I don’t remember the exact date of the purchase, but I do remember driving my new Volkswagen home with the sunroof open and the windows rolled down. I didn’t care that I had a car payment for the first time in my life: in exchange, I’d gotten freedom. Or at least the illusion of freedom.
The bright blue color would not have been my first choice. But it was an extraordinary deal — a factory car with only 3,000 miles and a matching $3,000 discount — that was too good to pass up. And so it was that I acquired the VW Golf Smurfmobile (also known as “Guido”).
At least once or twice each summer, Esteban and I would load Guido improbably full of camping gear and drive far out of town for a long weekend. Sometimes we’d car-camp at Banning State Park …
… and other times we’d drive as far as we could up Lake Superior’s North Shore.
I loved taking road trips in the Smurfmobile … the radio tuned to some small-town station, Esteban dozing next to me, our dog Arrow’s grinning face in the rear-view mirror. We had countless adventures together, our little pack of three. Twice we even went to Chautauqua, New York — and back.
For a time, I took a second job as a stable-hand in exchange for riding privileges.
I loved the crunchy sound the tires made on the otherwise-deserted gravel roads. And although my Smurfmobile looked tiny next to the other girls’ farm-sized pickup trucks, I didn’t care. I loved Guido because it felt solid, like an adorable neon-blue tank. This was especially reassuring in the winter when the risk of skidding into an accident (or a ditch) was all too real.
Although it didn’t have great traction, the Smurfmobile got me through 14 Minnesota winters.
But those winters exacted a price: The chemicals that remove snow and ice from the roads also removed some of the bright blue paint. In spite of the Smurfmobile’s frequent baths, corrosion eventually set in.
A couple of weeks ago I was alarmed to find a rusty chunk of metal sitting under my car. I couldn’t identify it, but I was pretty sure it looked important.
There were other problems, too. The transmission was becoming increasingly balky — and if it was below zero, the reverse gear would simply disappear. I cancelled many an engagement last winter because I couldn’t back out of the garage.
And then, last week, I noticed a new noise. “It sounds like there’s a woodpecker under the hood,” I told my longtime mechanic. “I think I have a loose belt.”
He called me two hours later with the bad news. “The belts are fine,” he said, “but valve one is shot, valve four is close behind, and you need a new camshaft.” He could rebuild the engine, he said, but it would cost $2,500.
I cried when I called Esteban to give him the news. I felt stupid, but he understood. “There are a lot of memories in that car,” he said. “Still, it’s just a machine. And it’s time to let go.”
I haven’t decided yet whether — or with what — to replace the rusty, trusty old Smurfmobile. But Esteban is right: It’s time to let it go. So this morning I’ll clean out the glove box, and this afternoon we’ll go test-drive some new cars.
I’m not looking forward to having a car payment again. But I’ll admit I’m once again looking forward to the call of the open road.