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Freelance writer Jennifer Maerz

The Secret Travel Memories Stored Inside My Old Subaru

Posted by Jennifer Maerz on September 20, 2016
Writer Jennifer Maerz in her beloved Subaru Outback, picture
Photo credit
Courtesy of Feather Weight
Photo caption
Writer Jennifer Maerz on the road in her beloved Subaru Outback.

I’ve always stuffed my deepest travel memories inside my Subaru. In an era where the catalogs of our travels are so ephemeral — Google map routes that disappear when we close out of them, digital photos that clog our iClouds — I love the tactile scrapbook my car provides. I keep old maps, state park brochures, and camping receipts in the door pockets of my 2003 Outback. The mesh pouches facing my backseat are likewise loaded with other keepsakes from the pivotal road trips I’ve taken over the last decade.  

I’ve fantasized about friends browsing my curated travel library and planning visits to my favorite gem museums and Gold Country caverns. Secretly, though, I collect these highway artifacts because they mark milestones I’ve hit from the road. Yellowed maps and musty pamphlets symbolize times when the only way I could figure out what was next for me was by getting in my car and driving toward it. 

a selection of old maps tucked in the backseat pocket of the author's Subaru, picture
Photo credit
Courtesy of Feather Weight
Photo caption
Keeping old maps in the car may not be practical, but for the author, they're too valuable to toss.

I have dust-coated, sun-parched printouts of emails from July 2008, when I asked friends for suggestions of where to go near Arcata. Fairly fresh out of a 12-year relationship and unsure my career as a rock critic was right for me anymore, I drove to the Northern California coast for four days to clear my head. I read Richard Price, strolled on Moonstone Beach, and dined alone at Larrupin Cafe. Those old emails take me back to the pride I felt traveling solo after years of only visiting scenic coasts as a couple.

Old Rand McNally EasyFinder Maps are sentimental reminders of the times I’ve crossed the West Coast for a new home, journeying up and down I-5 for jobs as the music editor of alt-weeklies in Seattle and San Francisco while my former cities suffered dot-com crashes or cultural stagnations. Unfolding the maps, worn at the edges, I visualize the “Come Back Soon” and “Welcome to” state signs dividing everything I knew I was leaving behind from all that I didn’t know was before me.

brochures from kitschy stops along the author's many road travels, picture
Photo credit
Courtesy of Feather Weight
Photo caption
Brochures for kitschy stops, like the Trees of Mystery, mark milestones on the road.

Big Sur brochures chart early explorations of my favorite California hideout. After nearly a decade of planning weekend excursions to the purple-sand beaches of Pfeiffer Big Sur and Andrew Molera State Parks, I’d fallen so in love with that stretch of coastline, I married there two years ago.

Now that there are apps for everything, paper maps have become painfully obsolete, and there’s no practical reason for keeping kitschy brochures for places like the Trees of Mystery. I rarely send emails asking for travel tips when I can collect more over Facebook and access them on my phone when I arrive. But I like keeping the tactile cues as mental reminders of the trips I’ve taken in my beloved Subaru when I needed to add extra miles between my current life and my dreams for the future.

stickers dot the rear bumper of the author's beat-up old Subaru Outback, picture
Photo credit
Courtesy of Feather Weight
Photo caption
The author's 2003 Subaru Outback logged many miles until its demise during a final road trip taken just before this article was published.

Postscript: In a strange turn of events, I recently had to reconsider my road trip sentimentality when, a few days after I finished a draft of this essay, I slammed into a deer as it leapt across four lanes of freeway traffic while I was going 65 mph. I’ve never been in an accident in this car, but this collision killed both the deer and my Subaru — although I was somehow able to drive the final 120 miles home without noticing the extent of the damage.

One week later, my insurance adjuster said it was time to collect my belongings from Old Sue and give the car over to that big rest stop in the sky. It’s no surprise that looking through my mementos now, as I decide what to toss and what to keep for a future mobile scrapbook, evokes the personal crossroads I traversed with my Subaru sidekick like no digital cloud ever could.

Photos courtesy of Feather Weight, a full service photography studio based in San Francisco, California. Say hi at Instagram: @featherweight