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The joy of not breaking down: Recapping the 2020 Retreat from Moscow Lemons Rally

Published in blog.hemmings.com


Cell phone service had gone from spotty to non-existent several miles back up the dirt road. Despite the Lemons Rally route book’s assurances that the check point wasn’t far off, the deeper into the remote North Carolina valley the teams went, the more often Deliverance jokes were nervously told. Finally, rounding yet one more blind corner, the Colletsville Mug House came into view, nestled on the banks of the Johns River. More of a vacation shack with an adjacent travel trailer sporting a semi-permanent looking awning, the Mug House is covered with thousands of coffee mugs. Sides, window trim, eaves, support beams, trusses, fence slats and posts, everywhere but the roof. All types, colors, decades of manufacture.

A local resident slows down when she sees the assemblage of ratty cars parked out front and costumed passengers inspecting the mugs. We are informed that it being January, no one is home, as the owner won’t take up residence at the Mug House until warmer weather reaches the Johns River valley in late spring. We take her word as the final authority on the topic after she informs us that her family has lived in this valley for 250 years, and, knowing everyone in the valley going back many generations, there isn’t a whole lot that goes on here that escapes her notice. She laughingly assures us this is the first time in those 250 years anyone dressed up as Cookie Monster or a giant lemon has driven similarly themed car this far into remote North Carolina to take a selfie of themselves at the coffee mug covered house.


The photos are not about clicks or likes. None of the rally participants have hundreds of thousands of followers on the facetweetinstatubes. They are posting hashtagged photos and videos for the enjoyment of their fellow rally teams and a hardcore audience of two, Eric Rood and I, the idiots in charge of this traveling side show. At the end of a long day, we settle down in a hotel lobby and laugh our asses off as we sort through the check point hashtags, assigning points to the teams in a spreadsheet that will eventually designate a “winner” based on the accumulated total. Between fits of laughter and pauses to reflect on the amazing sights and experiences on the day’s journey, we take the task seriously as we can.

While a selfie of a man dressed in an accurate replica of the driving suit worn by John C. Riley in the movie Talladega Nights in front of the Ballplay, Tennessee, Ruritan Club sign is funny, some teams are out to gather as many points in the most amusing way possible. Some couldn’t care less about the points and are just having a ball playing along with the other teams.

Thus has been the Retreat from Moscow Lemons Rally for the past two days and 700 miles.  We are only halfway to our destination at Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds, Alabama. Still to come are an overnight stop at the train station hotel in Chattanooga, Tennessee, some of the finest driving roads in the country, and nearly assured mechanical problems.  Behind us are the rally’s first checkpoint at Moscow, Maryland, the beautiful but snowy mountain roads of West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest and the third highest bridge in the country spanning the New River Gorge. Not to mention a failed water pump on the 1989 Dodge Grand Caravan painted to look, loosely, like the TV show A-Team van, a faulty electrical inverter that powered the chandeliers mounted on the hood of an Escape from New York themed Cadillac and an axle that tried to escape from a 1968 Ford Station Wagon. These are not the sorts of experiences one has on other types of automotive rallies.

There are time/distance, sports car, muscle car, exotic/supercar and luxury rallies. The joy of participating in those rallies is congratulating yourself for precision driving or overt demonstrations of speed, hooliganism or social status. The joy of participation in a Lemons Rally is derived from actually making it to the next check point in your rusty, mechanically-questionable car. There are points scored and a tally kept, but there is little emphasis put on “winning” and more emphasis put on enjoying. Points are assigned based on how unsuitable the car is for the task at hand, in this case an approximately 1,400 mile road trip down the spine of the Appalachian, Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains. Even more points are assigned for costumes and themes. But the most points are scored for having and helping others have fun. No one really cares if you stopped at the most check points in a day, but if your team shows up in Hot Dog costumes, fires up the BBQ bolted to the trunk lid of your 1984 Mercedes 300CD “Turbo Bratwurst Benz” and serves a tasty lunch of grilled bratwurst, sauerkraut and potato salad to everyone? You get major points from the organizers, and more importantly you make friends with your fellow rally participants.

There is an awards ceremony at the end of it all and the largest cheers are given not to the winners based on points, but to the recipients of trophies with names such as, “Random Acts of Stupidity,” “Heroic Fix,” and “Dishonorable Mention.” This iteration of the rally saw one team rewarded with a free entry into the next Lemons Rally and the loudest cheer of all for the “Random Act of Awesome.” But that is days and many miles away. Presently the cacophonous noise comes not from a crowd, or a leaking exhaust manifold, but rather from a large room full of flashing pinball machines.

The rally had checked in to a posh hotel in Ashland, North Carolina, and then gathered for the evening at the nearby Pinball Museum when the call came in. It was the hotel valet calling the couple dressed as Sesame Street characters to tell them their car wouldn’t start. This was a problem because the car in question was a somewhat battle-worn 1996 Buick Roadmaster station wagon that was taking up a lot of space in the small entry way of the nicest hotel in town. Despite the loud sounds coming from the pinball machines, word of the Buick’s mechanical woes spread quickly among the rally participants, and within minutes a dozen or so were headed back to the hotel to fix the stationary station wagon. The diagnosis of a failed starter was quickly determined. In short order an auto parts chain store replacement was sourced and the repair tackled in the middle of the swanky hotel parking lot. A convivial atmosphere formed among the repair crew and spectators by the sharing some stories from the day’s journey and malted beverages for all involved. Automotive repairs are often aided by some lubrication, and about 12 oz. later the Buick, repair crew, and spectators roared to life when the somewhat bewildered hotel valet turned the key and confirmed the repair was done correctly. This event earned the Roadmaster team the “Heroic Fix” trophy and a story the valet will tell for years to come.

Photos and video of the repair team, the failed starter and bewildered valet were shared for all those that did not attend the late-night entryway repair session. The next morning, as teams checked in to Instagram for the previous day’s points totals and frivolity, the Caprice resurrection story spread quickly among the Lemons Rally faithful. Using Instagram this way also helps Eric and I keep track of the Lemons Rally congregation on their route. When cell service allows, we check in to see which teams have found their way to certain check points. We can also see who has broken down and call teams that might be nearby to render assistance. After seeing when teams had made it to the Museum of the American House Cat check point, worth 20 rally points and countless laughs, we knew approximately how long it would be before the mid-day drivers meeting at the top of the infamous Tail of the Dragon.

World renowned for its 318 turns in 11 miles of US 129 in the hills on the North Carolina and Tennessee border, the tight twisty road has claimed its share of broken car and motorcycle parts. Cell coverage is non-existent. Medical help is hours away. Drivers of well maintained, modern sports cars take caution. Official drivers’ meetings are rare on a Lemons Rally, but the stretch of road in front of the decades old suspension and brake component caravan warranted a few words of caution. Fortunately, winter is the off season at The Dragon and the only traffic encountered was a roadside maintenance crew, bewildered by the squealing brakes and scraping bumpers. As if the Museum of the American House Cat wasn’t enough, this was the highlight of the day and teams stopped at a scenic overlook to congratulate each other for surviving, to swap stories of braking system concerns, and consult the route book for the next adventure.

The Lemons Rally route book is not a holy tome, but rather a loose suggestion for good roads and interesting stops along the way. Teams are encouraged to seek their own path and find new experiences on whatever road they choose. Points and kudos are awarded for finding something spectacular or peculiar not canonized in the route book. One team, 2KanesTrucking, driving a jobsite-weary 1993 Ford F150, took this to heart. They made a completely off-book stop to check up on a seemingly stray hound wandering on the roadside near Tellico Planes, Tennessee. After checking in at homes in the area and confirming that the friendly fellow was indeed a stray, they took him to the nearest pet store for a bath and to see if he possessed an ID microchip. The bath results were positive and the chip test negative, so they adopted him on the spot.

The next day teams assembled at the final check point, the pits at Barber Motorsports Park, the site of a concurrent 24Hours of Lemons race, tales of the road and wayward hounds were swapped along with food and beverage served from trunk mounted grills and coolers. Word circulated that only one vehicle, a Travels with Charley themed 1968 Chevy C20/Camper combo, was unable to make the destination under its own power. Travels with Charley is a travelogue a dying John Steinbeck wrote when he and his dog set out in a similar truck and camper to discover America. What this team discovered is that a 52-year-old transmission will not stand the test of time as well as Steinbeck’s tale and, unlike the author, died along the way. They checked in to let everyone know their arrival would be delayed and to start the awards festivities without them. When the last roadworthy vehicle–a 1953 GMC truck with the original drivetrain–pulled into the pits, the celebration began in earnest.

 

While generally regarded as the least important prize, the winner on rally points had garnered their fair share of points not via check points. The team of three had taken turns driving the 1968 Ford Station Wagon nonstop from their native Louisiana to the rally start near Moscow, Maryland. After grabbing a few hours sleep in the car, they set out on the rally only to have their Ford’s differential spit out an axle high in the West Virginia mountains. A passing local transported the broken axle and team members to a nearby muffler shop where a welded repair was offered free of charge. The repair held well enough for them to continue to make poor life decisions and gather off-route book points further down the road, the worst decision being riding a dumpster dive-sourced children’s bike through a few turns on a steep downhill section of the Tail of the Dragon. Citing safety concerns, we could not officially offer any rally points for this action, but off the books it made the Uncle Rico’s LLC team a rally legend and a deserving recipient of a Lemons Rally trophy. The whole of the rally cheered in agreement.

The awards proceeded up the scale in importance from rally points earned, to special recognition for fun had, and spread along the way until finally the undisputed winners were cheered in unanimous voice. Team 2Kanes Trucking secured the admiration of all involved, a free entry into the next Lemons Rally, and the created-on-the-spot “Random Act of Awesome” award with the adoption of the newly christened “Scout,” a red basset hound mix from the wilds of Tennessee. Brothers Tim and Mike Kane had added only one furry member to their family and had helped make what had begun four days earlier as a group of strangers in awful cars and stranger costumes a loose knit family on the road. That’s something other automotive rallies don’t offer, no matter the price, type of cars driven, or destination.

Random Act of Awesome – 2Kanes Trucking (Ford F150)

Adopting a stray hound from the Tennessee roadside proved Tim and Mike Kane had the biggest hearts on the rally. Everyone agreed and honored them as the top award winner. But the real winner was “Scout,” the red basset mix, as he won a loving home and family.

Dishonorable Mention – Scrapyard Refugees (Smart ForTwo)
These Ontario natives ran the entire 2019 Retreat From Moscow in a Chrysler LeBaron turned into a Planes, Trains, and Automobiles replica. This year, they had heat but no room when they scored a Smart ForTwo with something like 400,000 kilometers on the clock. We aren’t sure about the metric system, but that might as well be four million miles. They drove it from Ontario to the rally start, suffered through cramped quarters and bad navigating, and made lots of fans along the way.

Dishonorable Mention – Jimmy Six (1953 GMC Truck)
This truck has been in one team member’s family since the Eisenhower Administration. It’s one of the oldest vehicles we’ve ever had on a rally and it acted the part. The duo in the old hauler spent time at almost every stop adjusting the clutch, tinkering with the fuel pump, or just begging old straight-six GMC to keep ticking. It did and the team spent an extra day at Barber fixing their broken fan and bad water-pump gasket. All they had to do then was get home to New Jersey in a day.

Dishonorable Mention – Turbo Bratwurst Benz (1984 Mercedes-Benz 300CD)
We actually like this car a lot. These diesel Mercedes coupes still are lookers, especially in this pale green paint. The car ran fine and hauled three full-grown dudes without major issue. More importantly, they busted out a grill at Deal’s Gap and fed people bratwurst. Then, they took the grill—still mounted to the trunk—down The Dragon.

Dishonorable Mention – The B-Teem (1995 Dodge Grand Caravan)
This team’s troubles were explained in talking to them by understanding they are “Mitsubishi enthusiasts.” You’d think they wouldn’t have been surprised when the water pump on their Grand Caravan’s Mitsubishi-sourced 3.0L V-6 crapped out on them on Route 250 in Virginia. They managed to get it into a town, but the nearest replacement was a town away with no taxi or car rental service available. The clerk tossed them the keys to his Hyundai, they fetched a new pump, snapped two bolts, and then held the whole thing together with uncured RTV and prayers to the Diamond-Star gods.

Heroic Fix – Monster Foodies (1996 Buick Roadmaster)
“The valet can’t get your car to start” is not a common phone call. But when the Lemons Rally drops into a swanky (and mostly empty) downtown Ashville hotel, the valet get a night of entertainment. In this case, the Monster Foodies swapped out a new starter on their Roadmaster in the valet stand. They got some help from the Men In Black LTD crew and then had the valet do the honors of its first start. It’s worth mentioning that the Monster Foodies crew regularly were found helping other teams along the way and being Generally Awesome Rally Participants (GARPs).

Random Acts of Stupidity – Stattosphere Motorsports (1984 Ford LTD)


Where to even start. These veteran Rally siblings accidentally won their LTD at a sheriff’s auction, then decided to take the heap roadtrippin’. They made a credible Men In Black LTD replica, complete with the trunk full of Sci-fi weapons and stayed in their suits all weekend. They spent the entire rally simply making sure they and everyone within earshot was having a good time. Not to mention, they helped swap the starter in the Roadmaster and then left the 24-year-old General Motors grime on their suits for the rally’s last two days.

Organizer’s Choice – Escape from Buffalo (1986 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham)
These dudes showed up unannounced with a late registration because they didn’t want to ruin their surprise. And damn, was it awesome. They had the Escape From New York costumes, they had functioning chandeliers on the front fenders with extremely sketchy inverter wiring, and they had two functioning gears left in their transmission when got to Alabama. Simply put, this was one of the most spectacular things we’ve ever seen in Lemons Rally.

Overall Winners on Points – Uncle Rico’s LLC (1968 Ford Country Wagon)
These three Louisiana natives arrived in Cumberland a couple hours before the rally’s start. They slept in the parking lot for a few minutes, then headed out on the route. Along the way, they suffered a serious differential failure, which was fixed in a way so fortuitous it’s almost completely laughable. They then dumpster-dived a kid’s bike, which a team member rode down a few turns of The Dragon (empty for winter) until common sense overtook him (at last).

Second Place on Points – Shake ‘N’ Bake (1993 Chevrolet Caprice Wagon)
We saw this married couple last year in the same car when it was its original blue color with bungee cords holding the door closed. This year, they returned with a proper Talladega Nights theme. The couple stayed in character as Ricky Bobby and Cal Naughton, Jr., all weekend. When traveling through the South, that got them countless thumbs up and photo ops…until they got kicked out of Applebee’s, naturally.

Third Place on Points – Team Sourpuss (1995 Toyota Previa)
Lemons minces no words here: The Previa is one of the greatest cars of the last 30 years. Team Sourpuss—who also previously ran the rallies in a General Motors B-Body wagon—scored this Previa from the Salvation Army. They had rejected it as a donation, but these guys know a good Lemons when they see it. With 270,000 miles and counting on the clock, they hit every checkpoint while dressed as Lemons and endured a frightening number of times they were asked the question, “Why are you dressed like a banana?”