Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Goodbye to a good car

Date: Feb. 18
Mileage: 28.1
February mileage: 498.8
Temperature: 36

The low-lying fog was just starting to break up when I wheeled my bike out of the shed just after 10 a.m. Streaks of sunlight tore through the gray curtain and dusted the road, which was already slushy atop a thick layer of decaying ice. I was dressed for springtime, a fleece pullover and tights, and it felt like springtime. In fact, this whole week has been unbelievably, unseasonably nice. It makes me glad I'm not moving away from Juneau just yet. If my original plans had worked out, this would have been my last week in town. It would have been a tough week to leave behind.

As I lubed my chain, I caught a glimpse through my spokes of Geoff's 1989 Honda Civic. The bike rack was gone, as was the strap that held the trunk shut. Melting snow dripped down the sun-faded paint and icicles clung to the rusted edges. I remembered Geoff told me a guy was coming to pick it up at 11 a.m. Geoff listed the car in the freebie ads last night for $100. He had six calls on it by morning. And as I rolled away, I realized that glimpse would likely be the last I'd ever see of that car.

It was early January 2002 when I first met the Civic. I was visiting Geoff and his family in New York when Geoff's brother offered to sell him a 13-year-old car for $700. Geoff, who lived in Utah, thought that sounded like a perfectly rational business deal. He bought the car and then talked me out of a perfectly good American Airlines ticket so I could help him drive it across the country in two and a half days. I took one look at that car - drooping bumper, rust holes all the way through the body, and 200,000 miles on the odometer, and said to Geoff, "That thing is never going to make it to Utah."

The cross-country trip was fairly uneventful. I saw Indiana for the first time, and Kansas. We spent the night in the car at a rest stop in Wyoming at 8,000 feet. Temperatures probably dipped below zero. I shivered in whatever K-mart sleeping bag I owned at he time as Geoff wheezed and mumbled with a fairly nasty flu bug he had come down with. I thought we were going to die, and I blamed the car.

I had to drive the rest of the way with Geoff unconscious in the passenger's seat, but we amazingly made it to Salt Lake with everything still in one piece. I gave that car three months tops. Geoff spent nearly every weekend in either in the Uinta Mountains or the Southern Utah desert, driving hundreds of miles a week and bouncing that car down the worst kind of roads the BLM and Forest Service can dish out. One time we took it on an excursion to find an over-mountain route from Heber to Little Cottonwood Canyon. Geoff dropped the car into first gear as we bounced over boulders the size of basketballs, skirting cliffsides and grinding up pitches so steep I didn't know if I'd be able to walk down them once the thing broke down. I couldn't imagine four-wheel-drive trucks going up that road, but the Civic kept churning along. Loathing boiled up from my gut. I thought we were going to die, and I blamed the car.

Later that year, Geoff bought a 12-foot aluminum boat in Wyoming. He drove the Civic all the way back to New York to visit family and had a friend gerrymander a towing hitch on the back. He then drove to Wyoming, picked up the boat and trailer, and drove it back to Utah. For the rest of the summer and fall, he'd head up Parley's Canyon twice a week to fish for perch and rainbow trout. Even when it got late in the year and there was snow on the road, there Geoff was, driving down an icy 6-percent grade towing a boat and trailer with a Honda Civic. I thought he was going to die, and I blamed the car.

But the years just kept rolling by, and the odometer kept rolling up. There were countless more trips to the desert, more trips out East, that first trip to Alaska, that first winter in Homer, the frequent hair-raising drives up the Sterling and Seward highways, moving to Juneau, a summer trip all over Western North America and then back again to Juneau. The odometer crept above 300,000 and then 310,000. I never lost my faith that the Civic was going to die, any minute now, and yet somehow seven years passed.

The brakes finally went out, completely, in early February. The '89 Civic has 313,000 miles on it. Geoff finally had to come to a decision ... $500 of brake work that would probably bring to light the myriad other repairs needed, or going car-free.

And Geoff, who mostly bike commutes these days anyway, put his car up for sale.

I know we're cyclists and not supposed to get all emotional about cars, but I can't help it. I'm gonna miss the clunker.