Wednesday, January 18, 2012


The troubles really started about two months ago, on the way home from a weekend in Wausau. That "low coolant" light led to a leaky gasket that the mechanic estimated would cost about $700 to fix.

"Your car is getting awfully old..." my parents cautioned.

"I know, but I want at least one more winter with her -- once this is fixed, it'll be fine. And if another big problem comes up, I'll know it's time."

Two weeks later, when I was leaving work on a Friday afternoon, I put her in reverse, tapped the gas...and nothing really happened. The engine revved when I hit the pedal, but Bessy just slowly rolled backward a few feet before running out of steam. All the way home, every time we came to a stop, the same thing happened -- when I'd take my foot off the brake, we'd just slowly roll forward, no matter how much I tapped the gas, until finally some mysterious, arcane gizmo inside the engine would catch and off we'd go (until the next stop sign, anyway).

I knew it was bad, but I kept trying to convince myself it wasn't anything major. "The mechanic said something about the accelerator cable, maybe it's frayed? That's probably what's doing this."

On Monday, she went back to the mechanic. I went to work and waited for the call.

"Yeah, it's the transmission. I can't quite figure out what's going on, but I think it's failing."

I held it together while I walked back to the repair shop to pick her up; I held it together while I talked to the mechanic (who looked almost as sad about it as I felt). But as soon as I plunked my butt in the driver's seat, I cried like a baby.

Brand-new (to me) Bessy.
(Brand new [to me] Bessy, September 2000.)

I got Bessy in August of 2000, a week or two before I moved back to Duluth for my last year of college. Up until then, I'd been carless in Duluth -- on weekends when I came home to Ashland to work at the motel, I drove the 1978 garden-hose green Oldsmobile I'd been driving since my last year of high school (deemed "too old" to go beyond a 50-mile radius of home) having the freedom to go to Target without taking a two-hour bus ride on the DTA was pretty exciting. Plus, a car with a tape player? Four doors? Power locks?
Cruise control? It was like I'd died and gone to heaven. Compared to a '78 Oldsmobile, a 1996 Chevy Lumina was pretty damn luxurious.

The next summer, Bessy moved me and some of my stuff (the rest rode in my parents' pick-up truck) to Montana. From our home base in Helena, we visited almost every corner of the 4th largest state in the union (and pretty solid chunks of Idaho, Washington and Wyoming, too) -- east, west, north, south. We went on interstates where 75 mph speed limits were more of a suggestion than an iron-clad rule; we wound our way at a snail's pace on one-lane back country roads with boulders on one side of us and sheer drop-offs on the other. We got stuck in the middle of cattle drives, snapped pictures of bison in Yellowstone, danced along the edge of Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier, twisted around mountains and through blankets of drifting snow, and spent countless hours behind the wheel taking in the alien (well, alien to someone from the close, thick, wet woods of northern Wisconsin) landscape around me.

In Ewan, Washington.

Four years later, Bessy (and the truck, and my parents) moved me back to Wisconsin. There weren't any mountains to drive over anymore, but we made do with stuff like trips to the world's largest badger and the world's largest twine ball, long drives around the south shore of Lake Superior, and drives that went, well, right over Lake Superior.

Driving the ice road from Bayfield to Madeline Island.

Bessy hit 100,000 miles. Then 112,000 miles. Then some more. She got dented and pooped on and made she funny noises when we went over big bumps. (And sometimes when we went over little bumps, too.) The tape player quit in 2003, the cruise control in 2008. (The power locks are still going strong!) There were stains on the floorboards, a tear or two on the seats, the occasional mouse turd in the trunk. None of that stuff bothered me. I was just glad she kept running.

I've driven Bessy since I was twenty-one years old. Eleven years. That's nearly one-third of my life.

Bessy had 65,000ish miles on her when I got her; I didn't get to put another 100,000 on her like I'd always hoped, but hot damn, we got close.

(January 5, 2012)

After the news about the transmission had sunk in, I realized it was time. I started looking at the used car ads. My dad started highlighting things in the paper. Trips were made to used car lots...lists and phone calls were made. Meanwhile, Bessy kept running -- more sluggish than usual, but she's never done the no-get-up-and-go gas pedal thing again since that fateful Friday a few weeks ago. No one's really been able to explain why.

If anything, that made the whole process harder. As silly as it is to anthropomorphize a car, over the years, that's what's happened. Bessy's not just a car, she's another character in the story of my life -- call it stupid, but to me, she's a personality, a spirit. I knew if I traded her in somewhere, they weren't going to re-sell her...she'd be going to the junk yard. The thought of her getting smashed in a big ol' car crusher literally makes me sick to my stomach. So does the thought of her parked out in a field full of junkers...I mean, she's not dead. She feels fine.

"I just hate to see her get junked out. If someone who likes to monkey around with cars could get their hands on her, I'll bet they could get her to 200,000."

The long goodbye.

The wheelings & dealings went on hold at the end of the year -- Christmas kept us busy, and my brother's wedding kept us even busier. At the reception, I noticed my dad spent a lot of time shooting the breeze with my cousin-in-law, Matt. The next morning, I found out what they'd been talking about.

"Matt'll take it -- he's got a buddy that works on cars in his garage and he's not convinced the transmission's shot since it hasn't done it again. He'll give you whatever the dealership offers for it."

I felt like a 3,600 pound weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

Two weeks later, on a Friday afternoon after work, Bessy went into retirement. And the new new-to-me car came home.

(It doesn't have a name yet. We're still in the getting-to-know you phase.)

There's a few loose ends to tie up -- we're not sure when Matt's coming to retrieve Bessy, and I need to clean her out before he does. But before I do that, we need to take one final joyride -- maybe I'll treat her to a trip to the car wash, or give her a shot of that premium gas at the pumps. Whatever we do, I want her to go out in style.

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