A common question that I get is why do I love the Smart Fortwo so much? Car enthusiasts will rightfully point out its less-than-optimal fuel economy and how its small size makes it a good choice for a seemingly dwindling number of Americans. The little Smart Fortwo has always been more than just a car to me. Instead, these cars feel more like the warm embrace of a good friend. They’re forever intertwined with my identity for a number of reasons. A Smart was not just the place where “Mercedes” was born, but where I found a part of myself that I didn’t know existed. Taking a Smart Fortwo off-road changed my life.
This story first takes us back to Halloween 2014. I came out as transgender to what was originally warming support. But it didn’t last long and before I knew it I was losing just about everyone in my life. My best friends tried to force me to be a man at a wedding that was going to take place two years in the future. I couldn’t fathom why it was happening. You’d think that your best friends of all people would be there for you. But they clearly weren’t, and with a heavy heart I decided to end over a decade-long friendship. Later, I would find out that they spread a rumor that I just went “crazy” against them, which probably explains why others in the friend circle never reached out.
Relatives weren’t any better. Something that I will never forget is the sharp pain of hearing a relative tell me that I killed their family member. You also never forget hearing “I can never love you again” coming from someone you care about. For a while, I was alone and had to live with a loving member of Opposite-Lock just to escape the heartbreak and attempts at conversion therapy.
In a still vulnerable state and desperate for something resembling positive feedback I did the most boneheaded thing that I’ve ever done. In 2017, I cosigned for a comically bad subprime business loan pretending to be a mortgage. The damage to my credit was so catastrophic that I’m still recovering from it today. And somehow that wasn’t even the worst thing to happen. I’m not even mentioning toxic relationships or a roommate drawn to a violent felonious lifestyle. I’m talking someone who had a life goal of constructing a makeshift drug lab in my basement and protecting it with an illegal firearm. These events and more brought me to the absolute lowest part of my life. There was not a day that I didn’t cry and that I didn’t fear for my safety.
Now it’s 2018. I was more than three years into my new life and I promised myself that I would rise above what brought me down. I moved out of that horrible house. Instead, I went my own way. I rented my own apartment and treated myself to getting a motorcycle license.
I followed it up with my first motorcycle, a Buell Blast. The little Buell was followed up by an epic vintage Honda Gold Wing, a Suzuki GS850G, and even a Yamaha DT175. Life was turning in the right direction and I was feeling accomplished. The therapist that I had since 2015 concluded that I no longer needed her services.
One thing that I never had was confidence. It was something that I didn’t have before transition and those years in a series of unfortunate events didn’t make anything better. I was a hot mess and more risk-averse than even the most conservative legal departments. And I didn’t know it, but I never really tapped into my true abilities or personality. Many people saw me as the old me, but more or less with a new coat of paint.
Little did I know that it would take one event and one little car to change that.
Sometime that year, reader and Opposite-Lock denizen Shop Teacher posted about taking an old Geo Metro on an adventure. He went on an endurance rally called the Gambler 500. The goal? Make a $500 beater survive 500 miles, much of it off-road. Along the way you’d pick up trash and make new friends.
The concept seemed amazing to me, and I had to participate. As luck would have it, 2018 had two Gambler 500s in Illinois, and fall was coming right around the corner. Shop Teacher, his friend, and I decided to partake in the fall run. But instead of cars, we’d do it riding aboard a trio of cheap scooters. They acquired beat examples of the cult-classic Honda Helix while I found myself a 150cc Chinese clone of a Honda Ruckus.
My little “Chuckus” hadn’t run in four years, but all it took was a new $20 carburetor and a $20 battery to bring it back to life. I speed-tested the little guy and it got up to 55 mph, which was good enough for me.
But the little scoot did have one problem that I couldn’t fix in time for the rally, and it was the fact that it rode on bald tires. The Gambler team that welcomed me in their ranks told me to just bring new tires with me and they’d mount them the night before at camp.
Of course, I should have known that there wasn’t a chance at getting those tires installed. Everyone got sloppy drunk at camp and someone set the tires on fire to try to bead them. That’s about as far as things got. But I’m happy that things went down like that because what happened next would change my life.
The next morning I was faced with the tough reality that if I was going to do this Gambler 500, I would have to do it from my trusty 2012 Smart Fortwo, not from the scooter. I bought the little car new and it has served me so well. There was no way that I could hurt it off-road. I had visions of the poor thing tumbling down hills and getting totaled. But I drove hours from home to do this, so I said screw it, I’ll make it work.
One of the first stops on this rally was an off-road park was The Cliffs Insane Terrain in LaSalle County, Illinois. I had never been to an off-road park before. Hell, I had never been off-road before! And here I was at a park notorious for killing cars.
My team had somewhat scattered, so I had nobody with me. Still, I gave the park’s employee at the gate my money and they pointed me to the trail that I was supposed to go up to start my trek. I tapped my smart’s steering wheel, thanked it for being an awesome car, then put the hammer down.
This trail entrance was unforgiving on its own, being steep with rocky ruts and tall ledges to climb up. I didn’t see the Smart with its low ground clearance making it. But learning in real-time, it hit me that these cars are tiny, with practically no overhangs. So I could just drive around anything that looked too bad. And the steps were actually doable because there wasn’t a front end to scrape.
The little Smart made it through the opening trail with ease, amazing not just the park’s owners but other people at the Gambler, too. I mean, this was a completely stock car looking like the driver had followed a bad Apple Maps direction.
My Fortwo’s tiny size, short wheelbase, and no overhangs proved to be a winning combination at this park. I saw obstacles, calculated what it would take for my little car to get through without damage, then did it. And every time it worked out my mind was blown.
In fairness, The Cliffs had manicured the trails prior to our arrival. This meant that the trails were easier than usual. But that somehow didn’t stop the park from killing countless vehicles. Some Subarus hydrolocked while a Geo Metro lost a control arm and a Buick Century lost an entire rear axle.
Somewhere else, a Mercury Cougar exploded like in the movies. But the little Smart? It couldn’t be stopped.
Deep in the park, an RV was given a full send through a valley and collapsed on the other side. This caused a blockage that required cars to go through a bypass. This bypass was meant for ATVs and wasn’t manicured before the event. A log lodged in the bypass killed that Buick’s axle. But the Smart? Its tiny size meant that I just drove around it. Later in the bypass were two ruts, dug in presumably by Jeeps or trucks giving it full skinny pedal to make it through mud. There was no way the Smart could have made it through the ruts. But as it happened, the hump in the middle was perfect to be straddled by something with a narrow track, like a Smart.
Later, I made it down a rock wall without a single scratch. The park’s owners were baffled as to how, as even lifted Jeeps couldn’t get down without high-siding at least a little.
I didn’t know it, but this was bolstering confidence that I didn’t even know that I had. One single lap of the park had killed about half of the 100-car or so field, but my Smart did so well that I took it on a second and a third lap.
Later that Gambler, I used my Smart’s towing hitch to pull a Ford F-250 around a gas station. The little car was also instrumental in saving a bunch of Gamblers stuck in deep mud in a dark forest. So long as I kept it near redline it didn’t get stuck in mud, and I was able to discover a way out for those stuck people. I was paid for my services in cheap beer.
By Sunday morning I felt like a new person. This event was so outside of my comfort zone that I couldn’t even wrap my head around what I just did. But myself and the little car survived two off-road parks and a huge road trip and neither of us were worse for wear. And to think, the original plan was to do a milder rally on a scooter.
After that rally, I thought that if I could do that then I could do anything that I wanted. My newfound confidence gave me the power to do whatever I put my mind to and by extension, be who I wanted to be. If it was that fun getting out of my shell just to off-road a Smart, then what awaits if I just let myself be who I think I really am? I never expected it, but the Gambler unintentionally taught me to never be afraid to be the person that I wanted to be, not the person that I thought I needed to be.
I would return to the Illinois Gambler again the very next year, where I would finally succeed rallying a scooter on the trip.
Armed with the knowledge that I’m more powerful than I think, I took that little Honda Elite 150D on an off-road adventure, going where few scooters before it have been. The Smart got to go a second time, too, and did just as wonderful as it did the year before. In the end, the Mercedes you know today was truly unleashed. I came out of the other end thinking that the future was more in my hands than I previously thought. The future is what I would make it to be.
Fast-forward to today and here I am, publishing stories that I love to write and that you love to read. I found friends who love me and I love right back. I found the love of my life, and I even have my family back. It’ll be hard to forget my experiences between 2015 and 2017, but now I always look towards the future and for what’s next. And for that, I have to thank one crazy off-road event for cracking that shell.
I go away for a week and all of a sudden you’re over here at the Autopian!? That’s awesome!!!!!