Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Four Wheels, 400 Miles

When I put gas in the car late on Saturday night as I started out to drive to Connecticut, it was the first time I had filled tank since the end of April. Between having a car that gets more than 30 miles per gallon and hardly driving it, twelve gallons of gasoline can last a long time.

As I drive a long road trip I often try to imagine what the trip would have been like 200 years ago. Even 50 years ago the roads were a lot sketchier than they are now. The one I live on and the one connecting it to the man highway weren't paved. The highways themselves were narrower, twistier and hillier. But go back to when the railroads hadn't even made it very far up here, and people traveled on foot, horseback or by wagon, coach and carriage. The road went right through the yard of those farmhouses that now seem so ridiculously close to it. In most cases, the modern highway has been moved well away from the dooryard. Back when the farm doubled as an inn and inns didn't need big parking lots, having the road come by the door was simply convenient.

People stopped for the night because the beasts that carried them needed rest. They stopped because the slow modes of transport wore them out with long days, even as passengers. Those who couldn't afford to ride put in an even tougher day.

In the present day, on paved roads, I could probably make the trip on a bike in two long days of 100 miles each. I've done 200 miles in a day, but I don't take it lightly. After the visit, I would have to ride the 200 home again.

If American society really supported intermodal transportation, I could ride to the bus station in Dover or the train station wherever I could connect with the Amtrak Downeaster and buy a lift to the station nearest my parents' house. It would probably take the better part of a day, but that's half the time to ride back-to-back centuries down and repeat the feat on the return leg.

As it was, I took the convenient automobile. I just try never to take it for granted.

In the middle of the night, in the middle of Interstate 395, it still had to give me a scare. I'd pulled into the left lane at 70 to let a Jeep SUV merge. The Jeep came on in the right lane and just hung there, overlapped with my rear wheel. I nudged the cruise control a bit to speed up. The asshole in the Jeep sped up, too, but just enough to stay in the blind spot. I nudged it a little more. So did he. Then my car started making a weird slapping, rattling noise, like I might be getting a flat tire or a CV joint might be getting ready to fly apart. Or it could just be some loose piece of cosmetic crap flapping in the gale at 75. I punched out of cruise and let the Jeep jerk go. I didn't care to race, I just wanted a little elbow room. Slowing down was fine, too.

The noise ceased below about 54 mph. Now it was after 1 a.m., and I'd been up since about 6:30 the previous morning. I'd ridden a 30-mile fixed gear commute and worked a full day at work before coming home, packing up, eating supper and heading out. I probably didn't have the reaction speed to drive 70-75, but 50-54 was a miserable crawl. At an earlier hour, with normal traffic, I would have gotten trampled to death. But every time I tried to push it the noise would come back.

Nothing is more useless and awkward than a broken car. Nothing puts you more at the mercy of the local sharks than a broken car along a road far from home. You can't fix a modern car with hand tools, wire and cleverness. The tool kit becomes a cell phone and a Triple A card.

I pulled off at the first lighted rest area. Crawling under the car where God knows who had pissed, puked or dumped cups of unwanted liquids, I saw that a piece of shrouding had come loose. Flapping it against the frame I got it to make a noise that could have been what I heard. I shoved it up until it snapped into place behind some metal. It kept things reasonably quiet for the rest of the trip.

After I'd wired the flappy piece more securely the next day, I still wondered whether I was in the clear. I'd seen a bit of automatic transmission fluid sprayed around under there. Lines from the tranny go to an oil cooler below the radiator. I'd had the lines replaced late last summer when they decided to let go in the very same driveway and empty the transmission as I was getting ready to drive home from another visit to the parental homestead. But auto mechanics can be as literal as computers sometimes, and cars themselves seem to have an evil genius for blowing something major whenever they feel like it. The service guys could have put new lines to a cancer-eaten cooler, or New Hampshire's road-brine could have eaten more of the mechanism over the winter.

Luck was with me this time. The service guys at Plaza Ford (unpaid testimonial) road tested the car and secured additional loose pieces in the wheel well where the cheesy crap fasteners used to hold modern car body work together had disintegrated, letting things rattle alarmingly when I reached the Massachusetts average highway speed. They charged nothing for this little boost to my peace of mind. It totally challenged my phobia of dealership service departments. Too bad I don't have the research budget to want to try further tests.

This afternoon, my wife wanted to get out on the bikes between last night's rain showers and today's thunderstorms. A mile and a half from the driveway we both jumped at the snap of a breaking spoke in my rear wheel. I stopped, disconnected the rear brake, and we tiptoed back to the house. There it was a quick, simple matter to slap the spare wheel in, thread down the brake cable adjuster I had installed for just this purpose and resume the ride. On a tour I would have had spare spokes and nipples and fixed it along the road. Some things are a lot easier on a vehicle you can carry with one hand.

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