In the 1950s it was Ford Fairlanes, big motors, ducktail haircuts, drapes (pants that were as wide at the knee as possible and as tight at the ankle as your foot would allow), Buddy Holly, and when he died, the hard piano of Little Richard and soon after, Elvis Presley. In those days Elvis still had two names.
We necked with the girls in our high school classes, girls in jeans so tight that only putting them on, then sitting in a bathtub of hot water would shrink them that tight, girls with long, bouncy hair, wearing angora sweaters that showed off their new breasts. We double dated, necking in the front seat, the back seat, turning the cars into passion pits, steaming up the windows on cold winter nights. Gas was cheap, three gallons for a dollar and even though odd jobs didn’t pay much, we could always scrape together enough for a few gallons of gas to cruise the main street, then keep the motor running when we parked at the beach.
There was muscle in those Fords. I hungered for one a co-worker owned that he’d chopped and customized. It was so low to the road, you couldn’t drive it on anything but smooth city roads, but it looked dangerous even when it was parked. I couldn’t afford the seven hundred dollars. Some years later, I bought my first car. All I could afford was a Ford, second hand, maybe fifth hand, its posts welded because it had been rolled and the roof had collapsed. By that time I was going to university and money was tight. On weekends, I and my friends packed into it, three to the front seat, five to the back, no seat belts in those days, and headed home for the weekends. Sixty miles over icy roads, through blowing snow, air so cold it froze your flesh in a minute but we had faith. The miles rolled away as we passed through lonely looking villages, often no more than three or four houses and a store. The windows were squares of light in the darkness. We’d smash through the growing drifts, snow flying over the windshield.
Sometimes, black ice spun us in circles so that we ended up in a snow bank. We shovelled, we pushed, I rocked the car until we were back onto the highway, kicked the snow off our boots, smacked snow off our pants, crammed back into the car and eased into the darkness. The car was heavy, solid, enclosed us against the winter and fear.
As I grew older, like many people, I bought foreign cars. They were the flavour of the day. I didn’t give any thought to what was going to happen to North American companies and North Amerian jobs. It was time to get a new vehicle and since I still make the trip from Victoria to Gimli, Manitoba every year, no matter what the weather—thirty hours of travelling–I bought a Ford Escape.
I drove it to Manitoba in my usual three days. Revelstoke, Swift Current, Gimli –but something about the car, it’s bigness, its ease of driving, its comfort, maybe its reminder of my adolesence seduced me, kept me at the wheel. The Saturday I left, the sky was the colour of faded denim, not a cloud in sight, the highway a roll of black tape leading west, the countryside was turning golden with flashes of red. The towns and cities rolled by. Winnipeg, Portage la Prairie, Brandon, Regina, Swift Current. It’s easy, when you can see the horizon in every direction, to feel like you’re not moving. I had to keep checking my speedometer. Now and again, a car would pass me like a bullet.
I usually stop in Swift Current but the sky was blue, the air soft, the roads dry. I drove to Medicine Hat, ate at Wendy’s, fell asleep in a Comfort Inn, the next morning, just after dawn turned the sky red, then pink, I ate two boiled eggs, and was back on the highway. I always stop for a tall cappuccino at Starbucks in Calgary. The barista there said, “Good choice. I love making these.” There was a pretty blond in a white dress and cowboy boots sitting on the curb drinking coffee and waiting for her cowboy.
After Calgary, the golden larches began, spectacular yellow trees covering the hills. Banff slid by. The driving was easy, the Ford Escape felt safe, held the highway. I remembered my old Ford, the heft of it, the way it stuck to the road. I nudged the speed limit but cars still went past me so fast that I never saw them come, heard them and felt a blast of air, then they were out of sight. How fast, I wondered, and I thought of my high school friend Robert, the teenage king of the speed with his Fairlane in the 1950s. Fast was never fast enough.
All was good until the BC border but then the rain started. Traffic slowed. The highway to Golden is easy now, improved, made good. The highway from Golden takes care, attention with tight turns and snow tunnels. At Revelstoke, there was gas and more coffee and I thought of staying the night but I could feel the pull of home. The Escape was easy to drive, didn’t threaten to hydroplane on the wet pavement. The rain had eased to a steady drizzle. Then there was the climb out of Kamloops onto the Coquihalla. The Coquihalla is mountain top high. The steady drizzle turned into slashing rain, high, gusting winds, mist. The traffic didn’t slow.Cars ahead of me would suddenly disappear in patches of rain and mist. I prayed that no one would decide to slow down or stop. I kept to the slow lane, cursing drivers who didn’t have their lights on. There was a white van with no lights that kept disappearing and even when I could see it, it was like a ghost.
I’d planned on spending the night at Hope but when I reached the exit, the clock told me that I could still make the last ferry at Tsawwassen. It had started to get dark and the traffic, now that I was back on Hwy 1, was heavy but it moved like a steady river of yellow and red light until I was able to swing off onto Hwy 10. I missed most of the red stop lights but got lost at the intersection on Hwy 99 south and ended up driving toward White Rock. I managed to get turned around and the highway driving, in spite of the rain, was good and I knew, from experience, where the turnoff to Hwy 17 and the ferry terminal would be.
I left Gimli at 7 a.m. on Saturday morning and I reached the ticket booth at the ferry terminal at 8:18 Sunday night. There was still time to buy a dish of chocolate gelati in the ferry terminal. It wasn’t much of a supper but anything is better than ferry food.
I was home at just after 11:00 p.m. The house smelled good, smelled right, everything was as I left it, even the cup of coffee I forgot except now the coffee has dried to a dark stain.
I checked my mail, then my email, I thought I’m okay, I’m fine but then I realized that as I was sitting at the computer, the house felt like it was moving, swaying slightly. I went to bed. I was looking forward to sleeping in, to eating a breakfast of yogurt with ripe figs from my fig tree. Even the rediscovered adolescent inside me looked forward to that.