Muscle car of the prairie

 

I drove out east in the car with the crumpled front end. It was a vintage 1966 Pontiac LeMans with no muffler. At 60 miles an hour it roared like an F-16. The dry western wind whipping through the open windows made me feel alive and powerful.

A year earlier, when I was 15, my brother had called home to announce he was joining the Marines. He was driving home from Oregon to give me his dog and his car. We lived in Aurora, the sprawling suburb east of Denver, and I was a skinny, self-conscious teenage boy. I had ridden in his car before, and it was a true hot rod, the ultimate symbol of power and masculinity. I hoped that ownership would somehow transfer these traits to me. Instead, it gave me an appreciation for the place where I grew up.

The week awaiting his arrival was unbearable. When the car finally rolled up to the curb, my hopes died. The front end was smashed and flakes of dried cow manure clung to the hood. Driving through open range on the Oregon backroads, my brother had hit a cow at 40 miles an hour.

The car became a fixture against the curb in front of our house. It sat undrivable for a year. Still, I would stare in awe at its graceful lines, the five chrome dashes attached to its shoulders like epaulets, and the number "326" - its stock engine size - stenciled on the fender. Its unusual hue, a mixture of deep maroon and purple, became my favorite color. Under its hood bristled a V-8 engine, ready, at the touch of a pedal, to transfer its raw power to the extra-wide rear tires. I named it Leviathan.

On weekends in the winter, when snow blanketed the streets of our neighborhood and began to stack up on Leviathan's hood, I would get up early and sit in the driver's seat, my hands on the cold leather of the steering wheel. The scents of grease, rust and foam padding from the seats permeated Leviathan's interior. I watched my breath fog in the still, frosted air while I dreamed of long drives through open spaces.

In the summer of 1989, I began to work on the car. From Chilton's manual for the Pontiac, I learned the skills needed to get the car back on the road. After I tightened the last clamp on the radiator hose, I turned the key. Leviathan roared to life.

The area east of Aurora is barren: Yellow grass, dry almost year-round; cracked roads with no stop signs or traffic lights; and virtually no traffic. That is where I took Leviathan on her maiden voyage. As the sun set, the tattered silhouette of the Rocky Mountains in the west darkened into an enormous wave poised to crash over the plains. I rolled down all the windows, including the two tiny wing windows up front and barreled through the open landscape. The drive was as good as I had imagined.

I drove out east often and soon found myself stopping the car to explore gullies and hillocks, places I had never known existed, even though the house I lived in was only a few miles away. I brought along my dog, Tex, and together we walked out into the open fields. We tarried along canals and dry creek beds where the only trees in the landscape - sparse, rigid cottonwoods - stood like sentries in a sea of grass. We came across coyote skeletons, and windmills.

We came to know the very earth itself: The dirt underneath the grass is cracked and hard and so dry that when you crumble it in hand, it flows like powdered sugar through your fingers. Hard-pack or hard-scrabble were what early settlers called it. I suddenly understood how hard life must have been on the prairie.

In his book The Thunder Tree, Robert Michael Pyle writes, "When people connect with nature, it happens somewhere. Almost everyone who cares deeply about the outdoors can identify a particular place where contact occurred." For me, the place of first contact was the area out east. With Denver to the west and development both north and south, the open fields east of Aurora were my closest connection to nature. They became my adolescent escape.

I drove out to Sand Creek, named after its broad, flat streambed of ankle-deep sand. I'd heard of the Sand Creek Massacre and researched the story. The Indians, a band of Arapaho and Cheyenne driven from their homes, were encamped along Sand Creek. At daybreak on Nov. 29, 1864, more than 700 U.S. cavalrymen attacked, slaughtering hundreds of men, women and children in the peaceful camp. Stories like this imbued the landscape with haunted meaning.

Leviathan, Tex and I even trekked out east in the winter, when knee-deep snow covered the fields. Tex would stand rigid, one leg suspended in the air, and listen for field mice tunneling under the drifts. Then, like a cat, he'd pounce with both front paws.

When I entered college, my growing love for the plains led me to take a Colorado history course. The original white explorers had labeled the area east of Aurora an "uninhabitable desert." I understood. Images of dry gullies and numerous sandburs and goatheads in Tex's paws came to mind.

Yet I also understood something the textbooks rarely mention: The eastern plains are a place of rugged beauty, where vast swaths of land and sky command attention and, eventually, reverence. Even with the powerful machine along, the landscape loomed up to insist that I recognize its enormity and my own smallness.

Once in college, it no longer made sense to keep the Pontiac. I bought another vehicle and sold Leviathan for $500 to a teenager from Boulder. It was his first car, too. As he drove it away, turning the corner along the route I had traveled so often, I felt a sense of guilt, as if I had betrayed an old friend. I couldn't help but wonder what new places he might discover behind the wheel of that car.

 

Jeff Jones writes from Seattle, Washington.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Jeff P. Jones