Back Roads

I grew up in a small town in Michigan, near Ann Arbor. We weren’t actually in town. Rather, we lived in a township adjacent to the village. We shared the same zip code and the same schools, but it was actually several miles between us and town. So there was a lot of driving in my life. At first on bikes, and eventually in cars. And most of that driving was on back roads.

The original chick magnet

The original chick magnet

Some of the roads were paved, but most were dirt. And when you are a young kid with a small fast car (a white Ford Fiesta, with cool red racing stripes), and you watch the Rockford Files and Dukes of Hazzard on TV, you get to be pretty good at navigating those dirt roads. The Fiesta had front-wheel drive, and an emergency/parking brake you could engage by pulling a lever between the seats. This was a good idea, because the brakes on these cars lasted a few thousand miles, and then you either had to go get new ones (yeah, right), or you needed to use the engine to slow yourself down. In case of emergency, the parking brake would help.

But that parking brake also helped you spin the car around like Jim Rockford. Turn the wheel hard, quick pull and release on the parking brake, and the back end would be set free from the road surface. Then when you had spun sufficiently, let out the clutch and gun the engine to pull yourself into forward motion again. This is how I would take pretty much every turn on those dirt roads. I was turning 90 degrees, but I got there via 135-45=90 (the car turned 135 degrees, then back 45 degrees, and away we go).

In the winter, I often did a similar maneuver, but never on purpose, and it always ended up with my car in a snow bank. The car was light, so this wasn’t really that big a deal. I kept stuff to shove under the tires in case of a particularly difficult snowbank extraction.

I was on the debate team (easy there ladies, settle down) and the meets were all over the state. And Michigan is a big state. The meets always started at like 8am. So that meant I was driving around picking up my teammates at 4am to make it to school, where we’d all get into a van and the coach would drive us several hours to some other school far, far away. On one of these trips, I decided that I wasn’t going to bother stopping at a stop sign. There were fields all around and nothing was growing at the time, so I could see for miles, and I knew quite well there would be no cars at that intersection when I reached it. I did glance in the rearview, but the headlights behind me were round, not square, so I was not terribly concerned.

I blew through the stop sign and flashing blues came on behind me. I pulled over. I was wearing a suit, as was my male teammate.  My two female teammates were in dresses. It was a fish & game officer. He said there had been a report of out-of-season hunting, and thought we looked suspicious. Ever since that episode, when he had occasion to see me in a suit, my buddy Jeff would say, “Going hunting?”

The other guy in the suit was my best buddy Bill. He lived a couple miles from me, and we had been hanging out together for years. When we were younger, I would drive my bike to his house, and we’d have adventures. Once I had a car, I’d drive that to his house, and we’d have adventures. He lived in a subdivision, and the subdivision owned a small beach on a nearby lake. Anybody in the subdivision could use it, but nobody was responsible for maintaining it. So it kind of sucked.

What's your sleep number?

What’s your sleep number?

My friend Bill decided we should do something about that. So we went to an old junk pile in the woods (in Michigan, if you need anything, you can just go find it in an old junk pile in the woods; it’s like a rural Room of Requirement), and we got an old mattress. The fabric was gone, so it was just a queen size mattress-shaped tangle of rusty springs. We carried it out of the woods, laid it on the road behind my Fiesta, and hooked a rope between it and the Fiesta’s trailer hitch.

You read that correctly—the Fiesta had a trailer hitch. I’ve never seen a trailer small enough that it could be pulled by a Fiesta. But there you have it.

We drove down to the “beach” dragging the “mattress” behind us. Sparks flying. It was glorious.

Once we got there, we backed the car down to the shore line, threw the mattress in, and let it settle to the bottom. (This was all Bill’s idea, by the way; he was a fucking genius.) Once it was there, I put the Fiesta into first gear, gunned the engine, popped the clutch, and dragged tons of weeds out of the lake. We did this several times. Turned it into a veritable oasis of weedless water. Brilliant.

The Fiesta served me well. When I went away to college, I drove it to Massachusetts and used it to get around here. It turned into a bank of sorts. Whenever I needed money, I would just park it on the street, wait for someone to smash into it, and then go get insurance money for repairs. The insurance company didn’t seem to care whether I ever had the repairs done, so it was just a way of extracting countless dollars from a worthless car with a relatively low insurance premium. Looking back on that, something doesn’t make sense there, but that’s how I remember it.

When I finally had to get a new car, my landlord offered to buy my Fiesta for a dollar. I think he overpaid.

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