By Adam Ford
January in Vermont. The wind slides over the top of the Green Mountains, scouring them clean of any new snow, leaving a frozen scalp of hardpack, testing the skill of skiers and making the jobs of the groomers, driving their snowcats through the night, that much harder. The winds may be less in the valleys, but the unceasing wet weather keeps the roads covered in snow and slush, tempered with salt and dirt. Winter in Vermont is not the time to be driving a British sports car that’s older than the number of degrees below zero.
My 1976 Morris Mini sits idle, cold and dim in the garage of my house—the garage that started life as a barn until, in the typical New England way, the house, built in 1875, slowly extended its way back to join with the barn, gentrifying it into a modern garage. But last winter was not a normal winter. The snows were few and far between, the sun cast its low-angle rays on the brown countryside more often than normal, and while the snow enthusiasts sighed in frustration, the owners of summer cars eyed each day with anticipation of motoring.
February 7, 2016: The Mini has never been out this early, essentially the middle of winter, but I arrived home from work and it was in the 50s, sunny, and most importantly, the roads were dry. I pulled open the garage door and, with only a little coaxing, the 998cc Austin “A” engine spun to life. This wasn’t so surprising though, as it had been running around the neighborhood as late as December 12th due to the marvelously mild winter.
I drove down to Shrewsbury and parked in front of the Volunteer Fire Department, then took my dog Seera for a walk along Shunpike Road. When we returned to the car, I took a few pictures to commemorate the day. It was soon after this excursion that the idea of participating in the Moss Motoring Challenge really settled into my head.
March 13, 2016: I had to take a drive down to Peru, Vermont, so I picked off some towns—Peru, Londonderry, and Weston—as well as a shot of the Mini in front of Stratton Mountain Ski Area, which I figured could be a “sign of nature.” I have no motoring partner (other than Seera, who rides in the back), so I have to take all of the shots, leaving no one to pose by the vehicle. I decided to substitute a catalog cover with a sticker of the Moss Motoring Challenge 2016 logo stuck on the rear windows of the car. This may disqualify all of my points, but I wasn’t so much interested in anything that I might win as eager to knock off as many points as I could, prizes be damned. I also decided that I would try to get a full alphabet’s worth of “signs of nature,” rather than the available fifteen spaces.
March 27, 2016: I drove over to the only caboose in my region of Vermont and took some pictures. Then I drove down to the Kingsley Covered Bridge and took some more. The bridge was built in 1836, so considered it to be “someplace old.” I posted the picture of the Mini sitting in the darkness of the covered bridge on the Moss Motoring Challenge Facebook page, thereby getting the five points for online participation.
April 4, 2016: The Facebook posts from other motorists were starting to ramp up and I added a post as well, but it was of the Mini, parked in the garage, as a gentle snow covered the ground outside. More points would have to wait.
April 29, 2016: After a two-week trip down to Texas in my non-British modern car, I got the Mini out and drove the dirt road up to the farm where I pick up my Community Supported Agriculture vegetables. I took a lot of pictures of baby goats (some of which quite enjoyed climbing up on my back and shoulders) and a shot of the Mini in front of the farm’s greenhouse. One more point.
May 18, 2016: New tires! I dropped the Mini off at my local garage and got an oil change, state inspection, and two new Yokohama A008 front tires. The car suddenly got even more fun. Two days later I plotted out a points-gathering route around central Vermont. I picked up some towns (Mt. Holly, Tyson, Killington), some signs of nature (Lake Pauline, Echo Lake, Colton Lake, The Appalachian Trail), the Long Trail Brewery, President Calvin Coolidge State Historical Site, Scenic Route 100A, a clock tower, a golf course, a moose crossing (I upgraded from deer crossing), and three vehicles from other countries—Sweden (a Volvo), Japan (a Toyota), and Canada (a Bombardier snowcat at Okemo Mountain Resort).
May 25, 2016: I zipped over to the town center and picked off a few more things—a cemetery, a historical marker from 1848, and the White Rocks Picnic Area. While driving back and forth from Rutland over the next couple of days I got a slow children sign and a sign with bullet holes. I’d been scanning road signs on every drive hunting for some bullet-riddled one and was frustrated to find that either Vermonters don’t go around shooting signs or the state is pretty prompt about replacing damaged ones. Luckily I spotted one along Route 103 that had the required punctures.
May 28, 2016: I decided to drive south on US-7 to Mount Tabor, Vermont to walk the dog, maybe get some points, and to enjoy a fun drive on a nice day. Route 7 was torn up and grooved in preparation for repaving and the Mini swerved and wobbled all along it. After getting a picture in front of a Green Mountain National Forest sign, I visited the Branch Brook then came back down the hill to Route 7. As I idled at the stop sign, I made the decision that I didn’t want to drive back up the rutted US-7 and so continued across the big road to wind my way on smaller roads back up north. Half a block from the intersection, a car caught my eye. I slammed on the brakes (as much as one can “slam” a tiny set of drum brakes) and cornered hard into a small parking lot in front of a garage. I’d seen one of these cars for sale online a year or two before so I had some vague awareness that one of these things existed in the town of Danby and sure enough, there one was—a DAF 750 from The Netherlands! What a find. Along with the Bombardier, that was two countries that probably a lot of Challenge participants probably would not find. I was gunning for the full ten foreign countries, with maybe more if I could swing it. It was disappointing to learn that there were no extra points for cars after ten, but I went for it anyway. The next day I picked up a Studebaker Avanti as my car from the U.S.A. Someone two blocks from my house owned three of them.
May 31, 2016: I hadn’t been sleeping well and on that morning I found myself wide awake at 4:30 AM. I got up, bundled up, and pointed the Mini eastward. Usually there were pretty good sunrises along a straight stretch of Route 103 in Mt. Holly, but it was a clear morning and it didn’t look like it was going to be any sort of “epic” sunrise. I turned off the main road and climbed some hills to a spot by a farm field, where I parked and waited for the sun to peek over the horizon. I took a lot of pictures, although it wasn’t very awe-inspiring.
June 17, 2016: I had been invited to a party in Sudbury, Massachusetts, so I set off in the Mini through the back roads of New Hampshire, picking up some points including a barber shop with a barber pole, two towns (Jaffley, NH and Groton, MA), and an Italian Fiat 500. After an overnight stay, I wound back up to Vermont through Massachusetts, notching some more towns (Northfield, Erving, Chesterfield, Hinsdale, Bellows Falls), some signs of nature (Quinebaug Water Trail, Pisgah State Park), a bell tower, a military truck, and a classic VW Beetle. I also passed a flea market on this trip, but couldn’t remember if that was something to be found or not. It was, but I didn’t have the printed Challenge sheet with me so I missed the photo opportunity.
June 30, 2016: I had picked up a few more signs of nature (Healdville Trail, Okemo State Forest, Buttermilk Falls, Keewaydin Trail, Ice Beds Trail) and a Korean Kia in the preceding week. Today I set off for Providence, Rhode Island for the US Open Ultimate Frisbee Tournament that weekend. I passed a tattoo parlor on the way down, then stopped at my friend Patrick’s house in Massachusetts, where he rolled out a slew of international vehicles to pose next to my car—two motorcycles from China and Austria and two scooters from Taiwan and India. That put me up to twelve countries, but I still had my eye on more. Patrick and I then tooled around in my Mini, filming our conversation about nothing.
I got a picture of my Mini at the US Open sporting event that weekend, then motored around Providence picking up a few more points: drawbridge, sailboat, Brown University, RISD Art Museum, and statue of Roger Williams. I then returned to Patrick’s house and we filmed part two of our drive, during which we stopped by a helicopter, visited the town of Attleboro, and chased down an ice cream truck. These sessions became a video that I put together called “People Who Are NOT Comedians In A Car Doing Something Other Than Getting Coffee,” available on YouTube.
July 12, 2016: It was a gorgeous summer day and I plotted out a route up to Lake Champlain to the closest lighthouse to my house. As well as those points, I passed by two historic markers (1777 and 1926), a silo, and the town of Orwell. The Mini had been running a bit hot but managed the trip. Two days later, however, things went south. I had picked up some more points (Roaring, Fuller, and Jewel brooks, an ambulance, and the Vermont State Fair) and I’d stopped by an old falling-down house which maybe wasn’t haunted, but sure looked like it could be. It was too overgrown to get a good picture but I tried anyway, stopping for just a minute on the side of the road. When I started the car again, it suddenly had a loud clicking noise as the engine turned over and lost a whole lot of power. I nursed it the nine or so miles back home, watching the temperature gauge climb steadily toward the red.
The next morning, I eased the Mini fifteen mostly-downhill miles to a mechanic. The verdict? A blown head gasket. He didn’t feel comfortable working on a British engine, so I hauled the Mini down to Sports Car Services in Keene, New Hampshire. One week and a large check later, I set out for a test run with the newly re-gasketed engine. I headed north to the only 2000s-era historic marker in the state of Vermont, located in the town of Barnard. On the way back I swung through Quechee, Vermont, stopping at the Quechee Gorge, a geologic point of interest, then passed a Harley Owners Group rally in Ludlow.
August 30, 2016. Summer was winding down. I’d been down in Pennsylvania for a month, the Mini resting in its garage in Vermont. I needed to knock off some more points. I took a trip to Fair Haven, Vermont, stopping by Lake Nineveh, the Tinmouth Channel, the D&H Rail Trail, and Devil’s Bowl motor speedway. I was kicking myself for not paying attention to the odometer and missed 50,000 kilometers by 6 kilometers!
September 3, 2016: A second trip up to Quechee, this time to find a hot air balloon. The balloons started inflating at dawn, so I had to get up early to make it up there. As I rolled along Route 103 in Mt. Holly, a gorgeous pre-sunrise presented itself in front of me. So long, old sunrise pic, hello, better one! I got the balloon picture, then continued north to the town of Union Village, stopping at a farm stand along the way.
September 8, 2016: I had a doctor’s appointment in Brattleboro, one of two places in Vermont that had a theater marquee. I passed a taxidermist on the way down (my fourth attempt at locating a taxidermist!) and when I got to Brattleboro, jumped out of the car as I was stopped at a red light and snapped a pic. After the appointment, I dropped down into Massachusetts (passing through Vernon, Vermont), to a historic marker from 1675.
After that last trip, the points-gathering ground to a halt. I was gone on a trip to the southwest for a month and by the time I got back at the end of October, the fall foliage season was over, the weather was raw, and it looked unlikey that the Mini would be back out for any serious travels. I had hoped to pick up a French car (I had a friend a couple hours away who routinely worked on Bugattis) and thought that I might get lucky on Halloween, finding a haunted house and/or a costume party. But October 31st was cold and rainy, so the Moss Motoring Challenge 2016, for me, had come to an end. The tail end of the alphabet proved hard to get, both in towns and signs of nature (the closest “Z” town to me is just west of Pittsburgh), and I only netted five states and no provinces. I had hoped to find some “moving targets” at a Hemmings Drive-In in July, but the unfortunate blowing of the head gasket quashed that trip, so I found no hot rod Lincoln, little duece coupe, pink Cadillac, or low rider. Seriously, how many low riders are there in all of New England? The missed destinations were costume party, haunted house, fortune teller (Google Maps listed one fairly near me, but I couldn’t find it), and kid’s lemonade stand. Lemonade stands are pretty much a suburban thing and Vermont has no suburbs.
So now it’s November, winter is pushing itself back into the Green Mountains, we’ve already had our first snowfall, and the Mini is in the garage. It’s been out for a couple of spins on the local roads, just to shake off the dust, but for now it’s parked, waiting to see what the 2017 driving season has in store. Bring on spring!
Adam Ford is a writer, freelance graphic designer, and snowboard instructor living in East Wallingford, Vermont with his dog Seera, who is nearing the end of her life and appreciates the very low floorpan height of the Morris Mini which makes jumping into the car still possible. Adam plays ultimate Frisbee and dabbles in photography. You can find his children’s books at amazon.com/author/adambford (the book Big Cat has a cameo of both Seera and the Mini). You can find his photographs at p-mo.com.