Mini Cooper Road Trip With My Son: Part Two

A thick layer of smoke from the Loyalton Fire covers the Reno area on Wednesday, August 19, 2020Smoke 1
A thick layer of smoke from the Loyalton Fire covers the Reno area on Wednesday, August 19, 2020Smoke 1 /

For part one click… here

Santa Rosa to Reno is approximately 220-miles and takes four-hours. The reason for the slow pace is that 40-miles of the trek is through Wine Country and it’s all two-lane roads with a maximum speed limit of 55 mph when you’re cruising past vineyards.

It’s a scenic drive with winerys and vineyards off to the side as you make your way on highway 12 through Glen Ellen until you hit the 80 just outside of Fairfield. At this point the scenery has a bit of a drop off as you find yourself going from Vacaville, Davis and then the Sacramento bypass. It’s flat and rural but this is where you make up time after a slow ride on highway 12.

When I lived in Reno and attended the University of Nevada I usually came home once a month to see my family and friends. To maintain interest for a drive that I did fairly often I tried to set a record for the trip. The goal was 3:30 or less and I never achieved it in the four-years I lived in Reno.

At the time I was driving an 1987 Volkswagen Jetta that was a bit underpowered with a factory-rated 89 horsepower 1.9-liter four-banger. I think by the time I got the Jetta, roughly 1999, it was producing less than 89 hp and I usually kept it in second-gear when climbing steep grades.

I came close to the goal but never achieved it. I have few regrets from my college years, beyond mediocre academic achievement and a tendency to hangout at The Breakaway too much, but never achieving a sub 3:30 drive bothered me a lot.

Side note: I spent a lot of time at The Breakaway, it was close to campus, with cheap food and beer. It is now a bus stop. My favorite bar in Santa Rosa is now a Dunkin’ Donuts. I dig progress, but I miss my former establishments.

Also, I never stormed the court after a Nevada Wolf Pack basketball win and that bothers me. I really need to change my priorities.

After going around Sacramento you start making your way up the Sierra Nevada mountains. The climb starts around Auburn and you have about 100-miles of mountains until you hit Reno. The scenery is gorgeous with mountains in every direction and a tree-lined highway to show you the way.

In time the elevation started to get to me and DPC2. It’s subtle and then you realize that you’re straining just a little bit to get a proper bit of oxygen. We continued to climb the mountains and the Mini Cooper did pretty well, definitely better than my old Jetta, but I kept it in Sport Mode with the revs high to make some of the steeper climbs. In many ways I kind of slingshot up the hill; using the declines to pick up momentum as I made our way up the inclines.

We stopped at Donner Pass, elevation 7,057-feet, and briefly discussed the tragedy of the Donner Party. I’m not sure how I feel about cannibalism in dire situations, but standing at Donner Pass made me think about the issue. I had the same internal debate after I read “Alive” and with a little luck I should be able to avoid the ethical issue in real life.

After Donner Pass it’s pretty much all downhill as we made our way to Reno. One gets a sense of strong anticipation after you pass the border and find yourself in the Silver State. Reno is about 15-minutes from the California/Nevada border and you begin to realize that you’re in Nevada due to the amount of billboards advertising casinos and your ability to win big if you choose to gamble there.

We continued on the 80, took the Keystone Avenue exit and made our way to Mel’s Diner at the Sands Casino. I wanted to give DPC2 a proper under-21 Reno experience and hit up the places that I dug from my time there. Mel’s was a go to for late night meals to sober up and cheap breakfast options.

I hadn’t been there in 10+ years and the only thing that had changed was the lack of cigarette smell that always permeated throughout. As a former smoker I missed that smell, you can quit cigarettes but you’ll always jones for one. It’s been 12-years since I gave up my beloved Winston Lights and I still miss them.

We had lunch and DPC2 took in the scene. This was his first trip to Nevada and he seemed to dig the scene thus far, of course we hadn’t seen much but he had a positive attitude. After lunch we cruised over to Virginia Street and headed north to my alma mater, the University of Nevada.

The campus is a mile from downtown Reno and the casinos. You cross the 80 and it’s kind of a different world with a college campus that has a lake, a lot of classic buildings and an overall sense that this is a strong academic institution with history. When I took my campus tour before I enrolled I was shocked that it existed in a town predicated gambling that has too many pawn shops.

We walked a bit; saw my old dorm at Juniper Hall, the Reynolds School of Journalism and Mackay Stadium. Home means Nevada and I was back to my surrogate home. I’ve always dug Reno and it was good to be back.

After a while or cruising around Reno we checked into Circus Circus and planned the rest of our day in the Biggest Little City in the World.

More from Art of Gears

Our evening was mellow; a visit to the Circus Circus midway and then dinner at Round Table. We kept it low key because the following morning would be the boring  stretch from Reno to Las Vegas. It’s a 430-miles burn through the very desolate Nevada desert with a town every hour or so.

The towns in between Reno and Las Vegas are small, barely a blip on the map, and because of the sparse population coupled with redundant scenery a driver needs greater focus to avoid lulling to sleep on the 95. Lights out at 10:00 p.m. for a long day on the road.

To be continued…