Driving a political statement

Essay by Ed Quillen

Mountain Life – May 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

YOU’D THINK I was showing off the blueprints for a 6,000-square-foot trophy house constructed from old-growth redwood and built on a ridge-line wilderness in-holding parcel that I’d bought with money made from clear-cutting a tropical rain forest.

But I hadn’t even found a day job, let alone joined the NRA or filed a takings lawsuit. I hadn’t threatened any endangered species or diverted any rivers. All I did was buy a used car to replace one that had expired.

However, the used vehicle I acquired was a 1991 Chevrolet Blazer. I thought I was buying a way to get from here to there for business and pleasure, but when you buy a vehicle these days, it’s a political statement, even if you don’t attach any bumper stickers.

Aside from a way to get to the store during those intervals when our progressive city government is relying on solar power to clear the streets after a blizzard, the Chevy Blazer is a Sport Utility Vehicle.

That’s a mouthful, and people keep trying to come up with a more convenient term, like S.U.V., or Sport-Ute — my favorite is Spewt. And even though I drove it only 6,000 miles last year, I like my Spewt. It’s fairly comfortable, it gets tolerable gas mileage, and it hauls furniture and fenceposts when necessary. My Spewt is pretty good on the back roads, although it did inspire an unplanned 10-mile hike after I stuck it the mud last summer.

And boy, can it inspire commentary from well-meaning friends.

First, they tell me that the vast majority of Spewt buyers drive almost entirely on paved streets in the suburbs — to and from soccer practice, school, shopping malls and the like, rather than on the rock-strewn deep-mud back roads where one really needs four-wheel-drive.

Which is a good thing — as far as I’m concerned, the fewer people on my back roads, the better. By telling these suburbanites that they’re wasting their Spewts unless they routinely venture up a decayed pack-burro route, we’re encouraging them to put their Spewts to full use — and that’s the last thing any sensible rural resident wants.

The Spewt critics should shut up about this, unless they really believe that crowding the back-country is a good idea.

Of course, if you do use your Spewt on the back roads, then you get criticized for your failure to meet modern green recreational purity standards.

Look, I don’t drive in places where vehicles are forbidden. I don’t pour oil in the creek, or put new ruts across pristine meadows. My muffler works, and I’m not in any hurry — the idea is to savor the landscape, not race across it.

Doubtless this causes some environmental degradation. But the last time I checked, so do llamas, mountain bikes and back-packers. We all need to be quiet and careful.

Then comes the heavy artillery. Spewts “have taller, less aerodynamic passenger compartments than cars,” according to one anti-Spewt screed, which is “a peculiar remnant of the days when men wore hats.”

And just when was it that men quit wearing hats?

BECAUSE SPEWTS are larger and heavier, they get worse gas mileage. And I freely confess that at least 90 percent of my driving doesn’t need the Spewt’s special capabilities. In an ideal world, perhaps, I’d own enough vehicles to use the ideal one for each task — a compact station wagon for trips to the supermarket, a five-ton dump truck for cleaning the yard, a pickup for fixing the fence at the rental house, etc.

But I can’t afford that many cars, and even if I could, wouldn’t that consume resources on a truly extravagant scale? My Spewt is a compromise that meets most of my transportation needs, even if it doesn’t get 40 miles to the gallon.

This criticism often comes from people who commute 60 miles a day, and sometimes, after I explain that I work at home and drive only 6,000 miles a year, they find something else to carp about.

But sometimes they don’t. Instead, they expand to explain how my gasoline combustion (theirs apparently doesn’t count) contributes to global warming, which could cause the ocean to rise by as much as 200 feet.

So I’m supposed to worry if I’m at a mere 6,834 feet above sea level, rather than 7,034? And I’m supposed to think that global warming is a threat when it was 14 below zero one morning when I walked to the post office?

As I said, I just needed some transportation and the Spewt seemed like a reasonable compromise. I wasn’t trying to make a political statement.

That’s what Volvos are for, right?

Ed Quillen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). He is also the publisher of this magazine.