I got started right before dawn, when you get the first hints that the night sky is still blue. I lurched my car forward 10 feet, just enough to see if there was oil dripping underneath. The last night before the road is always the most paranoid. A co-worker pointed out a faint scorching smell coming through the AC and I frantically checked the levels to make sure I didn’t have to call my mechanic for an eight a.m. check-in before driving for nine hours. It’s the first time I’ve been properly on the road since I’ve got her back from major surgery. I’ve known the timing belt was hitting the limit, and the last routine service ended up being the turning point where I had to decide whether to sell it for a bad price in a good market, or put thousands of dollars forward to try to keep it running. By way of a sentimental instinct, or perhaps just stubbornness, I went with the latter.
Many people will pay any price to prolong the life of a beloved pet, and since I grew up without any dogs or cats that instinct was transposed onto my car. My car, my first car, my only car, is a 2004 Volkswagen GTI, 2-doors, gray paint, and a manual transmission. My dad found it for sale on the side of the road in Portland probably 15 years ago and got it for my older sister, before it was passed down to me five years later. He insisted we learn to drive on stick shifts, teaching both of us in a ‘67 VW Beetle he tries to keep alive every summer, wandering us through empty industrial parks on Sundays after church. There’s a reverence for cars he instilled upon us (that stuck with me, at least)—probably something to do with a Porsche being an early aspirational image for him—and he got upset when he saw that my favorite part of my Need for Speed game was seeing just how much I could destroy the vehicle. He liked it much better when I’s spend hours flipping through car magazines he brought back from business trips abroad; me studying the latest models of Peugeots, Citroëns, Opels, and Alfa Romeos, all those cars that were banal on another continent but exotic to me. While I don’t have that instinct for destruction in my daily life anymore, my obsession continues to be with the car not as a showroom object, but a body in motion.
Checking my watch around six a.m. I realized that if I took my standard, toll-ridden route north I’d be at the top of the turnpike just in time for NYC’s rush hour and should probably divert. That, along with a fear the car still wouldn’t work and I’d end up stranded in the center lane on the Delaware Memorial Bridge, pushed me away from 95 and over to 83. I never fill the tank anymore, not since the latch on the pump failed to release in Eau Claire, Wisconsin the last time I tore across the country, spilling at least a gallon of combustibles on the side of my car, right rear tire, the ground, and, of course, myself (a problem where the cause is still ambiguous whether it is the car or was a faulty pump). Ten gallons is enough to get me to upstate, I figure. So long as the car holds.
It took the better part of a month to get the work done on my car; two weeks for the parts to get in, two weeks to make them fit. At almost 20 years old, there’s not a lot of new parts left in the world, let alone the country. My mechanic laid everything out, all the new tubes and belts and the ways he was going to reroute one thing and move another forward. At first glance I mistook his tattoos for something unsavory, but on further examination noticed that his body was covered with emblems of auto manufacturers—my little VW was in good hands. The timing belt, despite involving taking the entire engine block apart and putting it back together, was the simple part. The new radiator was larger and had to get moved forward under the hood, rebuilding and reworking the coolant and airflow systems.
In fact, the air intake is too efficient now, giving me a permanent check engine light as the sensory is constantly tripped, thinking something has gone wrong while my turbocharger kicks in 500RPM earlier than it did before. It drives twitchier than before too, liking to run at higher RPM and giving the car a much smaller window to drive efficiently, especially on hills. Something, I’m sure, the average consumer wouldn’t be keen on but to me makes gunning through any stretch of twisty country with the windows down, listening to the way the turbo whistles and the car screams is an absolute joy.
The sun rose golden over Pennsylvania, brilliant oranges peaked through the dells and over the mist rising from the morning waters running parallel to that highway which buried Baltimore’s river under the city. It was cool enough not to need AC. It’d be a long way while worrying, yet in no time the car turned interstates to two-lanes, and the smell of the cigarettes that kept me focused got drowned out by cow shit and lavender fields, with obelisks peeking through green mountains and everyday life gets folded into touristy simulacra while the American road runs seamlessly between the real and imagined. My car, it seemed, was as happy to be back on the road as me.