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The Last Automobile
By Uncle River
Copyright ©2001 by Uncle River

I was out by the garden when I heard it coming. First time since ninety-two we'd had frost so late, and I was checking on the pumpkins. Crazy things volunteered all over the place, and here I was fussing over them like it was my idea to start them so early. I didn't pay much attention at first. When you've been used to the sound of cars all your life, you don't think anything of it. Besides, there were still a couple of trucks and tractors running locally. Still are, for that matter. It's amazing what you can make spare parts out of. And Johnny won't let young Red sell anything but the very best products of the still for whiskey. So there's plenty of fuel.

There were only two trucks running south of here even then. I knew the sound of both of them. This wasn't either one. I wondered if one of the Nelson kids had decided to resurrect their mom's car to show off on a date. That sound was already unusual enough that I was curious to see who it might be. I walked up to the highway to meet the car making its slow, cautious approach.

Funny thing about that highway. Time was I wanted to move away from it. Noisy damned thing and the main connection to a lot of craziness. Why go to the trouble of moving to a place where there's only one highway in a hundred miles to mar the natural peace and then live right next it? I don't think that way now. Oh, it's still a highway. But just two miles south, there was a big washout in the flood later that summer — care of ye olde faithful government, that. They were busy building dams and dikes, straightening twisted creeks and logging the watershed. Called it flood control and land reclamation; claimed it would make more water available for industry and create jobs to boot. Well, it didn't. But it did cause that washout and closed the highway to anything wider than a horse from then on. I guess that's one government project that did some good.

That same fall, some local crazies had a shoot-out over a three-generation land war. Next thing anyone knew, the highway twelve miles north of here got blown up right at the switchback coming out of Live Oak Canyon. Now it's nice and peaceful. We even get mail service pretty regular. If the mails are running, Joe Cole brings up ours once a month when he comes through with his pack train.

I had no way of knowing that that car would be the last, but they were already rare enough birds that I was curious to see it. We'd nearly all guessed wrong about what would stop them too. And, like I said, they haven't really all stopped, at least not locally. The world didn't run out of oil. If it had that would have hardly have slowed anyone down who could put together a still — or half a dozen other ways to get fuel, most of them better than gasoline anyhow. Rationing and all the war restrictions didn't stop automobile traffic either, though it sure took the pleasure out of travel, what with checkpoints and garrisons that were often nothing but robber bands all over the place.

What did stop traffic was the roads. Somehow, no one had quite realised just how expensive it is to maintain roads fit for automobiles to travel on. Gradually, it turned out to be just too expensive. So one place there would be a washout, and no money to fix it. Another place frost would break up the pavement, and again, no money to fix it. Someplace else, a bridge would get too weak to carry the weight, and nothing would get done, so people would just quit using it. Once maintenance was abandoned on the roads and the highway system got more and more gaps in it, it was amazing how quickly it just became too much trouble to try to get anything wider than a horse very far. Especially since you never quite knew what was happening at any distance. Even if you were willing to risk getting shot, there was no way to know if folks two hundred miles away used the same kind of fuel you were set up for. At least a horse runs on the same fuel anywhere.

I have heard that there are a few cross-continent highways that have been kept more or less passable to this day, just like there were back when the continent was being settled. If a family in Wisconsin gets sick of winter, they can still load up their belongings in a wagon or even a truck and head for Texas. None of those highways comes through here. We just keep a road open for local traffic here in the river valley to haul hay or firewood or move a tractor. Other than that, a washout or a fallen tree gets cleaned up only enough to let the pack train through. That's why it is a pleasant thing now having the highway close by. Instead of roaring diesel trucks and zooey tourists — not to mention the incompetent refugees we had to take in from the cities for a while or the bands of marauders we had to shoot — we just have our neighbours most of the time, on horseback, afoot, or in a wagon. What travellers do come through do it at a pace so that most of them are enjoyable.

Things hadn't gotten to this present, reasonably settled state back on that overly-crisp spring morning, but the highway was already pretty broken up. What with the trouble with looters — and they were bad enough here. God knows what life was like in places more accessible to a city — folks had kind of gone out of their way to drop large objects, like trees, piles of rock, and dead cars here and there. But you could still get through till the washout later that summer, and that was just what someone was doing. So I went out to say howdy and see what news they would bring — armed of course. I'd been lucky enough never to have had to shoot anyone back then (though I did have to a few years later when the slave raiders came through — and a satisfaction it was to rid the earth of those vermin). However, it was just good sense to let a stranger see I had my pump twelve gauge in hand in case he'd forgotten his manners the last few years, what with all the troubles.

I walked on up to the road about the same time the car pulled into sight. And I'll be damned if it wasn't a Ford sedan — not even a four wheel drive — with U.S. Army plates and a captain who looked about nineteen driving himself, while his corporal, who looked about sixteen, rode shotgun. Someone had at least had enough sense to teach him to let people see that he was armed, but at the same time not to do anything threatening without good reason. Of course, all the neighbours were as curious as I was, and it was already established habit to be ready for anything. By the time that car was fully around the bend there were eight armed men between the ages of twelve and eighty-seven, nine armed women, aged nine to ninety-two, and half a dozen kids too young to bear arms there to meet it. That was the whole community, except for Sandy's mother, Mildred, who was confined to a wheelchair since her stroke, Pete, who was too drunk to find the road, and three or four folks who were away.

The two soldiers could see right off that they were outnumbered. I've got to hand it to them that they managed to act pretty professional, especially considering the ridiculous reason they were there. Now, you've got to understand that the U.S. Army was in about the same condition as anything else that depended on big-scale, centralised organisation, Which is to say, it no longer functioned at all, only people hadn't quite admitted that yet. Two thirds of the instructions from one part of the army to another never got through. And no one could carry out the ones that did because ninety-five percent of the materials needed never got where they were supposed to.

In spite of this situation, someone had actually sent these two soldiers out to deliver a list of supply stations and civil defence instructions to us up here in the river valley. The supply stations didn't exist, of course. If any of the supplies supposed to be in them had been delivered then they were probably sitting in the sun in some field waiting for someone to walk off with them.

How anyone could imagine the forty-five or so able-bodied men, of what the army considered military age, scattered throughout the nearby fifteen miles of river valley in several little communities just like this one, would abandon their homes and families at the height of planting season to go and stand guard for no particular reason at some arbitrary spot in the desert eighty miles from here, was so far beyond reason that it took us all of ten seconds to recognise the preposterousness of the notion.

I guess these soldiers had been laughed at just one time too many. Besides, when we were done rolling on the ground we got serious and told them they probably should not try to pass through Live Oak Canyon as the local land war up there had taken a nasty turn. Captain McLain and Corporal Peters had a long talk with each other while we stood around their car and gawked, followed by a longer talk with us.

The corporal had family in Arizona. He headed down the river on foot where it turns west, just this side of where the highway washed out this summer. Two years later, Captain John McLain, retired as it were, married Elsie Patterson. We held the wedding on the roof of that U.S. Army Ford sedan, which sits by the side of the old highway, right where Johnny McLain parked it, to this day.

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