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Open road: The class is in the car

I loved my trusty-old Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight -- that rusty and glorious pile of flaming excrement. But there comes a day in every car's life when you decide between pumping more money into a potentially dead-end cause, and recognizing the end of the road for what it is.

I was faced with such a decision two weeks ago, when I took my Eighty-Eight into the mechanic. He spent 20 minutes on it, then called me to explain what an idiot I am to not notice I was driving a death trap. The metal of my right brake disc was shaved to the nubbins, which explained some of my trouble, and the power steering was shot. All fixed for $1,400.

"Or," the mechanic continued. "Or, you can have the car sitting in my back lot. It's a little rusty in spots and small but it runs like a top."

I bought the car immediately, a '95 Olds Achieva for $600. The mechanic was not about to let my old one go anywhere.

The next day I had an assignment to visit a farm for a story on the local 4-H Club, very far from the newspaper office where I spend my summer.

I headed down the highway with life in my soul and my radio spewing mad tunes into the countryside. There's nothing like getting paid for a road trip, gas and everything.

I passed by many cars bigger and newer than my own. Soccer moms looked down from their SUVs with scorn, secretly vowing to do better for their children; retired wealthy fathers stared down from shimmering Hummers at the rust on my door, lamenting that there are not separate roads for rich and for poor. I just laughed.

I laughed in pity at anyone who would rest high on four wheels of fortune, and not feel every rock and bump beneath them. I have driven my father's Suburban on rare occasion, like some sort of smug teenage bourgeoisie, and I really prefer my own car. It always made me sad to see all the smaller vehicles yield to mine, as if aware of their lowly position on the hierarchy of the road. I suppose some people may get off to that feeling, but it always made me sad.

In my Achieva, I am on equal level with the salt of the earth, the people who can drive only small, rusty cars that are not big-wheeled and smooth but ride like a seizure. It is an altogether new and refreshing view of the road, and the people that travel it. For these are my friends.

Poor single mothers peer out of their shaking hatchbacks and smile, they have sympathy in me; college kids grin out of hazy old Grand Marquis, I understand; 90-year-old grandmothers pass me in their Oldsmobile Eighty-Eights with wild looks in their eyes, I get out of their way.

On the way back, I started driving up and down farm roads: Sheep Street, Cow Avenue. They all looked the same to me. My directions had led me to my destination, but they were no use on the way back, now that my curiosity had led me far off the ordained path. I got scared.

But do you know what happened next, when the fear passed? I started to really dig being lost. I looked out the open window and truly took in the swaying farm scenery and reminded myself that I still had half a tank of gas and dark wouldn't fall for hours.

No one could get in touch with me, but they would just have to worry. I felt really free -- the total freedom of the open road -- as I hadn't felt before, when I knew where I was going and when I had to be there. I drove up and down lonesome gravel hills, half-steering my car in the general direction of where I thought home (for the office was long closed) might possibly be.

Somehow, I returned home that evening. But only after taking many roads aimless and lost in wonder, some more than once, and stumbling into the highway with a quarter tank of gas only by the sheer laws of chance.

I returned, but it was not the way I came.

Nathan Kitzmann is a senior at Detroit Lakes High School.