The Magazine

A Summer Car

Joseph Bottum's summer car.

Sep 1, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 47 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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The car was parked across the street from the ice-cream parlor: a little, old convertible we'd gotten cheap to tool around the Black Hills. Or, at least, it was cheap to purchase. Actually owning the thing turns out to be a more expensive proposition. Your typical British motorcar from the 1980s needs roughly one hour of mechanical work for every hour on the road, and the 1987 Jaguar XJS we found seems determined to uphold all the fine old British traditions: a 12-cylinder motor! jet-black paint! leather seats! an electrical system apparently modeled after a London street map! an oil leak determined to keep Saudi Arabia in business for generations to come!

Anyway, the car was there on the main drag of Hot Springs, one of five or six angled into the diagonal parking spaces overlooking the river. Fall River, it's called, though river is maybe a little much. It's really more of an overachieving creek, formed by the dozens of hot springs in the area. For that matter, hot is a little much. Water bubbling from the ground at a constant 60 degrees may keep the river from freezing in the winter, but we come to South Dakota for the summer, and along about July, those springs feel a long way south of hot. Or even warm.

Still, the town is a pretty place, nestled in the last mountain canyon before the evergreens of the Black Hills give over to the treeless prairies in the south. Through much of America, it's the soft woods that reveal the presence of water: cottonwoods, maybe an elm or two, some poplars, the occasional oak. You know the look if you've ever driven across the West: Each little town, with its streets square to the compass, its deliberately deciduous trees, and its quadruped water-tower, set apparently at random on the dry and open plains.

Hot Springs has something of that prairie-town feeling, but backed by the mountains of Ponderosa Pine and Black Hills Spruce-all in all, a perfect place to spend our summers, we thought. The best of both worlds, really: a small-town, semirural escape from the pressures of New York, with Internet access and a Jaguar convertible in which to cruise around, at least when it decides to run. Which is why it was parked across from the ice-cream parlor when the flatbed truck, loaded with a gigantic piece of farm machinery, came slowly around the curve.

The ice-cream cones were pretty good. My daughter picked the maple nut, I think. My wife chose the huckleberry. And the mower arm on the harvester decided to scoop up the whole row of cars parked across the street. It was a slow-motion catastrophe, the whole thing happening at a leisurely 20 miles an hour. Bam! And the back of the Ford pick-up was smashed. Then the mower arm calmly recoiled back to its home, bounced against the tractor, and swung out again-just in time to smash the back of the old station wagon parked in the second spot. Bam, swing back, swing out again, and bam, hit the next car. And the next. And the next was our little black Jaguar, with the top closed, waiting its turn.

Bad wiring may be the most famous feature of those British sports cars. (As the old joke runs: Why do the English drink warm beer? Because the same company that makes their automobiles' electrical systems also makes their refrigerators.) But those cars are notable, as well, for how low they are to the ground. These aren't automobiles you step out of. They're automobiles you climb up from, and when the mower arm reached the Jaguar, it almost passed right over it.

Almost. Just the lowest tine of the mower caught the car, slicing as delicately as a surgeon's scalpel through the soft roof, making a sort of convertible of the convertible-or a roll-your-own sunroof added to the retractable top.

The smash-up made the front page of the newspaper the following week. This is a small town, after all. And the man from the insurance company spent a good deal of time helpfully hunting down an upholstery shop to sew a new roof for the poor, scalped car.

But it was the policeman, come to write up the accident report, who brought the matter home. "Summer folks, eh?" he asked. "Well, things like this happen from time to time out here. And out on the highway, it would have been worse. You might think about getting a different car. Something a little more solid, a little more South Dakota, if you know what I mean."

Summer folks? Summer folks? I was born in this state, I wanted to say, and I've worked on its ranches, and hauled its hay, and ridden its horses. But I looked down at the pretty little black Jaguar, shining there in the sun, and I had to admit that I did know, pretty much, what he meant. Next year, I'm going to get a pick-up.

JOSEPH BOTTUM