Burnin’ Rubber • by Mike Blanchard | I like to go for a drive on the weekend. I don’t think that’s a popular thing anymore. At least not the way it used to be. In days past people went for a drive on Sundays after church. Or just whenever. I remember driving around with my grandfather, Roscoe Masonheimer, in his Chevy truck “Goldie” listening to country music, mono, on the truck’s AM radio. Buck Owens, Merle Haggard singing “Okie From Musgokee” and Eddy Arnold were the sound track to our adventures. He loved to drive down a road and see what was up there. He loved a museum, almost any museum and he would always buy the local history pamphlet or book. When you drove around with him he would tell you what happened there, to the Indians or someone he knew, or the Spanish or something he did when he was a kid. It is clear to me now, and even then I think, that he loved those spots. Driving to see them, Death Valley, Gaviota, Cachuma Lake, old Santa Barbara was like visiting old friends, like a baby touching things over and over to make sure that what he sees is real and still there.
He was a union carpenter since before the war and he would drive through town telling me “I built that building” and “we remodeled that building after the fire.” Probably half the buildings in town he had a hammer on through the years.
But he loved a drive in the country. Especially places that were of his youth. Even now when I drive on those old roads in Santa Barbara county I hear his stories in my head. How he joined the CCC during the Depression, about the time they hung his little brother in the barn (uncle Frank lived) or how he sparked my grandmother. Did I tell you he drove a dynamite truck while he was in the CCC? Tough dude.
The urge to go for a drive was universal during the infancy of the car just as it is to all cultures new to the automobile past or present. Just the act of driving was entertainment enough. But hell gas was cheap and there was no television. I don’t want to say they were simpler times, they were just different, but we have become so bored by speed, and interested in things like our phones, that the act of driving is considered a waste of time. Something to try to optimize at all costs. Heck people willingly behave in incredibly stupid ways in an effort to maximize the waste that is drives time. Witness texting and driving, a thing so dangerous that everyone will say it’s foolhardy and yet almost everyday I see people in all kinds of traffic conditions texting and driving.
We hold motion and speed in such contempt that we deliberately check out while in command of it. As if to show physics who is the boss. We are breathlessly awaiting the birth of the Driverless Car our next great savior from ourselves.
My mother-in-law Mona Barnes is in her 90s now and she loves a drive in the country. She loves to drive along and tell stories and discuss history and people. Just like Roscoe. In years past she went with me because she loved the conversation as well as the drive. No radio or country music, she wants to talk. But recently it seems to me like she is looking for those touch points with her past. She is gazing out on and trying to remember the things in the landscape she loves and feels she is losing.
She tells a great story about driving the Ford with her brothers, all of them children by the way, down into Placerville to go to the store. Because they were too small to stear and reach the pedals it took a couple of them to drive the car. Naturally they got snagged by the cops but rather than take the car the officer made them park it out side of town and walk in so they would not crash the thing in town.
She loves fast cars. Iv’e taken her in borrowed Ferraris, vintage cars, my old Dodge pickup, modern plastic cars and my 4WD truck. She likes the trucks cause they’re easy to get in and out of and you sit up high. But she really loves the Ferraris. It’s a great car for a Sunday drive. She would go in my ’27 roadster except for the fact that my Father -in-law, ‘Smilin’ Jack Barnes, has threatened to shoot me if I take her in the hot rod. And I believe him. Death trap he calls it but whatever.
A couple weeks ago I took Mona for a drive in the Gold Country. Up Jackson Highway, Old Sacramento road to Plymouth and through Dry Town, Amador City, Sutter Creek and on to Jackson where we got out to stretch and poke around in Hein & Co., the fantastic used book shop on Main Street. Perfect destination for a drive in the country. The end of a drive noting landmarks and old wagon roads, gold mines and honky tonks and loving the mystery and romance of motion at a speed faster than a horse.
I came across a book by William Saroyan on the way out. It caught my eye because my colleague Saroyan is named after him and I thought he would like the book. I read part of it the next day and came across this these two paragraphs. They perfectly say a truth, one truth out of many, about going for a drive and cars and the fading 20th century love of the automobile.
“I have driven my Cadillac more than 100,000 miles…I almost always drove alone. That is the privilege of the traveler who goes by car. Certain drives are like an affair, and they have got to be private. A man is in love with a great many things strewn about haphazardly all over the country. He gets in his car and drives out to them to have another look at them, and he doesn’t want anybody to be sitting beside him. A man can be in love with streets, towns, and cities: railroad tracks, telegraph poles, houses, porches, lawns. He can go out in search of a fresh assorting and arranging of these things and of the people of them.
“A man’s car can thus become a pew on wheels—in the church of the world. That is why I have always been angry when my car has failed to work as I have expected it to work, for this has been a failure of my own soul in search of truth. I would have searched in any case, but the automobile gave breadth and depth to the search. The truth is not in the landscape, but neither is it out of it. My car is not like any other car in the world. It is my car and it is like myself.”
—William Saroyan, The Bicycle Rider In Beverly Hills, 1952.
“A pew on wheels—in the church of the world.” I love it. When we drive without predetermining the destination we are searching for truth. Yup.
Photo: © saroyan humphrey