that's what I've come to expect from all but the most exclusive of them.
The Durango is neither of those. It's powerful, well-balanced, refined. It corners and handles like a car – like a much smaller vehicle than it is. It's made to drive. Flat out on straightaways, aggressively on winding roads, assuredly up and down mountains, solidly on dirt and gravel. It's smooth, efficient, stylish and fast. With the rear-wheel drive 5.7 liter Hemi V8, I got over 20mpg, and I don’t drive very… slow. I’d like to see what the new Pentastar V6 can do.
I drove through all types of conditions: cities, mountains, and deserts, through ice, frost, snow, sleet, hail, rain, wind, sun, twenty degrees to eighty, sea level to 8,000 feet.
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But I'm getting ahead of myself. The Durango was in Detroit and needed to get to Portland. Someone had to drive it. I've never turned down an opportunity for a road trip, and I did a little quick routing in my head. I could drive pretty much straight to Portland, or I could spend some time with the car, visit some people I hadn't visited in a long time, see some things I'd never seen before, go to a few states I'd never gone to. Other than that, there was no time to plan anything. I set up Twitter and FourSquare accounts for the 2011 Durango and got on the road.
If you stick to the main roads, you miss a lot of America. I took state highways, local roads, even dirt and gravel where possible. I stopped in small towns, checked out historical markers, took pictures of unusual things, beautiful vistas. I ate Thai food in Wyoming, crossed the Mississippi River on the Dodge Bridge, drove the "Road to Oz" in Kansas. I saw Dodgeville, Wisconsin and stayed at the Dodge House Hotel in Dodge City, Kansas. I stopped and saw a friend in Michigan I hadn't seen since I last worked with him in Los Angeles 13 years ago, another friend I've only known online for 3 years, some of my cousins in Colorado. I ticked off three more states I'd never been to: Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Kansas. I went to Hell, Michigan.
There were a million things that I missed that I would have liked to visit: Mt. Rushmore, Crater Lake, Durango, Colorado, The Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite. It was raining at the Bonneville Salt Flats International Speedway so I couldn't drive out on it, and the playas of the Black Rock Desert were swampy and covered in snow. But I couldn't go everywhere in one trip. That's an excellent excuse for the next trip, though, isn't it?
Things happen when you don't plan where you're going. Here are some of them:
– A series of snowstorms shuts down the highway and you have to sleep in the car.
– You're driving on a snow-covered dirt road through the Nevada desert and happen upon a head-on injury accident 4 hours from the closest working cell tower. You end up taking one of the drivers back into the snowstorm to a gold mine to get rescue vehicles.
– You stop for gas in Colorado and a classic car show springs up in a parking lot right next to you. The MOPAR enthusiasts are excited to see a new Dodge and barrage you with questions.
– The California Highway Patrol pulls you over and says "You might want to wash this car because I can't see the license plate or taillights. Oh, by the way, what *IS* this thing?"
While in California, on the last leg of my journey, I had time to chat with Dodge CEO Ralph Gilles, show him my photos, and relate some of my stories. As design chief on the 2011 Durango, he had a lot of questions.
"Did you feel a connection with the Durango?" was one of them.
I didn't have a good response at the time. I had been through quite a bit with the car in a short period of time, but it wasn't something I'd thought about. It wasn't until the last leg of the drive from the Bay Area to Portland that I really considered it. I've driven California to Oregon so many times that it's become second nature. The weather was horrible, I battled semi-trucks who cut into the left lane at the last moment, family trucksters who flashed their turn signals to nowhere, converted school buses who struggled up mountain passes.
By then, I already thought of the Durango as my car. I trusted it. I'd spent more hours and miles in it than anyone else. I didn't have to think about what it might do in a situation because I already knew. I felt confident I could do anything I needed to in any situation. So, yes, I felt a connection. A connection with the roads I traveled and the people I met, with the Durango and with the varied and stunning beauty of America. It was hard to turn the car over to the rest of the Dodge crew at W+K and walk away from that.
But, in the end, it's that sense of connection I take away from this trip. If you've never taken a road trip – for no reason at all – I highly recommend it. Even if you've taken a hundred road trips, there's always something else to see. It makes me want to get back in the driver's seat and keep going. To experience more.
There are still ten states I have never seen.