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Peterson: Brakes put on car-shopping adventure

Published: Friday, May 24, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

The Great Experiment is over. We survived more than six years as a one-car family with a one-car garage in multiple-car suburbia.

It can be done, and at great savings, as long as you are able to walk or bicycle. To work. To the store. To the Metra station. Or as long as you are able to wait until the one car returns home to run errands. Or wait to be dropped off and picked up. Or be given a ride home by a co-worker.

But we barely survived buying that second car. Which isn’t where we expected the experiment to crash. Almost literally.

I had a car of my own for more than 30 years, ever since I was 18 years old and attending college. And even at that, I had to be forced into buying a car – a sweet, yellow 1974 Vega, which I bought for $975 from my high school physical education teacher in 1976.

I really didn’t want to buy a car. I was living in Donnellson, Iowa, and attending St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. There were two ways to get there – Greyhound or hitchhiking 450 miles. You could safely hitchhike then. Or so I thought.

Hitchhiking has that liberating feel of being alone on the open road, suitcases at your feet and your thumb extended, hoping for a free ride. I even made signs for intermediate stops in big towns to improve my chances of getting a ride: Iowa City, Waterloo, Rochester, Twin Cities, St. Cloud.

It worked. It was time-consuming, but I eventually would get rides and meet interesting people because dull people, as a rule, do not pick up hitchhikers.

I was fine with hitchhiking until I was picked up by a real-estate agent north of Waterloo, where I had been stranded. He was going to Rochester, and that was a great turn of fortune – about 150 miles.

First, he had to look at some farm property of Highway 218, and asked whether I minded. Of course not. He pulled off the gravel road into a soybean field, got out of the car for a look, and got back in. That’s when he put his hand on my thigh, and I was introduced to the dark side of sexuality.

It took a lot of fast talking to get his mind off my thigh and back onto the road. I was as scared as I ever had been. But he was a gentleman and backed off. When we got back to Highway 218, he said he was going back to Des Moines, not Rochester, and asked me to get out.

I covered about 10 highway miles. It was then that I decided I had to buy a car. Greyhound got me back home a month or two later.

It was out of desperation that I bought my first car. And it was out of desperation that we ended the Great Experiment. I can’t bicycle to work like I used to because I’ve had knee surgery.

We went car hunting over the weekend, and usually we’ve had pretty good luck buying used cars quickly. It took a few more test-drives this time.

And car hunting ended Saturday after test-driving a car that just didn’t want to stop. And that is not a good thing, as admirable a quality as tenacity is. It just wanted to go, go, go, and it didn’t want to slow down.

I was driving on the open road, and all of a sudden, I found myself riding the brake to keep the car at 50 mph. It wanted to go 65 mph or more in the worst way. And it wasn’t until we came to a stoplight – and I made sure to leave lots of room between us and the next car, as I was standing on the brake, and the car was still creeping ahead – that I realized we had a problem.

In a matter of seconds, I realized the throttle was stuck wide open, and the only thing that kept me from rear-ending the guy in front of me was the light changing to green and the cars inched ahead while I was climbing up on them. I got it into neutral just in time and managed to pull off to the side of the road with the engine racing.

What are the odds? I was as scared as I ever was in a car since that promised ride to Rochester. We stopped shopping for the day. There’s nothing like an open throttle to make you suspicious of any car, including our own. If it happened to a perfectly fine car, who’s to say it won’t happen to yours?

We’ve ended the Great Experiment. I can’t say I feel good about it. I’m scared scarred.

• Dick Peterson, who lives in Woodstock, is a mental-health advocate, freelance writer and a former Northwest Herald Opinion Page editor. He can be reached at dickpeterson76@gmail.com.

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