Pure Americana: From Maine to Miami in a Volkswagen Passat TDI

Travel with Associate Editor Matt Askari as he travels from Portland, Maine to Miami, Florida, in a Volkswagen Passat TDI

By Matthew Askari | Photos By Matthew Askari | September 17, 2012
It's 4 a.m in Miami's South Beach. I just walked up to Set, a club on the city's infamous Lincoln Road. Despite the hour it's a balmy, warm June night. There's one girl dressed as a fairy -- I don't know if this is a costume night or just how she goes out -- and two guys behind me, one who hiccups and tries to focus; the other looks aloof, casually scrolling though his phone. Seven cities in seven nights and this is the last stop. But there's much that transpired before this. I'm from Los Angeles. L.A. is pretty awesome. But I've traveled enough to know that no matter where you're from, you've got to get out and move -- sometimes our reality becomes too real, it becomes routine. Travel changes that, and things seem unreal; and it's summer, it's road trip season, and there'll never be a better time to change your reality, if only temporarily. I didn't fly across the continent, this expansive land, the breadth and width of America, to just put my foot on a pedal and barrel down Interstate 95. I wanted to see some new things along the way. This is how it went down:

The Nitty-Gritty

They call it a "redeye" flight for a reason. After flying 3,000 miles from L.A. to Portland, Maine -- with an early morning stop in Atlanta--I hazily collect my bag and meet representatives from Volkswagen's fleet company, to get my ride for the trip: A 2012 Volkswagen Passat TDI. The idea was to take a trip down I-95, an Interstate freeway that connects 13 states along the East Coast of the United States. The Northeast was where modern-day America basically happened. People wore white wigs and threw perfectly good tea in the harbor. People had muskets instead of cell phones. Things weren't like that anymore (I was fairly sure, but not 100 percent), but I wanted to begin where America began. The plan was to drive from a little south of the Canada border to where the U.S. pretty much runs out of land. In my head, in the machinations of my mind a couple months ago when baking this all up, I sort of saw the Northeast as Civilization, and the South as the great luminous Wild: raw, with a gentle savagery. I was either dead on, or full of it (or both or neither or somewhere in between).

Saco Island

Even though I flew in to Portland and it was my complete intention to spend a few hours there, I went the wrong way out of the airport and ended up paying a toll on the Turnpike; after that I figured there was no turning back. Considering the toll was like 75 cents or a maybe two bucks or something, and I was still close, this didn't make a lot of sense. But I just wanted to keep going south. I had to be in Boston tonight, which meant I had to be semi-efficient with my time. I ended up on Saco Island, an old island populated with 1800's-era factories, now converted for modern times, but still retaining their red-brick charm. I was so lost I ended up in a brewery, where I thought would be a good place to ask for directions. I didn't want to be rude, so I tried some of the local offerings as well, out of politeness. Politely I ordered a "sow your wild oats stout," mostly because I liked the name. The beer was a somewhat strong, Guinness-like stout, and apparently made from seven types of oats. Considering this was breakfast, it was good that it was similar to oatmeal, which I had read was very good for you.
I finally did get around to asking for directions, and asked where I could get some lobster; cliche and touristy yes, but, you know. A girl sitting a few stools away asked where I was from. After exchanging some pleasantries, she looked up the most popular place in town on her iPhone. She explained how I could get there. She mentioned she was actually in the mood for some lobster herself and wouldn't mind going. "What are you doing tonight?" she asked. I explained I was heading to Boston, that I was doing this crazy road trip and would be in the New York the night after and D.C. and eventually end up in Miami. "I don't know what I'm doing," she said. "I want to do something fun. Something crazy. I don't want to be bored. It's always the same here." Was this what normally happened when you ordered the "sow your oats stout?" This was the first person, outside of the Ethiopian toll collector (I told him I liked Injera bread and he smiled), and the surprisingly attractive girl working the bar (surprising only because the few Mainers I had seen walking around looked frumpy, all wore tie-dyed t-shirts, and looked closer to the earth, somehow)--and I guess Volkswagen's fleet people, too, I had met them--but the point is this girl was really my first impression of Maine. This was also the first of many, "what ifs." What if I took this girl up on that? Would she be the Bonnie to my Clyde? Would we rob banks and eat cornbread and do things like that? It seemed risky. I politely paid and exited, found and ate a lobster roll, got a large coffee and Boston Kreme donut from Dunkin' Donuts, and found myself on I-95, heading for Boston.

The Car

Writing for a website that gets pretty darn good traffic, meant I basically had my pick of what I wanted to drive. OK, so a Lambo might not be realistic, and Audi might not let me put 2000 miles on an R8, which would probably be my first choice. But within reason, most cars were an option. My colleagues at Motor Trend, our sister company with which we share an office, had picked the Volkswagen Passat as their Car of the Year. In my time behind the Passat's wheel a few weeks back, I could see why. The car wasn't going to blow you away; it was just generally good in most respects. Attractive, comfortable, roomy, accessibly priced; there was a lot to like about this car. The Passat catches you off-guard--it's subtly yet surprisingly charming.
Automotive.com is also a practical, consumer-focused website, and we've also been writing a lot about the emerging presence of newer, cleaner diesel vehicles that are gaining traction in America. Our news director thought it would be a good idea to drive a diesel, and hence I'm on the road, driving for eight days in a diesel-powered Passat. A shocking fun fact about the car: the Passat TDI gets such good fuel economy, that I hypothetically could do this entire road trip--top to bottom of the United States--on less than three tanks of gas. People from L.A. might fill up three times in a span of ten days just driving around town or to work. So I wanted to see about that, too. Test this theory of less than three tanks for more than 1,800 miles ....

Boston

Boston presents tourists with so many great historical gems. There's the Freedoom Trail, a series of historically significant sites all within a short walking distance of each other. You can even see where the Declaration of Independence was read--basically, where America officially became its own independent nation. There're all these historical buildings steeped with tales of the early and colonial days. But I had been to Boston before, and had done all of that. This time I decided to focus on doing what local Bostonians do: drink.
Luckily, a girl I knew from our office, quite possibly my favorite person from our 300 person-plus edifice, just happened to move back to Boston. As in, she arrived back to the city hours before I arrived there. Being a true Bostonian, she was also up for grabbing a few libations. We hit a couple of pubs in the center of town, enjoyed some lively conversation, basically stayed past our welcome (and legal serving hours) in the last spot, and got a slice of astonishingly good pizza. True, it was 3:30 a.m., and any pizza would probably be excellent, but I think this slice could hold its own in the daylight hours, too. I was going to bed at 4 in the morning, and not counting two poor hours of airplane sleep, the last time I had slept was 43 hours ago in Los Angeles. End of night one.

Empire State

I was going to title this section "Sleeping through New York and Partying at Dunkin' Donuts," because that's sort of what happened. What should have been a three- or four-hour drive from Boston to New York, somehow turned in to a grueling, rainy, traffic-laden six-hour affair. True, I had stopped for coffee, and then a coffee and donut, and then a flatbread sandwich and coffee, all at Dunkin' Donuts, three stops in three states. Also at a Friendly's for a quick bite and some ice-cream. I should have taken before and after pictures like in those diet pill ads -- it's a good thing I was only on the road for one week.
But when I finally got to my hotel in Midtown, I was beyond wiped out. The initial rush of seeing the city from miles away, all those skyscrapers jutting up into the sky, the presence and shock of Manhattan, had all slowly worn off as I inched into the city in hellish traffic. The rain helped nothing. But as many times as I had been to the city, I had never driven in it. And it was cool. It was a different perspective. I watched the NBA finals in my room. I talked on the phone. Around midnight I went to go for a walk in the city, but I only made it a couple of blocks. It was pouring rain and I didn't have an umbrella. I went back to my room to think of what to do, but the next thing I knew, I opened my eyes, it was almost noon and I had to shower and check-out.

Not Partying With Five Brazilian Models

When I finally get out and start walking, it all comes back to me. The reason I love this city: the buildings, and taxis sailing every which way, and the horns, and the swarms of people. Every block a beehive of activity, the incessant and irrepressible crush of commerce -- no city is quite like New York.
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