Cars are, at their core, inherently strange propositions. What is a car? It’s a mass of great big walloping hunks of metal heaving back and forth at dizzying speeds, powered by a series of fiery explosions. How silly is that? In the Fifties some purportedly smart guys decided that a cool way to go into space would be atop a rocket powered by exploding atomic bombs. We cancelled that project under the premise that it’s friggin’ insane. But somehow, we’re ok with forward momentum achieved through a constant state of exploding. And there is no point in our lives when we feel so starkly naked and vulnerable than when those explosions stop happening.
There resides a point, between the hopes of a fresh morning and the final undoing of one’s grand plans, that’s reserved for contemplation, for hindsight. In hindsight, I didn’t have to drive to Big Sur—but it was a nice weekend, after all. In hindsight, the car had developed a strain at higher RPMs, and an oil change the day before revealed two measly quarts drained from the engine. The rest was slathered across the bottom of the transmission. But those are mere frivolities when faced with a coastal drive, top down, sun and sky and Jehovah Himself smiling down upon you—you, the King of all the earth, The King of All Cosmos! And all that. And when the hunks of metal inside the 2000 Mazda Miata’s 1.8-liter DOHC four-cylinder stopped spinning, and the explosions stopped happening somewhere around the 101 outside of Gonzales, that’s when the following story revealed itself.
After a tow to nearby Salinas, I left the Miata at the nearest Mazda dealer. Then, I spent the weekend in Monterey and ate entirely too much seafood. I saw the great man’s GMC camper at the Steinbeck Center. I gorged on stale candy at Cannery Row. I strolled around Carmel, home to the highest concentration of wine tastings in the known universe. I returned to Los Angeles by way of a rented Toyota Yaris with crank windows that I fleet-footed in a desperate bid to return it before 6pm, lest I get charged an extravagant 20 extra dollars. And the next day, I got the call that I had been dreading. “We pulled the drain plug,” said a man from the dealership, “and there was metal everywhere." The engine had spun a bearing. It would never explode again. I acknowledged the trouble, thanked them for it, and promised to retrieve the car as soon as possible.
Three weeks passed.
I tried to forget about the fact that I still had a car in NorCal. But there it sat, 300 miles away, languishing—perhaps the dealer had revealed a hidden unscrupulousness and scrapped the car for cash. Sadly, this was not so. I’d have to tow it back.
Fortunately, I had a 2015 Chevrolet Silverado 2500 HD LT for the week. It was quite the truck. It can tow 17,000 pounds, or an entire years’ worth of Miata production. My car could fit in its rectilinear glovebox. Its 6.0-liter Vortec V8 came with a CNG tank for 650 miles of nonstop driving, which the medical community does not recommend.
It was as long as a meatpacking plant and smelled about the same: rubber, hot metal, teriyaki beef jerky. Every surface was square and imposing like Brutalist architecture: one suspects that if GM designers could make the tires themselves square and cast them out of concrete, they wouldn’t have hesitated. To climb into the cabin required a series of belays, pulleys, half-hitch knots, etc. to hoist oneself upwards. The view out the front was like peering across a double-barreled shotgun. When it rains, squirrels and moose huddle underneath the Silverado’s wheelwells for shelter.
My friend Josh joined me on the ensuing adventure. He had just moved to Los Angeles three weeks ago and, he told me, was “functionally homeless:” he had been in Ann Arbor for the last few months when his boss called him to his office one day and told him unceremoniously to pack up. Nowhere to go, he loaded up his Mazda Miata with all of his worldly possessions and set off across the country in search of Los Angeles. He found it on my couch, where he stayed for a night or two. Instead, I suggested the promise of adventure. “LET’S DO IT, BRO,” he typed into Facebook. "ADVENTURE!"
Perhaps I could reminisce about my own cross-country journey in his travails. Perhaps I needed the sympathy of a fellow roadster owner in rescuing my beleaguered car. Perhaps he was the only guy I knew who didn’t have anything better to do. Regardless, we hooked ourselves up to the ropes, yelled “On belay!” and steered the mighty Silverado toward Salinas.
We spent the evening in a dingy Travelodge in sunny Coalinga, California, free of such bourgeois trappings of, say, hot water or functioning toilets; the next day, we began anew with the promise of indigestion at Perko’s Café. It did not leave us in perky spirits. Leaving town along twisty, winding, slightly frightening Rt. 198—pinched curves past tan hills, surrounded by scraggly and scattered trees—we hustled the Silverado at a velocity which no heavy-duty pickup truck has a right to travel. Around noon, we pulled into the long-retired gas station that was Pete’s Towing. All the space between its islands was cluttered with U-Haul vans of every shape and size. The eponymous Pete, wandering between them, didn’t notice us at first.
Pete had been at this business for 25 years. Dusty plaques and car parts posters hung faded from the walls of his cramped office; stacks of repair manuals, bills, safety brochures teetered on sagging metal desks. I signed the paperwork and grabbed some ominous pamphlets. “You probably won’t, but if you ever run into any problems, call this number.” He circled it on the receipt.
"You sure? Last time I towed something it was a mattress, not a car." (A past incident also fraught with hilarious misadventure.)
He chuckled. “You’ll be fine. C’mon, let’s get you outta here.”
I backed the Silverado up against the trailer. It was a long, fancy little thing: electronically activated brakes, turn signals, taillights, built-in ramps and tire straps. Pete huddled around the Silverado’s hitch looping various chains, plugging various plugs. “A weird setup they got for this damn thing,” he muttered. Consummate professional that he was, though, he quickly figured out whatever it was that had confounded him. We were soon on our way.
The dust on the Miata resembled the kind that settled on curtains in a long abandoned living room. It was parked on the side of the lot, next to a row of Mazda 3s, looking filthy and forlorn but still—mercifully—in one piece. There were two rearview mirror tags in the car from the two shops I had visited. 107 and 838. I tossed those, along with a bottle of water whose contents probably resembled Chernobyl’s basement. Then, I retrieved the most important prize: an iPhone cable I had left behind in the center console.
A large man named Steve came out of the shop. He looked baffled at our presence.
"Uh," I began. "We’re here to pick up this car."
He looked at the truck. He looked at the trailer. Then, he looked at the Miata, which he probably had to look at day in, day out of work for the past three weeks.
"Ok," he shrugged, with an attitude that seemed to indicate that he cared if we were the rightful owners or just highly specific and conspicuous thieves; he just wanted the car gone. I climbed in, on steering duty. Steve put his hands on the grubby trunklid. Josh checked his phone.
From out back I heard Steve utter: “Alright, let’s get this fucker on there.” I felt a giant shove from four burly mechanics. The nose pointed skyward. Crunching and scraping ensued, the kind that always sounds worse than it actually is but nonetheless instills disproportionate levels of panic. The wheels were over the tiedown straps and the front lip’s plastic screws had come off—to liberate the straps we’d have to push it back, thereby risking the front bumper falling off. Or, we could jack up the car, but there was no way to fit an actual floor jack onto the narrow trailer. We’d have to use the flimsy scissor jack. I was still trapped in the car, unable to open the doors that were blocked by the trailer’s wheels. So I’d have to turn the car on, roll down the windows, pop the top, crawl out, put the top back on, wiggle through the driver’s side window with my feet kicking like a drunken Rockettes rehearsal, roll the passenger window back up, impale myself on the driver’s window, dislocate my shoulder reaching for the key, then drive the next 400 miles with the driver’s window askew and blanketing the interior in enough dust, pollen, spiders, and errant newspapers to make an asthmatic burst into flames.
I did the sensible thing and panicked.
Just as I crawled screaming and raving through the open window of the car, a spiky-haired adolescent wandered toward the flatbed and started asking nosy questions.
"Nice Miata, is it yours?" Nosy Kid left no stone unturned.
"Yeah," I said, tersely. I wiggled halfway onto the trailer’s fender, with was marked with billboard-signage letters proclaiming "NO STEP."
"You autocross it?" asked Nosy Kid. "Do any track days?"
"What’s wrong with it, dude?"
"Engine," I muttered.
"How’d you paint the tires?"
"Paint." I was out of comprehensible answers.
"That’s really cool, man!" He grinned and stared at me like a lunatic. "Looks great!"
Nosy Kid was deluded, alright. I said thanks and moved away from him. Is it too much to ask for, these days, that a man piss off in peace without being bothered by his fellow human?
The car was loaded, to the best of our abilities, and we were now on the road. There are no atheists towing trailers: for even the most ardent among us there is always the need to appease a hidden force, somewhere in the universe and beyond your control, in the hopes that they will ensure no cataclysm in your best-laid plans. The truck-trailer combination easily passed Gonzales—where I had succumbed to fate nearly a month earlier, where the tow truck driver had stopped at his own house for cash and cigarettes before dropping us off. Faraway mountains the color of plywood rolled past on both sides, beyond the plain fields and the winery billboards. (“Catch the melody and taste the wine!” read one billboard, which worked: I needed a drink after reading that.) The Silverado felt implacable. It didn’t even feel like there was a trailer there. The hidden force seemed sufficiently pleased. Going over the hills south of Atascadero wasn’t even a problem—I kept an eye on the transmission temperature, which wavered around 174 degrees, changing lanes carefully and watching the trailer wheels as they strode the white lines. “Speed limit 55,” said the mirrored warning on the driver’s side fender, but I must confess something: with a speed limit of 65-70mph, this was the first time I had ever driven the 101 at precisely the speed limit.
We reached our destination four hours and twenty-three minutes later. Not a single bathroom break transpired. Our bladders were now close to exploding. We are truly the fearless, the modern-day Spartan, I thought as I parked the truck in front of my friend Corbin’s place: the infamous man of Trolls Royce fame—it’s still alive, he says—had volunteered his services for a nominal fee in engine swappage, which may seem like he’ll put a Ford 302 in it. He was syncing the carburetors on a Honda Hurricane when we arrived. He soon enlisted my help. The next twenty minutes of ensuing wooziness from the fumes may have explained why we forgot to unhook a chain when freeing the car from its tire straps.
On the final leg of the journey back to my apartment, Josh realized that his wallet had gone missing. A frantic search followed—he crawled across the backseat, unfurling duffel bags, flipping over seats, fiddling with the vast center console. (We found shipping containers, entire Buicks, and a herd of stampeding elephants within its vast and mysterious holds. But no wallet.) He made phone calls and panicked and sweated and smelled worse. By this time, we were at my place, and I spent the next 20 minutes attempting to back up a trailer into a parallel parking spot. Ever back up a trailer? It’s basically a task that’s Sisyphean unto infinity—imagine steering a car when the wheel is mounted upside down and on the backseat, then imagine every time you get close to success an earthquake flips the car on its roof and you have to push it upright. Left goes right, up goes down, cats become dogs, and little wisps of smoke emit from your ears at a temperature that will set your hair ablaze. (Kids these days.—ED)
"Alright, that’s as close as it’ll ever get," said Josh, who finally pushed the truck/trailer combo into its space. "Now, I still have to find my walle-"
"Oh, it’s right here," I said, casually reaching into the passenger door.
The next day I returned the trailer to U-Haul, which was easily the most organized process in the entire experience.
Why all this effort, then? Why this much gasoline and time and money spent? Why not scrap the car, part it out, donate the shell to a race team, hang the valve cover as a piece of found art? Financially, I had spent half of what I originally paid for the car. It was too frightening to recount. Yet I wanted to keep it forever, and I wasn’t going to let it go this quickly…
"What are you going to do, show it at Pebble?" Josh chided. “‘One survivor Miata, period-correct modifications…’"
Mock you must, sir, but it’s not like that thought hasn’t crossed my mind before. As I bought my car in that heady summer of 2011, I heard the laments of too many people who had sold their own Miata and cursed their regrets. I vowed never to get rid of it. I can’t, at any rate. I define and am simultaneously defined by this car. The car had drawn blood and crushed my fingers and covered me in oil and gasoline and brake fluid; I had been kicked in the head while working on it; I breathed in its fumes, its acrid machine vapors. It is dogged determination that drives us forward—these foolhardy gestures of potency and energy that compel us to remove too much money and too many otherwise productive moments from our lives. A blown engine is the death knell of many a car, but compared to everything the car and I had been through? Nothing.
Josh laid the entire thing out to me, in between bottles of Pacifico, at our stale, stinking Travelodge room. It was something he called the “X-Wing gesture.” “See, what I liked about Luke Skywalker wasn’t the Jedi stuff, or the lightsabers,” he said. “It was the X-Wing. He had his own X-Wing. It’s a machine that you take care of, but the responsibility is all yourself. We modify it to look the way we want. It’s an expression of ourselves. It’s an extension of our actualization, of beings beyond our own human body…it’s an object that gives you superpowers. We’re just investing all the energy into ourselves. It’s useless and stupid, but it’s also really human.”
To replace an exploding heart? In comparison, it is hardly a setback.