Saturday, July 6, 2013

The auto and freedom: a belated July 4 post taken from the Detroit News

Freedom. A little more than a century ago, most consumers could only dream of routes that weren’t dictated by streetcar and railway schedules, or constrained by the physical limitations of horse-and-buggy speeds — or their own two feet.
They’d often live and die without knowing what was around the bend of an enticing side road, or beyond the horizon from the hometown depot. If they did travel, it was cheek-by-jowl with other passengers, stopping at preordained times and places.
Flash forward and most American households sport an auto in the garage or driveway; there are roughly 250 million passenger vehicles registered in the United States, according to various federal government reports. Cars have gone from wondrous curiosities to household staples.
Somehow between stop-and-go commuting congestion, monthly fill-up costs that rival a small house payment, the drudge work of loading sacks and boxes and totes in and out of the trunk and the repair bills that rear up just when you need them the least, the automobile’s role in modern life has lost a lot of glamor.
On many days, the car seems a necessary evil — a mobile annex of the cluttered family room, a money gobbler, grocery-getter, spewer of greenhouse gases and cruel masher of neighborhood fauna and roadside wildlife. Other than “It beats walking,” what’s to like? Vehicles in everyday use provide about as much thrill as a toilet plunger or microwave oven.
Then along comes a pristine summer morning. The dew on the windshield shimmers in the rising sun, the car is clean inside and out, and you slide behind the wheel with a sense of anticipation. Maybe it’s a regular work day, but miraculously your commute route isn’t clogged, and you sail through the morning drive and hit the radio jackpot with some favorite driving tunes along the way. Maybe it’s the launch of a vacation road trip, or just a local adventure excursion to farm markets, yard sales and big-box stores. Either way, it feels good, and you start to remember why those last few weeks before your 16th birthday seemed to go by with excruciating slowness.
I recall my first solo road trip, a month or so after my 18th birthday, from Metro Detroit to Iron Mountain in the Upper Peninsula, to visit some college roommates. A late 1970s red Ford Fairmont wagon, a map from AAA and some change for the phone booths if need be. No GPS, no OnStar, no cellphone. I spent the night in a St. Ignace motel, toured Mackinac Island in the morning and wheeled into my friends’ parents’ driveway late that afternoon. Even in a somewhat dorky junior station wagon, it was exhilarating being on the road, mistress of my own route, devouring the new scenery and burning through the unfamiliar miles. Freedom and independence beckoned around every bend; every squiggly red line on the map seemed to promise adventure, and my love of road trips was ignited.
And it continues. A few weeks ago, those wiggly red lines inspired me to take the back roads home from a Memorial Day weekend trip. Everyone should see Wabash, Ind. at least once in their lives, I figured. Thanks to my trusty little car, I relaxed amid the cornfields, with a windshield’s eye view of farm villages and Kokomo and Peru — a little more of Peru than I wanted to, actually, while a police officer ran my vital statistics through his computer. He kindly accepted my apologies for zooming through a 40 mph zone and pointed me toward Wabash ... where I snatched up an antique hutch that just barely squeezed into the hatchback’s rear seat. You can’t do all of that with a plane ticket or a bus pass.
So despite the daily dreariness that auto ownership often is, and a fair amount of guilt over planetary problems the motor car exacerbates, I’m still grateful for the freedom a car-oriented society affords us. And today being Independence Day, I’ll light an extra sparkler or raise a toast to all the little vehicles that have made my adventures possible.
Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via mpreddy@aol.comThe 

From The Detroit News:

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