Acura’s Last Ride

On the road again.

The interstate screaming beneath my tires, the mountains on the horizon. West into the setting sun, truckers roaring past as I hug the granny lane, cruise control to five miles over the speed limit, a steady, relaxing cruise control. The plugs of traffic, traveling like miniature herds of harried animals, rise up in my rear view, close the gap, zoom past. Brake lights dancing if the leader sees a cop, imagined or not. They vanish around a bend, leaving me alone again with the lonely road.

I don’t drive enough these days. My life has become a sinfully wasted turmoil of half a dozen jobs, all in walking distance, work-from-home, or on the subway. A desperate, never-ending sprint from job to job to make money that, before it even lands in my bank, gets thrown at a credit card debt that inches all too slowly down to zero. Every expense is tracked, and that includes tanks of gas burned rapidly by a 1998 engine that’s seen 150,000 grueling miles. These days, I have a Nissan, and it sits in the parking lot outside my window for weeks on end until I feel guilty and drive it around the block a few times. Shameful post-break up sex. I remember this feeling. I remember how good the road felt. I remember those highways, those side-trips, those slow moving meanders up US 40, down US 29, across US 20, and curving along US 50. Blowing out the cobwebs at 80mph down I-76, or enjoying a slower race into the sunset on an empty I-68, or joining the combatants on the Beltway, and 270, bumper to bumper Death Race 2000.

The guilty sex ends quickly. There’s nowhere to go. Just getting the juices flowing, then it’s back to the parking space beneath my window. Back inside for editing, writing, marketing, reeling from kitchen to bedroom office with vodka tonics and a mind full of ideas for the next big book project. Work to do, money to earn, and half-drunk exhaustion at the end of the evening on the couch listening to the window AC units roaring angrily against the summer heat.

It takes six months to finally, successfully plan a roadtrip. On the surface, it was a long overdue trip to visit my grandfather for the July 4th holiday. In reality, it was an excuse to cut and run, if only for 48 hours. Give up on the overbearing responsibilities and get the car on the road. Get it up to speed. A sustained drive into the heliosheath, slowing 300 miles later to drift into small town West Virginia and family holiday horror.

The fever hits me as I leave I-70 at Hancock, MD, merge onto I-68 to points west, the dramatic Sideling Hill cut a scar in the mountain range clearly visible from 10 miles out. Beyond is the wilderness of Western Maryland. It’s a route I’ve been taking since I left for college deep in the heart of West Virginia in 1992. A road as familiar as a lover, with the same treacherous curves. My life judged and moved by a woman’s hips and by those steep grades ahead.

My worn, near-elderly Nissan is the third car I’ve owned. The first was a Voyager minivan with two captain chair seats and nothing else, fishtailing wildly for 250 miles each way between Washington, DC and Elkins, WV even with the contents of a dorm room in the back. It took me over the hills to school and back again almost every weekend. From 18 credit hour weeks to a weekend job in Chevy Chase, MD that kept my bank account solvent enough to buy books, beer, and Saltines. The Voyager died at roughly the 220,000 mile mark in 1997. Its replacement was a little black 1990 Acura that, in 98, had only 60,000 miles on it, having lived in an old lady’s garage where all it did was jauntily bounce between the grocery store and Montgomery Mall for eight years.

The Acura would die in 2007 with roughly 250,000 miles. Hauled away for scrap. It was the car I first fell in love with. From learning to drive a stick shift on the side roads of Rock Creek Park, to adventures up and down the eastern seaboard. The Acura and I followed Grant’s and then Sherman’s footsteps as they chased the Confederates and, experiencing the Civil War in reverse, we turned around and followed Lee’s footsteps up the same roads to Gettysburg.

The Acura sat in the mist of Niagara Falls twice, and crossed the Mississippi, and looked down on the Atlantic and the Gulf.

The second Niagara Falls trip was her last. I knew she was dying. What’s 17 years in car years? Cars are like dogs, as far as I can tell. The Acura, in those final years, was no longer ferocious. It was struggling up and down steps, pursuing not for pursuit but simply because it thought it could get its ears scratched and lie down in the shade. It watched sadly while at rest, and struggled valiantly while at play. Poor thing.

I ran my hands along the hood one summer day and leaned in through the driver’s side window and whispered, “How about one last run, old girl?”

I called off work for a week, threw some snacks and CD’s and an overnight bag into the backseat, and we headed out. We took it easy. We joined old US 40 once we hit Frederick and took things at 55mph through western Maryland and up into Pennsylvania until we hit US 219, which eventually takes you to within sprinting distance of Niagara Falls.

219 is a lonely road for most of the way. A boring stretch or rural highway, if you’re a normal traveler. But I always keep an eye peeled for those forgotten stops. The old motels, the struggling diners, the bizarre historic markers, the strangely mysterious trenchworks from the French-Indian War.

219 is a gold mine of covered bridges and forgotten small towns. US Flight 93 crashed a couple miles from the roadbed, a monument to those souls who fought in the air and died in a field in Pennsylvania on 9/11 stands on the site today. Shortly after that memorial, 219 takes you to Jonestown, still struggling with the horrible memory of the 1889 flood. The city museum devoted to the flood features a horrifying diorama that charts the course of the wall of water with lights and piped in, drawn out Wilhelm screams. In an adjoining room, now that your soul has been flayed and you’re shaking with visions of water and fire and death, a 20 minute video soberly denounces the rich hunters who created the artificial Lake Conemaugh 14 miles upstream of Jonestown and formed an exclusive hunting and fishing club. Their failure to maintain the dam resulted in 2200 deaths. The video flashes stills of the destruction as the narrator implies that death is too good for the blue-blooded, murdering oppressors of the common man.

A competing museum at Lake Conemaugh bizarrely blames Jonestown for not contributing enough tax money to assist the honorable and upstanding citizens of the hunting and fishing club who worked feverishly through a three day rainstorm to shore up the dam and did their heavenly best to save the souls downriver.

A couple hours beyond Jonestown is Punxsutawney, of Groundhog Day fame. Often times, the Pantall Hotel has been my destination for a weekend away. Even if it’s early in the day, I feel the need to stop and book a room. There’s nothing to Punxsutawney, really. The Pantall is one of those classic, old school hotels from the 1800’s. All fading glory and self-conscious anachronistic class. The type of place that wishes it summoned memories of The Shining’s Ridgetop Hotel complete with an unnervingly calm bartender and some sort of furry sex party in the back room. Sadly, it can’t quite grasp that dream and, instead, simply sells itself on its age. A strange sideshow of a historic marker fueled by an even stranger pseudo-pagan holiday.

The Pantall, despite the shortcomings of the grim, dying, shuttered town around it, does manage a certain charm. The building calls to you as you work your way along 219 through the town center. The boarded up main street feels like a sad blue collar ghetto, made even sadder by the omnipresent groundhog statuary. Then you hit the city park and the Pantall, boldly calling for you to stop and take a break from all your worries. Sit at the 1900’s bar and drink the afternoon away, visit the restaurant, and walk around the city park to stare through a large plate glass window at Punxsutawney Phil, and his wife, and the Punxsutawney Phil’s in training. If you’re lucky, his handler is there and he’ll let you touch the sacred marmot.

The next morning, up with the early risers at the Pantall restaurant, I coaxed the Acura to life and we pushed through to the Falls, over Buffalo, to Lake Erie, then hugging the farm roads to Rainbow Bridge. The Acura seemed to perk up when it touched Canadian asphalt. Time to think in kilometers, and see new license plates, and run these humble wheels across a foreign land.

I parked her where the spray from the Falls fell like a gentle, summery mist and I made the quick tourist rounds, grabbed a bite to eat, people watched, whiled away an afternoon. Then I headed back home, crossing into the United States where the Acura sighed with a satiated wanderlust and happily took me to Salamaca, NY for the night. A hotel on the reservation, an abandoned railyard to explore, and then a meandering, calm journey along US 20, around the crystalline Finger Lakes, to the north-south corridors that dropped us speedily and busily back to DC, home, and, within a few months, for the Acura, the scrapyard.

I cried when she went. The Nissan came as a necessary evil. The new dog that can never replace the most beloved of companions. That ride up to Niagara and then down across New York was my last major roadtrip. For years after, the open road no longer held the same sort of summons. The same majestic promise of adventure and solitude.

It wasn’t the same anymore. Buried in my six jobs, and by my desire to free myself of debt, I suppressed my travel bug from 2007 onwards. Short trips, quick flights, and a weekend or two away became the stunted offspring of a wanderlust that used to see me overseas for two months each year, and on the road as often as possible, and forever pining for the next trip, even before the current trip had come to a close.

Since 2010, though, the travel bug has crept back. It strikes brutally at my soul. It stops me, with OCD-like intensity, every morning at the departures board when I pass through Union Station on the way to work. In Las Vegas, NM, at my cousin’s graduation, I found myself standing outside the train station staring down the wide expanse of deserted tracks. I could hear the train in my head, I could feel it leaving the station; closing my eyes, I saw the landscape whirring by the window.

A July 4th visit to the grandfather became an itching, crawling need to get on the road. Not to visit with family, or relax at an out of town destination, but to just hit the road. To move. To wake up in a different town, under different skies, to a different climate. Those brief few seconds in a hotel bed where I don’t quite remember where I am. Where bedrooms of my past filter through a fuzzy, un-caffeinated mind. Oh, that’s right. I’m in Frostburg. I’m in Parkersburg. I’m in Elkins. I’m in Salamaca, Punxsutawney, Las Vegas. I’m in Albuquerque, in St. Clairsville. I’m in New Orleans, Atlanta, London. I’m in Brasov, Prague, Lochgilphead. I’m in DC, Seville, Trieste. I’m in Memphis, Ljubljana, Tunbridge Wells.

And that highway is out there waiting for me.