Queen of the road

She came from south of the border. It was obvious she had been around the block a few times, yet she was in remarkably good shape for her age. I had seen her once or twice before, mostly on a friend’s ranch. A real workhorse, her build was boxy and her style horribly outdated. Yet, her sheer presence and age commanded a certain amount of respect. In fact, there were more than a few who found her beautiful.

Burrita was her name – even said so on her license plates. And if ever there was ever an automobile that deserved a name, she was it. From the powder blue paint job, which still retained a hint of the gloss of her former years, to the Texas longhorns lovingly affixed to her hood, she was one of a kind. Bought off an old man several years back with barely a dent on the odometer, she had since been sentenced to hard labor, making several trips from Durango to Baja. However, at merely 70,000 miles young, she was put out to pasture in Durango, retired to live the life of a ranching truck.

“ They don’t make ’em like that any more,” people would say wistfully as they admired her square grill, round headlights, vertical windshield and sofa-sized front seat.

As for me, I preferred to admire her from afar. Sure, an occasional ride for utilitarian purposes was fine – as long as someone else drove. See I had paid my dues in the “vintage” vehicle department, from a 1976 Ford Mustang to a 1974 CJ-5. But once I discovered the joys of fuel injection, five speeds and anti-lock brakes, there was no looking back. I didn’t drive much, but when I did, it was nice to know there was a dependable, civilized piece of machinery between me and the pavement.

And then came the bad news. The spousal unit was taking our only car on ski safari, leaving me to fend for myself for two weeks. But in honor of my prematernal status, special arrangements were made for my transport. Burrita was coming out of retirement.

When we went to fetch her, it was suggested I do the honors. As I hesitantly hoisted myself into the cockpit, I was reminded to always start in second and use the side mirrors, the rear view mirror had fallen off. I positioned myself and turned the key. To my surprise, she came roaring to life on the first crank. I fuddled around for second and gingerly let out the clutch. Soon, we were bouncing down the dirt road, catching air with each rut and pothole.

Burrita was neither built for comfort nor speed. With the turning radius of a Princess cruise ship, and just as much float, she was not driven, she was navigated – albeit with the crudest of instruments. The control panel was bare bones: speedometer, gas gauge, wipers, blinkers, heat, radio, lights (the brights, I would later discover, were on the floor). There were three seat belts, one in the middle for “riding bitch.” Something told me it didn’t see much use.
As she approached cruising altitude, Burrita gave new meaning to “blowing doors.” She rattled, whistled, creaked and groaned. The side mirrors shook uncontrollably, making it impossible to tell how many sets of headlights were stacked up behind you. Not that it mattered. When it came to the rules of the road, Burrita was practically assured dominance. And she was in no hurry. The only thing this country girl needed were loosely bound hay bales spewing out the back.

As we rambled home that night, I thought I detected more than a few snickers from fellow motorists. But as I eventually logged more time behind the wheel, I became less self-conscious and began discovering Burrita’s nuances. She grudgingly gave up second for third, requiring a firm yet gentle hand, and downshifting was usually out of the question. With two tons of American-made steel behind her, braking required serious advance planning. Gassing up took a special skill, not only in wrestling the ancient gas cap off but in positioning the nozzle so as to avoid a small environmental disaster at each fueling. I also discovered her dislike of modern conveniences. A recently installed stereo rejected any attempt at loading a CD, and the radio had an uncanny knack for searching out oldies and static.

Out of sheer necessity, I became more daring with Burrita, venturing into the county for newspaper delivery or a trip to the mountain. Each time she performed with unwavering devotion. I began to feel more at ease at the rickety helm and entertained thoughts of a longer trip. Although her rear-wheel drive was not ideal for winter driving, I decided to take a chance on Telluride one sunny morning. With clear roads and dog and skis in tow, we hit the open road. We cruised smoothly through the Dolores River valley, “Kentucky Woman” playing on the radio. As we made the ascent to Lizard Head, the roads peppered with black ice, the mood darkened, and “Wipeout” came on.

Once safely at our destination, I breathed a sigh of relief, yet had a wary eye on the weather rolling in. As the day wore on, the clouds thickened and swirled, winds whipped, and snow began to fly. I knew the ride home would be tough. The roads that had been dry on the way in were now slick and snow-covered.

As we crawled out onto the main drag and toward the pass, the radio searched in vain for something suitable, finally settling on static. Too scared to remove my death grip from the steering wheel, I had no choice but to accept it. With Burrita firmly planted in second, we crept along the winding road, much to the vexation of those behind us. As we entered the open range at the top of the pass, the snow turned sideways, enveloping Burrita. I found myself in a sea of white – not even the longhorns visible. As if on cue, “White Wedding” suddenly came across the airwaves. Too terrified to stop and too terrified to keep going, I held my breath, kept my hands at the wheel and prayed for safe delivery. Then, after what seemed an eternity, the white-out subsided, and the trusty longhorns came back into view – dead center of where they should be.

Burrita had pulled us through. And as if to taunt the powers above, she came up with AC-DC’s “Hells Bells” for the victory descent into Rico. With the most harrowing part of the drive behind us, we loosened up for the rest of the drive, eventually venturing into fourth gear. Happy to be alive, we rolled back into town to the likes of Barry Manillow and The Supremes. I sang while Burrita clattered to the beat.

Mission accomplished, I docked Burrita in safe harbor, aware that our time together was nearing an end. A few days later, as I squeezed behind the wheel of my Japanese econo wagon, it was not without a pang of longing for the powder blue dash, crank windows and Barcalounger-plaid front seat. And while the adventures of Burrita may be over for now, I believe she will ride again. In the meantime, she has reaffirmed for me two of life’s timeless lessons: simpler can be better and never judge a man till you’ve gone a mile in his driver’s seat.

– Missy Votel




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