“I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.”-Andy Bernard, The Office
There are things that you dread in life. Someone calling to give you the bad news about a family member. Getting let go from your job. The last time you get to hug your pet. All of those things are easy to envision. They’re easy to dread. They’re easy to have nightmares about.
But some things don’t become a dread until after they happen. So many things in life are impermanent and you can’t help but dread the end of them. My Mercury Mariner? I never once worried about its death until I was there to hear its wounded, gasping engine heave to a halt for the last time.
The Mariner, or “The Shitbox” as I lovingly called it, has been a part of my life ever since my parents purchased it for themselves back in 2014. At the time, it was right in that used car vintage, an ’09 model that had already been discontinued long before the time they purchased it. This thing was instantly easy to hate. It was painted the stupidest shade of powder blue and despite having a big, boxy SUV shape it had virtually no legroom, no cargo space, and a 4-cylinder engine that sounded like a dying lawnmower every time it tried to accelerate over a slight rise in the ground. In high school, I unthinkingly chose a literal Dodge Grand Caravan over the Mariner. In car terms, that’s gotta be like getting stood up at prom for the dude who eats his own fingernails. It’s a wonder that the Mariner didn’t fall apart from embarrassment during those years.
My parents got sick of its charms, such as they were, long before they could potentially rid themselves of it. Or at least, before they could potentially rid the family of it. Because in 2016, I travelled off to Oklahoma from Michigan (towing all of my belongings in the back of the Mariner) to begin my college years at OU. My parents insisted that I spend my freshmen year without a car just like Taylor had. I walked a *lot* as a freshmen between the Weather Center and main campus. As great an experience as it was being the carless college student (really, it was. I wouldn’t trade that for anything), the situation was untenable when I moved into an apartment as a sophomore. So I needed a car. The decision was easy for my parents, no doubt. They could unload the Mariner on me, pray it got me through my undergrad years, and never have to see it again.
In June 2017, my dad and I took an epic one-day trip from Kentwood to Norman. At the time, I was obsessed with visiting new counties, so we took a “no interstate” route; US-421 in Indiana down to US-24, westward across Illinois to meet Us-34 near Peoria, a quick stop in Burlington, Iowa to drive the famous Snake Alley, across the southern tier of Iowa to the southern suburbs of Omaha, southward on US-75 through the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas, and finally to meet up with I-44 in Tulsa well after dark. The whole trip took like 20 hours, and Rich nearly fell asleep at the wheel driving I-35 in Moore, but we made it to my apartment. He flew back a few days later, and the Mariner was mine.
It only took a few weeks before I christened the Mariner on its first storm chase on June 30, 2017 near the Wichita Mountains with Elizabeth. Famously, this was Elizabeth’s first and last time navigating during a storm chase, which ended when a giant hailstone shattered directly in front of my car as she debated whether to turn left or right at an intersection.
The Mariner became a staple of my life for the rest of my time in college. I didn’t take it storm chasing much anymore with Elizabeth, after a fateful argument between us on May 2, 2018 on a gravel road in the direct path of a tornado. But it could always be counted on get me to the NWC. It could always be counted on to scald my butt when I got back in the car on a summer afternoon if I hadn’t been careful to park under a tree. It was surprisingly durable on road trips, too – Dallas several times, Tulsa several times, New Orleans for a cruise, all trips we made with narry a car problem.
It would be a lie to say that there was never an issue with the Mariner. After I’d had it in Norman for a year, I took the car to get the oil changed at Jiffy Lube and then took Elizabeth out to dinner that night. On the way back on I-35, the engine started sputtering. I had just enough time to get it off the Interstate and into a thrift store parking lot before the engine cut entirely. Poor 20-year-old Nolan did the best he could to figure out what to do, using AAA to get it towed to the nearest mechanic.
I fretted that maybe something was seriously wrong for a day until I heard what had happened. The Jiffy Lube oil changer had pulled my air filter out to show to me, and then had put a hole in the filter when he put it back in place. A fly managed to get sucked through the hole and land exactly on the fuel oxygen tube, blocking the flow of oxygen into the fuel. The fix was literally as simple as taking the bug off, putting a new filter in, and learning how to be a Karen on the phone with Jiffy Lube corporate.
That wasn’t the only issue I ever had with the car – some other things popped up from time to time. In 2019 while I was living in Louisiana, I got a slow leak in the right front tire that persisted even after changing all of the tires. When it occurred again in Oklahoma, I ran the car into Discount Tire, who said the entire wheel needed to be replaced. Would I want to replace all four wheels so they matched? As a broke college student, no the hell I wouldn’t like to do that. So for the rest of its life, the Mariner had one mismatching wheel that stuck out slightly compared to the other three. I mentally added it into the charm that I had long since concluded existed within this quirky vehicle.
The miles and the memories piled up inside the Mariner. There was the time Elizabeth and I took it to Kentwood early during the covid pandemic to surprise my parents for spring break. There was the incredibly ill-advised decision to try out its stupid-ass front wheel drive against the worst unpaved roads Cimarron County has to offer when we camped all the way out at Black Mesa State Park. There were tornadoes (never with Elizabeth in the car) for the Mariner to bag near Burkburnett, Texas, and Clinton, Oklahoma. There was the time returning from a storm chase in Pampa, Texas, when I got pulled over for going 45 in a 40 and was forced to endure lies from Pampa PD about how my “license was suspended”. I could go on and on. In a way, the Shitbox was sort of like a chaperone for the greatest years of my life.
So much has been changing in life ever since that day that Tom Hanks and Rudy Gobert came down with covid in March 2020. Elizabeth and I went into that day as kids who had no idea what they were going to do with their lives. Now, in 2022, I’m a National Weather Service Meteorologist who rents a house and has a dog and a wedding to plan. In a world where change has been constant, the only true constant was the Mariner. I knew it wasn’t going to last forever, but shit, it looked like it would last as long as I needed. Its miles had crawled up over the years. By early this fall, it sat at 163,000 (I remember being excited back in 2018 when it hit 111,111). I can’t claim to have been a good steward of the interior, which was matted with everything from old sunflower seed shells to Scipio’s hair. I can’t really claim to have been a good steward of the exterior, either, which was constantly caked in dust or pollen and splashed with white paint I’d driven over at some point. Its gas mileage had crept down over the years – gone were the days where you could get 24 on the highway, and getting 300 miles out of a tank was usually cause for celebration. But those were minor details. This was the same old Shitbox that had always been there for me. I never questioned that it would get me through the next year or two of tight budgeting before I could say my final good-bye to it. That car would be with me through thick and thin.
The demise of the Mariner wasn’t gradual. It wasn’t degrading engine performance, or a coughing transmission that finally quit. I remain convinced that it still had several great years ahead, and no one will ever change my mind. But death, whether it comes of old age or blunt force trauma, comes for all of us. And the Mariner’s final act was noble. In dying of the latter, my car gave me a chance to live long enough to die of the former.
On Saturday, September 24, my parents were visiting in town. My mom had never been to an OU game and in our 7th (!) year in Norman, it was high time to change that. I got tickets up in the nosebleeds for the Kansas State game and they flew in late on Friday night. The summer 2022 heatwave was finally breaking down a bit in Oklahoma – highs were going to be in the upper 80s, but it was cloudy and even sprinkling, so the day was more than bearable. My dad and I had watched the first half of the Michigan/Maryland game (with some displeasure) before all four of us headed to Louie’s for the second half. Once it became clear Michigan was going to win, I was able to relax and enjoy the lunch with everyone else. The Louie’s southwest rice bowl is enough to put me in a good mood any day. So it wall-to-wall football on TV above the bars. After lunch, we headed over to the Wal-Mart on the I-35 service road to go get a t-shirt for my mom. Everything was tracking toward a good day.
I took the I-35 service road up to Robinson to cut back toward our house. At the light at 24th, a country song came on the radio that I liked. I don’t even remember what the song was, I just remember thinking “Oh yeah, I like this song”. We were cruising eastward in the middle lane a couple hundred yards past the intersection when life turned upside down in the span of a couple of seconds. A beige sedan on the other side of the road began swerving like they were fishtailing on ice. All of a sudden, they went onto three wheels and veered hard left directly into my path. Every single person has thought about how they’d be a hero when the moment came – how they’d thread the needle, or manage to bail up onto the sidewalk to make the miraculous escape. There was no time to be a hero. There was smoke and a skidding car no more than a few dozen meters in front of me. There was enough time to utter two words that have haunted me every time I close my eyes since then. “Oh, *shit*!” And then I was slamming the brakes and cranking the steering wheel hard to the right. That’s where the most space was away from the careening sedan, and instinctively I sought to get the car into that open space. All of this happened in the span of a second, and then the sedan was filling up the windshield. I had just enough time to realize there wasn’t going to be any appreciable stopping, and to think “No way this is happening to me”, and then the Mariner was bucking to a stop. There was a horrible crunching sound like a massive aluminum can. I’d just begun to turn my head and brace myself, and suddenly my head was thrusting forward and then snapping back, hard. The airbag exploded in my face. All of this happened in less than a second, and then the noise and the motion were all receding and then there was a stillness.
I knew I was stunned. How stunned? Was I hurt? The airbag was emitting a noxious-smelling smoke at me. I could see my dad’s airbag doing the same, off to the right. So many stupid observations went through my head in the first couple of seconds: that the airbag had popped like a piece of bubble wrap in front of me. Where were my glasses? How badly was I hurt, and was the adrenaline covering up my injuries? After a moment, I found my voice.
“Is everyone okay?”
Here was a moment I was really dreading. We’d just hit that car *hard*. Someone almost certainly was hurt, and I had no idea how we were going to deal with that. But miraculously, my mom and Elizabeth immediately replied that they were alright, and asked how Rich and I were. We looked at each other. No blood visible? Okay. It was still too much to process to feel relief, but the first thing was off the mental checklist. At least I subconsciously knew I didn’t need to panic. I realized that I still had my foot on the brake and the car in gear, so I put it in park (note: this was not necessary. The axel was snapped). Next up: where the hell were my glasses? Gravity left a likely candidate – at my feet. I pushed the airbag aside and fished around on the floor. Another minor miracle – they weren’t broken from impact with the airbag. They weren’t even bent. One more subconscious feeling of relief.
Okay, now that I was pretty sure everyone was going to live: what the fuck was that? Why had that car cut in front of me? I was stunned, but not too stunned to hear my mom and Elizabeth screech, “He’s driving away!” The car responsible for the wreck was apparently escaping, but I couldn’t turn my body enough to see what they were talking about, but Elizabeth filmed the sedan as it tried to limp westbound. I haven’t seen the video, but Elizabeth says it’s clear that they tried to get away before eventually limping to a halt behind us.
Next up – exit the car, if I could. This was not as easy as it sounded. The left side of the Mariner was clearly crunched. I could tell it even from the seat. A guy came running up from in front of me down the road. I vaguely recognized the look of panic on his face as he got there just in time to help me wrench the jacked-up door open. I staggered out of the car, which had begun to feel like a smoking, stinking coffin. Fresh air rushed into my nose as I stumbled onto the sidewalk. My dad had gotten out also, as had Elizabeth. My mom was still stuck inside my car, which was making some sort of foreign-sounding alarm ever since the collision. Which, my jangled wits now realized, was probably something I could turn off. I reached into the vehicle and turned the ignition, but the noise continued. In a true moment of inspired genius, I tried unlocking it next. Only third did I try disabling the car alarm. That worked. And, as it turned out, my mom’s door wasn’t welded shut, it had just been locked. Cut us a little slack.
Slowly my wits came back to me. I realized that I needed to establish that this wasn’t my fault. Don’t say anything that can be used against you later, get witnesses, figure out the next move. Get pictures everywhere you go. And above all, this is a crisis moment. Maintain your head.
Behind the wreckage of my car, a girl was sitting on the curb, screaming on the phone that she’d got in an accident with her kid with her. The kid had a nosebleed but I couldn’t see anything else wrong with him. She in fact appeared to have just lost her head. Slowly, with wonder, I looked around and realized that this end-of-the-world type wreck had actually resulted in zero injuries.
It was still the end of the world, at least for my Mariner. One glimpse at the damage told me everything I needed to know – she’d breathed her last.
There’s no coming back from that as a discontinued 13-year-old vehicle with 170,000 miles, especially when your axel is snapped. It was dead, ridden up the curb by the force of the collision and still smelling of smoke from the airbags. Sirens sounded in the summer air as my family continued to talk in disbelieving voices and eventually calm ourselves down. I called my siblings to let them know what had happened and to inform them that everybody was alright. In fact, nobody was even in any pain – although quickly that was becoming less true. I’d hit my left leg on the underside of the dashboard to the side of the steering wheel, and already a massive welt was developing on my leg. Plus, as the adrenaline wore off, my neck was starting to get really sore. People kept asking if I was alright, which was kind of annoying to be honest.
The next half hour was some hellish blurred-by purgatory. Everyone had words for me – the police officer who wanted us off the road as fast as possible to get gameday traffic flowing again; the guy who helped wrench the driver’s door open who wanted to tell me he thought he was going to be pulling a body out of the car; the girl who’d had the kid, who apparently was the cause of the whole wreck and wanted me to know she’d been cut off and that was why she swerved and was very sorry. I remembered my training and only responded inasmuch as to tell her I was glad no one was hurt. She was obviously still panicking and that didn’t seem to help. The cop let me know why she was panicking, too – she’d been driving without her license. It was cut-and-dried between that and the witnesses. No fault was getting attached to me.
Eventually, Elizabeth got in contact with Sam and asked him to come pick the four of us up. He got there just as the tow truck had winched my car into the back and was getting ready to take it away. When I showed Sam the damage, it really sunk in how lucky this had been. If I hadn’t reacted in the “oh, shit” moment, we were going to collide with her head on at 40 mph apiece. No guarantees any or all of us come out of that in one piece. If I’d begun my turn a fraction earlier, or hadn’t braked as hard, I was getting t-boned right in the door. That’d be a guarantee, alright – a guarantee that my remains would be gooshed all over the front of the car. If I turned harder, we would have rolled over the curb. In every element, this crash needed to be perfect, and somehow I’d gotten lucky to react just enough without reacting too much just early enough without being too early. Make no mistake, there was no skill. It was pure luck.
Sam brought the four of us home. My dad was already on the phone with insurance, beginning a hellish week for the two of us of calling the police department, insurance, car dealerships, credit unions for loan preapprovals, and new insurance agents. I’ve also worked 64 hours this week at work. I need the overtime. The new car and its insurance cost more than I could dream of paying. And all of the work and car-buying stress and the billions of things on my mind have kept me from thinking too much about what could have been. Fortunately, the accident doesn’t seem to have affected my confidence behind the wheel. But at night, when I try to go to sleep, I hear “Oh, *shit*” and then the giant aluminum can crunching again. And it is a long time before my sore neck and I get to sleep.
The loss that hurts the most in all of this isn’t my confidence or the car, it’s the money. That’s just the blunt truth, and anything else would be some wanna-be-poetic bullshit. But what’s going to be the thing I miss the most down the road? I bet it’s not the car payments that honestly were going to be coming anyway. No, I bet it’s the friend that will never be returning, the Mariner. That beautiful, terrible, ugly, horribly-conceived, beautifully-designed piece of absolute junk. The Shitbox. My car.
When I got to the Weather Center today for work, I walked up the stairs slowly toward the NWS office. It had been a long week, and I was already 7 hours into a 16-hour shift. That fatigue is probably what caused me to make it all the way inside before I realized I didn’t have my lunchbox. Now I had to trudge all the way back out to the back half of the parking lot to find the tree I was parked under. Where was the damn car? I wandered aimlessly for a full 30 seconds before I realized – I was looking for a powder-blue Mercury Mariner that no longer existed. There, sitting right where I remembered it being, was a dark blue Honda CRV. It gets far better few mileage, is a far less ugly color, and has far fewer miles on its engine. In pretty much every way, it’s an upgrade over the Shitbox.
I unlocked the door, grabbed my lunchbox and sighed. This was going to take some getting used to.