We are driving up the Garden State Parkway into North Jersey, just me and my sheepdog and my ’97 Chevy Suburban named Bessie.
It’s getting late, and the sun is painting some cirrus over in the western sky. It’s summertime, so the windows are down and Sadie the Sheltie is pointing her nose into the warm summer breeze as the salt marsh air blows her sheepdog hairs into the back seat. The radio is turned down, so all we can hear is the roaring rush of humid air and Bessie’s jovial V8 chortle and the rhythmic squeak her fan makes when set to ‘Lo.’
We’re old friends by now, Sadie, Bessie and I. We grew up together.
I still remember clambering around the third row of seats when my parents first bought Bessie, me half-joking with them that we needed a phone to communicate from way back there. On that night in 1997, as we rode home from the dealership, my brother and I hunkered down and whispered in conspiratorial tones without Mom and Dad hearing. I don’t remember what we said, but even now the third row of seats still retains a mischievous air of youthful independence. Like a pillow fort.
I still remember that summer day when Mom loaded my friends, my brother and me into Bessie’s backseat, happy she could fit in six kids for the drive to the beach. We kids fell asleep on the way home. Sadie pointed her nose out the window and shed onto my beach towel.
I still remember our trip to Camp Massawepie. Bessie was towing Troop 58’s fire-engine red trailer over tortuous upstate New York back roads when we drove straight into an Adirondacks monsoon. We felt the nervous frission as my father quietly and seriously asked six Boy Scouts for silence. He shifted Bessie into four-wheel drive and Bessie plowed through the rains, her small-block 5.7-liter V8 engine safely ferrying us to the camp. God may have shielded us through the storm, but He saw fit to make our ark a Suburban.
For all Bessie’s dignity, though, she is the last of a dying breed. Her kind are not long for this highway. Since the early 2000s, when SUVs broke all kinds of American industry records, Suburban sales have dwindled to nearly a third of their peak.
There are several causes. Federal gas mileage regulations are improving the energy efficiency of American cars, so new car models are engineering exercises in wringing miles out of internal combustion engines. As suburban American families have fewer kids and become more economically conscious, they turn to smaller and leaner vehicles. Even trucks are starting to display some sedan DNA.
Experts say the climate is changing, so a truck that gets 18 miles a gallon on the highway is borderline ecologically irresponsible. Even climate-change skeptics can’t ignore the sound of cash pouring out of their wallets while they fill up a 42-gallon gas tank.
Car culture is also changing. My generation is increasingly urban. Many young people would rather rent an apartment and ride a fixed-gear bike than buy a house and a two-ton Percheron cut from Detroit metal.
The Suburban’s extinction signals a widespread change in U.S. culture, because America’s love for the Big Truck That Could is generations old. Any year since the introduction of the Carryall Suburban 1935, Plato could have walked up to a Suburban and gasped, “Now ain’t that a truck.” The ’46 Suburban, with its rounded fenders and magnificent chrome grille, is a postwar victory of metal in motion. Thousands of ’73 Suburbans worked as honest farm trucks by day and moonlighted as Mystery Machines for Baby Boomer teenagers. And there’s a whole generation of New Jerseyans who take one look at an ’84 Suburban, with its unrepentantly square-jawed machismo, and start subconsciously humming “Glory Days” from Born in the U.S.A.
The Chevrolet Suburban is Manifest Destiny made machine. As their name implies, Suburbans perform well in decidedly suburban pursuits — toting roughly half a recreation-league soccer team, for instance. Minivans do that too, of course. But Bessie always outshines her bumpkin cul-de-sac counterparts when we remove her third row of seats for ice-cooler space and hitch up a Boston Whaler on the way to the boat ramp.
Bessie was born in 1997, a ninth-generation Suburban. Like her forebears, she was crafted from union steel in the now-shuttered General Motors plant in Janesville, Wisconsin. I have never seen another Suburban like her, probably because her paint color is “Medium Beige Mystique.” Still, Bessie is ours. When the Medium Beige Mystique Suburban rolls around the corner, everyone knows who’s coming. This was especially true when Bessie rolled into the town hall parking lot bearing six Boy Scouts singing the Rolling Stones at the top of their lungs. Automobiles are iconic that way.
She is a more handsome truck than her rough-hewn predecessors, but she still maintains the chiseled right angles lost in rounded millennial Suburbans. Her front bumper and grille, recognizable by her pairs of perfectly rectangular headlights, are miracles of chrome brightwork. The driver and the passenger sit so far apart, even Henry David Thoreau’s sentences could “unfold and form their columns in the interval” between speaker and listener. It’s a good place for a chat, the front of a Suburban.
That’s part of the Suburban’s problem. It’s just too big, too gas-hungry, too expensive. But there is a far more pernicious cause of Suburban extinction than gas prices: its disappearance from American cultural conversation.
As Americans do with politics and economics, we now subject cars to our obsession with extremes. The popular conception of a dependable utilitarian family workhorse — one that can tow a trailer, tote six kids and look distinguished at the same time — is vanishing in the rearview mirror.
Listen to the way we sing about cars in popular music. Kanye West’s “Mercy,” featuring Pusha T and 2 Chainz, references a Lamborghini so exotic that the average American could live their life without ever seeing one. Yes, “Mercy” is rap, but Kanye is about as mainstream as rap gets. How can the average American pop music fan associate with narcotic Lamborghini lust besides as an abstraction?
On the other side of the highway is “She Cranks My Tractor,” Dustin Lynch’s country-fried ode to dirt-road lovemaking. Country musicians have always sung plainly about their pickup trucks. I hope they keep singing about pickup trucks. (Kip Moore is right. There’s somethin’ ’bout a truck.) But “She Cranks My Tractor” turns those references into parodies, as if to prove that country musicians are either running out of ideas or trying too hard to shoehorn Silverados into the musical equivalents of a Manhattan parking space.
These portraits of American culture on four wheels illustrate how cars, like contemporary American conceptions of politics and social class, now occupy opposite lanes of the interstate. What’s more, these are songs about cars in the same way that TV shows like The Bachelor is about love or Man vs. Wild is about wilderness exploration: They’re not. Sexy tractors and cocaine-laden Lamborghinis are lifestyle pastiches, like a vintage Fender hanging in the apartment of someone who doesn’t know how to play it. They’re prayers memorized but not understood. They’re unearned merit badges.
Of course, no one writes songs about minivans. But remember Don McLean’s immortal Chevy in “American Pie”? At a first glance, his Chevy is, well, a Chevy. At a dry levy. With some drunk guys. In the context of the song, however, his Chevy symbolizes a deeply American sense of longing, a mixture of hopefulness and melancholy, a sense that something new and exciting is happening far away in America. The Chevy at the levy is both a reminder of our hometown and an opportunity to move on. It’s the symbol of the American spiritual dilemma, like Bessie is today.
Americans are a horizon people. We receive the cultural inheritance of pioneers, skinny kids bursting toward the next frontier with flashlights and imagination. For that reason, Suburbans will always be symbols of the promise that we can go forth, with hearts vibrating to the same iron string that inspired Suburban owners for decades. But as a horizon people we also must leave behind some old ways. Maybe the next frontier for American pioneers is the freedom to get from A to B without sacrificing our lunch money.
Bessie is slowly falling apart. A few years ago her fuel pump gave out; a few months ago it was her starter. She’s got a few years left in her, though. A few more summertime drives with Sadie and our two new sheepdogs, Molly and Cole.
“Grandmom and Grandpop,” my parents’ grandchildren will say someday, “Tell us a story of Bessie the Suburban.” So my parents will squint wistfully into the past and tell them of the rainstorm in the Adirondacks, or move-in days at college, or all the times Sadie stuck her head out the passenger-side window and shed happily onto the back seat.
And some day on the horizon, maybe my parents’ grandchildren will write a pioneer song about Bessie the Suburban, too.
Michael Rodio, who was this magazine’s spring 2012 intern, writes for the Daily Domer, a Notre Dame Development Office website. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.