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During one of his long road trips — this one totaling about 4,500 miles — Ross Robbins came to a gift shop with a plaque quoting Mark Twain.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So, throw off the bowlines! Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover!”

This is how Robbins, 77, has lived his later years, from his Colorado Springs home embarking on far-flung voyages.

He goes not by sea but by land, not by ship but by four wheels, by a vessel that he proudly describes as “very basic, without any modern stuff. No air conditioning or cruise control, no GPS or iTunes.”

His 1965 Lotus Elan has no roof. Two seats fit in the body, 12 feet long, 5 feet wide. The British classic weighs about 1,400 pounds. “Pretty dinky,” Robbins calls it — but swift and mighty, capable of far reaches.

This month, the Lotus is bound for its farthest yet.

Robbins has planned an odyssey of 11,500-plus miles, more than double his last greatest mileage from 2018, about 5,500 miles touring the opposite coast.

“They all blur together,” Robbins says of his cross-country journeys.

This one promises to be unlike any other.

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“Pretty dinky,” Ross Robbins says of his 1965 Lotus Elan — but it is also swift and mighty.

Robbins consulted Google and an atlas to pinpoint what he determined to be the most extreme corners of the contiguous United States accessible by public road: Cape Flattery, Wash., to the northwest; near Madawaska, Maine, to the northeast; Card Sound Road in southeast Florida; and Jalama Beach County Park in southwest California.

Robbins has also charted stops to the nation’s highest town (Colorado’s Alma at 10,361 feet above sea level) and lowest town (Furnace Creek, Calif., at 190 feet below). And he has marked geographic centers of the country: Belle Fourche, S.D., and Lebanon, Kan.

As every plan made before, Robbins has mapped backroads, away from major interstates. In the little Lotus, “if you get beside an 18-wheel transport truck, it’s really intimidating,” he says.

Besides, those busy highways are no way to see America, he knows. As he has written in a book about his travels: “The beauty and charm of the USA is not found on the interstates ... While one can make time there, one can rarely make a memory there.”

And Robbins indeed intends to make memories. Memories to last the rest of his life. He intends to take his time.

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Ross Robbins, 77, who refers to himself as a Tripoholic, cruises in his 1965 Lotus Elan on Gold Camp Road in Colorado Springs on Friday, April 2, 2021. Robbins leaves this month on the biggest cross country trip of his life. He will journey in his British classic to the four corners of the continental U.S., plus reach the highest and lowest towns in the country. He estimates to spend five or six weeks on the road, driving over 11,500 miles. (Chancey Bush/ The Gazette)

The Lotus can sustain 65 mph comfortably, he says. “But my plan is based on seven hours a day, 50 mph on average. That’s 350 miles a day. That should give me time to stop and smell the roses a little bit.”

Robbins estimates he’ll be gone five or six weeks. His past road trips have extended two or three weeks.

“Are you nuts?” his wife, Ann, asked when he first ran the plan by her.

Of course, she knew the answer (yes). Knew Lotus aficionados to be true to the acronym of the small Lotus Colorado fan club (LoCo).

But Ann also knows her husband. Knows the deep desire that he explained in writing once:

“There is nothing so liberating yet useless as a road trip. A road trip is one with no purpose other than the going.”

And if Robbins learned one thing in 2020, it’s that life should not be lived stationary.

The pandemic kept him in, but now he’s fully vaccinated. The Lotus has new fluids and tires. “It’s just gonna go,” Robbins says.

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Ross Robbins and his classic Lotus car stop next to the Mississippi River during one of his road trips. 

Go as it has for 74,559 miles. He expects there will be problems on the road. There always is. One story comes from the Nevada desert, where he managed to replace a defunct timing belt with a bungee cord, until locating a replacement from a washing machine in a little nowhere town.

There are many stories like that. Stories of a sudden shudder, a sudden burst under the hood, followed by wily self-rescues or help from strangers, with a side of home cooking.

“I think that is what keeps me setting off on these boondoggles: the sense that getting there is not a foregone conclusion,” Robbins wrote in a 2013 book. “It is a voluntary bit of welcome adventure in a too regular and regulated world, I guess.”

Something he struggles to explain: the sensation of it all in a car like the Elan. There is, in his word, a certain “Lotusness.” A certain litheness and buoyancy that made the manufacturer famous. A certain feel at the wooden wheel and at the seat of the black vinyl, that buttery smoothness with every shift and that living, invigorating sound of the engine — components of a “personality” that every car person knows.

More relatable is nostalgia. Emotions of days gone by, of adventure and misadventure, love and joy, shame and regret — all of that is as much part of the car as the forest green paint.

The ’65 Elan is one of 13 Lotuses Robbins has owned, one of 55 cars total. It’s the last in his garage from a lifelong passion.

“Dreams and reality frequently diverge,” Robbins once wrote, reminiscing on his motorhead adolescence in 1950s Minneapolis, “and while the dream may have been dormant, it never went away.”

The dream of hot rods and racing seemed far away in Vietnam. He was the son of a World War II veteran and reserve officer, raised to understand freedom was earned.

“I got over there and thought, What am I doing here?” Robbins says. “Then 11 1/2 months to get through it.”

Eleven and a half months, and he was home wondering how to move on. Robbins packed everything he owned into a BMW and headed to the Colorado Rockies.

He was always a builder — the 12-year-old who built his own go-kart — so it was fitting he went on to a robust career in homebuilding. But the true dream never went away.

By 1984, he bought his first British sports car, an Austin-Healey 3000. He wanted to go fast. By the next decade, he was competing in vintage races across the country.

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Ross Robbins in his racing Lotus. The Colorado Springs man raced the classic British cars before roaming around the country in them.

He scored his first Lotus in 1994. That’s when he dove into the history of inventor Colin Chapman “and his merry band of overachievers,” as Robbins later wrote, recounting an underdog story he connected with.

“I was blown away at what this tiny team accomplished in producing not only class busting road cars but in creating winning sports racers and F1 champions. As I learned more, I created a wish-list of sorts of other Lotus cars I wanted to own and experience.”

So Robbins did. Faster and faster he went. Until suddenly, he stopped.

“In 2007, I had a very temporarily fatal heart attack,” he says. “I was dead for 30 seconds, they told me.”

The doctors told him to stay away from those high-octane race tracks. Robbins wondered, again, how to move on.

Along the circuit, he had met a man late in his 70s who had a prosthetic leg and had driven his 1952 Allard J2X from New Jersey to Texas, drove in the rally, and then drove back east. Robbins recalls asking why. The response: “That’s how I keep young!”

It’s how Robbins has lived his life after racing: roaming from one shining sea to the next, taking his time up mountain passes and through mountain-framed valleys, through colorful woods and canyons and prairies and river countries, from the timeless West, to Tom Sawyer’s Mississippi, to Dixieland and the Delta where the blues were born.

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Ross Robbins' Lotus car, right, parked by the Big Fish Supper Club in Minnesota — just one roadside attraction from his many trips. 

He’s wishing now he took more pictures.

“You know, I get so in the moment that I forget to take pictures,” he says. “It’s only later when I think, ‘Damn, I didn’t take a picture,’ and the moment’s gone.”

But the moments aren’t gone. They’re preserved in his writing. As are revelations from the road, such as when he realized he took a wrong turn in Idaho with “nothingness” in either direction for miles and miles: “About then I felt so much more tiny and insignificant. I was glad God protects fools, too.”

He plans to write along the way of his “swan song.” That’s what he calls the ambitious trip starting this month. “A last hurrah,” Robbins says.

“The truth is, I don’t have the vitality I used to have. I don’t have the endurance I used to have. One of the things I have really thought about lately is, none of us has got a guarantee. I could have a stroke tomorrow and never go on this trip. At some point you say, ‘I’d rather have made the plan and worked to do it than to regret I never did.’”

No matter what, he’ll have the map hanging at home, the lines crisscrossing the country, reminding of everywhere he’s driven.

From his writing chair, Robbins swivels around to survey it.

“I tell you what, this is probably the funnest thing I do, turn around and look at this map,” he says. “It’s just stimulating.”

Source : https://gazette.com/premium/colorado-springs-man-and-curious-car-set-for-cross-country-trip-of-a-lifetime/article_b9649910-9308-11eb-be7d-b3d40c5edc8e.html

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