The garage sparkles in expectation of its new resident; it looks leaner without the scary oil drip pan holding court in the center. Meanwhile, Ru stands forlornly in the rain. Ru has been a faithful servant and a twinge of regret jabs my conscience as I prepare to abandon it. Despite their steel, rubber, and plastic components, my cars inevitably develop their own personas.
My training wheels belonged to the ranch GMC pickup. It was of mid-60’s vintage, new when my mother bought it, but by the time I drove it, the newness was buried under miles of baked-on mud, manure, and dust. I don’t remember the pickup’s persona. It was never my car so I never developed much of a relationship with it. I remember being slightly embarrassed about driving it to school, but I countered the embarrassment by embracing my distinction as a ranch kid. This rough and tumble identity jarred when I emerged from the GMC clutching a violin case. Such would be the juxtapositions of my future.
I inherited the next car from a failed marriage. It was ten years old when we bought it, which I thought qualified it as a classic. The ’64 Ford Galaxy was robin’s egg blue with an automatic transmission, power windows, power steering and brakes, am/fm radio, air-conditioning, and bucket seats. Although by today’s standards it was a behemoth and suffered from a variety of health problems, I loved driving this car. It handled like a reining horse—soft ride and fingertip maneuverability. I ministered to the Galaxy’s hot flashes by carrying a bucket of water for drives beyond the local grocery store. I finessed the starter during cold weather. Indeed, every time I went to start this car, I held my breath in expectation of a new problem. As soon as I was financially able, I began the daunting process of choosing and purchasing my first new car.
Aside from my house, the 1978 Plymouth Sapporo was the biggest purchase of my life. I loved this car! I drove it home from the dealership, parked it in the garage, and for our first week together I wished I could bring it to bed with me. At least once an hour while I was at home, I’d giddily trot to the garage for another peek. The midnight blue, metallic paint was as thrilling as the sight of a lover’s face in a crowd. Its gleaming hulk and eager engine enticed me on road trips near and far. The Sapporo was a stylish, sporty-looking vehicle that drew attention. There were very few Sapporos on the road and driving my car made me feel like I knew something most people didn’t.
My love affair with the Sapporo was marred by one unfortunate fact. Its rear-wheel drive balked at climbing the curvy, snow-covered road to the ski area. Navigating the road to Bogus Basin required nerve and butt clenching at the least, and chains for snow accumulations of over two inches. In 1987, Bogus kicked off a stellar ski season by opening on Thanksgiving morning. I had reluctantly committed to dining with a group of friends in the afternoon, but I was determined to get up the mountain for a morning of early tracks before the meal. I couldn’t find a service station to install chains, so in desperation, I did it myself. About halfway up the mountain a cable broke and began viciously slamming the car’s rear flank. I tried wiring the cable to itself, but my work-around didn’t last. Cursing every errant service station in the country, myself, and the Sapporo’s lack of guts, I gritted my teeth, closed my ears, and pressed onward. I felt like a child abuser when I saw the damage. I came to terms with the reality that my needs had outgrown my beloved car’s abilities. Parting with the Sapporo felt like selling a hand-raised and trained colt at auction. As I drove my new raspberry red Plymouth Laser off the car lot, I glanced back at the dejected Sapporo and my stomach clenched.
The Laser was another sporty-looking car that got rave reviews for its class that year. Even so, it was undersold in the US and people often questioned me about it. It felt exotic with its sleek, hot-rod design and sensuous swelling on the left side of the hood, which accommodated the DOHC turbocharged 2.0 engine with five-speed manual transmission. On my first road trip with the new car, I was dazzled by the car’s spunk. When a Mustang convertible, filled with teenaged boys, flew past me on a long straight away in Eastern Oregon, I jumped on the accelerator and the Laser leaped forward like a quarter horse. We passed the raucous boys, sparking a game of tag. As the speedometer inched toward 130 mph, the Laser hinted at flight as it crested the gently undulating freeway beneath us. My soon-to-be husband calmly inquired what the penalty in Oregon would be for traveling at one-quarter the speed of light. I didn’t bother with the math; he’d made his point and done so in the wisest possible manner. As the needle dropped back towards the 80’s, I glanced over at him just as his white knuckles began to uncurl from the door handle. The boys in their convertible fisted the air in triumph and hurtled towards their destinies.
The Laser had front-wheel drive, which made the trip to Bogus infinitely easier. It also had a hatch back that accommodated my sleeping bag and me for tent-free camping. During the winter of 1990, the Boise valley hunched under a five-month siege of snow and a record-breaking stretch of sub-zero temperatures. By then the Laser and I were living in suburban comfort in a brand new house in a brand new subdivision. I would crawl out of bed at 4 AM to shovel another foot of snow off the driveway so that I could get a running start at our unplowed cul-de-sac. Gunning the engine, I’d peel out of the garage in reverse and thump into a snowdrift from which I’d dig, rock, and spin myself forward in six-inch increments until I got to the plowed main road. Trips to Bogus, though less difficult than they had been with Sapporo, still required a good deal of cheek clenching when the car high centered on snowy hairpin curves. After eight years, this car had taken me to every trailhead it could negotiate in the Sawtooths. Many more roads and many more adventures lay in wait just outside the Laser’s range. A new car on the market was getting a lot of buzz.
The AWD Subaru Outback boasted great traction plus over seven inches of ground clearance, with an admirable fuel rating of 21-27 mpg. Much as I hated the idea of driving a station wagon, the Outback cornered exceptionally well and offered me the ability to extend my range deeper into the mountains. Like a lover, spurning the handsome pauper for the homely millionaire, I defected. I never loved my Outback the way I had loved my previous cars. I admired this car. It was practical and reliable. It got me anywhere I wanted to go. Inching down a steep narrow, rocky, rutted, two-track trail, I often came nose to nose with some gargantuan pickup on oversized wheels bulling its way up. Macho men inside these rigs would stare in disbelief at the crazy woman who had already scaled their peak—in a station wagon!
The Outback was as ubiquitous in the mountain west as needles on a pine tree. To find my green Outback in a crowded parking lot, I resorted to tying a red ribbon on the antenna. Even with that, I often found myself staring into a car just like mine, wondering what all that stuff on the front seat was, only to realize that my car was one space to the right of the one I was about to get into. I even heard rumors of remote locks that worked on a stranger’s Subaru allowing a driver to discover, three blocks from home, that they were driving the wrong Outback! So much for a distinctive look.
My “Kangru” served faithfully for 13 years. I believe it could have served another 10 years, if I had been a faithful partner. But things were wearing out. Major organs were beginning to fail and I don’t like surprises. On a road trip last fall, I wantonly ignored the Ru’s pleas for help. I’d had it checked and fully serviced before I left; I simply couldn’t believe the wake of smoke that followed us down the road. “It’s done this before,” I remembered. “The mechanics must have spilled oil somewhere.” In fact, there was a larger problem with the oil. After I got to my destination, an astounding repair bill fixed the immediate problem. But the damage was done. In essence, I killed my car. That is why the poor beast sits out there in the rain. Tomorrow a shiny new car will settle into the sparkling clean garage. How, I wonder, will this new car intertwine with my life?