The Great Road Wagon
by Jim Dodson
I call her The Pearl.
She’s a 1996 vintage Buick Roadmaster Grand Estate station wagon – a true American land yacht with fake wood siding and a ride that is like driving in your living room.
I purchased her a decade ago more out of simple nostalgia than anything else, thinking how fun it would be to cruise around town in a classic Roadmaster wagon just like the one my old man had when I was a kid.
After complaining in a newspaper column that our kids kept sneaking off to college with a succession of our family Subarus and Volvos, I half-joked that maybe the trick was to find a vintage gas-guzzler no self-respecting Millennial would wish to be seen riding in – much less driving.
A woman who read my column promptly phoned.
“Mr. Dodson, I’m here to make your dreams come true,” she said.
Her father was pushing 90 and had recently terrified her mother on a short outing to lunch from their senior living community, winding up lost and 60 miles out in the country.
“He loves this car. It’s really his baby. But he’s starting to run red lights and stop signs and I’m afraid he might kill somebody in it.” She added that a vintage car collector on the west coast had made her an offer, but if I wished to take it for a test spin, I could go over to the garage where she’d had it towed, hook up the battery and take her for a test ride.
“I had to tell my father his beloved Roadmaster was worn out – a little white lie, I’m afraid. There’s actually nothing wrong with the car save for a few dents here or there. That car took my sisters and I off to college and moved us several times when we were single.”
The mechanic at the garage pointed out that this particular model was the last true production station wagon made by Detroit – the end of a noble line of historic Roadmasters that stretched back to the Great Depression. Buick was ditching its big road wagons for something called a Sports Utility Vehicle.
“If Buick still made that car,” he added, “the company wouldn’t be in the trouble it’s in today.” He also said that if I chose not to buy that car, he would.
An hour later, I drove it home.
My only miscalculation was that our two youngest millennial in residence that summer actually loved my new land yacht and wanted to drive it around town – or even better, take it off to college.
One of them unhelpfully pointed out that the Roadmaster station wagon was listed as No. 6 on the “Top Ten List of Best Cars for the Apocalypse.” He seemed deeply impressed.
“That may be,” I told him, “But hopefully spring will be here before The End is near. Behold my new gardening wagon.”
The family millennials laughed. The younger one wondered if I’d given “her” a proper name.
The perfect name, in fact, suddenly came to me.
“I think I’ll call her the Dirty Pearl – after the Black Pearl in Pirates of the Caribbean.” Once upon a time, before everybody grew up, that movie was a big hit in the Dodson household.
“Pirating and gardening are both dirty business,” I explained.
My new first mate and garden assistant seemed enthusiastic about the idea.
Mulligan the dog, whom I found running wild and free as a lost pup, was already sitting in the front seat shotgun position – ready to roll.
It’s been exactly a decade since that sweet day of homecoming and we’re still cruising along together – man, dog and Dirty Pearl.
She had just 60,000 miles on her odometer when I acquired her in mid-2009. Today she has over 170,000, most of them in service to my garden or road trips for work or pleasure.
Three years ago, however, I began researching the Great Wagon Road that brought a couple hundred thousand European settlers to the Southern backcountry during the 18th century. The Wagon Road was the most traveled road of Colonial America, stretching nearly 800 miles from Pennsylvania to Georgia.
Back in late January, halfway across South Carolina – just 100 or so miles from the finish line of my research – the pandemic shut down the road until further notice.
Along the way, however, The Pearl has attracted an amazing amount of attention and comment from complete strangers. For some, she’s a nostalgia trip.
“That’s my childhood car!” a woman shrieked with joy outside York, PA’s historic Farmer’s Market, wondering if she could simply sit in the car for five minutes and take a mental road trip down memory lane.
Another man in the parking lot of the Gettysburg Visitor’s Center wondered how much I would take for The Pearl. I told him she was part of the family, and thus not for sale. He gave me his name and number in case I changed my mind.
Upon seeing her in action, dozens of motorists have tooted their horns, waved and given thumbs up signs.
This makes me wonder: Was life simpler, larger or somehow better a quarter of a century ago? America’s love affair with vintage automobiles is an established fact and a multi-million-dollar industry. Perhaps an old car simply reminds us of when travel by road was a luxury or a means of seeing the world at an unhurried pace – not the frenzied mad dash to get wherever you’re going on the freeway these days.
Back home, around town, in any case, we still go for a Saturday morning cruise to the farmer’s market and the local garden centers to buy mulch, organic soil and whatever else will fit in the car’s massive cargo hold – and almost everything does.
Over our mobile decade together, she’s hauled everything from household furniture to young fruit trees, oil paintings to bookcases. You name it, The Pearl has brought it home – including yours truly to the old neighborhood where he grew up in Greensboro.
That may be the sweetest thing of all.
But time does take a toll on man and machine alike.
The Pearl’s days of hauling anything but good garden soil are probably behind us. Man, dog and Pearl are all showing signs of age. My knees complain, The Mulligan has gone deaf in one ear and The Pearl’s electrical system has become a mystery known only to God, because no mechanic can seem to find a simple short in the system that occasionally drains her battery. Her air conditioner also conked out last summer up in Virginia. Maybe The End is near, after all.
Sometime this summer, however, about the time you’re reading this, good lord willin’ and the battery holds out, she and I will complete the journey along the Great Wagon Road to Georgia.
I’ll be a little sad the road trip is over, I suppose…
But also happy that my great wagon made it the entire way, carrying me over the same road my ancestors took to find a home in North Carolina.
I’ll probably aim her for home, give her a good wash, and park her in the carport where she always sits and can enjoy a nice long rest.
Until next Saturday morning.
A version of this story ran in Seasons magazine Spring 2019 issue.