I don't want a red car.
That's the first thought I had in the parking lot of the Ford dealership back in 2010 when I first laid eyes on the car I'd end up buying.
It was a 2008 Ford Focus, not exactly my dream car. It had a two-liter, four-cylinder engine--yawn. It didn't have fancy Bluetooth capability. No cruise control, which I didn't realize until after I drove the car off the lot--I almost took it back. No bells or whistles. Actually, that's not accurate--it still had two deer whistles the original owner had attached to the front bumper.
And this car was red. Who, in real life, wants a red car? I didn't.
This wasn't love at first sight. This was a marriage of practicality--a used car with low mileage, in good shape, at a low price. Maybe it was the lowered expectations or the lightness of a small loan with a great interest rate that tilled the soil for a happy relationship, but over the years, I've come to love this car.
It's not the kind of love that's attracted to tricked-out frills--the spoiler, spinning rims, lowered frame, lifted frame, subwoofer that makes the neighborhood think there's an earthquake every time you roll down the street. No, it's something else. For me, my love for my car and for cars in general sparks the ignition on all kinds of nostalgia.
My best memories as a kid were bookended with rides in my dad's truck or my aunt's Jeep to go fishing. We'd make gas station stops where my dad would get a cup of coffee, bring it back to the car, pull out a bottle of honey he brought from home, and squeeze a thick, slow stream of sweet into his steaming mug of black. Those rides were the beginning of my love of country music and ice cream. We'd listen to Hank Williams and Alan Jackson, and we'd stop at Dairy Queen on the way home. To this day, I still only order a soft-serve twist cone anytime I'm at a DQ.
I remember riding in my friends' station wagon, the kind with faux-wood paneling on the side because if anything could make a middle-class family car classier, it was fake wood. If the car was full, we'd sit in the back and make faces at the people driving behind us. Knowing we had an audience, we'd duck down below the rear window and perform puppet shows with our hands. We thought we here hilarious.
Speaking of hands, there was the time in high school I held one belonging to a girl while we rode in the church van on our way home from a youth group convention. The sun was going down, and everyone else had fallen asleep, so nobody saw our fingers find each others.'
When I turned sixteen and had to drive myself to work to bus tables and clean grills at Shogun Japanese Steak House, I discovered the peace, the solitude of a car all to myself, sealed inside with no one to interrupt this little space of mine. There was only the hum of the engine, the road, my thoughts.
My first kiss was in a car. What's more romantic than seat belts and orange street lights? Not much.
When I was in college, my friend Jake drove a 1987 Mercury Grand Marquis--black, boxy, and huge, a mobster's car if there ever was one. It had a trunk that could hold five of me, something I knew from experience. One night, we decided to put me a in a ripped, bloody t-shirt, duct tape my hands together, and drop me in that trunk. Jake drove around campus until he found a crowded bus stop--on this night, it was the stop in front of the freshman dorms with kids waiting on both sides of the street. He stopped the car in front of them and popped the trunk. I pushed the door up, fell out of the car onto the pavement in front of everyone. They all stopped to stare at this kid who had just flopped out of the back of somebody's car and looked beat up and had his hands tied together. I looked around with wild eyes for a moment before I took off running. Jake got out, yelled, "Hey! Get back in the trunk!" and jumped back in the car and took off after me. College was a productive experience for us.
And there was the time I held another girl's hand in secret on a church van--I was twenty-one and she was twenty, so weren't teenagers anymore, but it was still just as exhilarating. On the same ride, she gave me each of her purple Skittles as she pulled them out of the bag because she hated the purple ones and I loved them.
These memories were all in other cars. Then there's my car, the Focus.
I'm prepared to live out of this car. I do spend at least ten hours a week in it, after all. I keep a bag of sunflower seeds in the driver's side door to help me stay awake if I'm tired. They're the only thing that can do the trick--something about the work it takes to ditch the shells. I have a bag of Sour Patch Watermelons in the center console for emergencies. I keep a Nerf dart gun in the passenger side door--also for emergencies. In the trunk, I have flares, a hydraulic jack, a torque wrench, a toolbox, a football, a volleyball, a softball, a baseball glove, a tennis racket, my climbing gear, a tent, a sleeping bag, a tarp, gloves, flip flops, extra shoes, a backpack with clothes, a box of Clif bars, water bottles, a fire-starter log, a first aid kit. For the apocalypse. Or a picnic.
It has 153,000 miles on it. I put 130,000 of those miles on it myself.
It's been to the base of Mount Washington in New Hampshire. It's been through the winding rocky paths leading up to Mount Katahdin in Maine. It has collected bugs on the eternal, flat highways of the Midwest. I was in this car the first time I set eyes on the Rocky Mountains--they rose over the horizon in front of me as the morning sun rose behind me. I drove it all night through the desert of southern Utah, over the Colorado River, and into a crazed army of suicidal rabbits. I've driven this car through twenty-seven states and fourteen national parks.
I recently read Travels with Charley, a book Steinbeck wrote about a road trip he took across the country. He gave his green truck a name--Rocinante, after Don Quixote's horse. A lot of people have told me I should have a name for my car, too.
I've thought about it and thought about it, and I haven't been able to come up with a name. I don't know what my car's personality is--whether it's grumpy or cheerful, bashful or bold.
Maybe I have a hard time with this because my car is less of a person to me than it is a place. It's not just a vehicle that takes me from point A to point B, from home to work or from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh; my car is its own place. It's not a Who; it's a Where.
It's a place I look forward to being after a long day. It's a place that shows me new worlds, like a movie theater, where I've eaten French fries while a friend tells me about what happened in their week, like a diner. It's my safe spot where I've sung along to enough Taylor Swift to last most people a lifetime. It's the phone booth where I call my parents every week to catch up. It's my creative office where my best writing begins in my head as I move through my thoughts at seventy miles an hour. It's the sanctuary where I find rest when I'm tired, peace when I'm stressed, clarity when I'm surrounded by chaos. In some sense, it's home.
We all need spaces like these, and I've found them in this one car. This car, this unforgivably red car, this terribly pragmatic gas-sipping car, this tiny portal to endless other Places, this Where that leads me to all of my other Wheres.