Why? / by Brian Beck

After the timeout for overheating and fuel percolation (and some In-n-Out), we settled into the hot drive through the Mojave. I’ve written about this particular hellscape before, so I won’t rehash it again, but when we stopped for gas in Baker, California at about 10pm, it was still close to 100 degrees. The fact that people have crossed this desert on foot (and still do) is just incredible to me.

We stopped for the night in Saint George, and after a few hours sleep and some minor adjustments to my new brakes (a post-Man vs. Machine V repair), we were back in the saddle mid-morning, kids glued to their iPads while the scrub desert towns flew by. As is my custom when I’m spending hours on the road in an antique car, my thoughts drifted to my machine and the recent repairs. I had noticed a vibration the night before that I attributed to the heat, but with more time to explore the various speeds, road conditions and transmission settings that it could be associated with, by Cedar City I’d determined that I had another tire issue—the very same demon that I thought I had exorcised through the repairs this past spring. I didn’t waste any time though, and I promptly started through the flow chart, pulling over after lunch to inspect and swap the left front and rear tires, where I thought the shake was emanating.

It helped, but didn’t cure it, and I pressed north anyway, keeping the speed down to avoid the worst of the shakes. We stopped for dinner in Salt Lake and then headed back onto the I-15 for the last leg of the day into Idaho with the sun setting in a gorgeous rose color to our left. We pulled into a gas station in Pocatello, Idaho at about 9:30pm and filled the monster gas tank. While I was checking the oil, a farm kid of about 18 approached me, clearly fascinated by the old Pontiac.

“What is it?” he asked in a flat, slightly aggressive voice. I’ve noticed that when you get deep into rural America, you sometimes encounter a coarseness that I attribute not to impoliteness, but rather to practicality. They get right to the point in a way that can feel abrupt.

The obvious answer was that it’s a car, but I chose to interpret the question more generously. “It’s a 1960 Pontiac Star Chief,” I said proudly, while some other customers looked it over from a distance. He pulled his weathered Deere cap up, stroked his hair, and then settled it back down on his mop of rusty red hair.

“Huh,” he said, twisting his mouth into a sort of frown while sticking his head deep into the engine bay.

“It’s all original,” I said. He pulled his head out and looked at my face in exactly the same way he had just looked at the engine, his gaze turning quizzical.

“Whatcha doing here?” he asked.

“Well, we’re driving it up to Yellowstone,” I said, somewhat bemused by the growing strangeness of the this particular line of questioning. Usually these conversations tack in a different direction, centered around engine size, performance or tales of so-and-so who had an old car similar to this one. This kid had something different in his head though, and I was growing curious as to what it might be. He was clearly unsatisfied with my answer, and so he went straight for the heart of the matter.

Why?” he said almost before I’d finished speaking, delivering the question with a mixture of incredulity and perplexity. I’ve been asked a lot of questions over the course of my travels, but never in the space of eight words has someone forced me to articulate the entire Man vs. Machine ethos. “Why” is almost always a great question, but I got the sense that this kid wasn’t interested in complex answers. I doubted that he wanted to hear about the challenge of matching wits against an antique hunk of metal, the opportunities to meet new people, the old-timers who are transported to an earlier time and share stories of days long gone, the kindness of strangers who have helped us along the way, the memories I’m creating for myself and my kids… I recalled once having dinner in a restaurant in Paris with a carpenter who was missing half his fingers as a result of spending most of his life creating intricate inlay patterns by hand for fine furniture. I had recently seen an article in This Old House about computer-controlled lasers that could create such patterns quickly and cheaply, and after sharing the thrust of the article with him, I asked why he did it by hand. I’ll never forget the instant sense of regret and embarrassment I felt as a storm of disgust rolled over his face. I had inadvertently revealed that I didn’t “get it.” It’s not about that. There’s beauty in the art that comes from the challenge of doing it yourself, with your own hands, mind and soul. It’s about the journey.

I contemplated my answer for a second as he searched my face and then decided to take the easy way out. “Well,” I said slowly, “it’s a car, and they’re meant to be driven.”

He absorbed the answer like dry ground absorbs water. It was clearly unsatisfactory at some level, but the elegant simplicity of it seeped in just enough that he was willing to accept it. After a few seconds, his face softened and he pulled his dirty hat off his head, transferring it to his left hand. I thought for a moment that he was about to hug me, but instead he thrust his right hand toward my chest and I instinctively grabbed it. He shook my hand hard and looked at me as though I was about to depart on a perilous military mission from which I might never return.

“Good luck to you sir,” he said earnestly, the delivery in a tone that suggested he’d be reading about us in the newspaper the next day with a by-line that insinuated that them city folk just don’t have no common sense. And just like that, he turned and walked back to his late-model oversized pickup truck while I closed the hood and slid into the drivers seat. The old girl fired as soon as I turned the key, and we swung slowly out of the parking lot, up the ramp and into the darkness.

* * *

An old timer followed me into a parking lot the following day and pulled up next to me, his eyes distant as he looked at the shining chrome. He said he hadn’t seen one of these particular cars in 50 years. He didn’t ask many questions, but he kept shaking his head as he took it all in, clearly transported in his mind to a time long relinquished to a dusty corner of his memory. All he said was a couple “wows” and “thank you” before he drove away. Perhaps the better question is, “why not?”