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.
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.
Fayetteville was not exactly that, but it wasn't too far from that, either. It was a small, quaint town that seemed content with a slower pace to things. There were girls in sundresses, but they were drinking iced coffees and walked with a purpose. I spent a couple hours in the heart of town, walked up and down the main drag, had a coffee, chatted with locals and petted an unreasonably cute dog. It was pulling out of Fayetteville that proved a little unnerving. I had taken a long route to I-95 and went through a neighborhood where I noticed a man walking in an aggressive manner. He had an open wound, and blood was gushing down his neck. I slowed down, but he seemed to ignore me, and instead started screaming some choice words towards a man who was in the front yard of one of the houses. Things seemed tense. But across the way there were two neighbors, seated on the porch, calm, sodas in hand, just sort of watching, unconcerned. I felt these people were likely best suited to deal with these regional matters and shuttled on...

Carnage

I don't know what it was about South Carolina, but there sure were a lot of dead animals and road-kill all over the place. I had seen a couple of smaller things that had fallen on poor luck, maybe bad timing when crossing the road. Actually, the night before when I turned off to stop and pick up snacks a deer shot across the street in front of me. My heart was about to explode out of my chest; two or three seconds earlier, or had I been going just a little faster, and I would have had a whole lot of venison on my hands. But there were animals everywhere on and alongside the road in S.C. At one point I drove over an area where some poor thing exploded. There were bits of meat, and pink and red smear all over the place. I couldn't even tell what it was. A couple minutes later, there was a baby deer lying fully intact on the side of the road. I couldn't see any impact or blood or anything, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't napping, either.
I was content to get away from all that.

Savannah

Before I entered Georgia, and after most of the chaos splattered across the roads in South Carolina, and after fill up number two at mile 1325, was this gem of a BBQ place. It was in the middle of nowhere, it was a Friday night and all the locals were dining on red beans and rice, collard greens, black-eyed peas, fried chicken with smokey BBQ sauces, pulled pork, coleslaw, potato salad, peach cobbler and banana cream pie. There were vats of tea, sweetened and unsweetened. Tables came outfitted with hot sauce and a roll of paper towels. I was happy, things were good. I ate well that night and got in to Savannah full and sleepy, which was nice because I had a full day to check out all the charming, old, well-preserved buildings of a more romantic South, before driving into the strange land of Florida.

Daytona

If you think Daytona Beach is just aging strippers, meth heads, and Jesus freaks, then clearly you haven't spent more than a night in Daytona. Unfortunately, one night was all I had. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't want to return, or that it wasn't fun. In fact, it's exactly the opposite. Daytona is a city steeped in red-neck lore, and it's damn proud of it. Luckily, I was here on a warm, balmy Saturday night. After checking in to my motel, I decided to hit the town. From what I had seen, there was no way to dress-down enough. Anything went here. I tried my best. I went to a place called the Oyster Pub. People in Daytona had all crammed 50 years of sun, booze, and extracurricular activity -- basically living to the fullest -- in their 35 years of life. And they all looked about 45, which meant they were all five years ahead of the game, I guess. I got a couple of tall cold pints of Yuengling and a fried oyster sandwich, which was pretty good. Afterwards I hit a local pub across the street, but not before someone asked me if I had fully accepted Jesus, which happened a couple of times.
In the pub only two things played overhead -- AC/DC and Poison. There are a group of girls and a guy, and the guy does this chicken-dance and the girls all laugh. One of them tells him to do it again and takes out her iPhone to take a picture. He dances and she snaps the pic, but when they inspect it, the response is muted. Apparently, the flash failed to go off. So he does it again, but again this same trouble with the flash. The guy does his chicken dance a third time, and this time the flash goes off, but the others are disinterested, and half-smile and smoke cigarettes. The guy cackles. I'm on my second Whisky (they don't have Scotch at this place) and watching this game of table-bocce-ball, until a guy spills his beer all over the place and everyone yells and walks away. This maybe-pregnant girl smoking a cigarette keeps looking at me. A guy who looks like Santa Claus--but who is not wearing red and only has a few teeth--is also looking at me. I spent the latter hours of my night sitting on a deck chair by the pool facing the ocean. There was a breeze that felt good and I didn't want to go to my room just yet. I could have fallen asleep right there in the warm, humid Florida night. The following day I paid homage to Daytona International Speedway. I took the Passat TDI for a little tour just outside the track, which was very much closed as there wasn't a race going on. On my way out of Daytona, I came across a very special intersection. Just down the road from the Steak n' Shake (people either want a steakburger, or a shake -- sell'em both and you've cornered the market), on the one hand, was a gas station that served grits (and fried conch and conch salad). On the other side was a gun store. And this was nice; because there wasn't one intersection in the whole of California I was sure where you could get your grits and your guns without having to run all over the place. And if you were still hungry, there was a Steak n' Shake.

Miami

Driving South through Florida, I-95 was distinctly different. It was sunnier; the greenery was more green and wilder. The clouds looked like tufts of cotton, low, puffy and suspended -- in no hurry to go anywhere. When I got to South Beach I was immediately taken aback by the energy -- a lot of attitude and skin -- as I slowly drove through the little island. I looked down at the odometer. I was only a few miles away from the airport where I needed to be tomorrow. I had driven 1,840 miles. To put it in perspective, that's greater than the distance from Amsterdam to the North of Africa. The Passat TDI still had a few gallons of diesel left, too. I had made the entire trip on less than three tanks! I was averaging about 37 mpg, which for a non-hybrid car of this size, was extremely impressive.
I checked in to the Shore Club, my hotel for the night. The girl at the front desk upgraded me for no good reason, and I had a balcony suite on the eighth floor overlooking all of that turquoise water. A steady warm breeze blew. I went for an evening swim in the ocean. I went for a swim in the heated pool, afterwards. Seven cities in seven nights. This was the last stop. But I still had some hours yet, and Washington Avenue and Lincoln Road beckoned...
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