Women's Review of Books
Driving to Detroit: An Automotive Odysseyby Lesley Hazleton
Leaving her home in Seattle in midsummer to drive "the long way round" to the Detroit auto show, Lesley Hazleton embarks on a five-month journey to visit the holy places for cars -- where they are raced, displayed, crashed, tested, and made -- as she seeks to understand our deep fascination with automobiles. Her quest takes her on a road trip that teaches her not only… See more details below
Leaving her home in Seattle in midsummer to drive "the long way round" to the Detroit auto show, Lesley Hazleton embarks on a five-month journey to visit the holy places for cars -- where they are raced, displayed, crashed, tested, and made -- as she seeks to understand our deep fascination with automobiles. Her quest takes her on a road trip that teaches her not only about cars and the peculiar passions of car lovers but also about herself. A committed environmentalist in thrall to the internal combustion engine, Hazleton explores her own worship of speed during assaults on the landspeed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats; negotiates the famed off-road Rubicon Trail across the Sierras; finds the exact spot where James Dean died in his Porsche Spyder; and attends a crash conference in Albuquerque, where her discovery that 'when metal and flesh collide, metal always wins' sheds light on our erotic fascination with the automobile. She crushes cars in a Houston junkyard; works the nightshift at the Saturn plant in Tennessee; and in Detroit, turns away from the glitz and gleam of new metal to watch what happens when a car is driven into a million pounds of concrete. Along the way she corresponds with a class of eight-year-olds, befriends a priest who fixes his parishioners' cars, and encounters people and places where cars are created, worshiped, celebrated, and even feared. Throughout her journey, Hazleton's ability to make us see and smell and hear what is unique about each place she visits keeps us riveted, eager to move on with her to the next town on the map.
Halfway through this extraordinary adventure, Hazleton's father, the man who taught her to drive, dies suddenly, and her trip becomes a journey of grief and memory, a deeply personal odyssey that after 13,000 miles almost costs her her own life on an ice-bound highway. What begins as a romance takes her deep into the heartland of obsession, evolving into a meditation on life and death as she delves into the soul of a nation and its machine.
Women's Review of Books
There is sexuality. (In a line that could be straight out of Raymond Chandler, she writes of one classic car: 'It had a sensuously chiseled sleekness, like the high cheekbones of a supermodel.') At high speeds, there is the sense of transgression, and always there is the illusion of power, of being in control of tons of metal, when we control little in our lives. There is the romance of death: It is cool to die in a crash, but only if you are young and in a hot car (her father's death, of natural causes, in England in the middle of her journey heightens her awareness of this foolish illusion). Would James Dean's legend continue if he had died in a Hyundai, she wonders.
Hazleton arrives at no grand conclusions here but in finelyetched vignettes reveals why we so dearly love our automobiles. An exceptional writer at the top of her game. A car book that is about a lot more than cars.
- Free Press
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.40(w) x 9.55(h) x 1.11(d)
Read an Excerpt
It was all Monty Python's fault. I'd been on the road since seven in the morning, and by early evening was still three hours from home. But when I found Terry Gross interviewing the Pythons, one by one, on Fresh Air, I knew I could make Seattle that same night. The NPR station somewhere in eastern Washington came in loud and clear, and the program was just what I needed: witty and warm and comfortingly English, a perfect contrast to the winter weather I was driving through.
In the middle of the interview with John Cleese, on the phone from London, Terry asked: "Was your mother really an acrobat?"
There was a pause -- you could almost hear Cleese doing a double take -- followed by a burst of laughter. It was the only time I've heard him truly laugh. I could make out someone else chortling in the background; so could Terry.
"Who's that?" she asked.
"My shrink," said Cleese. And if she even thought of asking what on earth his shrink was doing there, she forgot it as he confessed that he'd made up that detail about his mother years before out of sheer boredom at having to write yet another of those little press-kit bios. His mother being, in fact, a rather staid English country lady of mild habits and genteel aspirations.
I was fascinated. So deep into Pythonland, you might say, that I paid no attention to the other reality around me, in which the rain I thought I was driving through had already turned to freezing rain, and the plain wet road to a skating rink.
I was in the outside lane, edging past yet another huge semi, when my Ford Expedition began, very slowly, to fishtail. A long, slight, ever-so-gentle sway, really. First to one side, then to the other. I controlled for it -- lift off the gas, steer, counter-steer -- and for a moment thought I'd managed it. But then I fell behind the semi and got caught in its slipstream. My rear wheels whipped out. I knew what was coming.
I was alone in the car, yet I said the classic last line out loud. The same words uttered by pilots as they go down, and later erased from the published "black box" transcripts:
I said this very slowly and very distinctly, as though it had to register somewhere in the ether, to be placed outside myself as a kind of record that would survive what was about to happen.
The car went into a metallic ballet, pirouetting over the asphalt. I thought the dance had come to a full and very final stop when the concrete median divider appeared right in front of me, and I headed nosefirst into it with a resounding thud. But no, the car bounced back onto the ice and began doing pirouettes in the other direction, with me along for the ride like a fairground passenger, until it finally ran out of momentum, stalled, and came to a stop in the center of the roadway.
There was a moment of absolute silence -- a very long moment -- as I slowly realized that I was alive, and that this fact was entirely due to all those young, good-looking, virile, alert, and superbly skillful truck drivers who had somehow managed to avoid crashing into me as I'd performed in front of them. I was vaguely aware that John Cleese was still talking, but he seemed very far away, and the words all ran into each other as though he were speaking a foreign language. All I could think was that I owed eternal gratitude to the truck drivers, since if they had not been so very young, good-looking, virile, alert, and superbly skillful, I would already be in another kind of eternity.
I was trembling, but this fact didn't quite connect with ideas of shock or fear. A paunchy, gray-haired trucker appeared at the window and asked was I injured. I checked neck, hands, feet, and discovered that thanks to the seat belt and the air bag, I wasn't. Then I checked the car. It had not been so lucky. The front had crushed a foot or so, the steering wheel would only turn to the left, and the radiator was clearly busted. The trucker helped me maneuver off the highway and down a ramp, then disappeared, promising to call the highway patrol. I waited blankly until red and blue lights appeared behind me.
Trooper Ditter really was young and good-looking, and kind too. "Are you all right?" was his first question.
"I would be if I could just stop shaking," I said.
He ushered me out of the freezing rain and into the back of his patrol car. "It's warm in there," he said as he opened the door. I felt protected and cared for.
The first thing Trooper Ditter did was call a tow truck. The second thing he did -- "I'm sorry, but I have to ask you a lot of questions" -- was begin filling out forms.
When he asked my profession and I said "automotive journalist," he got quite excited.
"That must be great! You mean that's why you've got Michigan plates? Ford just gives you a rig like this to drive around the country? That's the greatest job."
"Yes it is, but I can't believe I was so dumb..."
"I bet you've driven every car out there."
"Just about. Oh God, I can't get over the fact that this happened. What a dumb thing to do..."
"Ferraris? Lamborghinis? The new Porsche?"
I nodded miserably. "Yes, all of them. How could I do such a dumb thing?"
Poor Trooper Ditter. He'd drawn patrol on the worst evening of the winter, he knew it was going to be a long, long night, and here was someone he could talk cars with. And a woman too! A woman who could normally talk cars for hours on end, though right now the only sentences that would come out of her mouth were ones that included the word "dumb."
I wished I could oblige and start singing the familiar tune of horsepower and handling, but I couldn't. Trooper Ditter was stuck with a bundle of shivering misery.
His report form included a line for "Object Struck." In my case -- State of Washington Police Traffic Collision Report #0029009, dated January 17, 1997 -- Trooper Ditter wrote "Bridge."
This was both true and untrue. It was the concrete median divider of an overpass on I-82, which stretches north from the Columbia River and through the apple-growing country around Yakima to Ellensberg, where it hooks up with I-90, soars over the Cascades, and then settles down for a straight run in to Seattle.
When the tow truck arrived, it didn't look too promising. In fact it looked as though it would soon be in need of a tow itself. But the freezing rain was pelting down, and reports of more crashes were coming over the radio. Even in my dumbness, I realized I was lucky the truck was here.
Two Mexican men climbed out of the single bench-seat cab. They were from nearby Sunnyside, the kind of small town in southern Washington State where half the greeting cards in the stores are in Spanish, catering to the apple pickers who had come as itinerant workers, and stayed. I could see two young boys inside the cab. "My sons," said the driver proudly. "Six years old and two years old."
The boys stayed in the cab while the driver and his friend, helped by Trooper Ditter, set about hooking up the Expedition. "Where do you want us to take it?" asked the driver.
"The nearest Ford dealer," I said.
"That'll be Yakima," he nodded. "No problem."
The tow truck didn't look as though it could make it as far as Yakima, thirty miles on, even in the best of weather. I'd rather have stayed in the back of Trooper Ditter's cruiser and nursed my misery to sleep. But when the driver said, "Hop in," I did, between the driver and his friend. The six-year-old sat on the friend's lap. I got the two-year-old, who was fast asleep.
Until then I hadn't been able to stop shaking. But there is something about a bundle of sleeping two-year-old that calms you right down. I breathed in the powdery smell of a young child's head, wrapped my arms around him, and felt my limbs relax against his. His presence on my lap was a gift, and I felt an immense gratefulness for it.
I'm not sure how we reached Yakima in that two-wheel-drive truck, over iced-up roads. It must have been a nightmare drive, but I clung dreamily to my bundle of warmth and let the driver and his friend handle it. The child slept on, safe and trusting.
By the time we dropped the truck at the dealer's lot, it was close to nine in the evening, and a long discussion began over which motel to take me to. The driver kept suggesting places; his friend kept nixing them on one account or another.
"Hey, compadre, on the way back you have to tell me how come you know so much about the inside of motels," teased the driver. I hoped the six-year-old would be as fast asleep as his brother by then.
They settled finally on the Super Eight. Since I'm generally of the belief that motels with numbers in the name are to be avoided if at all possible, I had my doubts, but these men had been so kind that I was not about to voice them. Besides, I was wrong. The driver's friend knew his motels all right.
The men waited to make sure there was a room for me, helped me in with my bags, and set off for the horrible drive back to Sunnyside. I stood out in the freezing rain waving them off. "Drive carefully," I said. And even as I said it, was surprised at my lack of irony.
Back inside, I asked the desk clerk for the numbers of car rental companies so that I could get home to Seattle the next day. "I'm going there tomorrow morning," said the man who'd checked in ahead of me. "If you like, I can take you."
He went off to make a phone call, and I looked questioningly at the desk clerk. "Oh, you can trust him," she said. "He's the manager of one of the main trucking companies in the West. All his truckers stay here, so he does too. You'll be fine with him."
It was a long drive the next morning -- the ice barely melting, the highways only just reopened after being closed through the rest of the night. But Ed, my Good Samaritan, drove well and turned out to be unexpectedly interesting company. Not only was he a trucking executive, but he also had a doctorate in philosophy. And was a preacher, to boot. A charismatic preacher. The kind who lays on hands and heals.
Two more unlikely people to end up involved in transportation would be hard to find: he a philosopher come preacher, and me a former psychologist who at one stage had flirted with the idea of becoming a rabbi. We talked nonstop. About trucking, and about God. About the Middle East, where I'd lived for many years, and about the Midwest, where he'd lived for many years. About medicine and healing, faith and doubt. By the time we pulled up at my place, I felt...well, almost healed.
Over the next few weeks, I told the story of my crash again and again, subduing terror by making it familiar. Ed was the perfect figure to appear at the end of the story, related for the most part to staunchly agnostic friends wide-eyed with amusement at such a turn of events. By the time I'd finished, the crash seemed almost the kind you might create if you were finishing off a book about a long cross-country journey. Almost the kind you might want to have if you were listening to the story over the dinner table, with the flames flickering in the wood stove and the wine bottle being passed once more.
And if my listeners were thinking, "What a nice sort of crash to have," they were probably right. No injuries, no other cars involved, helpful truck drivers, a kind cop, and the gift of a two-year-old. What more could you want from a crash?
Nobody asked the hard questions. Neither, for some time, would I.
But then that's the point of such stories. You tell them and retell them to take the sting out of them. It's classic catharsis: the horrified looks when you start, the laughter -- uncertain at first, then gaining in confidence -- and finally the relief. Not Hamlet after all, but All's Well That Ends Well.
And if you tell the story well, you lull your audience. Everyone accepts that there's nothing you could have done to avoid that crash. That it really was simply an accident. A matter of chance. Misfortune. A bad break.
Yet for weeks afterward, my classic last words seemed to reverberate in my brain. I'd find myself saying them out loud, trying to get the inflection just right. To re-create the moment. It began to dawn on me that those two words marked my formal entry from one sphere of existence into another. A short song, if you like, of innocence and experience.
The first sphere is the one where Everything Is All Right, where there's good talk on the radio and the car is warm through the miserable weather outside and you're only a few hours from home after a punishing three-day push and you know you're going to make it just fine.
The transition to the second sphere doesn't register for a moment. You sense that it's beginning -- that it's already begun. But your adrenaline lags. Your heartbeat takes a moment to catch up. You tell yourself you can handle this, and by the time you know you can't, you're spinning madly out of control.
Like most people who have been in a crash, I was very good at denial. It was a long time until I could finally admit that at the end of five months on the road, and thirteen thousand miles around the country, I had nearly killed myself in freezing rain just three hours' drive from home.
It had been midsummer when I'd set out, part of those few weeks when Seattle shucks off its cloud cover and becomes gloriously Mediterranean. That's when my houseboat on Lake Union, just north of downtown, is the ideal place to be.
True, it's really little more than a shack built on a raft, floating on forty feet of water. But ever since the movie Sleepless in Seattle was filmed on a rather more solid houseboat one dock over, it has become a most desirable shack. If there's not a true ninety-degree angle anywhere in the house, and if the raft itself lists slightly to one side, so what? It's my houseboat -- mine and the bank's, that is -- and it makes me ridiculously happy.
Friends say it suits me, and they're right. Yet this is curious for someone who has made her living from cars for the past decade. A houseboat dock is an old-fashioned community, far removed from the world of metal, combustion, and grease. Cars are left on land. My neighbors and I walk past each other's open doors, stop in to chat, and swim and kayak together on the lake.
In short, an idyllic existence. Paid for, in my case, by an obsession with automobiles.
My life had a rift going straight down the middle. You could see it clearly in the crazy assortment of magazines that lay around the house. The New Yorker, Harper's, Atlantic, and The New York Review of Books were all mixed in with Automotive News, Auto Week, Car and Driver, and Flying magazine. Vanity Fair lay under the latest issue of Sierra, Outside on top of Road and Track.
It seemed absurd that a card-carrying member of the Sierra Club -- a Greenpeace supporter who voted for Ralph Nader in the last presidential election -- should have fallen so under the spell of the internal combustion engine as to have abandoned political reporting and been an automotive journalist for the past ten years. Yet as I was aware when I began, this sudden switch in focus on my part was an act of desertion. Almost a repudiation of respectability. Which of course was part of its attraction.
My political and literary friends had been dismayed. How could a writer of repute even dream of entering so disreputable a field? Politics was worthy of serious attention; cars were trivial by comparison. I was wasting time and talent.
I hate to use so hackneyed a word as burn-out for my involvement with the Middle East, but it's an apt one. Sometimes I think every political journalist is a would-be politician with a skin too thin for the real thing. At our keyboards, we get to right the world without having to dirty our fingers with the messy stuff of day-to-day politics. I knew I needed a respite from matters of life and death. Like the fool I am, I thought I could find it in cars.
And for a time, it worked. I felt as if I was riding high on the frothing surf of life instead of being pulled down in its undertow. There was a careless thrill to the ride, and a vast relief at having thrown aside responsibility. Or at least, imagining I had.
I thought at first that I'd become a "car guy" like most of my newfound colleagues. Then I realized I didn't want to be one. Once I'd mastered the details of horsepower and torque, mechanics and technology, I was dismayed by the torrent of clichés in which cars are celebrated -- and by the equally fervid torrent in which they're criticized. I wanted to reach deeper. Wanted to journey into the heart, soul, and wallet of the enduring American obsession with the car.
I made forays here and there, flying in and out of story after story over the years, the way journalists do. But the essential story was still missing; there was no continuity. I wanted to see my subject whole, but all I could catch were fragments. And eventually I realized why: If I truly wanted to journey into the passion for cars, I'd need, literally, to drive into it. By its very nature, the journey would have to be a physical one: a journey into America, a road trip intimately bound up with the road itself.
So simple, I thought. Every January, I'd flown from Seattle to the annual bash of hype and glitz that is the Detroit auto show. This year, I'd drive there instead. The long way round. Take a few months, go down the West Coast, through the South, and then up to Detroit. And en route, search out the milestones of automotive obsession.
I'd find people who saw cars as multi-million-dollar vintage art objects, and as custom-made expressions of vibrantly raw sexuality. As machines that can take you as fast as a jet plane on earth, and as the most highly visible consumer status item, clad in sheet metal shinier than gold. As nostalgic memories of youthful pasts, and as the means of escape from everyday life. Sometimes even from life itself.
It seemed a pleasingly elegant idea -- a kind of automotive geography of America. Yet even as I planned a rough route, leaving plenty of room for serendipity, I was uncomfortably aware that journeys have a way of creating their own momentum. They take you places and reveal things you never knew you were looking for. Once I put myself on the road, I'd lay myself open to the way experience toys with fine ideas and tosses them into chaos, forcing you deeper and further than you ever wanted.
I wasn't sure if I was ready for this, and as July came to a close, tried not to dwell on it. After all, it was the perfect time for me to make such a trip. I had no professional commitments other than newspaper and magazine columns, which I could write from the road. Back in England, my father was well on the mend after having been severely ill that spring. And Seattle's summer, glorious though it was, would not last much longer. So the second week of August, I paid up all my bills, said goodbye to friends, stopped the newspapers, asked neighbors to pick up my mail. And when I closed the door to my houseboat behind me early one Monday morning, I felt I was closing the door too to my other life, my "real life." All sense of everyday responsibility was being left behind. I was cast loose of my moorings.
There was a fine romance to this: the very American romance of taking to the road. For if the history of the United States is one of settlement, its romance is one of abandoning the settled life.
"Come travel with me!" called Walt Whitman in the nineteenth century.
"The road is life!" yelled Jack Kerouac in the twentieth.
Who was I to resist?
I was beginning the most American of all journeys: cross-country, the whole hog, all the way. And if it was only a couple of years since I'd become the proud possessor of an American passport, so much the better. An immigrant making the journey, even one who had lived here fifteen years until the formality of naturalization, was all the more true to tradition. In more ways than one, I was undertaking a rite of passage.
Not that any of this occupied my mind that first day, as I headed southeast over the Cascades and through the high desert toward Utah and the Bonneville Salt Flats. It was enough to let myself be seduced once more by the hum of the engine, the rolling of the wheels, the almost childlike pleasure of motion.
Within a couple of hours of setting out, I'd slipped easily into the kind of reflectiveness engendered by being on the road. Every detail was somehow heightened in this state, as though my vision had sharpened with my sense of distance. Each hawk wheeling against the blue seemed significant, every play of sunlight on the barren high desert hills. I watched other cars going by, all headed somewhere close. Local traffic, I told myself dismissively. I was in for the long haul, and there was a strange sense of superiority in that. Pointless, but there nonetheless.
A herd of horses galloped over a hillside as I sped past on the highway. They looked free and wild, as though nobody had ever roped or trained or ridden them. They seemed a glimpse of an America that once was. A cowboy country, wide open and lawless. A perfect landscape for the Clint Eastwood image of the cowboy as roamer and drifter, never to be tied down -- not by money, not by status, not even by love.
That's the myth of the cowboy, at any rate, built up through an endless stream of Hollywood westerns. I'd read my Wallace Stegner; I knew how little the myth corresponds to reality. But then myths never do. They have their own rationale, and history's not it. The lone drifter wandering through the vast spaces of the West persists through the end of the twentieth century, with just a stand-in or two. The car becomes the modern equivalent of the horse, and the road is the trail to everywhere and nowhere: an American version of the Tao, the path to enlightenment.
Absurdly romantic? Of course, but how else does one start out on a long solo journey? You trust to hope, to a kind of cultivated innocence, and, yes, to the kindness of strangers. Travel alone, and nothing mediates between you and the world. This is both terrifying and seductive. It leaves you vulnerable. Places you on the edge. Makes you into a kind of Lone Ranger, a masked stranger on a white horse, which is what I felt like when I stopped in a small town in Idaho and walked into the diner.
The buzz of conversation came to an abrupt halt as the door swung to behind me. All eyes turned my way, checking me out. The questions hung in the air, unspoken but still asked, until I opened my mouth and the mask fell away. They heard the accent, still English after all these years, and then visibly relaxed. A foreigner. Ça s'explique.
Outside, my white horse was in fact red, and had wheels instead of legs. But it was a magnificent steed, the kind that drew quiet nods of appreciation from exactly the kind of young men who might otherwise give me trouble, which was partly why I'd chosen it. What I drove would inevitably be part of the journey -- what Jonathan Raban astutely called a "narrative vehicle" -- and I'd given the matter some thought.
It had to be American: this was an American journey, and my goal was the mecca of American cars. It had to be capable of going off-road, for I knew my own tendency to take off on any road that looks interesting, and my dislike for back-tracking if the going gets rough. It had to be comfortable enough to drive for hours at a time, even days at a time if need be. And it had to be big enough for me to stretch out a sleeping bag in the back and get a good night's sleep if I wasn't within reach of a motel.
When Ford offered to loan me the Expedition, a full-size sport-utility based on the F-150 pickup truck, it fit the bill perfectly. Large and imposing, it had four-wheel drive and lots of power. It was also brand new and far too shiny, but these minor disadvantages would quickly mend with time and distance. The dirt would accumulate, and I'd leave it there as a kind of badge of honor. From that very first day, as I headed for Bonneville, I thought of the Expedition as "the truck," and the truck it would remain. Just by looking at it, anyone would be able to tell I was going the distance.
Nothing had prepared me for the salt.
Cross the border between Nevada and Utah on I-80, go through Wendover, come over the crest of the hill, and the whole of the salt flats is laid out before you -- a vast whiteness streaked with black. Not a tree, not a house, not a shrub. Nada. Just the Rockies in the distance, and an immense shimmering emptiness between.
I turned off at Exit 4, where a solitary sign for the Bonneville Speedway led me onto a blacktop running by the edge of the salt. A couple of miles on, the road took a sharp curve, and I found myself on a narrow causeway running right out into the salt.
Either side, the flat whiteness was like a huge sheet spread out to dry. The road itself seemed an anomaly, an odd afterthought. Or perhaps humans had been so afraid of the salt they dared not set foot on it, and so laid a thin strip of human industry over this inhuman white waste. And then, after five miles or so, gave up. Because that's where the causeway came to an end. An absolute end.
It had never occurred to me that a road could end as conclusively as this one. Even a dead-end road ends somewhere. It doesn't simply stop in the middle of nowhere, as this one abruptly had: stopped and given up the ghost as if the pavers had run out of asphalt, or decided that the whole idea was a fool's errand and turned back.
I checked my directions, squinting to make out the scribble in my ring-binder notebook: "When road ends, go another mile or two in same direction until berm."
I hadn't thought to question that phrase "when the road ends" when I'd jotted down the directions over the phone. I thought it meant when the asphalt turns into a dirt road. Or at least some kind of marked track. But there was no track. Just salt. Salt in every direction as far as the eye could see.
When a road stops, you stop. I got out, hovered at the edge of the salt, and squinted into the distance. If there was a berm, I couldn't see it. Couldn't even see any tire tracks leading away from the asphalt. All I could see was salt.
I didn't feel lost. Rather, at a loss. This was the place where Malcolm Campbell wowed the world in the Bluebird back in the fifties, driving faster than anyone had thought possible. It was the mecca of all landspeed record challengers. I'd expected at least sheds, an office building, viewing stands -- some sign of the presence of so venerable and famed an institution as Bonneville.
But there was nothing. Not so much as an ant. Just an immense solitude.
I stepped gingerly out onto the salt. Bounced up and down to see if it would hold. Stepped out a bit farther, bounced again, and began a little salt dance, hopping and turning with arms spread wide. The surface crackled underfoot, almost like ice-crusted snow. I bent down, dug into it with my finger, and scooped a bit up. It stuck to my skin, sucking moisture out of it. When I wiped my finger on my shirt, crystals stuck to the cotton. And I could smell it now, even in the dry desert air: the familiar sharpness, the faintly acrid tang.
There was nothing to do but trust to my directions, so I took a deep breath and eased the truck out onto the endless whiteness. The surface was firm -- as firm as the asphalt had been -- and as I gathered confidence and speed, the salt began to take on definition. An around me, it looked like a frozen sea, run up into little riffles every few feet, like water under a light breeze. I seemed to be floating rather than driving. There were none of the usual reference points of driving: no landscape going past, no road being swallowed up under the hood, no landmarks. Just this dream landscape, this eerie emptiness.
Within a couple of minutes, Id lost sight of the causeway in the rearview mirror. It had been swallowed up by distance. Or by the heat. Or maybe, I thought suddenly, by the salt itself. When I finally saw the berm -- no more than a dried mud hump some three feet high rising out of the haze -- I was so relieved I didn't even wonder what it was doing here in the middle of the salt.
"Turn left and follow about two miles," my directions said. I followed.
"Berm curves right; follow." I kept following. But now the dream landscape began to transform itself into a nightmare one.
What I'd thought was vast before, now appeared endless, an infinity of whiteness with no horizon. And as I drove on into it, the whiteness welled up in front of me as though it were breathing and growing, gathering force.
"It can't be," I told myself. "It's not really doing that." Yet some more primitive part of me was convinced that beneath the surface, the salt had the power of a great ocean wave welling higher and higher, until finally it would tower over me, break, and engulf me in its shimmering immensity.
I shook my head and the illusion subsided for a moment, only to start rising again. I realized I was holding my breath, as though breathing itself had been rendered redundant, an absurd gesture in the face of such vastness. And still the light shimmered, and the haze hung low, and I could see nothing but salt.
A certain panic began to build inside me. That dreamlike feeling of having stepped into another dimension. The peculiar conviction that what once was, no longer exists, as when someone you love puts on a Halloween mask and you suddenly can't remember their real face anymore, need to pull the mask off and reassure yourself that the face you know so well is still there. Everything I came from -- the causeway, the interstate, Seattle, home, real life -- seemed to have shifted and disappeared, and I had the sudden certainty that even if I were to do a one eighty and drive back as fast as I could, I'd never be able to make my way off the salt.
And then, in the far distance, a vague shape appeared in the haze. It dissolved, then re-formed. I picked up speed. Yes, there was something there, something definite now. Only the clearer it became, the more absurdly fantastic it seemed to be. What I was seeing could have been an encampment out of a Mad Max movie.
It was a huddle of internal combustion. In the center were two large fuel trucks, a long white trailer sprouting a tent along one side, and two shorter trailers. Circled tightly around them were a mix of a dozen or so sport-utilities, pickups, and minivans, as if the survivors of some terrible devastation had hungrily grouped together around the fuel trucks, warding off fear and isolation with the false consolation of gasoline.
I drove up, got out, and saw instantly that things were not going well. There was no hive of activity. A few men in red Chevrolet jumpsuits were hanging around at the edge of the tent. They stared blankly as I walked toward them. No smiles. Not a word.
I had arrived.
Inside the tent was The Car. The car Craig Breedlove was convinced he could drive through the sound barrier.
A sleek white cigar of a thing, The Spirit of America was the perfect expression of the old cliché about fast cars -- "drives like a missile" -- for that was exactly what it looked like: forty-four feet long, the fuselage about three feet high, with huge vertical wings sticking up at the back. Part of the aluminum skin was off, revealing the tubes and valves of a jet engine beneath -- a J49 from an F4 Phantom fighter, costing one and a quarter million dollars new, and five thousand dollars surplus. The Spirit of America's engine was surplus.
It is hard to think of a jet engine as a car. True, this one had wheels -- a triple wheel in front, and two rear wheels, one under each wing -- and a driver's seat was built into the tiny triangular cab stuck on the nose. But it had as much relation to what most people call a car as does the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao to what most people call a house.
The nakedness of what Breedlove planned to do hit me full force: he was going to pin himself to the front of a jet engine and be propelled to supersonic speed. Like Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove, hollering and whooping as he rides the bomb to annihilation.
Not that anyone was hollering here, let alone whooping. "He's not going to talk to you. He's not talking to anyone," said one of the crew.
"You tell him I'm here like we agreed on the phone," I persisted.
After a long, silent wait, Breedlove emerged from his trailer. He had a strange gait, almost as though he were walking on air. It was the gait of a dancer, I realized, and it seemed peculiarly at odds with his role as daredevil speed racer.
He looked younger than his age -- mid-forties at most. Short and trim in a well-preserved kind of way: pale blue eyes, tank top, running shorts, legs muscled like those of a long-distance runner, full of cords and tendons. His hair was vaguely curly, a peppered mix of dark blond and gray. He must once have been extraordinarily good-looking, but by comparison with the photos I'd seen of him -- vaguely noirish, artily dramatic -- the reality seemed faded, washed out.
To go after the land-speed record in your twenties is understandable. Nuts, maybe, but put it down to the recklessness and imagined immortality of youth. As any fool can tell you, racing is a game for the young, when the body is so vital, so alive, that it seems impossible that anything could stop it.
But Breedlove was fifty-nine. And he'd already held the land-speed record three times. The last time was twenty-nine years ago. It was broken a couple of months later. And since then, though the record had changed hands a couple of times, it had stayed stubbornly in the same range.
Right now, it stood at 633 mph. Breedlove had not only declared he'd break it, but also upped the ante several notches. Not enough that he'd been the first man to break 400, 500, and 600 mph on land, he now aimed to be the first to break 700 mph, and then go right on through the sound barrier, which on land and at this altitude would be somewhere in the region Of 735 mph.
He was surely far more aware of the risks now than when he was young. Was surely conscious of physical frailty, of slower reaction times, decreased stamina, faltering concentration. Yet where most of us become slower but wiser, he seemed determined to be faster and just as unwise.
We shook hands and he smiled limply, never quite looking me in the eye. "I have to work on my bike," he muttered. "Can't get it to start."
There was an oddly lackadaisical inflection to his speech. A sense of merely going though the motions. Maybe it was the heat and the salt-whitened sky. Maybe it was just that he had a cold. Or maybe he just really didn't give a damn.
The blue BMW stood on its kickstand just outside the tent. He scrunched down beside the small boxer engine; I pulled up a crate and sat down on it.
"I suppose you're going to ask why I want to do it," he began warily, working a wrench on a bolt. "Everyone does." He didn't pause for a yes or a no. "The answer is because it's fun, and it's damn interesting. Anything else is just waiting in between. You start out with a blank piece of paper, design a vehicle, find all the components for it, find the facility to build it in and the sponsorship for when you run out of money, and put together a team. Then" -- and here for the first time there was a flicker of real life in his face, a kind of wide-eyed boyish look of amazement that he, little Craig Breedlove, should be doing such a thing -- "then you go out and drive faster than anyone's ever gone before."
And he gave an oddly flat laugh -- not a laugh of despair, but not one of joy either.
He worked his way half under the motorcycle, on his back, spotted something, and swore softly. We began to talk about his family, his voice floating up from under the bike. His mother, he told me, was a chorus girl with ballet training. That explained his walk. His father was a special-effects man in movies, and built the talking car for the old Jerry van Dyke TV series My Mother the Car. I wasn't sure quite what that explained, but it did seem to explain something.
In the late fifties, Breedlove worked as a fireman for the city of Costa Mesa, drag-raced on Saturday nights, and poured concrete slabs on his days off. He was twenty-one years old, had three kids, and was struggling to make the house payments. "I was optimistic, and it seemed like I could do anything. I was looking for something I could do to make my mark on the world."
"Why was it so important to make your mark on the world?" I asked, and the answer came back with a simple raw honesty that stunned me.
"I wanted to do something more than just have a job and live a regular life. I felt like if I went on with the fire department, I'd just live my life and die, and nobody would ever know I was here. So I had to do something significant."
That desire lurks in all of us, of course, but most people would be too embarrassed, or too wary -- too sophisticated, perhaps -- ever to dream of saying it outright. When ambition comes in so purely naked a form, and chooses a goal so patently absurd, there are two options: one is to laugh it down, the other, to watch it unfold in fascination. I had already chosen fascination.
"What's it like to go that kind of speed?" I knew it was a stock question, but I had to ask it. I really wanted to know.
The answer was utterly expected, the same answer any race driver would give: "It's exhilarating. And terrifying at the same time. It's a straight deal -- there's no forgiveness for making a mistake." And then he veered into the unexpected: "But you don't have to be very skilled to do it. I don't have one percent of the skill of a Formula One driver. I picked this odd arena because it was the only thing I could do. It works for me."
There was a touching simplicity to this. Whether calculated or not, I wasn't sure. He seemed a modest man, aware of the oddness of his mission, and yet that modesty was somehow unreal. A younger man could pull off this kind of aw-shucks bashfulness, but in a man near sixty, it didn't ring quite true. And yet it made sense that this was simply the one thing Craig Breedlove knew how to do well. Or at least, had known.
He stood up and tried the BMW's starter again. Nothing happened. He winced. It was an odd situation: a man who intended to break the sound barrier, unable to get a motorcycle to start. He stood staring tight-lipped at the bike, as though it were doing this to him on purpose.
I rushed in with another question: "How do you know what will happen when the car goes through the sound barrier?"
He threw the wrench aside and shrugged. "I don't. Nobody does. I think I know what will happen, and I think I can handle it. But this is the point of it all -- you're going into uncharted territory."
Let it never be said that I am against the idea of exploring uncharted territory. And God knows there's little enough of it left on this planet. But to shrug it off as uncharted and that's that, seemed to me somewhat cavalier. Foolhardy at best, suicidal at worst. It took all the resources of the American Air Force to break the sound barrier in the air. And several lives until Chuck Yeager succeeded. On the ground, those fearsome shock waves would surely only be compounded. To treat the unknown so carelessly seemed crazily fatalistic. Or childlike.
After all, the sound barrier was part of Breedlove's childhood. He began going for land-speed records the same year Chuck Yeager made history. He broke them in the same decade Tensing and Hillary climbed Everest, which was the last decade there was still the unconquered to be conquered on earth. But now? Now there was something antediluvian about the effort. As antediluvian as the landscape around us.
He banged a fist lightly on the bike's starter button, lips pursed in frustration. "Come on," he said. "I'll give you a guided tour of the car." And turned away from the bike as though he'd already forgotten its existence.
Inside the tent, it was fractionally cooler. A single mechanic was tinkering with some bolts. Breedlove ignored him. Up close to the car, he seemed to relax a little. He shut his eyes a moment, then took a deep, slow breath. "When I want to think," he said, "I climb in and just sit in her." And for the first time, he smiled -- really smiled -- just thinking of it.
And the moment he said that, I knew I had to get into that seat. I was convinced that if I could sit there, even for just a minute, I'd understand what impelled this man to place such short odds on his life.
The cab was built into the narrow pointed cone attached to the front of the engine. Getting in with any kind of grace would demand the skill of a contortionist. I made do without grace: hoisted myself up, gingerly worked one leg at a time up and over one crossbar and then under another, and lowered myself into the hard plastic seat. This seat had been specially molded to Breedlove's proportions, and though I'm considered slim, his hips were far narrower than mine. I squirmed sideways into it, like an adult trying to seat herself in an infant's highchair.
But finally I was in. And stuck. There was no room to move even a leg or an arm. Straps hung everywhere, and Breedlove showed me how they went -- over elbows, wrists, legs, calves, thighs, groin, chest, shoulders, any part of the human anatomy that had the slightest room to jar and break under the stress of giant speed. Control buttons and switches covered every available surface. They filled the side pillars, the ceiling, the panels in front of me. It was like being in the cockpit of a jet fighter, except smaller and tighter.
Breedlove explained each of the controls, but it all became a blur. I was too busy trying to imagine what it would be like with the engine roaring behind me, being propelled through the air: the ground disappearing so fast beneath me I wouldn't even see it; the shuddering so vast I wouldn't be able to tell the difference between ground and sky; the speed so great I'd see nothing but a funneling blur.
I stared ahead, filled with the absolute certainty that this engine was made for the thin air of high altitude, not for the dense, muddied air just inches above the surface of the earth.
I tried to tell myself that what I really wanted to do was drive this thing. For a brief moment, I almost believed it. Never mind that there was no way of "driving" a machine designed to go in a straight line, and nothing more. All you could do, so far as I could make out, was guide it. If you were lucky, you could keep it upright with the wheels in contact with the ground. If you weren't...
"Where's the Eject button?" I asked.
"There isn't one."
It occurred to me that Breedlove might as well nail himself to a cross.
"That's it," he said. "Your ass and a hundred gallons of gas."
"That simple, huh?"
I can understand the attraction of speed. For a time, I was completely in thrall to it. That was just after I'd begun my life as an automotive journalist, when every automaker who made a fast car was inviting me to drive it on one racetrack or another. Nobody had ever let me behind the wheel of such machines before. And as I learned to handle them, I reveled in a sense of something very pure and clean.
The purity was that of speed. Speed cut away from the danger and recklessness of the shared highway and pared down to a delicious sense of transgression. It was deeply personal, a matter not just of mind but also of body. For the transgression was far more than throwing over the bonds of respectability; driving fast -- really fast -- is a transgression of the laws of nature.
In a race car, every nerve tells you that you are going faster than the human body was designed for. Acceleration is a sensory intensifier. The effect of the G-force on the body -- the pull of acceleration, the pressure of physics against flesh -- is massive.
The G-force is essentially dislocation. Being moved out of place. You can find it on a fairground ride, on the roller-coaster or the cyclone, but there it is entirely passive. In a race car, you produce it by your own action. You create it, and you defy it. You deliberately go beyond the boundaries of what is human.
One G is normal gravity, where a 150-pound body weighs precisely that. But at speed, G-force builds. At two G's, you weigh twice as much as normal. At four G's, four times as much. And when you experience it, there is no doubt this force is outside you, and is far stronger than you. It pushes you hard into your seat, pulls you violently to one side or the other in corners, distends the muscles of your face into a ghostly grimace. You are thrown at an unnatural angle to the world.
Hesitate for a moment, and you've had it. The world rushes by in a blur. Your eyes can't keep up. You develop tunnel vision, knowing that things are happening faster than your brain can grasp them. You trust to reflex. The adrenaline pulses through your system: heart races, mouth dries up, eyes open unblinkingly wide, pupils dilate, neck and shoulders strain to keep your head upright and your eyes level with the road.
You lose all sense of time. Split seconds last for minutes; whole minutes rush by in what seems seconds. Distance is only a matter of how far from one corner to another, of judging when to brake, when to turn, when to accelerate out of the corner. And speed? It is no longer an abstract. You are driving in and through it. You have become speed, and for as long as you can make it last, it is the only thing in the world.
It's this totality of speed that is so utterly seductive. Like sex, it takes over both body and mind, expanding to the very edges of consciousness and shutting out awareness of all else. Everyday doubts and cares are left behind in the blurred world you're moving through. Whatever the rest of life may be, this is pure. You ride a high, thin line on the outside edge of life, hover on the very edge of death and peer over, then shoot on past it, laughing.
I knew this from driving a mere 175 miles an hour. Formula One drivers go up to 240. I could only try to imagine what 700 miles an hour must be like, and Breedlove had no words for it. But I understood that faraway look in his pale blue eyes. I could see why they never quite made contact. There was only one place he really wanted to be, and that was pinned out on the edge of nothingness. Nothing else had any real meaning for him.
The course was barely visible: a smooth, polished strip stretching out from the encampment to the horizon. It was divided into six lanes, apparently by simply drawing a stick in the salt so that the black mud beneath showed through. There were no mileposts, no markers of any kind. Just that strip defined by thin dark lines converging in the flat, featureless distance as though to say, This Way to Infinity.
The team was waiting for a new parachute canister to arrive before doing their first practice run. They'd come all the way up from California only to find that the canister was the wrong size. There were two parachutes on the car, a main one and an auxiliary, and they were Breedlove's only means of braking. The main one was the one whose canister wouldn't fit.
It occurred to me that they should have discovered this before hauling car, trailers, fuel trucks, and crew all the way to the salt desert, but it didn't seem too politic to give voice to this thought. The new canister was due the next morning. Meanwhile there was no reason I couldn't make my own practice run. "Just stay off the left-hand lane," the crew chief told me.
I picked the second lane in from the right. In the distance, a small island of rock floated in the sea of salt. I'd head for that, I decided. I lined up the truck. Put my foot down on the gas. And found myself watching the gauges. There was nothing else to watch.
The needle swung up over a hundred miles an hour. I registered the fact, but didn't feel it. There was none of the excitement that usually comes with going into triple digits. In fact the gauge seemed utterly pointless. It proclaimed speed, yet I had no sensation of it.
I had never imagined that the act of driving could be one of sensory deprivation. But this was the high-speed equivalent of one of those enclosed water tanks used back in the sixties, where you'd float in the warm saline dark and your mind would take self-induced acid trips sparked off by the total lack of external stimulus.
The odometer ticked off the miles. At seven, the course broke up into puddles of dried mud, and the floating island seemed no nearer than it had seven miles back. I stopped and checked my map: it was twenty-eight miles away.
I turned and drove back along the side of the course, the tires scrunching on the crisp unpolished surface. How could there be meaning in speed when there was none in distance? Speed is a function of time and distance, and you have to experience one or the other to get a sense of it. At seven hundred miles an hour, I'd be hurtling along at 342 yards a second. That's more than the length of three football fields a second. And one mile every five seconds. How does the eye even see such speed?
The answer is, it doesn't. Speed is relative. As I cruised back on the salt crust at thirty miles an hour, it felt much the same as had one hundred on the way up. In the lack of anything to hurtle past, speed had become an abstract, reduced to time and distance measures on a laser gun. Some strange kind of Einsteinian inversion seemed to be at work: the faster you went, the less your sense of going fast. These vast white flats made a mockery of the very idea of speed.
They had also made a mockery of Breedlove's plans. He needed eleven miles to make his record attempt: five miles to reach supersonic speed, one measured mile for the record, then five miles to stop. And the course was only seven miles long. There simply wasn't enough room.
This was no longer the same salt as the one where Malcolm Campbell's Bluebird had flown into the history books. The very name Bluebird seemed to resonate now like Rosebud, symbol of a purer time long gone. In the intervening years, the salt had eroded.
Back then, it was up to ten feet deep, as hard and firm as Arctic ice. Now it was just a few inches thick at best, and on parts of the course, barely an inch. Thirty thousand acres, and not eleven consecutive miles of solid salt to be found on them.
Nobody is quite sure why the salt that lay thick and solid for millennia should have eroded so drastically in just a few decades. Some blame the Union Pacific railroad, whose line crosses the flats on a huge dike to the south of the speedway area. Others blame I-80, whose dike was laid down in the sixties, parallel to and slightly north of the railroad line. Yet others blame the salt mines -- the potash-mining operation now owned by Reilly Industries, which operates just south of the interstate dike, and has been doing so since 1917. But of course if the idea of human intervention destroying one of the world's great natural wonders is too awful to entertain, there's always climate change to blame. Drier winters don't produce enough runoff water in the spring to flood the flats and allow the salt to precipitate. The fact that a few years of dry winters have happened many times before is conveniently ignored.
Most likely, the construction of I-80 is the immediate culprit. Its timing coincides with the start of major deterioration. Not that the interstate alone would have caused the salt to thin out, but that it turned out to be the tipping point. The salt could withstand the effect of the railroad dike. It could withstand the mining operations. It could shake off a few dry winters. But add in that one factor too many -- the interstate dike -- and the extra stress tipped the whole ecosystem over into degradation.
In one of those sad, perfect ironies of history, the most famous place in the world for driving cars fast had been destroyed by a highway.
Breedlove's fallback place was the Black Rock Desert, a huge dry lake bed in northwestern Nevada, two hundred miles to the west. But he couldn't go there. Not yet, and maybe not at all. A group of five environmental groups had obtained a stay against use of the playa for landspeed racing, and though Breedlove's team had an appeal in, it might take so long to come up for a hearing that the weather would break first, early winter rains turning the hardpacked surface to viscous mud.
Breedlove was grounded. As, for the time being, was I. After the long drive in from Seattle, I wasn't going to leave until I'd seen the car run, if only in practice. I drove back off the salt and checked into a motel in Wendover.
There are two Wendovers, one either side of the state line. The two exist separately in time as well as space, since the state line divides the Pacific Time zone from the Mountain one. I chose to go Mountain on the Utah side, away from the constant pinging of fruit machines in Nevada. But a town divided by both political and temporal geography is inevitably a strange place.
Somewhere around one in the morning, two people ran through the courtyard, feet loud in the nighttime silence. "You fucker, I'll kill you," yelled one of them. He sounded like he meant it. The other said nothing, just kept on running. I heard their panting as they ran past my window, and listened as both gasps and footfalls faded into the night.
Early the next morning, a large paunchy man in his fifties was casting a fishing line over the courtyard swimming pool. He wore a white shirt, business pants, sunglasses, and polished black dress shoes. A can of Coke stood on the concrete beside him. The pool had been drained, and was covered with a blue tarp.
I grabbed some coffee and made for the truck. It looked like it was trying to become a salt sculpture. The stuff was hanging off the fenders in huge gobs, as though I'd spent the day before driving through a Detroit snowstorm. I could practically see the metal corroding before my eyes. Breedlove would have to wait: I headed for the one car wash in town.
It was one of those do-it-yourself kinds where you insert quarters and get measured amounts of soap and water. The kind where you end up washing yourself as thoroughly as the car. It had been some time since I'd last used one, so I made for the instruction sheet on the wall, but half of it had been torn away, and the surviving half was illegible under a layer of graffiti. I asked other drivers there for help, and discovered that I was the only one who spoke English. These were the cleaners and sweepers, maintenance men and kitchen help. They were the night workers, the Mexican immigrants without whom the casinos and motels would grind to a halt. "Sorree," they said sweetly, and used mime to help me figure out the machinery.
The salt clearly loved the underside of the truck. It had adhered and accumulated in more nooks and crannies than I'd thought existed. No matter how hard a spray I used, it would not wash off Each time I thought I was done, I'd check and find the stuff drying into whiteness again. In frustration I kicked at one of the fenders, and a chunk of salt the size of a cinder block fell to the concrete from somewhere deep under the chassis.
I got down on the concrete, slid under, and took a closer look. Thick salt caked the rubber boots over the joints, the brake lines, the spirals of the MacPherson struts in the wheel wells, the electrical lines inside the bumpers. Oh God, and it wasn't even my car. I began to gouge out great lumps. They fell in my hair and on my face and all around me on the concrete.
An hour and a half later, I was nearly as salt-caked as the truck had been, but at least one of us was clean. I stopped back to the motel to shower and change. The business-clad fisherman was still there, casting his line onto the tarp-covered pool. As before, he seemed neither happy nor unhappy. Just utterly impassive. I shrugged, and headed on out to the salt.
The Spirit of America was out of the tent, and lined up at the beginning of the marked course. A tight knot of people had gathered around it, antlike figures against the flat whiteness. Breedlove was going to make a run.
"Come on," someone said. "Let's drive on out and watch."
"Stay at least three hundred yards away from the course," yelled the crew chief.
"Sure, no problem."
Seven of us piled into one of the team's Chevy Blazers -- I wasn't going to volunteer the Expedition and spend another hour and a half cleaning it -- and went trundling three miles up the sea-rippled salt. The driver came to a halt right on the edge of the course. Another half-dozen vehicles followed, and pulled up nearby. Nobody said anything about being too close. The crew pulled out walkie-talkies, someone else pulled out an assortment of Cokes and Seven-Ups, and everyone leaned against the vehicles and chatted with studied casualness as the minutes ticked by.
"He's going to hold this one down to three hundred. Just a little practice run."
"But if it feels good, he'll take it higher."
"That what he said?"
"That's what the man said."
"Think he'll make four hundred?"
"Could do, easy."
"He does four hundred today, he could do five hundred tomorrow, be ready to go for the record the day after."
"Yeah, everything goes okay, why not?"
"Wonder what's holding them up."
"Checking that parachute canister again."
"Nah, it's fine. He'll come when he's good and ready."
"That's what it's like, land-speed racing: hurry up and wait."
"And then, vroom!"
We hurried up and waited a good half-hour until a tinny "We're off!" came over the walkie-talkies. Coke and Seven-Up spilled on the salt. We clambered onto the vehicles -- roofs, running boards, door sills, trunk lids, anything to gain a bit of height. Some peered through binoculars, others squinted into the white.
"There, that cloud."
And then in the far distance, you could see it. No wonder it had been so hard to spot at first: the sleek white Spirit of America was now oddly black against the salt, its shape distorted into a bubble. Its size was doubled by its reflection in the shimmering white, and doubled again by the vibration of movement. Strangest of all, there was no sound.
"It's not moving."
"Sure it is. It's still a long way away."
And then it went zooming right past us. One moment it was in the distance to the south; the next, it was gone to the north. We didn't even hear it so much as feel it, the vibration drumming through the air, the familiar roar of a jet engine on its take-off roll, and then...Bap. Gone. Silence and stillness again.
"Eyeballing it, I'd say that was well over three hundred," one man said.
"Damn close to four," said another.
I wondered how they'd managed to eyeball anything at all. My own eyeballs had seen a sleek white tube emerge from the black bubble, hang in the air before me for the most minutely split second, then dissolve back into a black bubble. It occurred to me that it made no difference if Breedlove was going three, four, or seven hundred miles an hour. If you were watching, all you could register was the fact of speed. There was nothing more to see.
"Oh my God," someone said.
The black bubble had veered to the left, off the polished surface of the course and into the rough salt. Something was tumbling along behind it, pulling it askew. With excruciating slowness, that something began to expand: the parachute, only half deployed. The bubble skewed around ninety degrees, spraying salt high into the air, and stopped.
We stood frozen, like Lot's wife turned to salt. Nobody said a word. Then the canopy on the driver's compartment edged upward into the thin blue air, and that one small, distant movement broke the spell. We scrambled for the nearest vehicles and went racing up the course.
Breedlove was out of the car by the time we got there. "Parachute malfunction," he muttered. "Get the spare one in, and we'll make another run this afternoon."
He seemed oblivious to the fact that the car was as caked with salt as my truck had been. The stuff was packed tight into the air intakes, under the fenders, everywhere you could see. I knew how much there had to be everywhere you couldn't see. And how hard it would be to get off. There'd be no second run that day.
In the evening I sat by my motel-room window and watched the man in the white shirt and black pants casting his line. There was still a can of Coke beside him. I wondered if it was the same one.
From what I'd seen, Breedlove's supersonic goal looked like a fool's quest. Sure he'd be a hero if he succeeded, but he'd be a desperate loner if he failed. And probably a dead one too. Put that way, he stood square in a long line of American romantics, taking things to the extreme. So what if breaking the sound barrier on land was essentially meaningless? When he climbed into the cab of the Spirit of America, he was climbing into his one chance of a place in history.
He'd known fame. The taste of it still lingered on his tongue. The records he'd set when he was in his twenties had changed his life, just as he'd planned. He'd been an international hero, "the fastest man on earth." Yet each time, his record had quickly been broken. The publicity, the respect, the awe in people's eyes when they met him -- all gone in a flash of someone else's metal over the salt.
But going supersonic would be his forever. Records could be broken, but nobody else could ever claim to be the one to break the sound barrier on land. This time, the respect and the awe would last. That would be his revenge. Because in his mind, Breedlove was David against Goliath, the little man against all the experts who said it couldn't be done, all the cynics who mocked him.
He had even found his own personal Goliath in the form of Richard Noble, the
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