Heartifact #2 - The Car

The Rogue Valley in Southern Oregon will always feel like home to me. Some of my best and earliest memories are rooted there. When I was around 6 years old we visited my grandparents at their farm in the valley hamlet of Talent. At the time my Grandpa was renovating an old rental house that he owned so my Dad went to help him with some of the demolition work. I tagged along and tried to stay out of the way of the swinging hammers and falling debris, exploring to my heart’s content like any little boy would have done.

As my Dad tore off some old siding he found a hidden treasure, which he then bequeathed to me before he got back to work.  It was a matchbox sized toy car made of cast iron, clearly very old. Its faded orange-ish paint was a bit scuffed but its wheels were still intact. I test drove it and the car rolled perfectly along the linoleum highway I’d already imagined into existence in the hallway of this old farmhouse. How long had it been time-capsuled inside that wall? How had it gotten there in the first place? This was 1961 and the car must have been there for at least twenty years.

 I remember a kind of magic feeling, turning that car over in my hands. Many decades later, I recognize that feeling as the simple joy of discovery—a recurring formational theme in my life. I wonder about the car’s hidden story, a story I can never know. I wonder if some little boy a generation earlier thought it a great idea to park his toy car inside some tiny gap in the siding. I wonder if he was heartbroken when he realized it was now parked there permanently.  But in 1961 I was six years old, so… Finders Keepers.

Load the car and write the note.
Grab your bag and grab your coat.
Tell the ones that need to know.
We are headed north. –(The Avett Bros.)

Shortly after the discovery of my little toy car, our family packed up our very special Lark Studebaker, and moved to Alaska. My parents could have shipped the little station wagon north along with the rest of our possessions, but where’s the fun in that? Here was a chance for the ultimate road trip.

With the car packed tight and cargo strapped to the roof we pulled out of the driveway of our rental on East Burnside in Portland, a 2500 mile road trip in front of us. About 1400 miles of it would be on the legendary AlCan Highway through the mostly unpopulated wilderness of western Canada. At that time the highway was unpaved, mostly gravel, in places just dirt. This photo is of one of the last unpaved sections, now bypassed. This is what the AlCan looked like for much of those 1400 miles.

Along the AlCan, the trusty Lark traversed canyons on rickety wooden bridges, with raging rivers below. We rounded one bend in the road to find a Kodiak Bear standing upright, checking us out from a few feet’s distance. I remember my Dad piloting us ever so slowly through a vast herd of rabbits that covered the road (where were they going?).  Another day the car was filled with smoke and dust as we skirted the edge of a forest fire. We could see the flames not far away so Dad pulled over and consulted a firefighter who leaned in the driver’s window and told us how to get through safely.

My Dad still likes to recount his memory of my “other” animal sightings-- elephants and gorillas. In the Yukon. Who knows, but maybe I saw Bigfoot? A six year old’s imagination notwithstanding, Dad will attest that all of the numerous non-African animal sightings were authentic.

On the AlCan we saw tepees, met native Americans, slept in a cabin without indoor plumbing, drove through the Yukon and Klondike, visited Whitehorse and Dawson City. I haven’t been back since, but I have no doubt these places were quite different  then. The Alaskan cruise ship industry was still very small in 1961 and these places weren’t the tourist spots they have since become.

It was, of course, a long trip and the Lark was a rather small car for five people. So, in addition to many pit-stops and pull-offs to admire the scenery, Mom and Dad devised various methodologies to keep us three kids engaged, occupied, and otherwise out of trouble. One tactic was one of those in-the-car games that families used to play. We called this one the Lark Game.  It had one simple rule. Whoever spotted another Lark Studebaker on the road merely had to cry out, “Hark! Hark! I see a Lark!”, to win a prize. In all of those 1400 miles on the Alcan I don’t think a single prize was awarded. Hmmm. Parents are smart.

After a week of driving, our beloved Lark got the five of us safely to our new home in Anchorage. It was the end of one adventure, and the beginning of another. I still marvel at my parents’ willingness to risk, to leave the known behind and launch us into the far north country the way they did.  I’m grateful for how that shaped me for life.

I could call this piece, “Cars and the People Who Love Them,” though it’s not really just about cars.  For me, the allure of the open road is that it still holds out the promise of that same joy of discovery I felt when that little car came out of the wall. It activates vivid memories of our family’s journey to Alaska. For me, the car is an archetype that represents an invitation to freedom, change, and adventure.  But I can also deny that allure out of fear.

 To embark on any journey of discovery can often mean leaving the tested and comfortable things behind. Leaving home always exacts a price of some kind. And what if I fail somehow?  I could end up wasting precious time, money, or energy. What if I burn the bridge behind me and find no other bridge in front? So what we’re talking about here is the opposite of playing it safe, isn’t it?

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where you might be swept off to.” –J.R.R. Tolkien

Jesus liked to tell stories about people finding a lost coin, or a buried treasure, a lost sheep, or a valuable pearl and the joy they felt in their discovery. The people in his parables were those who risked and went all in for true treasure, not to be confused with the counterfeits of power, money or fame. In every story there was joy in the finding, and more often than not it ended in some kind of party. He also talked about leaving the old for the new, making some kind of move that required some risk, some faith.

 I believe there’s something in us that longs to see what’s around the next bend in the road. We love discovering some treasure that feels like it’s meant just for us--whether it’s a toy car inside a wall, a breathtaking panorama, or something else. It may not be the car for you, or road trips. But it’s something.  Wouldn’t it be amazing to find out that in some primal way our infatuation with cars, road trips, or the finding of a lost treasure was a reflection of God and our deepest, truest humanity? That we were made for adventure and discovery? What might happen if you were to lean into that?

I still have The Car. I hold this heartifact in my hand. It reminds me that gifts appear serendipitously in life, and I can ignore them or receive them. I can choose to believe they are random and meaningless or that they contain meaning. It reminds me that, especially as I’m getting older, I best not ignore the call to movement, growth, creativity, adventure, and even risk. The car reminds me that I am a pilgrim after all.

Welcome to the planet
Welcome to existence
Everyone's here
Everyone's here
Everybody's watching you now
Everybody waits for you now
What happens next?
What happens next?

I dare you to move
I dare you to move
I dare you to lift yourself up off the floor
I dare you to move
I dare you to move
Like today never happened
Today never happened before

--(Jon Foreman)