A good old car

My goal was to drive to the moon. Sometime in the last year or two, as our 1999 Camry crossed 200,000 miles, I looked up how far it was. The distance varies from day to day, but the average is about 239,000 miles. That was the target. I thought we’d make it easily, until a couple months ago.

Then we drove to Atlanta for a weekend. Right as we got into heavy city traffic, at Friday rush hour, the CHECK ENGINE light started flashing. I didn’t even know it could flash. The engine started revving and ebbing on its own. We got lucky — there was a service station right at the bottom of the next exit. They fixed a cracked hose, changed out the spark plugs and wires. It ran like a dream all the way to our hotel.

The next day, the CHECK ENGINE light started flashing again. We limped into a Firestone place. They put in new fuel injectors. The car drove fine back to Charlotte, but by this time we were worried the whole way.

A few days later — yeah, the light came on again. But it didn’t flash, which by that point seemed like a blessing. Our local mechanic found another cracked hose.

A few nights after that, I went out to the car to pick up Alix from work. I reached down to open the door. The handle snapped off in my hand.

We started researching cars.

We bought the Camry 15 years ago. It was the first new car I’d ever owned. It was bottle green, which was the in color at the time and stopped being the in color about two weeks later. Before that I had a red Chrysler LeBaron convertible, which was like a crazy girlfriend: smoking hot and way too much trouble. Thieves cut the top open and stole my stereo. The seat back broke and I had to prop it up with a milk crate. On the day I planned to take Alix to Georgia for a surprise weekend together, the car misfired all the way to her house. Her car is a stick shift, and I haven’t driven a stick in 30 years, so she had to drive her car four hours in the rain to a bed and breakfast neither of us had ever seen. If it hadn’t turned out nice, I might still be a bachelor.

At the end, the convertible quit running every two weeks or so. So we went looking for something solid and reliable and trustworthy, and the Camry checked all those boxes. We bought it four months after we got married. It was a First Corinthians car: When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

It had a nice stereo with a CD player, which had just become standard. The cup holders were in a good spot. The trunk had plenty of room for long trips. We drove it down to Georgia and over to Tennessee to see family. We drove it to Boston and back when we lived there for a year. We spilled drinks on the console and propped our feet on the dash and filled the glove compartment with random fast-food napkins. Fred, our yellow Lab, rode in the back for thousands and thousands of miles, most of the time asleep with his head on the armrest. One time, coming back from the vet, he pooped on the back seat. BAD DOG.

Our car, like most cars, stacked up the miles on routine trips. Six miles to and from work. Thirteen to and from the movie theater. Eighteen to and from church on Sunday. Nineteen to and from the farmers’ market. The Camry took us to see friends get married and to bury loved ones. We argued in it and made up in it. Sometimes I sat in the driveway at night and cried at a song on the radio. Sometimes we got tickled at a dumb joke and laughed until we couldn’t breathe. Sometimes we just held hands as the miles ran underneath.

We always thought we’d have long conversations on our road trips, and sometimes we do, but a lot of times whichever one of us isn’t driving just falls asleep. I’ve driven many a mile with Alix dozing next to me and Fred curled up in the back. Those are some of the most peaceful and beautiful moments of my life.

My first car, a 1971 Buick LeSabre, could fit 11 people, as we found out one night on the way to a “Rocky Horror” midnight show in college. My Mercury Monarch took me and some friends to a 3 a.m. stoplight in Atlanta when we looked to the right and saw a tank in the street. (They were filming a Chuck Norris movie.) I’ve never loved a car. But I’ve loved the moments the cars have created. A good car gets you out in the world and moving around. That’s where life is.

The good thing about holding onto a car 15 years is, every new car feels like the Starship Enterprise. We traded in the Camry last week and got a black Honda Accord with cameras and Bluetooth and who knows what all. The owner’s manual is 500-some pages. The car is sharp and stylish and smells fantastic. But that’s not the point of a car. The point of a car is where it takes you.

When I handed over the keys to the Camry, it had 222,014 miles. I went back and checked the NASA figures. The average distance from Earth to the moon is 239,000 miles. But at the closest part of the orbit, it’s just over 225,000. I’m going to round up and say we made it. It was an amazing trip.

One thought on “A good old car”

  1. There’s something about the long term relationship with a faithful steed. Mine was a Mazda 626 I had for a dozen years. I lived in the UK at that time, so it was hard to rack up a mega mileage, but we still cracked 120,000 together. These machines truly become part of the family. Great story, well told.

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