Topic #4 – The Car (finale)
Several years ago, because I guess working seven days a week, getting a doctorate and running marathons weren’t burning up enough of her life, my wife decided to take up the violoncello. Because it’s all about balance and moderation. Benedictine wannabes are pretty hard to keep up with, in my limited experience. I’ve heard it argued that the cello is among the most difficult things to master. Maybe like attaining fluency in Mandarin. Which I suppose is next for Audrey based on her trajectory evidence.
A couple of weeks ago, m’lady broke the bridge on her instrument. And because her old man doesn’t have anything better to do most days, he volunteered to deliver it up to Northampton for repairs at the workshop where it was born. Which womb is the home of Francis Morris, one of the loveliest guys you’ll ever have the pleasure to meet. A talented violin maker (and restorer) and truly balanced human, he deserves his own post, a task I hereby bequeath to my wife since she knows Mr. Morris better than I, is as big a fan and is doubtless looking for something to do. But for the record? Francis Morris is a New England treasure.
Anyway my fifty mile drive up and into Western Massachusetts found me intersecting the Appalachian Trail somewhere north of Sheffield which crossing I marked with some pangs of regret. Audrey and I have for many years shared and teased each other with a dream of hiking that icon. A twenty two hundred mile ribbon stretching from a launching pad at Stone Mountain, Georgia to the terminus at the smack dab middle of nowhere on the summit of Mt. Katahdin, Maine.
Audrey and I are probably not going to check a “through hike” of the AT off our bucket list. Mainly because we’d need to coordinate six consecutive months unencumbered by jobs to get it done (don’t look at me – I’ve been leading by example all year). But also because I doubt my knees would hold up for a job like that. So the AT is just another line in the endless rolling credits stream of it’s-not-gonna-happen. Sigh.
After I spotted the trail sign out the passenger side window, I found myself deconstructing the theme of lost time and missed mission and pretty soon after that started feeling seriously sorry for myself. But just when I was about to ruin my own day, I remembered something Audrey related to me about the AT; that several South-North through hikers actually quit at the base of Mt. Katahdin, just one last tiny day hike bite shy of finishing the whole enchilada. Which seems kinda crazy after five or six months of blisters and mosquitoes and black flies and sleeping on the ground and boiling your water and being hungry all the time.
At the last minute, in the epicenter of the Maine wilderness and against all logic, an otherwise rational through hiker wakes up on the last day and simply does not want the adventure to end. Abandoning the hike is the only act that makes sense to that pilgrim. The semi-permanent semi-colon punctuation on that amazing journey. A psychological gimmick that indefinitely postpones the emotional let down that inevitably follows an epic achievement like a six month forced march.
That’s one way to cope. Another is to finish the stupid hike and get on with the next in the adventure sequence. Doctorate, marathons, cello, Mandarin, etc. Or whatever.
I’ve taken a little bit of heat for never really properly finishing the car installment in this blog. And I may have explained why above, if you can sort your way through all the clumsy metaphorical digressions. I’ve also been thinking that I’ve been accused of lots of frailties in my life, but rarely of being a quitter. So here goes. About that car…
When Bill and I arrived at the Enterprise counter in Avon, CT on the morning of May 6th, we were escorted out back to select from the fleet of “Mid-Sized” sedans that fit our rental profile. Only to find that they only had a single vehicle in that category on the premises. So we shrugged our shoulders, pointed at it and said we’d take it.
First off, let me remind everybody that “Mid Sized” in rental car dialect translates to compact car. A key fact I unaccountably managed to de-select from my accessible life experience database even after having rented scores of cars over three decades of business travel. So my first thought was that this little caboose was gonna be pretty cozy with four occupants plus luggage (especially mine). I flirted briefly with an upgrade until Bill rescued us from a paperwork nightmare and said, simply, “Let’s Go”, invoking the exact language Dwight Eisenhower employed to launch the invasion of Europe. A born leader. Bill’s first of many saves on our trip.
Depending on which poll you Google, the 2013 Chevrolet Cruze is rated somewhere between fourth and eighth in it’s peer class of compact cars. And to be fair, there isn’t much separating the top ten. For perspective it competes in size and price with the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Kia Forte, Ford Focus, VW Golf etc. My verdict? It passed. And it had a couple of things very much in its favor.
First was the engine, which in our LT version was a turbocharged 1.4 liter inline four cylinder with plenty of gallop and very decent fuel economy. I think we averaged close to 33 mpg on our trip which involved a spectrum of hauling from drag racing across South Dakota to climbing the rockies to meandering around San Francisco and included both two and four passenger loading. Coupled with a 15 gallon gas tank, the range was phenomenal which came in handy in the couple of circumstances where finding an open gas station was looking problematic.
The other thing I liked about this car was the trunk space which was amazing. When we met up with Emma and Nic in Las Vegas I was worried we’d never fit all our stuff and that we’d have to jettison our beloved cooler. But we managed to squeeze ourselves and all our baggage in somehow. And even though four people was a tight fit, the back seat experience wasn’t awful.
There were a couple of things we didn’t like so much. Bill had issues with the unpredictable six-speed automatic transmission which downshifted on him at odd occasions during static cruising. I did not encounter this problem when I was behind the wheel but I also didn’t drive with nearly as much maniacal purpose as Bill did so that may have had something to do with it.
Bill and I did share periodic episodes “stick syndrome” which neither of us completely tamed. That’s the phenomenon where somebody who normally drives a car with a manual transmission occasionally forgets and employs his left foot to plunge in a phantom clutch. Results ranged from terrifying to hilarious but I can’t really blame that on the car.
The other major drawback was near zero rear visibility. The tradeoff for the huge trunk capacity was a tiny rear window which forced reliance on mirrors for virtually all six o’clock intercepts. I’ve noticed this is a common issue with most modern cars and it is an evolutionary step backwards, if you ask me.
The other modern blight our car suffered was chronic over-engineering. Call me old fashioned, but if you give me power windows, air conditioning, a decent stereo and a rear defroster? My cup already runneth over. The Chevy Cruze owner’s manual is three hundred and ninety six pages long. Not kidding. Thirty three of those were devoted to the “Infotainment System” which I assume means radio. Even with written instructions we never figured out exactly how it worked. So we listened to stations at random mostly.
And the dashboard was truly a marvel of confusion. There were just too many buttons, signal lights and controls, many of which were replicated in miniature on the steering wheel so the driver could access them all without reaching too far. I assume this was to improve concentration on the task at hand. But if that task is trying to change the radio station, driving the car immediately becomes a distant second priority. Very few of these controls were intuitive and some were stupid. The radio was a frustration. We never figured out how to open the trunk without the key. The cabin temperature control was in constant contact with the driver’s right knee and was therefore in peril of random adjustment all the time. And so on.
And then there were the nanny issues. When the internal clock tripped that it was time to change the oil, that’s all we heard about from the dash monitor. Like some kind of water torture. When finally we did change the oil (an astonishing act of Christian charity for a rental, btw), the guy at Jiffy Lube supposedly reset the alarm. But thereafter the car periodically feigned an oil pressure emergency which required a restart each time. Like a soccer player crumpling in a heap without being touched. We got used to that pretty fast and it didn’t slow us down much after the first couple of diva tantrums.
The one gimmick we both grew to love was the thumb activated cruise control on the steering
wheel which allowed for a change of speeds. We had fun playing with that and seeing how long we could drive without touching the pedals. Stupid and dangerous but amusing.
On balance? The car was fine. It was comfortable, quick, efficient and reliable. I suppose if I owned one I’d eventually master all the controls and avail myself of all the stuff we ignored (navigation, internet radio, bluetooth, waffle maker, etc.). It wasn’t perfect, but the little Chevy Cruze never gave us a bit of real trouble other than taking an oil pressure injury dive every once in a while. But it never quit on us. And here I can say, finally, that I didn’t quit on it either.
A note on this blog: I have decided to keep this…whatever it is going with periodic installments if it makes sense to share something interesting. Or stupid. And even though I can’t use the excuse of our road trip for content anymore, I’ve decided to keep the xcroadtrip masthead since that’s easier than recruiting readers to another site.