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January 11-17, 2006

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Car Culture

Grandma Speed

Somehow, the gods looked down on me with love because there, in the middle of a vast and arid desert with only one gallon of water, a thirsty boyfriend and a bunch of crackers, we did not have an oil-pan rupture

By Novella Carpenter

MEXICO WAS great, thanks. Drove down to Baja, ignored Christmas and New Year's Eve, rented a palapa, sat on a sandy white beach, braved the slightly chilly water, ate a taco and called it a day. The drive to get there was epic; the sheer size from head to toe of the state of California always surprises me.

The border crossing itself is an exhausting event—getting the Mexican insurance, waiting in line, eyeing the young federales with machine guns, praying that the car's alternator will hold out. Then you face the wonder and oddities of life on the road in Mexico. There are the government-owned PeMex stations with fixed pricing. There's the lack of lights on the highway. There are the dreaded topes—speed bumps—that will take off your fender if you're not careful.

Specific to Baja, though, there is the no-shoulder phenomenon, which would, should your car choose to leave the relative safety of the pock-marked pavement, spell instant car abandonment. Evidence of such events littered the countryside—rusted remains of cars that strayed and couldn't make it back to the road lay belly up in dusty graves. Friends, our car would not have made it back. And to put a cap on it, many of Baja's roads are those horrible, sand-logged affairs that really only a 4x4 should take on. Did I mention we were driving a 1976 Mercedes Benz 240D? Color: primer. Clearance: 1/4 inch.

At some point, I was driving again, even though earlier in the day Billy had to grab the steering wheel in order to keep me on the road. (We're really too old for road trips anymore—we bicker over who will drive next incessantly, and at one point we were doing one-hour shifts. One hour? Clearly, neither of us is Neal Cassady.)

Anyway, I was going 60 miles per hour even though the posted speed limit was 50 kilometers per hour, and I hit one of those hills that makes your stomach feel funny—and then hit the oil pan coming down off it. I immediately smelled hot oil. And I'm not talking fries. I just stopped in the middle of the road (remember: no shoulder) and cringed. Somehow, the gods looked down on me with love because there, in the middle of a vast and arid desert with only one gallon of water, a thirsty boyfriend and a bunch of crackers, we did not have an oil-pan rupture. I felt like a death-row inmate granted a stay of execution. (Remember when that used to happen?)

It was a close call, and for the rest of the trip, I drove 50 kilometers per hour, which is 30 miles per. Grandma speed. You know what? I loved it! It was kind of like bicycling, but with no sweating. We got where we wanted to go on our own time, and it was lovely. No rush, no mess.

While sifting sand through my toes and eating another papaya, I thought about how fast I drive at home—and my motives for doing so. Mostly it's because everyone else is and to keep up with the flow of traffic and to get there faster. It's no great surprise, then, when it was time to cross back over, I found myself resisting going more than 60 miles per hour, although the speed limit was 65.

Then, slow driving developed into a critical matter. You see, we were powering our car on home-brewed biodiesel that Billy had made, and we were running out fast. The whole trunk was full when we started, but Billy figured out, through his intimate interactions with the car, that it got a full five miles per gallon better mileage when we drove 55.

We had to conserve if we were going to make it home on biodiesel! This knowledge bolstered us, and we braved the ultimate uncool act: We drove as though it were 1975 during the OPEC oil embargo. Bill even ventured into the 45-50 mph region, but that caused way too many one-finger salutes and honking. In the end, we had to buy diesel (stinks so bad), but using petroleum made us want to conserve even more by driving slowly. Fifty-five has now become my main rebellious act. Stay in the slow lane, enjoy and save fuel.

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Novella Carpenter is a women not only obsessed with cars, but with protecting the environment. Her weekly column balances these two polar-opposite loves while providing handy tips and car-related news items.