"I can't help you unless you trust me," pleaded the married, sad-eyed, full-lipped, creamy-skinned, Nevada-raised honey of a therapist whom I'd been regaling for the last couple of months with tales of my global travels, women who wouldn't stay, and life in a stay-at-home chemical fog at the edge of the Port of Los Angeles. "We can use our mutual attraction to get to the heart of your abandonment issues."
Red flag. While I'm religious about traffic signals, I have a worrying propensity to chase a proffered crimson muleta in the manner of an Iberian bull stuck full of banderillas. Of course I decided to trust her. A week later, my often-insightful pal Alex was prompted to comment, "Johnson. Don't take this the wrong way, but you got this woman so into you that she crossed the line and had to drop the Nuclear Doctor Bomb on you to get out of it! You should be proud!"
Somewhere between the point her paraprofessional attraction to me became blatantly obvious and the moment she signed up with the 509th Composite Bomb Group, the shrink concurred with my dear deaf DC queer's suggestion that I embrace my inner Nevadan; that I'd been running from it for too many years. My grandparents had moved down to Sacramento from Reno in the 1920s at the behest of Ma Bell, and while we spent a lot of time in and around the Biggest Little City in the World in my younger days, all I'd seen of the Silver State in the last 20 years centered on the gross shimmer of Las Vegas. Which isn't really Nevada.
I'd found myself stuck. No girlfriend. No hot-and-hot-to-trot shrink. Mission of Burma's chestnut That's When I Reach For My Revolver as the earworm of the moment. Some new resolution had to fill the void, as I'm at my worst when lacking a goal. Like Joie Chitwood hurtling headlong into a towering tetrahedron of artillery shells, inspiration struck. I was to become a classic California gentleman; of the soil and city in equal measure. A populist of refined tooth and rough-hewn nail. More immediately, I was to remain resolute in my Nevadan pilgrimage; to revisit the city where high-riding sons of the Silver Kings spawned the world's first gay rodeo. Still, the six-dollar question niggled: What, in this day and age, what does a burgeoning emigré from the yeoman's rank drive on a journey of such import?
Given my newfound penchant for seersucker and pipe tobacco, my obsession with Chez Panisse, and longstanding belief in Chuck Taylors as all-occasion footwear, there was but one answer — an elegant, proper GT car. My eye naturally drifted toward what's certainly the most beautiful production machine to roll through Modena's trident-emblazoned doors since the Ghibli: the Maserati GranTurismo.
To deduce whether this was indeed the conveyance to herald the arrival of an au courant Western archetype, I set off from Sacramento to Reno by way of Dutch Flat; formerly one of the Golden State's richest mining communities, now not much more than a wide spot in the road. In its heyday, Ed Duffy — my great-grandfather's half-sister's husband — ran the train station. Old Ed may or may not have had a penchant for scarlet Chinese ladies and spent a fair amount of time drinking and bullshitting with Samuel Clemens — a writer/raconteur of some note who'd come west from Missouri; a prototypical California gentleman from an era when few of the class were natives of the area. Clemens once observed, "Loyalty to petrified opinions never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul in this world — and never will."
To grant Maserati a chance after the De Tomaso era — a benighted period that saw the breathtaking Tipo 61 Birdcage and the gorgeous Bora give way to the undesirable (a river of Biturbo variants) and the plain-unfortunate (the Chrysler TC) — demands discarding ossified beliefs. Even under Fiat/Ferrari's aegis, the trident marque creaked along until the introduction of the current Quattroporte — a car widely praised for its poise, styling, and luxury; a car nearly equally reviled for Maserati's implementation of the DuoSelect clutchless-manual transmission. When the company unveiled the achingly gorgeous GranTurismo at the 2007 Geneva show with a slushbox, an over-100-large pricetag, and a decidedly low-in-the-pack power/weight ratio, the collective motoring world quite rightly wondered if Maserati had yet again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
By the time I arrived in Reno, I was pretty sure they'd averted such an epic fiasco. In its average, everyday, fully automatic mode, the big GT effortlessly pootles about in traffic. Sightlines (with the exception of the gargantuan A-pillars) are fantastic for such a machine. The blue-faced gauges are easy to read at a glance. The interior's devoid of switchgear that feels imported from lesser cars (of course, any Fiat parts-bin pieces that have wound up in the GT would generally go unnoticed by American motorists). The at-speed handling is superb, allowing the pilot to inhale I-80's rolling sweepers at supercalifragilisticextralegal speeds with utter aplomb and zero drama.
After tooling around town for a while, I checked into the Sands Regency. Not my first choice, but then again, in this soiled, dusty burg, what does a gentleman choose? Luckily, the hotel was filled with chipper girls' volleyball players and their attractive, weary mothers. Not long after check in I felt a small earthquake. This seemingly out-of-place event was followed a few hours later by a 4.7-magnitude shaker with a hypocenter a mere six miles west. Had Reno collapsed? Were the End Times upon us? Prepared for the worst, I hopped in the Maser, cued up Turbonegro's Apocalypse Dudes and motored purposefully out of the garage straight into a gaggle of frightened teenage girls. Rob Halford galloping into a rough-stock event astride a wild boar might have caused more of a slackjawed stir. The beefheart-tinted Maserati's excellent HID lamps illuminated the legs of the bun-hugger-clad Lolitas in full huddled freakout. Some bro-ham yokel puked out the window of a Mazda. While driving. More accurately, while weaving like a loom stuck on frappé. I snapped a photograph.
My quota of vomit and hormones reached for the evening, I drove back to the Sands' garage blaring the decidedly unruly "Rendezvous With Anus." In my defense, filling station/budget-casino magnate Ed Herbst isn't exactly Ian Schrager. Besides, I'd left the Mahler on my iPod, which, in an unfortunate bit of oversight, doesn't interface with the Maserati's otherwise-excellent sound system. And, of course, one would be remiss in failing to pay cheeky, good-natured tribute to the iconoclastic, identity-fucking horseback heroes who'd held their rodeo closing parties at the hotel.
The next morning, I checked off my journey's nominal destination — my Inner Nevadan's Trinity site — a flat, rectilinear edifice of a post office on Vassar Avenue. In 1935, after his wife died, my great-grandfather remarried and disinherited his four children from 36 of the 40 acres of the old Muran ranch. On the lone acre my grandmother inherited stands the post office. Across the street sat a pond where my great-grandfather loved to wile away some time when the fish were biting. At the moment, there's no pond; not even evidence of a pond. In its stead lies a heap of rubble. A desolate locale that'll turn the inside of one's nostrils brown, it's no country for gentlemen; the dusty definition of the lonesome crowded west. Even Joni Mitchell wouldn't mourn the loss of the land to concrete, asphalt and civil servitude. The Muran ranch came from nowhere, remained nowhere, and returned to nowhere; an extended rest stop on the trail of westward migration. On my way out, I dropped a lone postcard in the mail to a woman I'd still marry if only she weren't so damned stubborn. Channeling the spirits of Bill Harrah and Luigi Chinetti, I pointed the GranTurismo toward a ghost town. For all the sticky desert mud I can sling at the land of my ancestors, I admit that the Silver Staters know far more about maintaining a highway than Californians. State Route 341 from 395 to Virginia City happens to be one of the most thrilling roads I've ever driven — perfect paving, regular turnouts for slower traffic, tight switchbacks, and grand, arcing bends pair exquisitely with band-flogging vistas of the peaks to the west and the barren land below. It's just long enough for a good workout. And work the Maserati did, taking the persona of a willing bionic bobbin; meting out thread for a quantity of rapidly-stitched corners not seen since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory's unfortunates gave up Provigil, androstenedione, and espresso. With the sport indicator aglow on the multifunction display between the speedo and tach, the Skyhook adaptive suspension's revised damper mapping firms up the car to the point that it's herky-jerky and darty on city streets, but ridiculously at home on mountain roads.
Pushed hard, the imposing Maser still cossets in the manner a lover's legs wrapped firmly around your back. The sense is much more 3500-pound car with 350 horsepower than of the 4100-pound machine with 405 ponies that it is. Credit Maserati's deft centering of the heavy bits between the wheels — the GT features a 51-percent rear weight bias. While the downshift nanny didn't allow for exceptionally aggressive DIY shenanigans, third gear is immensely tractable, spinning broadcloth from 25 right up to the century mark. Carrying mighty haste up 341, the big 2+2 rarely saw fourth, the exaggerated revs thwonging F-clef Italian tone poems from hillside to crest. Arriving in the bustling Old West town in the midst of a motorcycle rally, I promptly ran into a West Delta girl from my East Bay days not far from the offices of the Territorial Enterprise — often credited as the paper where Sam Clemens adopted his most famous nom de guerre. She also happened to be my first kiss of the new millennium. To be fair, our whiskey-soaked makeout in an Oakland bar on December 31st, 1999 was more Aaron Cometbus than Mark Twain, ending with the exchange, "Oh? You're a Sagittarius? I hate Sagittarians."
"Well, I'm not one much for Virgos, either."
Pleasantries exchanged and sights seen, I cut down through the rather inaccurately named Silver City, a little dust patch that proffered both a Baja Bug and Alfetta GT for sale on the side of the main road. The rough Alfetta had me ruminating a bit more on the dynamic glory of the Maser, as Alfa's 8C Competizione is not only the one current production car in the world more beautiful than the GT, it also happens to share the Maserati's underpinnings. In fact, the 8C's 4.7-liter engine has found its way into the hotter GranTurismo S. I wonder if more, though, will actually be better. While one could ask for more from an automobile, one would have to make a very specialized case; the GT, as it stands, is one of the few perfectly balanced vehicles I've ever driven. No one characteristic outshines the other. On paper, the car sounds like a compromise. In practice, it's note-perfect. The chairs are Italian-firm, yet supremely comfortable. Even the rear seats are surprisingly roomy, although six-footers will find themselves slouching slightly to avoid headliner contact. It gets up to speed and down to a halt in an entirely predictable manner without losing itself in a fog of well-that-was-easy ennui.
The final torture test I'd lined up for the GranTurismo was a doozy: Highway 88, a mountain gartersnake that runs over the Sierra Nevadas south of US 50 via the Kit Carson Pass. In 1844, Carson, John Fremont, and party were looking for a quick winter route to Sacramento. Ignoring the Washoes' warnings of minimal game during the snowy season, the hardy frontiersmen solidiered over the 8650-foot elevation, and though reduced to supping on butchered canine and equine, not a man met his maker. Urging the Maserati over the winding two-lane highway following their slog was a breathtaking cakewalk. The winedark coupe danced its way over the hills, shoulder-checking tight second-gear bends. Keeping the boot in it held the car's very mild understeer at bay, while the traction control kept the car's rear supremely planted — even with the 285-section Pirellis worn and the brake pads honeyglazed from a previous day's hot-lapping Laguna Seca at the mercy of racing driver Derek Hill. I considered Sam's words from 1884. Without having to employ any convoluted justification, I intrinsically understood: A GranTurismo through snow-draped Carson Pass on a springtime Saturday will break the soul of a certain kind of man free.
With the tack-sharp montane glint of the Range of Light behind me, I picked up a favored teenage Sunday road — Highway 49 in Jackson. The ensuing fifteen years have seen the picturesque byway sullied with traffic owing to the massive influx of new residents to the Mother Lode, yet I found time and space to enjoy the more relaxed aspects of the GT by falling in with a couple of guys running moderately hard on Harleys. What's work on a Hog is effortless in the Maserati; the California sun beamed in low through the trees lining the road up to Coloma, where John Marshall found the spark of an epoch in Sutter's millrace and my Ulster grandmother discovered my first tooth.
After a brief respite, the Maser found itself ready to go again as I cut down Salmon Falls Road at Pilot Hill — another teenage favorite — and headed southwest toward Folsom. After a hard day's flog, the car remained willing to run at a moment's notice and the driver relaxed enough to still want to squirt an enthusiastic dose of piss and vinegar down the intake runners. With my favored route across the dam long closed due to terrorist concerns, I took a wrong turn and found myself in the parking lot of my shrink's old office not far from Lake Natoma, where my dad and I launched many a Saturday morning fishing expedition. I smoked in the early-evening heat at the edge of the Valley and considered my response to the stubborn woman when she closed her ears in a panic, lamenting that things would never be the same between us. She was operating on the assumption that I merely wanted to go back in time. I'd pointed out that things had never been static between the two of us in the thirteen years we'd been acquainted and that I didn't expect them to be the way they were.
The way it was, after all, is often highly overrated. Had Sam Clemens succeeded in cobbling together his ill-fated Confederate milita; stuck in that mindset, would he still be regarded as the father of American literature? If a group of drag queens in Reno had bowed to the whims of the Man and given up on their homo-rodeo dreams, would the urban cowboy movement have swept the nation? Branching off is often a perilous Hail Mary, but by casting aside any pretense of participation in the bench racer's arms race, by building an honest Mediterranean vehicle for now gentlemen, the Modenese have succeeded. They've pulled a mission-perfect rewrite of the grand tourer's classical raison d' être — to evoke a sense of infinite possibility. The GranTurismo calls the driver to savor the simple pleasure of going anywhere one pleases. And in doing so, it never bothers to ask for your trust. It doesn't have to.