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Saturday, July 24, 2021

Across the Country in Automobiles Built for Two

When I decided to leave the New York Times for a new career as a college professor in my home state of Texas, I realized we’d have to bring our cars across the country, including my Rattletrap of 2008 Smart Huh.

When Smart announced it was coming to the US market in 2007, and even after making a deposit as quickly as possible, I loved the oddity, and even Wrote about the experience of buying and keeping it For the Times Wheels blog.

But it’s feeling its age – remember, it’s been around since the time of the blog. The ride seems to get tougher over time, and its complaints could mean some costly time in the shop. There was a slight temptation to recreate the scene from the movie “Stripes” when Harold Ramis and Bill Murray drove away from their car after leaving it in a loading zone. “You can’t park here!” A man screams. “We’re not going to park it,” Murray says. “We’re leaving it.”

But I’m feeling my age too, so who am I to judge? Plus, I just paid $14,000 for it, and it gets anywhere from 35 to 45 miles per gallon, and it’s magical to park. People smile when they see it. Sometimes they even gesture and laugh, but that’s just a failure of etiquette.

My wife, Jean, and I decided to travel together. We are Texans; We will drive The car went to the Lone Star State once before, when I loaned it to my daughter; Late one night on that trip at a waffle house between Nashville and Memphis, a waitress at a smoke break pulled over, “You didn’t drive that car out of New Jersey!” I had assured him, and would drive 800 extra miles to reach my destination the next day. He shook his head and smiled.

It was a solo trip. It will be another test – of our rest in a few long days, and possibly of our marriage. But we’ve been through a lot, having met a week before classes started at the University of Texas in 1975. We’ll take our time. We’ll make it work.

With clothes from our old home and a few delicates we didn’t trust piled up almost to the roof of the two-seater car (that could be a surprising amount), we set off for the first day from New Jersey and exhausted ourselves. Before it made it to Ohio.

As we passed through the wooded mountains of Pennsylvania on Interstate 80, I felt the familiar shiver as crosswinds tried to push me out of my lane, and the occasionally rough patch of road was being delivered straight up my spine. We don’t play music when we drive; We talk, and listen to the sewing-machine-sized engine as I push it along the ribbon of the highway to 75 mph. With no cruise control, my right foot soon started complaining. By 10 pm, we had reached Cleveland and made a quick hotel reservation.

credit…john schwartz

The next day’s drive took us to Indiana and Illinois and Missouri. This was Culver’s Country – I love the country’s regional fast-food places, and Jean enjoys a butterburger and their fine fries. Taking a break and needing a walk, we parked near the St. Louis Gateway Arch and walked downtown under the grand monument and into the sculpture park.

That evening, however, when I stopped for gas, I realized I had made a remarkable mistake: I had left the gas cap off the car at a filling station. Apparently, 21 years in New Jersey, where drivers are not allowed by law to pump their own gas, have fooled me. And while auto parts stores sell replacement gas caps, none I called on my route stocked one that would fit our weird little car. The Smart has a flap sealing the fill tube, so it just won’t open to the world. In fact, it didn’t affect mileage much either. The hat will have to wait.

We decided to push back to St. Louis to make a few miles towards Tulsa. Louis, I started calling for hotels along Interstate 44, thinking we’d do another drop-in in Rolla, a Missouri town I loved from a previous trip. It was Memorial Day weekend, and hotels were hard to come by. After a long search and a conversation with a clerk at a booked hotel, which ended with a tip about a place that still had vacancies, I snagged a room. It had the ideal image of molten iron in the carpet, but there were beds in it, and we gratefully fell into them.

After the morning run, Jean and I had hotel breakfast to walk to a Waffle House next door. I’ve admired the wonders of Waffle House to my wife over the years; It has been a mainstay of my reporting trips to the South, and has been a haven in natural disasters. Plus, the pecan waffle is really good.

While I loved my egg plate and hash browns (smothered and covered, thanks) and that waffle, Jean was not impressed. She was expecting a platter of fruit, but none was on offer; She found the gravy and gravy tasteless for her plate of biscuits compared to the sausage-rich goodness she was expecting.

The marriage will survive.

As we were leaving Rolla, a billboard invited us to visit the “Uranus Fuse Factory”. (“The best fudge comes from Uranus!”) As a former space reporter, I wanted to drive up and inform them that scientists actually call the planet’s name “Your-Un-Us,” but Billboard said Other family fun said at the attraction included a gun range and ax throwing, so we just went. Nobody likes a pedant.

We got back on the road, stopped near Tulsa to see Jean’s father and his wife at their place, where we had a late lunch and continued on; I was hoping to cross the Texas line before stopping that night. Oklahoma had changed since the last time I passed: Medical marijuana had come to the state with casinos too soon.

Billboards in every town advertised the local dispensary, and I found myself amazed at the fact that nowadays, despite Merle Haggard’s lyrics, they smoke marijuana in Muskogee. We found a hotel in Denison that night, and we were ready to move to Austin the next day. After those intoxicating check pasties known as kolaches, we drove into town that night.

Our Odyssey didn’t teach me any great lessons, but it was fun. Soon after we arrived, I took the Smart to see what it would take to pass an inspection—I mean, beyond that replacement gas cap. The check engine light was on for a while; Secondary air pump. The bill was shocking—even after cutting out a few non-essentials, like the fact that the rear flap’s hinges are weak (in cold weather, the hatch slips down and hits me over the head), it’s at $1,500 came. I thought I might be an idiot for putting that kind of money into keeping a car that has almost 80,000 miles on the road so far. But I said yes, at least to keep it running for another year. Who can explain love?

A few weeks later, I visited the University of Texas campus to see some of the works. Parking space is not easy to come by even in summer. But I found a space between an SUV and a dumpster that could fit a few normal sized cars. Smart slipped like a dream. I felt the old warmth of satisfaction. I thought, this car would serve me well in my new home.

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