This is a story of a boy and his car.
I met Stella, of course her name wasn’t Stella yet, in the recesses of deep southeast Portland amidst a yard of half assembled volvos in various states of disrepair. She wasn’t perfect, but neither was I, so I gave up what little savings I had and drove her home that night. She broke down on the way home. The car doctor gave her some new electrical part and she drove fine, but I was pretty sure she just needed a little love.
Did I make that part clear? This is the story of a boy and his car. This is a love story.
She was born 4 years before me, in 1982, but she still ran smooth; only a few minor hiccups age picks up after 182,000 miles. Her name came to me in the middle of the night, waking from some dream of adventure. I learned she needed a little gas to get started and didn’t idle perfect on a cold morning, and sometimes the heat made her nervous. But if I ever found another lover with difficulties so simple, I’d never leave their side. She took me where I yearned to go, and she never let me down.
Our first big trip together was up to the San Juan Islands to visit some romance I had happened upon a brief time earlier. All the way up the highway, I watched the analog dials like a nervous mother. I checked the tire pressure at the gas stations, made sure her coolant and oil were topped off, and consistently scrawled down notes to see what kind of gas mileage she was making at each fill. Sometimes, alarmed at some phantom noise I’d imagined through the music I was blasting, I’d turn off the music and listen to the steady rumble of her brick of an engine churning down the highway. I always thought there was something wrong, but she just hummed her way up along the highway, steady and true in the way of the old 240s until we got to the edge of the land and I crawled into the back to sleep for the night while I waited for the morning ferry.
From then on it was adventures all through the summer. She took a friend and I up north to Olympic National Park and left us at the trailhead. We hiked up into those misty mountains and made camp at some ridgeline in the clouds, only to wake in the middle of the night to find the skies clear and the perseid meteor shower in full swing, shooting stars overflowing a sky silhouetted to the south by Mt. Olympus newly freed from the daily clouds of the Pacific Northwest. When we got back to Stella, she was just happy to take us back in and hear our stories along the 10 hour drive down the coast of Washington safely back to our Oregon home.
Stella and I always preferred to take the long road. We drove down to visit my parents in California and decided to skip the dull, over traveled route down I-5 and instead swung east across the Cascades to stop by Crater Lake and Klamath falls and all the mountain vistas from the flat desert of Central Oregon. Later she would take me up a hot and steep mountain road to my family’s Cabin deep in the middle of the Trinity Alps, and while I had to turn on the heat to keep her steady, we still made it just fine. Sometimes I had to sacrifice a little comfort with Stella, but she always gave me more in return.
On the way back, we managed once again to find a new route and drove out along the coast. I guess it just didn’t make sense to us to spend 7 hours blaring down a boring interstate when you could spend 11 hours driving down the winding cliff sides of the northern California 101, through the redwoods where the trees could make a Volvo wagon feel like a dainty lady, and on again along all the small highways home.
That Summer and the seasons surrounding it were always filled with little moments of adventure when we could free ourselves from the city life. Sometimes she’d take me alone to the foot of an old volcanic peak and wait for me as I tested myself against its slopes, or other times we’d rush out of Portland with a dear friend on an impromptu night hike through the Columbia river gorge. Later in our time together in the midst of winter, a friend and I took all the blankets and pads and pillows and trinkets we could muster and built a nest in the back and took off for a long weekend exploring the frostbitten windscape of the Oregon coast in December. We’d wake up in our cozy nest inside of Stella to find out what new treasures the road would bring on those frozen coastal mornings. On our last day, I ran naked into the December sea and when I came back, basking in the pale wintery sun, Stella was there to warm me.
Eventually we had to part ways. I was leaving for Korea to teach for a year, and I knew that Stella didn’t want to sit around at my parents’ house collecting dust in her golden years when she could be out adventuring with someone else who could love her as much as me. And it happened the right way. Driving up the coast once more towards Portland, one week before my flight left for the far side of the pond, I stopped to visit a friend in Humboldt. She told me how much she liked Stella and wished she could buy her from me. A week later she sold her car and made her way up to Portland and I got to see Stella drive off with someone who might be even better for her than I was. Perhaps there’s no more honest kind of love than letting them go to someone who fits them better than you.
In all our time together, there’s one trip that stands out the strongest in my mind. It was a trip early on in our romance, out to the far opposite corner of Oregon to a mystical place called the Alvord desert. You drive out as diagonal as you can across Oregon, over the cascade range, through bend and then on and on out into the relative wasteland of the sparsely inhabited high desert that is southeastern Oregon. The two lane highway continues on through recurring images of low yield farmlands and long abandoned store fronts that make you wonder what past ever existed that stores could exist in such a place. Keep going until even these signs of humanity cease to exist and the highway turns into a dirt track rarely traveled. If you stay on that for another hour or so, eventually the basalt slab of the Steens Mountains will burst out of the earth to the west as the road turns east and disappears and you find yourself driving, open and free, into the homogenous expanse of flat cracked earth known as the Alvord Desert.
We parked somewhere in the middle where mirages danced on all sides and I scooped up spaghetti while we watched the sun set behind the Steens and the desert took on a magenta hue of the desert at dusk. As darkness came on I crawled into the bed I had grown accustomed to making in Stella and fell quickly to sleep, only to be awakened by a bright light shining through Stella’s windshield. It was, of course, the full moon, peaking out over the edge of the desert to the East. I got out of the car and stepped onto the flat earth and looked east as the spotlight that was the full moon, low on the horizon behind me, cast our shadows like long tendrils into the infinite expanse of the playa at night, deep in a forgotten corner of Oregon I never knew existed.
Growing up in the mountains, I was used to relating with nature in a certain way, so I naturally set out to walk and explore these new surroundings, but after a few paces, I stopped and looked around. On all sides stretched the uniform emptiness of the Alvord, and I could walk and walk through the night, but like some bizarre dream-state vision of the subconscious, I would find only myself and the desert, my shadow stretched out for eternity by the low angle light of the rising moon. Just the desert and me and my shadow. And Stella. So I let go, for a moment, of that drive for newness and exploration that comes with a life of movement and mountains, and returned to sit next to Stella and appreciate the vastness of the unchanging desert while watching our shadows recede slowly back to our bodies with the continual rising of the late spring moon.
Miss you Stella.