I pulled up in Mazda’s little sports car with my wife at the small ferry terminal to cross from New York to Vermont. We could have driven around Lake Champlain, but every good road trip should include a ferry crossing.
“Are you seniors?” asked the woman behind the window, looking down – way down – into the open-topped car.
I took off my ball cap and ran my fingers through my grey hair. I wasn’t sure how old would qualify. I wouldn’t turn 60 for another two days yet.
“And just what makes you think we might be seniors?” I asked the woman. She looked to be older than I was.
“Well,” she said, “the car.”
She had a point. Mazda says the average age for recent buyers of its MX-5 convertible is 54. Four out of five owners are male, and three-quarters of them are married, with about one in three aged 60 and over and retired.
Sticking with the stats, the main hobby or interest for owners is “travelling/vacationing” (23.1 per cent), followed by biking and pleasure driving, which are affordable with an average household income of more than $170,000. In other words, the MX-5 is a toy to be enjoyed, not a grocery-getter or commuter vehicle. And in New England, we were enjoying it.
We’d driven down from Ontario to spend my upcoming birthday on top of Mount Washington, the highest peak in the northeast. It just seemed like the right thing to do, although my wife pointed out that everything would be downhill from there.
First, we got some practice driving up a mountain by visiting Lake Placid, N.Y., where we stayed for one night at the High Peaks Resort and parked the car on top of our hotel room – the lakefront rooms were beneath the roadside parking lot. Never done that before.
The next day we drove up Lake Placid’s Whiteface Mountain. It was a good thing I have been to the top several times before because, on this visit, the peak was in the clouds and the view of the lake was completely obscured.
We paid a road toll of US$40 for the car and two people and drove almost all the way to the top on a relatively wide and smooth road, the Whiteface Veterans’ Memorial Highway, that followed the opposite side of the 1,483-metre mountain. Because this was America, there’s a restaurant and gift shop close to the summit, and then a final clamber of 82 metres on a marked path over the rocks to the summit itself.
Former U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt was driven up to the top with his wheelchair in 1935 to open the road and dedicate it to the veterans of the First World War. “I wish very much that it were possible for me to walk up the few remaining feet to the actual top of the mountain,” he said. “Some day, they are going to make it possible for people who cannot make the little climb to go up there in a comfortable and easy elevator.”
The engineers took the hint. Three years later, a narrow foot tunnel was completed though the granite, leading to an elevator for the final ride to the top. It took 10,000 drill bits and 20,000 pounds of dynamite, and the 10 million pounds of excavated rock were used to build a tower and terrace at the peak.
For us, the summit may have been a wash, but the views to the north of the range’s green slopes on the way up and down were gorgeous. We kept the car’s roof tucked away, which created an all-around open experience, and felt only slight twinges of guilt at the sight of cyclists pedalling up the road. Like us, they’d coast down soon enough.
There’s no straight route east from Lake Placid to Vermont but that was okay – the responsive MX-5 was a pleasure to drive. It was a little too small for longer distances, though. The passenger seat was cramped and my wife found she couldn’t move her legs around as she might in a regular coupe or sedan. We’d stretch every couple of hours or so and then everything was fine.
We stayed another night outside Stowe, Vt., at the Topnotch Resort, where we sat out a torrential downpour by watching the rain fall on the outdoor swimming pools beneath the ski hills. I often take road trips on a motorcycle, and it was a great comfort in the deluge to know that our car had a roof and was comfortable in all weathers.
When the roof was up and we were driving at speed, the ride was noisy in the cabin and we had to raise our voices to be heard. That was also okay. The roof was down and stowed nearly all the time. It didn’t affect the trunk space, which allowed room for two carry-on cases and a bunch of small bags – much more space than any motorcycle, anyway.
We pressed on east into New Hampshire to the base of Mount Washington itself. The road to the summit is the oldest of all America’s high mountain peak roads, opened officially on Aug. 8, 1861. It was built thanks to Canadian wheat from Saskatchewan, which needed a railway to carry it south from Montreal in winter to the nearest ice-free port in Maine. That railway made the region accessible to tourists, who would hike to the top of 1,917-metre Mount Washington; a small lodge was soon built to welcome them with a restaurant and bar and beds for the night. The summit road made it possible to ascend with horses and buggies, but it was rough going and, in 1869, a smooth-running cog railway was built on the opposite slope.
It was not until 1899 that the first motorized vehicle made the ascent, a steam-driven Stanley Locomobile driven by Freelan O. Stanley himself. These days, more than 45,000 vehicles make the climb each year, and we paid our US$53 toll to join them.
The paved road is much narrower than the road on Whiteface and there’s often barely room for two pickup trucks to pass. Cyclists and pedestrians are not permitted. It helped that our 2019 MX-5 was small, but it didn’t help that my wife could look out the side and see no safety barrier, just a sheer drop down hundreds of feet of mountainside. It certainly didn’t help when we drove into a cloud and covered the final 400-metre rise in thick, cold mist. The distinctive “Racing Orange” of the 30th Anniversary edition helped the Mazda stand out in the fog, where many drivers didn’t think to switch on their lights and were invisible until we were within metres of each other.
The peak of Mount Washington is covered by cloud more often than not, but on a clear day, the scenery is breathtaking. It also holds the official world record for the planet’s windiest place – the wind was once recorded at more than 370 kilometres an hour, and it can snow on any day of the year. For us, the temperature was 6 degrees Celsius, 25 degrees cooler than at the base, and the wind was strong enough to blow off our hats. There’s a restaurant and a museum at the peak, as well as a weather station, and we huddled there. Outside, there was little to be seen except the fog.
We didn’t care. We’d made it to the summit and we knew that as soon as we began to descend again, staying in second gear to preserve the brakes, the sky would clear and the top would come back off. It was another birthday in the books and if I could make it this far, perhaps I could make it anywhere. Even if I do have to stop and stretch every two hours along the way.
The writer was a guest of High Peaks Resort and Topnotch Resort. Content was not subject to approval.