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A Social Distance Adventure

By Adam Ford

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7:30 AM, Saturday, April 25, 2020. The Mini is idling in the driveway. It’s not terribly cold, but we had snow in Vermont just three days prior to this overcast morning. The overnight clouds kept the temperature from falling below freezing, so it was a bit raw, but no frost to contend with. The forecast called for sun as the day progressed so a little drive in the Mini should be a dry and pleasant affair. Today would be the first drive of the season for this little car—it’s only outing up to this point being when I pulled it out of the garage and took a spin into town the week before.

I load up my new passenger, Bulo, who is very excited to be going out since he thinks we’re going for a walk. I’m sure he was disappointed when I pointed the car south on US-7 and didn’t make any moves to stop. He soon realizes that this is going to be a longer trip and he settles down into the passenger seat as we roll down to Bennington, the sun poking at the layer of white above us. I only see one car going in my direction—a full-size pickup truck who slowly catches up to me and slides by just as I hit one of the passing lanes leading up to the highest point on US-7 (1,504 ft above sea-level). A second pickup appears in my rear-view mirror as I approach the end of the divided highway, but it exits and I coast into Bennington alone.

After a quick stop for some dog toys (the new puppy needs to chew), I arrive at the Bennington Battle Monument to find Rod and his red TR4A parked and waiting. I let Bulo out and we wander the grass of the monument, Rod and I chatting, listening for the unmistakeable rumble of an old sports car climbing the hill. Al and Mary Lou (a.k.a. ML) arrive in their topless ELVA, bundled up in fur hats against the morning chill, then Joe and Diane roll in with their red MGB. We all chat at safe distances apart and eventually get to the business of driving. Joe inspects a manageable puddle of gasoline under his left front tire and tinkers with the carburetor, then we all follow Al and the ELVA south through the back streets of Bennington before dropping onto US-7 again. At the back of the line, i’m drawn in by the intermittent sunlight playing off of Joe’s propeller knockoffs as he motors in front of me and smile at the polite puffs of blueish smoke that kick out of the tailpipes ahead, indicating a gear change.

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We cross the state line into Massachusetts and veer off the main road to wind along some lanes into North Adams, where we stop to pick up Marc in his dark green TVR. I have the view of the TVR’s single tailpipe as we continue south to the defunct Berkshire Mall, where Rich in his sunshine yellow MGB-GT is waiting. Another round of socially-distant socializing ensues as we wait on Sam and Kristen, who pull up in another red MGB, complete with a pair of dogs as passengers (Lexi and Bernie). We all chat some more while Joe tries to ascertain the lack of brake lights on his MGB. When no solution seems apparent, we load up and, after a brief delay while Al gets the ELVA running, we follow Sam, and then Al, as they lead us along farms and fields, lakes and marshes, across bridges, through tunnels, and along the byways of western Massachusetts to a small rest area alongside US-7 just north of Great Barrington. There we pick up our last participant—Ellis in his burnt-orange TR6—and motor southward again.

The plan had been to pull in to the parking area of Ski Butternut, but it was all locked up, so we continued along state route 23 until Al found a pull-off long enough to accommodate our eight small cars and we adjourned our motoring for a picnic lunch, each car supplying their own eats and everyone keeping a British car-length away from each other. Bulo was glad to be out of the car and, although he was tethered to a tree, enjoyed some quality lounging time in the sun. The morning drear had burned away and the sun was shining brightly on the budding trees around us.

My first car was a 1974 VW Bug. Owning that gained me entry into an unofficial club of VW owners, especially living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Beetles from the 50s and 60s still cruised the streets, rust-free. I had intended to return to my youth with the purchase of another Bug, but plans changed and I wound up with a white 1976 Morris Mini. Owning this car, I have found, has once again dropped me into a club, maybe even a little more exclusive and definitely a lot more particular. As we all sat and talked and ate along side of the road, we shared a commonality—these Little British Cars—the LBCs. We could easily talk about the peculiarities of each of our models, but we also could talk about anything. We could sit and pass the hour with a discussion of current events or entertainment or jobs and hobbies, but the talk seemed to always loop back to cars and roads and the hunt for a winding lane with a fresh coat of asphalt.

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The sun meandered across the now nearly cloudless sky and we all packed up our picnics, loaded up, and zoomed along Route 23 into Otis, then turned north onto Route 8, which is exactly one of those winding, turny byways with a fresh paving that we all so desire. As we rolled along, the numbers dropped as, one by one, the LBC’s turned off for homes off the route. By the time we skirted the north side of Pittsfield, we were back down to the original four cars, following Al’s ELVA, even when it repeatedly sputtered to a stop, then vroomed off again. (Al’s battery wasn’t charging, but he nursed it all the way home, barely!) I tagged along to Williamstown, then peeled off onto Route 2, back over to North Adams, and up Route 8 into Vermont, staying on the eastern side of the spine of the Green Mountains this time.

As I wheeled away from my traveling companions, I felt a loss—a loss of community and friendship, of belonging, of being one of a tribe. When I drive alone in the Mini, I get the appreciative smiles from the folks in their front lawns, the occasional beep of approval from someone in a passing modern car (a smiling gentleman in a classic Ford Bronco gave me a wave as I motored past him on the way down from Stratton Mountain), and the sought-after thumbs-up from a motorcyclist, themselves of a class apart from the herd. But when I drive with a pack of LBCs, I feel like part of something—these are my people, whether we agree on politics or religion or anything. We agree that a beautiful spring day in a small noisy car that may or may not get you to where you want to go and occasionally makes a noise or lets loose an odor that might give you reason to be worried, is a good thing. And in April of 2020, we can be social, each alone in our British world, safely a car-length apart.

(The Mini brought me home—a day’s drive, a tank of gas, a loop there and back again—with a contented puppy passenger and hours out of isolation.)

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