Some fans of this website might call it an econobox. Others, who obviously don’t know better, might even call it a “penalty box.” But to Aliza McKeigue, 25, the humble 2001 Toyota Corolla is a beloved companion. She refers to the car affectionately in the third person singular, feminine.
So when Aliza left Boston, Massachusetts in January 2015, for what she thought was going to be six months of WWOOFing in Hawaii (that awkward acronym stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), she left the car at the old family home with her father and brother. But she soon found herself wanting to stay indefinitely, and began considering her longer term transportation options. Among other things, she had started recycling stuff — collectable and otherwise — at a local market, a business that she calls Funky Finds. She needed a vehicle. The more she looked at local used cars, the more she wanted her Corolla.
Aliza, whose mother is a close friend of mine, has had the car since ’08. When her grandmother gave it to her, it had all of 45,000 miles on the clock, to the best of her memory. It now has 115,000. Much of the mileage was accumulated on the frequent trips between Arlington, Massachusetts — home — and New London, CT, where Aliza spent four years at Connecticut College.
The Corolla has been a major nexus of Aliza’s social life. She was the first among her friends to have wheels. Besides all the in-town miles, there were numerous trips to the family campground in Bridgton, Maine, trips to NYC, and a big trip to Washington, DC, via Philly and Baltimore. And at 18, she and three of her best friends drove the Corolla to Montreal, where they spent a week.
Then there was that memorable 228 mile round trip to New London, for a school theater production with her friend, Claire (who took some of the photos of the reunion).
“I started to hear something rattling and dragging,” says Aliza. She pulled off the highway, into a little commercial area. Aliza called her then-boyfriend, Nick, a mechanic, for advice. “He’s like, is there any way you can tie [the exhaust pipe] up?” she says. Claire suggested using a clothes hanger, and got one from a dry cleaner. “She’s looking on YouTube as to how to tie it up, and I’m on my back under the car,” says Aliza. “I was able to secure it, and we drove the rest of the way to New London like that, and then back to Boston. It reminded me of the resilience of the car.”
Unlike a lot of kids, Aliza has been relatively meticulous about car care. That was obvious from the list of “Corolla rules” which she kept in the glove box, and the fact that she’d had her three best friends sign off on them. These included: “when we exit the car, the front passenger is responsible for turning off the iPod and putting it in the middle console;” and “passengers are responsible for removing their trash from the car,” she says.
In Hawaii, Aliza had searched for cheap cars on Craigslist, but everything she looked at was “crappy, dingy, and rusted out.” The sellers all seemed a bit shady. Anything decent cost $2,500-3,000, more than she wanted to pay.
“I was thinking about how the Toyota was sitting at home, not being used, not being loved, and it occurred to me that I could put some car racks on top and use it as if it were a van.” How to get it to Hawaii?
Aliza began calling friends who she thought might want to drive across the country. She knew her friend and recent roommate, David, was feeling stuck in a rut, and maybe could use an adventure. Furthermore, “he knew my beloved Corolla,” she says. He’d worked on the car fairly recently, and she thought it might need work prior to being driven across the country. She called him from the turmeric patch she was weeding at one of the organic farms she worked on. “I said, ‘Do you want to go on a road trip with my car?’ and immediately, he said, ‘Yes.’”
(It should be noted that when David moved into the group house where Aliza lived, she immediately figured — correctly, it turned out — that her mother would think she should marry him.)
They worked out budgets for the trip. Aliza would pay for lodging — which David kept low by camping out— and gas, parts, and car repairs, which worked out to around $300, plus a $500 thank you. LA to Hawaii cost $1,100.
But first, Aliza had to deal with some resistance from her family about shipping the car. “My dad and my brother were using it, and my dad wanted to keep it, as it was a good winter car,” she says.
But resistance went deeper than such practical matters. Shipping the car to Hawaii would mean that Aliza was actually living 6,000 miles from home, and not just taking time off to WWOOF, her mother complained to me at that time. I could deeply sympathize. Few parents like to see their children leave home, let alone leave the continent. And Aliza wasn’t just any progeny. She lights up the room wherever she goes.
The Corolla’s transcontinental expedition went without a hitch. It worked out especially well for David, says Aliza. At the time, he had just begun dating Emma — someone whom Aliza had met, and whom she trusted with the car. But taking a cross country road trip together demonstrated something important: Emma and David were not a good match. So they split up.
Actually, there was hitch, one that seems minor in the grand scheme, but that Aliza found majorly annoying at the time. The very morning the car was supposed to arrive — just as Aliza and Claire, who was visiting, were about to walk over to the Mamalahoa Highway to hitchhike the two hours to Hilo — the shipping company called. The car would be a day late.
But despite the delay, the reunion was a grand occasion. In this case, that old cliché about the value of pictures over words is apt, so I’ll say no more.
These days, Aliza devotes most of her working time to Funky Finds. She travels the island in the Corolla every week, collecting stuff at thrift stores, yard sales, garage sales, and estate sales, as well as those waste depots people euphemistically call “transfer stations.” Then, on weekends ,she gets up at 4:30 a.m., cramming the Corolla to the roof racks with her finds, a process she likens to assembling a puzzle. She then drives to the Ocean View Market, and sets up, a process that takes an hour and a half.
“I’m the only one who has it organized so it looks like a shop,” she says.
People always want to help Aliza pack the car when she leaves, especially if it has started to rain. Hawaii is just that sort of a place. But she has to do it herself, she says, because she’s the only one who can reassemble the puzzle.
As for the big island, “it’s kind of a magical place,” says Aliza, going on about the location in the middle of the ocean, the volcanic mountain, Kilauea, and the amazing diversity of climate and geography. All this brings out the best in people, making the dream of a sharing society something of a reality, the way Aliza describes it.
“When you want something, it just kind of manifests,” she says. It almost feels as if the Corolla arrived thus.
[Images: Claire Brennan]