June 26, 2008
You boys and girls of a certain age will recall, clear as yesterday, the service-station ritual of old. As Dad fills up the tank while the attendant washes the windshield and checks the oil, you shift potently into the driver’s seat of the family’s new ’58 Plymouth wagon, feet straining to touch the pedals, one hand futilely fiddling with the futuristic push-button drive panel, the other hand tugging on a steering wheel as big as a yacht’s, brain swimming with the sweet smell of leaded gas and adventure. Dad pays the attendant, opens the door, reclaims his place behind the wheel, reaches for his record-book and pencil, and scribbles: "10 gals. 29.9¢/gal. $2.99."
Cheap gas had a very long run. According to the federal Energy Information Administration, in 1958 Dad paid less than $1.50 per gallon in today’s money, higher in fact than most of the following years till 2003, when prices started to creep upwards. Now that the creep has become a sprint, it’s beginning to dawn on America that what has often been called its "love-affair with the automobile" may be over for good.
The affair was a memorable one, and I’m glad I got involved. The annual summer trips our family took when I was a boy live mythically, even mystically, in my mind. Snatched for three ecstatic weeks from the desolate sameness of home in Norwalk, my two sisters and I discovered just how large the rest of life was. We marveled at the giant sequoias in California, the blue-black waters of Crater Lake in Oregon, the lunar landscape of the Meteor Crater in Arizona; we experienced the natural surrealism of the Petrified Forest and the unnatural surrealism of Mount Rushmore. And it was not just the destination that was magical, but the getting there and back as well: testing our reading skills on the Burma Shave signs along Route 66; spending nights in motel rooms shaped like Indian teepees; splashing wildly in over-chlorinated swimming pools; eating sleepy-eyed breakfasts in diners smelling of coffee, sausage, and griddle-cakes; wandering in wonder through the endless aisles of souvenir shops and using our allowance to buy a geode or a wooden pencil-box stamped "Tucumcari, N.M." — and always, sucking up the intoxicating scent of gasoline in places like Little America, Wyoming, "The World’s Largest Gas Station," with a bristling forest of pumps and a vast rustic dining hall serving ice cream made in heaven to ease the hellish heat of summer in the buttes.
When I grew up, I took to the road myself, crossing the country in my own car or driving someone else’s on those AAAcon delivery deals, veering off the interstates to camp in peaceful parks and to bump along the remnants of the old highways looking for the classic overgrown motel, the refreshing over-chlorinated pool, the homey roadside restaurant.
I made my last long trip, from Los Angeles to New York, in 1990 — total gas cost, less than $150 — and since then have traveled widely in the eastern states. Early last year, in the claustrophobic confines of winter, I re-read John Steinbeck’s 1960 ode to the road, Travels with Charley: In Search of America — I could not quite get to Kerouac — and fantasized buying a small camper (but not a dog) to pursue my own search, perhaps along the vestiges of the old Lincoln Highway.
I have since had to lay that fantasy aside, pending the winning of the lottery I never play. I may do it yet, if I can swallow the memory of how cheap auto travel used to be and treat my search for America like I would any big-ticket vacation to Europe or Australia: put away a whole lot of money, and go for it.
Our affair with the automobile may be at an end, not just on those romantic vacations but in our everyday relationship as well. As with any human breakup, there will be many messy things to deal with — distributing old photos of happier times, of course, but all the much harder stuff too, like where we’ll live and how we’ll get around. In the space of a few years, the cost of gasoline will drastically change us. But as with any human breakup, the change may actually be for the better.
As for now, while cringing at the hundred-dollar fill-up, boys and girls of a certain age can thank our lost love for a beautiful memory.