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Fiat: the Maine experience

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Story and photos by Holly Gumz, contributor

The best question someone could ask me is, “want to go for a ride?”

It’s my favorite question in the world.

When I was just a little fraulein, my mother would bathe me, dress me in my pajamas and then put me in my car seat, snuggled up against my baby blanket. Then, we’d go for a drive. She’d stop, under the cover of night, and walk into an open field swarming with fireflies, then stand, holding me for what felt like hours, watching the lightening bugs.

Those were some of the most magical moments of my childhood.

She eventually returned me to my car seat, finally asleep, then drove home and put me to bed. (No doubt thankful for some time to herself—I hear I was a handful as a child.)

These memories are still fresh in my mind, and they’ve become somewhat of a burden on my driving habits today. I’ve never been able to drive a car at night; I inevitably get tired and start yawning once the sun sets. I can, however, sit in a car for hours, calm, just watching the scenery fly by.

This fall, my boyfriend and I drove from Big Sky to Maine. When in Maine, we zipped around in a rented Fiat. The Fiat, or “Fi” as I’ve been calling her, was by far the smallest car I’ve ever ridden in. Despite my history with soothing car rides, Fi was a difficult adjustment. Everything was designed for someone half my size. She had very few knobs or dials, and the simplicity was overwhelming.

The radio was controlled from the steering wheel, and the air controls were on the dash. There was only one armrest, and it was on the driver’s side. The headrests were the size of a small cantaloupe and they were for fashion, not function (a seven-hour car ride to New York taught me this hard-learned lesson). The dashboard jut into the car a mere 10 inches, making it impossible throw up your legs and move the blood collected in your feet back toward the rest of your body. There was a trunk, but if you wanted to stash anything more than a lunch box and change of clothes, it was time to rethink your options.

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Coming home to Maine, especially with company, usually means day trips. On this trip my boyfriend was eager to see my home turf and all its coastal glory. We toured my hometown, and every neighboring town. We drove the coastal Route 1, which is beautiful, especially in the fall, and Fi was with us the whole time.

She was with us for the trip to see my friend get married in Lake Placid, New York. That particular trip taught me the Fiat wasn’t designed for long days of driving. Fi was also with us when we drove an hour and a half west to the Fryeburg Fair (Maine’s largest fair, it hosts lumberjack races and the state skillet-throwing contest—a thing of redneck beauty). On that trip, while sitting in mile-long bumper-to-bumper traffic, we found the Fiat’s “air conditioning” was akin to a hair dryer blowing forth lukewarm air. It wouldn’t have been so bad, except we were moving at an average speed of 1/10 a mile every 20 minutes.

Given the Fiat’s low clearance, you’re prone to feel every bump and pothole on the road, and Maine has a lot. Night driving was scary. If a car came up behind you, its lights flashed in every mirror, practically blinding the driver. My heart beat wildly and my palms sweated whenever we moved faster than 60 mph, because it felt like any sharp curve or a strong gust of wind would throw the whole car off the road.

I also got nervous whenever we passed a “moose crossing” sign. A moose is much bigger than our little Fi, and I shuddered at the thought of what could happen.

But there was another side to this story. Including our drive to New York, we only filled up the tank twice, not spending more than $31 either time. Given the simplicity of the car, it was easy to figure out where everything was and the purpose the car served.

And when we finally drove into Fryeburg, parking at the fair was sold out. We found a small opening on a patch of grass that no other car could fit into and sped into it, knowing only the Fiat could have performed so well.

At the end of a week filled with the classic sights and sounds of down east Maine, it was time to return the car. I felt mixed emotion as I handed over the keys to the woman at the counter. For all the times we’d cursed her, the Fiat had performed perfectly, and required very little financial compensation throughout our adventures.

It was a perfect fall day, bluebird and sunny, when we said our goodbyes to Fi. As we walked towards our Land Cruiser (which seems a bit beastly for me now) I had an epiphany:

Regardless of how uncomfortable, cramped and contorted I was while twisting and turning through my old stomping grounds, one look out the car window was enough to put me at ease. Like mom’s car rides when I was younger, the sights and sounds of Maine had a calming sense that left me at peace. Just one glance out my rear windshield at sunset over Dromore Bay was all I needed to breathe a little deeper and easier.

And so, it was with a bit of sadness that I dropped Fi off at Enterprise, hoping the next renter gets the views and perspectives she afforded me those few days.

Holly Gumz is a freelance writer who has lived in Big Sky since 2008. An avid outdoors-woman and travel enthusiast, she eagerly awaits her next adventure in Maine.

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