A Highway 502 Story
Poppy's tail swished happily as she tapped the last balancing weight into place on the rim.
She glanced over at the bubble level on the tool. Only a cursory glance—she’d been balancing tires long enough to know how much weight was going to be required just from how they sat on the balancer.
New tires were a lot like new shoes—not too much fun to put on, but they really made a difference.
She had to sit on her rump to get the wheels back on the car, since her field wasn't quite strong enough to lift them. The lug nuts, however, were plenty light enough, and it was a mark of pride that she could lift all six for each wheel and thread them down simultaneously.
Once the lug nuts on all four wheels were horn-tightened, she lowered the hoist back down until her car’s tires were just touching the ground, then hoof-tightened them using the four-way tire iron.
The hubcaps went on last. Although they owned a special rubber mallet for that purpose, she never used it: she knew how to hold them with her field and tap them in place with one shod hoof.
Poppy used her aura to lower the hoist the rest of the way down as she was seating the last hubcap, then took a step back to admire her work.
The car looked sleeker and faster with its new tires, she thought. They weren't mismatched or sun-faded like the old ones had been.
Now it's time to test them out.
She ducked her head into the office. “Mom, I'm gonna test out my new tires.”
Orchid Frost nodded. “Be safe.”
“I will.” She closed the door to the office and hopped into her car.
With a twist of the key, the big Speedwell Ironworks straight-8 rumbled to life. It took a few moments to steady into an idle; no matter how many times she’d adjusted the valves and tweaked the carburetor, it never seemed to like cold starts all that much, and always misfired on one or two cylinders at first.
Once the engine had stabilized, she checked the side mirrors to make sure that nopony had parked behind her car. Some ponies saw an open garage door as an invitation, much to her annoyance.
This time, the way was clear, so she shifted into reverse and eased gently off the clutch, backing slowly out of the garage before cutting the wheel over to aim the nose towards the road.
The car crunched over the dirt and gravel of their parking lot, and even after she’d turned onto pavement she kept her speed down at first to let the little rocks work out of the tread rather than be launched into the fenders.
Poppy hesitated briefly at the corner of Highway 502. To the right, the road led up into the Cucurbita Mountains, which would be a good place to test just how grippy the new tires were. Plus, it was a beautiful road. It twisted along the edge of the mountains, sometimes right up against a rock face or skirting the edge of a cliff, and other times as it reached a mesa top, the land around it widened out. If she went further up, there were a couple of lacy steel bridges that spanned ravines as they hopped from one mountain to the next. Once she had a feel for how the car handled the easy curves of 502, there were a few twistier back roads to really test her skills on.
Maybe it was best to not put her tires to that test yet, though. Not until they’d had time to warm up and smooth out, and she had a better send of how they’d behave. Just like when she got new shoes, it was wiser to try them out someplace easy, rather than trek through the mountains. Instead, she turned left, towards the open expanse of the San Palomino.
It only took a minute to traverse the few blocks of town, and then Poppy was in the high desert.
The road stretched in front of her as far as she could see, finally vanishing on the horizon. At a casual glance, it looked strange and wavy from the constant heat haze that formed over it.
Off in the distance, she could see a few semi trucks, en route to and from the tiny settlements that the railroad ignored. Nearby, the road was deserted, so Poppy pushed down on the accelerator, and the car answered with a throaty roar.
A grin spread across her face. The road was freedom—it stretched off as far as she could see, and even farther than her car could go. She could drive all day if she wanted to and never reach the end of it.
I wonder if pegasi feel like that when they look at the wide-open sky?
Off to either side of the road, the desert stretched out to the horizon. It's kind of like the sky—it's big and open and the scrub-brush is kind of like clouds.
It wasn't quite the same—Poppy imagined that clouds were soft and fluffy, and she knew from personal experience that the scrub-brushes were hard and pokey.
She'd also heard it said that the desert was like an ocean, which she had trouble imagining. She'd never seen a body of water so large that you couldn't see across to the other side. If it was, though, her Friskysport was like a boat, navigating a safe course across the open waters.
The tires had vibrated a little bit at first, but now that they were warmed up, they were silky-smooth, and not nearly as noisy as the old, worn-out tires had been.
Let's test the tires’ grip. Aside from a semi truck far ahead of her, the road was deserted, so she slalomed back and forth between lanes, getting a feel for how the car behaved. It wasn't an absolute test, but then she had no desire to accidentally break the rear end loose.
Even if she did, she knew the car inside and out. She'd built the whole thing up herself over a period of years, always improving it as her skill and budget allowed.
She still called it a Friskysport even though only the coachwork and frame were original. Everything else had been designed and built by her, not the Meadows-Frisky company.
She straightened the car back into its lane, thinking. It would be good to know how it behaved on wet pavement, but that would have to wait—the weatherponies didn't have any rain scheduled for quite some time, and it was always hard to get, so they tried their best to drop most of it on fields, not lawns and sidewalks and highways.
Since rain was out, she could instead test how the car handled at speed. The road was open and straight and the policemares rarely patrolled this far out of town, so she pushed the throttle down.
The engine note deepened as it loaded up, then it hiccuped slightly from too much fuel. She instinctively lifted her hoof to let the engine catch up, then buried it against the floorboard as the engine smoothed back out.
The speedometer crept upwards, matching the sweep of the tachometer: she was already in top gear.
She needed a better intake, and that would probably require a new cam to take full advantage of the increased airflow. If I were made of bits, I’d buy both at once—if I were made of bits, I’d buy a supercharger, too. And a two barrel carburetor.
Poppy finally let off the throttle as the engine reached its yellow line. She didn't know exactly how fast she was going: the speedometer needle had wrapped around the bottom of the gauge and had come back up to fifteen.
The car was light and a little bit unstable at this speed, the airflow around it making the body of the car lift up like a wing.
Sometimes she wondered whether, if she got going a little faster, the car might actually take flight. It was probably best not to find out; such a flight would be quite brief, and end in tragedy—if not for her, at least for her car.
She coasted back down a bit, until the car felt more sure-footed, although the speedometer was still out of its range.
As she neared an intersection, she thought about turning around, but it was a nice day, the car was happy, she was happy, and it wasn't that much farther to Soda Springs.
Poppy slowed down further as she closed the distance to the tractor trailer.
She hoof-signaled and moved to the other lane about a dozen car-lengths behind the truck, and didn't return to her lane until she was about an equal length in front. Trucks didn't like to be crowded, and there was plenty of room out here.
There wasn't much to Soda Springs—a small cluster of houses, and a combination gas station and general store.
Instead of just turning around, Poppy decided to stop so that she could check over the car.
She drove around to the back side of the gas station, picking a spot well away from the pump so she wouldn't be in anypony's way. She got her mechanic's tool set out of the trunk, then went around to the front of the car and folded the hood open.
It didn't take her very long to check the fluid levels and shake the sand out of the air filter. The oil was a bit low, but not low enough to justify opening up a fresh can.
The bottom side of the thermostat housing was wet, and a single droplet of coolant hung from the lower bolt, glittering in the sunlight like an emerald.
The engine always seemed to have a minor coolant leak, and no matter what she did, she couldn't get rid of it. Puzzlingly, although she occasionally had to add coolant to the radiator, the level in the overflow bottle never seemed to get low.
It's probably something dumb, and I'll feel like a foal when I finally figure it out.
Poppy folded the hood back down and latched it in place, put her tools and oily rags back away in the milk crate she kept in her trunk for that purpose, and then walked into the nearly deserted store.
None of the snack food on the shelves looked particularly appealing, but along the back wall there was a row of brightly-colored coolers filled with juices, soft drinks, and green beers.
Her ears perked as the entire store began rattling. A moment later she heard the mournful cry of a steam whistle, followed by the rumbling clatter of a train.
She turned her attention back to the drinks, and eventually chose a glass bottle of Hollows & Fentimans ginger ale. The icebox had a bottle opener attached to the side, so Poppy levered off the cap. It bounced off the side of the cooler, but she caught it with her aura before it could hit the floor and deposited it in the little bucket provided for that purpose.
She started sipping her ginger ale before heading to the counter to pay for it.
The proprietrix was a heavyset older mare, her coat and hair sun-bleached to almost the same muted tans of the desert.
Poppy hadn't meant to buy any food, but there on the counter was a basket of homemade oatcakes she hadn’t noticed on her way in. They smelled delicious, so she bought one.
The last few cars of the freight train were still rolling by as she stepped out of the store.
She waved at the brakepony as the caboose rolled past, then turned her attention back to the oatcake, which tasted every bit as good as it had smelled. The only minor annoyance was the oat flakes were small enough to get caught under the wires of her braces.
While she was finishing her ginger ale, she admired her car—even just looking at it sitting there gave her such a sense of pride. Once upon a time, it had been something that nopony had wanted, but she'd seen the potential in it.
Orchid Frost had seen the look in her daughter's eyes, and so instead of shoving it into their junkyard and stripping it of parts as needed, she’d left it sitting on blocks at the end of their parking lot, until Poppy had finally put it together enough to roll into the shop and start rebuilding it.
The car still had a ways to go—a fresh coat of paint was an obvious need, and the dented fender could be replaced or bashed back into place. Some of the smaller dings could be knocked out or leaded, and the mis-matched tail lights could be replaced. All of that could wait, though; the most important thing was that it was driveable.
Poppy went back into the store long enough to return the now-empty ginger ale bottle, and then got back into her car.
It always started easier when it was warmed up, which made her think that it liked driving. Maybe it was a little bit grumbly first thing in the morning, but once it got going, it wanted to stay running. Or maybe it liked returning home more than it liked leaving.
By the time she got back up to speed on Highway 502, the sun had already dropped below the distant mountains. She wouldn't get back to Palomino until after dark; on the plus side, the sun wouldn't be in her eyes, either.
Like before, the road in front of her was mostly clear. She thought about the train that had gone by, and decided she was going to catch it if she could.
It wouldn't be fair to just bury the speedometer and run flat-out. Instead, she settled for a more brisk clip, estimating how far ahead the train was, and where she’d first be able to see its tail end.
Poppy hadn't remembered to factor in smell; her first hint she was catching up to her quarry was the faint odor of coal smoke. Then, at a bend in the road, she caught sight of the back half of the train climbing up and over the crest of a small hill.
There was still plenty of time to catch it.
The brakepony had his head out the window of the cupola, so she stuck a hoof out the window and waved to him. I wonder if he remembers seeing me in Soda Springs? They probably saw lots of ponies as they passed by.
Driving alongside the train felt strange—the way the cars were moving in her rearview mirror made it almost seem as if the train was going backwards while she was sitting still, and she couldn't help but wonder if staring directly at it might complete the illusion.
That was a dumb idea, though; no matter what it looked like, she was still racing down the highway.
She slowed down a little bit as she approached the locomotive. The skirting was open between the engine and tender, and she could see the engineer and firepony, both illuminated by the fire in the heart of the machine.
As she drew in front of it, she began to coast again.
She had to squint her eyes as the side mirror caught the reflection of the locomotive's headlight.
That was a reminder to her to turn on her own—twilight was quickly fading into darkness.
The road rolled under the car’s wheels as the last light of the day faded into Luna's starscape. Poppy reached a hoof down to flick the switch for her big driving lights—she could have worked it with her field, but she liked the feel of the toggle.
With a satisfying click, the pair of floodlights came on.
She'd have to be vigilant, because they'd blind anypony coming her way, and that was both rude and dangerous.
For the moment, though, there was no oncoming traffic anywhere close. She was as alone as a ship on the sea, far from land.
Ponies generally didn’t like to drive at night, because so many things were hidden outside the range of the headlights. She’d had a few close encounters herself, although they mostly involved tumbleweeds, which were harmless.
One night, though, she’d almost fallen into a crevasse that had opened up alongside the road after a heavy rain.
Despite the potential danger, Poppy didn’t mind at all. She felt more focused at night, freed from the distractions of the world around her. All there was was the highway in front of her, that which she could see in the reach of her headlights.
Inside the car, the gauges glowed with their soft radium-phosphor light, every needle rock-steady where it belonged.
She reached forward and pushed the base of the windshield open slightly. That was something modern cars didn’t have any more, which she thought was dumb—there was nothing more refreshing than a gust of fresh air blowing into the car.
A flash of light above caught her eye, and she looked up briefly, wondering if it might be a meteor. Sometimes Princess Luna brought them down for ponies to admire, although she hadn’t heard of any being scheduled for tonight.
It wasn’t a meteor; it was a searchlight on an airship. Oftentimes, the pegasi on their crew would fly out to feel the air currents, and at night that was the best way to recall them.
Might they be looking down and see my car? From her bedroom, she could see cars moving along the highway, day or night. Her bed was close to the window, and some nights when she couldn’t sleep, she’d look out the window and watch the cars slowly crawl across the desert. Once, she’d even watched their wrecker come back in from a tow, its amber beacon an unmistakable signal.
Poppy’s world shrank down to the rumble of the straight-eight and the soothing susurration of the tires on the pavement, to the cooling breeze blowing under the windshield into her muzzle and the warmer air that rose from the floorboards—the heat of the exhaust and the still-warm pavement under the car. There were no other vehicles on the road in front of her or behind her as far as she could see, and Palomino was as distant as the airship that thrummed by overhead.
Instead of continuing down the highway, she slowed down as she approached a faded sign that once marked the entrance of the Pebble Mine. When she was a filly, it had opened to great fanfare, only to be closed a few years later when the miners found gold instead of the copper deposits they were expecting.
The desert was trying to reclaim the road, and in a few years it might succeed. She had to maneuver around several sand drifts that partially blocked the way, and drive through several others. She knew where the worst spots were, so she cautiously traversed the ones she couldn’t avoid—getting stuck for the night wasn’t part of the plan.
Her new tires inspired confidence: they had far more traction in the sand than the old ones.
Just before the access road turned to the west, there was a wide enough spot for her to turn the Friskysport around, and she knew if she kept going further the road just tapered off until it became indistinguishable from the desert.
She’d gotten a ride almost to the mine once, when she’d been exploring in the desert and come across a prospector driving an ancient Caldwell Vale truck. It looked like the unwanted offspring between a tractor and a farm wagon, but it was plenty capable of traversing the broken pavement until it was finally stymied by a collapsed bridge over a dry wash. She could have gone the rest of the distance on hoof if she’d really been curious, but she wasn’t.
Poppy shut the lights off and looked through the windshield at the stars spread overhead, then she shut down the engine as well, her ears ringing in the sudden silence.
She got out of the car and walked a few paces away, one ear turned back to listen to the little creaks and pops the car made. She didn't spend as much time as she should looking at the night sky—Princess Luna spent so much time and worked so hard to make it beautiful, the stars spread like diamonds on a velvet cloth.
As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, the desert basin began to resemble a sea more and more. The mountains off in the distance and the faint glow of Palomino were like a distant coastline and harbor.
Off in the distance, she heard the mournful cry of the locomotive's whistle, and took two steps back towards her car—if she raced back to the highway, she could still beat the train to town. ...But no, she was enjoying the open sky and the solitude. She'd let the train win.