Can a man still fall in love with a car? Jason Kapcala writes of growing up in the ’90s: “My generation was probably one of the last to view mobility as a literal concept … that mobility is something I crave now more than ever.”
After one failed trip to buy the car of my dreams, and nine hours of driving through the flatlands of the Midwest, my brother and the Magnum and I make it to Chicago, and that’s where things start getting hairy. To find out how we made it this far, read Part 1 and Part 2 of the series.
Compared to the Magnum, the buying of the Challenger didn’t take nearly as much savvy. When I found it online, it was already well within my budget. The hardest part was convincing the dealership that I was serious about making the trip. A quick phone call confirmed that they’d hold the car for me through the weekend, and a half-dozen high-res photos later, we were both ready to close the deal.
Everyone thought I was foolish to take this trip. Everyone but Moose. He’d already scouted hotels, figured out the mileage, taken Monday off from work, and packed his bags before I’d even finalized my decision.
“If it’s not right, I’m turning around and driving back home,” I said to the rest of my family, to my friends, and finally to the folks at the dealership.
“No worries,” the salesman Woody said over the phone the night before Moose and I departed. “I can’t sell a car without all-wheel drive around these parts. All you got to do is get that wagon here in one piece by 5:00, and it’s a done deal.”
As it turns out, easier said than done.
I’ve taken over driving, and the brakes feel squishier than ever, a problem now that we’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper Chicagoland traffic. The temperature has edged above 90, and the gas needle dips into the red. Neither of us say anything, but we’ve both got our eyes on the clock. Moose rummages through the shoebox of CDs I keep under the backseat, rotating the music at random—Greatest Hits albums by Tom Petty, and The Police, The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication, Green Day’s American Idiot. This is the first time I’ve ever left the Eastern Time Zone, but it’s not something I’m celebrating much, other than that, in heading west, we’ve bought ourselves another hour before the dealership closes.
As three o’clock rears its ugly head, I feather the brakes and pat my pocket for the hundredth time to make sure I haven’t somehow lost my cashier’s check. Giving the cars in front of me plenty of room, I call the salesman Woody.
“You’re not far now, partner,” he reassures me. “We’ll be here waiting for you.”
By the time we leave city limits, Chicago’s tangle of highway off-ramps squarely in the rearview mirror, replaced by rolling hills, wind farms, and cheese houses, we’re converting miles to minutes in our heads. I open up the Magnum one last time, making up lost ground. I’ll miss this car—it’s ferried me safely through a number of tough winters, snow squalls so thick you couldn’t see the overpasses until you were beneath them. I moved most of my apartment in the trunk of this beast. And it was the first ride I’d ever purchased outright with my own money. Even with the Challenger waiting for me, letting go isn’t easy.
Sometimes, before a long trip, people will wish me safe travels, and I’ll tell them that if I die on the road, there’s peace of mind in knowing that I went out doing something I love. Generally, they laugh. Or else they give me uncomfortable looks. It’s a morbid joke. But it’s also true enough that typing it feels a little like tempting fate.
The truth is, I rarely feel happier than I do when I am driving. It’s one of the few times when I can spend entire days alone without feeling the weight of loneliness closing in. I’m not a social butterfly, but in the dozen years or so I’ve lived by myself, I’ve come to discover that I get a little twitchy if I don’t have anyone to talk to for long periods of time.
When I’m driving, days of solitary confinement can stack up without me even noticing. The road beneath my wheels grounds me in ways that my office, my apartment, even my hometown can’t seem to manage. That’s because when you are behind the wheel, you are always heading somewhere—toward someone or away from them. Big arrivals await you, or else the electric thrill of anonymously rolling into a strange town for the first time.
Growing up in the 90s bred in me a healthy respect for the “outsider,” but it’s also had another impact on me. My generation was probably one of the last to view mobility as a literal concept. We didn’t have mobile phones. Mobile music libraries. Mobile GPS modules. We spent a lot of time scrounging for change, listening to the same CDs over and over again, and getting lost. If we were lucky, we had a car, and that meant the freedom to go anywhere, to escape anything.
The Challenger hearkens back to that sensation. It is unabashedly car. Car with a capital “C.” It signifies. It announces its mobility with a smirk, appears to be moving even when it’s stationary. And that’s why I want it so bad. After years spent studying (and adoring) the craft of writing, a trade that fewer and fewer people find valuable or understand, after settling for a job outside my chosen field that offers no prospects for advancement, after resigning myself to the fact that I am overeducated and underemployed, that mobility is something I crave now more than ever.
The sale happens quickly. While I test drive the Challenger, the used-car manager takes my Magnum for a spin around the lot. 30-seconds later, he’s satisfied and drawing up the final paperwork.
The longest part of the ordeal is the photo.
Woody takes a picture of every car he sells with the new owners standing next to it. So my brother and I pose by the Challenger in the dying light of a July evening, and Woody takes his snapshot.
I’m not sure what happened to that photo; I’ve never actually seen it, but I can tell you exactly what it looks like. I’ve got my arm around Moose’s shoulders and we’re both grinning like fools, tired and happy. Behind us, the Challenger flaunts that deep blue sparkle it gets when the light hits just right. And, somewhere, off to the side, the Magnum is being wheeled into the garage where they will outfit it with new brakes and sell it to the family they’ve lined up as the new owners.
“I’ve got to tell you guys,” Woody says, when he finally hands me the keys for the last time. “This is the farthest I’ve ever had anyone travel to buy a car from me.” He sounds impressed, and something about that makes me feel proud. “What made you guys do it?”
“The right price,” I say, though it’s more than that.
“Adventure,” Moose says.
Woody seems to chew on this new information for a bit, then he nods and wishes us a safe trip.
In the coming years, Dodge will release newer versions of the Challenger, improving the horsepower, the handling, the interior features. It’ll become a respectable muscle car, a real competitor. But I’ll never sell this car.
That night, after checking into our hotel, Moose and I eat fresh fried perch at a German cafe in West Bend, drinking lager and watching the caddis flies hatch off the stream below the restaurant patio. Out on the street, the Challenger sits parked against the curb, and a couple of kids holding basketballs stop long enough to admire its sleek lines. The taller kid pushes his companion, playfully. He leans in for a closer look.
Moose taps my arm, nods at the boys. They’re close enough in age and image that they might be brothers.
Read the final installment: Thunderstruck: Part 4.
Image credit: sidewalk flying/Flickr