When Desiree Bailey first brought up the cross-country road trip, her children weren’t sure about the idea.
Colin is 16, beginning his junior year of high school. Kate is 13, beginning eighth grade.
And they were going to spend the waning days of their summer driving across America, stopping at historic sites, gazing out at scenic overlooks and — considering that their mom and her parents own San Marco Books and More — maybe checking out some bookstores?
Their mom explained that this wasn’t that kind of trip.
This trip was about the drive itself — about buying a 1966 Corvair in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and driving it back to Jacksonville, checking off a few more “states visited” along the way.
Desiree Bailey says she always has had a thing for old cars. She drives a 2011 Buick Enclave, but she has dreamed about owning something from the 1950s and early 1960s. Considering that she’s 42, this isn’t a classic example of someone pining to have their first car again. These are cars that are older than she is.
She’d go to car shows and look at them. She’d see one driving down the road and snap a picture. So when an uncle in Oregon who has always had lots of old cars mentioned that a friend was selling a Corvair — a vehicle Chevy made from 1960 to 1969 — she was intrigued.
The man had owned it since 1977. He bought it from his grandfather, who had bought it new in 1966 — in the window after the Corvair was redesigned following criticism of earlier models (most notably in consumer advocate Ralph Nader’s 1965 book “Unsafe at Any Speed”) and before sales plummeted enough that production stopped.
“It had basically been in a garage for 20 years,” Bailey said.
Her uncle said the exterior was in beautiful shape. She asked about what was under the shiny red body, including what was in the space where you’d expect to find a trunk — a lightweight, air-cooled, rear-mounted engine that made the car an immediate sensation when it debuted. Could a mechanic get the car ready for a drive back to Florida? Her uncle said he thought so.
So she and her two children flew to Oregon to visit family and then headed to Idaho. On a Tuesday morning, they began an adventure in Red Beauty (the name they gave the Corvair) with Martha (the name of their GPS) leading the way — well, when Martha had a cell signal.
It took eight days and included 14 states, about 3,000 miles, a couple of rides in tow trucks, a series of mechanics (one named Pope), a stop by a police officer (the one time they had the top down and the temporary tag obscured), torrential rain, a fuel pump going out in Missoula, brakes failing in Missouri, and countless people waving at the Corvair, honking and, when things went wrong, offering to help.
Colin, who just got his license two weeks before the trip, drove about two-thirds of the way.
His mother insists he’s a good driver and, by the end of the trip, also a decent mechanic.
As I followed their journey through her posts on Facebook, each day feeling like a rollercoaster ride, I wasn’t sure whether to think she’s the coolest mom, or the craziest one.
“I’ve got to say that even though it sounds like we’ve had major setbacks, for whatever reason they don’t bother me,” she wrote one day. “Each time we’ve had a challenge, we’ve met some really genuine and well-intentioned people. We’re learning more and more about the car. I’ve always got the option to rent a U-Haul and trailer the car back … but this trip is about so much more than that.”
She said it sounded cheesy, but she figured they were learning important life lessons along the way, solving problems, dealing with tension, having silly conversations and giggling themselves silly.
“I’m so blooming old-fashioned, maybe that’s why I’m driving a car from 1966,” she said.
At times, when they were close enough to cities, they listened to the radio. Other times, using a hookup with the cassette deck, they listened to music on their phones, with Kate sitting in the backseat, reading a book a day. But more often than not, they just quietly absorbed the passing scenery with all their senses.
“Smells,” Desiree wrote one day. “That’s what’s on my mind. Driving with the windows down lets every smell, good or bad, into the car. And we have no way of making them go away! We’ve smelled skunks, rotting animals, grass, crops, chemicals, cows, dung and pigs.”
Even the photos of their trip feel a little different than most road trips. They did see plenty of beautiful places. But their photos also include state signs, roadside oddities, selfies of them squished into a tow truck cab and moments of humor — including another car on a tow truck (“Look! It’s NOT us”).
The one photo that stuck with me is of the two kids. You can’t see either of their faces. They’re looking away from the camera, out the open windows at the setting sun and passing landscape. Colin is driving, his left hand on the wheel, his arm resting on the door. Right behind him, Kate is looking out her window at the same scene, her head resting on her hands.
When I look at that image, it hits me like a wistful moment in the movie “Boyhood.” I don’t know if they appreciated it as it was happening. But I’m sure they will someday.
Someday they will look at it and think about being a teenager, driving across America in Mom’s Corvair, the windows down, the evening air whipping around them, carrying the scents of the road, cooling the engine behind them, all of it making it easy not to worry too much about the past or the future.
Maybe they already do appreciate that and other moments in those eight days. At one point, Colin said, “Thank you, Mom. This is an adventure.”
When the adventure ended, they had mixed emotions as they resumed their daily routines, Desiree going back to work at the bookstore, the kids heading back to school with some good “What I Did This Summer” stories.
The other day Colin asked his mother if he could drive the Corvair to school.
She laughs when she recalls her response.
No. It was one thing for him drive the Red Beauty much of the way from Idaho to Florida. But into a parking lot with several hundred other teenage drivers? No way.