Sunday, December 13, 2009

Travel with 4 wheels on the ground, Part One.

When I was a little boy my father used to take me downtown every August to do a little clothes shopping before school began. His favorite store was called “The National” and it was one of the fancier shopping options in Rochester. It was housed in a big gray stone building that stood on the corner of Main and Stone, just up the block from where my dad held a second job parking cars. I used to love those trips because they generally ended with a hot dog and a chocolate malted from the small cafĂ© on the first floor of Sibley’s, the pre-eminent department store in town which was across the street and up a block. These were the days when the bigger stores had been in business for generations, owned by families that had begun as “dry good merchants” in the early history of the city. Sibley’s was one of those, but to me it didn’t matter, Sibley’s was all about hot dogs and malts.

At the time stores like The National offered “revolving credit accounts” as the concept of using a piece of plastic to buy something when you had no money had not yet come into being. I suspect that these accounts were a holdover from the old dry goods days, when a person’s word was their bond at least until their tab got too bad and they had to leave town on the Oregon Trail. I never did understand what the “revolving” part of the account was, but that was the name and to a kid like me it just meant you signed a little piece of paper which the clerk then put into a plastic capsule that was in turn placed in a glass pipe charged with vacuum. The capsule went in, the door was closed and your signed piece of paper shot up and away to a dim and dusty room somewhere else in the building where men in striped shirts with arm gators and green visors opened them, took the slips and made little notations in big ledgers - your debt next to your name. I always suspected that they built the system out of glass tubes as a way to drive home the point that you were signing your life away – you could watch your money vanish as the system sucked it out of sight. It must have been a blow to my dad’s soul each and every time that little capsule spun off into the distance knowing that he was living beyond his means just to keep me in chinos and striped shirts. Being a kid though I never saw the darker side, I only saw the capsules fly away and that fascinated the heck out of me.

Those systems still exist, almost exclusively in drive-up banks but sitting in Beijing last week it occurred to me that airline travel is the same thing although on a grander scale. You go to the airport, you get put in a capsule and you get sent off to some other place where the capsule is opened up and you’re picked out. What transpires between departing and arriving is traveling per se, but it is travel whose interesting moments are limited to the seat back jammers, loud frat boys and thugs that smell like cigarette smoke. You don’t see the world in between aside from those idiots that open the sunshades just as you doze off.

Automobile travel is precisely the opposite – you get everything in between in the most minute detail. I suppose that walking offers an even richer experience, but it takes a really long time to walk just about anywhere outside of the mile circle around where you are presently standing. And of course in spite of the diminished quality of your travel experience, planes get you there a lot faster. Although driving to China in the early 21st century seems insane, cars do offer a nice alternative between speed and experience and with that in mind we decided to pack ours and head to Mexico.

We have this big old gas guzzling SUV that we keep around for two purposes. The first is buying really long stuff from Lowes or Home depot like the gutters I bought back in October to replace the ones that our mentally challenged geldings made a toy or over the course of the previous year. The second is to serve as our vessel to the beach – a capsule that can carry a bike, some foldable kayaks, a cooler, suitcases, bedding and whatever else we think we have to have for a week of vacation. Our SUV is like a cargo ship headed in the direction of fun and we bought it two days before just such a trip more than 10 years ago.

Similar to airline traffic cars too can have delays. Just like the 777 I most recently saw at PEK Gate 28, I had one when I pulled off the car-bag, hopped in and turned the ignition only to find my trusty boat dead again. I was surprised by this as it had been working a mere month ago for my gutter run. But I wasn’t terribly surprised since it’s happened before. A couple of years ago we went from battery charger to battery charger throughout our vacation, a hassle that culminated with a trip to Auto Zone in Guaymas, Sonora and the amazing discovery that we could be found in their computer by entering our phone number. How far the arm of technology extends these days. We subsequently found out two things after that trip - first, our wiring harness had rotted out and second that our Sears Diehard was just below the cranking power required to start such a mighty vehicle. I fixed the first and ignored the second.

Reasoning that it was the previous two weeks of subzero temperatures that drained the life from my power source I retrieved My Lovely Wife’s Toyota and gave the boat a jump. It started right up so I left it running for a half hour while I arranged the stuff to go in its cargo hold. Figuring it was charged I turned it off and tried it a second time – success, it came right to life. I turned it off and proceeded to pack.

I suppose that a second place where airline and car travel intersect is the stowing of the baggage. Of course the big difference with your car is that you have to do it. I wonder if everyone had to load their own baggage into the plane if they would pack more responsibly? I certainly do when I have to load my car. I view it as a giant three-dimensional puzzle and make every attempt to use all of the space efficiently and intelligently. I stick the bike tire pump down in the wheel well with the boom box. I tuck the life vests along the windows with the pillows. The bathroom bag goes on top for easy access at our midpoint stop. In the end you have a well laded cargo hold where everything makes the utmost sense until Your Lovely Wife tells you to grab that Christmas package out of the big suitcase which just happens to be serving as the stabilizing platform on which all of your packing relies. In that case you shrug and look for opportunities to do the re-packing even more effectively.

All that done and hugs given we hopped on board and prepared to leave. Turning the key once again I was greeted with that familiar “click click click” which means there is just enough juice for the starter solenoid to laugh in your face - our ship was dead once again. Did this mean another vacation metered by begging for battery jumps from strangers in far flung parking lots? Or had I just killed it a second time from leaving the doors open for 3 hours with the interior lights on? I retrieved the Toyota and jumped it again and got it going again.

A stop at the Post Office to inform them of our absence was followed by a stop at the gas station for refueling. A quick run to Sunflower Market for wine and lunch fixings led to one last diversion to Flying Star for an Iced Americano. At each stop our faithful conveyance started without so much as a sputter. The battery was charging, our stuff was loaded, we had food and coffee and we were on our way.

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