Although I didn’t start the courthouse project in earnest until 2015, I got the idea for it back in 2011. But the 6,200 miles I drove, crisscrossing, chain smoking, and occasionally backtracking in the name of photographing every single historic courthouse in Indiana wouldn’t have been possible without a unique succession of cars. Some were truly noble steeds; some were preposterous disappointments. One was both. Today, meet the first one in my fleet- the car I had when I got my first taste of what a courthouse project could be like.
2011 was a unique year in my automotive history. In March, I set a personal record for most ridiculous demise of a car – which, though threatened, still stands, by the way – when I totaled my 2006 Hyundai Elantra in a funeral procession for a guy I didn’t even know. I schlepped around in my parents’ late-90s Caravan for a few months before I bought a 1992 Miata NA with 120,000 miles. I absolutely loved how much fun it was, but my friends complained about getting sunburned when we’d drive with the top down. That top actually unclipped itself and caught the wind like a sail one day on I-69! Another time, a bolt attached to the tiny sun visor unscrewed itself and fell straight into my nuts.
All this was excusable- it was an old car, and I loved it. But as the leaves began to turn, I knew I’d soon need a car with more than four inches of ground clearance to survive the upcoming Indiana winter. I hoped I’d be able to keep the Miata around, but the decision was made by my neighbor’s truck. It rolled down the hill between our houses and smashed into the helpless Miata, effectively totaling it in the driveway. After a brief search, I bought its replacement- a 2008 Dodge Avenger SE with about 75,000 miles on it. My sister had a similar model, an Avenger SXT, and I’d been driving it a lot from Muncie to Elkhart and back, a five-hour round trip. It was no Miata, but the Avenger fit me like a glove.
My new Avenger soon took me on the drive that would later inspire this whole project. I got it on the last day of August, right around the time neighboring Randolph County was putting the finishing touches on their $7.6 million courthouse renovation project. I’d always had a love of local history, so, one day when nothing much else was going on, I figured I’d kill some time by driving Highway 32 to check it out. I had no idea then that this single afternoon would wake a latent interest in architecture that I’d had for as long as I could remember. It gradually occurred to me that it might be pretty easy to go to every county in the state and document each historic courthouse in Indiana. Armed with my new car and the memory of that first fun outing, I set out to do it.
I soon found that, while I liked the Avenger and it was definitely adequate for my purposes, it had limitations. The 4-speed automatic transmission, combined with the 2.4 liter inline four, struggled to move the car’s 3355 pounds when merging or passing at interstate speeds. I’d come from a long tradition of quick stick-shifts and assumed correctly that the Avenger would be less responsive, but the lack of a standard transmission didn’t stop me from stomping my left foot when I wanted to shift for the first 3,000 miles or so. Props to Chrysler for incorporating a strong foot plate.
Chrysler didn’t deserve props for very many other things, though, as their execution of the Avenger seemed like a sloppy, cynical take on a muscle car for a soccer mom. As I drove to courthouse after courthouse, a few other annoying quirks and features began to pop up, like the triangular plastic trim piece that covered the spot where the driver’s side mirror connected to the door. I’ve still never been in an Avenger where it lined up right, and mine was no different. Despite my endless finagling, the two metal sprues that connected it into place were always cheaply visible. At least until I accidentally snapped them off.
I once made the mistake of removing a temporary parking pass from my rearview mirror –a simple procedure I’d done many times before- when the weight of the laminated ‘Do Not Disturb’-style hanger pulled the entire mirror off. I guess I can’t blame it; I too exhaustedly drop to the floor when confronted with small amounts of stress. I got a replacement mirror, but it never lined up the same way the old one did, and I always had to crouch to see out of it properly, afraid to make a minor adjustment for fear of a repeat performance.
Another exasperation that soon cropped up was with the key. The Avenger didn’t come with a keyless entry fob when I bought it- just a regular old stupid key. That was fine, but whenever I came back to my locked car and tried to get in with the key, the alarm would sound and the only thing to get it to shut the hell up was to start it and drive for a while. I started leaving the car unlocked, but a break-in (is it really a break-in when you leave the unlocked? I guess it was more of a get-in) prompted me to shell out the three hundred clams for a fob from the dealer.
Then there was an early issue with a radiator hose that should have been a $4 fix, but ended up being way more, thanks to Chrysler’s insistence that I spend $150 on an entire ‘radiator hose assembly’ rather than a just the necessary length of hose and some clamps. Then, apropos of nothing, the front driver’s side window refused to roll up on the way back from a trip to the Fayette County Courthouse, and the passenger side window soon joined it. There was really nothing like it! Except the time in the other Avenger, my sister’s, when we once had to make the three-hour drive from Elkhart to Muncie in 30-degree March rain with the passenger-side window stuck down- it must have been a common issue. My stepdad and I wired the motors to a car battery as a Band-Aid fix to roll the windows back up, but a real repair was in order. Since the motor still worked, I assumed the culprit was the switch, and I bought new window switches for each side on eBay. Both failed within three months.
Around this time, my sister’s Avenger was totaled after a mud-encrusted (both driver and car) Wrangler t-boned it in front of her office. I drove her to the junkyard to meet the insurance adjuster and arrived a little early so I could steal her window switches. Jackpot! And the fact that I considered a totaled car a jackpot source of replacement parts shows how bad the situation had really gotten. I also appropriated her fender liner to replace mine which had inexplicably sheared away, causing the battery underneath to short out in rain or snow. I’d actually zip-tied a rubber floor mat to hang in front of it to keep snow and rain out – but, finally, it could come down!
But in all this confusion, I’d given up on the courthouse project. I’d been to 30 counties, but the most recent trip had been frustrating. It was my first real, all-day endeavor and it took me around the Indianapolis doughnut. I was exhausted, and when I got home to edit the photos, I realized that all but two had accidentally been taken with a ridiculous incandescent filter that turned the buildings blue. I tried for weeks to edit and restore them but couldn’t do it well enough. It truly sucked quite a bit to invest a whole day in the project and have it be a total loss, especially right at the beginning. I was disheartened and gave up.
I pretty much sat around for three years until a winter photo trip to the Beech Grove School northwest of Muncie found my Avenger and me stuck in eight inches of snow. I ended up having to rock it back and forth over a gigantic boulder that nearly destroyed the passenger side rocker panel. Not long after that, the car started to shudder- a new wheel bearing was in order. And I continued to have electrical issues with the alarm and the power windows. The list of problems was out of control, and became a running joke to my friends and family. I was frustrated, but kept slogging on in it- frustration’s part of adulthood, after all.
After driving to thirty counties, I should have known that detours, construction, and difficulties are just temporary obstacles, and that there’s always a way around them. But the realization didn’t occur to me until 2015, when I passed five historic courthouses on the way to and from Turkey Run State Park. I hadn’t been to any of them before, and I felt stupid for ever stopping my project. I was feeling anxious to restart the project and actually see it through, but it was going to be hard with my crappy car- ironic, since buying the damn thing was what prompted me to start it in the first place! But as luck would have it, a newer, better, more reliable car would come my way soon- at least for 20,000 miles.