Every great journey begins with a single step. Of course, that first step off the curb and into the unknown is often made at the intersection of foolishness and courage. So, when I bought a 40-year-old car on the cheap and decided to drive it back to New Orleans from halfway across the country, I’m not sure which of those streets I started from.
Now, I do love a good long drive and there are few things I’d rather do than go on a good trek across the country, but over Thanksgiving my family came to visit, rather than the other way around. Somewhere in that week, I was forced to come to terms with the stressful idea that I was a permanent New Orleanian. Don’t get me wrong, I love New Orleans. But, for us carpetbaggers, knowing that you’re going to be here for the long haul means that, for the privilege of calling it home, you sacrifice being a part of the day-to-day lives of loved ones elsewhere and will chronically forgo relaxing over holidays in favor of extensive travel plans.
The thought was enough to suddenly make me very homesick, though I’m not really sure for where. I’m originally from St. Louis, but I haven’t lived there since I was 17. After that I lived in a college town until all of my friends dispersed to various destinations around the country, before I too floated away. The folks I want to be closer to have managed to spread themselves to nearly every point imaginable, making the prospects a reunion somewhat disheartening. And somewhere amidst these holiday blues I had a revelation; I found my answer in a Saints commercial break.
This past fall I had gone back to Missouri for my friend Ken’s wedding. It was one of those occasions that managed to rally nearly the entire gang of old scoundrels and cohorts for a great weekend. The song they used as their wedding theme was Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros’ "Home." And sure enough, watching the Saints on Thanksgiving, I heard the song again, used in a commercial for the NFL. Hearing that song and watching the fuzzy black dice bounce from a review mirror, I had one of those Citizen Kane-Rosebud moments. More than anything, I wanted a Plymouth Valiant.
My first car was a `73 Plymouth Valiant. She was an unfortunate shade of pale yellow, with a black vinyl top, bench seats, AM radio only, no air conditioning, and the seatbelts pre-dated shoulder straps. Most importantly, there were black fuzzy dice hanging from my mirror, and like the rare 40-year-old shopping at Forever 21, few cars can actually pull off wearing dice the way my Valiant could.
Though she was never as particularly flashy the way you expect classic car to be, she was fun to drive and straightforward to work on; a simple, fun car for a simple, Midwestern boy to be proud of. She was the Valiant steed that I rode away from St. Louis and off to college. She even carried me on some of my first expeditions to New Orleans, before ultimately dying en route to an early summer romp in the Big Easy. That car had been the most reliable part of my most transient years.
I made the decision. This was going to be my Christmas present to myself. No new TV. No putting money responsibly into savings or home improvements; I’ll just worry about shoring my foundation later this summer. This car was the place that I always felt at home. As the song says, “Home, let me come home. Home is wherever I’m with you.” So, I started looking for a Valiant I could once again call home.
The problem, however, was that because Valiants aren’t very flashy or iconic in the way Stephen King’s Christine made the Plymouth Fury legendary, not many people have hung onto them over the years. Of course, the upside is that the same lack of collectability combined with the simplicity of the design means that finding an inexpensive Valiant that is still running isn’t that hard … if you’re willing to search the entire country.
I found a ’68 in Seattle and desperately tried to lay hands on it, but by whatever forces of fate, I just couldn’t get it shipped to me. It was a daily exercise in futility that dragged on for more than a month. Calling this guy. Calling that guy. Calling the owner. Wait. Repeat. Finally, all I could think to do was try to drive it down the coast and across the desert, from Seattle to New Orleans.
I called the owner to explain my lack of other options and try to work out details to minimize the potential for disaster. After hearing my plan, he told me I was crazy, that there was no way I should trust a 40-year-old car to make that kind of trip. Yes, there should be warning sirens blaring when a guy trying to sell something goes out of his way to dissuade you from buying his wares. Seeing the wisdom in that, I let it go.
Frustrated by the fruitless efforts to have the last one shipped, I narrowed my search to Valiants that the owner would swear could make the trip if I drove it home to New Orleans. Let me just admit that I recognize my new criteria was a recipe for disaster. All it would take is for some shady bloke looking to get rid of a car to tell me “Sure it’ll make it,” and I’d be facing a very long, cold walk home with little more to show for it than memories of a stressful and needlessly expensive vacation.
Still, I pressed on, and sure enough, several days and Google searches later, I found a `72 in Boston.
Of all the places I know people, Boston just isn’t one of them. And the only way I could verify the car’s condition was by flying out to kick the tires myself. Now, I wasn’t really thrilled by the prospect of a one-way flight to Boston in winter, but the car sounded exactly like the Valiant I was looking for. So, Doug, the owner, and I set to dancing. I explained my situation, how I live in New Orleans, as well as my overwhelming desire to find an early `70s Valiant and my intention to fly up to test-drive it. Naturally, Doug thought it was a scam.
You know that point in every romantic comedy where the boy realizes that he is on the brink of losing the girl, forcing him to suddenly lay everything on the line and profess his undying love? My moment of wooing Doug, the weary middle-aged, sensible northeasterner, went like this:
"My overwhelming concern is the fact that I’m buying a $2000, 40-year-old car, and based on the word of a total stranger, I hope to immediately drive this untested vehicle 1,500 miles. The thought of standing on the shoulder of the road outside of Nowheresville, Virginia, waiting in the snow for a tow truck, certainly gives me pause. I mean, I live in New Orleans; I don’t even own boots.
So, I need to be able to trust you. Let’s start over. Hi, my name is James Crawford. I’m 30, I teach at Loyola in New Orleans, I have a 4-year-old daughter, I’m getting divorced and all I really wanted for Christmas was an old Valiant, like the ’73 I used to have. And I want to take a gamble on you."
"Highly unusual." But he agreed to press on, conceding that I may be a screwball, but as long as I had the cash, he’d meet me at the airport.
I couldn’t help but grin as I started typing my response. "Excellent. You’re right, you know. Anyone in either of our positions has every reason to be hesitant. Add to it that I’m willing to go to this length for a car like this, and it certainly does qualify as unusual. What can I say, that’s sort of how we roll down here in New Orleans – big gambles even if only for the sake of gaining a sense of romantic nostalgia."
…To be continued. Click here for the second half of this epic tale of self-discovery.