The coolest car I have ever gotten to drive was my mom’s Mustang convertible. Bucket seats, an FM radio converter screwed in beneath the console, a black vinyl top that took just a couple of quick snaps near the sun visors and a flip of a switch to have it go down, down, down, and let the sunshine in.
It was a very sweet ride for a 16-year-old.
I haven’t given much thought to the cars I have owned since — a big, hulking Oldsmobile Omega; a Buick LeSabre that looked like my dad’s company car (most likely because it previously was my dad’s company car); and my current wagon on wheels, practical and boxy. Each was solid, safe, reliable.
Which is why the irony wasn’t lost on me that shortly before the 100th anniversary of the Model T was being marked by car aficionados, my husband and I found ourselves momentarily spinning our wheels, so to speak. Our combustion engines had gone bust. Our fuel injection systems were out of gas. We had keys but nothing to turn in the ignition.
My trusty wagon coughed up a cloud of smoke one morning. Leaking oil seemed to be the culprit, but the tell-tale smell of coolant also pointed to the possibility of a clogged radiator.
Less than a week later, with vehicle No. 1 still out of commission, vehicle No. 2 contracted an annoying squeak that with 48 hours turned into a grinding metal-on-metal squeal.
It was beginning to look like we needed to put our mechanic’s number on speed dial. We called, and he said he could make room for vehicle No. 2.
Mark emailed me that we could drop our ailing car off that night. Our email exchange went something like this:
Me: “How do we get back home?”
My husband: “I will probably be riding my bike or walking in darkness.”
Me (voice of reason): “Six miles should take us about two HOURS to walk.”
Voice of insanity: “It is 2.46 miles.”
Me: “Says which crow flying overhead?”
Bird brain: (No response.)
I pulled into the driveway that night thinking that my other half would have called someone, anyone to arrange a ride.
No such luck.
“We’re being self-sufficient,” he said.
“If we were so self-sufficient,” I replied, “we’d fix the thing ourselves.”
So we, the deficient ones, wanting to make this an event for our entire “family,” brought the dog with us on this little escapade. We slowly squeaked and squealed our way to the garage, arriving at what would romantically be called “dusk” but that I glumly saw that night as being “dark.”
We live in Bellefonte. Our cars were now in Milesburg. So, we started walking.
Between us and home: a narrow stretch of state Route 144 with a slim gravel berm in some spots and nothing but guardrail in others.
We must have been a sight. Two adults with a dog straining on a short leash, picking our way along the roadside. If I had been driving that night and come across a couple and a dog, I would have thought, “What are those idiots doing out here?” … except on that night, we were “those” idiots.
About 90 minutes later, we self-sufficient types walked into our front door, none the worse for our little jaunt other than the dangerously idiotic part along that very well-traveled Route 144.
The next day, another first. I rode the bus to State College. Feeling a bit dim that morning, I checked and rechecked the website three times to make sure I understood the schedule, the stops and the fare. I counted out the six quarters I’d need for my fare and clutched them tightly. It reminded me of holding on to lunch money during my elementary school days.
And just like an eager kindergartener, when the bus pulled up, I jumped on board and blurted out to the driver, “This is my first time.” Very kindly and slowly, which I gathered was to compensate for my apparent lack of common sense, the driver asked me if I would need to transfer buses. “No,” I said with a ridiculously bright smile that most likely only reinforced his impression of an addled me. “I’m going the whole way.”
And with that I took a seat to watch what would pass outside the window since I didn’t need to keep my eyes on the road.
A trip that normally takes 20 minutes lasted twice as long, but there was a nice rhythm with the stop and start and sway on the bus. By the time we left Bellefonte, the bus was full. I tried to read the newspaper, but I was too busy people watching and looking out the window at a landscape that looked different from this vantage point 15 rows back and a window nearly as big as my entire car’s front door.
Plus, the scheduled stop at the Centre County Prison was a nice diversion.
Here’s what I learned during my 48 hours without my own wheels: The bus is cool. A fistful of quarters can take you places. A walk in the dark is a nice way to end the day as long as you stay off major state highways.
And that self-sufficiency thing? We can make do with what we have when we have it.
Chris Arbutina writes a monthly column for the CDT.