A beloved central character from Bowling Across America has passed on. At 4:39 CDT on March 21, Mom’s Honda disappeared from view around the corner of a car dealership’s maintenance bay. She is survived by her former owners, Mike and Amy Walsh, a well-worn atlas, and a Salted Nut Roll that had been in the console since 2003—its wrapper fading from sunlight—in case of a desperate hunger emergency. She was 15.
In a life that spanned some 125,966 miles, Mom’s Honda saw a great deal more than most cars of her era. As air travel has become more affordable and fewer cross-country family vacations are taken by car, only the rare family auto can claim to have visited more than a handful of states. Though the last few years of her life limited her to Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio, in her prime she visited each of the contiguous states, and even spent about 20 minutes in Mexico—earning a thorough strip search on the return border crossing.
At the time of her passing she’d seen better days, to be sure. A hole in her exhaust system had turned her engine’s gentle purr into an embarrassing growl that announced her presence long before she came into view. What had been a small cancer of rust on the rear-right door blossomed into a fist-sized boil in the salt-and-sub-zero days of this most recent Chicago winter. A recent water pump replacement foretold additional costly mechanical adventures to come, though she proved resilient (and profitable) just two weeks before her passing when she was involved in a fender bender that yielded an $850 check from the offending party’s insurer. This was slightly more than the $750 value that CarMax saw fit to attach to her. While hardly worthy of the term “priceless,” Mom’s Honda was certainly worth every bit of the $1,600 she generated in her final days.
In fact, despite the installed car phone (circa 1997) and spending the last 7 years under the under-watchful eye of an inattentive owner, the only negative scores Mom’s Honda received in the dealer’s assessment were for body damage: the scuff on the right-front bumper from a hit-and-run while parked in Jackson, Wyoming. The aforementioned rust spot. The scars from years of parallel parking on bumpers back and front. The indent on the hood from the rear-mounted tire on some careless parker’s SUV. The tires, the interior, the engine: all were ready for another cross-country road trip.
My first car was a 1981 Audi 4000 that had been owned by each of the men in my family beginning with my father and each of my brothers. I wept openly when I drove it on one last tour around the block, reflecting on the highs and lows of the three adolescent years we’d shared together. Before selling it, my father, whose sentimentality about cars I apparently inherited, removed the knob on the gearshift as a keepsake. That Christmas he presented it to me, crudely mounted on an old plaque he had in the shape of the state of Ohio. Overtop the plaque’s original text he taped a photo of me, at age five, alongside what was then his brand-new sedan. In it I am astride my first bike, a rugged blue one-speed, which, like the Audi, had been driven by my brothers before me.
I took no memento from Mom’s Honda, save the Salted Nut Roll (and that I only took in case of hunger emergency in the next car). In many ways the memento is the book itself, which would have turned out quite differently without the car’s unfailing reliability. So instead of taking something, I left a memento with it. Tucked in the map pocket behind the passenger’s seat is a copy of Bowling Across America and a note to whom it may concern explaining the car’s storied past. (I fully realize that the “whom it may concern” here will likely be an hourly employee of CarMax who will toss it into the lost & found pile without a second glance. But there’s that small chance it will make it to the next owner, and inspire a new adventure altogether.) In the book itself I wrote the only thing one can write to a trusted vehicular friend—the sentiment from a song Neil Young wrote for his car decades ago. The inscription reads:
“To Mom’s Honda— Long may you run. Mike”
Before handing over the keys, we took a few last photos in the car dealer’s parking lot. Not wanting to cry in front of the salesman, I looked for a sign to reassure me. Any kind of sign to say, “This is right. This is appropriate. This is the place to bid farewell to the car that carried you so faithfully in your life’s work, from bowling alley to bowling alley.” That sign appeared, literally and spiritually, from across the service road. Seen just above Mom’s Honda’s windshield in the photo below, it’s the sign for Hillside Bowl.
Neither Mom’s Honda nor I have ever been there, but I’m sure I’ll check the lot whenever I drive by on the Eisenhower Expressway, on the off chance of a reunion.