Our Hybrid Road Trip Into the Past

By Bill Moore

Posted: 05 Sep 2009

In 1861, the Missouri Legislature passed the "Military Bill" creating the Missouri State Guard as the Union began to break apart and the state gradually found itself slipping into the pro-secessionist camp. While the stated objective of the Guard was to 'defend the state, maintain public tranquility, suppress riot, rebellion or insurrection, or repel invasion,' most of the 15,000 Missouri men who served during the Civil War found themselves eventually fighting for the Confederacy.

Three of those men are buried in the "Irish Wilderness," a remote, heavily forested section in southeast Missouri in what is now part of the Mark Twain National Forest. My wife and I came across their graves this week in a carefully tended cemetery next to The Wilderness Freewill Baptist Church. We were on a pilgrimage of sorts, visiting Doniphan, her birthplace and the county seat of Ripley County. Her parents and their parents before them had lived a hard scrabble life of mountain people in "The Wilderness." Logging was just about the only paying job and her father spent his early life cutting and sawing oak railroad ties. Eventually, he moved his family to northern Idaho where he'd run a small saw mill until his retirement.

She was a little girl the last time she'd been back to Doniphan and "The Wilderness," so when we decided to purchase a restored Toyota Prius from Steve Woodruff in Scottsburg, Indiana, I planned to detour through this part of Missouri on our way home to Omaha. It would take us maybe a 100 miles south, but into some of the most beautiful parts of the northern fringes of the Ozarks.

Purchasing one way tickets on Southwest Airlines, we arrived in Louisville just a few minutes before 2 pm. Jenny Woodruff was waiting with the Mica Green Prius, which a few weeks earlier had been a wreck. Her husband had created a nice niche business for his family buying insurance salvaged Priuses (2004-2009 model). He prefers front-end collisions, though he'll often buy wrecked cars for their parts. The car we were going to buy had been in a front-end collision in Texas, but from the insurance photos, Woodruff was confident the frame was intact, as was the engine, transmission and inverter. He'd have to replace the radiator, its frame, the hood, front fenders and bumper. Best of all, the car was a virtually brand new. It was a 2009 model with less than 3,500 miles on it. It was also the exact color my wife wanted.

"It's an omen," she said when I told her Woodruff had found it within a hour of hearing what she was looking for. The Prius will be her car. Ultimately, we want to convert it to a plug-in hybrid.

Although Steve had supplied us with a steady stream of photos of the repairs, as well as enabling us to watch the work in progress through the four webcams located around his shop, we got our first real look at the car in the parking garage of the Louisville airport. Jenny suggested she drive until we got across the Ohio River. I thought that a good plan and climbed into the back seat, while my wife sat up front and chatted with Steve's wife.

Half a hour later, we pulled into the driveway of Autobeyours.com. Two white Priuses sat on the grass. A car transporter was parked next to the building, a blue Prius with its front end smashed in, sat on the back. It was Woodruff's latest purchase, but it didn't come with the wireless key. He would have to trick the car's complex electronics (each Prius has 11 computers that need to talk to each other) into letting him put the car in neutral. He'd developed a proprietary technique for doing this and the car rolled off the back of the transporter using the power of gravity.

After giving my wife and me a tour of his facility, we completed our transaction. I called my bank and they wire transferred the rest our payment into his business account. With a temporary Indiana sales plate on the rear of the car, we said our goodbyes -- nearly a hour behind my original schedule -- and drove off in the car.

It was only later that we'd find a few inevitable flaws in the restoration, but Steve had cautioned me that the car wouldn't be perfect. It would be a near new as he could make it, backing it with a one year warranty. Of course, I'd have to get the car to him from Nebraska, but that was part of the price paid -- and money we hoped to save by going this somewhat risky route. Autobeyours has performed more than 130 similar restorations, one of them a car bought by my friend, Jigar Shah, the founder of Sun Edison. He was looking for a Prius to convert to a plug-in, and buying a restored car seemed the smartest way to do it. He ended up with a plug-in Prius for basically the cost of a new Prius. That approach appealed to me and when it became obvious that it was time to replace my wife's 1995 Accord, I decided to follow his example.

It didn't take long to come to appreciate the form and function of the Prius. Heading south on Interstate 65, it cruised effortlessly at 65 and 70 mph at 50 mpg. We turned west on I-64 and headed towards Mount Vernon, Illinois. We slipped an audio book on CD into the player and enjoyed a Dick Francis murder mystery as we rolled into the gathering twilight.

By chapter 10, we pulled into Sikeston, Missouri around 10 pm, where we'd spend the night in the local Holiday Inn Express. Next morning, we headed west on I-57 and then Highway 60 towards Doniphan. By around 1pm, we'd found our way to Wilderness, now just a collection of several houses, a W.P.A.-built one room, stone school house and the Freewill Baptist Church with its expansive cemetery full of fading memories.

The road from Doniphan to County Road J was a road rally driver's delight with more twists and turns than a bowl of spaghetti. Curiously, Country Road J deep into the National Forest was just the opposite. It was a straight as an uncooked linguini noodle. Apart from the occasional mailbox, there were virtually no homes along the road. On both, the Prius handled delightfully. Fortunately, as far as I can tell, the wreck hasn't effected the performance of the vehicle. Yes, there is the odd uneven body seam and a not-entirely-perfect repaint job, but where it counts, the car is as good as new. It even still has a new car smell.

After taking 45 minutes to wander the cemetery looking for my wife's distant relatives and finding not only three Civil War veterans who had served in the Missouri State Guard and then the Army of the Confederacy, but also an appalling number of infants (three of them my wife's older siblings who had lived only a few months or were still born), we set off for the only other family landmark, Handy Church. It lay along a dusty gravel road. Why it's important in her family history, neither of us have a clue, but apparently, at one time her grandfather had had a gasoline station near it. Nothing remains of the station, but the church is still there.

Eventually, we made our way out of the National Forest and back to Highway 60 where we turned west and headed towards Springfield. From there we'd swing north past the western end of the Lake of the Ozarks. Our original plan had been to spend the night up near Kansas City, but as we got closer, we both decided we were up to driving the last three hours to Omaha. By 11:30 pm. we pulled into our driveway. We had put 1,045 miles on the Prius in just two days since leaving Scottsburg and it had performed up to our expectations in every way. It's comfortable, roomy, pleasant to drive and frugal on gasoline.

Between the books on the CD, the dead-accurate cruise control -- the State Police were out in force in advance of the Labor Day weekend -- the wonderfully firm seats and great visibility, the trip was one of the most comfortable road trips we've yet taken. Now let's hope the car gives us the same reliable service the Accord has given us for the last 15 years.


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