Who Needs RVs When You Can Drive Across America In A Lotus Elise?
Photography by Nate Crabtree
It was like the proverbial record screeching to a stop and finding all eyes on me when I made the comment at my local St. Louis chapter of Cars & Coffee that I was planning to drive my newly acquired Lotus Elise 2,500 miles across the country. I was told I would regret my decision immediately, that I would need thousands in dental work to replace all the fillings that would rattle out, let along the surgeries to repair whatever those six states’ potholes might wreak on my vertebrae. And of course, when I let it slip that my girlfriend was going to be accompanying me, I had to factor in some relationship counseling.
We shrugged off the warnings. After all, we spend our free time outdoors and exploring; whether it’s searching for a new point break, or canyoneering through the crags of the southwest. In a sense then, this trip would be the culmination of a lifetime worth of dreaming. and for me especially. The Elise was quite literally a bedroom wall poster for me when it came to the States in 2005. A photo of the little Lotus sat right beside the legendary McLaren F1 and 250 GTO, and since those are now exchanging hands for eight-digit figures, I had to keep my sights a little closer to the ground. So for three years, I kept a small sticky note in my wallet that read “Do you want this more than a LOTUS?” Finally, in February, after years of small sacrifices thanks to that note, a 2005 Starlight Black Lotus Elise followed me home.
The journey we proposed from St. Louis to Oregon would take us through some of our favorite places along the way, as well as some new twisty roads to give the Elise plenty of exercise. Space was at a premium—to put it in the most understated way possible—so of course we limited the gear as much as we could: two sleeping bags, a tent, two duffels, my camera gear, and the necessary climbing gear. It only took a few incantations, one bloodied knuckle, and more than a few curses. But in the end, it all fit, and we’re still astounded by the amount of gear we got into that little car that first packing day.
The start of the journey was mostly uneventful; just a quick jaunt from St. Louis to Kansas City to visit some old friends. Even though I had owned the car for several months at this point, there really is nothing to prepare you for how low it is compared to other highway traffic. We found ourselves halfway between amusement and terror when we realized that even a seemingly low family sedan towered above the little Elise. Long-haul trucks were another story entirely. Passing one put our situation into a sharper focus; the truck’s tire sat about six inches above our roofline. Luckily, with the exception of a few small traffic jams, we arrived without incident.
Kansas. The only day of the journey we were dreading. Armed with an array of stimulants (the legal kind!), and the weekend lineup of the Click and Clack brothers, we would at least be prepared. By this point we’d become numbed to the the size discrepancy of our car and everyone else’s, and we began to amuse ourselves with the reactions of other drivers to our little British sports car. In the heartland of America, the home of GM, Ford, and arrow-straight roads, we truly were pilgrims in a foreign land.
It seemed like every car we passed had a little kid’s nose pressed to the window, or a teen with an Instagram account documenting this tiny insect of a car. The perplexed looks from fellow travelers were as unending as the miles it took to arrive in Denver. The car performed with aplomb, and only once did our hearts sink, when, miles from our destination and without warning, our A/C quit. With the Elise effectively turned into a rolling sweat lodge, after what seemed like ages we finally arrived at the next rest stop. To get an idea of how we squirmed out of our seats, think of the Rhino scene in Ace Ventura.
After we had caught our breath and relegated ourselves to a fate of utter misery for the following several hundred miles, we turned the motor over, set off toward the highway again, and were astonished to find the vents cranking out ice cold air again! Over the next several hours we joked about our recent forced sweat detox, and in no time at all, we arrived at our friend’s house without any other incidents.
We spent that night in the shadow of the Rockies, reconnecting with some old friends I had worked with at a job that we all hated. We bonded over cars, talking about our dream garages, and our aspirations for the next build we would pursue. You know the drill. Sat in that driveway that night were the realization of several of those dreams though; a brand new Dodge Challenger 392, a 350+ WHP Subaru WRX on its way to 500+, and my little Elise. The reality is that work does pay off, and reconnecting with old friends over a few beers as the sun set behind the mountains was is a perfect way to enjoy it.
The following few days would be filled with the reasons I bought this car in the first place; twisty roads. Our next day would send us away from the flat straightness of Kansas we’d crossed earlier, up through the Rockies, and into the Colorado Plateau. We were greeted with a stunning sunrise as we headed up the hills away from Denver. Immediately it began to feel special; the car seemed to come alive. It seemed to react almost like a puppy that had been let off its leash. The peppy nature of a lightweight, naturally aspirated throttle can become telepathic in the right car; the slightest prod of the pedal provided a distinct nudge from behind, seemingly goading me into pushing a little harder. We passed canyons and crags, traversed hairpins, and carved through sweepers, the car showing far more capability than I could have dreamt of. On one occasion, I entered a corner at a speed I was convinced was going to send me into a barrier. My mind immediately shot back to horror stories I encountered while shopping for the car. In fact some jokingly note that L.O.T.U.S. stands for: “Lift Off Throttle, U Spin.” Heeding the warning, I downshifted, and held mid-throttle through the corner hoping for the best. Seemingly defying the laws of physics, and without a single chirp from the tires, I found myself on the other end of the corner, with newfound admiration and astonishment at what this car could do.
Though the thinner air translates into less power, with every foot of elevation we gained our smiles broadened a bit further. Especially after the monotony of Kansas, the sights of the continental divide were a treat. We decided to make the most of it and pulled off the main road and followed signs to a small alpine lake. After a bit of dirt path bumpiness, we arrived at a trailhead with two lifted SUVs; a perfect place for the Lotus to blend in. After a quick jaunt around what was essentially a deserted mirror-still lake, we hopped back in and blasted away towards Glenwood Springs.
We made it into town just before our favorite Bavarian breakfast place closed, and after a quick bite we stepped outside to a sky ripped straight from an H.P. Lovecraft story. An inky black was forming just to the east of us, and we quickly came to the conclusion that we shouldn’t be around when it hit. We got on the highway and tried to put distance between us and it, but less than five miles later we were met with a downright Biblical rainstorm. With my heart rate accelerating and water cascading into the roads, I decided that even Noah wouldn’t last a few hours on R-compound tires, and promptly dove for cover. We took shelter under a service station awning for 20 minutes while the heavens opened up and dumped what seemed like inches of rain. Finally, after we deemed it safe to poke our heads back out, we gingerly made our way down the mountain and to Colorado National Monument.
Simply put, the road leading up the park is some of the best tarmac this side of Europe. Scything through 150-million-year-old sandstone, the twists and turns carved out of the rock were purpose built for the petrolheads as far as I was concerned. Hairpins, chicanes, tunnels, and truly inspiring scenery were on constant display. The symphony of the Larini exhaust echoing against the hills sang and reverberated as we knifed our way up the mountain, and spurred on by some modest confidence I had gained the previous day, we found ourselves retracing our steps several times simply to try some of the corners again! Several hand-carved tunnels served as a perfect canvas to exploit the second cam when it kicks over in the upper rev-range. We were in heaven. The hiking trails weren’t half bad either; taking time at every pullout, we spent hours traversing ridges, canyons, and crags, exploring the backyard of Butch Cassidy.
After a full day of exploration and a lovely spirited drive, the time came to continue on towards Moab, and we soon learned that the back road following the Colorado River was also apparently purpose built for petrolheads! The canyon road ambles along the course of the river, with expanses and views befitting a Lord of the Rings film. It was the day’s second great drive, and then just miles before reaching town, we came across a perfect little shaded campsite down by the river. The sight of us pulling into the trailhead couldn’t have been anything but comical to the owners of the Land Rovers and lifted Jeeps parked in the rutted dirt lot. My little Lotus was a popular novelty, and even more comical yet as we opened the boot to excavate for our adventure gear of choice. After setting up our site, we grabbed our climbing gear and headed out to explore the Slick Rock.
On our way out of Moab, we stopped for breakfast and were once again approached by a rather excited elderly man reminiscing about a Lotus Elan he used to own in the ‘70s. We met a few of these enthusiasts, and we were always happy to trade a few stories. After a quick stop in Price, UT for a visit to the paleontological museum, we blasted our way up to Salt Lake City. We encountered some lovely free parking by utilizing the Ferrari dealership in town, and spent some time making friends and ogling the lovely inventory. After falling in love with several vintage Ferraris, we decided it was time to make our way out to Oregon, and we squeezed back into the trusty Lotus to get on with the journey’s last leg.
The rest of the trip flew by as miles kept melting away without issue. After a total of more than 2,400 of them added to the odometer during trip, I came to the realization that I had met my hero car, and not been disappointed in the least. In fact, if anything, I had fallen in love again. I really do believe the whole experience couldn’t have been better, and even the few miles where we lost the A/C added to the charm. It may not be the obvious choice for long-haul drives, but it was a joy to drive the Lotus in such a way. The whole car is a surprise; the amount of mechanical grip it has defies logic, and begs to be pushed. And, after pulling out all our luggage and laying it out, we were astounded at how much we actually crammed into every nook and cranny.
The reactions of those who we encountered in the Elise were priceless, and it was great fun to tell our story to those who’d ask. And no, I don’t require back surgery, and my girlfriend didn’t leave me for someone with softer suspension. In fact, we are already planning our next journey in the same car. Now just to figure out how to get the surfboards on the roof…