In the middle of January, I decided to use up all my vacation days and go on a 6,000 mile road trip across America using a 1991 Saab 900 Turbo SPG. This car was new to me by only a few weeks. When I bought it, I was told it was free of any fist-sized rust holes in the belly pan, it didn’t have any spider nests in the driver’s footwell, and overall it was very reliable. None of that turned out to be true on this trip. Nonetheless I opted to trust my naive resourcefulness with the 30 year old, leaky, two-liter turbo and see how far it could get from home. Finished in Black with a Buffalo Grey leather interior, the car presented well in photos on the internet. I had no idea where this one’s been the past 121,000 miles showing on its odometer, but who needs a service history when a car looks this good…
Preparation was swift and uneventful. Several nights were spent waxing the black paint and charcoal body kit anticipating the dirt it would accumulate. The engine didn’t need much beside a quick tune up and some new vacuum lines. I left work Friday planning to leave early Saturday morning, but restlessness set in that night. Quickly and impulsively, I loaded up the Saab outside my apartment at 21st and Locust in Philadelphia. I blew up a mattress, packed my snowboarding gear, toolkit, blankets, shovel and food. I got in the driver’s seat, turned the floor-mounted ignition and pointed the hood towards Miami. Next stop, Richmond, VA.
This particular Saab was not exactly the most fun to drive. The suspension needed a thorough overhaul. It only drove okay when on the highway. All I wanted was for the car to go down the highway for the next 15 days. Older Saabs were designed for long distance driving, right? I made it past Richmond and pulled into a rest-stop. The rear deck is the perfect size for a twin bed. That’s part of the classic Saab appeal. The odd shape of the body is a result of cleverly hiding such practicality. But no practicality could hide the 20º cold. My feet lost feeling immediately and I slept 45 minutes.
Saab on a Ferry
From Richmond, I headed for the Cape Hatteras Ferry. The unloading and loading of the ferries represented the first moments of fun and optimism since packing the car. I never sat in a car on a boat before. We were all parked so close together, I kept walking into hitch receivers coming out between them. After a few minutes, we all drove off the first ferry and followed each other down the island to the next ferry. The sand and the sky was beautifully clear. I stopped at a beach parking lot and stood in the sand, alone on a beach that was brighter and sunnier than any I’ve seen in New Jersey. I took deep breathes and listened to the silence. It was a sound no living person in Philadelphia has ever heard. A sound that reminded me of when I turned off my motorcycle off on the side of the road in rural Quebec and all that could be heard was the dripping of hot oil. Everything made sense at that moment. I wanted to stay there forever.
I turned around to the out-of-place, black, wagon-car and made my way to the Ocracoke Ferry. The silence in that town was unforgettable. Everything was closed. Walking around, something told me a long time from now I would return to this town a very different person. The feeling was strong and I hadn’t a clue where it was coming from, but I knew in some distant future, I would be here again.
There was no horizon on the ferry. The sea blended perfectly into the sky in every direction. Seagulls flew behind us as the boat sped into the blue abyss and the sun set. Nothing but the hum of the boat’s engine and its carving of the ocean’s surface hinted at the presence of man. The ferry then unloaded everyone into the dark forests of the mainland. That’s when the first thing went wrong with the car. The headlights went out. The switch decided to start disconnecting itself over bumps in the road. I had to hold the switch in the ON position for the lights to stay on. One hand on the headlight switch, one hand on the steering wheel and one hand on the shifter knob. Such is the classic Saab driving experience for many unfortunate owners that never have their story told. The wind blowing through the coastal forests brought back memories of midnight motorcycle rides down Route 55 to Cape May. I felt very far from home, even though I knew I was only a fraction of a distance from home in relation to the immensity of Earth’s expanse. The weather outside was in the high 30s. It was usable for a couple hours sleep outside Jacksonville.
Outer Banks to Florida
I had to make a detour to Savannah. The Forest Gump bench was calling me or the hope that some kind of bench was there. It wasn’t. Unlike the Rocky statue in Philadelphia, I guess Savanah recognized this beautiful public space was too important to fill with Hollywood nostalgia. Savannah was like Olde City Philadelphia with less nightclubs and more weeping willows. There was history everywhere and I loved it.
The further I got into Florida, the harder the rain fell. It was the heaviest rain I’d felt in a long time. I’m sitting here writing this blog post in a Starbucks outside Portland, Oregon and it’s rained here everyday for the past two months, but it’s never rained like it did that evening I crossed the border into Florida. The palm trees started to appear one by one as I got closer to Jupiter where I planned to rest for several days. Pulling into my parking spot for the night, I wondered how much further I could go on this wet sphere spinning through space. How many horizons could I cross over before needing to turn back?
Party in the city where the heat is on
Tuesday I took the Saab to Miami. I had low expectations. I’ve seen every major East Coast city intimately and I grew tired of the same formula’s and the same people. Everyday seems like a cloudy day up in the tri-state corridor. But not here. First off, the town is much bigger than expected. It was a lengthy expanse like that of New York. I pulled onto a main drag under the long skyline and it all fell into place. Everyone dressed perfectly, beautiful cars everywhere. I drove around for an hour looking at this new world that for once didn’t follow the formula every American city seems to follow. This place was different. Not perfect. But different. Most importantly, I felt like I’d traveled. Buildings were bright white, the sky ridiculously blue. Bright green palm trees. Never has this much color tried to enter my eyelids. No one was speaking English. Mostly Spanish, Russian, whatever Eastern European dialect made its way here. No one looked like me and it was awesome. It was a melting pot unlike anywhere else.
I parked the car and started walking wherever I felt compelled. There was no trash anywhere. A welcome surprise. A walkway ran the distance of a white sand beach. I had the best cup of coffee in my life at a Cuban coffeeshop along that walkway. I sat under an umbrella sipping the hot coffee as the owner gave me unforgettable hospitality. I could’ve ended the trip at that coffee shop and feel great about it.
The End of the East Coast
The next day, I set my sights for the east side entrance of The Everglades and traveled through the most beautiful farm country to get there. This part of the country is the capital of fruit stands. Central Jersey ain’t got nothing on central Florida. Farms were systematically growing palm trees too. I imagine that when hotels need palm trees already grown, they go here. Interspersed between the farms were mansions, like chateaus on-top vineyards, except these homes are surrounded by fields of tropical fruit and palm trees instead of grapes and rolling hills. Scenes like this are one of the many benefits of selecting “No Tolls” on Google Maps when setting up a route.
Like Ocracoke, the Everglades was quiet. And there’s only one road that traverses the landscape and everyone is using it. The trick to finding solitude is to find a random trail, any trail, and follow it into the swamp as long as possible. Some of these trails go on for days.
One such trail was Snakes Bight Trail. I pulled off and started walking down the heavily trodden path for as long as I could. The swamp on either side was too dense to consider leaving the confines of the trail and forging my own path. I had no idea what was beyond that first layer of trees and knee deep water on either side. Slowly, the sun set. Mosquitoes everywhere. It was silent. The only noise came from geese flying over, pushing wind out from under their wings as they made their way to a far away lake. These moments of complete silence are one of the most valuable things in modern day life. I kept going for what seemed like miles. My sense of direction and position of the sun told me I was still going south and after about 10 miles I knew I would hit a featureless shoreline with nothing between me and Cuba.
I did not feel like I was on top of the food chain. It was a beautiful feeling. All my problems and worries of office life had vanished in those few hours. All I could think of right there was how little I could see in all directions. There was only forward or backward.
Nervousness set in as one turn after another started to disorient my sense of direction. The forest was so thick it was hard to tell exactly where the sun was setting. I wasn't sure which direction I was heading. Slowly, trees and branches started to look like animals or other humans moving about in the swamp. I hadn’t felt this feeling in a long time and I loved it. As soon as the sun started to disappear, the quiet was replaced by the noise of large animals moving about in the water surrounding me. I knew it was time to turn around.
Before embarking out on that trail I came across a crowd gathering at the Flamingo Visitors Center at the tip of the Florida Peninsula. A lot of the visitors center seemed abandoned or under construction. Not worth staying a while except for the views of the muddy expanse of the Gulf of Mexico. Then I spotted the dead whale. I didn’t think it was real at first. The blood and blubber was overwhelming to the faint of heart. I had never seen that much blood. It was a thirty-eight foot Bryde whale and a bulldozer was trying to get it over a boat loading ramp. Everyone stood in awe of the creature. It was by far the largest animal I had ever encountered. Quickly, I got tired of the tourists gasping and wished I was part of the rescue effort. I wanted so bad a job that could help at that moment; a job that felt meaningful.
Months later I found out the whale had ingested a sharp piece of plastic and had died at sea. It is known that only a few dozen Bryde whales exist in the Gulf of Mexico. They’re one of the most endangered animals on the planet. I will never forget the day I came across that scene. Driving across the everglades as the sun set, I felt at one with the surrounding landscape. It is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been too.
A Mississippi Midnight
On the road to Dallas, the sky was gray as the palm trees disappeared one. Something was looming over the car. Every bump, every stoplight, every overtaking pass left me doubting this car’s ability to make it home. And I was still three thousand miles and three time zones away from the destination. The panhandle took the car into the night. The highway became a dark mess of fleeting red and white light. Without much to go off, I could have been driving across the Sahara if it wasn’t for the humidity.
The smell started in Mobile, Alabama. It was like that of burning rubber, but it came from the air vents in the cabin. I pulled over and opened the hood as fast as you can open a classic Saab hood. The engine ticked along. Belts swiftly glided over their pulleys. Nothing seemed odd. I knew the car wanted the attention and warmth of a garage where it could sit still. Any more highway jaunts and it would surely stop and cry out in pain. I closed the hood and hit the road. That’s when I noticed the stars outside the sunroof. The road was wide open and the smell of the air coming going over the roof was enough to bring me back to life as a child growing up on the grassy hills of rural Pennsylvania. With no lights surrounding the car, I pretended I was on a boat in the middle of the ocean with nothing but the stars to keep us company. Life was perfect. There was nothing but the road ahead and the stars above.
That’s when I heard it. In the middle of the night, the most retched yell. The car screamed like I ran over string quartet. Under the hood and through the firewall, sounds came out I never knew an engine was capable of producing. Seconds ago, there was nothing but the sound of air flowing through the sunroof. The stars above faded as dashboard lights flashed. Smoke pushed its way out of the cracks in the hood and with it a burning rubber smell. The engine stalled before we could pull off to the side of the road. Confusion set in.
But there was no time to wonder what happened. This time she was done. Turning the ignition only produced more mechanical screams. I got out and pushed the car to the side of the road before the next semi could blow us by. Opening the hood as fast as you can open a classic Saab hood, fluids were at perfect levels, no signs of metal contacting metal, no damage anywhere. But then, The Big Dipper and the light of the flashlight was enough to make clear that right up against the slim space between the crankshaft pulley and the firewall, something was not turning as it should. I couldn’t tell if a pulley or belts were not moving in sync. My mind quickly linked the audible problem to a bad crankshaft pulley. The prospect of performing that job on the side of the road was not something I was ready to accept so I continued to look around. Had I known that a seized alternator, bad pulley and a cracked bracket was the problem at the time, life would have been much easier. I could have had us back on the road within hours of stopping off at an auto parts store.
I got a tow-truck to pick us up. This is the second time in my life I’ve had the pleasure of seeing one of my 900s being pulled onto a tow truck. We sat in silence as we made our way to a nearby hotel and the tow truck driver dropped the car off at the only mechanic he knew in town. Once at a hotel, I posted inquiries on every online Saab forum I could think of, asking others what they think happened and how to do this crankshaft pulley job in a parking lot. The next day I woke up to an overwhelming number of responses and a phone call from a friend at 7:30am. He provided a most gracious instruction on how to deal with this problem of a seized crankshaft pulley. It did not seem easy. Even though everyone told me it was this pulley, I still wasn’t sure. That’s not a job you want to do without 100% certainty going into it.
My mind wondered. If it was the crankshaft pulley, how would I get one of those out here? The car was dropped at a 2-star mechanic. Do Google ratings even matter around here? Is a random mechanic in this town going to have the special tools to get this job done? If I can’t fit two fingers down there, how would you fit a wrench? How much would that cost me? Would he screw me over? Do I have the tools to get it done? How am I going work in 30 degree weather? Wasn’t the South warm all year long? I had to make a plan. I made the call to grab a uHaul and continue on the road. The best thing to do is keep going until circumstances improve, as they always will on the road.
The car sat in the parking lot the next morning, like a big Swedish dog lying down with no intention of getting up when you pull on its leash. The only way to get the car onto the trailer was to start it up and give it a quick throttle. With the ramp lined up I turned the key and did my best to ignore the shrieks of pain. With a sudden drop, the car was over the hump and ready to be strapped down.
The car dolly was loud. Really loud. Chains and ramps and wheels bounced up and down as I made my way to Dallas. Having never handled a truck, trailer and car in one before, I soon got used to the extra six thousand lbs of banging metal that was now part of the classic Saab driving experience.
Thats when we decided to go for a Starbucks break and the day got much worse. I was ready to wind down after what I thought was the most stressful part of the trip. I got a strawberry iced tea and sank into one of their couches. Optimistic about the road ahead and the sun making its first appearance since South Florida, I pulled out of the adjacent lot we were in and got back on the open road. Unbeknownst to me, this exit actually turned into an entrance to the Starbucks parking lot. A parking lot with no room for a Uhaul truck, trailer and classic Saab to maneuver. Ahead of us hung a sign that read 8’6”. The sticker on our dashboard read 9’. Behind us, a line of cars waiting for us. I motion for everyone to give me room as I start to back this thing up. The rear tires of the Saab dragged sideways as I try to get the trailer and car to go in the same direction. It wasn’t working. Until now, I wasn’t aware it’s physically impossible to back up a car dolly. The pivoting motion of the trailer that allows it to turn going forward will always work against you going backward.
Thinking in retrospect, It was perfectly fine to move the car even though it cried out in pain. I should’ve taken it off the dolly, parked it in a nearby spot and backed up the truck without the cargo. If only I could think in retrospect all the time. After ten minutes of blocking everyone from getting to the drive-thru, we realize there is but one choice. I yank the column shifter into DRIVE and go for it. The hanging sign started to drag on the roof, but that was the least of my worries because the first three axles needed to get onto the curb at the perfect angle for our cargo to make the turn. With millimeters to spare on our precious three-spoke, refinished Ronals, we make the first of three turns as an over-eager voice asks, “What can I get started for you?!”
The next two turns out of the parking lot were much more pleasant. Adrenaline was through the roof as I came around to a small crowd gathering on the other side. I don't think I was happier at any moment of the trip than I was when I saw that invaluable, factory-installed bodykit clear the last curb. Onto Dallas. Parking lot PTSD prevented any further stopping.
Helpless in Texas
It being Sunday, there was a full day to wonder before the mechanic opened. Dallas was an airy, western city free of the congestion and stacked homes I was used too. But being an American city, it followed the same formulas and suffered the same problems. Every corner downtown was littered with the same trash and the same people strung out on the same stuff, helpless, ignored by the city. Everything was the same. On one corner a bunch of paramedics stood around a motionless man lying on the sidewalk. On another, a man yelling at thin air. Ten years in Philadelphia and I’ve learned not to think twice. Cross the street and go about your day. And like everywhere else, Dallas had a Brooklyn - Deep Elum. I made my way to the neighborhood in search of a sense of place. Awkwardness was all that was found. Everywhere, service was that of people who didn’t want to work in the service industry and the Mexican food was good at best, but nothing I haven’t had up North. It was the weekend and everyone was 23 and nobody was doing anything interesting, instead choosing to ride electric scooters down sidewalks. I could feel faraway tech culture forcing unwanted innovation in a town that couldn’t say no. Nobody said hello walking down the street. No one cared about each other. I didn’t get it. Where was all the fun happening? I felt like I traveled 2,000 miles from home and ended up in the same place. America can do that to you. Dealey Plaza had more positive energy than Deep Elum.
Monday morning I began the first of several correspondences with the mechanic. In seconds he had the car off the dolly, the hood opened and the problem diagnosed. As he cranked the engine with a manual starter he showed me the alternator pulley was not moving. The bearings had seized inside the alternator. A huge sigh of relief came over. But how the hell did I not see the alternator pulley refusing to rotate this whole time? Nonetheless, getting an alternator out of this engine bay was going to be easier than getting the crankshaft pulley out, right? Still, it was buried in there and I didn’t have the confidence to start tearing it apart. I left the car in the trusting hands of our new friend and spent the day exploring.
We dropped off the trailer at a local uHaul place and used the truck as our transportation for day. Instead of taking a chance on a train downtown, we walked to a thousand acre drainage park east of town. It was wide open and green. The only patch of green on Google Maps. It was beautiful in an ugly, Dallas sorta way.
I felt like a kid with nothing to do all day but sit in the sun and look out at the town. These moments sitting around under the blue sky reminded me how young I still am. My mind wondered. Who am I kidding? Why do I keep thinking I’m getting old? Why do I keep trying so hard to have a youthful feeling. It’s useless to chase that nostalgia. No matter what happened to me out here, I’m going to look back on this crazy trip with a youthful eye as long as I live. Everything will work itself out. I sat in the grass with nothing to do but wait for my car to take me home. Everything was going to be alright. For once in a long time I felt good about myself - good that I figured out how to get through these anxious, crazy days. Days that would cause some people to cry, some people to get angry, some people to go crazy. I was happy to be myself at that moment. I suffered a horrible trip from Florida and yet I could still look out onto a drainage wasteland and be happy. I was proud that I had crossed the country once more. My 12 year old self would be ecstatic. I was ready for whatever else the world could throw at me. On with it.
The next morning I left the shop with a huge dent in my wallet and sights set for Fort Worth. The Stockyards were touristy, but much appreciated. The turquoise, Thomas Molesworth-style furniture was a delight. Gone was the familiarity of Appalachia and in it’s place the mystifying expanse of the American West. But it was these beautiful painted scenes of mountains and plains in these stores that brought on an immense sadness. My mind wondered. I wanted to walk into those paintings. I wanted to be there, but something told me I was never going to see the West that I traveled so far to see. I needed to get out of these stores or else I would spend all day yearning for those arranged scenes inside canyons and across plains. They were oil and canvas. They were fake, but I knew somewhere at sometime they were as real as ever. Was I ever going to find them?
I had two-thousand miles of road ahead in a car that was getting harder to drive every mile. Every bump sent shudders up the rusted belly-pan and down my spine. Every turn of the key twisted my mind with an anxiety that lasted all day. I was in Texas. It was February. The three states between this machine and Whitefish had yet to break zero degrees this week and snow left much of the route unpassable. The road ahead was uncertain. It was exactly what I wanted.
Two Hundred Miles Outside Amarillo
I made it another 100 miles until stopping for a break at a rest stop. A truck driver complimented me on my bedding setup in the car. He had a very thick Indian accent and I wandered what led him to this life of driving a semi across Texas. That’s when everything went to hell once more. The battery light came on as it always had when starting the car, but this time it didn’t go out when I pulled away. I pulled over and cycled the engine once more. Still, the light stayed on. I figured if the engine wasn’t charging the battery, I shouldn’t start and stop the car anymore. I was furious. I replaced this alternator yesterday.
I pulled into the small town of Electra, sat in an abandoned gas station, opened the hood, took a look around, and called the mechanic who did all this work. He seemed surprised, but also reluctant to dive deep into the problem because there’s only so much a mechanic can do over the phone in these situations. Either the wire’s are hooked up or they aren’t. He walked me through the path the wires in question took and everything checked out. The awkward silences in our exchange left me feeling we both had nothing left to say to each other. He wasn’t willing to redo all the work he did and I was several hours away from his shop with only a few minutes left on a dying battery. I had no time for him. I was left to my own devices once more.
The problem was inside the alternator. My only guess was that this mechanic put in a refurbished alternator and as luck would have it, that one crapped out too. I must have started and stopped my car three times at this point. I needed to make a decision fast or else I’d need a jump or a tow. I remembered AutoZone provided free battery testing and charging. Still not yet free from the East Texas suburbs, I found one just 10 miles away in Wichita Falls. They showed the battery at just 3%. I opted for the free one-hour recharge.
There was nothing I could do but sit and wait and let my mind race with the thoughts of ending the trip in this sad parking lot. Self doubt prevailed. What was I accomplishing by doing this? How could I handle any more problems? What kind of trip is this? I wanted my old 900 back - the one that could handle a cross country trip. The sense of frustration and confusion was overwhelming.
After the hour, the battery was full, but the alternator was still failing. There was no time to get mad at the car, the guy who sold it to me, or the mechanic that didn’t fix it with my money. I needed to make some phone calls and get myself out of this mess and on my way home. That’s when the greatest thing that could ever occur in an AutoZone parking lot happened to me. A delivery guy nearby overheard my story, pulled out a box of Dr. Pepper from the back of is truck and asked,
“Is this box yours?”
“What? No, sorry” I answered confused.
“I think it is” he said.
Then I realized what he was doing. He felt bad about my situation and was offering me a full case of Dr. Pepper. I hadn't had soda in years, but the warm, sixteen-can gesture changed my day. That’s what I was missing on this trip - people. I wasn't meeting people like this guy. People that go out of their way to help. People that don’t really have much to give, but make you feel great any way they can. I felt great.
Untrusting of AutoZone’s tests, I found another shop down the road and asked them to test it. They said the same thing. It’s done. But they had no time for a walk-in like this. Then I remembered seeing a Bosch sign on the side of the highway on the way in to town and figured that’s a good bet for a mechanic empathetic to my “European car” situation. When I told them my story and how far I was from home, the manager asked if I had a Bible. Sensible answer. I was glad he was willing to help out, but he said it might take a day or two since it was almost the weekend.
While waiting for my Uber at the shop, I ran into one of the younger mechanics about my age and he showed me his rusting 280z parked in the field out back. I knew enough to talk to him about it, but I was so exhausted and high strung from making all these emergency phone calls with the looming possibility that I’ve made it as far as I could go on this trip. I was not at my best for automotive small talk. Regardless, this mechanic reminded me of the Dr. Pepper guy from down the street and the Wawa guy on my motorcycle trip to Canada. These are the only people that matter on these trips. These are the people that define what traveling across the USA is all about. Their friendliness and openness is enough to change your mood. It’s enough to put you back on track and keep you going. I need to write more about these people and less about everything else in-between. I need to make the most of these interactions because they provide meaning behind an endless journey.
I checked into my hotel and got myself ready for the weekend ahead. Saturday came and went. Sunday I grabbed some laundry and headed for a laundry mat a mile down the road looking for some meaning to the day. Walking down a road without a sidewalk, I kept searching for a feeling I was in a far away land that was different from my own, but I didn’t find anything. The grass was paler, the people talked slower and the houses all a single story. Other than that, everything was exactly the same. The same businesses, the same rundown parking lots, the same depressed locals, the same disheveled lawns, the same hum of a nearby freeway, the same food, the same views and the same prison of a mind. My mind had not changed. After finally being left alone, I was still inside myself, thinking about the same things. I wanted to be in the mountains. I wanted to be in the desert. I wanted to be anywhere but stuck here.
On the way back to the hotel, a dog started following me. I started to gain empathy and tried to approach him. He barked. I walked away and it kept following me. He was walking in and out of the road as cars weaved around him. He looked like he really needed help, but nobody was willing. I bet he wanted a way out of his life. Wherever he came from, I bet he didn’t know how to get out of his life so he followed me in the hopes I had a way out for him. I wondered for a moment what my life would be like if I took him with me.
There was a Chinese buffet next to the hotel. It was a Sunday night and the place was empty except for a fat Texas family who were probably wondering what a tall, thin, curious boy was doing there alone. I wondered the same thing. The decor, the food, the people, the fortunes, they were exactly as they were in Pennsylvania. What other part of the world besides America can you travel for weeks only to be met by the same exact culture you left?
Monday morning came around and I was ready to get the hell out of this town. I got a call from the mechanic saying the car would be ready early afternoon. I assembled my luggage and took an Uber to a nice coffee shop in downtown Wichita Falls to wait. The place was full of lively twenty somethings sitting around doing coffee shop things. Everyone had a young optimistic look about them. The place was decorated in bright colors and the coffee and food was outstanding. I was far from the laundry mat of yesterday and yet only a few miles down the road.
Before I knew it, the sight of a classic Saab came into view on the street. As a bystander, the SPG has a presence that keeps you staring. The Scandinavian design looked out of place on that road and I was fascinated by it. Maybe its those three-spoke Ronals that give the car an aeronautical look as your eyes pick up the graceful spinning. Watching this car go down the street was like watching my 1987 SPG parked in the middle of a field in Kansas five years ago. Too bad this ‘91 will never be what my ‘87 was to me.
We went back to the shop were they talked me through the work they did. They kept using the word “halfass” which left me with some questions. It was tough to see exactly what was done down there with all the plumbing in the way, but I trusted the job was done as correctly as possible. They were honest people. Only when I got back to my garage in Pennsylvania would I become aware of the 2x4 that held my alternator in place on the highway for the 1,500 mile return journey. They were working with a severely cracked alternator bracket and from the looks of it, they did a pretty damn good job with what they had lying around. Then I thought, did the Saab mechanic in Dallas know this bracket was cracked? Was he being upfront with me about the extent of my problems? Did it crack just after leaving his shop?
One Thousand Miles in Twenty Four Hours
At this point, without a doubt, I knew this car had come as far as it was going to go. The trip was over and I was ready to get the hell out of the South. I fell into the driver’s seat, turned the floor-mounted ignition, pointed my hood towards Memphis and took off.
The vast expanse of Oklahoma and Arkansas came and went in the high-speed night. Like my midnight trip across Mississippi, the memories of these places are but fleeting red and white light surrounded by dark forests and imaginary plains. I remember signs for Dallas, and then all of Oklahoma passed in a matter of hours. Evening in Oklahoma was the first I saw of any vastness since leaving the Everglades. It was beautiful. Every now and then a faint belt squeal would penetrate the firewall and my heart would sink. This kept me from enjoying anything. I was too alert to fall asleep. Every rattle, every noise, every shake was cause for concern. I was too scared to stop so I kept going. Eventually I made it too Memphis. From Memphis I would make it to Philadelphia in less than a day.
I found a hotel on the outskirts of Memphis and slept a few hours. The next morning I decided to get out and explore what could possibly be the last stop in my trip. It was a sad day. Memphis deserved a better mood. It was 10am, but the town seemed like a fun place to live. It had similar visuals to New Orleans - lots of blues influences. Touristy, but rightfully so. I enjoyed the healthy combination of Blues bars, Baseball, hipsters, and minimal trash. I could see myself living in a town like this. But I was far from the West. The Rockies and the deserts beyond were 5 state lines away. Onto Nashville.
There was absolutely nothing I wanted to see on the roads between Nashville and Philadelphia. I’ve done the Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina, Virginia, Asheville, all of it. I was tired of it. I kept going as the night got colder and colder, stopping only for quick naps. I knew my body didn’t need another 6 hours of sleep so I would nod off for a few minutes at a rest stop every couple of hours. I buried myself in blankets until the cold crept in, then I would get back on the road. This cycle repeated itself all night. By the time the Sun showed it’s face on the horizon, my body clock was reset and I was ready for another day of driving. The reward for this lunatic road trip - the sunrise over the Blue Ridge Mountains. I was not tired any longer. I will never forget that sunrise. If that was any kind of reward for what I went through this past week, I’ll take it.
Over one thousand miles in twenty four hours. I was happy this trip was over. I knew I was to return to the West someday and it would be different. In a different car. With a different objective. I was clearly not meant to take this trip in this car. I was much too ambitious in my route. I should have simply gone to Miami, had that unforgettable cup of Cuban coffee and turned back. But here I was, pulling into my same old parking spot in Philadelphia. It was Wednesday morning. I had left Texas Monday afternoon.
I slipped into bed and moved on with my life.
Writing after having completed the journey in my 2007 Volvo XC70 the following August, I can look back on my winter trip with worry. A cold front had engulfed much of the mountains in February. It was -5º in Wyoming and Montana. In August I learned there was no cell service for much of the trip on those long stretches of road across Wyoming. There was the very real chance I could have been stranded had that car broken down again. Was I prepared with all my emergency supplies? Doubt it. I had bent the structure of the universe to my liking and was not prepared to follow such a path at that time. Something was looking out for me when that car broke down. Or maybe I just made the right call myself.