It was one of those Indian summer afternoons that had us fooled into thinking we could get by awhile longer with light fleece and no gloves. Tom and I were in the Subaru, glad to have the windows open enough to blow the dust off one last time. With errands done and weather just right for moseying around without spoiling our groceries, there was no particular place to go but home, and no particular sense of urgency propelling us there. We had that footloose feeling of driving aimlessly we’d felt as pre-oil crisis teenagers, balanced by the wisdom that we now needed to suck every last drop of practicality out of each $50 tank of gas. We were “riding around” Rangeley-style. Having shuttled ourselves to all points on our plotted route and, circling back from the grocery-dump-PO loop, we were optimizing our fuel consumption by poking along and enjoying the ride.
“No regrets, you know,” I proclaimed. “Not even a twinge.”
I’d told Tom as much on several occasions. As always, he gave me his “good thing ’cause you’re stuck now anyways” nod. But on this particular day, I wasn’t simply making a general observation about our new lifestyle compared to our old lifestyle. I might have sounded like I was riding around just repeating myself to keep my vocal cords limber, but my reaffirmation was prompted by something so specific and serendipitous I’d spotted along the road that it demanded comment.
A red Mustang convertible had just passed us with its tunes blaring and top down. The driver was heading from the overlooks toward town, not looking in the least like he was concerned with groceries or gas. He was lettin’ that pony just run wild, grinning and singing along, with the wind in his hair. He flew down Route 17 like a shiny red rocket, blowing by the Subaru in a blast from my past.
Not too long ago, I had a car just like that. Torch red she was, with black leather interior and a black convertible roof. I called her the Joyride, a name she wore proudly on her license plate, never allowing me to drive anonymously anywhere near where I used to live. (Technically, her license said JOYR1DE. When I went into the DMV to claim my vanity plate, some other New Hampshire Joy just as clever with word games had already beat me to it. I stood there crestfallen, with no second choice, until the DMV clerk offered a solution. “The numeral one is often used when the letter “I” is not available, and it’s an acceptable substitution,” she stated. Her tone said she didn’t care nearly as much about making my license plate dreams come true as she did moving me the heck out of the way of the next person in line.)
Before that, I’d been a Subaru girl for years. The first brand new car that was really mine was a cute little mallard green 1997 Impreza. I called her the Hovercraft because, unlike our Jeep and Tom’s horrible little commuter sh**box, she seemed to hover over the road. Thanks to her high MPG rating and all-weather dependability, she made traveling to my job assignments along the Massachusetts tech corridor feasible. Eventually, my resolve and sense of adventure for Route 128 started to wear out long before that first Subaru.
So how did a practical, all-wheel-drive girl end up joy riding in a Mustang? Well, like most other flights of fancy not rooted in Rangeley, it began in the tropics. For our silver anniversary trip to the Keys, I splurged beyond our usual sh**box car rental and surprised Tom with a silver Mustang convertible. Somehow during that vacation week my dream shifted from allowing myself to enjoy a recreational splurge to seeing myself in the driver’s seat and my name on the bumper.
About a year later, the Joyride was in my garage. Actually, she came to me in NH by way of Wiscasset. Although every salesman in this half of the universe tried to sell me a green, blue or black Mustang, it turned out that the only Ford franchise with my specific car on the lot was Downeast. When I finally got her, it took me at least six months for her bright, fire engine red newness to stop scaring me enough to chill out and just drive. Even then, I was in a perpetual state of awe and disbelief each time I got behind the wheel. In my head, I still felt like I should be driving my little Subaru. But then a cop or a high school kid would look at me differently, or I’d catch my reflection in a store window and realize this was not your average Mom bus. “Now that’s a midlife crisis car!” people would say. “No, it isn’t.” I’d insist from under my matching red visor. “It’s a midlife celebration car.”
She was the boldest, raciest, biggest show of status symbolism I’d ever allowed myself to acquire. She made me beam with pride and sing my gratitude to the open air every chance I got. But, at the same time, she made me want to justify, to somehow explain that I wasn’t just spoiled or shallow, that this wild pony exterior was actually cloaking a utility vehicle soul. I needed a new car, after all. Tom had traded his latest commuter heap in for an Outback and Becky would be taking the Impreza off to college soon. Plus, the time was right for me to let myself live outside the box a bit, to run unbridled by my inner critic. “Who would have ever thought?” I’d marvel when I’d climb in and see the galloping pony stamped on her steering wheel. She had ponies all over—one on the grill I polished compulsively, one on each door, on the glove compartment and even on the rubber door casings. My favorite embellishment, though, was something I added aftermarket: A tiny angel with blond hair, a festive red gown, and a playful smile hung on my visor, always watching. She was my Prudy angel, a pin my step-mom wore on her johnny during her too frequent stays at Maine Medical battling leukemia. Prudy smiled nearly nonstop. To her, everything was wonderful, the sun rising and setting, my job, my vacation plans, even my cooking on a bad day. When she lost her battle, she left me with her angel pin, a fierce desire to seize all the wonder in life, and enough of a nest egg to go out and grab it with the wind in my hair.
“How do you get that thing through the snow?”folks would want to know out in the parking lot each winter. I’d tell them about my Blizzak rear tires and the 50 pounds of dog food in my trunk which, in theory, got me around town without fish tailing. No putting the Joyride up on blocks, she was a practical, four-season sports car, I’d explain as I scraped ice off her vinyl roof. “After all, I didn’t name her FearRide,” I’d remind myself as I clenched my jaw and spun away. Luckily, for five years, I was blessed by more than enough smooth cruising to balance out our few treacherous excursions. Then, slowly but steadily, I found myself noticing how pinkish my pretty car looked covered with road salt, how impossibly heavy those low-slung doors were, and how the backseat was sort of a joke. I started to see my prize Mustang as just a work horse. Another dream—of a new house and a new beginning on a rough, lakeshore road—had captured my attention. Sure, there’d be some rare Rangeley days when we could pop the top and take her for a spin. But one trip down our road would have left the Joyride battered and bruised.
“Thank you, Prudy. It’s been a wonderful ride,” I said when I gathered up my CDs and unpinned my angel from the visor. We’d traded in the Joyride for a new Forester—a nice Rangeley mountain top blue model—and I was saying my goodbyes in the Subaru lot. She didn’t sit there for more than a day before she was whisked away on her next adventure. Her new owner, I’m told, calls her Kitten (or maybe K1TTEN) now.
I did expect to miss my Mustang. Those one or two days I would have taken her up over the Height of Land or to the Pine Tree Frosty would’ve been sweet, for sure. But, these days, nothing compares to the joy of getting there and back with the dogs and the groceries and the building supplies in all-wheel drive dependability. We haven’t given this car a name. She’s simply The Subaru. And, I can’t for the life of me remember what my license plate says anymore. What I do remember, though, each time I see my Prudy angel hanging from its visor, is how grateful I am to have arrived here—safe and sound, and just this side of practical—with fond memories of my little red party car.