When the repair estimates got higher than $1,000, I liked to ask Baki, “If it was your car, would you do it?” The way he answered, it sounded like he thought my Subaru was kind of his car, too, even though it was ugly and had enough dents and dings in the body that I told people the car was “its own burglar alarm.” One time a mechanic told me, “Yeah, I’ve seen hundreds of these go 200,000 miles and plenty of them, probably a few dozen, go 300,000.” Stuff like that, I started to believe in my car like people believe in Jesus — it ran on faith, not science.
I bought my 1996 Subaru Outback Impreza in 2006, the year after I had moved to Denver and a couple weeks after a guy smashed my old car in an accident. It cost $4,000 and had 136,000 miles on it, a few dents, a couple holes from cigarettes (not mine) in the seats. But it had rubber floormats, a back seat that folded down and almost enough room for 5’11” me to lie down in the back of it. It had all-wheel drive to get me to the mountains during winter and high enough ground clearance to handle most Forest Service roads in summer.
At the time, it also had a working air conditioner, rear defrost, all four speakers, no problems with the paint, and an immaculate windshield.
After three years, the A/C compressor started making loud puffing noises, releasing half-second blasts of air and knocking the engine power down for just a second each time. After a year and a half of that, I started thinking about getting it fixed for $1,300. Then the clutch and transmission both went.
Baki called from Roos Only in Denver. He said it would be about $1,700 to replace both the transmission and clutch. He said I could keep a loaner car overnight. Jeez, I thought, should I dump $1,700 into a $4,000 car?
But part of me wanted to drive that thing into the ground, way past when it was fashionable, to push the limits of engineering and construction, and keep driving a car until it absolutely wouldn’t go anymore. Which meant until the engine gave out. The transmission and clutch? Body parts that could be replaced. The engine was the one piece that would mean taking the car off life support. I didn’t exactly have the money, but I didn’t have the money to buy a new car, either.
I asked Baki. If it was your car. Would you do it.
“Yes,” he said. “I would do it. We’ll get some more miles out of this car. It has a good motor.”
So they did it. It was a commitment to the car, sliding my credit card for $1,700. The next day, the A/C compressor started making that noise, even when I just wanted to use the defrost. Shit. They had told me that one day, the compressor would just blow up, shooting pieces of itself into the air conditioning system, and requiring that the entire system be replaced. I called Baki. Baki, I said, I just dumped $1,700 into this car, and replacing the A/C compressor is another $1,300.
“Yeah, bring it in,” he said. “Can you come down today?” I drove to the shop.
I walked in the front door, and Baki and I turned around and walked out. I opened the hood, and he reached in and unplugged the power to the compressor.
“There you go,” he said. “Now it won’t turn on. When you get some money, you bring it in and we’ll get it fixed.” We shook hands.
When my girlfriend and I broke up in 2011, the Subaru had just turned over 200,000 miles. A couple friends and I watched the odometer roll over as we pulled into the departures drop-off at the Denver airport. They cheered.
The average new-car buyer trades in their car when it reaches 55,000 miles, or after about four years of driving. Should I get rid of mine, I wondered, get something newer, make some car payments? I hadn’t had a monthly car payment since 2004. Think about it: Air conditioning. Rear defrost. The new(er) car smell, something different than dirt, sweat, and climbing gear. I could roll over potholes and hardly feel them.
Hell no, I thought. I wanted to drive until it quit on me, like a horse that just can’t go anymore. I wanted to make a statement about consumption, recycling, consumerism, all that stuff, even though no one would notice or care, because it was just another beat-up car on the road. But it was important to me, and important to Baki.
Summer 2011, heartbroken and hitting the road after my breakup, I got one last oil change and vacuumed it out for one last time before I packed it with all my stuff. As I hopped on I-25 North to leave Denver, the odometer read 200,700 miles. The vent blew hot air at me. The rear windshield wiper was frozen pointing upward, where it had stopped when the wiring harness melted, killing the rear defrost and the rear lock, which now only worked if I turned it with the key. A crack had finally finished its slow journey across the bottom of the windshield, and the molding was missing from the entire right side of the windshield glass, having ripped off on a windy day crossing Nebraska almost three years prior. A low rattle came from the gearshift, but if I turned the music up enough, it disappeared.
I took off, climbing, bouncing around, visiting friends, tumbleweeding, I called it. Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, every western state, the entire Pacific Coast from Astoria to San Diego. I slept in the car, slept on the ground in front of it more often, and wrote the beginnings of a book project on receipts and napkins I pinned against the steering wheel and scrawled as I drove and the ideas came.
When the Subaru rolled over 212,000, I was on my way to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon with my friend Greg, talking about life as we rolled across the dark desert in Northern Arizona and the Cardinals won the World Series, my dad said on the phone just before I lost my cell signal.
Six months later, I rolled back into Denver, and the Subaru was the closest thing I’d had to a home all that time. Still, I wanted something a little more comfortable, so I bought a van. I pulled the Subaru into a storage unit in east Denver, saving it for a friend who’s teaching yoga all over the world. He sold his car before he left and I figure when he finally comes back I’ll sell him the Subaru for $1 so he’ll have something to drive if he wants to.
It’s a good car. Baki told me it was.
Proven is stuff that stands the test of time.
Photo by Brendan Leonard