Somewhere west of Ogallala, rocketing across the plains at ninety-six in a sixty-nine Fury, a twangy voice on the radio lectured us with the old song: love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage. My two female traveling companions and I exchanged glances, laughed and sang along: “…you can’t have one without the other.” In that moment everything crystallized: what it meant to be nineteen in 1972, free as a bird, barreling down the interstate with two friends in a big, powerful American sedan.
We were headed for the Rockies, retracing the eight hundred mile pilgrimage my family and I made there every summer in the early sixties. This time though, I was literally and figuratively behind the wheel, re-writing the script.
Back in the day, the Niedermeyer family would stop at church to pray for a safe trip before all six of us squeezed into our barely mid-sized ’62 Fairlane penalty-box. God drove a hard bargain for our safe-keeping: two seemingly endless days spent sweating on the CIA-interrogation approved clear plastic seat covers, second-guessing our pilot’s passing skills.
Papa drove like the stereotypical newly-minted immigrant driver; in the vein of Borat. His tentativeness trying to pass trucks on the crowded two-lane Highway 30 or US 6 taught us what we couldn’t articulate: decisiveness (and good judgment) inspires confidence; hesitation… doesn’t. The tension in the Ford was thicker than the greasy truck-stop steaks we admired from afar. After a particularly hair-raising episode my older sister refused to return to her seat after a stop at a roadside gas station. For a while, anyway. Thankfully, daily hikes in the glorious Rockies relieved our accumulated stress (and restored regularity).
So now here I was, stretched out behind the wheel of a fuselage body ’69 Fury with a four-barrel 383 and two companions of choice (not fate). And we were barreling down the interstate’s smooth, barely-cured concrete without a care in the world. The Fury, dubbed “Ply-mouth,” belonged to the two sisters’ Mom. She’d bought the car for its ability to pull a horse trailer down Iowa’s rural roads. But on that magnificent summer day, the Plymouth was paying service to a higher calling: sheer balls-out speed.
It’s not like I’d set out to challenge Cannonball Baker. But once we hit I-80 on that glowing summer morning, the Ply-mouth just wanted to run, like the thoroughbred horses it usually hauled. Traffic was sparse back then; the cops were jawboning with the farmers over their fourth cup of dishwashing-water coffee at the local cafe, and the purple mountain majesties beckoned us.
As the big V8 cleared the gravel-road dust from its lungs, our speed just crept up and up. There was just no holding that Fury back. In what seemed like a flash, we’d traversed Iowa and crossed the Missouri in our roomy space capsule. The next thing I knew were barreling across Nebraska at somewhere between ninety and infinity.
It was all so effortless and relaxed; we might as well have been three teenagers sprawled on (and across) the living room couch watching the world go flying by. And so we were. The endlessly-wide bench seats became chaise lounges. Bare feet were everywhere: on the dash, across someone’s lap, out the window. Seat belts? What’s that?
In another break from the bad-old days, we gave greasy spoons a wide berth. The girls had packed an ample supply of fresh produce from the garden, along with home-baked bread, cheese and iced mint tea. We only stopped for gas, which, at our Furious clip, was happening a bit more often than we planned. The 330 horses wanted to be compensated for their exertions. Even though gas was thirty-five cents a gallon, our meager budget took a hit.
It was money well spent; by mid-late afternoon, we were already climbing into the mountains. We pulled off a little spur, and having coaxed the Fury to ford a stream, we made camp on a flat little hillock, and slept under the dazzling stars, intoxicated by the smell of a campfire, pine, sage and the dry, thin mountain air.
I had driven fast before, but only in short bursts. Our dash through the heartland was my initiation into the joys of sustained speed. I was eight (hundred) miles high. I’ve been hooked ever since. But I’ll never recreate the magic mix of ingredients that day, which etched those moments into the depths of my memory.
Within a year or so, the energy crisis hit, and we were all driving fifty-five. The Ply-mouth soon gave way to a weak-chested but thrifty Corolla. And in just a few more years, we all started heeding the song: love and marriage…