Chasing the Potomac River in a Toyota GR Supra

When George Washington retired, the first president of the United States could’ve chosen to hang up his boots anywhere. In keeping with his family ties, he of course decided to retire at Mount Vernon, a place that had been in Washington’s family since 1726, though under a different name for a few decades. Roughly 17 miles south of Washington, D.C. and overlooking Maryland to the east, the sprawling estate is perched on the Potomac River.

Growing up in Northern Virginia, I was very fortunate to be able to go out on the Potomac River during the warm summer months on a friend’s boat. I even got to tour Mount Vernon as part of a school field trip. Where we would go swimming as teens, the Potomac was a repulsive shade of brown. Were you to find a shallow spot, your feet would scrape against the slimy bottom, a nightmarish experience. Still, we went. Despite stories of a shark being in the river and the invasive snakehead becoming more prevalent, we went. Beyond family ties and proximity to the nation’s capital, I couldn’t see why President Washington would choose to retire at a home overlooking the Potomac River when I was in high school.

Toyota GR Supra
Joel Patel/The Manual

With my 30s quickly approaching, I find that my knees hurt after a workout, my tendonitis in my elbow is constantly inflamed, and my back is one Costco trip away from giving up. Still, I’d like to think I’m wiser. I’m looking at things in a new light. There are multiple ways to cook mushrooms, not all IPAs are gross, documentaries are more than just a boring rehash of old material. My taste in cars is also changing.

In my younger days, I naturally gravitated toward the loud, obnoxious, and fast. Not caring whether my eardrums would bleed after a 15-minute run to the grocery store or if every bump felt like falling down a flight of stairs. Now that my bones have started to make some peculiar noises, I’m more interested in other things. Having a car that goes fast in a straight line is fun and all, but sports cars that can do the boring, mundane things we all hate to do and then become a hellacious creature with a death wish while still being comfortable are what I’m really after.

I’m here to say that the GR Supra tugs at my inner child’s heartstrings and satisfies the sourpuss that I’m slowly morphing into.

The controversial Toyota GR Supra arrived in the world with size 16 shoes to fill from the get-go. A lot of people were quick to write the sports car off. Built by Magna Steyr in Germany and co-developed by BMW, they decried the car’s existence, posting #NotMySupra on social media. Oh well, bon voyage. Because in my old age and wisdom, I’m here to say that the GR Supra tugs at my inner child’s heartstrings and satisfies the sourpuss that I’m slowly morphing into. To test the dualities of its character, we set out on a trip, following the Potomac River north to find its, and the GR Supra’s, inner beauty.

Toyota GR Supra
Joel Patel/The Manual

The actual starting point of the Potomac River is somewhere near Smith Point, VA where it meets with the Chesapeake Bay. The river then snakes its way up roughly 405 miles deep into West Virginia. Following the curvature of the river and going all the way up would take days of driving. Instead, we started our journey by the George Washington Memorial Parkway and made our way up with no set destination in mind.

Starting in Virginia, a quick jaunt on I-495 N lands us in Maryland. The Potomac River not only separates the District of Columbia from Virginia, but Maryland from Virginia, Maryland from West Virginia, and West Virginia from Virginia. In the initial leg of our journey, with the Potomac River separating Maryland and Virginia, the river is home to multi-million-dollar castles.

The homes are lined with Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs, Maseratis, and Porsches, have immaculate lawns, and have enough land for their own conservation efforts. Out here, the GR Supra doesn’t exactly fit in. Its ridiculously flashy Renaissance Red 2.0 paint scheme makes the sports car stand out like a modest single-family home amongst these multi-tiered, multi-story behemoths. An entire road filled with speed cameras means we can’t escape, either.

Nonetheless, a sharp left onto a one-lane road and we’ve made it at our first point of interest: Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Lock 21. Construction on the C&O Canals started in 1828 with the intent of building something that would help connect the seaports located in the Atlantic to the Midwest via the Potomac River. Construction of the C&O Canals ended in 1850 after the canal reached Cumberland and competition from the Erie Canal became serious. In 1938, the U.S. government purchased the canal and restored it as part of the national parks system, and it became a national historical park in 1971.

While the C&O Canals played a large role in the past, they’re now mostly used as places to catch some sun, cast a boat into the river, or fish. They’ve certainly come a long way. On this humid, 90-degree day in Maryland, the mighty Potomac River at C&O Canal Lock 21 is green. Flowing smoothly, the river emits a quiet roar. I’ve never seen the Potomac River this shade. It’s mesmerizing. The parking lot is packed, as families, couples, and individuals all come to walk along the river or just sit near it. My co-pilot and I could stare at this water forever, but this is just stop number one.

Toyota GR Supra
Joel Patel/The Manual

Back on the road, the speed cameras on River Road disappear as the trees become denser and the multi-million-dollar homes slowly disappear from view. After spotting a clearing in the trees for a quick photo op, we find a break in traffic to stretch the Supra’s legs. Needless to say, the sports car is blisteringly quick, hitting triple-digit speeds at an alarming rate. Banging and barking once off the throttle, startling onlookers.

“That’s impressive,” stutters my co-pilot. “The way this doesn’t stop pulling is crazy.”

It is indeed crazy. Toyota may claim 335 horsepower, but my butt dyno thinks this BMW-built turbocharged 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine is putting out way more power. At these speeds, it takes little to no time to get to C&O Canal Lock 23. Here, we don’t get a great view at the expansive Potomac River, but more of a smaller canal. We do get a closer look at the exquisite framework of the canal lock.

Down the road is Riley’s Lock, which has a gorgeous lockhouse that sits atop Seneca Creek Aqueduct. Here, Seneca Creek meets the Potomac River. The creek is more of what I remember from my teenage years, stagnant, brown, murky. It’s unappealing. A young teen spots a snake and yells. Having a phobia of snakes, we hastily make our exit.

Further west, River Road turns into a small, one-lane road, right after passing a sprawling farm. It’s crazy to think of how much River Road evolves after just a few miles. The tiny one-lane road leads directly to C&O Canal Lock 25 and Edwards Ferry, where the Potomac River once again looks like a mighty force to be reckoned with. The view is breathtaking, with Leesburg, VA sitting prominently across the river.

While we’re enamored with the view, a young, preteen came up to ask us if it’s alright to take a photo of the Supra. We’ve had plenty of thumbs up, stares, and honks, but this is the first time someone’s asked us to take a closer look at the sports car. We’re happy to oblige.

This being the first time I’ve explored the area, I ask him about good roads to drive on and whether police officers are a concern. He assures us that River Road is worth following and that these roads go unpatrolled. Furthermore, he boldly claims that the roads ahead rival those found on the infamous Nürburgring in Germany. A cheeky claim, but he knows his cars, combing over the Supra and asking questions a true enthusiast would only ask. So, we don’t have a reason to think he’s lying.

If only I could go back and punch that stranger in the gut after hearing the words “River Road.”

Two minutes into following this stranger’s directions and we know we’ve made a grave mistake. River Road is now a gravel road, and in the Supra, this is hell. The speed limit is 25 mph, but we’re barely touching 15 mph. The sticky Michelin tires are kicking up rocks and the poor sports car feels like it hates us. After a massive bump that sends a shockwave through the cabin, we stay below 10 mph. The Supra isn’t happy and neither are we. The hellacious drive continues for 5.3 miles, the Supra sticking it out like a champ, with my co-pilot groaning about how badly I’ve messed up. We both chose this road, but somehow, I’m getting the flak. If only I could go back and punch that stranger in the gut after hearing the words “River Road.”

Toyota GR Supra
Joel Patel/The Manual

We need a break. Five miles may not seem like a long way to go, but it sure is at 9 mph and every rock hitting the underbody denting my soul. Frustrated, scared of popping one of the Supra’s pricey tires in the middle of nowhere, and on edge, we take a break as the trees give way to farmland. At this location, there’s nothing but wheat for miles. And in the background, the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains are coming into view. Ironically, in the middle of a wheat field, we realize that we’re both hungry. We make our exit to the sounds of the transformers buzzing away.

What seems like a few hours later the road mercifully gives way to sweet, sweet tarmac. For us, it’s like seeing a mirage – too good to be true. Luckily, it’s not. The road is real and we quickly find ourselves at White’s Ferry, the last of 100 ferries that once lined the Potomac River. It connects Montgomery County, MD to Loudon County, VA allowing passengers to replace an hour drive with a short ferry ride.

It’s a sleepy little area that doesn’t get much traffic, especially not with the coronavirus in full swing. Naturally, our bright-red Supra garners a lot of attention. The fact that it’s caked in dirt, has a New Jersey license plate, and is the only sports car for miles is probably why a few workers haven’t shifted their eyes since we pulled up. We may be parched and starving, but the uneasy stares we get have us hastily exiting without stopping at White’s Ferry Store and Grill, despite the “Cold Beer To Go” sign.

The miles rack up, and we, once again, find ourselves amongst the trees. A break in the foliage comes every now in then in the form of an enormous farm. Out here, homes are spread out by miles until we get to the small town of Point of Rocks. We find a small joint for food and enjoy a late lunch, staring at how the Potomac River flows neatly under the Point of Rocks Bridge at a national park. It’s a busy locale, as families return from earlier boating excursions, while others are just starting to head out. We let the Supra rest, ticking away among pickups and large SUVs.

Out here, the wind has picked up and clouds have started to roll in under the Blue Ridge Mountains. Their imposing size gives us the impression that they have their own weather system. Blue skies on one side, dark gray on the other. It doesn’t look promising, but we forge on.

Toyota GR Supra
Joel Patel/The Manual

C&O Canal Lock 29 is just a hop, skip, and jump away, following a railroad track. As we get close, the road once again turns from asphalt into gravel. We’ve learned our lesson and my co-pilot refuses to even entertain the idea of possibly going down another gravel road. With a mutiny on hand, we both agree to skip this one and head toward C&O Canal Lock 30, which is a bust for photos. A nearly empty parking lot and smooth tarmac call out to the children inside of us. We turn traction control off and rip a few donuts. The Supra happily does its best impression of a blender.

“I’ve never been in a car that’s so willing to do a donut like that,” says my co-pilot with a grin. Neither have I. I attribute it to the sports car’s short wheelbase. Launch control engaged, we hurl toward Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.

Along the way, towns become more apparent, the houses triple in size. A new housing development emerges with an enormous sign that reads “Homes Starting At $400,000!” Both of us being city boys, we squabble about how that sounds like an absolute steal. One million won’t get you a home in Washington, D.C. these days and is barely enough for a decent home in Northern Virginia – where we both went to high school and college. Still, we’re a little disgusted.

These lands are epically beautiful and deserve to left alone. Under the watchful eye of the Blue Ridge Mountains, one would assume the landmasses have some say in what happens around here, but the drum of progress stops for no one. Houses bring gas stations, supermarkets, and office buildings, it’s the beginning of the end for this sleepy area. We’re more than happy to set off at a rapid pace with the Supra voicing its opinion with pops and bangs.

There aren’t a lot of signs for Harper’s Ferry. The small town sneaks up on you. The only real signs you get are the ones welcoming you into a different state. Entering the town via the William L Wilson Freeway gives us an overhead view of the Potomac River. The widest point it’s been on our trip now, the river rages underneath the massive bridge and alongside cliffs that climb to the sky like skyscrapers.

Everything on this side of the river is quaint. Land may be developing just down the road, but Harper’s Ferry is firmly planted in the past. Getting to the lower part of the town reveals a deserted area. The buildings may look old, but the wood and brick holding them up appear brand new. Pair that with the fact that we’ve only seen a few other people here and we get a feeling that this whole section of town has been made for the sole purpose of acting as a movie set. It’s surreal.

We take some time to stretch our legs and give the Supra a much-needed break. Some five hours and 20 minutes after heading off from our starting location, we’ve finally reached our impromptu destination. Even here, among the historic (at least in appearance) buildings, the Supra draws attention. One wouldn’t expect a vehicle like this, in the land of pickup trucks, Chevrolet Camaros, and Ford Mustangs, to garner love, but it does. A few more people ask to take photos of the car, other silently stare and point. In this film, the Supra is the star.

Toyota GR Supra
Joel Patel/The Manual

With the sun beginning its long decent, we begin to make our way home. Out of the lower part of the city, things seem less like a fairy tale and more realistic. Old homes with decaying roofs, chipped paint, rickety decks; ancient bricking line tiny streets. This is the West Virginia we were hoping for. No 7-Elevens, no Starbucks, no McDonalds, no Safeways, this is land that has managed to stave off development. With the splendor of the Blue Ridge Mountains overlooking the city at the top of the town, there’s a case for the simple life, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Even for these urbanites.

Once again, we cross William L Wilson Freeway, taking one last look at the raging Potomac River. The majestic way it’s carved a path through these mountains and cliffs has us discussing our place in this tiny, tiny world. The Potomac River’s purpose is clear, flow from one end to the other. Our purpose was clear in the beginning, follow the river to its end. We failed. Hundreds of miles of river are left and we simply don’t have the time to keep going. Time is such an odd thing, because we could spend an eternity looking at the river from this vantage point. Time both slows down and speeds up here.

We take the quick route home, staying in Virginia the whole time back. One would expect the Supra to become unbearable, but it hasn’t. Out on the open road, it continues to pull like a possessed Holsteiner. There might have been better choices for this trip. An American pony car or a convertible to fully enjoy the weather, but we couldn’t have asked for a better car than the Supra. A comfortable cruiser when we needed it to be, a rabid dog when the mood struck, and jollier than Saint Nick in December with the way it brought joy to onlookers.

As we carve through the dense trees and vast farmland of Virginia, we engage Sport mode for a few bangs and pops to ripple through the trees, leaving our mark on this gorgeous vista. From a murky, stagnant fishing spot to a location for white water rafting, we’ve seen multiple sides of the Potomac River. Along the way, we’ve seen the same from the Supra. It’s taken a little over five hours, but we’ve become enamored with the sports car.

I still don’t understand why George Washington chose to live out his years after his presidency near the Potomac River, but I have a newfound appreciation for the body of water. Its majesty, sheer size, ability to be different things to different people, and the way it connects so many states are inspiring. I wasn’t a fan of the river in my teenage years, but revisiting it as an adult approaching my 30s makes me appreciate it in a new way that’s left a lasting impression.

I wonder what the river will look like in another 30 years. Surely, I’ll return for a similar drive. Hopefully, I’ll have something as good as the Supra to drive for that trip.

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