By Susan Wilson
Guest Columnist
Oak Bluffs, MA, USA

A few issues back, in Stay Thirsty Magazine, I took a look at my life in dogs from my childhood dogs to the dog of our earliest empty-nest years (and now the dog of our mature years). It recently crossed my mind that there are other signifiers as one goes through life’s journey. In particular, one’s vehicles. There is the first car, the emblem of youthful freedom; the various family cars, practical but not sexy; maybe the hobby car after the kids are gone, as there may be more time and disposable income. 
In 1970, I purchased my first car. I was 19, at the end of my freshman year in community college, and lucky enough to buy my psychology professor’s 1968
Susan Wilson
Camaro. It was the car of my dreams and when Dr. Beck essentially offered it at a rock bottom price, as he was moving to Hawaii, I jumped on the opportunity (thanks Dad). A dark green, 327, hardtop, three on the floor, low slung and sexy as all get out. Now, I didn’t drive a stick, but that failing was soon remedied. I needed a boat cushion to get me forward enough in the bucket seat to see over the dashboard. I would never have been mistaken for cool, but with the zippy feel of that throaty engine and a heavy-duty clutch, I felt that I was close. Just add the tie-dyed tee-shirt, bell bottom jeans and you’ve got the picture. I got my first and only speeding ticket in that car. 
Within two days of ownership, a lumber truck backed into my Camaro and crimped the hood. Then my sister sideswiped it with our parents’ station wagon and this time the repair was less than perfect, and the right rear quarter panel was more a shade of blue than green. But, still. My ride got me from point to point in style. College graduation, first job. I got married and the Camaro sported the “Just Married” sign. Things started to go south as we newlyweds struggled to make ends meet and the Camaro was an expensive car to maintain. Ultimately, it was the price of gas (which had skyrocketed to fifty cents a gallon!) that tipped the scales, and in 1976, we made the very painful decision to trade my beloved Camaro in on a—gasp—Chevette.

The stages of family life are defined by the kind of car sitting in the driveway. If the Camaro represented my college years and carefree youth, the Chevette was perfect for a growing family and accommodated a car seat when we started having kids. It was bright yellow (remember when cars came out in outrageous colors?) and we drove it until the floorboards rotted out and the heel of my shoe went through the rug into air. Next up, a Chevy Cavalier, again, not sporty, but as a compact wagon, very useful. This one accommodated the collie in the way back and the two kids in the backseat. That wagon gave way for the quintessential mom van, the Plymouth Voyager. Two kids, a collie, and now our kids’ friends. Along the way, we acquired a used Toyota pickup truck for utility purposes. Our two girls learned how to drive a standard in that teeny truck. Plus, they could only carry one passenger in it so we felt it was a safe vehicle for high school students. Eventually that pickup was replaced by a brand new Ford Ranger. Now, I did love that truck, except that it was useless in snow. Too light, front wheel drive only, I was stuck more times than I can tell trying to get down the snowy barn road. 
If the Camaro was the playmobile of my youth, we succumbed to the lure of a 1991 Volkswagen Vanagon as an automotive plaything in our middle age. Snow White, as we call her, not only serves as a camper, but is as practical as it gets when the whole family comes to visit, and she can’t be beat for beach picnics and island tours. Nonetheless, she is quirky and not always reliable and has taught us quite a bit about keeping an antique vehicle on the road. For practicality sake, we have the other VW in our lives, a Jetta that has taken us cross country twice. I like it well enough, as one likes a good hamburger, but there’s no sizzle. 

Our Vanagon

We are not profligate with our vehicles and have proudly run all of them down to the ground; however, there is always that moment when we give up on them, when one more repair is too many. The tipping point for the Toyota pickup was the clutch, so, we gave it to a friend, and he drove it for several more years. With the Voyager, it was the timing belt that signed its death warrant and that one went to a scrapper. The Ranger. This one broke my heart. After years of pouring oil into it every week, we gave it away. 
It wasn’t until I found a 15-year-old Jeep Cherokee, that I realized that my heart had not been automotively fully engaged. If the Camaro was the car of my youthful dreams, the Jeep was the SUV of my maturity. Four-wheel drive; body like a tank. A full partner in my home-to-barn-to-beach lifestyle and perfect for tooling around an island where the classic Jeep Cherokee is the most common of the genus Islandia automotivus. There were times when I was one of four old-school Cherokees at a four-way stop. A true “island car.” Meaning, it’s not suitable for driving on highways. It never gets on the boat. 

My Blue Jeep Cherokee
What makes a car the automotive equivalent of a soul-mate? This no-frills workhorse suited me in a way that none of my other cars, with the exception, of course of the Camaro, ever did. The difference, I think, is that these two vehicles were my cars, my decision. All the others have been family cars, shopped for and test driven and paid for together; shared. 

My blue Jeep proved its worth the very first winter I owned it when we had a January blizzard. I was home alone because my husband was gone with a family emergency off-island, and I had horses to feed eight miles away. Bless her heart, my neighbor Deb called and offered to go with me. It was my very first time using four-wheel drive and it took a bit to figure it out, but I did. Raging snow, wind, and an unplowed barn road. We got there. We got home. Horses were moderately grateful, although annoyed at our delay. I swore fealty to the Jeep. It had performed like a trusty workhorse, uncomplaining and dependable. Worth every penny of the purchase price. I am a Jeep owner! Hear me roar!
I had promised my Jeep that I would never give up on it like we had with all the others. I promised that I would pour money into it and keep it on the road forever. And then, last winter, the repairs began to mount up. From ordinary maintenance to things that defied the skills of two capable mechanics. No heat in winter. No air conditioning in summer. The passenger window wouldn’t roll down, the left hand seatbelt in the back broke so my grandchildren were forced to sit next to each other. Still, I wouldn’t give up. I loved that car. The brakes let go—dramatically as I was in traffic. I got it fixed. Each repair came with the hope that it would be the last repair for a while. A month. A week. Today. And then the mystery of why my gauges would fly up into the red even though the car wasn’t overheating was solved, a cracked cylinder. All the coolant was draining into it. Can’t it be fixed? I just need a new head, right? I was letting sentiment overrule sense. 

I won’t say that my family staged an intervention, but they sort of did. The reality is, we were struggling along with one “good” car (the Jetta) and two old cars, the Vanagon and the Jeep. How many cars, by the way, do two people need? How big a carbon footprint do we want to make? 

The Jeep had served me well. It was time to let her go. 

The first thing you do when you’re facing hospice care for a vehicle is go look at shiny new healthy ones. On a trip to Western Massachusetts, we “car shopped” along the way, noticing which cars might work for our varied lifestyle. Four-wheel drive, boxy design (I can’t stand those SUVs that look more like oversized sneakers than cars) and, most especially, ground clearance. On the day after Thanksgiving, we took the big step of buying a new (barely used) car. 
The new car is a vehicle much more AI than automobile, with something like 48 on-board computers. Everything is at my fingertips from radio stations to answering the phone and hearing texts. Even the four-wheel-drive system only takes the push of a button. I’m getting used to the backup camera. The heated seats are pretty nice, and the remote start does make it a far more pleasant early morning trip to the barn. Nonetheless, whereas I certainly enjoy not wondering every morning if the car will turn over or be warm just about the time I get where I’m going, every Cherokee I see makes me grieve a little for my broken friend. 

At least until I discovered the heated windshield wipers. That is pretty special. I’ve also discovered that dark gray Toyota 4-Runners are evidently as common as Cherokees so I’m still in the island car club. I haven’t come to a four-way with four of us, but pretty close to it.  Give me time, maybe this new car will prove it too has soul. 

In the meantime, a mechanically inclined young relative has taken the Jeep. Hopefully he won’t get his heart broken. 

Susan Wilson


Susan Wilson is a New York Times bestselling author. Her latest novel is Two Good Dogs.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.