So long, and thanks for all the miles

January 1st, 2017 by Phil Leave a reply »

This week, we traded in our 2004 Nissan Sentra. It has a little over 132,000 miles. I bought it new in early 2004 – although, curiously for a brand new car, it had about 500 miles on it. Over the course of almost 13 years, it wound up surviving three significant accidents, multiple trips almost halfway across the country, two campaigns for state legislature, and a whole lot more. I had always intended to keep the car until it hit 200,000 miles. In the end, though, with something wrong with the transmission, it just didn’t make sense to pour a lot of money into it. Our other car – a 2004 Hyundai Sonata – is in better shape, no accidents, and in general, it just made a lot more sense to keep it.

As many of you know, our son was very premature. He spent 74 days in the Infant Special Care Unit at Evanston. And every day, the Sentra went back and forth from our home in Chicago to Evanston. He came home in the Sentra. To him, the car’s name was “Mommy’s Car”.

The Sentra’s long history was also very much caught up with the history of the two small berserk mammals which preceded the current small berserk mammal. My old beagles spent a lot of time in that car, often going to and from some veterinarian or another. The most traumatic incidents with the Sentra always involved the beagles – even when they technically weren’t in the car.

The first accident – and the worst of the three – occurred in 2007 (or maybe 2008 – so long ago I’m not even sure anymore!) I was driving along Clybourn Avenue, looking for a place to park. I went to make a three-point turn to go back down the street the other way, and a car came out of nowhere and smashed my front left corner. I banged my head hard against the headrest, and having never seen the other car before it hit me, I was suddenly dazed and confused, staggering out of the car, seeing it crunched in front of me, feeling strangely contemptuous toward it, but mostly baffled. Bizarrely, the accident occurred immediately in front of a body shop, and a half-block from a police station, so there were immediately cops and people from the body shop there. They pushed the car into the body shop and wound up being the ones who fixed it. The damages were something like $5,700, and years later, that’s the wheel of the car which had started to rust.

While sitting in the body shop, waiting for the process to finish playing out, I figured I may as well complete the errand which had brought me out that day. I went into the car, got what I needed, walked the four storefronts down from the body shop to the veterinarian, and dropped off a small green bag of Murray Beagle’s shit.

When I got the Sentra, I began a process which I still maintain, which drives Michelle a little batty, but also demonstrates how fantastic she is: I (and now we) log every gas purchase in a spreadsheet. Technically, I do all the logging. But this requires getting a receipt each time and writing the mileage on it.

On February 17, 2004, I went to the Qik ‘n’ Ez on Morrissey Avenue in Bloomington, and filled up the tank. The Sentra had 565 miles at that time. It was the first of 464 times that Michelle or I would put gas in the tank. That includes the one time we ran out of gas on July 9, 2007 (which she will never let me forget about) and had to get gas in a container. The final time was this Tuesday, December 27, 2016. I actually had to stop and get one gallon of gas on the way to the Toyota dealership because I was in imminent danger of running out of gas for the second time!

Over the course of almost 12 years, according to my records, the Sentra averaged an estimated 27.73 mpg. I put 4,736 gallons of gas into the tank, at a total cost of $13,585.71. The longest I ever went between filling up was 74 days, from January 7 until March 22 of 2014, although at the time it went to the dealership, it had been 79 days since its last fillup.

The best ever tank in terms of mpgs came in at an impressive 39.71 mpg, across February 29 and March 1, 2008. Apparently I filled up in Buffalo and then again in some place called Tannersville, Pennsylvania, then went on to Washington DC. I look at the map now and can’t figure out what the hell I was doing. And I can’t help but think something is screwy with that number anyway.

The best ever tank in terms of raw mileage came in at an astounding 443.6 miles. On April 2, 2005 I filled up in Washington Court House, Ohio, and then on April 3, 2005 I filled up in some place called Rheems, Pennsylvania. This trip, at least, I can explain, and more vividly remember overall. I was on my way to Lancaster for the annual meeting of COFOE (Coalition for Free and Open Elections). I loaded up the Sentra with a crapload of unreviewed CDs from the pile at WESN, took a silly route, and remember driving across Ohio on U.S. 22 listening to all kinds of silly stuff which I’ve forgotten, but also a Stereo Total CD which for some reason I remember. I stopped that night and ate at a Buffalo Wild Wings just west of the West Virginia line in Ohio, because I knew it was a place where I could watch the Illinois-Louisville Final Four game. I drove on from there into the teeth of a blizzard, which should have killed my performance, except that it forced me to drive at a consistent 40 mph down Interstate 76. I got 36.96 mpg that trip. In retrospect, seeing how many times I drove across all or most of the length of Pennsylvania is pretty ridiculous.

The Sentra and I went as far due east as Brooklyn and Queens. Technically, it looks like the farthest north we got was Rochester, though Madison was pretty close. And the farthest west AND the farthest south wound up being Tulsa, where it was 104 degrees upon arrival. By my count, we went through 19 states and DC. Somehow, we never made it to Canada though!

On December 30, 2006, it had 54,891 miles – which means I was averaging over 18,000 miles a year over the first three years. But December 2006 is also when I moved to Chicago. Across the last 10 years, the annual average was only about 7,700. Imagine that: driving 10,000 fewer miles a year when no longer driving to see a girl.

Aside from the three accidents, the car was very reliable overall. It looks like I spent about $6,000 on maintenance over time – but almost half of that was in the last 3 years, after reaching 110,000 miles. I can look back now and see that it probably would have made more sense to trade it in back then. But at the time, not only was I still thinking of reaching 200,000 miles, I thought it would be the Sonata which would be traded in. It took the balky transmission to convince me that it was just time to let it go.

The Sentra was, at $11,500, the largest purchase I’d ever made up to that time. I’ve told people before that I bought it brand new, and they were like, woah, why’d you do that? But it was absolutely the right decision. I had gone through years of highly unreliable old cars, and I wanted a full warranty, and good mileage, and I got a really good deal because of the 500 miles it inexplicably had on it.

As the statistics above show, I had it in me to be really anal about some things. The Sentra really solidified that. We took good care of it over time. I kept all kinds of records on it – records which ultimately were totally useless when it came time to trade it in. It had 132,000 miles, a history of 3 accidents, a balky transmission, a big dent, a couple small dents, some rust… nobody gave a shit that I had paperwork from an oil change from 2006. But keeping that paperwork arguably was less about what any individual piece of paper might show. It was about the process. The mileage logs we keep are similarly about the process. A car is not just an expensive piece of equipment which needs to be taken care of. It’s also the most critical piece of safety equipment for your child. You damn well better know what’s going on with it! And even if I might take that to a seeming point of overkill, I’m okay with that. You should all keep mileage logs too!

The funny thing is, for as much as I went through with that car, I somehow never actually named it. I toyed with a couple of names but they never stuck. My previous car was Darwin – because Darwin sailed on the HMS Beagle, and that car was used to haul beagles around – and the car before that was Daisy, because in every single possible respect it was the antithesis of a daisy. But the Sentra was always just The Sentra, or maybe The Black Car, or, eventually, Mommy’s Car.

It rode great. It fit great. It got really good mileage for a long time. It needed very little work until the last three years, and that’s even though it had been through those accidents. It served us really well. I feel just a little bad that at the end it was hardly even worth trading it in, but I guess that’s how these things go.

When I bought the Sentra, I was 27. It was over a year before I met Michelle. I was still living in my depressing rental home in Normal with my knuckleheaded dogs. I had a decent but weird job. I had ideas, but I wasn’t really going anywhere.

It’s now four jobs later, my beagles are gone, we’ve owned a house for 5+ years… So much has changed over time. I put so many miles on that car driving to Green Party functions, and yet somehow, the Sentra even outlasted my time in the party.

We had a damn good run.


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