The Key To Gen-Xer’s Happiness Might Be In The Ignition of A Jeep
The stoplights of suburbia are bursting at the seams with wranglers — and not the snug denim type you might associate with cowboys and Brett Favre, but the four-wheeled kind with a “roofs optional” feature. Keys to Jeep Wranglers of all sorts — new, restored, gently used, vintage — are making their way into the hands of Gen-Xer’s to commemorate all manner of adult milestones. A new job, a 40th birthday, or your oldest child graduating from middle school are all signs from the universe that you should purchase a fully equipped Jeep. I’m pretty sure that the Jeep Wrangler has replaced tin/aluminum as the traditional gift for a tenth wedding anniversary. Let’s be clear, the people behind the wheel of this new preferred form of suburban transportation are definitely not riding waves, scaling mountains, or using their Jeeps to off-road into the depths of the forest. These nostalgic joyriders are the people who didn’t get the Jeep they wished for at 16 and now have enough grown-ass money to buy one for themselves.
It’s no coincidence that this age group is trading in their sensible minivans for a ride their parents once preached was dangerous. Hovering around the mid-life mark brings your mortality into focus. The finish line, while perhaps not fully in view, is a fuzzy marker in the distance that you can make out if you squint hard enough. You’re watching the years Usain Bolt by. Your laptop’s search history includes long-term care possibilities for your parents and the dilemma of the week is which supplements you can take to help improve your memory. The fashions of your youth are now a popular theme for parties that your babysitter attends. Friends from high school now have their own kids in high school and all of your grandparents have passed away. You even have a mortgage and a retirement plan and a strange pain in your left shoulder that only goes away if you visit the chiropractor on a weekly basis. In other words, shit gets real. But the freedom of your youth harkens back to you and cooes, “If you want to feel young again, climb up in a Jeep.”
In the sake of full disclosure, I was a late bloomer to the Jeep camp. When I was on the verge of my 16th birthday, I longed for a Geo Storm in all it’s teal, hatch-backed glory, and any chance of scoring one that came with a cheesy tail fin would have made for the best gift ever. It was relatively cheap (you’re welcome Mom and Dad), promised a zero percent chance of upping my social status (a Jeep would have helped) and offered little perks save for sensible gas mileage and power windows (upgrade). But the heart wants what it wants. In my case, the heart would go on wanting, since on the day I earned my driver’s license I was given the keys to my mother’s well worn, hand-me-down, 1980 Ford Mustang. This set of wheels, which my friends and I affectionately referred to as “Fire Crotch” due to it’s bright red paint job, had no air conditioning, no radio, and hand crank windows. Nonetheless, I was ecstatic to have Fire Crotch because it was a car dammit, and I could drive myself anywhere I wanted.
Since the unfortunate passing of my Mustang from the streets of Tampa to a dejected metal graveyard, I have owned four different cars — not one of them a Jeep. When I was in college, my friend Warren drove a Wrangler, and while I started to understand the hype, I felt that catching a lift to McDonald’s or the mall with Warren was enough to satisfy any urge to have my own Jeep. It was quickly made clear I wasn’t rugged enough to own a Wrangler, since none of my clothes were made by Patagonia and I just could not subject my feet to Teva sandals. I was more so the dorky tagalong that would merely be tolerated riding in the Wrangler, as long as I sat in the backseat and promised not to do any impersonations of SNL characters, specifically, Goat Boy. Me driving a Jeep would be like Screech Powers finally convincing Lisa Turtle to make out in a booth at The Max: it could be done, but it would always feel forced and awkward.
In all the years since my 16th birthday, I have fantasized about how rad it would be to finally buy myself that Geo Storm to the tune of not once. There hasn’t been a single day that I have stared off into the distance and pictured myself, age 40, behind the wheel of a canary yellow Storm. This is the crux that separates Jeep Peeps from Non-Jeep People. You never hear someone say, “Yeah, I’m a Geo person,” because there is absolutely nothing to do with a Geo, that someone could possibly be about. There is no image, no attitude, no vibe — which is exactly what Jeeps ooze. When you are a Jeep Person, there is a certain aesthetic that comes with owning a vehicle with all-weather capability. People who drive Jeeps know the difference between the Sport, Sport S, Freedom, Willy’s Wheeler, Black Bear, and limited editions thereof. Non-Jeep People hear these terms and assume this must be roll call for characters in the newest Disney film.
Jeep People unapologetically blast Jack Johnson over their Alpine Premium Sound System and see no need to dial down the volume when sitting at a stoplight. They have an enviable collection of hiking boots and carabiners which tumble out every time the back storage area is opened. You will never catch a Jeep Person with anything other than a Life Is Good bumper sticker on the back of their vehicle. Not even one that says “Coexist,” in all those funky picture letters. They connect with their fellow sporty motorists through Jeep Clubs in their local area and celebrate Go Topless Day each spring when the weather is finally warm enough to roll back the overhead canopy that has confined them all winter.
Although middle-aged Jeep People may not necessarily be living a fully fleshed out Jeep Life, just wrapping your fingers around the distressed leather of the steering wheel ups your cool points. In your mundane 9-5 work life world, you’re a project manager or accountant, and the only thing you even remotely wrangle are the monthly numbers or TPS reports. But owning a Wrangler transforms you, if not only briefly, into who you were before you contributed to a 401K, before you opted-in to vision coverage, and before the only thing you actually sported were reading glasses. When you slide behind the wheel of your steadfast Jeep, you transcend the daily minutia and melt into a world of muscle memory. You nip again at the life you knew before the heavy yoke of responsibility hung around your neck.
Behind the wheel of a Wrangler, you become a different person. You start to realize that growing your hair into dreadlocks would be kick ass and you notice an obsessive desire to set Google Alerts to inform you when Go Pro Cameras go on sale. Drive through food and beverages taste even more sinful when eaten in a Wrangler. It’s like you never really appreciated the balance of sweetness and acidity in a strawberry limeade until you gulped one down while coasting the open road with no doors on your vehicle.
There is a man I regularly see in the car drop off line at my children’s school, who instead of surfboards poking out the back of his topless Jeep, has two 5-point harness car seats, side-by-side. I feel like any minute he is going to turn to me, curl his hands into the hang loose sign, and say, “S’up brah?” He’s still riding dirty, but instead of dirty in the cool rapper way, his Jeep is dirty with pieces of old Goldfish crackers, dried up drops of milk, and a mystery blob whose sticky surface is covered in dog hair. But hey — that’s how 40 year old rough riders roll.
A friend of mine began a search at 39 to have her dream Jeep by the time she turned 40. When I finally saw her cruising through the neighborhood in her Wrangler, all my past feelings of Jeep envy came bubbling to the surface. She looked so cool, so badass, I wanted a piece of that action too. It was as if all the bumper stickers breathed extra air into my tight chest. “Life is good,” I thought. This is how the Wrangler baits you, it promotes you from backseat Goat Boy, to hella-sexy driver with hair blowing in the wind like a Victoria’s Secret model. But the nail in the coffin is when you recognize that you have succumbed to the ultimate symptom of Jeep Fever: you have a sudden urge to move to Colorado. The power of the Wrangler is fierce, yet also super-chill.
The adults of Generation X are starting to look in the mirror and wonder who that is staring back. When did all these gray hairs show up and how will I conquer forehead wrinkles? Also, didn’t the first season of Friends just air two years ago? The realities of aging are setting in, continually making you question if most of the things you’ve poured your energy into up to this point have been worth it. So if a Jeep Wrangler makes you feel like you’re 16 again, then ride that time-hopping wave, my friend. You’re not alone in this wistful pursuit, just look around the intersection the next time you’re stopped in traffic. Flash the secret hand gesture to your fellow Jeep owner to let her know you’re in the club. And if the moment moves you, shape your hand into the hang loose sign and mouth the words, “S’up brah?”