“What do you think they’d think our lives were like if they found this car without us?” Abbie asked me as we drove toward our apartment one Sunday night. It was the spring of 2004, our senior year of college. We were journalism students working on a project that involved driving to random Chicago suburbs and searching for former drug dealers who might know something about a particular 1980s murder. We both would go on to be crime reporters. Our humor trended dark.
We’d spent hours in my 2002 Mazda Protege over the past several weeks, driving into Chicago to pore over legal documents, down to the suburbs, to a running path we loved by the lake, to the grocery store to restock our supplies of cottage cheese (her) and Cup Noodles (me). That evening, we looked around the car and saw: my rollerblades, her running shoes, several empty bottled Frappuccinos, two or three editions of the Sunday New York Times, workout clothes, a stray pair of heels, empty Jewel salad bar containers, stacks of photocopied legal documents, a couple of paperbacks from the used bookstore in our town. A little microcosm of our lives.
Yesterday, I cleaned out that 2002 Protege — we called her Bug — for the last time. An archaeological dig through my 20s: The Willamette Week burger quest issue from last year in Portland; more Sunday New York Times issues, brittle and yellowing; the barrettes my friend Lauren must have stashed in an out-of-the-way drawer the summer we lived in Erie, PA; a canister of pepper spray I remember running back to the car to leave in the glove compartment before going through airport security at O’Hare; all of the monthly parking passes from our first San Francisco neighborhood; the atlas I used when I drove across the country for the first time; a selection of old Gobstoppers and stale Chex Mix.
If we’re talking about dumb adventures, Bug got me to most of mine. I’d just gotten back from a spring break trip to Boston the day I got her; my dad picked me up at the airport in the little blue ’89 Protege I’d been driving and told me he’d found my new car at a dealership nearby. This was early in the era where you could use the internet to your advantage in car-shopping, and (as I remember it) we marched in there and informed the dealer of what we would be paying and left with a car that night and then ate chocolate chip cookies fresh out of the oven at Max and Erma’s.
Bug went to Erie with me that summer, then to Evanston in the fall. The next spring, Bug took me on one of the adventures that made me me: I loaded her up with all of my tiny apartment’s possessions and drove her across the country solo. I was 21 and wide-eyed at everything: St. Louis, Kansas City, Denver, Boulder, Mesa Verde, Four Corners, Los Angeles, Highway 1 to Santa Cruz, Santa Clara. I drove Bug back to Erie in four candy-fueled I-80 days that summer, and a year after that she brought me back to California for good.
Bug had almost 118,000 miles on her when we traded her in yesterday. All those months of commuting between San Francisco and San Jose; weekends in Santa Rosa; driving to the start of nearly every race I’ve run; trips to Vancouver and Portland and Palm Springs and seemingly endless drives to LA — they showed. We’d heard something over Thanksgiving weekend about great year-end trade-in deals; Bug’s fate was pretty much sealed. In her place, we have Maxime (or possibly Maksim, in honor of the delightful Russian man who sold him to us). Maxime/Maksim/Max is cherry red, tiny, familiar-feeling — Mazdas are great that way — but also shiny-new. We’ve driven around the city and picked up groceries and cat food, but we haven’t had any adventures.
A couple of hours after we got home from the car dealer, I realized that despite all the bags I’d filled while cleaning, I’d left something in Bug — a little prism that I’d bought at a flea market when I was living in Santa Clara, so that when I drove across the country I could have rainbows dancing through the car. We had to go back to the dealership today, and I asked if I could go back to Bug to get it back. They obliged, and now that same silly prism is dangling from Maxime/Maksim/Max’s mirror instead.
This little car’s got big tires to fill, but it’ll be fun to get started.