Travel: High Desert Bonding

High Desert Bonding

By Jonathan WC Mills
June 9, 2015

Photography by Jonathan Mills

Let’s be clear from the beginning: most people won’t do what I did. Most fathers who want to go camping and motorcycle riding will choose to take their truck or family people hauler with aged french fries in between the seats—and saucy fingerprints on the windows. Camping means dirt, a lack of showers, and the strong possibility of off-road driving. All of which suggest practicality as the primary motivator when choosing transport.

That wasn’t an issue for me.

The reason? Mercedes Benz was kind enough offer me a chance to spend some time in the SL63 AMG Roadster, a two-seat rocket sled better suited to scorching across oceans of time then parking in a dusty corner of Joshua Tree. A job, it turned out, that it was better adapted to handle than I would have imagined. When my son (who is now starting to understand cars) saw it for the first time, he was quietly impressed but unsure what to think. This confusion made his comment a thousand miles later very telling indeed: “Dad, do you think they’ll just forget to pick it up?”

“Well, this car costs $175,000, so I’m going to presume they didn’t forget where they left it.” I then told him that I appreciated the sentiment…and hoped they would forget about it as well.

A word about that figure. This one has options from a base of $148,050, and I rounded up a few grand, but the price of this Lunar Blue missile can’t be dismissed. It’s a substantial sum for a car that, despite its AMG hardware, doesn’t call much attention to itself. It’s been around for a few years; the shape has been refined since the ’80s, but since that time it’s been a familiar sight to anyone living within two dozen miles of a country club. A colleague of mine remarked, after hearing the price, that, “…if I spent $175,000 on a car, I want people to know it.” A valid point, and I suggested that, say, Lamborghini might be happy to have his business. The SL isn’t that kind of car.

It’s so effortless, the SL63 is almost an anti-climactic speed machine. It’s almost unobtrusive. Almost.

On its delivery, I spent time learning more about its bells and whistles. An hour later, after realizing I’d only scratched the surface, I started the damn thing up and went for a drive. The controls are intuitive—a welcome nod to a time when analog was something to be proud of. Sure, it’s electronic everything, but for the most part, the various knobs and switches are easy to understand and live with. You have to want to dig deeper. I just wanted to go camping.

Space was a premium, but with some focused packing we managed to get bags, gear, and a tent into the available space without too much NASA-grade engineering. It probably equaled about two golf bags’ worth of gear—a unit of volume Mercedes engineers must be familiar with. In this case, two golf bags’ worth of camping gear prevented the hard top from being stowed. I’m not a huge fan of convertibles anyway; I generally drive too fast. So this wasn’t the tragedy it might have been. My son was slightly disappointed. But later in the trip, driving as I do with the top down, he shouted that he understood my point. In my mind, most convertibles are best suited to idyllic climes where imbibing rum at 11am is acceptable social behavior.

Even though this was a getaway, it wasn’t plush. The plan was to camp in Joshua Tree National Park and then head to Acton, CA for some dirt bike lessons (the perfect testosterone-driven bonding experience, I might add), followed by a night in the car’s natural habitat of Palm Springs.

On leaving Los Angeles, one thing became immediately apparent: I needed to watch my right foot. With 663 ft-lbs of torque and 557 horsepower from its twin turbo V8. This gave me an ability to crush gaps in traffic like something out of Frank Herbert’s DUNE, folding the fabric of both time and space. They say that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, Vladimir Putin would love an SL63.

We reached the high desert with time to spare and immediately felt like we stood out. Joshua Tree is located in an area of Southern California generally known for its healthy mixture of burnouts, drop-outs, artists, hippies, and Marines. Long-term exposure to the high desert environment does strange things to people. As a result, driving into the Yucca Valley in a car as opulent as the SL63 felt a bit weird.

Camping is fraught with perils. Our first night was windy, wild, and crazy. Still used to the comforts of home, the tent felt like it was going to be blown away—with us inside. Eventually we gave up, the cold and the wind pushing us back into the SL and offering instant peace and refuge. In moments, we had Sirius radio, heated-and-massaging seats and warm air wafting over our necks. It was camping to ‘glamping’ in a matter of minutes.

The next few days were filled with driving, hiking, rock scrambling, eating outdoors, and getting dirty—all was successful. Everywhere we went, we were anything but inconspicuous. “Nice car, man” was a sentiment heard more than once, and with its electric Lunar Blue paint and AMG wheels, this Mercedes did stand out. We figured with the Coachella music festival happening down the road in Palm Springs, at the very worst we would appear to be an A&R man on the road with his son, trying to play Dad for the weekend.

To fully test the SL’s capabilities would be foolish on public roads. Joshua Tree, however, is bisected by a lone highway known as Pinto Basin Road. It is a 70 mile ribbon of recently-paved blacktop that, at 5:30 AM on a weekday was blissfully empty of traffic. On this road, at that time, the car was spectacular and inspired confidence at every turn—especially after pushing its discreet ‘AMG’ button and turning a knurled knob to “sport+”. Speed wasn’t a problem; we watched dawn break over the horizon as we hustled towards Acton, ninety miles away.

After leaving the National Park, we dipped briefly into Palm Desert before heading up and over the San Jacinto Mountains. A sharply curved transit route crowded with early morning commuters gave a chance to lean on the SL6s’s adaptive suspension and carbon brake package—both worked as intended. 

Speaking of those brakes, I’m a late braker—something my wife has complained to me about a number of times over the years and about which I’m unapologetic. These giant carbon discs are made for a guy like me, planting the pedal is the vehicular equivalent to popping open a parachute: instant arrest. After blasting over the San Jacinto canyons, we arrived for a day of dirt biking.

As far as father-son bonding goes, there is something both cliché and hugely satisfying about riding fast motorcycles in the dirt. My parents were conservative and nature focused in my upbringing, which means that loud two-stroke dirt bikes were verboten. As these things usually go, I immediately channeled that missed opportunity to the present and offered it my progeny. He seemed happy to take me up on the offer.

The day was fantastic, and a rite of passage that both of us will remember. Sweaty and stinking, we settled into the air-conditioned seats at the end of the day with literal sighs of contentment—and surely had the most comfortable ride back to Palm Springs from the off-road park.

Palm Springs: modernist architecture, pools, green golf courses and Canadians— all in a moonscape of heat-soaked desert. Palm Springs has been compelling wealthy folks for decades, and Mercedes SLs of all types are a common sight. (That said, I was pleased to note I did not see any like this example.) After a relaxing night’s stay enjoying the pool, hot tub, and a big breakfast, we clambered back into the car—now quite dirty from the journey—and headed back to Los Angeles. At the end of trip like this, let me tell you: adaptive cruise control is where it’s at. It’s a piece of tech that every single car maker should adopt asap.

In closing I can say it was a fantastic trip with my son, and one that we won’t forget anytime soon. We would have enjoyed the week regardless of the car we had at our disposal—there was fantastic hiking, camping, and dirt biking. But the SL63 proved to be that little bit extra, both ferocious at covering ground and an intimate cabin in which to enjoy great conversations. It’s not exaggerating to suggest the car gave us the opportunity to get to know each other better, and this father’s day, I reflect on that with deep gratitude—and look forward to our next adventure together.

Enjoy yours.

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Mike Polosky
Mike Polosky
8 years ago

I have driven this car at Laguna Seca and let me tell you it is not the mommy mobile it appears to be. It REALLY grips and like all AMG engines it pulls like a freight train. The torque is addictive and potentially hair raising if you turn off the traction control.

Stephan P
Stephan P
8 years ago

Great story and great writing!

Mark Montpetit
Mark Montpetit
8 years ago

then vs. than

Benjamin Shahrabani
8 years ago

Did you feel like a Master of the Universe in that car? and how hard was it for Mercedes to pry the keys from your hand?

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