Monday, June 30, 2008

Sit 'n Spin

In the Ozarks of Arkansas we loop into the Petite Jean Forest, pronounced locally as “petty jeen.” We take a small footpath to the Bear Cave, apparently where a bear met its end a long time ago. It’s a fun collection of rocks now and we loop back to the car – yep – twenty minutes later.

On the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina the kids and I pile out of the car when we see a suspended footbridge over a small river. Three steps out and the boards begin to creak ominously and the bridge begins to sway to the right. I glance to the left and see a small sign that says “do not intentionally sway bridge.” I think I wet my pants a little bit. Steve has left with the car to pick us up on the other end, so we press on. I make the kids spread out along the length of the bridge to distribute our weight, but let’s face it, I’m the only one who weighs enough to plunge to my death a few hundred feet, so screw it. The kids think it’s pretty cool that there are turtles below. And, twenty minutes later – you guessed it, back in the car!

Somewhere in Pennsylvania we stayed at a budget hotel. We should have known better when there was no elevator and we had to lug our bags up a flight of stairs to reach the “no pets” rooms. In the morning Collin awoke with a tick trying to bury its head in his abdomen. The clerk at the desk suggested that we must have brought it in with us, like a snack or some souvenir from our prior day’s journey. She probably wanted to charge us extra for bringing a pet. Anyway, the next 3 hours in the car with a cell phone brought on a new fresh hell for her as we engaged in: The Pennsylvania Health Department Showdown!

Call 1: Pennsylvania State Health Department who didn’t know who inspected hotels for sanitation and sent us to the Food Safety Department because the hotel also had a restaurant.

Call 2: Pennsylvania Department of Food Safety who didn’t know who was pretty sure no one at the state level inspected hotels for sanitation but suggested we talk to the Lancaster County Department of Health.

Call 3: Lancaster County Department of Health who didn’t know who was pretty sure no one at the county level inspected hotels for sanitation and sent us to the Lancaster City Board of Health.

Call 4: Lancaster City Board of Health where we left a message about ticks at a local hotel.

The next day a very nice woman from the Lancaster City Board of Health called and left a lengthy message. She said she had an illness in her family and would get back to us the following Monday and asked were we “sure it wasn’t a bed bug?” as if that would make a difference. Does it matter? Maybe not, but it does go to show you that sometimes, no matter what you do, you sit ‘n spin.

Blue Ridge Parkway

Here are some photos from the Blue Ridge Parkway. It has been at least 30 years since any tree maintenance on the "scenic viewpoints." What a riot! All you can see is the trees blocking the view. Good grief Charlie Brown. Anyway, we did have a great visit to Luray Caverns. Old school roadside weirdness. They specialize in the "Stalacpipe Organ" -- tapping on the stalactites to produce music is a truly piece of inspired madness.

Smothered & Covered

There is a mysterious shroud that appears on the roadsides as we cross from Eastern Alabama through Western Georgia. It’s historically oppressive, relentlessly committed, and growing stronger over time. No, it’s not Southern politics, or evangelical religion, or even hash browns from Waffle House that are smothered and covered (onions and cheese for the young or inexperienced).

It’s an invasive week species called Kudzu. Originally imported from Asia to help with erosion control, Kudzu has spread like a virus throughout the Southeast through the Mid-Atlantic, and we’re pretty sure we saw it in New Jersey. It probably accomplished its original goal – to control erosion – but unfortunately, like Paris Hilton, once unleashed upon the public, it wasn’t very well controlled.

Today, you’ll see Kudzu hanging like frosting over trees, fences, walls, power poles and in some cases, houses, as it eclipses life as we know it. And that really is smothered and covered, if you ask me.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Lazy Lake Day

We spent an entire day on Lake Murray, South Carolina. Steve and I bought our first house on this lake and were married while living here. It's 50,000 acres of pristine water and more than 500 miles of shoreline. The water was clear and warm on this sunny day. It was a Tuesday, so there were very few other boats. The kids loved the islands. We hiked to a red clay bluff at the end of an island Steve and I called "Red Island." We saw a beautiful school of 9 striped bass. A fisherman's dream come true as they lazed their way through the rocks just a few feet off shore. Underestimating the sun and overestimating our sunscreen, we were all pink as the sun set in the west and we turned left toward the Blue Ridge Mountains heading for the Northeastern U.S.

Mother Ship

On the beaches of South Florida at certain times of the year, the sand is cordoned off to allow sea turtles to drop their eggs. Mama takes off and a few weeks later the babies scamper off into the surf. A few, when mature, return to that very same beach to drop their eggs. I think about his as we pull into the Honda plant just outside Lincoln, Alabama.

This is the very birthplace of our road trip Mother Ship – the 2009 Honda Pilot Touring Edition we’re driving courtesy of American Honda Motors. She’s a sweet ride, if a little road weary after a couple thousand miles. In fact, if you licked her bumper she’d taste like the sands of West Texas. But, you can sense the comfort of home as we roll past acre after acre of sister Pilots under tents waiting to scamper off onto the roads of America. Few will return to this place. Probably none.

We are greeted by Ted Pratt, Director of Communications for Honda Manufacturing at the plant in Alabama. He’s our guide for a private tour. Collin (age 12) is with me and he’s a little road weary too, quiet and keeping to himself a bit. Gillian was too young for the tour so she and Steve are sitting it out today.

The plant is vast and Honda Pilots roll down the line beneath a series of catwalks. We use these to look down on various operations. You can tell that Ted is proud of this plant and soon you can see why. I’m impressed as I see the stylish gauges I’ve been looking at for a few thousand miles popped into place and the entire dash assembly installed. I’m amazed as I see the doors fitted, then removed to be detailed. They travel in pairs across the ceiling to an entirely different area where they are reunited with the precise vehicle they were fitted to earlier. The precision is breathtaking. And, there are more people than I expected on the manufacturing floor, tucking, touching, and making sure things are done just ever so. This personal attention surprises me.

“People can feel imperfections that machines can’t.” explains Ted. And, he’s right. Even in our era of precise technology, nothing is as sensitive to defect as the human being.

Standing on the curb after our tour I ask Collin “What was your favorite part?”

“The robot welders,” he replies not so sleepy now, “they were pretty awesome!”

“Pretty awesome” is his favorite expression now and he’s right, the welders are pretty awesome! We watched entire doors and large panels move through a sophisticated ballet from one weld angle to another; occasionally sending sparks many feet in the air.

“I liked the sparks,” I said to Collin.

“Yeah, but remember what Ted said. A good weld has no sparks.”

I smile at him as we pile into our Pilot and head toward the Southeast, probably never to return to this place. Certainly never to return to this time. It’s a happy, sad feeling all Moms have, even mother turtles I imagine.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Wild Horses

I couldn't resist the contrast between these wild horses from North Texas and the herd of horses made from old tires at the Tupelo Buffalo Farm. Wild indeed!

Tupelo MoonPie

“Are they dangerous?” asked the little boy in the front of the trolley, hoping the answer was “yes.”

“Well, none has jumped in the trolley lately” replied the tour guide, his Southern accent dripping sweet as a MoonPie. He was somewhere south of seventeen with a broad smile and buzz cut for summer. “Thank you for visiting the Tupelo, Buffalo Farm” he said as he mounted the tractor to pull the tour trolley down the rutted road. “I’ll make sure y’all’s trip is safe.”

My stomach fluttered a little as he used the only word in the English language with two apostrophes: the possessive y’all. Y’all’s. Just as sure as rib meat slides from the bone, when you hear that you know you have arrived in the real South.

On the highways of New Mexico we passed a defunct roadside animal show advertising “Deadly Mountain Lions.” The signs and part of an adobe structure are all that remains of this pre-Disney attraction. You know, the snake pits and alligator farms and little private zoos with squirrels in cages and whatnot that used to drag in road weary travelers in the 50s and 60s. They’ve all but disappeared. But time and Disney-style production values have not stopped the Tupelo Buffalo Farm. With 200 acres, 60 buffalo and an assortment of other animals, this is a pretty entertaining place.

The buffalo are healthy and free-ranging in a large tree-studded area. There are about 25 calves and no indication of artificial animal husbandry, so they seem to be figuring out how to reproduce on their own. Imagine that. This also explains the curiously named “Zedonk” resulting from the fact that donkeys and zebras hang together in the same paddock. That’s something you won’t see in Chicago.

When the trolley stops the animals sweetly amble over to our fenced enclosure to nibble kibble from our hands. Yes, that’s right, we’re fenced in. And, they’re not.

Sadly, a lion, tiger, bear and a couple of rail-thin coyotes furiously pace in chain link cages with cement floors, more like a jail than a habitat. The guide explains that they’re “rescue” animals discovered by the authorities and removed from abusive conditions.

I wonder about the guide driving the trolley around in a circle hour after hour. I wonder if he feels trapped in this place, running the same track around and around like the coyotes pacing the cage. Or maybe he was rescued from a bad situation and considers this pretty good. In any case, he seems happy enough to amble over as we put a few bucks in the tip jar. He gives us a sweet smile and climbs back on the tractor for the next trip to the buffalo paddock.

The kids play guitar at Elvis' Birthplace!

Our Girl Stella

Somewhere in the middle of Alabama our GPS gave up. It thinks we’re in a corn field and if we follow it, we will be. We’re on a highway surrounded by rolling shale beds interspersed with the piney woods of Eastern Alabama. And, the GPS won’t stop insisting that we turn where there is no road.

We are not a GPS family, or we weren’t until Honda equipped us with this 2009 Honda Pilot Touring Edition for the journey. The system has been excellent but only after the break-in period where we alternately took turns fussing with it and veering off the road while trying to learn its idiosyncrasies and remain married. Who knew that NOT asking directions would result in our first three-way: Steve, me and the Navigation Woman we’ve named Stella.

Now we’re so used to her that we’ve ditched our Atlas and are thinking of bringing her into the hotel room for the night. We’ve used her to find hotels in each town, the Cadillac Ranch, Texas Motor Speedway, and some of the best ribs in Oklahoma. So far, she’s a pretty satisfying third wheel. But, you know, a three-way is tough to do without becoming emotional -- she falls to pieces every once in a while.

Sometimes, we miss a turn and she insists we turn around, when there’s a pretty good alternate route clearly on the map. And, then there was Las Vegas where she seemed spastic to keep us off the strip. Maybe she was afraid of the competition. And, she’s a little out of date when it comes to local cuisine in small towns – which may come and go too quickly to stay current and often seem to have left just moments before we pull in. Or is that part of her ruse to keep us from acquiring new tastes and keep us to herself? But, just when you think she’s turned into a Fatal Attraction and you really, truly need to find Elvis’ birthplace, the American Old Time Auto Museum in Morillton, Arkansas, or the Honda Manufacturing Plant in Lincoln, Alabama -- she’s Steve’s girl. And, so am I.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Small Town Commerce

From the highway, a road trip is a blur of sameness. The same rest stops, the same chain restaurants, the same mile after mile of pavement. While this is the fastest way to get from “A” to “B”, it’s certainly not the most satisfying.

John Steinbeck noted this frequently in his landmark road trip book Travels with Charlie. Published in 1961, one year before Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for literature; it was his most commercially successful work. It chronicled a long road trip taken with his dog, Charlie, a standard poodle. They traveled in a converted pickup reminiscent of a small camper today. This book was very important in the planning of our trip because many of Steinbeck’s observations ring true today.

Steinbeck hated the highway, always choosing the slower, more local routes on his trip when possible. He ruminated on the loss of region dialect noted as he passed from town to town. He suggested that the highways and their accommodation of ready migration from place to place were homogenizing the American regional speech into a national language. I’m not sure that this has come to fruition, but I do think our commerce is a sea of sameness.

Every waypoint along the interstate is the same: McDonald’s, Exxon, Starbucks, etc. In developed areas, these exits often nestle up against suburbs, which again exude a sameness of commerce: Bed, Bath & Beyond next to Target next to Petco. It’s not a bad thing to have this convenient, consistent supply of goods that are in demand. But, it sure is boring. This becomes much more clear when we leave the highway and take the smaller routes through the smaller towns.

In Oklahoma, we leave the highway to track down an automotive-themed roadside oddity called the Spider Bug. In a field next to a local auto business, the Spider Bug is a 30-foot tall – the body of which is a VW Beetle. We snap a few pictures. Then head back to the highway through one of the most picturesque small towns in America, Purcell, OK.

The town is one wide avenue with angle parking on both sides and down the middle. The traffic splits one way on either side of the central parking median. Turn of the century buildings in beautiful condition flank the road on both sides for what seems like half a mile. It’s beautiful and it’s filled with local, small businesses. A small café is hear a barber just up from the post office. We stop to send postcards and are greeted by friendly locals who enthusiastically help us locate a restaurant for lunch. Not a Blockbuster in sight. No homogenized commerce.

We go through a few more towns like this, many not as lovely as Purcell. But, we do notice the lack of chain stores and a certain density of car-related commerce. Many small used car lots, tire stores, auto parts, windshield repair, etc. seem to thrive in small towns and outnumber other types of businesses. Ford seems to be the only brand of any stature in these towns and the lots are filled with trucks. Is this because auto repair is the one thing you can’t drive very far to get? You could certainly drive the 30 miles or so to Wal-Mart if you needed a particular type of laundry soap, but if your car doesn’t run, you can drive it to get it repaired, right? That’s my theory. Let me know what you think.

The Bug Ranch

Okay, we couldn't resist visiting the Bug Ranch, a satire just up the road from the Cadillac Ranch. We took pictures from the window of the car since we were still soaked and in our underwear. Seemed fitting.

Cadillac Ranch

My finger is on the nozzle of the spray can. The paint is red. The sky is a dark and peppered with lightning. I have a moment of indecision.

“Kelley or Mommy?” I wrestle with who I am. “Kelley or Mommy?” Who do I want to be? A rain drop splattered on the back of my hand.

K-e-l-l-e-y I paint in foot-tall letters on the 1960s Cadillac face-planted into the red Texas dirt.

The Cadillac Ranch was once an iconic display of audacious automotive glory – tail fins and chrome glistening in the Texas sun.

Now, it’s different, but equally wonderful. It’s a piece of people’s art. Open 24/7, just off the highway in Amarillo, the ground is littered with spray cans and the cars are festooned with graffiti to within an inch of their lives. In fact, layer upon layer of spray paint may be the only thing holding them together at this point.

As we push open the creaky gate (also painted) and amble down the dirt path, some bad, bad weather is closing in. The few families in the field leaving their mark are making a run for it, dropping their cans where they stand. Drops of rain the size of cherries send tufts of red dust up from the foot path as they hit, one after another. The kids run ahead and begin to paint, unleashed in this moment of permissible rebellion.

As we paint, it’s like someone unzipped the sky everything you’ve heard about Texas storms has come true -- rain in buckets, wind whipping your hair in all directions, pea-sized hail here and there, and lightning floor to ceiling.

We watch our fresh paint struggle to cling to the fenders as the rain tries to slide it to the mud below. Realizing that we’re in a field with huge metal structures sticking out of the ground in a lightning storm, he ma, we run for it. Then, we learn about Texas Gumbo.

The red dirt path is now a slick ice rink of mud that slows our progress by half, then half again as the mud sticks to our shoes in globs and doubles their weight. We run and slip and laugh all the way back to the car, soaked through to our underwear.

We strip to skivvies roadside and no one blinks an eye. This is Texas and they’ve seen worse. We head toward civilization, hot showers, and fried chicken, the universal comfort food of travelers nationwide, with nothing but muddy shoes and paint crusted fingers to show for our adventure.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Big Sky

In the West, the sky is big.

Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is no less spectacular now than it was when I first saw it years ago. The difference this time was seeing it through the eyes of my children, wide with wonder. We lingered at the view point and as the sun melted into the western rim. In the lingering twilight, the kids pulled out their guitars and played. The hundred or so people crammed onto the overlook were hushed for a minute or two as the sound of Spanish Romanza wafted through the air, spilling into the canyon below. Then, they resumed conversations and picture taking. One couple, who had scrambled over the barricades never did break their face-sucking stride, making out through the entire sunset. Their dual immolation was almost as spectacular as the canyon itself and an act almost as old too.

Leaving the canyon we find ourselves behind a line of 5 Porsche 356s ranging from a 1955 to a 1963. One red, one blue, one green, two white – a couple of hard tops, the rest convertibles. We catch up with them at a Route 66 diner and chat for a few minutes. One driver, Bill Collins from Windham, NH, has a friendly smile and is eager to talk, even though he’s been driving a while and I’m keeping him from his lunch. He says “the boys” left New England a week ago and covered 800 to 900 miles a day to pick up the “women” in Phoenix. “Your own women? Or just some women?” I asked to clarify.

He smiled even wider, “Our wives,” he said. “We’re on our way to Squaw Valley, Lake Tahoe for a car show. People will show up from all over the country who have trailered their cars in and handle them with white gloves. We show up with bugs on our windshields and mud and stickers from where we’ve been.” They’ll cover 9,000 miles total to the show and home. I ask if he’s concerned about putting those miles on a vintage automobile. “No.” he said. “These cars a made to be driven. I’m carrying 28 lbs of parts in the nose, so I’m ready if there are problems.” Apparently, each car carries between 25 and 30 lbs of parts and they’ve already made one stop for repairs.

We let the boys and their women go to lunch and pop into a “soda fountain” just a few doors down in hopes of finding an authentic fountain root beer. What we find is a fake. Festooned in Coke signs and upholstered bar stools, a modern soda machine cranks out the same soda you’d pour for yourself at 7-Eleven. A real soda fountain would ladle a scoop of root beer syrup into a tall fluted glass in a metal rack with a handle, and then fill it to the brim with carbonated water and stir. We love these, and the family tradition is to order it without stirring. That way, you can nick a little of the syrup straight from the bottom and stir when you’re ready. Needless to say, it was a big disappointment to be handed a paper cup with soda you could get anywhere. This is Route 66 after all – The Mother Road – you would think you could get a mother of a root beer. But alas, it was not to be. Not today anyway.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Turning Left

Gillian on her scooter at the Venetian

David Sedaris once wrote about a compulsion he had to only turn right. It took him hours to get anywhere because he could not bear to turn left. His life was one big cork screw as he plotted all routes to include only right turns. It seems Steve and I have a tendency toward left, though of a lesser intensity.

Traveling in New England years ago, we got to New Hampshire and decided spontaneously to turn left, ending up in Montreal, one of the most romantic cities in North America. Some years after that our personal politics leaned left, then veered left, then left us in Leftville forever more. And yesterday, we were in Needles, CA and the itch to turn left hit hard.

Our plan was to continue on I-40 through the Mojave Desert and make the Grand Canyon mid afternoon. We stopped in a Mexican restaurant, a great, family-owned place and the decision was made over flautas and tamales. We turned left and 95 miles later found ourselves in Las Vegas. Okay, actually, we found ourselves and a few other people in the swimming pool at the Venetian with tall, frozen drinks and smiles as big as Nevada. Las Vegas was not in the plan for this trip, but hey, sometimes left is the only choice and sometimes it’s simply irresistible.

Your Name in Lights

Driving through the Mojave Desert you can feel your lips chap. And, that’s in an air conditioned automobile. We slip along in relative comfort on the Interstate, while just a few feet to our right the crumbled remains of Route 66 tag along for a few miles before veering off out of sight. I think about the people who did this before air conditioning, before roads, before Chapstick. Between us and the ramshackle highway is sand and mounds of small black stones, lava flow from a long-dormant volcano. Every so often these stones are set in patterns on the sand, clearly by human hands.

Upon closer inspection we can read the signs. Graffiti in the desert. There are no large rocks to spray paint your name on, so people arrange stones to leave their mark. Of course, the minute we notice this, pandemonium breaks out in the back seat to go leave a mark of our own. We pass a few more and the noise from the back is unbearable, so we finally pull over, leaving a huge dust plume as we pull onto the gravel shoulder. We aren’t even to a complete stop before the kids are yanking the door handles to scramble out.

We take one look at the spot we’ve chosen and we’re speechless. Mouths drop open. Everyone points. Someone has spelled out “Kelly & Stephen” and a big heart. I am NOT kidding.

“Should we fix the spelling?” Steve said with a crooked smile, observing that the “e” is missing from my name. What are the odds? I once saw a sign on a highway ramp in the middle of the summer that said “ice possible.” I remember laughing to myself that while it may be possible, it wasn’t likely and that maybe the Highway Department had a sense of humor I wasn’t aware of. Now, I see the value in that sign. It’s to remind us that anything is possible. Of all the roads in America, all the miles we’ve traveled, and all the places we could stop to mark our existence, we stop here and it’s already done. Out of respect, we did not change the spelling.

The kids take about 20 minutes to build their names and pose for a picture. It’s over 100 degrees and they’re pretty red faced and sluggish when they get back to the car. Steve and I are cooling out in the shade from the rear hatch of the because someone has already left our names and pledge of love in the sand.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Kate’s Car

I am looking out the window of my hotel, early morning while the family is sleeping. Opening the curtains was blinding as we’re in Barstow, California, a smudge of commerce in the scorched Mojave Desert. Every so often, a car crosses the view, but I can’t see anything but the dust plume shooting up ten, twenty feet and blossoming like a contrail behind it. That’s all the evidence you need on a desert road to know that there are cars.

This is what driving was like before there were paved roads. This was brought to our attention at the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles on our tour with Richard Messer, Director. He is deeply knowledgeable about both the collection and the cultural impact of the car, as evidenced by our changing infrastructure. The Petersen has exquisite exhibit space to this effect complete with steam shooting from steam engines and the smell of apple pie wafting from a restaurant replica. It seems simple, but I don’t think I realized that without the car we wouldn’t have driveways, garages, strip malls, drive-throughs, drive-ins, etc. Now maybe we could live well without some of these things, but where would we be without the garage – the hotbed of American Innovation? Hewlett, Packard, Gates, Ford, and countless others have drawn strength from the isolation and relative discomfort of a garage workspace. And, they weren’t just out there drinking beer. I work in a converted garage myself, and no matter how nice your Indian carpet is, you still know you’re in one. It’s motivating.

Our visit to the Petersen was not driven by the history of the car and its impact on our lifestyle. No, our goals were much less lofty. I wanted to poke around records that would indicate what items celebrities left in their cars when donating them to the museum. The Petersen has received many celebrity cars as gifts and has quite a few on display: Steve McQueen, Rita Hayworth, Batman – okay, it was a film car, but hey, it’s the Batmobile, so back off! The sad truth is that most of these cars are acquired from second parties who owned them after the celebrity and before the museum. So, they’re stripped of their celebritized content long before accession. It’s a lot less sexy to consider that the snotty tissue behind the passenger seat belonged to Joe Somebody from East Nowhere and not Rita, so that took some of the shine away until Mr. Messer mentioned Kate, with a twinkle in his eye.

“We did find something once,” he said “when we brought in this 1966 Imperial that had belonged to Katharine Hepburn.” His voice was soft and reverent, but there was also a small grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. He tilted his head and thought for a minute. I was standing on tiptoes. “She left some notes, in her own hand, about the car.”

I thought I would pass out. Maybe I just forgot to breathe.

He showed us the car and let me peek in the glove box. There was a money order receipt from the second owner of the car to someone else. No Kate. And, a trashy novel. I’m going to say “no Kate” but we’ll never know for sure. It’s astonishing that these things are still in there.. We didn’t have enough time to go to the archive, but I’ll be following up with Mr. Messer to see if we can decipher what Kate’s precise thoughts on the Imperial were and maybe she’ll know why Steve McQueen preferred an automatic

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Oh Honda! My Honda!

So, we’re heading out on the open road in just a few days and are pleased to say that American Honda Motors Inc. has come on board with us as the official vehicle sponsor of “In Your Car: Road Trip through the American Automobile.” They’re generously providing a 2009 Honda Pilot, Touring model. Given that we’ll have it for a month and put more than 5000 miles on it, this is not an insignificant investment and we appreciate it! Thank you, Honda!

We went to the dealer in Beaverton, OR to check out the model we’ll pick up at LAX later this week. Mustang Sally can move on over because this is officially a Great Ride! In addition to the spacious interior, road hugging Honda feel, and just plain good looks, this edition is tricked out with so many features and electronics, we needed a 90 minute overview just to appreciate, let alone learn them. We only had 60 minutes, so I’m sure we’ll spend the first week making friends with the entertainment system, programming specs into the automatic seat controls, and learning how to make the Navigation Lady quit flirting with Steve. I kept waiting for the seat to take my weight and compliment me: “Hey, Kelley, looks like you’ve shed a quarter pound this week” just to be interrupted by Navigation Lady saying “Dairy Queen, 6 miles ahead. Steve, if you push my pedal a little harder, we can get there in 3 minutes or less.” Hmmm.

In 1984, when I met Steve, he had the cutest truck. You should know, he would strongly object to this vehicle being called both “cute” and “truck” as this was a Ford Bronco II and we were in Texas, where this hardly counts as a truck. And, he hates being called “cute” on the principle that men aren’t cute. What I didn’t know at the time was that he had the cutest car we’ve ever owned under wraps in a garage. A 1977 Honda Civic he drove from New Jersey to Arizona for college more than once, that after rebuilding the engine piece by piece with his Dad on their knees on the garage floor. This was the first Honda I’d ever seen up close and it was small. It looked like a toy. Officially cute.

Soon, the truck was sold and Steve was driving the baby Honda full time. There were a couple of other Hondas in Steve’s family, so the legacy was assured. When that car was on its last cylinder (1988), we replaced it with a new Honda Civic. It was bright red and a little bit larger than the ’77. It was supposed to be donated to the Leukemia Society, but Steve talked the dealer into selling it to us instead – a shameful case of reverse charity you could say. We drove that car all over the Eastern Seaboard and well into the Midwest for more than 20 years. In the end, we gave it to a friend rather than sell it because it had so little value on the market and so much value to her. To our knowledge it’s still kicking around Dallas, bright red and feisty.

Having added children to our nest, we bought a Honda Accord – 4-doors and a little rear seat headroom are more attractive when you have little heads hauling around in the back seat with you. During that same period of time my sister had a Civic and my parents went through two Accords.

So, with this trip, our Honda family legacy keeps going on strong behind the wheel of the Pilot. Off we go to L.A., Dallas, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Freehold, Detroit, Chicago and beyond! To the Cadillac Ranch, Texas Motor Speedway, Tulsa’s Spider Bug, and Detroit’s Big Tire. To the Grand Canyon, Liberty Bell, Blue Ridge Parkway and Route 66. Strap on your belts, it’s an epic journey and it’s about to begin T-minus 48 hours and counting!

See for study information. And, to upload pictures of the contents of your car!

Monday, June 2, 2008

VW Drag Races: what the?

I have a favorite CD of classic David Bowie songs performed by Seu Jorge whose astounding concept was to record these songs on acoustic guitar – in Portuguese. This is a pretty weird mash-up that I know I could never have conceived. These tunes were pouring through my head (and through my Turbo Beetle) as I drove my daughter and my mother to the Volkswagen Drag Races in Woodburn, OR.

Two by two, classic Bugs from the 50s and 60s tore up the strip, which was little more than an asphalt gash in a hay field sandwiched by bleachers and corn dog stands. Some had nitro for extra speed, popping wheelies at the start and clocking up to 130 MPH. Others chugged and wheezed and choked, literally burning their little rear engines to death, spewing all manner of fluids down the track in the process. Still others didn’t move at all, parked at the swap meet or shown in an alley of classics neatly nestled near each other with little room for intruders. Beautiful powder puffs in original, mint condition snuggle with black Bugs ornamented with punk studs and skull mirror danglers next to flower power daisy painted girl-worship-mobiles. A Vanagon evolved into a mini tow truck stood with good posture next to a Bug covered entirely in grass. Real grass, not weed in a metaphoric sense, which might be more expected at this type of event. No – some guys had tacked steel mesh to the car, plastered it with thick mud and applied grass seed, sun and water in copious amounts. I think there was also plenty of beer involved, though they wouldn’t admit that to me. Fully sprouted and freshly mowed, it took its place next to the rest, drawing a crowd to admire the detail of marigolds growing in the front bumper.

And, that’s the beauty of the Bug. It is as ugly as it is beautiful. It is Bowie in Portuguese – unintelligible to the naked ear, but as riveting as the first moon launch or an angry fist raised in protest to the empty sky. So, don’t ask why someone would trick one out to do 130 MPH in 12 seconds. Ask “why not?” That’s where you’ll find your answer.

The Hunger

Americans have a hunger they can never quite satisfy: a hunger for the road.

Perhaps it is our history as a nation of people transplanted and transported from other lands. Or, maybe it’s the nature of living in a vast, open land mass with freedom to move over it at will. It could be related to a need for speed – stemming from our human ancestry as slow, easy prey, where speed could save your life! But, I think we drive because it’s fun.

Why else would kids so quickly gravitate toward cars large and small, vrooming them around the kitchen floor, chirping the tires and tearing up linoleum roadways virtually from birth? This early sense of the joy behind the wheel, imaginary at that age at best, connects to a teenage need for freedom as we become young drivers in reality. Teens drive when they can because they can, even when they have no where in particular to go other than “away” – from parents, home, school, or anything the binds them to one spot for longer than ten minutes. Over time, our practical concerns mitigate the fun and we as adults need to get to specific places at specific times to do specific things that we can’t even remember right after we did them. Parents become taxis – servants to the wheel as they transfer kid cargo to school, sports, events, ice cream, etc. That can really suck the fun out of driving.

Still, even as fragmented and harried as daily driving can be, there are still moments when your favorite song comes on the radio, the breeze blows your hair back and you belt out time-worn lyrics mashing the gas harder to go faster, faster, heart-racing, losing yourself to the linoleum dreams and becoming the car, skimming the road in pure, crazy joy. It may only last until you get to the grocery store, but the fun of driving is still there. You knew it all along. You just needed a moment to find it.