You realize how crazy this is, the time and money we’re investing in this little expedition of yours. It’s the cost-reward ratio. People would laugh.”
At first my friend Cal didn’t respond and kept pushing against the Piper Archer II’s fuselage as I pulled the tow bar to maneuver the aircraft out of the hangar. Then he stopped and stood up straight. “The licorice one is mine. I’m calling it right now.”
It was daybreak in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a beautiful spring morning. Soon I had the Piper warmed up and was taxiing to the runway threshold. “I get orange,” I said, before radioing the tower for clearance. Cal smiled, gave me a big thumbs up, and leaned forward as if to help us go faster.
The plane climbed easily in the cool morning air, the sunlight low and bright behind us as we turned northwest, the trees casting long shadows across the lakes multiplying all around us as we gained altitude and perspective. Cal turned to his right for a moment to gaze down at a neat white farm below, then swung forward to savor the flat fields of green spilling into forever. “My brother Ben won’t be up for another four or five hours,” he said, now craning his neck to follow some marshmallow cumulus passing overhead. “And then he’ll go straight to the couch for a nap.”
For the next hour or so we talked the usual stuff: the cars I’d test-driven in the past few months, America’s recent victory in Operation Desert Storm, how in the world “Dances with Wolves” could’ve beaten “GoodFellas” for the Oscar. It was only the two of us and the steady hum of the Lycoming as we floated along the invisible river, the world right there and a part of us and seemingly all ours.
Soon we were descending to runway 30 at tiny Lowell City Airport in Kent County. “I can see Jack’s F-150 down there,” Cal said as I dialed up the Unicom frequency to announce our position. “He’s waving.”
“When you guys called I really didn’t think you were serious,” Jack said after we landed and he wrapped us in bro hugs. “Comin’ all this way for …”
“Licorice and orange are taken already,” Cal cut him off. Jack shuffled his feet for a moment as I finished securing the Piper. “All right. Then I’m going for cherry.”
We piled into Jack’s big Ford and briefly detoured north to cross the historic Fallasburg covered bridge, built in 1871, before rumbling south and west toward Holland, three old friends who hadn’t been together in far too long, laughing, lying, enjoying being on the road, the warming wind whistling through the open windows, each of us wondering why we didn’t do this more often. We stayed mostly on rural two-lanes, slipping below the bustle of Grand Rapids. We passed old barns and silver-metallic silos and newer homes on big grass lots flying American flags on tall poles, Jack’s pickup reflected in the windows of the old general store in Dutton and the Countryside Inn in Byron Center and Frank’s Restaurant in Zeeland. Something caught Cal’s eye, and he twirled his head to look. “You know what I like most about these small towns?” he asked.
Jack and I shot him the same expression. “What?”
“Personalized kung fu instruction.”
It was early afternoon when we pulled into Holland. The annual tulip festival was still a week or two away, but the flowers were everywhere — red, yellow, pink, white, purple, a rainbow settled to Earth. A few old-fashioned windmills cemented the Dutch illusion. “You know what this place reminds me of?” asked Cal as we rolled through town.
Jack shrugged his shoulders. “Wooden shoes?”
We turned a corner, and there it was: a black BMW M5, a 1990 E34 edition. “Ryan’s been doing pretty well for himself,” said Jack as he parked next to the car. We piled out of the F-150 as Ryan climbed from the M5’s driver’s seat to clap our backs. I hadn’t seen him in almost three years — before he’d struck gold as an investment banker in Grand Rapids. “Movin’ up in the world, I see,” I said, patting the M5. “Your last ride, it wasn’t so …”
“Ah yes,” Ryan whistled, “the old Toyota Tercel: 1.5 liters of female repellent.” The four of us caught up for a few minutes, then Ryan turned to Cal. “Your plan was so ridiculous I couldn’t say no. Anyway, I figured it’s a good excuse to see you guys again, so …”
“I could never own a car this nice. I’d be afraid to drive it without showering first.”
“The only ones left are lime and lemon,” Cal jumped in. “Sorry.”
Ryan stared at him. “And I call you a friend.” He shook his head. “Fine, let’s do this. We’ll take mine.”
We climbed aboard the M5, and Ryan powered us south onto the Blue Star Memorial Highway, a leafy two-lane that winds past small villages, farms, and occasionally Lake Michigan’s coastline. “Damn, this thing purrs,” Jack said from the front passenger seat as Ryan gunned the BMW through a few sweepers. Cal offered his own opinion. “I could never own a car this nice. I’d be afraid to drive it without showering first.”
Nearly two hours passed in what seemed like 30 minutes, the conversation loud and raunchy and hilarious. Except for our awesome wheels, it could’ve been 10 years earlier, stomachs sore from laughing, all present concerns forgotten in the comfort of familiar repartee, the pull of unfamiliar scenery, the joy of being free and out on the road.
We rolled up to the little train station in tiny St. Joseph and climbed out. Cal led the way. “I hope it’s still here,” he said, heading inside. We looked around, then Cal pointed to a dusty vending machine in the corner. “There!”
With a smile and a flourish he pulled a dollar bill out of his pocket, snapped it tight between his two hands, turned dramatically and fed it into the machine. “OK … we want … E4.” He pressed the buttons, a motor whirred, something fell to the bottom tray with a thunk. He reached in, pulled out a small packet, held it up. A package of Chuckles candies. Cal tore the cellophane.
“And here you go. Cherry for Jack, orange for Arthur, licorice for me, and …” he raised his eyebrows at Ryan.
“Lime.” Ryan took the jelly square, popped it in his mouth. The four of us chewed. “Kinda stale,” said Jack.
We all started laughing. Then Cal held up his hand. “Thanks, Jack, for proving my point.” He smiled. “When it comes to the perfect getaway, what matters is the going, not the reason why.”