Perhaps dispatches about used cars and insurance were not what my readers had in mind when I set off on my great adventure to live in the west. But before any adventures could be had, wheels were required. Thus, the story of my continued exploits begins not with mountains or rivers (they come later) but with the mundane and taxing effort to purchase and insure, at the age of 30, my first car.
Modeling myself as ever on two of my (and many other people’s) dead literary heroes, the good sirs Kerouac and S. Thompson (addictions and suicides aside), I concluded that some new territory and a moving vehicle could only assist me in gathering more tales to tell. But where did my dead literary heroes get their cars? Not from Craigslist. Kerouac’s buddy was a crackerjack car thief, and HST rented his, but Rolling Stone picked up the tab. Lacking both larcenous friends and mainstream patronage, these options were out.
“You’re not going to go Alexander Supertramp on us, are you?” asked more than one dubious New Yorker. Hardly. While I admire the purity of his efforts, he had a death wish, while I think of myself as having more of a life wish. He abandoned his car, while I would first need a car to abandon. Plus, I am too chicken to hitchhike. I have met a few women who hitchhike alone, but after all these years of at least trying to avoid psychopaths, I could not in sound mind stand by the side of the road beckoning them with my thumb.
So it was to Craigslist for me, to buy my own car outright, with all the financial angst and fossil-fuel guilt it would entail. During this two-week process, I learned a few things. I learned that buying a car off Craigslist is a bit like dating, and was reminded once again why I despise dating, and so greatly prefer hanging out. I learned that contrary to my belief that I don’t care at all about cars, I do actually have some taste in cars, and that I did know what I wanted, after all.
“You’ll know when it’s the right one,” everyone said, which is also what people say to my engaged friends when they shop for wedding dresses. In the end I bought a white car that cost less than some of my friends’ fancier wedding dresses. “I am driving around in my wedding dress,” I thought. “I am married to the road!”
I had pretty much decided I wanted a Subaru because I had imprinted, like a baby duck, on a Subaru last summer. I had been loaned two successive Subarus in which to explore the West, thus sealing the deal on my moving here. I drove them around all summer having adventures and thereafter equated Subaru ownership with reliable car performance during adventures, a trait for which Subarus are rightly known.
There were two main reasons to get a Subaru. One was that they all had all-wheel drive and the other was that you could sleep in one. Would I really be sleeping in my Subaru? Did I really need all-wheel drive? What was the purpose of all-wheel drive?
“Like if you’re going to Tahoe,” was the uniform response.
“Oh yeah,” I kept replying. “Tahoe.”
Would I be going to Tahoe? No one had as yet invited me to go to Tahoe. And what if they never did? Or what if they did invite me to Tahoe, but they were all really good snowboarders and I was left all alone? What would I do in Tahoe? Drive around in my all-wheel drive vehicle?
I supposed with my all-wheel drive vehicle I could invite others to go to Tahoe. Perhaps that was how new friendships were formed here in California. “Would you like to go to Tahoe with me in my all-wheel drive vehicle?”
Through these interactions, I discovered that I really liked saying the word, “Tahoe.” All the all-wheel drive car owners I encountered said “Tahoe.” And I echoed, “Tahoe. Tahoe, Tahoe.”
Did I need a car I could sleep in? I could definitely imagine some situations in which I would. I wanted a car that could be my companion on any adventure I could dream up, a car with the fewest limitations and the most possibilities. I wanted a car with the exact qualities that I hoped to one day find in a mate. Just as in my romantic life, I came to the simultaneous realizations that I knew what I wanted and also that it would be hard to find and still more difficult to possess.
Typically, I fell in love with the wrong car before I met the right one. The first one failed its pre-sale inspection and the second one passed, and I realized that buying a car is not like dating at all, because you can have the car checked out by a trained professional and they can find out what’s wrong with it and either fix it or look you in the eye and advise you to just walk away right now, which is not how it is with humans.
After several disappointing experiences, one day there came into my life a 2000 Subaru Outback Sport wagon with 99,990 miles on it. While I had wanted a 2002 or later, this mileage was low. While I had thought I wanted the slightly smaller Impreza, I decided bigger could be better. When I went to look at the car and the owner folded down the rear seats and I lay down experimentally inside, I noticed that I could stretch out completely and not diagonally, as I was forced to in the Impreza, and this sealed the deal. When I test-drove the car, I felt immediately that it was mine.
Through some intense negotiations, I reached a sweet deal on the car, a good thousand bucks below its supposed blue book value. “You drive a hard bargain,” said the owner, who was moving to New York City, of all places. This seemed right, our cosmic balance. He was an accountant, fortyish, with two young kids. I took this as a sign of his trustworthiness—my father is an accountant, as was my grandfather. We negotiated in the man’s empty house as the movers packed the last of his things.
When I returned with the bank check to pick it up, the accountant asked me, “What exactly are you going to do with this car?”
“Well,” I said, “I’m going to roam around in it all summer, until I go to Europe in August, and then in September I’m going to try to find work for myself, and make a go of it here in the Bay Area, and if I go broke and can’t support myself or the cost of maintaining the car then I’ll sell it and take the money and go somewhere else, I guess. But hopefully I’ll be able to live here for a while, because I’ve always wanted to and I feel very drawn to this whole coast right now.”
“Wow, so you’re kind of a free spirit,” said the accountant. “Like, anything goes.”
“I dunno,” I said. I thought of all the neurosis and stress and angst that had gone into all of my seemingly free-spirited actions. “In some ways. I get pretty wound up sometimes. I worry. I’m either a very worried free spirit or a very free-spirited worrier. But right now I’m really just going with it.”
“So would you say that we are at totally opposite points in our lives right now?” he asked. “That we basically have opposite lives?”
“I don’t know about totally opposite,” I said. “Accounting has always been an important part of my life and I have great respect for the profession.”
I shook the accountant’s hand. “Pleasure doing business with you,” I said. “Best of luck.”
“You, too,” he said. I felt bad for him. We were standing outside his empty house and I was driving away in his only remaining car. His life had been dismantled before his eyes, only to be reassembled on the opposite coast. I felt as if I were taking something from him, though I was paying for it.
I felt that the car, in its quasi-suburban life to this point, had not been pushed to its limit. I felt that I might do it more harm than it had come to thus far, beat it and batter it and ding it and dent it and possibly wreck it. I felt the weight of ownership, a weight I had not wanted in my life, the weight of titles and deeds and papers, the weight of maintenance and mechanisms and mechanics and the mysteries of machines, and the counterbalancing lightness of traveling autonomy. I felt the vulnerability to the law and all the ways I could knowingly and unknowingly break it, and the sheer thrill and terror of speed. I felt myself bound more deeply into the awful web of oil, the bad taste of becoming a bigger part of the problem. What a terrific freedom and an awful responsibility!
I turned onto a street at the top of a giant hill and pulled over to call the insurance company and put the coverage into effect. The hill was so steep and the streets so undulating, I felt as if I were poised at the top of a roller coaster. I could see all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge. Its towers were piercing through a solid blanket of fog. Beyond it were mountains, and more mountains, and places I could drive to. Unbelievably, as I pulled away from the curb, the mileage clicked over to 100,000, and I drove onward into my own uncertain future and SubyRuby’s next century grand.