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Several years ago, while I waited on the curb at the San Diego airport watching traffic flow by, I noticed something about the cars. They were different from the local vehicles in Northwest Montana, and although I’d lived in San Diego for 20 years, I had never made the connection. It wasn’t just the obvious preference for SUV’s and Subarus in the rugged north—no, it was something else, too. The city vehicles were shiny and updated. Many of them looked high-end. I thought of the beaters I often spotted in my Montana town—the ’80s sedans, the classic trucks, and the boxy early style of Subaru—and it made me realize the degree to which residents of my town make do with what they have. I was proud to be one of them.
In recent months, this trend toward junky vehicles seems to have gotten worse—or better, however you choose to look at it. Before I explain, however, I have to admit that my own little red car has its own issues. I will remove the log from my own eye first. This is a beloved vehicle that won’t quit, even though we’re at 198,000 miles. Each blemish tells a story. The longish dent on the driver’s side—that was a tangle with a tall stand of bamboo at the side of our driveway when we were in San Diego. My husband could not understand how I did that, as I had backed down our long, steep driveway a couple thousand times by then. I could understand, because I had backed down that impossible driveway two thousand times without incident, and it was only a matter of time before it got me, especially now that there was a giant, unforgiving stand of bamboo to complicate things.
Similarly, the dust-up with the deer happened because it had to, because a decade had gone by with no incidents in a landscape dense with these thick creatures (or thick with these dense creatures, if you prefer). My daughter and I were deep in an interesting discussion when she said, “Mom, deer!” By the time my brain processed the emergency, it was too late to stop. I had, however, slowed down enough to give a witless, fleeing animal a good bump with the front of the car and a quick but frenzied backward sprint when she got caught on my side mirror for a few moments. To my relief, she and her compatriots then dashed off into the woods and there was no need to bring anyone back to the site with a gun. The encounter had left a visible dent, however. Later, a friend helpfully brought attention to it by inscribing “Bambi” in the layer of dust coating my car.
Even with its dents, dimples, and rusted out spots, my vehicle does not yet resemble what I would call a “zombie car.” Zombie cars are vehicles still in service that are so badly damaged they look uncannily like animated car corpses. An obviously totaled vehicle will swing by in the turn lane, with damage so telling that one could do an accurate play-by-play of the accident, and the visceral reaction is “Whoa!”
I understand not taking one’s car to the body shop after being creamed in an intersection. One, it’s expensive. It makes more sense financially to just drive your older car into the ground. Not only are your insurance rates stable, but your permanent registration is still working for you. Two, body shops are pricey. No matter what the problem is, no matter how subtle the damage, the employees always announce that they have to order the whole piece from the manufacturer, and that item always costs healthy percentage of the car’s current value. (I’ve experienced when they opted to not order the piece, when a teenager hit our parked car and was liable. I learned that it’s best to believe what they say and let them order away. In this case, someone at the body shop had whaled away on our panel with a hammer and then painted over that, leaving a mass of stipples. It gave me the heebie-jeebies.) Three, it costs a lot to have your car fixed, and it’s not a sensible expense given how brutal this area is on vehicles—potholes, dirt roads, salt, filthy slush, and impatient drivers at intersections all take their toll. It’s better to pay the rent than maintain a sleek, gleaming car.
Other mutilations I’ve noted lately: gaping, sightless holes where headlights should be, missing back windows crisscrossed with duct tape, a hood (and possibly the whole left front of the vehicle) secured with a rope. Cars go nonchalantly by with driver-side doors caved in, whole sections hideously ripped off, mangled bumpers. Rope, tape, tarp, and other materials at hand are pressed into service to make the thing driveable as soon as possible. My favorite fix is on a small, grey car that just happens to be in our church parking lot every day. Apparently, the front and back bumpers were having a problem severe enough to necessitate the use of black zip-ties as stitches. There are small series of them, front and back, in a careful ‘X’-shaped pattern. One can’t help but appreciate the resourcefulness of whoever saw fit to do this. And he did a nice job.*
I know our area has come a long way since the ’80s, when more families subsisted on venison, and residents had to drive all the way to Missoula for Easter dresses. That’s what I’ve heard from native Montanans, anyway. Now our town offers Costco, Target, REI, many grocery stores, chic shops, a grand movie theater, chain restaurants, quiet planned neighborhoods, multi-million-dollar estates, Internet everywhere—almost anything you could get in urban California. But the sordid state of our region’s vehicles show that perhaps Montanans haven’t changed all that much. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
* Not to be sexist, but of course it was a “he.”Published in