Okay, this may be the California Wine Country, but I have fallen in with a tribe of ne’er-do-wells and miscreants of the old school, the ones who love cars and driving, but who share a certain disdain for the brie-and-Champagne crowd who clot the roads of Monterey. This is not some tutti-tutti pinkie-in-the-air concours affair, nor is it a rally.

This is a tour, my friends, the California Melee, descended from the Dirtbag 500, and what these people are is drivers.

So naturally when Jeff Hecox, a high priest of Alpina 2002 restoration, asked me if I wanted to navigate the 20th-anniversary edition of the Melee, he didn’t have to twist my arm too hard. Three days spent driving some of the most spectacular roads in California in the company of car junkies? More important, in the company of pure drivin’ fools? Count me in.

We are in Hecox’s 2002tii Alpina clone, a very pretty red car which may have caught your eye at the Oktoberfest Concours. But ours is not the only 2002 in the crowd, let alone the only BMW; there’s another 2002tii, a couple of Bavarias, even the Gray Ghost, a 1600 Neue Klasse sedan that’s legendary in the Bay Area, what with its cheater slicks and E30 rear suspension neatly tucked under that staid middle-aged body.

I do not believe for a minute that it comes within 400 cc’s of its badge.

We are surrounded with interesting iron, from vintage Mustangs to Alfas, from more Porsche 914s than you usually see in one place to a swarm of 356s, some concours-ready and a few beaters. 911s? Check. Jaguars? Several, including a couple of XK140s that you might expect to find on display in a sterile glass box. There are Triumphs, a Morgan—one with a certain patina, shall we say—a Lancia Fulvia, Alfas, Volvos—

My, my, my: not a Ferrari in sight.

There are plenty of events for that other crowd, the trust-fund babies with their investment-portfolio collector cars, and that’s fine; I am glad to see those cars get some exercise, too, and I have no quarrel with those who can afford to lay out the long green for a posh tour that finishes each day at a four-star hotel, that pauses for a Grand Cru tasting. But I will never fit in with that crowd because I cannot master the sleeve knot that holds their cashmere sweaters draped artfully around their necks.

The California Melee, crowd, on the other hand—well, these are the kind of people who work on their own cars. There is Mustang Missie, for example, who has spent years working on her very first car, a ’67 notchback. When she got it, it was a stock automatic. Now it is a rompin’ stompin’ fire-breathing street rod, complete with Cragars and Hurst floor-shifter, and it’s badass flat black.

Every one of these cars has a story, and their owners are as colorful as their cars. Best of all, a surprising number of these folks are young, or at least youngish. The high-roller Monterey car collectors, it seems to me, are getting up there; it has taken them a long time to reach an economic plateau that allows them to show off their wealth as wheels. But the passions of the younger crowd are no less intense; it’s just that if you set your sights on something a little more attainable, then you can enjoy it while you’re still young enough to find driving a pleasure, and driving well a joy.

The best part is that those who aimed their passions at BMW 2002s, or Alfa GTVs, or lesser Porsches have found—perhaps to their surprise—that the cars they loved to drive and tinker on have increased in value. I know people who would look at the parking lot outside this motel in horror: “You drove those cars here?” they would exclaim, little cash registers dinging in their heads.

And they would faint if they knew about the dirt.

Yes, California has some wonderful winding two-lane and one-lane asphalt roads, but the Golden State is also crisscrossed with dirt roads, and the California Melee offers several alternate “bonus” routes that let you play with your sports car as they did in the Olden Days. (Remember, when sports cars were invented, there weren’t many paved roads.) And what is the bonus you get for choosing these alternate routes? Why, you get to drive them, of course!

Motorcycle riders understand this kind of thinking. Perhaps that’s why so many of the people on the California Melee are also two-wheel enthusiasts (the welcome reception was held at the San Francisco Motorcycle Club).

I’ll sign off now, because we have another long day tomorrow, wending our way from Red Bluff to the California coast. And yes, there are several optional routes that will get the cars dirty. I take it as a mark of honor that Hecox’s tii is probably the dustiest car in the parking lot.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering just how high-toned and posh this boisterous crowd really is: It’s the parking lot of the Super 8 Motel. The more upscale guests are probably already complaining about the riffraff.—Satch Carlson