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Highlander Odyssey

During our daughter’s fifth birthday party at one of those trampoline park emporiums, I was telling our friend Philip about how our family car’s A/C compressor needs to be replaced (or so the shop we took it to said) which financially means the whole car needs to be replaced. Phil asked me if we were thinking of any replacement vehicles.



“Well, we’re considering looking at Subaru Ascents or maybe see what kind of deal we can get on a Volkswagen, post-Dieselgate…” I demurred, distracted from the actual question by noticing that I’ve begun to succumb to the grieving process of our beloved Highlander.


“Have you thought about an Odyssey?”


Boy had I, so sleek, the batmobile of minivans, with enough storage to stow (most of) an elephant (cut into more manageable pieces). The van renowned by dads for its ability to carry a 4’x8’ sheet of plywood FLAT. At this moment, I realized I had refrained from fantasizing about a new dad mobile out of respect for our current family hauler. This realization came as somewhat of a surprise that my relationship with the Highlander had established such feelings of respect and tender affection, as I took the scenic route of acceptance into our lives. For so long, I had forsaken its presence in my life and have treated it like a child myself with minimal regard to maintenance or hygiene. 


~~~


Around the time my wife and I were initially planning our marriage, she was also training to participate in the New York Half Marathon. Blair had been a fairly dedicated runner. I can’t claim the same, I tried going with her once on a 3-mile out-and-back run near the house she lived in at the time. Running was not something I considered myself “good at” despite being what I thought of as a basic human function. I think I finally started engaging my ass in my late twenties and figured that's probably how people “jog”. Until then, I had just been sprinting with my legs and getting winded quickly.


During this period of getting ready for the NY Half, Blair started experiencing some pain in her right hip. She went to her doctor who quickly referred her to a specialist. Always the thorough researcher, my bride-to-be also consulted a handful of other specialists recommended by friends and family. Several years later, and with a dearth of medical training (I’m not a doctor, but I played one on stage…) I forget the technical term for what happened, but the top of her femur was cracking inside her hip, and the doctors recommended resting and if she must walk, to use a cane.


Upon hearing of this news, my in-laws graciously offered to trade cars with Blair. They would let her drive their gently used Highlander (that my mother-in-law didn’t like very much considering the driving and interior capacity characteristics) in exchange for her not nearly as gently used Corolla. 


In an extremely rare turn of events, I found myself to be in agreement with my mother-in-law that the Highlander’s handling felt like an afterthought to pursuing SUV sales, concomitantly adding to my chagrin about driving an SUV that we didn’t really need. We didn’t have kids yet and had half as many dogs as the two we share our home with now. But as the years went on, and responsibilities accumulated, the SUV-ish-ness became a feature we found quite handy. 


And so our journey with the Highlander began. We would continue to drive this car across Texas every which way for the next several years. From the Austin area, we would visit my brother away at college in the Texas panhandle, an eight-hour endeavor passing by sleepy small towns and classic western vistas with huge redstone mesas and vast prairies. We used it to carry our kayaks to Caddo Lake on the Texas/Louisiana border, more of an ancient swamp than a lake, timelessly enchanting with Spanish moss dripping from pretty tall, very old bald cypress trees dominating the area. It whisked us all the way out to West Texas to raft the Rio Grande on the border with Mexico and handled the washed-out dirt roads with alacrity. 


Despite the Highlander’s faithful service, I didn’t like this car, and I treated it pretty much like Tim and Sam from ‘Detroiters’ when they were looking at a used van to buy. From minor offenses like leaving trash in the cup holders, or entire bags of trash we meant to take to our cans but forgot about (we had a long, rural driveway) to skipping some “essential” maintenance items. At the beginning of my kayaking excursions, one of the very first rituals performed while unloading the boat from the roof rack is to apply sunscreen, and if its the spray variety, the car would get an accidental coating along with my freshly douched pores. Eventually, we would have a child who must have agreed with me on some level as she took every opportunity to throw up in the car that presented itself.


It wasn’t until I had a project with it that I came around to understanding this vehicle and connecting with it on a deeper level. One summer, the little red battery light illuminated the dash. After replacing the battery, it was clear that we needed a new alternator as well. On the Highlander, the alternator is blocked from immediate removal by the fan assembly, a couple of coolant hoses, and other mechanical what-not that are in the way of those things. I’ve mostly worked on older vehicles where the alternator is right on top, and all you have to do is pull out the old one and carefully coerce the new one into place. 


Considering the intimate level of involvement and exposure this work entailed, the Highlander and I started to form a bond. I consecrated this bond by upon nearing completion of this alternator replacement, I had plugged the hoses back together, had the air intake and fan assembly back in place, and was about to slap the sight shield down before closing the hood in triumph when I noticed the horns.


For those who are unfamiliar with the under-hood goings-on, in our vehicles today (in the 'States, anyway) there are two horns, a low note and a high note horn, that together make the tone we’ve all heard at a stoplight before. This is the beginning of the argument that we should have (up to three!) separate horn tones for different situations, but that’s another “little ditty”... The urge to unplug the low note was too great to resist, so that the next time my darling wife would delicately and elegantly depress the horn inside the vehicle to alert another motorist of any wrongdoing, her car would sound like a clown car.


With the smuggest of grins did I slap the sight shield back into place and shut the hood upon a job well done, eagerly looking forward to the moment my wife discovers this harmless little automotive prank. I assumed this would take weeks, or months to be found, but I humbly committed to the long con. How much do I honk? I asked myself. Maybe five or six times a year. 


As I cleaned and stowed my tools in the garage, I regained my composure to hand off her keys in a manner that she didn’t suspect any foul play. The hand-off of keys was successful, and my wife quickly ran out in the Highlander, new alternator alternating, to run some errands.


Now, reader, I must admit that with the acknowledgment of the long lead time for this prank, I was rather looking forward to how time would enrich this already hilarious prank, so please use your finest imagination to sense how disappointed I was that a mere 70 minutes later my wife texted me, “hammy, wtf??”


Before I could digitally render a response back, she hits me with, “MY CAR SOUNDS LIKE A FUCKING JOKE”


Which, from my perspective, up until that very weekend, the whole car was very much a joke to me, but I also could assume no other than the jig was already up. I was unaware of my wife’s tendency towards the automotive expletive button was so frequent that turned my prank more ephemeral than the infinite farts I’ve squeezed into its own seats.


At this point, I had ridden in the passenger seat to witness her driving before, enough to know that her behavior would lead me to believe she would receive many more honks than she would be entitled to distribute. But as I mentioned with the uncovering of familial trauma before, I’ve found that some people defend themselves by arguing louder and longer than those who are “more right” so that they feel less wrong. 


The Highlander’s horn is still only bleating from its high note, low note steadfastly disengaged.


The Highlander did us another blessing when my wife and I found out we were expecting our first child, and we were scrounging money against the clock to try to buy a house before the market went crazy prior to COVID. We wanted our own house in Austin, as a great many do, and rumors of Amazon headquarters and Tesla factories were fermenting realty-minded brains into sending the housing market into a fervor.

 

We were saving for the down payment when a hailstorm swept the area, devastating my beloved Pontiac G8 (GT) and our forsaken Highlander with sheet metal acne scars. As much as I was fraught with despair that my G8 had been a victim of this storm, I was just as elated that the Highlander had suffered similarly, because, “fuck that thing”.


But after the insurance company surveyed the damage to both vehicles and cut checks for them to “be repaired” (read: to put the funds in our bank for spending on housing) we had reserved to gratefully acknowledge the sacrifice bestowed by both vehicles. 


Even beyond the bond forged by some medium-duty wrench turning or receiving a payday from the insurance company after an Act of God, the Highlander took everything we threw at it and laughably consumed the task. One of the times we took it to the Texas Coast to visit Blair’s family, we loaded up the Highlander for a day at the beach. At this beach, you drive your vehicle on the beach with all your crap until you find a suitable spot to park and set up your establishment. The sand was hardly compact and enough people get stuck that guys in lifted trucks patrol the beach to help stranded beachgoers. As far as I know, they aren’t stationed out there by any authority and aren’t paid to be out there– except in cases of beer donated by the rescuees. 


As we slid in a controlled manner along the sand to find a spot, my wife very helpfully pleaded with me to not get stuck. For this moment, I took all of the consciousness I had and directed it to the balding front tires pulling us along the shifting sand below us and successfully avoided a visit from Lifted Truck Patrol. Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that my father-in-law’s pickup, did in fact, have to be rescued for the price of a case of beer. 


This is not the only off-roading success story the Highlander has to offer! We haven’t taken it seriously off-roading/four-wheeling/whatever, but I would argue this Highlander has seen more off-road obstacles than a lot of the other overlanded 4Runners parked on the streets of recently gentrified East Austin. 


My kayaking excursions have sent us down some rutted and washed-out back roads.  Even just accessing some of the put-ins and take-outs along our rivers provide a driveway’s length of off-road entertainment or another opportunity for the ‘lander to crush expectations and embarrass anyone to suggest any pusillanimity of the vehicle.


Having bared witness to the Highlander’s uncanny off-road capabilities, and understanding how those are actually relevant to my life, my appreciation for this car had approached the point of finally accepting some ownership and custodianship of it.

This car brought my firstborn home from the hospital, for crying out loud! I’d resisted liking it for so long, despite its proven practicality exhibited by a variety of unpredicted accomplishments. I finally recognized this car as my own, I recognized myself as its only loyal caretaker (using a loose definition of “loyal”). A realization this monumental didn’t happen all at once, but over several instances over time. Like the slow burn of dating someone you get along with, and enjoy spending time with, and witnessing attraction morph into a deeper love stemming from myriad shared experiences of varied depths. I realized I’ve been in a relationship with this car for years and have been neglectful during most of them. 


In order to attempt to correct my years of mistreatment, I washed and vacuumed the Highlander to get it ready for its appointment to get its AC recharged to help us combat the brutal Texas summer. I remember dropping off the car nonchalantly, but there was a distinct feeling of unease when exchanging the keys with the shop representative. Perhaps my intuition knew something was awry like this shop visit won’t be like the others. And of course, the next day the shop let us know that the Highlander needs a new AC compressor and that charging the system alone won’t get us the frigid results we’re looking for.


~~~


Taking in the smell of kid’s socks dominating the trampoline park, my buddy Phil enthusiastically recounts a trip he took his family on that the rental turned out to be an Odyssey. 


“I know you don’t wear Crocs, but do you have alternative footwear that uses that sort of foam material? ‘Cause an Odyssey is like that. Not much to look at, and you might not even be excited to get in at first, but when you do, you put your ass on that seat, and it just …receives you.”

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