When I was but a callous teenager, I fully expected to be in possession of two particular things by the age of forty-five. The first: wisdom. It seemed reasonable to me that at some time in the future I would stop being hasty, intemperate, and uncertain. That I would magically acquire the sort of self-assured complacency I observed in the adults all around me. That I would, not to put too fine a point on it, grow up somehow.
The second thing I expected to have was a Corvette. I'd spent my youth around the sleek coke-bottle third-generation cars, acquiring a deep-seated fascination with their transparent roof panels and pop-up quad-headlight front ends and the supreme assurance of the lower-cased "corvette" on the flanks of the soft-bumper models. But it was the hard-edged 1984 C4 'Vette that stole my heart. Unlike today's young people, I didn't ponder the sociological message of the two-seat Chevrolet or the faintly risible stereotype of the balding middle-aged new-Corvette owner. I just thought the car was cool and fast and I wanted to have one.
And so it came to pass that on Christmas Eve of this year, shortly after my forty-fifth birthday, I finally found myself rounding Tuscon, AZ and heading for home . Except it wasn't playing out quite according to the script I'd written in my head thirty years ago. To begin with, the car wasn't mine; it belonged to my wife, who is a decade younger than I am and not in any way the traditional purchaser of a Corvette. And that wisdom that I'd also hoped would be mine by now? It's clearly never arrived. How else can I explain the fact that I'd decided to drive a summer-tire-equipped, 421-rear-wheel-horsepower 'Vette in the snow, at night, for the best part of ten hours?
To be fair to myself, I'd taken every precaution possible to avoid bad weather on the road from Los Angeles, where Danger Girl and I took delivery of her one-owner, six-speed, coilover-and-half-cage '98 coupe, to Albuquerque. We'd chosen to take the "low road" through Tuscon rather than the "high road" through Flagstaff. The weather forecast had called for six inches of snow in what my wife always calls "Flag" for some reason, but Tucson and all points east were supposed to be clear. Other than the mild hassle of driving a car with fixed Sparco buckets approximately fifteen hours with only fuel stops, we didn't expect any difficulties on the trip.
Unfortunately for us, however, by the time I got to Phoenix the snow forecast was rising for all roads both low and high. The first flurries found us after dark, on the long empty sections of I-10 just east of Tuscon. I killed the cruise control and the big V8 hovered near idle at sixty miles per hour as I squinted and peered through a blizzard of snow lit to blinding by slightly mis-aimed headlamps. Some of it was sticking. The eighteen-wheelers bullied me out of the left lane.
At Benson, Danger Girl said that the radar was clear just a bit west of Wilcox. The snow was sticking now. I dropped down to forty miles per hour as the truckers dove off for the rest areas. The road markers had disappeared. I was steering by dead reckoning, using the guardrail as an informal guide.
At Wilcox the snow was fluffy, thick, omnipresent. "We just need to get east of Lordsburg," my wife said. By this time we were alone on the unlit road, using just the amber parking lights to see through the soup of white flakes falling all around us. Fifty miles went by without the sight of another car. The speedometer rested at thirty. Every five or ten seconds the tach would zing as the rear wheels briefly lost faith.
When we reached the fuel stop at Lordsburg, Danger Girl confirmed my fears: the storm was moving east, the same as we were. It was going maybe twenty-five miles per hour. A bit more. We had to race it to Deming. If we could average forty miles per hour, we would beat it to Deming and it would be safe to take the two-lane road up to Hatch, NM.
Take time to make time, make time to be there, like the song said. The road was dirty white. I gave the Vette big steering motions, keep a light foot on the throttle, focused my eyes past the snowfall. Half an hour out of Lordsburg I caught a convoy of trucks. They moved over for me, perhaps bewildered, perhaps interested to see if I'd fail to keep up with the wagging tail and pirouette into a ditch. "Too fast," my wife said. "You're going too fast." She was right.
A few miles outside Deming, the snow was still falling thick but it hadn't fallen long enough to stick. I relaxed my fingers on the wheel, the way Ross Bentley taught me a decade- ago, and I let the Corvette stretch its legs to eighty. It was like the worst rain race at Mid-Ohio; at any moment it seemed like the surface might simply stop cooperating. But halfway between Deming and Hatch the snow relaxed its fury and became merely Christmas-y, ornamental, a friendly globe full of white flakes shaken by a God who was at worst indifferent and at best perhaps actively looking out for me a bit.
We reached Albuquerque expecting more snow but the same unpredictable weather patterns that had made the past six hours an utter terror had decided to spare our destination. It was about six in the morning on Christmas Day when I tucked into bed. While I slept, the snow melted off the car. When I saw it next, only the odd patterns of dirt on the fenders and targa top betrayed the fact that there had been a few inches of ice caked from stem to stern.
Now, at last, was the time to be wise. I made arrangements to store the car and booked a flight. The fact of surviving one winter storm did not mean that I'd survive another. Naturally, by the time I got to the airport on Monday it was sixty degrees and sunny back in Powell, Ohio. We could have driven the rest of the way, but you know what they say about hindsight. I've had all the snow-Vette-ing I can handle for some time to come.
I failed to mention it at the beginning of this column, but there was one other thing I'd hoped would be mine by the time I reached late middle age. As a child, always moving from one town to another, never really settling down, always the new kid at school or on the basketball team or whatever, I'd hoped that one day I would wake up and just have a completely normal, totally settled, utterly boring life. I wanted to wear the same tie every day and follow well-worn paths and never face surprises, be they good or bad. That's another wish I didn't get. Instead, I learned something along the way.
I learned that we are all born with a compass inside us. For most people, that compass is a steady source of direction, from one goal to the next. I've waited forty-five years for my compass to stop spinning, but it never did. So if I ever find wisdom, or even peace, I'll have to find it on the road. On the move. Going nowhere fast, you might say. And well-equpped to do so, behind the wheel of this little red Corvette.
Born in Brooklyn but banished to Ohio, Jack Baruth has won races on four different kinds of bicycles and in seven different kinds of cars. Everything he writes should probably come with a trigger warning. His column, Avoidable Contact, runs twice a week.