Sunday, March 1, 2015

20k Miles, 8 months and my 2015 Toyota Corolla; A Short Story

A short story about when a car is more than just a car, how it makes my 86 year old grandmother smile when she needs it the most, and a thank you to the Toyota family.


It’s been quite a while since I’ve written anything, and the things I have written have been emotionally-driven, to say the least.

This is no different. So why now? Why pick my car as the next topic? Simple. This car has given me super powers; the ability to make the life of somebody I care about just a little bit better; my 86 year old grandmother.

Maybe, just maybe, it will explain why people have emotional attachments to their cars, and why, for us, they are more than just cars.

I know what you’re thinking….and the answer is No, I did not get paid for this.

I’m glad we got that out of the way, but if you want to think that, go for it.

I live exactly 1009 miles door-to-door from her, Denver to Chicago (Cicero, IL to be exact), where I had to move away from in March of 2014 for my job because life just throws curve balls at you sometimes. I drive there once a month with my wife, leaving Thursday night and driving back Sunday.

Yup. We take a 2000 mile road trip once a month to spend roughly 44 hours or so there, mostly to help my grandmother, just to drive back to Denver in one big 13-14 hour swoop.

Why not fly? Well, it was either $500 a month for me to fly there for a 3 days (round trip tickets and a rental car) or use that money for a new car, insurance, fuel, hotel and food and the ability to bring someone with as an added bonus. That part is free, and definitely more fun.

I’ve spent the last 6 years of my life working on my last car, almost every other weekend, literally, just to keep it running enough to get me from point A to B. My 230k mile vehicle (which shall remain anonymous) had enough (and no, it was not a Toyota, because I would have never been stranded as many times as I was had I had one).

Don’t worry. We are getting to the life-changing part. I promise.

As much as I love cars, after years of what seems like endless weekends of maintenance, I had enough. It was time for a reliable car, one I knew would always be there for me when I needed it the most, one I have always wanted. I had previously owned a used ’93 Toyota 4-Runner SR5, new 2005 Scion xB and yes, indeed, a new 2014 Scion iQ, all of which not once I had a single problem with, so I knew what I wanted, and that time had come.

December 1st, 2014. Out with the old, in with the new. I had spent about $3k over the course of the last year or two in parts and repairs on my old vehicle, doing most of the work myself, so I had little-to-nothing left to spend on a new car, but I knew what I wanted, and I was determined to get it, somehow.
With a little help from a local AAA auto broker, I found my car, a brand new Classic Silver Metallic 2015 Toyota Corolla LE, .Car #20 for me, at 39 years old (told you I love cars), purchased from Groove Toyota, right outside of Denver (without a doubt, the best service department I have ever dealt with, period).
Yes…. Car #20 in 19 years, not to be confused with actually owning 20 cars. Only in my dreams!

Merry Christmas to me!

When I first opened the doors, I thought, “I hit the jackpot.”  Automatic climate control (which is THE best one I’ve used, hands down), 6.1” touch screen stereo (with all kinds of cool tech stuff for techie geeks like me) and one of the very few car seats to not give me back pain on long road trips (something my back has always been sensitive to, even though I have no back problems). The sound that comes out of this stereo is nothing short of amazing, and I’m a music guy and very picky about sound, especially in the studio and I’m telling ya’, that sound system is perfect, sounding better than most of my buddy’s upscale European and German imports (nothing against them).

Yes, I’m getting there. Be patient!

I had no money for a down payment, but Toyota has always been fair with me, and they came through for me again, because I had a history with them, and a good one at that.

Having very little money, Christmas approaching and a marriage happening in 2 ½ weeks, I signed the paperwork and drove away, feeling liberated knowing my days of working on cars were over. There’s a difference between working on a car for enjoyment, and working on it because if it doesn’t run the next morning, you can’t go to work. I do not miss those days at all. I do, however, still have a certain classic car from the 60’s, but that is in hibernation.

This is the nicest car I’ve ever owned. Little did I know it would also be the most important car I’ve ever owned.

If it wasn’t for my grandmother working her butt off to support her daughter, a single mom with her two kids (my sister and I) back when we were kids, I’m not sure where I would be right now or if I would have even had a place to call home, to give you the short version of the story.

Being away from her was hard enough without her being robbed by cowardess people pretending to be with “the water department” right in front of her own eyes in her own home, two months after I moved, taking all her money and my safe I had some irreplaceable items in. This was the unfortunate catalyst for her declining health and I knew I wanted to get back, but just couldn’t.

But, after buying my new Corolla, I finally had a way to go see her and help her anytime I wanted (which, by the way, the Corolla is absolutely amazing in the snow, handling better than some all-wheel-drive vehicles when that stability control instantly kicks in.

Well, that time in need came when she took a turn for the worst, couldn’t walk and had to be hospitalized for three weeks in March. She only had her son, my uncle, there for her, because we are all scattered about the country.

It was time to take the car on its first road trip, weather permitting or not.

Now, by March, only 4 months into me owning the car, people had already dented the rear fender, scratched the paint and left me lovely mementos of their car’s colors on various parts of my car, not to mention my cracked windshield from the debris thrown up on the roads here (I’m talking major rocks). Yes, sadly, the one valuable possession I had left in this world was unfortunately damaged by others, the windshield of which is still cracked, because again, sometimes life doesn’t allow you to have what you want, and it’s either use my money to go see Grandma, or use it to fix my windshield. It’s an obvious choice.

We hopped in the Corolla and took our first road trip together as a couple, and let me tell you, this is by far, my favorite car I’ve ever owned for road trips. Not only is it comfortable, but the cruise control is amazingly accurate. I love this car, seriously. I set the temp on the climate controls, and it stays that temperature for hours, without even having to glance at it.

We left after work one day, stayed in Omaha (our routine) and continued the next morning, averaging 75 to 80mph and getting 37mpg (which is what we get with the AC ON almost the entire time), and at that speed, getting that mileage, is nothing short of amazing in my mind. We average 34 on the way back, AC on, going uphill towards Denver, into the wind, which in my mind, again, is pretty darn amazing.

Anyway (you can tell I love my car), we arrived in Chicago/Cicero to see my grandmother, and it lit her up. She had a huge smile on her face. We went to visit her in the hospital each of the three days we were there (it’s all the time we could get off), took care of some bills, cleaned up the house a bit and made her smile.

The Corolla made this possible, and still does.

Now, you may think, OK, so what? I can drive my car across the country as well.

Well, this car is being driven almost 3000 miles a month and not even a whimper of a hiccup with any part of the car. It’s a champ on the highway and in the nastiest of rain storms. It is our daily driver to get us both to work and back during the week, and at least 150 miles up and down twisty-turny, sometimes steep mountain roads on the weekends (and it corners like a sports car) without hesitation. That’s why I choose a Corolla, because I know they last forever, and this one sure seems like it will be one of them.

Anyway, as my grandmother got better and went home, we make it a monthly thing to drive there to take care of her bills, grocery shopping and do whatever else we can to help when the rest of the family can’t. Some people fly to weekend getaways, go to resorts and so forth, but for us, we can’t wait to hop in the car on our next road trip. It’s literally the highlight of our month. We do not take it for granted, not one second.

Not only does it help my grandmother get through her days, anxiously awaiting the next time we come, usually in 3 ½ weeks after we leave, but getting on the open road with this car is effortless, and having to stop only twice for gas is awesome. We drive for hours, maybe 5 or 6, before we even have to think about gas. We don’t even turn on the greatness that is the stereo. There’s something to be said about the therapeutic value of the open road, the sounds, the feeling of security in bad weather, knowing that your car can get you through anything, and it certainly has.

Set the cruise and climate controls, sit back and steer.  For that bit of time we are on that road, we find our happy place amongst life’s curve balls, the biggest one of which is not being there for my grandmother on a daily basis or when she needs something. She is a strong woman and for now, can take care of herself, but with much effort and pain, unfortunately.

This car is taking a beating, I won’t deny it, but it refuses to even give a tiny whimper complaining about it. For those 3 ½ days, we basically live in this car, our home away from home, and a great home it is.

There’s a deeper story here. My car has given me the ability to spend more time with my grandmother in a time where she could really use the smiles seeing her favorite person in the world, when everybody in the family seems to have stressful situations and can’t really be there for her too much. It’s becoming almost a lifeline for her until I can hopefully move back to Chicago for good (which will hopefully happen sooner than later).

It’s also a way for my wife and I, both who have had roller coaster relationships until now, become closer, being able to effortlessly escape to the mountains on the weekends, tackling those steep mountain roads like a champ.

My point? This is the first time in my life where my car isn’t just a car. It’s a lifeline, a solution to a problem, a tool used to relax, a vacation, a home away from home and most importantly, something used to bring some happiness and smiles to someone who needs it.

To me, that’s worth the 2000 mile, once-a-month round trip in 3 ½ days.

You have no idea how much stress has been lifted off my shoulders having a car that can handle anything I throw at it, considering the not-so-pleasant situations I’ve been involved with in my other vehicles.

I took the time to write this because I wanted Toyota and its engineers to know you made a difference in my life and my family’s life and there’s nothing I can do to repay that other than writing this for you. I don’t have to worry about being stranded again, or figuring out how I can get back to Chicago when I have little money to spare, or if that day the temps drop to zero I’ll be laying under my car trying to figure out what’s wrong with it or if I’ll even have the money to fix it. I don’t have to do that anymore. I don’t have that stress I had of what might happen the next day, or driving at 11 PM at night wondering if my car will make it to the hotel. I don’t have that because I drive a car that I never have to worry about those things with.

And most importantly, I don’t have to worry if or how I’ll be able to get back home to Chicago when my grandmother or uncle needs someone, or my mom in Wisconsin, or my sister in Orlando, because I know all I have to do is unlock that door, sit in that seat, turn the key and drive, and to me, that’s priceless, coming from someone who has lived a life of stress and finally found peace, this is the one and only valuable possession I have, my Corolla, and if that sounds cheesy, and I’ll be the first one to take a slice of said cheese.

Bruised and battered, windshield cracked, dent still..dented, slightly hail-damaged (yes, already, unfortunately), colorful front bumper-stained collage of insects who met their unfortunate demise in the thousands of miles of roads traversed,  and the miracle that was a thick nail which somehow tagged along in one of my tires during the entire last 1000 mile drive to Chicago before meeting its ultimate demise by my pliers (and sad early retirement of a tire), my Corolla is still driving like the day I drove it off the lot, taking its bruises with pride and dignity and not once complaining about it.

I can’t fly to Chicago whenever I’m needed because I simply can’t afford it, and if it wasn’t for this car, I wouldn’t even be able to go there, but now I can, and until I move back (hopefully soon, if some amazing miracle happens), I can drive my Corolla the 2000 miles a month it takes to go put a smile on someone’s face who sacrificed everything in her life to give us a home, and now it’s time to return the favor, which is a small price to pay.

Whoever you are who designed my car, you changed my life and made it a little better for someone who may not have much time left in this world, and for that, there are no words to thank you properly, so I wrote this to tell you, Thank You, because without my Corolla, being able to handle what I throw at it, the stress it has removed from my life and ability to drive 14 hours straight in comfort and peace, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do for my family.

Like I said, when a car is more than just a car……. because it sure is much more to me.

20,000 miles in 8 months?  Pfft. That’s nothing. This is only the beginning of this story.