Somehow, that Thanksgiving holiday passed way too quickly! In my family, it’s the Grandma’ – me – who goes over the river and through the woods to join family for any given holiday, an 8-hour drive. I don’t know how long I’m going to be able to drive so far for a few days, but I do know that asking my daughter to pack up a husband and three kids (the youngest is 3-1/2) and drive that far is a major production – and, most likely, an interruption in school for the older boys.
This year, the drive got me to thinking about the cars and trucks in our lives, and what they mean to us. I have a housemate at the moment, a woman originally from Russia, who grew up in Moscow. There’s no need to drive in Moscow any more than there is a need to drive in New York City; there’s plenty of public transportation, and the crowded city streets make owning a car and driving a pretty unreasonable proposition. So at my house, Natalia is gradually learning to drive; we live in a suburb, and there’s just no way she can get to her internship and various appointments unless she learns. She remains astonished at how much the West is dependent upon the car. But then, it was the railroad which opened up the West to white settlement, so speed and wide-open spaces were built into the idea of transportation here from the very beginning.
At my daughter’s house in northern Idaho – up on a hillside overlooking the stunning Lake Pend O’reille – not having a car is unthinkable. Diana’s husband, Bob, is a relief pharmacist who works several days a week in Yakima, Washington, a 5-hour drive away; he’s home intermittently, for a few days each week or every couple of weeks, depending on the needs of his job. As a result, Diana drives her three boys eight miles southeast to church on Sundays; 15 miles northwest to go shopping or to activities at the charter school the older boys attend; back eight miles southeast for a youth group that the boys enjoy, or for events like the annual 4th of July parade (in small-town America, those are the best kinds of parades!); and back 15 miles northwest for doctor’s appointments, getting repairs done on the car, or football and soccer practice. She lives in her car, as do the parents of millions of teenagers. Bob drives a little Ford Taurus for his long commutes to and from work; Diana and the boys enjoy the combination of toughness and luxury found in their Lincoln Navigator.
Because Diana and Bob live on some extremely rural, forested acreage, they also have an old beater truck they inherited from friends who left the area. That old truck scarcely works, but it is pressed into service for trips to the local landfill and to haul wood off the property as needed. This is the kind of country for which pickup trucks were invented.
For all the years that I lived in Montana – 24, to be precise – I had four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive vehicles. These are necessary in the high mountain snow country, when you find yourself traveling somewhere in the state on a narrow, two-lane road that is getting pummeled by a harsh snowstorm. I used to love heading south to parts of Oregon or California and to gaze in wonder at what I called the “land of shiny cars and convertibles.” These weren’t new to me; I grew up in California. But now those cars had become a novelty. How nice it would be, I would think, to have some sporty little convertible to drive around in on warm summer afternoons. My mid-life crisis passed with my giving into the temptation – hang it all anyway!
I still have my all-wheel drive “baby SUV” – a Toyota Highlander – that I bought in Montana about 8 years ago. With just 117,000 miles on it, I intend to drive it into the ground before giving it up for a newer vehicle. It should go to 200,000 miles easily; and although I find myself, this year, drooling over the newer models, there’s just no way I can afford one right now. I’m glad I made a good, solid investment in a good vehicle when I had the chance; next to the mortgage, it’s been the big-ticket item in my life.
That’s probably true for most of us. Living in the West means, for the most part, living in an area that is heavily dependent on the automobile, and despite all our wishes to live differently – less dependent upon foreign oil, more environmentally responsible – that’s not going to change any time soon in this part of the country. As a result, our love affair with cars continues. When I first dated my husband back in high school, he had a royal blue ’57 Chevy station wagon with blue fur on the dashboard. If you pressed the horn, you heard chimes. I remember the first car I ever bought in my own name many years later, a little green Chevy; and I so well remember the first rush of gratitude I felt in Montana after learning the benefits of a four-wheel drive vehicle in rough terrain and rough weather. I cannot look at a Ford F-150 truck without remembering a ranch we once owned; was there ever a better ranch vehicle?
The cars and trucks of our lives: they aren’t merely practical. They cause a rush of sentimental memory many years after their useful lives are over.