With Your Chrome Heart Shining in the Sun

The weekend before last, my wife spilled coffee on my laptop. It fried something inside, and that was it. RIP to the laptop I used to write most of An American Song.

Now that the mourning has concluded (“it was old, and had a good life”), I have secured a new laptop and gone through the purgatorial task of transferring over the critical parts of my old hard drive. And that process brought to mind the remarkable fortune I had during my trips.

Yes, the car I began the project with made it through a single trip. But that was because I was sideswiped while visiting my parents. I had to replace the tires in Kentucky when a rainstorm and a few steep hills demonstrated to me the folly of trying to get away with one more trip on the old ones. And in Colorado I heard the alarming sound of metal being dragged along the road almost directly beneath me; alas, it was the lower heat shield of my catalytic converter, and a simple clamp corrected this most minor of issues.

But considering the first car I ever owned broke down every 6 months or so (almost without fail), I suppose trading in my second for a third was the least I could do in terms of sacrifice to the gods of the American road. This is particularly true given some of the places I took my poor little Civic. I hope I did an adequate job of describing some of the idiotic excursions I put that car through. But those iced-over mountain roads in the Great Smokies? That well-cratered “access” road in Big Bend? That flooded coastal road in the Redwood Forest? And good Lord, that logging road just west of Lassen Volcano? Even if those were the only four instances where I pushed my car beyond its intended use, I could feel blessed to lose but a single hemisphere of a heat shield. As these were not isolated occasions, I might perhaps think myself protected by witchcraft. (That itself is a subject for another entry.)

Perhaps, though, I have missed something of the essential experience of the American road. I met– and in turn wrote of– several people who related as parts of their stories some degree of fortuitous or disastrous mechanical failures during their own travels about the continent. And that pioneer of cross-country travel, Horatio Nelson Jackson, made it all of fifteen miles before his Winton broke down. In the 63 days that followed it did so again . . .  let’s say, regularly, to be nice about it . . . even though one of his companions was a mechanic (the other passenger being the famous pitbull, Bud, who I imagine was of almost equal use to Nelson). Once, he even had to rent a bicycle to fetch fuel from an Oregon town some 25 miles away . . . and that suffered a flat tire. How dull, in the face of this, to make it through 88,000 miles of back roads without major incident!

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