Have you ever been lovestruck by a car? Jason Kapcala is about to drive hundreds of miles, with no brakes, to claim the car of his dreams.
“Wake up,” Moose says, kicking my side of the bed. It’s four in the morning, still dark, and he’s only arrived hours ago. Yesterday, he left work, jumped in his Pontiac G8, and without changing around or bothering with dinner, drove from the Pocono Mountains in northeast Pennsylvania to the winding hollers of West Virginia where I live, stopping only for gas and those high-caffeine energy drinks that come in bottles shaped like the nitrous canisters you see in the Fast and the Furious movies. This is no casual visit, filled with football and video games and Mexican food. Today, my brother and I embark on a road trip to West Bend, Wisconsin. It’s the first road trip we’ve ever taken together, and though West Bend is not your typical road trip destination, at the end there’s a practically-brand-new Dodge Challenger waiting for us. It’s a car I’ve been scouting obsessively for over a month, and now the countdown has started. We’ve got exactly thirteen hours to make it to the dealership and finalize the sale before they close their doors for the weekend (the way, I’ve been told, many dealerships in that part of the country do)—no small feat when you consider that Moose’s GPS has already warned us that the trip will take over half the day. It’s a tight deadline, even for us, and any number of calamities could cause us to miss our window of opportunity—traffic jams, mechanical failure, speed traps, outdated maps, too many bathroom breaks. We can’t afford mistakes.
To make matters worse, my current car, a heavily-used Dodge Magnum, has no brakes—they’ve been eaten down to a hair by the stop and go traffic and the unforgiving hills of Morgantown. Only days earlier, my mechanic stepped from the garage wiping his hands on a rag and shaking his head like a surgeon prepared to deliver bad news. “It’s what you come to expect,” he said, clapping me on the shoulder. “When they fit these puppies with cheap Korean shit that’s two sizes too small.”
I’ve been issued a warning: Anything over 150 miles and I’m taking my life in my hands.
Moose and I intend to travel exactly 682.5 miles, drifting through Wheeling, West Virginia, while it’s still dark so that we can hit Columbus, Ohio, by daybreak. Next, it’s on to Indianapolis, where we’ll take a sharp right on the map and pick our way straight through the heart of Chicago, narrowly missing rush hour. From there, it’s just another two and a half hours to West Bend and Woody, a jovial salesman whose downy white hair makes him look like Santa Claus. And, oh, yes, he’s bearing gifts.
If all of this sounds crazy, that’s because it is. Cars are like sports coats and orthodontic retainers; you don’t buy them without trying them on first. You definitely don’t travel halfway across the country for a test drive. But this car and this trip mean something special to me. I’m not a risk-taker by nature, not flashy, nor am I prone to making impulsive decisions. I’m a planner. A benefits-consequences kind of thinker. A pinchpenny. I’m the kind of guy who can spend half an hour staring at a pizza menu, thumbing anxiously through the bills in his wallet, debating whether or not he should buy a medium pie and try to stretch it, or spring for the large pie that’s “just two dollars more.” This trip is about more than just looking at a car; it’s my first real opportunity after twenty-one straight years of school and work and more school to shed some of the prudence that has come to define my life.
That’s not to say I’ve rushed into my decision. Like any good student, I’ve been doing my homework—for six months I’ve been shopping around, comparing prices, looking at vehicle reports, totaling up the cost of this feature and that feature in my mind and comparing it against the money I have saved up, plus the Blue Book value of my Magnum. I have a 92-point checklist (that’s twenty more than Midas, for those keeping score), and I know exactly which questions I want to ask, which questions I need to ask, and which questions are best left unanswered. From the outside, my bean counting and blueprinting probably borders on obsessively compulsive. If this is me letting my hair down, it’s no wonder that I’m almost entirely bald. Still, this is a life-changing moment for me: it’s the first indulgent purchase I’ve ever made, and though the car is not particularly expensive, I am acutely aware of the fact that I will be trading in a very sensible-if-slightly-battered vehicle for a car that I can, realistically, only drive nine months out of the year. I have no contingency plan for winter. No idea what I’ll do if I arrive to find that the vehicle is not as I expected it to be.
“You’ll turn around and drive back home,” Moose says, flashing the high beams to let a semi-truck cross in front of us. “And with any luck, the brakes will hold out.”
I nod. He’s right of course, but it’s not an end-result I want to think about. I’m not afraid to walk away—I’ve already done it once, on a recent trip into the heart of Brooklyn to look at another, “less-than-cherry” Challenger—it’s just that turning tail and coming back empty handed will feel too much like checkmate. Not only will it confirm what everyone else has been saying all along: that this is a boneheaded move on my part, but it will mean silencing that small and knackering voice inside me that’s been clamoring, This is your chance to be someone else. Don’t blow it.
Image courtesy of the author