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
I make my way towards Madison Square Park, and around the Flatiron building, I walk in to Eataly, part-upscale market, part artisan craft shop. I order an espresso from a stand in the middle of the store, a sort of stand-up Italian style one and watch the people move all around me, picking up chocolates and salami and all kinds of things. I walk further, with no particular direction, up one avenue and down the next, taking everything in. I finally get pretty hungry. I stop in for a bento box at this Japanese restaurant. There's a table of arrestingly good looking girls sitting next to me. I notice they're speaking Portuguese. They seem a little uptight. "Is that Portuguese you're speaking?" I ask in a good-natured way. They say yes. I ask where in Brazil they're from. One says Rio and another says Curitiba. "So you're Carioca and you're from Parana," I say. Their eyes light up a bit. I spent a couple of months in Brazil, part of a year in South America. Foreigners always assume Americans know nothing about anything outside of the U.S. (which is sometimes true). But all of the sudden, these girls soften, they do a one-eighty. They're here from Brazil for three months as part of a modeling program; a fact that before they even said this, was fairly obvious. All of a sudden one of them says, "Hey! Where can we get sheez-cake?" Apparently, it's one of the girl's birthdays, and they want to get cheesecake. I tell them of a couple of places to check out. They nod and smile. "Hey! What are you doing tonight? We're going to party for (forgot her name)'s birthday," the cheesecake inquiring one tells me. "Um, I'm going to Washington D.C. in a couple of hours," I say. "Oh," she pauses. "Okay. Well, bye-bye!" They all get up and wave goodbye and smile and slowly file out. I'm not positive if it was audible, but I think I did a small-injured-puppy-like-whine. I just turned down partying in New York with five Brazilian models. I had my own reasons. Like, a non-refundable hotel reservation in Washington D.C. tonight. And, well some other reasons.

The Capitol

I got in to D.C. close to Midnight. I had caught a glimpse of the Capitol Building lit up at night, and that just increased my anticipation for the following day. Also, after a couple of nights in shabbier, Spartan accommodations, I was staying in a boutique hotel, one of two nicer stays on this trip. It was crazy, a different city every night, I felt a little like a rock star. Like Kanye West. But the type of Kanye that stays at the Quality Inn sometimes. And tracks fuel mileage on a Passat TDI. That type of Kanye.
A friend and one of Volkswagen's finest spokespeople agreed to have lunch with me, and show me around town. Volkswagen's Herndon, Virginia, headquarters wasn't too far from D.C. proper. We had lunch at Rice, a Thai restaurant on 14th street that has an exceptionally toothsome coconut wild rice. We got a couple of dishes and a beer, it was nice to sit out and enjoy the East Coast heat. I got to see the White House, and we walked around the National Mall. We got coffee at one of the Smithsonian cafes. You could easily spend days in D.C., but yet again, I had to get on the move. Before I left, we stopped at Volkswagen's headquarters. Like the German automaker's cars , the offices had a distinctly European flair. Modern, clean, open and airy, with just enough panache. Volkswagen wants to become the world's largest automaker in the next handful of years, and if it keeps selling cars they way its selling the Passat, there's more than a fighting chance. The highlight of the tour may have been the final stop: the Keurig machine. I got a coffee, I had a long drive ahead.

Late Bloomer

I had been a late bloomer. You had always heard of it, it was everywhere. I didn't really think it was that big of a deal. Growing up people even said it was dirty, but I guess things were different now and people were more open. But I had finally done it: I pumped diesel for the first time. I didn't think I was any different afterwards, but maybe I had a new swagger. Maybe I was more mature, more experienced. The big mystery was gone. After 665 miles, I filled up the Passat TDI for the first time. Having used about 17.5 gallons, I was getting 38 mpg. Astonishing.

South

I had been driving for hours into the night. The good news was there weren't as many tolls as there were in the Northeast. If Benjamin Franklin were alive today, death and taxes weren't the only things he'd be certain of; if he were to travel I-95, he'd be certain of construction, stubborn drivers, monotonous tree-lined scenery, and tolls. Then again, I suppose tolls are sort of taxes, so I guess he knew what he was talking about, even back then. The cars were thinning on the road, it was after midnight and I stopped off somewhere in North Carolina to ask how far I was from Fayetteville, my intended destination. I exited but drove for what seemed like miles before I found a service stop. There was an older woman, maybe sixty or sixty-five years old, standing behind a bullet-proof counter--which was weird in its own way -- just blinking. I got some water and snacks to keep me going. "What's the best way to get back to 95?" I asked.
"Theys two 95s. Theys North and theys South. Theys two 95s." She said. Oh my God this is what I had been searching for! A real Southerner, thick molasses drawl and all. After blinking and looking straight ahead she added "you goin' Benson?" Benson was the next town over I assumed. "I'm trying to get to Fayetteville," I said. "You lookin' to rest in Fayetteville?" she asked, blinking. I thought about it. Yes, yes I was lookin' to rest in Fayetteville. "Fayetteville take you two hours," she added, evenly. "Oh, I thought it was like an hour or something," I said. "Oh it'd take you a good hour," she said. "Two hours, or one good hour." Apparently, they measured things differently in the South. I bid farewell and found my way back on to the road, but I didn't last long. After a good 30 minutes, I ended up staying at a dumpy motel in Selma, North Carolina. Fayetteville would have to wait.

Waffle House

I had missed the free breakfast they stop serving at a much too early hour of the morning, so I found myself at a Waffle House. I saw on the menu that eggs came with your choice of hash browns, grits, or tomatoes. I'd been eating so poorly that I figured I'd get the tomatoes with my eggs, to have something fresh. An old African American lady with thick glasses and a hairnet came to take my order at the counter.
"You know what you want honey?" she said. "I'll get the eggs, scrambled and a cup of coffee," I said. "You want hash browns or grits?" "Actually, I'll do the tomatoes," I said assuredly. She paused as if she wasn't sure what I said. Or if she wasn't sure if that was even an option or something they had. I don't think many people around here ordered the tomatoes. She didn't say anything, but just walked off and shouted for someone in the back. A few minutes later, sure enough my eggs came out, with two thick-cut slices of tomato. I stuck my fork into one of the slices -- it was completely frozen solid. During training I must have been the sucker everyone had to hear about. "Ain't no one gon' order tomato, but if they ask, we gotta keep one right here in the freezer, in case they ask." She brought me six packets of cream for my small mug of coffee. "Do you have milk for the coffee by any chance?" I asked. I liked a little milk and sugar with my coffee. "You want real milk?" She asked. This seemed like a trick question. I drank it black.

Fayetteville: Imagined v. Reality

Before I set out on this whole great trip, one of the places I was pretty excited to see was Fayetteville. This was completely nonsensical, considering I knew nothing about it and had never heard anything especially promising. But it was small town North Carolina, and I didn't know what I would find there. Perhaps I was thinking the town would be populated with girls, these Southern Belles walking lackadaisically in the heat, wearing sundresses and eating pieces of fried catfish. Or holding carnations or drinking sweet tea. I was pretty sure this wouldn't be the case but I was determined to remain optimistic.
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