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Tie One On
Strung Out on the Dying Art of Cartop Packing

By John F. Kelly
The Washington Post
Sunday, August 31, 1997; Page E01

I have done it in a light snow, big fluffy flakes falling around my numb fingers. I have done it in my mother's North Carolina carport, bathed in a carapace of sweat. I wake up early to do it. I stay up late. I do it at the beginning and end of nearly every vacation and I enjoy it nearly as much as the trip itself.

I love tying stuff to the top of my car, a white 1992 Subaru Legacy station wagon, to be exact. Its matte black roof rack is my stage, my canvas, a blank slate for expressing myself. It's also where I put the Coleman cooler.

Lashing my vacation gear to the car's roof makes me feel like a jungle explorer, my supplies teetering atop the backs of natives. It gives me kinship to Adm. Byrd on his way to the Pole, the dog sleds groaning under the weight of tents and ice axes and boxes of dried beef. It connects me to the Okies, their jalopies loaded down with all their earthly possessions, heading westward, ever westward, in search of a new life.

Part of it is safety: I like being able to see out the back of my station wagon. Earlier this summer I packed the familymobile for a quick trip to Rehoboth. Yes I could have rested the beach chairs on top of the suitcases and beach towels in the back of the wagon, but I would have been looking out through a forest of webbing, and at the first panic stop my kids would have received tubular aluminum scalp massages.

But I will lash at the drop of a hat. "I think we might be able to fit the cooler back here," my wife will say.

"No, no, that's all right! I can fit it up top. Yeah, short bungee cord holding the top closed, longer bungee cord stretched lengthwise . . . rope tied off over here . . ." I walk around the car like a sculptor considering a block of marble.

Years of family travel have resulted in my favorite arrangement: big, lumpy duffel bag containing my clothes in the middle of the roof rack, its shoulder strap lengthened and looped under the front and rear roof rack edges; smaller leather bag with wife's clothes to one side, shoulder strap similarly arranged; children's clothes in third bag next to canvas duffel. (Using the bags' shoulder straps to hold them to the rack is, I believe, my contribution to the world of roof-rack packing. All systems must have redundancy.)

Then begins the bondage, um, rope work. I favor 50 feet of gray nylon cord. I tie one end to the forward edge of the roof rack, then methodically loop the rope back and forth, making sure that each item is secured not just to the rack but to the other items. When that's done -- and I use every inch of that rope -- I tie the other end off. The whole thing looks like what the Lilliputians used to hold down Gulliver.

But I'm not finished. We have our clothes on top, in permeable containers. What if it rains? I have a ragged plastic tarp that I fold before placing it atop my roped arrangement. The leading and side edges I tuck between suitcase bottoms and the roof rack bars. This I secure with a bungee-cord net with plastic hooks along all four edges. It resembles something a gladiator might use. (As with all bungee-cord products, this net isn't without its dangers. Pull one corner too tightly and the other side may come free, shooting at you like a sporting clay and leaving a nasty comma-shaped indentation on your forehead.)

It takes me more than half an hour, but that sucker holds. And just in case the load shows signs of fatigue, I monitor it en route by remotely angling the electric outside mirrors up.

Having a car with a roof rack and not using it is like driving a convertible with the top up or owning a Land Rover and using it for the soccer team car pool. Sadly, though, that is where our society is. People stopped using their roof racks around the same time men stopped wearing hats and I don't need to tell you what the outcome has been: skyrocketing teen pregnancy, increased divorce rate, gangsta rap, damn kids cutting across my yard . . .

You just don't see as many cars tootling down the highway top-heavy with stuff. The ubiquitous minivan swallows all cargo these days. Oh sure, you see car-top carriers (please read "carriers" with sputtering tone of disgust and dismissal). These clamshells are the lazy man's system: Attach the Sears X-Cargo to the roof rack, pile in your stuff, close it and drive away. No muss. No fuss. Well, what are you hiding? What are you so ashamed of that I can't look at your possessions as we dice in the passing lane of I-95?

I want to see what you own, what you have decided to take on vacation. I can tell a lot about you by the things you've balanced on the Taurus. The roof rack is the window to the soul. For example, how often have you seen some bozo on the Beltway who's used frayed plastic twine to "secure" a mattress to the top of his vehicle? He's opened his car doors and wrapped the string around twice. His final safety measure is to roll down the driver's side window and rest a hand on top of the bedding, as if that would be enough to stop the Posturepedic from going airborne. I'll tell you what it tells me: I don't want to be anywhere behind him when that mattress takes flight.

On a recent trip to South Carolina, my roof rack skills reached their zenith. In the middle -- coquettishly off-center -- was a cooler full of non-perishables. Stacked to one side were four beach chairs. On the other side was a beach umbrella. (Beach umbrellas pose special problems. You must make sure the top is pointed toward the front of the car, otherwise the wind can take it and pop it open like a drogue chute on a dragster.) Four bicycles hung from a bike rack on the back. Since our clothes weren't on top, I didn't need the tarp. The exoskeleton of my art was on view, like the outside of the Pompidou Center in Paris.

At vacation's end, as I waited in the rental-office parking lot while my wife dropped off the house key, an elderly man in shorts, T-shirt and baseball cap leaned in my window and said, "They should give an award for packing. Have you taken a picture of your car?"

I had, as a matter of fact. And he's right. They should.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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