North Fork Outdoors/Martin Garrell: Driving without AC isn’t a breeze

The flickering light on the dashboard of our three-quarter-ton Suburban recently indicated serious trouble. Suddenly, with no warning, pressure dropped in the air-conditioning system. Everything quit — during the hottest period of the summer!

To find the leak, repair it, re-pressurize and check out the system would require a service appointment, and we couldn’t get one immediately. In fact, we were headed down to Philadelphia the very next day from upstate New York. There was no choice; We would have to make the trip, all 430 miles, the old way, with no “air.”

For Depression babies and early boomers, memories of summer trips before cars had AC units are all-too familiar. You tried to get out early and put on miles before the heat built up too much. Some families would take off in the middle of the night and drive into the dawn. You would dawdle through the middle of the day, perhaps pulling off the road with a picnic lunch, then make some more miles in the late afternoon. On the two-lane highways, it was easy enough to pull off, and 400 miles was plenty for one day’s drive.

Air-conditioning then was a simple affair: You opened the windows as little or as much as you wanted (or could stand). The most dramatic AC was provided in convertibles where you rolled back the top and made sure that all the papers were put away. No one thought about skin damage when you “soaked up rays,” but you certainly could burn if you didn’t cover up!

Things got somewhat noisy up near the speed limits, usually 55 or 60 miles per hour, but there were plenty of towns along the way where you slowed to less than 40, so you could at least listen to a radio or carry on conversations at times. Kids had to be entertained by playing games, looking for exotic out-of-state license plates (having spotted the plate, we once waved at then-respected Oregon Senator Wayne Morse while passing him on a trip south. Unlike most of today’s celebrity politicians, he had no chauffeur; he was actually behind the wheel of a hard-top Ford convertible, driving himself.) or reciting inane billboard advertisements.

The journey we made over the weekend was hardly nostalgic, however. The day seemed exceptionally humid, especially as we worked our way south.

When we started from the North Country, we were fortunate enough to be under a cloud deck with tolerable temperatures just below 80 degrees. About halfway through the trip, it began to rain — and rain! The forecasters were right about a big front sprawled in an east-west line with violent thunderstorms ahead of and embedded within the front.

Although we had made good use of a sunroof for ventilation early in the day, the roof had to be closed, along with the front windows, once the rain began to pelt down. When the high-speed wipers were barely keeping up at reduced highway speed, we were forced to use the defroster to keep condensation off the windscreen, heating up the car a bit more. Below the line of storms and within 60 miles of our destination, temperatures soared to 92 degrees for the last part of the trip.

Incidentally, the return trip north wasn’t any more pleasant. Although the sun was behind us or off to the sides through most of it, the temperatures were consistently above 85, even in the higher terrain of the Poconos. Despite the light clothing, perspiration glued us into the seats by day’s end.

We noted other things as well. First, highway noise takes a toll today. With two-lane highways replaced by the four- and six-lane zoomways of the interstate system, the truckers, once considered “knights” who observed speed limits, sometimes bully you aside, then roar gleefully past at high speeds, adding considerably to the din. Any concrete barriers along the road on many of the stretches of interstates function as reflectors of sound, effectively cutting off communication between driver and passengers.

Second, despite the fact that you would like to change drivers more frequently under adverse circumstances, rest areas now are (more budget cuts, anyone?) few and far between, especially in our fair state. At one point, with 116 miles between rest areas, we simply swapped drivers on a shoulder near an entrance ramp.

When what would be a routine, comfortable trip with air conditioning turns into a grind without the AC, the best part is the end of the day meal, celebrated with a cold beer. But you really don’t recover until sometime next day. However, there is hope for our next road trip. We have that service appointment lined up, and one way or another, we’re assured that the air-conditioning system will be intact and functional when we go. In the overheated outdoor world in which we now live, what was once something you lived without has become nearly indispensable.