The White Suburban
I can post this now the car has been returned in one piece.
In January I made a reservation for a "mid-sized SUV" for three weeks of driving between the towns and the trail-heads of the Pacific Northwest. I'd expected a Ford Explorer, like the last time I'd hired a car in the US. Or maybe an ironic reunion with a Jeep Patriot after ditching my right-hand drive version a year earlier.
"We'll upgrade you to something more comfortable," the car-wrangler told me at the SEATAC rental car garage. This was the first sign something was wrong. Unless there are tips involved, when a service person says they're doing something for you it almost always means that they're doing something for themselves.
He handed me a key and said "Take the white Suburban."
I'd never heard of a Suburban before, but if you have you would know where this is leading. I was already nervous about interstates and national park navigation and driving on the wrong side of the road. What I didn't need was the biggest American car ever built. (An incorrect assumption, but that's how it felt at the time). 6 metres long, over two metres wide and nearly as high, the Suburban would have been big and wide enough to fit the old Jeep in the backseats. (Almost)
I requested an alternative vehicle from the car-wrangler, I.E., the midsize SUV I'd originally requested. The manager got involved. This was apparently not possible. I'd come at the point in the day when all they had left was Suburbans. It was true. There they were, dotted, unwanted, among the empty car parks.
I had to make a decision. I mean, it was just a car, I rationalised. Thousands of Americans drove chonking units like it daily. My anxiety had to be getting the best of me. So I agreed to take it. We loaded our suitcases into the trunk and I slowly, gently got it down the ramps of the parking garage and, sooner than I'd have liked, onto the highway.
It was there, at 65 miles per hour, I quickly realised I was out of my depth. The slow lane constantly turned into an exit lane, and I was forced to merge, maneuver and keep straight this titanic on wheels. A Jeep Patriot passed me, and it looked so small, like a red handcart spied out the window of an aeroplane. Nobody honked at me, but I felt closer to death than ever before. I reached over to squeeze Vanessa's hand but the car was so wide I could only reach as far as the second column of cup-holders between us.
The steering was sensitive, the V8 engine roared, but the Suburban weighs three tonnes. The hour of driving it took to get out from Seattle's web of freeways passed mostly in silence, some swearing, country music on the radio.
By the time we reached the outskirts of Aberdeen, and my first American freeway parking lot, I was beginning to feel more comfortable with the Suburban. For starters, there were helpful safety features, like lane assistance guidance to vibrate the seat when you drifted into other lanes, and extra mirrors to provide visibility of all the parts of the road you couldn't see because of the girth of the ginormous chassis. Features that, you could argue, wouldn't be necessary if the Suburban had been built to normal proportions. But they helped, and driving almost became... Enjoyable.
Then I had to park it. There are more fun things to do than park a Suburban. Vanessa was very helpful.
Once I had the hang of the dimensions, the cruise control and the fuel consumption, the Suburban was, I guess, "comfortable." And as it accompanied us on drives through temperate rainforests, up mountains, along rivers and to misty beaches I realised that maybe the car was also out of its comfort zone of city streets and fast-food chain drive-thrus. Without the Suburban I would never have made it to the top of Hurricane Ridge, or the snowy vistas of Paradise, nor the canyons of Mt Hood and the trails of the Olympics.
And it hit me, as I reached the summit of the final ridge of our last hike - my unconditioned ankles tender from the climbs, my office-worker skin scratched and weathered, the remnants of a hundred spiderweb strands clinging to my hat - that I was a big chonker out in the world too. I was oversized, but getting it done in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest.
I was also a white Suburban.
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The woman with the fake tan stepped into my office, sat across from my desk and lit a cigarette.
At least, she would, sometime in the next 20 minutes. Smelling the future has advantages, but precision isn’t one of them.