Fossil Fools

1951 Studebaker

So in the middle of a Michigan winter, what does a nature guy do who can’t ski or skate, can’t forage for wild edibles, has no wild flowers, leafy trees, or lush landscapes to photograph and still has to wait at least a month or two to begin retrofitting the condo patio for a garden? Go to an auto show!


In Michigan, auto shows are more or less a celebration of the state’s past fame.  While our auto industry is making a bit of a comeback, there will be no return to our former industrial glory.  In Lansing, our capital, is a typical monument to the new era: dozens of acres of bare asphalt and concrete on which stood the Oldsmobile factory—its salvageable steel hauled off to the nearest smelter and the rest to the landfill.  Rusty rails lead into the barrens marked here and there with the Xs of railroad crossing signs which stand out like the splintered skeletons of saplings in a forest clearcut.  Dozens of parking-lot light poles lean with bowed heads like a string of “end of the trail” sculptures over weed-filled, cracking asphalt.  Such scenes are repeated all over the southeastern area of the state.

JFK limousine

What a shocking contrast, then, is the Henry Ford Museum near Detroit where the celebration is still going on and the parking lot is full.  Marge and I visited there a few weeks ago and found ourselves reminiscing about our own fossil-fueled history—and that of our parents.  The Henry Ford is truly an amazing museum with a wide variety of displays, from historic European violins to agricultural implements marking the timeline of American farming history, to the history of flight.

1963 Chevy Corvair

The present featured exhibit is “Driving America” with dozens of historically significant vehicles and symbols of the lore of the American road: some original MacDonalds’ golden arches, an early Holiday Inn sign, a rebuilt early motor hotel room (aka “motel”), and an old Texaco gas station among many others.  Suspended from the ceiling is a highly polished DC-3, the first commercial plane I flew in (as a college freshman).  In the auto exhibit you can find the Rosa Parks bus, the presidential limousine that President Kennedy was in the day he was shot, the travel trailer given to the Lindberghs by Henry Ford, Charles Kuralt’s CBS “On The Road” motorhome, and dozens more vehicles of distinction.

1957 De Soto

Of significance to Marge and me were automobiles of our own past: a Chevy Corvair, her college car; a Studebaker, my high school car; a 1957 De Soto almost identical to my college car, and an early Volkswagen beetle.  The first car I paid for was a ’63 VW (earlier cars were family hand-me-downs), and the first car we bought together was a ’67 beetle—for $1800!

Our first family car was not there: a ’69 Volkswagen Squareback, which we drove for thirteen years (and, proud to say, never had to have its clutch replaced!).  We shudder now at how we let the kids play with their Hot Wheels and tumble about in the back as we drove the busy Interstates of Northern California with it—providing some evidence for the reality of guardian angels!

1949 Volkswagen

When one has an immensely God-blessed history, as Marge and I do, such reminiscence is pleasant.  We had a grand time at the Henry Ford.  But when we got back on the road, we were instantly confronted by the legacy of our fossil-fueled history: freeway traffic, abandoned and glassless buildings by the score, vacant lots where the homes of autoworkers once stood, potholed roads the Detroit-area cities can’t afford to fix, and the virtual absence of snow—gift from a Michigan winter that is setting all sorts of records for its far warmer than typical temperatures.

The jury is still out on all the social, economic, and environmental consequences of our addiction to oil, and it will probably never reach an agreed-upon verdict on whether or not we should be convicted of being fossil fools.  It will likely be our grandchildren who will make the final judgment.