Cover image for The distance to the moon : a road trip into the American dream
The distance to the moon : a road trip into the American dream
Morgan, James, 1944-
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Publication Information:
New York : Riverhead Books, [1999]

Physical Description:
285 pages ; 24 cm
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E169.04 .M663 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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According to John Updike, every seventeen years the average American male drives the distance from the Earth to the moon. But the average American male doesn't get to do it in a sleek silver Boxster on loan from Porsche. Fulfilling his lifelong fantasy, James Morgan took the Boxster, a model so new it had yet to be driven in America, and hit the road, often following the same trail (sometimes at speeds over 130 miles per hour) that Lewis and Clark took on their early crossing of the country.The Distance to the Moon is about the American love affair with the car and the open road--what James Morgan calls "the epic entanglement that's defined this century and reshaped the face of America." Morgan takes us from Florida to Oregon, stopping at sites such as Carhenge (think Stonehenge, with cars, in Nebraska) and interviewing everyone from the old car ad men--who knew what it was Americans yearned for--to car collectors, automobile designers, psychologists, and city planners in an attempt to find out why we're obsessed with our automobiles.The Distance to the Moon is the story of one man whose dream came true--and how it changed him. It is for everyone who has ever shared Morgan's fantasy of jumping in a fast car and hitting the open road, never to return. James Morgan has been praised as a writer and craftsman who understands the American psyche. With him in the driver's seat, we enjoy every second of the ride.

Author Notes

A former magazine editor, James Morgan is the author of If These Walls Had Ears. His articles have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, GQ, The Washington Post Magazine, Playboy, Outside, and many other magazines. He lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Attempting to follow in the literary paths carved out by his favorite "road books" (ranging from Stephen Ambrose's narrative of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Undaunted Courage, to Jack Kerouac's On the Road), journalist Morgan (If These Walls Had Ears) chronicles his own road trip from Miami to California. He drove his "American-dream car into America's restless heart to see what I could fathom about where we've been and where we're headedÄand why." The problem with this sincere but overlong memoir isn't Morgan's objective, but his choice of transportÄa brand-new "rebelliously foreign" Porsche Boxster, provided to him by Porsche Cars North America for the trip. Morgan's plan is "to drive to the end of every day and see what happened." But what results is example after example of people on the road and in parking lots giving Morgan the thumbs-up sign over his cool car and asking him about the speedster, which has yet to roll off the assembly line. Morgan manages to work into his journal the many auto-related incidences in his life, while visiting almost every old friend who had experienced them with him. However, what remains most memorable are all the people praising the car. Some of his concluding thoughts on his road experience ("I had found this to be a country of unexpected generosity.... The Porsche had seemed to bring that out in people") make the book read more like a long advertisement for the Porsche company. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Morgan, whose first book, If These Walls Had Ears: A Biography of a House (LJ 7/96), received favorable reviews, now turns his attention to the car. The title is taken from John Updike's observation that every 17 years the average American male drives the distance from the earth to the moon. Driving a Boxster lent to him by Porsche, Morgan traveled from Miami to Portland, OR, recording interviews and comments about America's relationship with the car from those he met along the way. At times he gets off course, including too many stories from his own past and those of relatives and friends and writing too much about himself. Sections of the book are interesting and informative, while others are not. Large public libraries should consider this title for car aficionados and male baby boomers.ÄJohn J. McCormick, New Hampshire State Lib., Concord (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Lewis & Clark & Me The first time I saw Miami was from the air, staring out the window of a TWA prop airliner as the pilot circled wide over the blue Atlantic. As the plane banked and began its approach, we cruised low over Miami Beach, and soon we were a silver sliver in the aqua gleam of Biscayne Bay. Finally we made a rushing shadow over miles of red-tiled, green-palmed, blue-pooled postage stamps. From the sky, the city looked like a pastel paradise in a heat shimmer of dancing whites. The whites, blinding sun streaks amid the color, turned out to be roads--the very roads I soon would learn to drive on.     That was thirty-nine years ago, on a January day in 1958. It felt like summer to me then, and in memory it does so still. Not just for me, but for the country itself. On any external scale of this consumer-mad century, it's astonishing to consider just how young we were then. Our family had owned a TV set for less than three years. We had one black rotary phone on a party line. In the years still to come, my friends and I would hang out at what was only the second Burger King in the nation. It was a time when it still was possible to focus.     Which may be why I remember Miami so well. Miami opened my eyes--opened my senses . I loved the surface of the place. Mississippi had been all pine-tree green and Pearl River brown. In Miami, red and purple flowers tumbled out of window boxes. Houses took on tints I'd seldom seen outside the Sunday comics. Thick lush lawns sprouted thin trees heavy with fruit. In my mind's eye, the lemons outside my bedroom window looked gold, like the stars in a Van Gogh night.     In Miami, I encountered Jews, Italians, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Chinese, Filipinos, Romanians, Greeks--even New Yorkers. I learned to sing Havah Nagila. I ate, for the very first time, the following foods: bagels, lox, cream cheese, avocados, Reuben sandwiches, submarine sandwiches, kosher dills, pastrami, Swiss cheese, lobster, stone crab, black beans, Key lime pie. I also discovered mangoes, a fruit so sweet and ripe and dripping with juice that they're almost disturbing in their sensuality. I've always thought of mangoes as sex plucked from a tree.     On Sunday afternoons, especially in the early days, I stood outside open-air Miami Beach "pavilions" and watched sun-blond girls in bikinis dance with swarthy men wearing pastel pants and tattoos. On the grainy beach I watched musclemen wipe oil on the backs of girls on bright blankets. I watched blue-veined jellyfish wash ashore, puffed up and full of promise, only to deflate and litter the sand like last night's condoms. I watched sunburned kids dig moats around castles, while women with umber skin stood ankle-deep in the surf, wearing swimsuits and furs.     Before I could drive, I hitchhiked everywhere. That too was part of the giddy appeal of Miami in the fifties--the notion that you could skim safely across this vast surface like a stone, day or night, skipping from ride to ride until, in no more than three different vehicles, you'd traveled from my house on 103rd Street in Miami Shores south to 79th Street, then east across the causeway to Miami Beach, and then up or down depending on at which beach you were meeting your friends.     There was a technique to hitchhiking, which made me feel enormously street-smart: Whenever possible, I hitched at traffic lights, where I could walk out to stopped cars and tap on the window and say, "Going to Seventy-ninth Street, sir?" That way I also had a chance to case the person behind the wheel. If I simply stuck out my thumb on the street, no telling who might pick me up. These were pre-Gay Rights days, and nobody I knew was much ahead of his time. Once when I was fourteen, a car stopped and I ran for it, only to find the male driver wearing nothing but a swimsuit the size of a fig leaf. Inside the car, I kept my hand on the door handle. Finally he popped the inevitable question: "Have you ever had a blow job?" He was glancing my way, and when I said no, he asked, "Do you want one?" I told him to put me out right there--but I got great laughs once I got to the party I was hitching to.     Over all of this lively exterior hung the fabled Miami moon, huge and full and bright and golden. For the first couple of years, I would jog home the twenty blocks across Miami Shores from my new girlfriend's house to mine, watching my midnight shadow sprint beneath the moon. Later, when I could drive, the moon became a luminous crashing whitecap on the dark Atlantic, or a postcard ripple on gentle Biscayne Bay. It was easy, on nights like that--inside that parked car, face-to-face with moonglow innocence--to believe that nothing touched by such a heavenly light would ever go bad.     Miami, Miami. Miami had to be my starting point. In the weeks prior to the trip, I'd been reading Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage , about Lewis and Clark's expedition to find a water route through the Northwest territories to the Pacific. The feeling that I needed to read that book came to me in a dream. Certainly I had heard about it, but I hadn't thought it at all relevant to me. What could a river trip into uncharted territory nearly 200 years ago have to do with a 1997 traveler sailing along on interstates in a $45,000 convertible and paying chain motels with a hologrammed piece of plastic?     But I soon discovered a certain kinship with the young Meriwether Lewis. He loved to "ramble," Thomas Jefferson said about him, and even his mother jokingly complained about his "roving propensities." When he was eight years old, his family moved from Virginia to Georgia, which was frontier then. Ambrose paints an engaging portrait of a young boy enthralled with life on the road, "on the march with horses, cattle, oxen, pigs, dogs, wagons, slaves, other children, adults--making camp every night--hunting for deer, turkey, and possum; fishing in the streams running across the route of march; watching and perhaps helping with the cooking; packing up each morning and striking out again." It's an image sure to stir the adventurous American blood.     As my own journey drew nearer, and as I read farther into the book, I found myself identifying more and more closely with Lewis and Clark. I began to see myself as stepping off the safe base of home into an untamed land. Like Lewis and Clark, who had been careful to prepare themselves for encounters with potentially hostile strangers, I was about to venture from the familiar East across a vast continent toward a mythic West. Two people, no doubt influenced by certain recent news headlines, even asked if I was taking a gun, and for half a second I considered it. It was the classic American journey, never mind the motels. In fact, we three (Lewis & Clark & Me) all were headed straight for that northwest destiny called Oregon. I had designated Portland, that paragon of new-urbanist thinking, as the perfect counterpoint to 1950s Miami. Together they formed opposite poles of experience in the saga of our love affair with the automobile.     One detail in Undaunted Courage that particularly struck me was how hard it was for Lewis and Clark to pack. Even after President Thomas Jefferson had given Meriwether Lewis's expedition the green light, months passed while Lewis ran up and down the East coast and then along the Mississippi River, getting boats built, ordering guns and ammo, hiring men, taking on provisions, and choosing trinkets as potential bribes for the Indians.     I can't imagine such a packing job. For years I was the most anxious packer I knew. I made lists and tried to cross-index them to make sure each shirt would go with a minimum of two pairs of pants and sport coats. And then there were the ties and shoes and belts and socks. Infinite combinations. I would throw up my hands and go fix a drink. Then eleven years ago I gave up on variety, opting instead to simplify my wardrobe and therefore my life. I now stick pretty much to khaki pants or jeans, blue shirts, white socks, and cordovan loafers. My packing has been made considerably easier.     Still, I couldn't seem to get ready for this trip, and my difficulty had nothing whatsoever to do with that great wild land I was about to venture into. It had to do with profound American ambivalence: Going away is one thing; leaving home is another. No wonder my reluctance manifested itself as a packing problem. Packing is an effort to take your home along with you, to surround yourself with familiar things, to lessen the chance for surprises. I was going to be in Miami in early May--and then in Missouri and Nebraska and Colorado and Idaho and Oregon and wherever else I might decide to go for the next six or so weeks. How do you pack for that? And how roomy was this Boxster, anyway?     All my friends were upbeat about my going. The Porsche people, like Jefferson, seemed a tad impatient with my last-minute delays. The car arrived in Charleston harbor and was originally to be delivered to Little Rock, but I wasn't ready. I couldn't make myself focus. I couldn't even hold the thought of getting ready in my head.     Also among my pretrip reading was John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley , which I last had looked at as a senior in high school. I was struck by something I hadn't understood the first time through. Steinbeck talks about how hard it was to leave home: "As the day approached, my warm bed and comfortable house grew increasingly desirable and my dear wife incalculably precious." I saw myself in Steinbeck's words. As a high school senior, I had been thrilled at the prospect of getting away from home. And I was excited this time, too--not many men my age get to have such an adventure. But after a lifetime of leave-takings we can grow attached--debilitatingly so--to familiar ground. I asked Beth to go with me for the first few days. I told her I wanted to show her my Miami, but really I wanted her to be with me, to help me get started. She knows how to get people to tell their stories. Once she agreed to go, I felt better.     Then I laid eyes on the Boxster and began to feel like a man cheating on his wife.     I picked up the Porsche in Dallas on a rainy Saturday, the twenty-sixth of April. When I first saw the car, I couldn't tell if I was looking at the back or the front. (It turned out to be the back.) I'd never seen anything like it. The car was bigger than I'd expected--not simply a glorified Miata, like the new BMW roadster appeared to be. Its rump was big, and its wheelbase wide. From my first vantage point, the dominant feature was a slightly less than round--more eye-shaped--single exhaust pipe, chrome, protruding from the rear of the car in dead center. It made the Boxster look like a rocket. Driving this, I might indeed find an untamed land. The car had 202 miles on it, thanks to the lucky men who tested it prior to my driving it cross-country.     Two days later I got my first taste of the adventure I was about to embark on. It was the day before I was to leave, and I was stopping at the optometrist to check on some new eyeglass frames. Witherspoon Optical is in a small, fancy shopping mall, and as I pulled into the parking area in the Boxster, I noticed a red Jeep Cherokee coming out of a spot. I waited, with my left blinker on, for the red Jeep to drive away. But after pulling out, the Jeep didn't move. Instead, the driver, a woman, waited as she motioned for me to go ahead and turn into the space. I waved my thanks and pulled in.     When I got out of the Porsche, the red Jeep was still behind me, but I didn't pay much attention to it. Then I heard these words: "Since I gave you my parking space, I think I ought to get a ride in your car." The driver of the Jeep had lowered the passenger window and was talking to me. She was a beautiful brunette.     "Your parking space?" I said. "I thought you were leaving."     Turns out she was dropping an injured friend off at the restaurant next door. The friend's crutches were in the backseat. I began explaining that this wasn't my car, that Porsche had lent it to me, that I was writing a book "about America and The Automobile." She eyed me over her sunglasses. Clearly I wasn't deserving of the Boxster.     By the time the Woman in the Red Jeep (as she soon became known in my fantasies) drove off to find another parking space, a crowd had gathered. My optometrist, John Witherspoon, and a couple other people stood around admiring the car. Then three more men walked up--one in a suit, one in a sport coat, and one in jeans. "What is it? We want it!" said Sport Coat.     "Porsche," John answered. "The new Boxster."     "Is it yours?" said Suit, addressing me. And this was only my first experience with what would become the crucial moment in scores of encounters across the country. In this case, I could've said yes, but I knew John knew otherwise. I wasn't psychologically prepared to say yes yet anyway. I'd been driving this car for two days. In my mind I was still a two-van man with a Vega in his past. I was still routinely clacking the ignition key on the right side of the steering column, instead of inserting it in the trademark Porsche ignition on the left dash. To be honest, I wasn't 100-percent sure of what it was I was seeking on this expedition. Was this sociology, or psychology? Was this Bruce Chatwin meets Frederick Jackson Turner, or was it simply Walter Mitty meets Jack Kerouac?     "Porsche lent it to me," I said to Suit. "I'm driving it across the country, researching a book."     All the assembled stared at me in silence for a long moment. Then Sport Coat spoke up. "What's the name of this book-- How to Be over Fifty and Still Get a Lot of Pussy? "     I resolved not to share that story with Beth. Unfortunately, I couldn't help telling our friend Sarah. "Har! Har! Har!" laughed Sarah, and just as Beth walked into the room, Sarah was in the midst of saying, "Of course --that car's a pussy machine! "     Beth gave me a look and asked what was so funny. "Oh, just this weird thing that happened today," I said limply. And I told her.     That night, scarcely twelve hours before we were to leave, Beth and I had an argument. We were in bed in the dark. The gist of the argument was this: She wanted me to admit that I knew the Boxster was a "pussy machine," and I steadfastly refused to do it. "That's not what this trip is about," I said. "I'm writing a book about the American dream . This is about restlessness and mobility and --"     "The car's a pussy machine."     "I don't know what you're talking about. I'm just trying to understand why we love our cars ." I put a pillow over my face.     That was my story and I was sticking with it. I expected to lose either way, but stonewalling seemed the path of least pyrotechnics. "Let's get some sleep," I finally said when I thought there was half a chance of that. "We're heading for Miami tomorrow." The American road trip as literary enterprise has a long, rich history. It's become a wagon train in time--a new Conestoga ever visible over the horizon, the ruts of the pioneers indelible in the path ahead. Walt Whitman celebrated the healing qualities of the road long before there were even automobiles. "O public road ..." he wrote. "You express me better than I can express myself." His friend Emerson proclaimed, "There is no truth but in transit." Mark Twain wrote about all sorts of trips, domestic and foreign, fictional and real. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn tells the story of one of the greatest American road trips, even if the road in question is a little wet.     Once the car had established itself in the American culture, the road-trip book soon followed. In 1916 the novelist Theodore Dreiser wrote one of the first prominent ones, A Hoosier Holiday , drawn from his pilgrimage with a friend and their chauffeur from Manhattan to Dreiser's native Indiana. The term "road book" didn't stick until the 1950s, after Jack Kerouac's On the Road . For my generation, that was the book that mapped out the highway as a route to self-discovery. Every decade since, almost like clockwork, somebody has produced some great journal of the road. John Steinbeck did it in 1962 with Travels with Charley . Robert Pirsig did it in 1974 with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance . William Least Heat Moon did it in 1982 with Blue Highways .     The very existence of such a genre is part of why I was making this drive, but I didn't presume to follow in those writers' now classic tire tracks. For one thing, my goal would be somewhat different from theirs. All of them sought out a "real" America far from the interstates. They meandered along country lanes and backwater blacktops, stopping occasionally to chat with refugees from the age of the general store. It's an America I know and cherish, but it's not the America I was after this time.     The America I was looking for is a moving target, one traveling faster than the speed of reason. The other real America. For that one, I had to search the interstates and the suburbs and the shopping malls. I had to haunt the motels and the drive-throughs, the truck stops and the convenience stores. I had to go where the traffic took me.     But home holds on like Super Glue. Beth and I finally got away about 3:00 P.M. on April 29, a Tuesday. After mowing the lawn, paying bills, buying traveler's checks, and delivering a project I'd been working on for weeks, I threw a bunch of clothes and shoes into a big hang-up bag with millions of pockets on the outside and jammed it into the front luggage compartment of the Boxster. Folded up, it was thick as a giant's burrito. I tossed my Timberland boots on top of it loose for good measure. Beth had a bag about the same size, which I put in the rear luggage compartment. I carried my laptop (I was planning to write on the road, which shows how little I knew about what I was in for) in an old Land's End briefcase and piled my books and tape recorder and notebooks and files in a leather L. L. Bean bag. Both were stowed in the rear. On the way out of town, Beth and I stopped at Service Merchandise, where we bought a camcorder, audio and video cassettes, and a small surge protector. Finally, I had to swing by Alltel to get an adapter to my phone cord so it would fit into the Porsche cigarette lighter. So much for careful Lewis and Clark preparations.     We made it to Nashville the first night, and to Jacksonville, Florida, the second. The Porsche notched 1,000 miles on I-24 between Nashville and Chattanooga. In Nashville, the bellman (we landed in the midst of the Vanderbilt graduation ceremonies so could find only a $100 room in a fancy hotel) asked, "How you like your Boxster?" I swallowed and began to live the lie--I told him I liked it fine. He said he'd never seen one "in person" but had watched them being tested on the Gordon Liddy show. In Jacksonville, as we were leaving a restaurant after a late dinner, a very young woman in a very short dress that showed to fine advantage her impossibly long legs shouted at us as we passed: "Wow! I want that!" I waved with the insouciance that comes from two martinis and tried not to meet Beth's eye.     We rolled into Miami in early evening. Rolling into Miami is a process that takes an hour or so. Coming from the north on Interstate 95, you notice about forty or fifty miles out that the traffic is becoming feverish. The cars close in around you, and every one of them is speeding, rushing headlong toward the end of the earth. Just south of West Palm, a Lexus passed me like a streak. I was going 85 m.p.h. just to keep up with the cars around me. We had the top down, and Beth was screaming into the cell phone, trying to book us a hotel room. I decided to catch the Lexus and see how fast it was going. I backed off at 100 because the traffic was too thick. The Lexus was still pulling away.     Suddenly a man in the next lane was trying to get our attention. "What is it?" he shouted into the wind. He pointed at our car.     "Porsche!" I yelled back.     "Boxster?"     I nodded. "Wow!" he said, and gave me what by then I knew was the universal road symbol of high approval--the thumbs-up. I had learned that over the past two days. No one had ever given me the thumbs-up in my Plymouth van.     Then, as the man pulled away, he suddenly pointed to the front of my car. He shouted something, which I understood to be that either my hood or gas tank was open. I looked at the dash--no red lights. "Maybe I should pull over," I said.     "Don't," said Beth, who is more streetwise than I am. "This may be a carjacking." By then the man in the next lane had sped away--a little too fast, it seemed to us. I kept going, with just a glance in the rearview to see if there was anyone suspicious in that raging current of cars.     The traffic didn't slow much once we hit the city limits. Interstate 95 runs right through the city, with exits peeling off every half mile or so. People were cutting across lanes to catch their off-ramps. The left lane was supposed to be for car pools and buses only, but most cars in that lane were occupied by just one person. Maybe it was too late in the day, or maybe it was too late in the century. The traffic roared on like a flash flood, 85 m.p.h. being the approximate minimum speed.     We exited at the Julia Tuttle Causeway, 36th Street, slinging ourselves around the cloverleaf toward Biscayne Bay. It had been fifteen years since I'd seen that magical sight--the blue-green water, the swaying palms, the rich green gardens tumbling with color. Even in the evening light the buildings along Miami Beach were gleaming white. It all brought back that first time, thirty-nine years before, when I flew in low over this amazing place and saw a new reflection of myself.     Miami was born with the automobile. In February of 1896, the Duryea brothers from Springfield, Massachusetts sold the first gasoline-powered vehicle in the United States. A whole decade earlier, a German inventor named Karl Benz had combined a tricycle with an internal combustion engine, creating the first true automobile. In 1889 an article on Benz appeared in the magazine Scientific American , which was seen by the Duryeas. Frank Duryea was a bicycle maker, and he and his brother Charles set to work producing their own automobile. I found a picture of Charles in a magazine. He's sitting upright, looking like one of those guys on the Smith Brothers cough drop box, and the contraption he's riding in is essentially a buggy with a tiller where the reins would've been.     In the same winter that Charles and Frank Duryea were starting to manufacture their horseless carriage, another man with wanderlust and the means to indulge it was drawn to a small Indian settlement at the tip of Florida. The man was Henry Flagler, cofounder of Standard Oil and builder of railroads. In the early 1890s he had developed Palm Beach, an orange-scented mecca for the wealthy. But a killing frost in the winter of 1895 to 1896 had descended upon the paradise, freezing the orange trees. One of Flagler's men brought him a spray of lemon blossoms from groves ninety miles to the south, where the Calusa Indians lived by a river they called Mayama--Big Water. This place was below the frost line, so Flagler immediately extended his railroad and designed a city to meet it.     Sixty-two years later I got my first glimpse of the place. My father had taken a job in Florida, and the rest of my family had moved the previous fall. I had stayed with my aunt May in Hazlehurst to finish the semester of my eighth-grade year and come to terms with leaving my girlfriend. I thought back to that warm winter day as Beth and I drove into a heated Miami evening. I still remembered the way the Miami roads looked from the air then. Now we were on those streaks of blinding glare, and, like everything else over four decades, there were so many more of them. The streaks now crisscrossed and curlicued, split and came together and split yet again. I imagined seeing them from the air today and thought they must look like a ski run in the sunshine after the skiers had gone and their tracks were a glistening record of human movement, however random and purposeless.     Down here on the slopes, however, the skiers never seemed to go home anymore. There was something about the blinding streaks that compelled them to stay. When I lived in Miami, we didn't use the 36th Street causeway much. That brought us too far down. South Beach was then a forgotten land inhabited by forgotten people. Now, of course, it's been reinvented as a playground for the world's trendsetters and their wannabes. We wanted to see it in all its Art Deco glory, so Beth found us a room at the Colony Hotel, in the midst of the madness.     It was 7:30 on a Thursday night when we finally arrived. I drove slowly along Ocean Drive, south to north. To our right was the Atlantic Ocean; to our left was something just as timeless. The Deco hotels were lit like cruise ships, and along the strip of sidewalk in front of them was a jam of humanity right out of Dante. Crowded around tables the size of Frisbees, they posed in a pageant of pretension. Everyone watched to see if everyone was watching. Black-tied waiters served pastel drinks, while girls in bikinis and musclemen in Speedos Rollerbladed through the scene.     I missed the hotel the first time by, so I cruised past for a block or two. And at this point I was cruising. Cruising is different from driving. Driving is a mechanical act done for pure utility or for personal gratification, and sometimes for both at once. Cruising is show. All the road's a stage, and the cruiser is an actor giving a performance. In fact, I would guess that there are as many different kinds of cruisers as there are actors. I tend to be a method cruiser, one who recalls emotions and reactions from past experience and uses them to create a compelling cruising stance. For example, I love the scene in Rebel Without a Cause when James Dean and his nemesis are getting ready to do the chickie run toward the cliff. Dean--at least in my memory, and I don't want to be dissuaded--kind of hangs his hand over the steering wheel, as though preparing to drive with his wrist. That's not a good way to speed toward a precipice, but it's an excellent cruising stance. You can also do it with both hands (wrists), though that looks a little too much like teenagers slow dancing. I like to drape my right wrist over the wheel while positioning my elbow on the door. You have to shift your body slightly so that your right shoulder is raised and your cruising arm is straight. If your shoulder is too low and you have to drape your wrist at an angle, you risk coming off limp-wristed. With your arm straight and your hand hanging loosely over the wheel, you convey just the right devil-may-care attitude.     Before leaving Little Rock, I had pondered what kind of cap went best with the Boxster. I always need a cap because otherwise the sun sneaks in over my sunglasses and I can't see a thing. Besides, without one I'd burn my balding head. Usually I wear one of two caps--the one from Merrimack College, where my son David went to school, or the one from University of Maryland, where my son Matt goes. I had thought about buying one of those black Nikes, like Tiger Woods wears, but I never got around to getting one, and I was soon happy about that. All across the country, kids were suddenly wearing black Tiger Woods Nike caps. Such is the power of modern media mythology. In the end I just brought the two caps I always wear.     I don't remember which one I was wearing that night we first cruised South Beach, but it was working. Beth had on cat-eyed sunglasses and her black Gap cap with the movie director bill, and, besides my cap, I had on a black T-shirt and new Matsuda glasses and shades that made me look like I was from someplace besides Little Rock. I had my hand draped over the wheel and my elbow on the door, and surrounding us was the gleaming silver bullet with the Nevada manufacturer's license plate. All along the strip we could see the heads turn. Rollerbladers almost lost their balance.     Our theatrical entrance reminded me of a story I'd run across the winter before, during research in the automotive history section of the Detroit Public Library. There I read a yellowing account of the very first car driven on the streets of Detroit a hundred years ago. The name of that first Motown driver was Charles Brady King. The year, again, was 1896. The Duryeas out in Springfield were just the fastest of the scores of auto tinkerers working in machine shops across the country in those heady days. By 1895 there were enough such dreamers to support a trade journal, Horseless Age . According to the piece I read, that magazine's first issue reported seventy-three "known experimenters working on steam, gas, or electric autos." In Detroit, thirty-two-year-old Charlie King was one of them. He and a handful of cronies were putting the finishing touches on their own machine. King, an acknowledged "mechanical genius" who worked for a railroad-car company, had been determined to build an automobile since seeing his first one at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. The actual site of King's creation--essentially the birthplace of the Detroit auto industry--was the machine shop of one John Lauer on lower St. Antoine Street. From the account I read, there was much secrecy about the mysterious comings and goings behind Lauer's garage doors.     And then, finally, about 11:00 P.M. on March 6, 1896, everything was ready. That's what touched something visceral in me about King's story--the fact that he couldn't wait, that he had to get on the road the very first moment he was able. When he did, people poured out of their homes to see him. He drove through downtown Detroit that night--down St. Antoine to Jefferson Avenue, then west to Woodward and north to Cadillac Square. There his horseless carriage experienced engine trouble, and King delighted onlookers by hopping out and sliding under the thing and tweaking it back into business. The next day's newspaper reported that the sighting of this first car on the city's streets "caused a deal of comment, people crowding around it so that its progress was impeded. The apparatus seemed to work all right and it went at the rate of five or six miles an hour at an even rate of speed."     Just like Beth and me in South Beach.     We pulled up to the Colony, and several people came running to help. That's when the smiling valet manager told me the fee was $14 a day for parking, for three days. I winced and peeled off a $100 bill just like a Porsche owner. I had come to Miami this time with questions. I wanted to talk with old friends about those days when the roads were new, at least to us, and whether they had meant the same to them as they had to me. I also wondered if a guy I'll call Jack was still alive. I didn't see how he could be, the way he had taken to the roads in those early days. He was a year older, and I hadn't known him well, but he'd been part of a wider group I'd run with. Even in junior high he'd driven a motorcycle, and I remember him whizzing by with his thin blond hair flying back like Isadora Duncan's scarf.     I hadn't been with Jack often, and never just the two of us, but whenever I had, the roads became extremely dangerous. The night I remember best involved two cars careening in tandem down Biscayne Boulevard at 50 or 60 miles an hour. I was probably in the eleventh grade. Everyone in our car and the one beside it was drinking, and as the other car, a convertible, pulled ever closer to ours, one boy--Jack--stood up wobbly in the backseat of the convertible and stepped over the rushing blur of pavement through the open rear window of our car. I was sitting by that window, and Jack thrust his right leg across my face and then stepped away from the convertible with his left leg and somehow clung to the top of the car while he pretzeled his body to fit both legs through the window. He then slid into the car, into the safe laps of the three of us in the backseat, and he was giggling like the madman he most surely was.     I suppose Jack's mania could be explained in a thousand ways, but what I recall is how he seemed drawn beyond reason to the road. The road made him crazy, or so it appeared to me.     On our first full day in Miami, I took Beth across the causeway to Miami Shores, the little community where I had spent such a pivotal time in my life. As we drove through the manicured boulevards, I remembered the note a friend from those days, whose name is Carla, wrote to wish me a happy fifty-second birthday. It must have been as disturbing a note to write as it was to receive. Our birthdays are six days apart; we've known each other since we both were thirteen. In her note, she mentions Miami Shores, the "village" we lived in, as having been "in so many ways like a small town."     But Miami changed. Miami didn't stay as sweet as it was, to paraphrase the rose-colored yearbook inscriptions we all wrote to one another back then. Though Miami Shores still looks surprisingly clean and lush, I couldn't help noticing the barricades. When I lived there the blazing roads were an endless crisscross grid, open from one end of the village to the other. Now the cross streets are closed off, blocked at one end by decorative barriers of tropical foliage that disguise their true mission. "All the Haitians in North Miami were coming down to the Shores and burglarizing houses," a cab driver named John told Beth and me on a night we'd left the Porsche behind and taken a taxi to dinner. John lives in Miami Shores, and he said the police hit on the idea of barricading the streets so on any residential block there's only one way in and one way out. Because of mobile crime, Miami Shores is now essentially a gated community, with 96th Street the only east-west thoroughfare open from one end of the village to the other. Other communities in Greater Miami are picking up on the same idea.     I drove up to 103rd Street to show Beth my old house. It was a very strange house, at least to someone who'd spent his life in Mississippi. I remember the day I landed. My parents met me at the airport in our baby-blue 1955 Ford. When we turned into the driveway of my new home, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. My brother, Phil, and I called the place The Alamo. It was a small white stucco house with a flat roof surrounded by a notched parapet, which looked like a row of bottom teeth with every other tooth missing. The house had belonged to an opera singer, and Dad had bought the place with all her possessions in it. Nearly forty years later, Mother told me that the woman had died in the house and no one had found her for several days. When they did, her dogs had gotten to her. To my father's credit, he didn't know this when he bought the house. Mother learned the story ten years later when a neighbor's daughter blurted out, "Oooo, I don't know how you can live in that house." The girl's mother quickly dispatched her from the room, but the deed was done.     I told Beth to get ready, that we were almost there--and then I drove right past it. The house looked very different from the way it had when we'd lived there. We had a double lot, so the yard was huge. But 103rd Street had been widened since I'd been back, and several feet of the lawn I used to mow was now a thoroughfare. Also, the people living there now have created a forest of tropical plants obscuring the house itself. Only the curved driveway seemed familiar. Dad and I had built it ourselves, though it was gravel then and is paved now.     There was a time when that driveway was my open road. After I got my learner's permit but before I was a licensed driver, I would often ask my father for his keys after supper, and if it suited his mood I would go out to the driveway and slip into the driver's seat of the blue Ford. In the days before padded steering wheels, the grip was thin and hard. Holding in the "ten" position with my left hand (though my dad had taught me that "eight" and "two" gives more turning flexibility), I would reach over with my right and insert the key into the ignition. With my left foot hard on the clutch and my right foot heel down and poised over the accelerator, I would turn the key and press on the gas. The power was instant, and addicting. For the next hour or so I would back the car as far as possible, then pull it forward, then back, then forward, all the while dreaming of the day I could actually drive on the street.     When that moment came, it was life-changing, like having sex for the first time. Much more than the simple act itself, it's a passage. We're transformed by it, even if people can't read the change on the outside. On the afternoon I passed my driver's test, I drove my father back to our house and let him out of the car. Then I backed the blue Ford out of the driveway and onto 103rd Street, my left arm straight and wheeling clockwise as I aimed the back of the car squarely into the lane. At the apex of the arc I braked and clutched, shifting into first, then second. Half a block away, stopped at the light at 103rd and Miami Avenue, I searched the faces of the motorists who came toward me, the pedestrians who walked in front of me, the mirrored reflection of the driver at my rear. Nobody seemed to notice a thing. And yet I was no longer the boy I had been just minutes before. I was driving to my girlfriend's house, and I would never be that boy again. Being on the road is by definition a transitory experience, a float through space and time. Leaving one locale bound for another, we're in a sense suspended from the world. And yet that time in the car may be the most real part of any given day. For us, the beauty of a road trip is the travel that takes place inside ourselves. It doesn't even require a long trip--the drive to and from work can be enough. Freed from the chain of snarling families and mounting bills and overflowing in-boxes and back-stabbing colleagues, we narrow our panorama of worry to the road ahead. Watching it, we can drift to a place where we're finally the person we might have been, could be, maybe still will become if things work out right. We can hold this image for minutes or days, as long as we don't have to stop the car.     I suspect you can't truly be On The Road like that if you're traveling with anyone else.     On the afternoon of our first day in Miami, I said something to Beth that brought our reality down on us like a meteor. I'm not going to tell you what I said--even if I did, you wouldn't understand it without my writing a chapter of background. All husbands and wives have their smoldering issues, and I just opened my mouth and breathed lighter fluid on one of ours.     I had received some good business news that day, and I was happy to be showing Beth Miami. We were sitting by the water in Key Biscayne having a rum drink and admiring the beautiful, sexy Boxster in the lot just yards away. Maybe I started thinking I was somebody else. Suddenly the words slipped out, mean and cruel. I saw them take physical form and connect with her jugular. By then, I couldn't do anything to change what had just occurred.     We discussed it for a few minutes, and then silence settled over us. "I can't trust you," she had said to me, and she meant emotionally. I paid our check and we left, driving back across the blue-green water to our darkening hotel room above the crowd.     That night we took the cab ride to the Delano, the hotel now owned by Ian Schrager. I watched us step out on the glamorous avenue, and the image took me to a time long past when a carful of boys cruised the Beach looking for just such a well-dressed and stylish couple. The night that lingers was a New Year's Eve, late fifties or early sixties, at a hotel just up Collins. The unsuspecting couple alighted from a limo, she in a glittering white gown and he in a crisp tuxedo. They were laughing. Suddenly, as in a movie, the scene turned to slow motion. They were touching, she reaching for his arm, when the egg looped into the frame from above. It was a direct hit, perhaps on his shoulder, exploding soft yellow shrapnel over both of them. It had been one of those shameful moments I carried deep inside into manhood.     Then one night in Chicago two decades later, I was on my way to meet my wife at a restaurant, driving in my creamy Fiat Spider on a top-down night in late October. The movie didn't look the same from that side--because there was no expectation, there was no slow motion. The egg slammed into my forehead, splattering all over me, my clothes, the upholstery, the dash. I almost lost control of the car but managed to guide it to the curb. When I realized what had happened, I sat there laughing. If the drive-by eggers were watching, they must have been baffled. I laughed and laughed, at long last relieved of the guilt, and I wheeled the car around and went home to change.     At the Delano we sat on one side of a huge round table and watched the people. The Delano is like a dream. Thin curtains rustle in the ocean breeze. Tall, tan young men with glistening hair drift to and fro as though on moving sidewalks. Tawny waitresses in hip-huggers dip to reveal a fetching edge of pelvic bone. Trying to make up for the afternoon's transgression, I ordered a bottle of champagne--$99. I put it on Visa. The Porsche was doing something to my brain.     While sipping that champagne and watching the beautiful people, I began to consider the connection between shoes and cars. Miami is a sexy town. It was sexy even back in the 1950s, but it's become more sophisticatedly so in the ensuing years. I suspect that's due to the increased Latin influence. At the Delano, I spied a mocha-colored young woman with a profile straight from a Roman frieze. Her hair was short and dark with echoes of sunshine, and it was parted on one side. Sometimes when she stood in front of a lamp, the highlights on her hair made a nimbus. Her nose was strong and elegant, her eyes dark and moist, her lips full and painted bright red. She wore a black see-through blouse and black slacks, but what I couldn't take my eyes off were her feet. They were beautiful, with toenails to match her lips. She wore strappy black high-heeled sandals of the sort that gives bondage a good name.     I started studying the shoes of the other women, and even of the men. They were sleek, sultry, made more to be seen than walked in. They were cruising shoes. Mostly Italian, I guessed, like the Ferraris and Lamborghinis that slunk along Ocean Drive before the admiring eyes of the masses. I was reminded of something someone had said the night before. We'd been at the China Grill for drinks, and a handsome black man sitting on the other side of Beth at the bar began talking to us. When he heard what I was doing, traveling across the country in a Porsche, he said that what he loved were fancy Italian cars. "I may not be able to afford them," he said, "but I can wear Ferragamo shoes." He held out his foot to show us a shapely loafer.     I wasn't surprised. Miami is a place where style reigns--always has and always will. No wonder Gianni Versace made it his home away from home. Style is style whether you're talking clothes or shoes or cars. At some level, it's all the same.     The shoes I most loved in the late fifties were two-toned black-and-white loafers with a jelly-roll strap. I remember a neighbor's new Plymouth, which had almost exactly the same look. When I moved to Miami a dozen years after World War II, the country was bursting with wild style and fashion. Miami was "America's playground," and after the selfless years of Depression and war, there must have been a bone-deep feeling that we were due a little play time. It was a wonderfully excessive era, and I feel fortunate to have experienced it in a place that took such pleasure in celebrating excess. My mother, a second-grade teacher in Miami Shores, taught the daughter of Zorita the Snake Woman. Zorita was a legend in Miami exotic-dance circles. I went to school with Cricket Shapiro, daughter of the man who played piano for Sophie Tucker. My friend Richard's girlfriend--a senior at our high school--was a June Taylor dancer on "The Jackie Gleason Show." This was not a culture that valued sensible cars.     During Miami's heyday tourist seasons in the 1950s, Frank or Dean or Sammy or Tony would always be playing the Beach hotels. My friends and I shook hands with Tennessee Williams during intermission at a Harry Belafonte concert at the Fountainbleu. Outside in the gauzy night, black limos would be lined up like dominoes along Collins Avenue, while flashy roadsters zipped nimbly in and out of traffic. The Beach was a parade, and expensive cars were always prominent among the attractions. The 1950s also happened to be the heyday of the automobile industry. To a boy discovering Miami and life at the same time, it was as though American cars and that shiny city had been made from the same mold. A silver gullwing Mercedes 300 SL forever parked on the 79th Street causeway echoed the drawbridges that lifted to let tall masts pass. A Chrysler New Yorker (with continental kit) on North Beach was the exact pink of the plastic flamingo in the manicured yard. The air-slicing fins on a green Bal Harbor Caddy were as sharp as palmetto fronds.     I have a 1956 copy of Printer's Ink , an advertising trade journal, in which appears an article about cars called "Ad Theme for '57 Autos: MORE." That word could have been the theme for the decade itself. People didn't want to hear about practicality or prudence. "Safety as an advertising theme will not be emphasized in '57 as it was in '56," says the Printer's Ink piece. "Ford Motor Co. lost $800,000 in promoting the use of seat belts and crash padding on its 1956 models...."     The man who translated the mood of the times into automobiles was one Harley Earl. Beginning with the 1927 LaSalle, which bore his stamp from gear shift to grille, Earl revolutionized auto design. Not so coincidentally, he hailed from Hollywood. His father had been a wagon builder in Michigan but had migrated to California to make coaches for the movies. Young Harley worked with his dad, building chariots and stagecoaches for Hollywood spectacles, and also designing and building splashy automobiles for movie stars. Harley understood very early that cars weren't just to get you from here to there. Before he was lured to Detroit to work for General Motors, he even lived next door to Cecil B. DeMille. He was the first to see that Detroit's product was as evocative of the American dream as was Hollywood's, and he created cars the way his former neighbor created movies. "Now, guys," one of his men recalled Earl telling the designers of the 1958 Buick, "I want you to do a sweep sphere, and I want you to do some hoop scoops, bubble bombs, Dagmars, portholes, and rockers, and chrome wheels...."     I don't know what hoop scoops, bubble bombs, and rockers are, but I do know about Dagmars. That was the name of a blond bombshell of the era who was known for her enormous breasts. They were quintessential late-1950s breasts, breasts of a shape and firmness best captured by the term "knockers." By ordering Dagmars, Earl, I assume, was talking about those cone-shaped protrusions on the front bumpers of most of the GM cars of the era.     I looked up the 1958 Buick in my Encyclopedia of American Cars . The one pictured is a convertible, with a young woman who appears to be a beauty queen perched high in the backseat. Even by 1950s Miami standards, the car is over the top. "Sales were far worse for 1958, notable for the gaudiest Buicks ever," reads the accompanying copy. "From contrived chrome-draped fins to a monster grille holding 160 shiny little squares, Flint's `B-58' models looked overly ornate...."     A professor I know, David Gartman of the University of South Alabama, believes that 1958 was the year more finally became not enough. It wasn't just the year of the gaudy Buick; it was the year of the Edsel. It was also the year after the Soviet orbiter Sputnik launched a national wail of second-guessing in America--and a search for someone to blame. A late-fifties article on cars and culture in Fortune magazine says, "The words `tail fin' came to stand as a symbol for whatever any critic considered materialistic, tasteless, or misguided in American life." Detroit, says Gartman, was trying so hard to be different each year that car buyers began to see through the Harley Earls of the world. Earl, by the way, is generally credited with creating the concept of planned obsolescence. You had to sell something fresh and innovative every year so the guy who still owned last year's model would feel like he wasn't keeping up. "People, in cars just like in Broadway shows, want to see something new and exciting," Earl said. For thirty years, he gave it to them.     Looking back, I'm amazed that for a moment it even seemed to work with my father, who one day brought home that used 1958 Ford, red and white, with its outrageously tacky strip of gold anodized aluminum side trim separating the red from the white. My mother was out of town, and in retrospect I wonder if that wasn't part of the chemistry of the gesture. Dad was beaming when I came out to see the "new" car. My initial response, which I tried to keep to myself but may have betrayed by my demeanor, was that this was possibly (I wasn't sure) an uncool car trying to be cool, and that it was totally antithetical to any value I'd ever known my dad to hold dear. I wonder now if he wasn't reaching out to me by buying this car. We'd had our conflicts, and I felt he thought I was a frivolous kid who would rather spend Saturday mornings lying on the beach than working in the yard with him. Of course, he was right. Cars can be a strong bond between fathers and sons--at least they often were back then. My friend Olin's dad bought him a 1932 Pontiac with a rumble seat. My friend Teddy's dad bought him a candy-apple red 1956 Chevy. My friend Danny's dad, a man named Mort whom we referred to as "Sporty Morty," drove a constantly changing array of fine automobiles, including Ferraris, Jaguars, Aston-Martins, and Lotuses.     I like to think now that my dad knew I was embarrassed by the old blue stripped-down Ford, and did what he could to fix it. I wish I had loved that red-and-white car more. Beth was to fly home at 6:45 A.M., Sunday. I would then be on my own, on the road.     I was a little uneasy about my feelings about that. I loved being in Miami with her, but I also felt the real trip hadn't started yet. I was getting restless. The familiarity of Collins Avenue began to make me feel like I was marking time. Cruising needs to be a short-term activity. Stretch it out too much and you have to face the fact that you're headed nowhere.     On Saturday afternoon, we went to the Taste of the Beach on the Lincoln Road Mall. Most of the restaurants on South Beach pitched tented booths and served up spicy shrimp, Cuban sandwiches, crab fritters, black beans with pork and onions, and plenty of rum and cold beer. It's a testament to the vitality of the city that the Taste brought out both the old and the new Miami Beach. Among the whizzing, half-naked Rollerbladers, a little old Jewish man and his wife doddered along from booth to booth, picking at the food in that we-expect-to-be-disappointed way of the yearly snowbirds. The man, about five foot five, wore tan slacks and matching loafers, and a sleeveless tan crocheted sweater topped with a tan cap. He had obviously seen it all. He hardly noticed when one prissy young man called out to a passing Rollerblader: "Ricardo! I'll kiss your tootsies!"     At the Taste we met a man named Dano, who worked as a waiter at Pacific Time restaurant. Beth had found several people to tell me stories about cars, and one of them had pointed us in the direction of Dano. He was represented to be a bona fide "car nut," though that turned out to be not entirely the case. He was a car philosopher . Dano, whose name is Daniel Howard, owns a 1963 Mercury Comet. That car seemed symbolic to him. It represented growth, maturity, a return to a kind of grounding. His father had a 1962 Ford Falcon when Dano was young, and if you know anything about cars you know that the Comet and the Falcon shared the same body style. Dano had progressed through the wheel cycle, from skateboards to bikes to motorcycles to cars, and had discovered that he liked to drive very fast. He was partial to Alfa Romeos and Thunderbirds, and almost killed himself in a T-Bird on an S-curve in mid-Beach. He swore off driving for a while, and when he went back to it he bought the old Comet. It felt right, like going home. We made a date for him to show me the car at the beginning of the week.     That night at dinner, Beth said she didn't want to leave with this thing hanging over us. She was hurt by what I'd said, but she was trying to forgive me and let it go. We had a nightcap at the News Cafe and then went to bed. At 5:30 in the morning, I carried her bags down and handed them to the cab driver. We kissed, and she was gone.     I woke up at nine o'clock feeling anxious. I wanted to get out of South Beach, out of its cloying trendiness. I wanted to get out of Miami, but I couldn't yet. I still needed to talk to Olin and Teddy, and other old friends if I could find them. I still needed to know if Jack was dead or alive.     I didn't know where I would stay that night, but my criteria were simple: less expensive and less active than the Colony. When the valet brought the Boxster, I headed up the Beach and decided to drive until someplace spoke to me. It happened just past Haulover Bridge, from which I once had jumped (sixty-five feet high) to impress a girl. The Ocean Palm Motel is north of Haulover Beach and Marina, on the Atlantic side. It looked friendly, old-fashioned. I liked the strip of blue neon waves dancing across the front.     I checked in, for a third of what the Colony had cost, and decided to take a walk on the beach. Beth and I hadn't even stuck our toes in the ocean. In my Miami days, Haulover had been one of our favorite beaches. My girlfriends and I had made out under its scrubby trees and in the parking lot across the street. I remembered one soft summer night sitting hidden in the lifeguard's stand while translucent waves washed in and sparkled all around us. I hadn't walked this beach in thirty-two years.     My first inkling of Haulover's change was a quick glimpse of a man's butt disappearing into the bushes. I wasn't sure I had seen it at all--but then he came back out, totally, frontally nude, carrying his towel over his shoulder. I looked around me. People were naked everywhere . Over there was a guy wearing nothing but a gold chain. To his left was a grizzled old Cuban man with bongos that hung to mid-thigh. Together on a blanket were a young thin woman with small firm breasts and an older woman whose bosoms rested on her ample belly. Coming toward me were an older man and woman wearing matching caps. They could've been one of those couples you see in RVs with a sign on the back: "There go the Olsons!" Except they weren't wearing a stitch.     As soon as I could manage without looking startled, I headed back to the Ocean Palm to begin making my phone calls. Dano met me on Monday near Lincoln Road. His Comet was parked around the corner. It was white, with a red dashboard and steering wheel, and the red-and-black upholstery was covered in a plastic bubble material bought at one of those places that sells plastic covering for furniture. It was a fine car, spotless, with what Dano proudly pointed out was an original Aloha surfboard rack on top.     We went for a drive, again up Collins Avenue. I mentioned that morning's TV traffic report, which had been full of ominous news: I-95--Backed up. Highway 826--Slow. I-75--Jammed . "I live two blocks from work," Dano said, "and I don't ever want a job where I have to get on I-95. I'm not living that way. I only need a car to get off the Beach occasionally; I only need a car for dates. I don't need a car to get to work. Fashion your life so it works."     As he talked, I gathered his life hadn't always been so fashioned. A car with a "Sick of It All" bumper sticker drove through an intersection ahead of us. "Get inspired, there's a lot around you," groused Dano, taking a corner. "Like everybody else, I hit some dead ends. And it came down to this: You do want to be here, or you don't want to be here. I decided being here ain't bad."     Someone had knocked off the Comet's antenna, so we couldn't listen to music. The car has only the original AM radio, and though Dano's friends tell him he ought to slide a CD player under the dash, he steadfastly refuses. "I want AM radio in here," he said: "That's what this car comes with. When I get in this car and shut the door, it's 1963." That was a good year, before he got out of control with cars. "I used to crash 'em and fix 'em and break 'em," he said. "I had an addiction, and it hurt my life. I was always pouring out money to fix my Alfas and pay speeding tickets. You know, if you have a certain amount of money and you put it all here, then you're watering one part of your life and that's growing, but everything else is shrinking. I realized you got to spread it around. You got to eat a healthy diet--your meat, your vegetables, your grains. I had to go back to before the Alfas, when my life was more balanced. This Comet is my car in recovery. I drive it slowly, like an old guy. The speed limit here says thirty-five, and I'm going thirty-five. Anybody who wants to argue with that can just go on by. I'm not sorry, and I ain't changing."     I thought of Dano that night as I sped south on I-95 to Olin's house. All around me, cars were zooming. I was doing 80, 85, even 90 at times. Why was everybody going so fast? As I caught my reflection in the rearview, I remembered something else Dano had said: "Too many people try to live up to their cars. They need to choose a car that's right for who they are ." When my family was in Miami, nobody I knew lived far south. Now Olin could have given me directions to his house by saying, "Turn north at Cuba." It was twenty-five miles from my motel. Olin's name is Olin McKenzie, and like his late father before him, he's a dentist. We met in the eighth grade, when the only important things in life were girls and getting our learner's permits. Since then, there have been marriages, divorces (mine), children, college, and the deaths of fathers. But over dinner at an Italian place, we returned to the basics. He told me about seeing another school friend of ours recently, and how whenever they get together they inevitably drift to the subject of cars. "Of course it's about nostalgia," he said. "It's about getting older. It's about getting your feet back onto more predictable ground."     Speaking of which, what about Jack? "Oh," Olin said, completely without emotion, "he's dead. Got killed coming home from a car race. Must have been twenty years ago. Teddy had to identify the body." Even hearing it for the first time, I wasn't shocked. This wasn't news, it was confirmation. We all had known where Jack's road was heading.     Olin remembers more than I do. He reminded me about a boy we'd known who loved getting his hot Ford up to 50 miles an hour on rainy nights and seeing how many times he could spin it on Biscayne Boulevard. The same boy unbolted his stick shift from the column and switched it around to the left, so when he was street racing he could pull down from first to second instead of pushing up. He always got the edge in second gear. He went on to make millions on the American Stock Exchange.     "Today's kids don't care about cars that way," Olin said. "They can't ." He told the story of his family's visit to another family's lake house in upstate New York. "When we landed, I saw a sign about this big hot-rod show. I told my sons and their friends about it, but nobody wanted to go except my older boy. There were ninety-two hundred pre-fifties hot rods there. At the motel, instead of the backs of Lexuses, you saw these gorgeous old cars. It was an art show--functional art."     But most of the people at those art shows are our age, drawn inexorably to a time of "character cars," as Olin calls them, when they could tell one car from another. When folks could pop the hood and understand what they were seeing. There was even daylight shining through around the engine--the ground was clearly visible. That was both a fact and a symbol. Of course many of the people who go to those shows searching for the good old days are also the ones who now overprotect their children. It's part of the culture of fear we've all come to live in. They'd feel like bad parents letting their teens drive off in older, fixed-up cars like the ones they drove. Instead they hand over keys to safe, solid, dual-airbag machines, preferably leased so the car is always new and presumably reliable. You can't be too careful in these uncertain times. Under the hoods, the mechanisms are undecipherable. No wonder today's kids put more stock in hot stereos than hot engines--it's something they can understand.     This doesn't mean that the coming generation won't care about automobiles. "We live just blocks from school," Olin said, "and yet our kids, and most others we know, were driven to school every day. Our sons grew up in the Adam Walsh years--the little boy who was kidnapped and murdered. For that and other reasons, they've been driven around all their lives. They're more addicted to cars than we were. It's just that the joy is gone." Teddy Neuweiler goes by Ted now, as befits his silver hair. He survived his fast-car and fast-boat days to become a manufacturer's representative like his father, before the discount giants made such people extinct. Now Ted has his own marketing firm.     Nobody I ever knew loved cars as sunnily as Teddy did. Others were drawn to the darker sides of the machine--the life-threatening speed, the salacious thrust, the portentous rumble. Teddy seemed to laugh at life, and his candy-apple red '56 Chevy was part of his laughter. He liked all of the above, the speed, the sexiness, the sound. But somehow with him it was upbeat and positive.     Teddy and I were friends, but there was always a distance between us that wasn't present in my other friendships. Teddy taught me what little bit I know about driving. There were no formal lessons, just things he would say: Accelerate into a curve. Let off the gas when you're in a spin . When my dad brought home that red-and-white '58 Ford, I drove it first to Teddy's house. His driveway was a mecca for car guys. Good boys and bad boys alike would pull up there, brought together by something more elemental than parents' income or address or social station. Car hoods were always open, and metal chests of ratchet wrenches littered the pavement. Radios played Buddy Holly and The Coasters. I remember a guy who used to hang around, an older boy I knew only from Teddy's driveway. He drove a chalky-gray primered car, maybe a Mercury, and he always had a skinny necktie draped over his rearview mirror. He claimed to be James Dean's half brother.     I doubt that Teddy thought my red-and-white Ford was a hot car, but because it was new to the group, we had to race. The Friday-night drags were held on a lonely stretch of U.S. 1 north of the city, on the way to Hallandale. A quarter mile was measured off, and cars parked with their headlights on to mark the start and finish. Someone took off his shirt and waved it as a starting flag. I never knew how to race. I never felt the urge. But I do remember my adrenaline surging as I glanced over at Teddy at the starting line. He was grinning at me and revving his engine like it was his own heart pumping. My car was automatic, so I revved it in neutral. When the start was called, I dropped into gear and got off the line, but Teddy's Chevy was squealing and fishtailing and already becoming a pair of red embers in the night. My car didn't sound hot, like other cars did. When I accelerated, my engine emitted a wheezy sucking sound, like a man with emphysema.     Having run my race, though, I was able to enjoy the rest of the night. I stood around wisecracking on the sidelines, smoking Marlboros--Donkeys, we called them, because of the "boro"--and looking over T-shirted shoulders at gleaming carburetors I didn't try to fathom. Unlike the others, I didn't care about carburetors and engines in and of themselves. But I cared deeply about the nights they brought--dangerous pounding nights like this one, as well as quieter nights parked with girls at 105th Street, overlooking the bay. When I drove to meet Ted for breakfast on my last morning in Miami, I noticed that everybody's favorite make-out spot had long since been turned into condominiums.     By the time Ted and I connected at a cafe on Biscayne Boulevard, I was itching to leave Miami. He'd been out of town, so I'd delayed my departure an extra day. My Porsche was packed and ready. Over coffee and bagels we talked about the cars and the nights and the kids we were then. Then I asked him to tell me about Jack.     "He wasn't driving," Ted said. "He owned a race car that he would run on weekends. On this particular weekend, he and his crew had been to Atlanta. Jack had a wholesale distribution business and he was trying to get back in time to open on Monday morning. Jack was asleep in the backseat, and one of the other guys was driving. On the turnpike around West Palm there's a jog in the road, and there used to be trees dead ahead. The driver must have fallen asleep at the wheel. He went straight and slammed into the trees. Of course, the race car they were towing smashed into the back of the car they were in. Everybody was killed."     After breakfast I showed Ted the Porsche. There was a time when he would have been wild about it, climbing in and starting it up and listening to its roar. Not now. He still laughs, and he says he still likes to drive fast, but I can't help reading an underlying seriousness. Something about his eyes behind his glasses. Maybe I'm seeing myself in them. Like all of us, Ted has a wife and kids and business pressures. Like all of us, he's found the real race tougher than a quick quarter mile on Friday night. "I spend most of my time in airplanes now," he said.     Ted spread my map across the Porsche's hood and pointed out the road we all used to take through the center of the state, before the turnpikes. Then we shook hands and said so long. I watched as he walked back to his sedan. Copyright (c) 1999 James Morgan. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Prologue Love Storyp. 1
1. Lewis and Clark and Mep. 16
2. Fatal Attractionsp. 47
3. Running with the Elkp. 65
4. Blue Highwaysp. 87
5. The Man with the Carp. 102
6. Cross the River at Memphisp. 118
7. Party in the Roadp. 138
8. Strange Freightp. 161
9. Green River Bluesp. 186
10. Physics of the Heartp. 208
11. Westward Hop. 227
12. A Streetcar Named Desirep. 250
Epilogue The Sculpture Gardenp. 273
Acknowledgmentsp. 283