“You feel differently about a road-trip,” said my son Stephen with steely reserve, “when you know the car you’re driving could die at any minute.”
The car in question was an ancient seaweed green “bubble butt” Infiniti J30, with 189,000 miles on the odometer, wobbly tires, rust blotches on the sun roof, a radio with a frozen volume knob, molding falling off the windows and dash, an exhaust leak behind the catalytic converter, and a check engine light that glowed ominously on the instrument panel.
Standing next to us, Dominick, a young guy in jeans, a dark hoodie and a white, google-eye cap, put it best: “The LeMons Rally is like nothing else you would ever do involving a car. Basically, you find a car you wouldn’t drive across the street, and drive it 3000 miles across the country.”
No, this wasn’t LeMans, the chic automobile endurance race in France, but the very American LeMons, a gathering of truly dreadful cars and motorheads with a sense of humor.
Dominick, with his wife Julie and their 16-month old daughter Elizabeth, had already driven their rusting Buick Roadmaster station wagon 256 miles southwest from Yardley, PA to the parking lot of the Cumberland Maryland Historical Museum. From here, under chilly, overcast winter skies, the annual LeMons “Retreat from Moscow,” one of five cross-country rallies sponsored by the California-based junk-car fan club (24hoursoflemons.com).
Named for Napoleon’s humiliating withdrawal from Russia, the Retreat would take my son and me, and 80 other drivers in 39 cars on a four day, seven-state road trip, extending from Moscow, Maryland to one of two Eiffel Towers in Atlanta, GA, and concluding at the Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds, Alabama. Neary all the travel would take us down rural lanes, scenic by-ways, notoriously treacherous mountain passes and the occasional dirt road, far from cell phone reception and farther still from emergency services.
Which meant if our cars broke down, we had to fix them ourselves.
Like our car, Dominick’s was filled with tools and spare parts. If he couldn’t do the repair, he could beg a ride until he got cell phone reception and call for a tow truck. Or he could do what my son did last year when the transmission of his LeMons car fell completely apart in a hotel lot–sell the car to a junker, get a rental and continue the Rally.
Two of the cars came from as far away as Missouri and Quebec. Most were hideously decorated, like the “Lawn Dart” Dodge Dart encrusted with darts, a lemon yellow Toyota Privia printed over with green slogans (e.g., “When life gives you lemons, drive ’em.”), a black Ford Galaxie “Men in Black” sedan, a “Bratmobile” Mercedes with a Cuisinart grill bolted to its trunk, and “the Dude Arrives” Cadillac with working chandeliers mounted on its front and a disco ball hanging from the roof.
You could also drive an ordinary, reliable, undecorated, new or merely used car on the Rally. The cars that got the most attention were furthest from that, such as the midnight blue and red rust 1953 GMC pick-up from Deptford, New Jersey.
Wandering about in a white hazmat suit with a clipboard was a bearded, somewhat intense Eric Rood, the planner and overall supervisor on the Rally. With his assistant, John Pagel, Eric awarded starting points for team costuming and overall “hooptieness” of the vehicle. Stephen and I were given points for the bad radio, the check engine light, the bad tires and the fact that I lost my made-in-Philadelphia cheese steak hat on the way to the rally when it flew out of the car while we were adjusting our CB radio antenna.
But we lost points because we were driving a Japanese car that has a reputation for reliability. If we had arrived with any French car, or, better yet, an “Eastern Block” Yugo or Trabant, we would get extra points.
John tallied our points, made sure out vehicle was licensed and insured, and then gave us our bright yellow and green LeMons Rally sticker, and told us to go into the museum for a meeting. .
The museum staff generously provided us with free coffee, donuts and a local, cream-filled pastry so good I momentarily forgot how crazy I was to go on this trip with my son. Stephen works in analytics but has loved cars all his life. He took his wife, and high school friends on previous LeMons Rallys. Now it was my turn.
At the meeting Eric then warned as that though portions of the Rally were to go along the Blue Ridge Parkway, sections of the historic roadway have been closed for the winter. We should check the Parkway’s web page, or travel the alternative routes.
He explained that a road rally wasn’t a race. There were no prizes for those who finish first. We earned points for how many check points we visited along the way.
We were to obey all federal, state and local speed limits, and behave in a respectful manner. “Most of the check points are on public property, with places close enough for you to park, get a picture and get back on the road. Some are on private property that is closed for the season. The last thing we want is someone calling the cops on a bunch of crazies in stupid cars causing trouble.”
We were given a printed book of list of check points, but no map. We would have to use our cell phones, a portable GPS, a road atlas or get lost to find the checkpoints.
Because my son had done previous LeMons Rallys he found the fastest routes easily on his cellphone, using Google maps and Roadside America, a website listing unusual tourist attractions.
Within minutes we had started our engines and headed for the hills. A half hour later, we stopped at our first checkpoint: a copse of old American Victorian houses in reasonable condition nestled near a single railroad track. A sign proclaimed this the site of Moscow, Maryland, established in 1868. My son posed for a picture. We turned around and headed south.
A hooptie is motorhead-speak for a car or truck so old, ugly or wretched that you have to be crazy or in love, to drive it. LeMons Rally competitors are advised to spend no more than $500 purchasing a vehicle (the owners of one confessed that the Salvation Army gave it to them without charge because they didn’t think anyone else would want it). You can make safety improvements to the brakes and wheels, but anything in the cabin, engine and drive train should be left intact.
You could make decorations and team uniforms as silly as you wanted as long as they were inoffensive and apolitical. I saw cars sporting Texas longhorns on the front grill, a rubber alligator stuck on the top, inflatable green aliens hanging out the windows, the eye-searing orange shag carpeting covering the dash of Dominick’s Food Monster Buick–and costumes (the inhabitants of a lemon yellow van were dressed as lemons; a husband and wife wearing Nascar regalia in a “Fig Newtons” car referenced characters in the “Talladega Nights” Will Ferrell film.
As we rolled into small towns in West Virginia and paused at checkpoints (you earned points when you posted a photo to an Instagram page of yourself with the car in front of the check point), we were greeted by the locals with shock, awe and a lot of laughter. None had heard of the LeMons Rally, but some of them had owned one of the cars in their past, or knew someone who did. Conversations arose about cars, following questions about where we were from and where we were going. Some eagerly shared local history and lore.
In Independence, Virginia, site of the “Grand Privy Race,” a local marveling at our cars informed us that, every October, people did, indeed, mount outhouses on wheels and race them down Main Street. He also told us his love for mountain music. He attended the fiddle competition every year, and boasted that the famed acoustic guitar maker Wayne Henderson lived nearby.
Other spectators suggested restaurants and places worth visiting along the way. At no time on this four day adventure did my son and I encounter the antagonism, or exploitation, that road-tripping tourists can get when their license plate announces that they’re from another state.
The January weather was also kind to us as we drove through snow and fog in West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest, crisp sunshine along Tenessee’s sparkling Ocowee River and a light rain that followed us through Georgia.
With barely ten hours of daylight and eight to ten checkpoints each day, we did not have time to linger or explore the shuttered roadside attractions (Sylva, NC’s American Museum of the Cat, Ansted, WV’s “Gravity Defying” Mystery Hole), odd monuments (to Ann Hodges, the first American woman struck by a meteorite), and roadside sculptures (a flying VW “Hippie” Bus outside Sam’s Burger Deli in Rome, Georgia).
The rally took us through back country roads and small whistlestop and factory towns, many of them showing the grim effects from being ignored by the last decade’s economical revival. The train stations that had brought prosperity to these aging, abandoned examples of small town America were shuttered, or converted to museums that honored a distant pass, or craft and boutique shops that hoped to capture a latent automobile tourism of the future.
As Eric had warned us, most of the Blue Ridge Parkway–a 470 mile two-lane scenic drive connecting Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park with North Carolina’s Cherokee National Forest, was closed, so Stephen and I visited the alternate checkpoints, including a stop at the Odd, West Virginia post office, and a house whose fence, front door, garage and facade was covered in souvenir coffee mugs.
One mountain pass that remained open was “Moonshiner 28,” which we took to a section of US Route 129. Known to motorcyclists and sports car fiends as “the Tail of the Dragon” or, more simply as The Dragon, this 11 mile two-lane paved road links North Carolina at Deals Gap to Tennessee through the Great Smoky Mountains, and features 318 turns and no guardrails. A website memorializes the numerous fatalities and accidents the road has claimed.
Stephen had “done the Dragon” enough times to invite me to do it. And so, the son I had taught how to drive and parallel park in tiny Toyota Tercel, handed me the keys, and told me to “stay inside the yellow line, don’t look at the scenery, keep your hands on wheel and ease into the turns.” I joined a convoy of LeMons cars swooping and swerving down one of the most dangerous roads anywhere. And lived!
Road weary drivers could eat and overnight anywhere they wished, though some places were recommended by the rally organizers. Stephen and I missed the first informal “meat-up” at a Boone, NC barbecue restaurant because a jaunt down a rock-strewn dirt road punctured a rear tire. The Infiniti did not have a spare but a nearby Mr. Tire did. In Atlanta, Stephen took me to Mary Mac’s Tea Room, the famous soul food restaurant, where I had iced tea, cornbread, collard greens, black-eyed peas the best fried chicken I’d ever tasted. The sweet potato souffle was enough to be a dessert.
Though our car held up rather well–“You must have the faith that the car will fix itself,” Stephen said when our Check Engine light mysteriously winked out–we heard stories of other cars that suffered. The Dude Arrives Cadillac gradually lost its fourth, third and reverse gears. Two cars hit deer and survived (the deer did not). Another car blew a water pump along an open stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The driver spilled water on the engine to keep it cool until they found a motel, whose owner gave them the keys to his car so they could find a new pump.
As a relief from roadside hotels, we followed the organizers’ suggestions and spent a night at the Historic Chattanooga Choo-Choo Hotel. Though the registration desk, inside the city’s railroad station hall, is a long walk from the hotel rooms, you could drink beer and sleep in staterooms on some of the passenger rail cars, work off muscle cramps in the fitness center, and have your picture taken on the cow catcher of an old steam locomotive.
On Friday afternoon in Alabama, about an hour from the finish line, we saw a LeMons Rally camper truck stricken beside the road. We pulled over and the drivers told us transmission had died completely. One driver had to wait for the tow truck that would take the vehicle to the finish line. We invited the other to come with us.
Of all the cars and trucks that began the rally, only this camper truck failed to finish. The 1953 GMC pick-up was one of three cars that got special awards. Domnick won “Most Heroic Repair” for two frantic hours swapping out a starter in an Ashville, NC hotel’s valet parking lane. Eric invited us all to attend the LeMons endurance race, a 24 hour event with different but no less ridiculous cars, that would begin at noon tomorrow.
Having had our glimpse of hooptie heaven, my son and I began the long journey home.