Two years ago I was given the keys to a 1968 Camaro. My father had purchased it from our New Jersey neighbors, and together over the course of odd weekends and extended holiday breaks, we restored it. Then, three months ago I decided to put myself to the test. I ended my lease in New York, and drove west, embarking on the journey with an arrogant desire to prove a life lived alone on the road and under the stars would make me happier — to realize the calling of a life lived in solitude. What I found was a bit surprising to me, especially considering my insatiable hunger for adventure.
In 1967 Chevrolet introduced the very first Camaro as an answer to Ford’s Mustang, which had debuted three years earlier. The second year of production on Chevrolet’s new “pony car” would deliver over 200,000 units of various trim levels off the assembly line. Mine is a standard four-speed sport coupe with a 327 V8 and Grecian Green paint.
The story goes that my father was in high school when his neighbors, the Galinos, drove their brand-new Camaro home from the dealership. There it stayed, directly across the street from where dad eventually met my mother. The car, used for 20 years as a daily commuter, would collect only a modest 55,000 miles before sitting dormant, garage-kept and unregistered for 27 more years, patiently awaiting a second life.
Now that its restoration is complete, what registers first, at least to classic car connoisseurs, is how intact my car’s body is. Surviving 50 years of winter in the Northeast with no trace of cancerous rust on the body or chassis is downright remarkable. That, along with its ultra-low mileage and second-owner status makes a car that’s actually one of 200,000 seem closer to one in a million.
The romance of the American cross-country road-trip requires little preface or explanation. In the more distant past, there was a good chance that greater prosperity would be found out West. Effortless travel, courtesy of the automobile, shifted that attraction: now, the promise of a “better life” is not found in communal settlement of new land, but rather in the actual journey across this Great Land itself. A man and his horse, a man and his motorcycle, a man and his van — evolving the “man plus mobility” recipe continues to nourishing the wayward, introspective soul.
With regard to my experience, all the 1960s road-trip lore clichés were true: wind through the hair, sun in the eyes, the drum of the engine in the ears and chest. I had it all there in abundance, better than I imagined. A typical day broke with brisk autumn air and a clumsy shuffle into my cold vinyl cockpit. Black coffee transitioned to open-throttle within minutes of exiting each night’s campsite.
The tactile response of a classic car is more akin to that of a small powerboat than today’s modern machines. Liquid steering offers an antiquated sensation of driving, of purposefully steering, especially over the gentle grades and around soft banks of secondary roads north of Interstate 80 and 90. Top gear comes quickly in my four-speed as its original exhaust pipes set timbre, all in a moment that stretches on and on for hours. I watched America float by steadily.
Without radio or audiobooks on which to train my thoughts, I spent days upon days effortlessly gliding across the landscape, state signage indicating the only variance in what otherwise seems a single place. Between the sounds of the initial pop of the door lock to the engine’s rhythm and roar, I found myself at once both wonderfully alone and in fellowship.
For months leading up to this trip, this was the solitude I had sought so desperately. Then, every day of the trip I sat deep in an ocean of unaccounted-for time. And yet about eight days in, with this sense of ultimate freedom and independence came a profound feeling of loneliness. It wasn’t that the beauty I beheld might have been better if shared with another; no, I had over-indulged on myself. In an attempt to combat what I found to be an entirely selfish endeavor I began writing postcards, sharing coffees with locals and ultimately forming new friendships along the way.
My Camaro, which initially represented an escape from society, became the very object responsible for facilitating an entirely new community across the country. I accepted invitations into conversations and shared confessions and around campfires with people who spanned gender, race, economic, and age demographics.
Among them, a great deal of former Camaro owners who eagerly spilled their hearts out recalling the special place their cars held, often in the prime of their youth. But never with that typified gearhead bravado, competing or comparing horsepower with mine. Instead, they told stories always in a spirit of sharing. And when an inability to adequately articulate what joyful memories that car brought them surfaced, it was okay because I owned one too and therefore must understand what they couldn’t quite put into words. I often heard the phrase “I should have never gotten rid of mine” after a flood of memories. It’s refreshing to listen to testimony of how material objects — a piece of gear, a classic car — can spark joy, soothe one’s soul, form an unintentional community and simply just last for 50 years.
So what’s the point of my trip? What useful insights or advice can I share about life away from it all? Maybe it was my “analog answer” to an increasingly stressful digital age.
I suppose I hope to elicit an appreciation of time. Not appreciation ascribed to a particular car or a particular place. Not to inspire others to attempt at fulfilling one’s longing for escape. But instead to connote the inherent value of time and stillness themselves; the importance of carving out space for oneself to openly consider it all, even if that open-endedness includes some loneliness.
I ultimately set out from New York with the self-centered scheme of proving to my closest friends and family that I’m better suited for a life lived alone. And to show that the car my dad bought and worked for years to restore was my one-way ticket to achieve real independence. What I found in an ocean of stillness was a fundamental need for human connection. Thanks to my father I completed the iconic American road trip of a lifetime; the last leg of which, from Salt Lake City to San Francisco, we shared together. – Jeff Taylor
Find Your Own Dream Camaro
Things to Know Before You Buy
First-generation Camaros like Jeff’s are inherently desirable. Because the car was offered in myriad trim level and engine combinations, it can be a challenge to find a truly roof-to-wheels original vehicle. Rust and squeaks are the main culprits to be wary of, according to this Motor Trend Classic Camaro Buying Guide by John Kiewcz:
“A front steel subframe assembly was the basis for engine, transmission, front suspension and steering components; and from the cabin back, it was a unibody structure. While the unibody portion made the F-car lightweight and less expensive to produce, it caused the cabin to suffer from squeaks and vibrations, and inferior metallurgy and metal-prep made the body prone to rust.”