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Know the West

For the love of stuff


I don't find most theistic versions of the afterlife compelling, but over the last few weeks I have become convinced that if there is a hell, it surely involves shopping for a car. After an epic quest, my wife and I finally decided on a 2-year-old Subaru, which will allow us to travel Wyoming's wintry roads in relative safety. Furthermore, we will be able to drive for at least a decade without having to revisit Automotive Hades, or so we were assured by the most authoritative buyers' guides.

I'd thought that the hardest part of the process would be paying more for a used car than my parents had paid for their first house. So I was surprised to find that the real challenge was giving up our 1980 Datsun 210 station wagon, with its cracked-vinyl seats disgorging hunks of crumbling foam.

We fondly referred to the jalopy as "Green Car" in reference to its marvelously mottled, but still discernible, original color. (We are much more clever when it comes to naming our pets.) Some months ago, the mechanic warned me that the front end had deteriorated to the point that highway driving was suicidal. Since that time, the car has further accentuated its chronic desire to turn right — much like American politics throughout most of Green Car's life.

My wife and I bought Green Car — which was already speckled with rust — while we were attending graduate school in Louisiana. Having grown up in Albuquerque, we had very little experience with the rate of iron oxidation in a near-tropical climate. I hoped that moving to Wyoming after graduation would trigger a remission, but the cancerous oxidation has continued to spread, albeit more slowly. Despite the holes in its rusting exterior, Green Car is a cherished storybook, illustrated by mementos: the peeling LSU decal on the back window and the broken door of the glove box, inadvertently shattered by a dear friend on a bitterly cold day in Laramie.

But I've had a more important insight. I've realized that a car is a really big thing. That may not seem like much of an epiphany — no lightning bolt on the road to Damascus — but you take what you can get. Throwing out a really big thing made me think about all of the human labor and natural resources that went into making it. And so arose my dilemma.

I deplore both materialism and our throwaway society, but if "stuff" doesn't matter, then what's wrong with throwing it away? It occurred to me that perhaps what we need is not less affection for stuff but rather a deeper attachment to material goods, in order to truly see how our things connect us to the earth, life and other people. There was a deeper side to Green Car: the gouge in the earth from which its iron was extracted, the holes in the oceans from which its fuel was pumped, the ancient life forms that were converted into its plastics, the engineers who devised its components, the friends whom it transported and the places that it took us.

As a society of users and consumers, we take what we can and give what we must.  We don't have time for sentimental attachments to old cars, old books or old people. Avoiding connections makes it easier to create trash, not to mention throwaway people and disposable relationships.

And so in the end, we didn't consign Green Car to the junkyard. When I look at the bathroom fittings and programmable thermostat that our friend Dennis installed in exchange for Green Car, a new strand appears in my life. Green Car is now helping a friend, a member of my community and a good man. Moreover, I know that they'll get along. After all, both of them have a tendency to avoid straight paths, although one tends to the literal right, and the other to the political left. Both are dependable, but not entirely predictable. And both are connected to me.