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Grandma Speed

Can drive 55

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's the government-owned Pemex stations with fixed pricing. There's the lack of lights on the highway. There's the dreaded topes--speed bumps--that'll take off your fender if you're not careful.

Specific to Baja, though, is the "no shoulder phenomenon," which, should your car choose to leave the relative safety of the pock-marked pavement, spells instant car abandonment. Evidence of such NSP events litter the countryside: rusted remains of cars that strayed and couldn't make it back to the road lie 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 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 mph 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 of it. Everything immediately smelled like hot oil--and I'm not talking fries. I just stopped in the middle of the road (remember the NSP) 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, it turns out 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 actually happen?)

It was a close call, and 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, to keep up with the flow of traffic and, of course, to get there faster. It's no great surprise, then, that when it was time to cross back over, I found myself resisting going over 60 mph, though the speed limit was 65.

But soon, my slow driving developed into a critical matter. You see, we were powering our car on homebrewed 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 like it was 1975 during the OPEC oil embargo. Bill even ventured into the 45 to 50 region of things, 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.

E-mail Rev at [email protected]

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From the January 11-17, 2006 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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