For the story’s first half, click here.
What can I say – I am a fool for love.
The morning I left New Orleans to see the Valiant in Boston, I awoke to the unruly squawking of a company of parrots in the tree outside my house. The temperature when I reached the airport was a pleasant 61 degrees. A crowbar couldn’t have gotten the smile off my face. Hours later, as the plane descended through the clouds, the sun and blue sky that followed us from New Orleans was replaced by a bleak, gray landscape. I had known this was coming and packed accordingly, but it wasn’t until I saw it that I truly remembered that January is still winter.
The ground was already covered with snow, and my friends had warned me that the entire northeast was expecting a blizzard to coincide with the exact time of my arrival. Still, I’d decided to press on and the ominous news about the weather wasn’t really detracting from my mood. From the airport, I hopped a shuttle to a nearby parking lot to my blind date with Doug, the Valiant, and that what-am-I-doing moment of stepping off the bus into unknown territory.
I found Doug wrapped in what was probably five layers of clothes, sitting patiently on a bench. He stood to shake my hand, revealing that he was a bit of a giant with a grip to match. We sort of sized each other up, not really knowing what we were getting ourselves in to, before he grinned, saying, “Let’s go look at the car.”
She was as perfectly imperfect as I’d expected. Doug confessed that she had some issues and fickleness about her – maybe it was the carburetor or just the ethanol they put in gas these days, he told me; but sure enough, everything that needed to be there was. I was the cat who swallowed the canary.
I was thrilled to hand over the money; Doug was thrilled to take it. As I got the car situated, we got to talking about cars, jobs, families, and the like. He builds fences for a living, even in the cold, which I thought was crazy. I live in New Orleans and was willing to go to these lengths for the overly romantic notion that I needed this car. He thought I was crazier.
But I was already in love with the car. And you have a hard time talking sense to a man in love, so Doug didn’t try. He just took my picture next to the car, and then watched me dig a fresh set of black fuzzy dice from my bag and hang them from the mirror. With that, I was off.
Onward to glory!
And by glory, I mean snow. Lots of snow. No, seriously, a freakish, ridiculous, don’t-tell-your-mother-you-were-actually-out-in-that quantity of snow. With lightning.
Who knew that snow had lightning?
That night it took me nearly eight hours to make the four-hour drive to my friends’ place in Brooklyn. I certainly felt safe being inside nearly two tons of rolling steel, but this was the first time that I was ever glad not to have someone else along on a road trip. I couldn’t imagine another soul would have been as understanding of the old girl or my determination if something had gone wrong that night.
Thankfully, Valiants are a special breed. No computers. No real sensors. But, if you know them well enough, there’s nothing that can go wrong that can’t be fixed. I had a pocket full of contingency plans after I spent a week asking myself, “What has to happen for this not to work out?” And so, I drove on through the snow, slowly, but with plenty of confidence.
The plan was to hopscotch down the eastern seaboard, staying with various friends along the way. That way, if the car gave me any serious trouble, I would never be outside the range of just owing someone big-time for coming to collect me. Besides, it was a good excuse to see the people who have visited me in New Orleans, but who I otherwise never see.
This all sounded great on paper. And that paper was buried in more than a foot and a half of snow and ice. My adventure slowed considerably, taking on a leisurely pace far more suited to the Big Easy than the typical bustle I was expecting. After all, there was snowy sightseeing to be done and old friends to catch up with. It seems the closest you can find to Carnival time atmosphere up there might just be the joy of a snow day.
It was a good time. There were beers, bars, hole-in-the-wall shops and introductions to the neighborhood’s colorful characters. Everyone had a snow day it seemed, so it turned into the perfect occasion for everyone to get together outside. Even with the snow, the atmosphere of playful camaraderie felt like being home in New Orleans.
I was staying with my friends Nick and Andrew, who were happy to see me, but a bit confused about my trip. I tried explaining it as best I could. The car was there. It wasn’t the best timing, it wasn’t the easiest location, the logistics were tentative and sketchy at best, but to me, it was worth the gamble. The boys nodded their heads. Since moving to New York, they have been putting together a website called becomeanewyorker.com. It seems that when they got to their new hometown and quickly fell into the rat race, they faced the similar ache of homesickness. Now, neither of them seems likely to ever leave NYC, but they understood my need for the Valiant.
Then I was on to DC, through toll roads and more snow, to meet up with my friends Ben and Helga, native New Orleanians who settled there after evacuation. I arrived to find their lives in a bit of an upheaval; they’d recently bought a house and had their first kid only a month ago. Helga’s parents were there, relocated from Kenner for the time being to help with the baby and get the house settled. Despite the chaos, it was another evening of eating well with expatriates, and another cold night spent in the warmth of New Orleans hospitality.
Morning came and while the rest of the family congregated in the kitchen to assemble a feast, Ben and I worked on the car. We got the AM radio working at least and re-inspected the workings under the hood. Sean Payton would be proud; the tank for the wiper fluid had cracked long ago, which I managed to remedy with a single stick of Juicy Fruit.
And over the sounds of static and the smell of WD-40, Ben asked about New Orleans and how the schools were shaping up. The money and opportunities in DC were enough to make him stay for now, he explained, but DC would never be home. Or, at least he didn’t want it to be. He made no pretense of being any sort of a car guy, but he knew exactly why I was standing out there in his cold driveway that morning working on an ancient machine. He was only too happy to help as long as I promised to come back and visit again.
Next stop: Atlanta to stay with my cousin. My only indication that I’d crossed into the south was the merciful disappearance of snow and wholesale improvement of the weather. The sun was out, and I could finally roll down the window and properly enjoy cruising down the road. Sadly, the only music the freshly-repaired AM radio could pick up was a crackling of what could best be called Mariachi static. After a few hours, I conceded, buying a boom box and some dusty CDs at a truck stop. Somehow I was able to pass up such musical treasures as Simpsons Sing the Blues and the soundtrack from Titanic, selecting instead a collection of `70s staples to liven up the drive. Creedence, James Brown, Cheap Trick and various one-hit-wonders kept me company, but driving late into the southern night I was singing along, never so happy as when Reunion summed up the evening with “Life is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled me).”
Getting to Atlanta at an unconscionable hour, I managed to keep my cousin up until 3 a.m. talking. His wife is pregnant with their first and he was a little jealous of my adventure. He is by no means a car guy, and so again, I found myself trying to explain the appeal of this funky green behemoth. Somberly, he confessed that despite their great jobs and the work they put in on the new nursery, they were still considering moving back to St. Louis sometime after the baby was born just to be closer to family. We shook our heads at each other, smiled and nodded.
I let him take the Valiant out for a joyride in the morning. It was one of those warm spring mornings that just feels perfect. A cache of dried leaves managed to clear itself from the vent under the dash, blasting us with the smell of fall to contrast the spring breeze. “It’s just one of the quirky design flaws,” I explained, grinning, leaves billowing at our feet, and savoring the absurdity of it all.
I was on the last leg of the trip. From there, it all becomes a blur of truck stops, a roadside tune-up, sunshine, barbecue, amazing pie and music. It was glorious. The home stretch had a burst of rain and radiator problems, but I managed. As I pulled up to my house Sunday night, I saw one of my neighbors coming down the street. I asked him to take the final picture of the trip. Stumbling drunk but determined, he obliged.
And on a cool, wet New Orleans night, grinning and sitting on the hood of my ’72 Valiant, the Edward Sharpe song came whistling back in my head once more. “Oh home, yes, I am home…”