We may have mostly figured out space travel, chemotherapy and all sorts of other tough stuff. Underwater welding, levitating trains, lab-grown artificial meat. This is good and all, but there’s something us guys haven’t quite figured out yet: What’s the best first date plan? The right mix of accessible and intriguing to both interest your potential mate but not scare them away. A fine line. I humbly submit taking a 2016 Audi S7 on a 22-hour road trip through Michigan in pursuit of seeing the Aurora Borealis.
[Disclaimer: Audi tossed us the keys to the S7 and included a full tank of fuel. They did not provide dating advice.]
Now, to attempt this kind of a trip right out of the gate, there has gotta be some baseline trust established between you. A rando off the newest dating app will probably most definitely not just hop into a car with you – luxury hatchback sedan or not – and head north for a couple days without a crystal clear plan in place. Thankfully we were friends first and mutually thought to give dating a try. “Take me on a date this weekend,” she said. “Okay,” my reply. Game on.
This prospective relationship cosmically aligned with a certain piece of hardware sitting in my parking lot that week in search of a mission: A 2016 Audi S7 in white. White white. Snowblind white. I don’t know what the Germans call it but it’s as close to absolute as your eye will tell you. It had every feature possible including a full tank of premium and a fresh wax job. Not only that, but the cosmos were literally playing along with my scheme as it was the highest point for the Northern Lights in their 7-year cycle that weekend. Nobody can resist the charm of the night sky going all Pink Floyd laser light spectacular, right? I pulled down my big paper map of Michigan, pointed to the northernmost point and charted a direct course to success Daniel Plainview-style. Copper Harbor was the goalpost.
Her and I agreed to clear our schedule for two days (she had no idea where we were going; again, trust) and we hit it north. My napkin math showed 4.5 hours to northern Michigan, stay the night in Traverse City, finish the 6.5 hours to Copper Harbor and beneath the Northern Lights surely our love will be forever forged in the stars. As for the car, the power of the Audi V8 made shreds of the lower peninsula. With 450 horsepower of instant, twin-turbocharged flow on tap, you could place the German rocketship anywhere you wanted on the pavement in an instant. Passing log trucks? No problem. Grabbing an exit you might be a little warm for? Don’t sweat it. And if you wanted to kick back and chill at speed, there was a whole cadre of digital assistants to take care of the driving sundries for you: Variable speed radar cruise control. Lane keeping active steering. Satellite radio. Hell, it came with free Audi WiFi if the temptation for distraction wasn’t already strong enough.
Now, the S7 isn’t considered an autonomous car by any means. The lane keeping system would put up with you for a little bit, but after the third or so steering correction it would bleat and blink aghast at you before deactivating and leaving you to steer for your own damn self. Regardless, these digital aids turn hours of roadway into a simple, mindless floating free of most of the monotony. Well, for the driver, that is.
It was about T+6 hours when she had enough of this “surprise” and wanted to know the contours of our journey. Understandable. She asked, “How close are we?” with a hopeful tone in her voice. I said, “Eh, probably another 5-6 hours” not thinking much of it. It was at that moment we lost cabin pressure. I pulled into a small roadside restaurant to unveil the plan in an attempt to salvage the adventure. Crossed arms. Averted eyes. This vessel is going down fast.
I offered, “Well, we can keep going and see if we can see this thing. Or we can turn back and be home in about the same time. I’m cool with whatever you wanna do.” Minutes passed. Fries were eaten. Finally, I hear, “Ok. Fine. Let’s get this over with.” and we’re back on the road with little ceremony. Some ladies maybe just aren’t that into surprises and that’s ok. Especially ones that involve being trapped in a car for all of the daylight hours and some of the night ones. Always be learning, fellas.
We pulled into Copper Harbor at about midnight, located our little rental cabin and dropped off our things. The various Aurora Borealis groups online were going nuts with photos of brilliant skies aglow with vast swathes of green wound around like a thick ribbon. The weariness of the road disappeared as we headed our last ten minutes north to the peak of Brockway Mountain in the car. We were about to see the thing we’d invested all those miles into seeing. Moreover, both of us have always wanted to see the Northern Lights but its full splendor is typically out of reach for all but the hardiest of ice people. Not this month; this month it was playing an away game to show the rest of us how it’s done.
We approached the summit, turned off the car, bundled up and stepped outside. Our eyes adjusted to darkness and we looked upward. Straining, staring. Surely once we were acclimated to our surroundings the full force of nature’s beauty would be obvious to us. And then,
Nothing. Zero. Not even a single minor star. After 30 minutes, I pulled out my phone to check the weather report. We had complete cloud coverage over us. A near-perfect blanket of fluffy white bastards. Moreover, this cloud structure continued for a hundred miles in every direction. Way up on the Keewenaw peninsula we had zero chance of making it to a clear vantage point by morning. THANKS A LOT, UNIVERSE.
We waited in the car on that mountaintop for a few hours hoping every weather report we had available to us was just wrong and it wasn’t going to be severely overcast for the next three days. That didn’t turn out either. But the well-bolstered heated seats were nice, so there’s that. Defeated, we went back to our little cabin with its scratchy old blankets and passed out.
We woke up the next morning, packed our few belongings, ate some campfire s’mores for breakfast (because adult) and pointed back south to Detroit. Neither of us could stay up there for a week to wait it out and solar activity forecasts said the flares that cause the Lights in the first place would have subsided by then.
On the way back down, we took different roads than we took up to change it up a bit. Instead of the zooming straights and as-the-crow-flies Google Maps optimized fastest way there, we took the southern route through the abandoned mining towns, historical sites and winding forest roads.
As the road got more interesting, I found myself switching off the driver assistance features one by one. What I found so helpful on the way up while I focused on other things were grating on the way back downstate. First to go was the radar cruise control: I’ll run my own throttle, thanks. This feature is a gift from above when you’re trying to dull the pain of a daily commute, but can also deeply wear out the joy of a good strip of pavement with its silky application of power. That’s exactly what it’s supposed to do, but not what I wanted at that moment.
Next went away the automatic steering lane-keeping assistant. While this feature is plenty nice in the aforementioned commuting scenario, it offers a tiring experience on any road of note because it’s always seeking center with varying degrees of force. Instead of taking the undulating curves for what they are with their dips and imperfections, the Audi prefers an unnatural grid-like adherence to the paint. Last to go was the Heads Up Display reflecting onto the lower quarter of the windshield. Sorry, future.
The Audi is an amazing vehicle. The S7 is nothing short of a perfected blend of enormously smooth power, control and finesse. For $100k+, it better well be. I also assume the Northern Lights are truly something spectacular to behold based on the images I’ve seen online. Alas, it wasn’t in the cards for us that night. We ended up not working out after a couple more regular dates back in home country. That’s alright.
There is one thing I’ve certainly learned in this experience: Save the 22-hour road trip for at least the third date. Try coffee for a good start.
[Images copyright 2017 Hooniverse/Andy Didorosi]