I was probably six or seven years old when I watched a car summarily buried in a huge grave. It happened right in front of the cabin my dad used to own in Frisco, Colorado.
The reason for the burial, as explained by my father, was that water flowed under the street, and needed a place where it could collect before it moved on.
I didn’t get it. In fact, the idea blew my mind.
I was young, but sufficiently assimilated into American culture to find this unsettling. The idea that a car — a car! — could be reduced to it’s corporal properties and repurposed into plumbing did not sit well with me. But I had to accept it. I became slightly less of an animist that day.
It’s hard to say what lasting effect that had on me.
In my teens, I admired cars; envied my friends who had them. But I could see right through my peers who invested too much social capital into their cars. Still I understood at a gut level that cars are outward manifestations of the owners — the shell we choose to represent ourselves in the world.
I even speculated, at age 18, whether I might never own a car, and what kind of life that would be. I saw myself as a nonconformist, but the car-free thing didn’t happen.
I owned several cars, actually. Bucking the idea that a car had to be cool, I owned a couple of station wagons. Although implicitly, I was still making a statement — or trying to: Doesn’t it make you feel shallow how you obsess over your stupid Trans Am? Or, Isn’t it ironic how I’m choosing frumpy practical vehicles? My attitude was kind of proto-hipster now that I think of it.
I was still captive to the idea that a car was necessary part of the persona I wanted the world to know. In the world of Phillip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, humans have animal dæmons — the physical manifestations of their souls. It was like that, but with four wheels.
Then I had a Datsun pickup truck. I loved that truck. I kept it clean. I did my own tuneups and any other service within my abilities. I installed an high-end stereo. I hardly ever used it for it’s truckishness, but still it made a statement I wanted to make.
When I was getting ready to go away for two years in the Peace Corps, I called my insurance agent. I asked him how I might minimally insure the truck while it was stored somewhere, say, under a tarp in a friend’s back yard.
My agent listened to me. When I was done, he said, “Sell it.”
“No. I love this truck.”
“It’s just a vehicle. It may be valuable to you, but in two years it will depreciate in value regardless of how many miles you don’t put on it. The rubber will still deteriorate. The metal will still rust. Sell it.”
A man who clearly had a financial incentive to indulge my silly sentimentality instead chose to smack me around with some cold, hard, reason.
And like that, I lost my religion. I’ve never been able to love a car since then. I owned one more car after that — a Toyota truck. But I stopped doing my own tune-ups and service. I almost never washed it. And I gradually returned to the speculating that I’d begun when I was 18. What would life be without a car?
Do you have a story of what led you astray from the religion of car worship? I’d love to hear it.