The plan for the day was simple. My brother Josh and I would take the extraordinary opportunity of being loaned a Dodge Viper and turn it into an epic driving day trip. We would leave our small office in central New Hampshire on an early September morning and barnstorm north towards the White Mountains. During our mission we’d hit two key attractions well known to the northeast motorist; the Kancamagus Highway and the Mt. Washington auto road.
First fully opened in 1959, the Kancamagus Highway is a 34.5 mile long scenic byway that travels through the heart of the New Hampshire White Mountains. The road was started in the late 1930’s as a connector between Lincoln and Conway, New Hampshire. World War II prevented construction from moving as quickly as planned, leaving the highway as two unconnected roads with only a few miles between them from 1942 to 1959. Surrounded by protected forest, jaw dropping views, and sometimes awe-inspiring foliage, the “Kanc” plays host to hundreds of thousands of tourists trying to get a peak of fall colors every year. A few weeks past its 50th Anniversary we wanted to taste the byway for another reason; it’s an amazing drive perfect for a sports car.
While the exact number of twists and hair-pin turns is undocumented, the namesake of the highway does give an indication of what it’s like to drive. The highway’s name comes from Chief Kancamagus of the Sagamore Indian Tribe and means “The Fearless One.” At its highest point, the Kancamagus climbs to just under 3,000ft with lots of altitude change up and down along the entire route. We figured if driving the road in a family sedan was fun (like the last time we’d traversed the road) then driving it in a 600-horsepower exotic car should be earth shattering. Even better, the 45 minute jaunt through the middle of the forest was only the route to our next and final destination; driving to the top of the highest mountain in the Northeast.
Until 1996, Mt. Washington held the record for the fastest wind-speed ever recorded on the face of the Earth, 231mph. The top third is literally void of trees and other recognizable vegetation. The idea that someone would be crazy enough build a road to the summit of this mile plus high rock pile is pretty intense. Thankfully for us, someone was.
In 1861 the Mt. Washington Autoroad was opened for business. Climbing 4,618ft along a road barely wide enough to fit two cars in some places, you can indeed drive right up to the summit and home to the worst weather in the world. Of course, it’s all for a price. A car with two people would cost us $31. Despite the record bad weather, our September day was warmer than average. We expected to see 50 degrees, lots of sun and because it was the middle of the week, very few other people. With clear skies and an altitude of 6,288ft at the summit we suspected the views along the auto road in a Dodge Viper would make for some great photos.
Just past seven in the morning, as we drove out of our empty office parking lot and through Dunkin Donuts, it started to set in that we had a long day ahead of us. The trip to the beginning of the Kancamagus Highway was going to take two hours. The base of the Mt. Washington auto road was another hour and a half beyond that. Then we’d just be at the start of the 8-mile drive up to the summit, during which we’d be jumping out and shooting every angle of the Viper as we ascended the mountain. All said and done, we’d be driving for over 6 hours just to get there and back, not counting the laps up and down the auto road to get the best shots. The added pain would be worth it, especially considering the unique experience of literally driving up the side of a mountain.
Driving an “exotic car” sounds great on paper but sometimes comes with considerable drawbacks. First, the Viper, which was last redesigned in 2003, still had almost zero interior space. Therefore all of our equipment, bags, cameras, cleaning equipment, and even my wallet had to be stuffed into the small but still usable trunk. Not that we were complaining. Second, because we were driving the car of our dreams and a red one at that, law enforcement had a keen eye in our direction. For all the taunting that came from the 8.4L big-block V-10 to drive irresponsibly fast, numerous stare-downs from local and state police kept our eyes on the speedometer. The attention the Viper drew kept us on guard and under a microscope at all times.
Pulling off Interstate 93 in Lincoln, New Hampshire at the beginning of the Kancamagus, Josh and decided we could use a break to walk around and get some food. Pulling into the first and only fast food joint we could find we jumped out and grabbed our wallets from the trunk. Since we’d only be a few minutes we left the top down and strolled inside.
While inside we curiously watched as folks steadily streamed off the main road to come and take a look at the car. Some drove slowly by, some people even walked up to and around it, while a few folks took pictures with their phones. Half-way walking back to the Dodge it really sunk in that the $97k price tag, above all else, bought you attention and lots of it. As we approached the Viper I reached into my pockets to find the keys. Squirming around I only found my wallet. Josh looked at me saying only, “I don’t have them, I thought you had them.” We furiously searched our jackets and pockets to no avail; the keys had gone missing. Our epic day just came to an epic halt.
After a couple minutes of hashing things out, re-tracing our steps, and racing hearts we determined the key must be in the trunk. I clearly remembered it in my hands before getting my wallet out of the trunk but not after. Well, not so bad we thought, “Let’s just pop the trunk.” With any other car, this story would end right here. A quick push of a trunk release button in the cabin, the trunk would pop open, and we’d be saved. Easy, right? Not exactly. Drawback number three of driving a Dodge Viper; it does not have an inside trunk release. I’m not sure if it was for cost-savings, or weight savings, or just for the hell of it, but some engineer inside Chrysler decided that not offering a manual trunk release button was a good idea. Scores of Viper owners, and now us, knew first hand that was a very bad decision.
Being from the generation that can’t think for ourselves, my first inclination was to whip out my Blackberry and search for a solution. Josh and I figured there had to be a way to break into or release the Viper’s trunk without doing any damage. Wrong. After 15 mintues on Google, I found only two useful bits of information. First, we were not the first people to lock a Viper’s key in its trunk. Secondly, we found out that Chrysler fixed the problem and added a remote trunk release in the Viper for the 2009 model year. Unfortunately, we were driving a 2008. To add insult, I found another journalist who had done the same bone-headed move as I. He had to have his car towed away. We were over 100 miles from home in northern New Hampshire. Great.
Step two: call for help. Again using my Blackberry I called the company that delivered the Viper to us and asked if there was a spare set of keys. Good news; yes there was a spare set. Bad news; that spare set was 300 miles away in Boston. Even worse news; it might take them over 6 hours to get to us if they had to. We discussed other options but always came back to either 1) damaging the car or 2) getting a key. Since #1 was not an option we needed a key.
At that moment I remembered my trusty AAA membership. I had never really needed to use it before today but this seemed like a good way to put it to the test. During the whole panic folks continued to come and go, walking up and snapping pictures of the “awesome” Dodge Viper. After a few minutes giving information on the phone AAA told us to expect a call from a locksmith within an hour. “Yeah, real awesome”, I thought as we moseyed over to an outside bench and sat down for a long wait.
As we waited our dreams of carving up the Kancamagus and the Mt Washington auto road started to look doubtful. At this point I was so depressed I could only laugh about it. Hours of preparation, hours of lost sleep, and hours of dreadfully slow interstate driving (for a Viper), would only leave us just outside the door to automobile heaven and able to go no further. Just when the day was looking all but lost a locksmith called and confirmed he could indeed get into the car. The only hitch was he would need two hours to get to our location. At the very same moment we were encouraged that we could save the day we needed to waste even more time. Zero to sixty may only take 3.7 seconds, but just getting the keys out of the trunk was going to take much longer.
Josh had pointed out a mini-golf course across the street as we pulled into the burger joint over an hour prior. We vaguely remembered playing the course as children nearly twenty years ago but figured it must have changed since then. With the only other option for entertainment shaping up as sitting on the bench, we decided to play “Hobo Hills Adventure Golf”. Since the course was in view of the Viper the entire time we put on a smile, walked across the street and grabbed some putters. Nothing cheers up your day like hitting a golf ball lightly through fake caves and waterfalls. Well, that and driving the equivalent of a shot-gun on wheels.
Three long hours after we first realized the keys had been sealed in the trunk, our locksmith finally arrived. Impressively he called Chrysler and got the key pattern for our car on the spot. Only a few minutes after pulling into the parking lot he handed me a new door key he had just cut in the back of his van. I nervously walked to the rear of the Viper and fiddled with the newly cut key. What if it didn’t work? What if the real key wasn’t in the trunk after all? I fumbled for a second, finally twisting the key to a satisfying click of the lock un-latching. The trunk swung open and the engine keys came into view sitting neatly next to my backpack. The spare may have cost us $90, but it saved the day. It was already deep into the afternoon but we were determined to press on with our plan. We thanked the locksmith as quickly as we could and burned rubber out of the parking lot.
Barreling down the road we passed through the official “entrance” to the highway almost without noticing. No time to stop for a photo, in-fact no time for photos on the Kancamagus at all. Just enough time to enjoy the twists and turns that came and were devoured with ease as we pounded towards the auto road. The Viper is famous for its grunt but let me assure you it also can carve up a mean turn or two. Without traction or stability control however, you just have to be careful how you do it.
The 3-hour key-in-trunk fiasco was the farthest thing from our minds as we started up the auto road just before 4pm. We spent hours driving up and down from the summit, shooting photos all along the way as the sun set below the worn peaks of the White Mountains. “Heaven on Earth” didn’t do the spectacular views justice; it was more like “Heaven above earth.”
Heading the opposite direction on the Kancamagus as the sun dropped below the horizon for the final time that day, we enjoyed the cool breeze of the late summer’s evening blowing through our hair. We were behind the wheel of a car that made grown men giggle just by looking at it and on a road seemingly made just for us. From the depths of embarrassment to the heights of driving on top of cloud nine; the day couldn’t have ended up any better.