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A Car and Travel Story
from A Shunpiker’s Journal

By Steve Purdy and Joe Chagnon
Contributing Senior Editors
Michigan Bureau

> This is the story of our recent midsouth road trip with Toyota’s new Venza mid-size crossover searching for the essence of Stinking Creek, then on to other Tennessee discoveries with friend and field producer Joe. Our ultimate destination is the west edge of the Cumberland Plateau in Middle Tennessee, a lovely place in spring. Joe arranged a stay at the Fairfield Glade golf resort near Crossville and our friends at Toyota offered up this new Venza for the trip, an ideal traveling car for a couple explorers on the move.

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Regular readers will know Joe from our coverage of the Detroit Auto Show and other travel stories. Traveling with Joe always means surprises, discoveries and new acquaintances.


Case in point:


We weren’t half way through Ohio when Joe caught, out the corner of his eye, a herd of longhorn cattle in a small pasture - a rare site indeed, but not one the typical I-75 traveler would notice. We had just been talking about my need to photograph some bovine faces for an art project - and there they were. The next exit wasn’t far away so we got off, doubled back on the old road and found those elegant cattle. All we needed was permission to photograph them up close?

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We found the owner of this large cattle operation, T.J. Kloeppel, and his crew – son Troy and trusty hand Tom (other son Trevor is part of the business but wasn’t in attendance) in the “office” of this large-scale cattle brokerage business. The family patriarch, Tom Kloeppel, now in his 70s, started the business and presides over four generations. After hearing our plea T.J. graciously introduced us to his collection - this herd of longhorns.

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As soon as he and I stepped through the gate of the four-acre pasture all those handsome beasts turned and headed toward us like a pack of friendly dogs looking to make a new friend. Only one would let me pet him but the rest stayed close enough for their head shots, milling around, just out of reach but close enough for a look into their faces. I got what I needed for the art project.

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Back in the family’s Midwest Cattle Company office, from which they broker about 10,000 animals a year, we found other collections. This capacious, rustically-decorated, two-story, balconied office overlooks one of the large barns and is strewn with eclectic artifacts including a remarkable variety of animals, many quite rare, preserved with taxidermy - a four-horned sheep, two muskoxen (the whole beast, not just the head), water buffalo, big-horn sheep, elk, moose, you name it.

What a find! Joe earns his keep again.


Back onto I-75 we barrel on to our next stop about five hours south, just into Tennessee. The Venza keeps up with the fast-moving, intermittently heavy traffic through Cinci and all the way through Kentucky. This new Venza comes only with a hybrid powertrain and all-wheel drive. Toyota, after all, pioneered mainstream hybrids and the efficiency of this one shows it. It’s mighty quick off the line or onto the entrance ramp, but a bit tepid from 60 to 80 mph. The 2.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine and hybrid power system add up to just 219 horsepower, not a lot by today’s standards but plenty for the Venza target audience. The ultra-efficient CVT (continuously variable transmission) offers a manual mode with six speeds programmed in by the software magicians so you can have the feel of conventional gearing . . . sometimes. On acceleration without engaging manual mode it still feels and sounds like a CVT.

The great news is, fuel mileage is amazing. We stopped for gas with less than 50 miles of range remaining and we filled her up with only 10.6 gallons. The EPA says we can expect 40 mpg in the city, 37 on the highway and 39 mpg combined, and that’s pretty accurate, making for a range of well over 400 miles.

Just into Tennessee we ascend the first ridge of the Cumberland Mountains and fifteen miles later come to the exit for Stinking Creek Road. Having passed that sign so many times over the years I’ve always wanted to explore a road with such a provocative name. This will be one off my bucket list.

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Within a few miles driving east on the rural, wooded, well-paved two lane we found the notable creek winding through an overgrown bank on our right. A few miles later an old, weathered barn presented itself, begging to be photographed. Within a few miles more we came upon what appeared to be a Mecca for ATV enthusiasts. Two of these gangly little off-roaders appeared in front of us speeding down the road finally turning into a steep drive on the left at the top of which was an ATV rental place. Then on the right, along the creek, a campground appeared with ATVs everywhere. Then another and another. The creek follows the northern boundary of the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area wherein enthusiasts can drive miles and miles of trails enjoying nature at its noisiest. We know the ones having the most fun are the ones whose machines are coated with the most mud.

A side road with a wooden bridge across the creek offered a sweet spot to photograph the Venza and assess its style. The front gaping grille and rear protruding brow reflect the ever-evolving drama of Toyota design. Projector beam headlights lie within swoopy, squinty housings and graceful lines flow all around the Venza in every which direction resulting in a stylish, attractive design. The 19-inch aluminum alloy spoked wheels contribute to a competent profile, that is, balanced and modern with plenty of character. Though it certainly reflects a common trend of modern CUV designs, Toyota’s interpretation is excellent – I say subjectively.

Back the other way on Stinking Creek Road, east of I-75, it suddenly becomes a well-maintained but narrow, sandy-gravel tree-tunnel winding through nine miles of pristine forest finally dumping us out onto TN Highway 63 where we begin our shortcut to Crossville.

How did Stinking Creek get its name, you may ask?

Well, the official Tennessee state website credits nearby sulfur springs but respected local historian, Dallas Bogan, says it comes from the extra hard winter of 1779-80 that killed so many animals that when the spring thaw melted the carcasses and they began to rot, the stench was overwhelming, only mitigated by the next winter. Carrion beasts and birds feasted, but everyone else stayed away.


The wilderness calls whenever we visit this part of Tennessee. The edge of the plateau means we find a few significant waterfalls and lots of less significant ones. Below the plateau and just north of the resort, the Catoosa Wildlife Management Area covers more than 150 square miles of heavily forested rolling hills serving hunters, nature lovers and a good number of wild hogs.

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I paused at the Old Forrest Hill Cemetery, just into the reserve, to soak up the essence of that place where a few surviving headstones offer some hints of its history. Few people get to experience the profound, natural silence of such a place that inspires serenity and sooths the soul.

The Catoosa’s few gravel roads and many two tracks help us evaluate the Venza’s back-road manners. So far, we’re happy with its manors on the good roads, now let’s see how it manages itself our here. After all, it is an all-wheel drive crossover with a bit more ground clearance than some, but certainly has no skid plates or locking hubs.

Suspension is of conventional design and configuration, nicely tuned for good-roads, but it also does well on loose gravel, ruts and chatter bumps. Potter Ford Road, off Otter Creek Road, approaches the Obed River as its surface deteriorates. I pushed her hard enough to confirm not only the chassis is good and stiff but all those sophisticated electronic controls take most of the risk out of enthusiastic driving in rough or loose terrain. The transmission’s manual mode allows downshifting on a long, steep downslopes to control speed and makes it considerably more fun. But, I’ll guess few Venza owners will want to do any substantial off-road driving, though the ability to do so is important. The old bridge at Potter Ford offered another place to experience the silence and photograph the Venza. The river barely whispered as it babbled under the bridge.


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Chatting with the ladies at the local Art Guild while admiring a pastural painting, I shared my bovine art plan and we quickly learned that a substantial herd of buffalo resides nearby at a large ranch, including rare white buffalo, but they couldn’t say where. With a little research we found the Lazy G Ranch a few miles north of Cookeville on Highway 135. Eddie Gaw was puttering in his barn/office surrounded by his collectables – a horse-drawn carriage, wood sculptures, buffalo artifacts, tools and equipment for his eclectic activities. Eddie and his family run about a 150 head of buffalo at any one time for meat and for breeding purposes, though of course, the white ones are not for meat. He raises cutting horses as well with which his kids compete. Eddie, like our Ohio longhorn guys, appreciated our interest goal of gathering photographs of bovine faces.

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About two dozen of those massive beasts were at the far end of the lush pasture between the house and the road, way too far away to photograph even with my 300mm lens. Seeing our disappointment Eddie offered to “call ‘em in.” He said, “they’ll come if I offer ‘em bread.”

He directed us to the fence near the house and shortly joined us with about 8 big loaves of bread under his arm. He began to holler loudly, repeatedly, while tossing a few slices of bread over the fence. Eddie says the herd follow the dominate female so once she heads our way the rest will follow. The animals were at least a hundred yards away when she, then they, got the message that the boss man was offering treats. In short order, they turned and headed our way, a few trotting but most just snorting and sauntering. Soon they were all at the fence, including a bunch of little ones, milling around and flirting for more bread. I had to scramble to get good shots of them through the fence. The big bull came right to me and stuck his nose through the fence. I tried to pet the side of his head but he would have none of that. He just wanted some bread.

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The white buffalo, by the way, turns a light red-brown from rolling in the local red clay. soil. Native Americans come from around the country to see and honor the white buffalo, notwithstanding their red hue.

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Shunpiking back toward the resort along the twisty, rural, Tennessee two-lanes Joe spotted another nice herd, this time white Charolais cattle, grazing in a bucolic meadow peppered with wildflowers beside a wooded creek. I was able to call this small bunch over with guttural noises and moos that I used as a kid to call cattle. The little ones were most curious and they all came close enough for photos. Joe thought they were dairy cows since their udders were definitely in play. But those were just mamas still nursing their young. We’re doing remarkably well this trip on this bovine art project.


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J.C. Lane gathered these cars over the past six or seven decades at the corner of US127 and Stephen’s Loop Road in middle Tennessee. After trying his hand at a variety of ways to make a living he finally settled on establishing a junk yard in this rural setting. Or, should we call it a salvage yard? Or was it always a collection? Mr. Lane, now well over 90, had always specialized in cars from the forties, fifties, and sixties, an exuberant age of American auto design. He made a good living at it and still sells some stuff. It appears he saved some of the best for himself, his family, and posterity.

Son Clarence, who grew up with these cars and hand painted some he told us, graciously allowed me behind the fence to shoot this remarkable scene after I told him I photographed these cars 20 years ago and remember his dad well. That was in the days of film and I splurged with a couple rolls of 36. This time I digitally captured about 200 images in a half hour of these two-dozen old beauties. What a treat!

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We often speak of ‘the patina of age’ being a natural sort of beauty, like the wrinkles in an old face that represent a life well lived. Even beyond the nostalgic wonder of these old cars, we discover profoundly more drama as we zoom in for closeups of the badges, hood ornaments, styling details and other ephemera. A 1951 Pontiac serves to make the point as its translucent chief’s head hood ornament (one that lit up with the parking lights when new) keeps just a hint of its original amber color but has gained an amazingly complex and artful pattern of cracking within unexpected colors. Next in that row is a Plymouth of similar vintage whose sailing ship hood ornament has the look of a weathered grave stone.

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As I finished my shoot Clarence pointed out the open sheds with walls and floors filled with trim parts, wheels, boxes of hood ornaments and other bits and pieces, and he revealed there are about thirty more acres of cars being swallowed up by the woods behind the roadside property where we shot these cars. I was about to beg to see them but he warned that no one should go back there for fear of the aggressive feral swine that plague the woods.

Then, we asked what would happen to all this great stuff when his father passes. Without hesitation he said, “Oh, we’ll keep it all.” His affection for the old man was unmistakable.

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They’ll keep it all to honor their progenitor, Mr. J.C. Lane.


After an absence of about 3 years Toyota just reintroduced the Venza name to the market. The earlier version, essentially a Camry wagon with a few extra inches of ground clearance on a Lexus platform, sold from VENZA 2008 to 2017. Sales waned as consumers favored the more truck-like ambiance of SUVs over station wagons.

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This new version is a reimagination of what Toyota thinks a two-row, mid-size crossover ought to be; that is, more dramatic in design than the old Venza, reflecting the company’s bold design language, with all the latest technology in a functional package, all while leveraging their tried and true hybrid powertrain. Looks like they might have done all that.

The cabin is classy and comfortable. The subtle two-tone, grey and brown seats, two-tone trim and excellent quality materials throughout make it feel nearly like a Lexus. Ingress and egress are a challenge for us. Joe and I are big fellows – he’s tall and I’m . . . well, not tall – and both of us bump our heads on the door sill getting in even with the seats fully down and back. We had to get to get our bums in first, then duck. Once in we find plenty room, though Venza’s interior volume is on the low end of the competition. We have plenty of places to put things and multiple places to plug in our phones.

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A large, 12.3-inch touch screen, high on the center dash, goes with the premium JBL audio system and includes active navigation, Bluetooth and the full list of electronic functions. I found the HVAC, audio and other controls a bit difficult to navigate as I acclimated to the car. It took most of the week to learn and get used to the basic functions without going to the book. Three rows of small icons and words populate controls beneath the touch screen and those need to be rethought. Once acclimated, of course, that becomes less a problem.

We have a multitude of driver assist and safety functions like adaptive cruise, lane keeping, pre-collision systems with pedestrian detection, parking assist, birds-eye view camera and plenty more. All worked well and represent great strides in safety. It will also be most buyers’ first experience of the beginnings of autonomous driving technology.

Our loaded, top-of-the-line “Limited” shows an MSRP of $39.900. The optional fixed panoramic roof with magic shading function costs $1,400 and a Tech Package is $725. The bottom line on this one is $43,100. The entry-level Venza LE starts at $32,570.

Thanks to Joe, Toyota, our new bovine friends and Clarence Lane, classic salvage yard guy, for making this a remarkably productive road trip!

Text and Images © Shunpiker Productions, LLC, All Rights Reserved