Courting in a Chevy Vega
by Paul B. Wiener
From the September, 2018 issue
Forty years ago my girlfriend and I took possession of Bird Rd. We were determined to make it personal. Little did we know.
My grandmother would have said Gretchen and I were sweet on each other. That was as good a way as any to describe it. I'd had lots of girlfriends, and had even been married. But not since fourth grade had I had a sweetheart. In only a few weeks Gretchen and I had discovered that we liked doing all kinds of things together and that they always worked out. It made me start smiling again. Blindsided by the future, I thought I'd go with it as long as it lasted.
We had known the street only as a random side road off Huron River Dr. coming from Main, a left turn onto an odd, bumpy, hilly dirt track--a rare find, we thought, like a driveway running through wild forest. Bird Rd.: what a great street for birders like us. We'd already spent a few weekends looking for snow buntings and pied-billed grebes at Point Pelee in Ontario.
Halfway down the road and hidden from both ends was a small clearing to the side where a car could park and no one would ever know. That was as far along Bird Rd. as we'd ever been, but it was enough for us, a secret place. Did Bird Rd. go through? We didn't know or care. We'd never gone up as far as Newport Rd.; in fact, we'd never even heard of it.
Back then we didn't know many Ann Arbor roads. We weren't townies. Most of the walking trails we hiked were either in the Arb or out of town, out toward Chelsea or Pinckney, places on maps. Bird Rd. seemed unique: an isolated country road less than three miles from the Blind Pig, not even that far from my one-room walkup on Summit near Fountain. At our Bird Rd. hideout, we had no
clue that a quarter of a mile away, on the other side of an old abandoned orchard in the woods, was Newport West, a condo development designed by renowned architect David Osler. It might as well have been in Kansas. We had never even walked down to Barton Dam; we didn't know it was there. At night it was very dark, yet, perhaps because we felt we had discovered it, Bird Rd. seemed like a safe place to be brave and stake a claim for privacy.
When is the last time you spent a dark night alone with your lover on the side of an empty road in an intimate enclosure bordering an unmapped forest? Bird Hills Park had only recently been named. No cars ever seemed to come down Bird Rd., and if one did we'd hear tires crackle over the stones long before headlight beams would show over the rise. Even police cars would quickly give themselves away. And why would a police car come here anyway? Nothing could happen here.
Trees towered over a few houses set far back on overgrown acres at the end of rough, winding driveways. At night their lights were invisible from the parking spot that had been cleared for the nature lovers who came on weekends to pick mushrooms and berries and stalk woodpeckers. We decided to risk doing what seemed only natural and right: make this little piece of geography the coordinates of a campground, with a 1973 Chevy Vega as our tent.
The Vega--shared on alternate weeks with my ex-wife--was a hatchback. Remember those? A door at the back lifted up, window and all, and you could fold the rear seat down to make a kind of bed, just the right size for small people like us. So one warm summer day we decided to stay overnight at the clearing on Bird Rd., to actually sleep there at the parking spot. Why not? It was perfectly quiet, private, and woodsy with thrushes, owls, and frogs and things that scurried and rustled in the groundcover, and other cars didn't seem to know the road existed. Even the few homeowners never seemed to go out, at least when we'd been around, and not toward Huron River Dr., the end closer to the clearing.
We brought a blanket, a bottle of wine, some cheese and apples, and some of that stuff that everyone in town was smoking in those days, back when Ann Arbor was making headlines as a pioneer in progressive living. About an hour before it got dark we drove to our spot. No one else was there, of course, but at first, as we got a little high and listened to the birds sound their final chirps, it was a little scary. We were close to town, but also in the middle of nowhere, in someone's neighborhood, a street protected by civil law. Surely we were doing something wrong. But of course, wasn't that the point? What could happen?
We expected to be nervous, but we felt prepared. In those days, with so much ahead of us, we could afford to feel a little afraid. Even if a police car rolled up slowly and surprised us at 3 a.m., what would they really do except tell us to move on, maybe search us, or give us a ticket? It wouldn't happen. We had our nourishment, the warm twilight, and the radio, and soon enough it got dark. Really dark. And though we stayed up as long as we could, listening to the sound of the tall trees brushing back the silence, wary of every crackle, waiting for the unexpected, nothing unusual happened, for an hour, then two. Only the usual happened. Afterwards we fell asleep ...
And sure enough, no one disturbed us the whole night. Luck stayed on our side, disguised as bliss. We slept until dawn, parked in a world of our own, a quarter of a mile and forty years away from people who would become our next-door neighbors, good friends today who even then were living in Newport West, though we didn't know it or they existed, friends with young, unlined faces we'd never recognize today. Quietly congratulating ourselves, we drove back to town--actually, we drove directly to work. We had gotten away with an adventure.
Fast forward. The years whoosh by, carrying us like a magic carpet. Gretchen and I leave Ann Arbor for Long Island, N.Y. We get married, get new jobs, raise two children, travel, own two homes. And just when things are starting to get real, we retire, still living fifty-five miles east of my Brooklyn birthplace, surrounded by all these young families waiting for their luck to become everlasting.
Why do we have to stay, we wonder? And of all things, out of the blue, we decide to uproot ourselves and return to Ann Arbor. How we actually made that decision is another story. You wouldn't believe me if I told you it came to me in a dream.
After months of painful decision-making, online searching, great good luck, tearful goodbyes, and the help and encouragement of friends--and without our even knowing how near it was to Bird Rd. and the clearing that's still there--Gretchen and I found ourselves a home on Pinegrove Ct., in an oddly familiar neighborhood we'd never heard of, in a condo snug against the edge of Bird Hills Park and the very woods we'd once slept beside. Our Vega campsite is a five-minute walk from our bedroom, only half a lifetime away from the back end of our final destination. If we wanted to, every day we could walk back to the future
[Originally published in September, 2018.]
On September 13, 2018, Rebecca Hoenig wrote:
Thank you for this beautifully written evocative story. Paul skillfully and concisely captures a lifetime of love and emotion.
On September 13, 2018, Lyz Kurnitz-Thurlow wrote:
Lovely. And nice to know more about the history of you and Gretchen.
On September 16, 2018, Sandy Topper wrote:
A wonderful story that tells sweetly of our long ago innocence,and how great to read of how it all ended up
You should write more stories like this
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