While not everyone has the means, skill, or resources to consistently go racing to blow off steam, I'll amend that statement to encompass driving as well. To a car guy, there's no better therapy than hitting the open road in a cool car. Heck, I'll further qualify that statement to make transportation notwithstanding; give me the open road and a '88 Fox and I guarantee it'll beat the hell out of any given day at the office. You can imagine my excitement when the Audi RS4 we had ordered nearly three months prior finally showed up in the parking garage.
I first drove the '07 RS4 about this same time last year through the hops-filled Bavarian heartland, and I'd be lying if I said I hadn't thought about the car nearly every day since then. I can honestly say I've never been so infatuated, not even with a girl. Who needs girls when you have a 420-bhp sedan? Even as an '07 model, the RS4 was hands-down my favorite car of 2005, and I made it a point to tell everybody. I've now been threatened with bodily harm if I so much as mention an R, an S and a 4 in the same sentence, and this story is as much for validating my repressed emotions as it is editorial fodder for this month's issue.
So, what's the big frickin' deal? Start with the whole RS4 concept. This is a musclecar, pure and simple, but one that's finished to a meticulous degree. It is a four-door luxury sedan capable of sprinting to 60 mph as quickly as a Porsche 911 C2. And sitting idle at a traffic light, to the unwashed masses it is completely unrecognizable as such. That, I think, is what I like most.
In fact, I can't think of an Audi I've been more excited to drive, ever. Sure, the RS6 was cool, but it was big and porky, relied on forced induction to make its fireworks, and let's face it, five-speed Tiptronic sucks in an ultra-high-performance platform like this. The new RS4 may not have quite as much knee-room in the back seat, but it is lighter, more nimble, runs a world-class manual shifter in place of an automatic or paddle-shift 'box, and makes (give or take) only 30 hp less than the twin-turbocharged RS4 from the same 4.2 liters of displacement. The RS4 is so capable that lately, in the current absence of an E90-based M3, it's been compared directly with the 500-bhp E60 M5, a car that requires a considerably larger monetary outlay and which technically resides in a different class.
OK, OK, I'll shut up, already. This was supposed to be about the drive, right? Yeah, right, the drive. We are lucky enough to be based in an area that allows ready access to all manner of extraordinary stretches of terrain-that would be Southern California. I could've driven up or down the coast. I could have cruised south to the border, I could have cruised north through wine country, or I could have cruised to any number of gorgeous white sand beaches. All of these would have been just too predictable.
Instead, I packed the car with water, Red Bull, Photographer Simpson and his gear, and we hit the road heading the other direction. Our destination is the Nine Mile Canyon cutoff just outside scenic Pearsonville, California, on the edge of the Mojave Desert, at the base of the southernmost foot of the mighty Sierra Nevada mountains. The trip to Nine Mile from the city is 170 miles of two-lane highway blasting. It isn't incredibly scenic for the first three-quarters of the trip, hence the "blasting" part, but by the time you hit Kramer Junction, where Highways 395 and 58 cross-the high desert proper-things change. The land becomes more mountainous; the sky opens up and clears out. The clear sky will unnerve native L.A. residents, but don't worry; you'll get used to it. That's how it looked before the white man came to this land.
Predictably, the RS4 makes quick work of the arrow-straight northbound 395, and no one even looks at us twice. I may be sick, but going fast and nobody having a clue about it is at least twice as fun as going fast and turning every head.
We make great time, and after a brief stop at a dusty local deli for some food, reach Nine Mile around noon. The sign at the bottom of the hill maintained by the forestry service indicates that Sherman Pass, our second checkpoint, is closed. This is disappointing but not entirely unexpected. I'd been on this road at least three times previously and had to turn around each time for the same reason.
We head up anyway.The drive up the canyon is particularly breathtaking. The road takes you straight up the foothills at a six or seven percent grade; in places, the lines on the road disappear completely, and there's not a whole heck of a lot of runoff in most places. If you get boogered up, as they say in the desert highlands, you fall a long, long way to the bottom.
After an ascent of a couple thousand feet, the road levels, relatively speaking, and begins undulating across the high-elevation plateau known as Kennedy Meadows. The land here is rolling grassland interspersed by evergreen stands and the odd hill or ridge. Not long ago, one of California's rampant summer wildfires scorched portions of the landscape, leaving broad swaths of trees standing starkly black and skeletal. In other places, the vegetation is untouched. There are scattered homes and a handful of local businesses, the most conspicuous of which is known as Grumpy Bear's, a great place to stop if it happens to be open when you happen to drive by. You'd be hard-pressed to stand at one building and hit any other with a rock, or a bullet for that matter. People don't move to Kennedy Meadows to have to deal with other people.
After 20 or so miles, the road crosses the south fork of the Kern River and starts up the mountains again. This is the final leg to Sherman Pass, which at about 9,200 vertical feet is normally shrouded in snow some six to eight months out of the year. Today, though, is our lucky day. Despite the Road Closed sign at the bottom of the hill, all roads are open, including our intended outlet, a winding back mountain road to the small mountain village of Kernville, some 70 miles distant.
Until today, I'd never been on this section of road, so to me it is as pristine as this wilderness must have been when crusty explorers like John Muir first set foot into it. The road becomes extremely narrow and winding, and the quality of the pavement in places makes it evident that this area sees a great deal of cold weather. Nonetheless, the RS4 remains planted and tears through the bends with great aplomb, partly due to its Quattro all-wheel traction, partly because of its Dynamic Ride Control, which regulates oil flow between dampers in a diagonal arrangement to offset squat, dive, and roll in hard turns or under aggressive braking and acceleration. Similar systems were banned from championship rallying because they were so devastatingly effective.
Kernville, Calif., population 1,860, is one of handful of small communities situated around the perimeter of Lake Isabella, a man-made reservoir and popular recreation area at the confluence of the north and south forks of the Kern River. Just outside the town limits, we stop at a small establishment known as the Fairview Market, at the edge of the river, for a short rest. A nice lady named Lin behind the Fairview counter confirms that, yes, we are indeed on our intended route, and we continue, proceeding through Kernville to Highway 178, the main thoroughfare that cuts through the river valley and dumps you back out onto Highway 395 via Walker Pass, elevation 5,250.
We bypass 395 to follow the eastbound 178 for roughly 40 miles before reaching our final checkpoint: the Trona Pinnacles, a series of jagged tufa formations that poke out of the desert floor at the edge of Searles Valley. This is where I grew up, and it's where the real desert begins; the border of Death Valley itself, the iconic swath of land that to many personifies hell on earth, is not 50 miles to the north.
The road out to the Pinnacles is in pretty good shape, but it's not paved and takes you at a perpendicular tangent seven miles off the highway. It's slow-going in a car-trucks are better out here-but well worth it when you finally get there. The scenery is spectacular; in the last 50 years, dozens, if not hundreds, of commercials and feature films have been shot against this otherworldly backdrop. Simpson, who apparently has never been to a real desert before, busies himself shooting the cracked hardpan; gently I remind him there's a car to shoot, too.
It is pitch black by the time we finish; stars shimmer brightly in a chaotic sprawl across the desert sky. Saddle weary but still buzzing with excitement, I ease the Audi down the last mile of dusty road back toward the highway, and "civilization" as the city folk call it. At this point, my parents' house is literally right over the hill, only about 15 miles away. I'm sure Mom has something good cooking on the stove, and I know for a fact Dad's got a cold beer waiting in the kegerator. But, sadly, we cannot stop for the night. It's still the middle of the week, and there are photos to be picked, deadlines to be met.
Simpson and I take solace in the fact that we've still about 160 miles between us and the city, and after all, we're still in an RS4. Pedal down.