Trusty Unit 4 is no longer the gleaming news steed of yesteryear. In fact, the 1999 Ford Explorer Sport now sports more than a hundred thousand miles. We’re not talkin’ milkman miles either, but interstate-tested, deadline-bled, into-the-wind engine attrition. It’s enough to make a news man wanna pop the hood and lay a wreath of press-passes over the engine block. But this pimped-out ride is far from over, even if its logos don’t shine quite the way they used to. The same could be said for its driver. With breaking news forever on the horizon, all I can do is grip the wheel and hold on, trying not to glimpse the rearview mirror- lest I grow distracted from the misadventures fading into the past.
A certain ice storm in late 2002 found me spinning loopy donuts in abandoned parking lots across the greater Piedmont Triad Googolplex. Despite a glaring lack of 4 wheel drive and a total absence of icy driving skills, I circumnavigated the sub-zero tundra of Central North Carolina in the name of news. Whether I was drafting behind the debris of a speeding salt truck on !-40 or cruising the frigid suburbs for that tell-tale generator hum, I figured out how to keep it between the slippery ditches the way I learned every other aspect of this silly gig - at full speed, with a deadline looming near. Now if I could only remember to turn into the skid.
“Watch out for the fog,” the old lady said between her plug of tobacco. I rolled my eyes as I pulled out of the gravel parking lot and onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. Ten minutes later the woman’s words bounced around Unit 4’s interior as I held the steering wheel in a death grip and tried in vain to see past the hood. A few minutes earlier I’d been humming a tune and gawking at the incredible views just outside my window. But a slow turn up a mountain pass had sent my humble news unit into a blanket of clingy white goop. A flatlander at heart, it was all I could do to inch up the winding two lane and hope I wouldn’t plummet off into the valley below. Luckily the low-lying cloud eventually lifted, but not before I drove by sense of smell for a good twenty butt-clenching miles.
Come hurricane season, my modest Explorer transforms into a haven for rain-soaked storm-chasers. Countless are the times I’ve driven through hundred mile an hour winds, watching rain pellets race up the windshield as I traversed the empty streets of some abandoned coastal town. With sheet metal and debris bouncing off its logos, I’ve piloted my two door stallion between satellite truck encampment and wherever the cops and firefighters chose to hunker down. Usually there’s a cooler full of bottled water and granola bars sloshing in the floorboard as Stevie Ray Vaughan rips through Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile: Slight Return, my hurricane-chasing song of choice. Despite the abuse, Unit 4 usually recovers from the abuse though I’m not sure which is harder to remove: all those ingrained sand pellets or that ever do funky storm chaser smell.
Ever wonder how all those level-headed folk get their precious cars stuck in raging floodwaters? I used to - until I forged a few temporary rivers of my own. In the hours following last summer’s Hurricane Ophelia, I criss-crossed the debris-strewn corridors of Carolina Beach, gathering video, ferrying crew members and dodging jagged lumber in the swirling streets. One particular intersection proved especially treacherous, but with every other path blocked, I was forced to ply its rising waters time and time again. Of course I made it each and ever time but the roiling run-off lapping at my logos convinced me to try every method of high-water passage - from the slow hopeful creep to the pedal-standing stomp to the other side. Neither, I’d recommend.
But it doesn’t take a natural disaster to place me behind the wheel. Day in and day out, I steer my chariot from calamity to kerfluffle, heavily-equipped and often on time. A flat tire or two aside, she’s never left me stranded - though at times her flashy signage draws w-a-y too much attention. Inside, it’s a crowded office cubicle - one that brings to mind the paper-strewn pickup truck the Richard Dreyfuss character drove in ’Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. Now if only I could convince an alien mother ship to hover over my humble craft and cause the onboard electronics to go all hooey. With my luck though, it’s zip off before I got my lens trained on it and I’d be left with a broken down ride and half a laser-baked face to explain to the suits. I’m sure they’d understand...