Across the Country in an Automobile Built for Two
A Times reporter leaving New Jersey for a new job in Texas asks his 2008 Smart car for one more easy-parking adventure.,
When I decided to leave The New York Times for a new career as a college professor in my home state of Texas, I realized we were going to have to get our cars across the country, including my rattletrap of a 2008 Smart.
I love the ungainly thing, having put down a deposit as soon as I could in 2007, when Smart announced it was coming to the U.S. market, and even wrote about the experience of buying and owning it for The Times’s Wheels blog.
But it’s feeling its age — remember, it’s from the time of blogs. The ride seems to get rougher over time, and its complaints can mean some expensive time in the shop. There was a small temptation to re-enact that scene from the movie “Stripes,” when Harold Ramis and Bill Murray walk away from their car after leaving it in a loading zone. “You can’t park here!” a man shouts. “We’re not parking it,” Murray says. “We’re abandoning it.”
But I’m feeling my age, too, so who am I to judge? Besides, I paid just $14,000 for it new, and it gets anywhere from 35 to 45 miles per gallon, and it’s magical to park. When people see it, they smile. Sometimes they also point and laugh, but that’s just a failure of manners.
My wife, Jeanne, and I decided to make the trip together. We’re Texans; we drive. The car had been to the Lone Star State once before, when I lent it to my daughter; one late night on that trip at a Waffle House between Nashville and Memphis, a waitress on a smoke break drawled, “You did NOT drive that car from New Jersey!” I had, I assured her, and would be driving 800 additional miles the next day to reach my destination. She shook her head and smiled.
That was a solo trip. This would be more of a test — of our comfort over a few long days, and possibly of our marriage. But we’ve been through a lot, having met the week before classes started at the University of Texas in 1975. We would take our time. We would make it work.
With clothes and some of the delicate items from our old house that we didn’t trust to the movers piled almost to the ceiling of the two-seater car (it can hold a surprising amount), we set out the first day from New Jersey and made it to Ohio before tiring out.
As we drove through the mountains of the Pennsylvania wilds on Interstate 80, I felt the familiar shudder as crosswinds tried to push me out of my lane, and the bracing feel of the occasional rough patch of road being transmitted directly to my spine. We don’t play music when we drive; we talk, and listen to the sewing-machine-size engine whine as I push it to 75 miles an hour along the ribbon of highway. With no cruise control, my right leg soon began to complain. By 10, we had reached Cleveland and made a quick hotel reservation.
The next day’s drive got us across Indiana and Illinois and into Missouri. It was Culver’s country — I love the nation’s regional fast-food places, and Jeanne enjoyed a ButterBurger and their fine fries. Taking a break and needing a walk, we parked near the St. Louis Gateway Arch and walked under the gorgeous monument and up into the sculpture park downtown.
That evening, however, when I stopped for gas, I realized I had made a remarkable mistake: I’d left the gas cap off the car at a filling station. Clearly, 21 years in New Jersey, where drivers are not allowed by law to pump their own gas, had rendered me stupid. And while auto parts stores sell replacement gas caps, none that I called along our route stocked one that would fit our odd little car. The Smart does have a flap sealing the fill tube, so it wouldn’t just be open to the world. In fact, it didn’t even affect mileage much. The cap would have to wait.
We decided to push past St. Louis to make some miles toward Tulsa. After leaving St. Louis, I started calling ahead to hotels along Interstate 44, figuring we’d do another drop-in in Rolla, a Missouri town I liked from a previous visit. It was Memorial Day weekend, and hotels were hard to come by. After a lengthy hunt and a chat with a clerk at a booked hotel that ended with a tip about a place that still had vacancies, I snagged a room. It had the perfect image of an iron melted into the carpet, but it had beds, and we gratefully collapsed into them.
After a morning run, Jeanne and I passed up the hotel’s breakfast to walk to a Waffle House next door. I’ve extolled the wonders of Waffle House to my wife for years; it has been a mainstay of my reporting trips in the South, and a haven in natural disasters. Also, the pecan waffle is really good.
While I loved my plate of eggs and hash browns (smothered and covered, thanks) and that waffle, Jeanne was unimpressed. She was hoping for a fruit plate, but none was on offer; she found the gravy for her plate of biscuits and gravy flavorless compared with the sausage-rich goodness she was hoping for.
The marriage will survive.
As we were leaving Rolla, a billboard invited us to visit “Uranus Fudge Factory.” (“The best fudge comes from Uranus!”) As a former space reporter, I wanted to drive by and inform them that scientists actually pronounce the planet’s name “YOOR-un-us,” but the billboard said other family fun at the attraction included a gun range and ax-throwing, so we just drove on. Nobody likes a pedant.
We were back on the road, stopping by to see Jeanne’s father and his wife at their place near Tulsa, where we had a late lunch and moved on; I was hoping to cross the Texas line before we stopped that night. Oklahoma had changed since the last time I’d been through: Medical marijuana had come to the Sooner State, along with casinos.
Billboards in every town advertised the local dispensary, and I found myself marveling at the fact that nowadays, Merle Haggard’s lyrics notwithstanding, they DO smoke marijuana in Muskogee. We found a hotel in Denison that night, and were ready for the next day’s push into Austin. After a stop for those addictive Czech pasties known as kolaches, we rolled into town that night.
Our odyssey taught me no great lessons, but it had been fun. Soon after we arrived, I took the Smart in to see what it will take to pass inspection — I mean, beyond that replacement gas cap. The check engine light had been on for a while; the secondary air pump had given out. The bill was shocking — even after the cutting away of some nonessentials, like the fact that the rear flap’s hinges are weak (in cold weather, the hatch slips down and hits me on the head), it came to $1,500. I did consider that I might be an idiot to put that kind of money into keeping the car, which has covered about 80,000 miles so far, on the road. But I said yes, at least to keep driving it for another year. Who can explain love?
A few weeks later, I visited the University of Texas campus to take care of some errands. Parking spaces aren’t easy to come by, even in summer. But I found a spot between an S.U.V. and a dumpster that few cars of normal size could fit into. The Smart slipped in like a dream. I felt the old warm rush of satisfaction. This car, I thought, will serve me well in my new home.