Cruisin’

Here’s something invented in Michigan that’s gone on to become viewed as quintessentially Californian: cruisin’.

Cruising in your car, surfing, and picking up girls at hamburger stands was mythologized in the 1960s as a distinctly Southern Californian lifestyle, but little of it would’ve been possible without the automobile. For that, we can thank Michigan and industrial towns like Detroit, Pontiac, and Flint, where the car was invented and then refined, and then  refined again, always changing with the times.

And we did a lot more than just build the cars that fueled the dream. We put up the country’s first modern four-way electric traffic light, painted the first center line, and built the first eight-lane highway, all the way from Detroit to Pontiac. Civilization as we know it today was poured here in the form of thick concrete. And by God we drove on it, as much as we could. We filled our tanks, hit the hamburger stands, and picked up the girls. So OK, we didn’t ever surf, but that was for those crazy Surf Ohio people in Cleveland, not us.

Ultimately, there’s no way we would’ve accomplished any of that if we didn’t really, really, loved cars. As much as we complain about gas, traffic, or the length of our commutes, we keep on driving and can’t imagine life another way. With a car, we can go anywhere want – total, unrestricted pedal to the metal freedom – even if we’re usually too busy to go very far. Our cars are an extension of ourselves.

Let’s be honest: even the most hardened, embittered environmentalists among us have enjoyed speeding down the highway at least a few times, windows down and music blasting, the warm summer wind blowing your hair back. The world whizzes by, a Monet-like colorful blur, a perfectly harmonious partner to the delirious sensations of the world at 80 miles per hour. It’s just so fun, so alive.

People can hate the Big Three automakers and look at the companies scornfully as a symbol of excess and the dangers of inertia, but isn’t that just projecting your own frustrations with yourself onto something else?  We’re the ones that demanded the muscle cars and SUVs, the fast food drive-thrus, the roads and endless infrastructure, the money it took to pay for our middle class lifestyles, that moved wherever we wanted because we could just drive to work. We boxed ourselves into a corner and then blamed the corner for our troubles.

In fact, we once loved cars so much we collectively broke out into song as a nation in the 1960s to praise the glory of the automobile, sending California groups like the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, and the Rip Chords to the top of the charts. It was kind of like a religious experience, and getting your first driver’s license turned into a rite of passage, just as important as (or even more important than) your confirmation or your Bar Mitzvah. Driving was like going to church on Sunday, a validation of how blessed you were. I mean, you could afford your own car!  A bright, prosperous future could be glimpsed in the reflection of the sleek tailfins and chrome rims crowding the road.

If you don’t agree with me, take a cruise on the next warm day with your windows down and head out for somewhere new, and make sure to tune into a good radio station – you’ll fall in love all over again. It might be that wild, reckless and doomed teenage kind of love, like driving off a cliff at full speed, but it’s love nonetheless.

It was an experience born right here in Michigan. God bless America, and God bless Michigan.

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