Somewhere west of Ogallala, rocketing across the plains at ninety-six in a sixty-nine Plymouth Fury, a twangy voice lectured us with the old song: “love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage.” My two female traveling companions and I exchanged glances, laughed and sang along. “…you can’t have one without the other.” In that precious moment, everything crystallized: what it meant to be nineteen in 1972, free as a bird, barreling down the freeway in a powerful American sedan.
We were headed for the Rockies, retracing the annual eight hundred mile pilgrimage my family and I made there in the early sixties. This time I was literally and figuratively behind the wheel, re-writing the script.
Back in the day, the Niedermeyer family would stop at church to pray for a safe trip before all six of us squeezed into our barely mid-sized ’62 Fairlane penalty-box. God drove a hard bargain for our safe-keeping: two seemingly endless days spent sweating on the CIA-interrogation approved clear plastic seat covers, second-guessing our pilot’s passing skills.
Papa drove like the stereotypical newly-minted immigrant driver. His tentativeness trying to pass trucks on the crowded two-lane highways taught us what we couldn’t articulate: decisiveness (and good judgment) inspires confidence; hesitation… doesn’t. The tension in the Ford was thicker than the greasy truck-stop steaks we admired from afar. After a particularly hair-raising episode my older sister refused to return to her seat after a stop at a roadside gas station. Thankfully, daily hikes in the Rockies relieved our accumulated stress (and restored regularity).
So there I was, stretched out behind the wheel of a “fuselage body” 1969 Fury with my companions of choice (not fate). We were cruising down the interstate’s smooth, barely-cured concrete without a care in the world.
Back then, Chrysler’s barges weren’t quite as plush-riding as GM and Ford’s. But their unibody construction made them the lightest of the three. And Chrysler’s superb Torqueflite transmission put Mopar muscle to the wheels. With the popular 383 V8, the zero to sixty sprint required just 7.5 seconds. Even today, that’s not bad for a comfortable family sedan.
Little did I know that smog controls were about to emasculate this singular breed, the American barge, as OPEC gave Detroit’s carmakers an identity crisis that continues to this very day.
Anyway, the Fury, dubbed “Ply-mouth,” belonged to the two sisters’ Mom. She’d bought the car for its ability to pull a horse trailer down Iowa’s rural roads. But on that magnificent day, the Chrysler was paying service to a higher calling than equine transport: sheer balls-out speed.
It’s not like I’d set out to challenge Cannonball Baker. But once we hit I-80 on that glowing summer morning, the Ply-mouth just wanted to run, just like the well-bred horses it usually hauled. Traffic was sparse back then; cops were jawboning with the farmers over their fourth cup of dishwashing-water at the local cafe, and the purple mountain majesties beckoned us.
As the big V8 cleared the gravel-road dust from its lungs, our speed crept up. I swear, there was no holding that Fury back. In what seemed like a flash, we’d traversed Iowa and crossed the Missouri. The next thing I knew were barreling across Nebraska at somewhere between 90 mph and the ton.
It was so effortless and relaxed we might as well have been sprawled on (and across) the living room couch. The endlessly-wide bench seats became chaise lounges. Bare feet were everywhere: on the dash, across a lap, out the window. Seat belts? The restraints had atrophied from neglect.
In another break from the past, we gave greasy spoons a wide berth. We’d packed an ample supply of organic produce from their Mom’s garden, some home-baked bread, excellent cheese and iced mint tea. We only stopped for gas, which, at our Furious clip, was a regular occurrence. Even though gas was ridiculously cheap (just thirty-five cents a gallon), our meager gas budget took a big hit.
It was money well spent. By mid-afternoon, we were already well into the mountains. Having forded a stream, we made camp and slept under the dazzling stars, the smell of pine and sage intoxicating our nostrils.
I had driven fast before, but only in short bursts. Our dash through the heartland was my initiation into the joys of sustained speed. I was eight (hundred) miles high.
Truth to tell, I’ve been hooked ever since. But I’ll never recreate the magic mix of ingredients that day, which etched those glorious moments into the depths of my memory.
Within a year or so, the energy crisis hit, and we were driving fifty-five. The Ply-mouth soon gave way to a weak-chested if practical Corolla. And in just a few more years, we all heeded the song “love and marriage…”