The Long Road Home


I was out for a drive in my 1956 Jaguar MK I 2.4 saloon a while back.  My purpose: pick up a few provisions at the grocery store in the nearby small town.

This drive started out like many others – not in a hurry, not concerned with when I leave, how long it takes or when I get home.  The Jag and I start out slowly, letting the car’s fluids warm up, and we eventually end up hitting a long stretch of road, running the revs up to blow a little carbon out. The added benefit is keeping the bearing seals lubricated, moving the grease around in the various components, and keeping the rings and valves free.  It doesn’t hurt that we get to enjoy the appreciating nods, looks and waves from other motorists and pedestrians, as well, who are mostly pleasantly surprised to see this wonderfully sculpted vision from an automobile era long past gliding down the road with a bit of a growl coming from under the long red bonnet that is accented with the famous pouncing Jaguar hood ornament – know to Jag owners as “The Leaper.”


Today, as I pull onto the highway from a traffic light near home, I spot an early 1960’s Jaguar Series I XKE a few cars back in the line.  No time to wave as I’m cranking the large, non-power steering wheel onto the road and changing gears at the same time.  Vintage Jaguar owners always wave at each other, and occasionally newer Jaguar drivers do, as well, in recognition of their own car’s heritage, if they happen to recognize it.

It didn’t take long for the XKE to move up almost directly behind me, weaving to the side occasionally to take a peek at my Jaguar Mark I in this statistically improbable encounter with another vintage cat on a country highway.  There are darned few XKEs on the road today, but there are far fewer of the Mark I, which was only made from late 1955 through 1959.  Not many were imported into the United States, and not many of those survived the ravages of rust and bad mechanics over the past 60 years.

As we pulled into town, the cars between the XKE and us started to separate off on side roads, leaving the XKE directly following me into town, a sight that was having an joyful effect on drivers of oncoming cars and pedestrians who were waving, giving a thumbs up or a two-finger victory salute.  I wondered how many of them really knew the significance of the automotive history passing them by.  Very few, likely.  Most were just enjoying the sight of two beautiful old Jags out stretching their legs: my Mark I, with flowing curves emanating from the distinctive oval grill, sweeping back to a single point at the rear, and the XKE, one of the most beautiful and sensuous roadsters ever built.  In any case, they were seeing a couple beautiful old Jaguars that brought them a smile and maybe for some, a memory.

1962 Jaguar E-Type Series 1 3.8 Roadster

When we stopped at the next light, I had the opportunity to put my arm out the window and give my fellow Jaguar driver a hearty salute, and he returned with his own.  We both turned at the light and rolled on through town.  As I signaled and turned left off the roadway into the grocery store parking lot, the XKE passed on my right, with a toot of the horn, leaving behind the sweet sound of that 3.8 liter Jaguar twin-cam six.

There’s transportation, and there’s transportation.  Humanity has been moving across land from one place to another over the centuries, creating roads and trails to move on and vehicles to move with from Point A to Point B.  The horse and the wheel facilitated the process over the millennia, and then the invention of the internal combustion engine at the end of the nineteenth century brought individual motorized transportation into practical use.

Though this evolution of travel came about because it provided a more efficient way to travel, it also meant that some would look beyond the basic conveyance and add style, fashion, design, art and excitement.  Remnants of horse carts have been found in pre-historic Celtic graves, and the earliest known carriages were the Mesopotamian war chariots dating back to 1900 BC.  Even these early wheeled vehicles were the subject of design and decoration, with constant improvements to performance.  This culminated at the end of the 19th Century with some very extraordinary carriages that had specific purposes from family outings to sport driving.

Nineteenth Century Carriage

Design and performance matter.  The Romans bred fast and powerful horses to pull their war wagons, with an eye on a favorable horsepower-to-weight ratio.  Just as the Romans tested their horses and chariots in races, it didn’t take long after the introduction of those first few cars before we started racing them.  Speed and power were at first in the hands of a few, but as technology developed and became more accessible to everyone, cars became faster, more comfortable and more beautiful, from the two-seater Stutz Bearcat of the early 1900s to the luxurious and very fast Duesenberg Model J and the blazing fast but highly practical Ford V8s of the 1930s.  The definitive Jaguars of the early 1930s were first known as SS 1 and SS 2, derived from the original manufacturer name: Swallow Sidecars.

SS 100 3 ½ Litre Roadster
SS 100 3½ Litre Roadster

If you couldn’t buy a fast car, you could make one, and the consummate inventor, the American hot rodder, was born.  I remember my Dad recounting with obvious pleasure how in the 1930’s he tuned his first Model T with hot magnetos, twin carbs, shaved heads and a high-speed rear end.  The Jaguar I’m driving today was my Dad’s car.  He was a mechanic and taught me how to turn a wrench.  He put me in the driver’s seat of his 1950 Dodge Coronet with Fluid Drive – an automatic with a clutch – when I was 10 years old, and I’ve been driving ever since.  He collected cars, favoring Packards, Studebakers, and Hudsons.  Just before he passed on, he gave me the Jaguar.  I remember his instructions: “There’s no synchro in low gear on this car, Steven, so you’ll need to double clutch.  There’s nothing wrong with the transmission, it’s just the nature of the English Moss gearbox.”

Dashboard of my 1956 Jaguar MK I 2.4 Saloon

I get back into the car with a bag of groceries, turn the steel ignition key cylinder on the dash board and push the chrome starter button.  The twin-cam XK six comes to life with a slight snarl, worthy of a car named after a large cat.  With a pull of the gear lever back into second gear, I then push it directly into first before starting out.  I put my hands on the steering wheel, which still has the leather cover my Dad had sewn on.  The “cat” stares back at me from center of the wheel.  The only two people who have driven this car in the last 50 years have been my Dad and me.

As I pull onto the street, I double clutch into second, as Dad had recommended in that last phone call.  A few people nod and wave as I go by, but my mind is elsewhere.  I’m not ready to go home.  I’m going to take a drive.

I’m taking the long road home today.

Related post: JAG LOVERS

Jaguar Irish Setter

North Africa Diary – Lost in the Medina

“He did not think of himself as a tourist; he was a traveler. The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another.”

― Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky


I spent days in North Africa completely lost.

Blissfully, hopelessly lost on unmarked mountain roads littered with fallen rock, dusty highways disappearing in the shifting sands, and village roads that narrowed until the only way out was to reverse and back down amidst children swarming the car and peering in the windows.

Some begged a handout and others implored me to buy whatever they had in their hands, a trinket, a blanket, a pair of sandals, or a small bag of “kif,” the ubiquitous mixture of tobacco and hashish widely smoked in water pipes by men sitting in the shade, sipping fresh mint tea, and sometimes playing drums, reed flutes, or an endless variety of bowed and stringed instruments of various shapes and timbre.

Children of the Rif Mountains

Berber and North African music sounds very different to the Western ear – mystical, trance-like.  The scales can be double harmonic, quarter tone, odd numbers of equal intervals, Locrian, Aeolian, or a mixture of any of these.  The songs are mostly without beginning, without end – a circular story repeated over centuries with minor variations.  Though I could not understand the words, I often felt I understood the narrative.  It’s fine if you don’t believe that.  I’m not sure I do.

Click the photo below to listen to Moroccan singer Oum.

Moroccan singer Oum El Ghaït Benessahraoui

To become truly lost in North Africa, follow the music and step through the timeless portal of the medina or souk – the old market – in any city in Morocco.  These centuries-old inner cities are most often the center of the ancient kasbah or medina, built with high, windowless walls to protect the inhabitants.

Medina, Marrakech, Morocco

A few steps inside, streets rapidly narrow to walkways under the overhanging buildings that seem to almost touch when you glance skyward.  Within 100 meters, you can no longer see where you entered as alleys and passageways branch off in all directions.  You can’t get your bearing or direction from the sky because the souk is built purposefully to protect you from the sun’s midday heat.  Paul Bowles wrote in The Sheltering Sky:

“How fragile we are under the sheltering sky. Behind the sheltering sky is a vast dark universe, and we’re just so small.”

Stone-paved passages twist and turn, obscuring both the direction you’ve come and the direction you’re going, with partially hidden walkways snaking off at bizarre angles, sometimes leading into a secret courtyard, sometimes pulling you into a building then out again the other side, sometimes leaving you at a complete dead end.

There are more and more people around you as you go further in; women in kaftans sweep by, creating a scented breeze in their wake, and men in traditional coarse woolen djellabas peer out from under pointed hoods.  You blend in to their pace, your walk taking on the side-to-side direction of the traffic flow, like cells splitting and multiplying, randomly, chaotically.  You begin to pick destinations a few feet away so that you can keep what’s left of your sense of orientation.  You choose distractions that allow you stand for a moment, often in wonder.

Hungry? How about fresh cakes, pastries and biscuits fired in stone ovens.  Feeling daring?  Sit down on the carpet in front of the man deftly handling the cobra.  He speaks 10 languages.  Perfectly safe, he says.  Stop and listen to musicians playing Berber folk music, popular Chaabi, mystical Gnawa, or classical Malhun.  Need to cast a spell?  Talk to the woman in the muti (African magic) shop about purchasing phials of ground animal bones to deal with someone who has maligned you.  A large vat of roasting nuts juts into the narrow and crowded passage – careful, those pans are hot!


If you can dream it, you can find it at the souk: rug merchants, artisans, tailors, bakers, spice merchants, weavers, dancing boys, jugglers, storytellers, acrobats, fortune tellers, snake charmers, drummers, and more.

Snake charmers, Marrakech, Morocco

As you walk, shopkeepers will plead with you to enter their store, have some tea and see what they have to sell.  Accept their offer!  Take respite from the smoldering cacophony on the street to rest and breathe.  You are now a guest, as well as a potential customer; you will be treated very well, with fresh mint tea brewed in front of you.  Sit with the merchant on a rug in the back of the store sipping your tea while he patiently explains why you would be foolish to go anywhere else to buy exquisite carpets, hand-worked brass and jewelry, beautiful hand-sewn clothing, or high quality hand-dyed leather goods from camels, goats and sheep.

Medina, Marrakech, Morocco

Should you find that gorgeous kaftan that you simply must have, go slowly.  The starting price is just that: a start.  The time-honored process is that you will negotiate.  You’d be foolish not to, and the merchant will think you’re crazy if you don’t.  It’s also fine to tell the merchant that you want to look around a little more.  He will complain and reluctantly offer you an even lower price as you walk out the door.  If you don’t find something you like better, he will welcome you back later like a long-lost friend and give you an even better price.  “For you, madam, 400 dirham.  Last price.”

For that is the reason the medina, the market, and the souk have existed since the beginning of time: commerce.  Everything is for sale.  Everything has a last price at the market.  Everything must be sold.

If you get lost, which you hopefully will, you will also always find your way out.  Eventually.

Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech, Morocco


Mehdia Plage – Aussies Go Walkabout

My previous entry – HOW WE CAME TO LIVE IN NORTH AFRICA AT MEHDIA PLAGE القنيطرة المهدية – introduces how we came to live in a villa on a beach in North Africa for some months.


Bob, a US Navy officer, and Robin invited us to share their villa, which they rented from a colonel in the Moroccan army and his wife, who was a niece of the King of Morocco, Hassan II.  Several other villas in Mehdia Plage were rented by Navy staff and Peace Corps volunteers who worked out of Kenitra, so there were parties and barbeques on someone’s veranda every night with fresh caught fish, booze from the Navy liquor store, Spanish beer and Moroccan wine.

There was also a contingent of Australian surfers who were staying in their busses and vans on the beach or were crashing – now called couch surfing, in an interesting twist – with their new American friends.  Traveler friends are easily made; these friendships may last a day or a lifetime.  You never know.

While travelling, I often met Australians who were on an extended road trip in what I came to know as a “world walkabout” before settling into jobs and family and life in Australia.  Sitting at a bar on a ferry from Italy to Corfu, an Australian traveler explained to me that because Australia was so far from anywhere else, when people left their homeland to travel, they would often travel for a year or more at a time.  Three to five years was not unknown.

The standing operating procedure was to fly into Amsterdam, buy a vehicle, and hit the road with a vague destination or no destination at all.  The only objective, if possible, was to set their homeward heading to return to Amsterdam, sell the vehicle to another traveler, and return to the mother land.  My informant said they referred to it as going “walkabout,” after the traditional rite of passage for young indigenous Australian males who went into the bush for months.  Modern Australians go walkabout to itch their wandering feet, travel beyond the horizon, and see what they haven’t seen.  Don’t we all?

Crocodile Dundee: “I was sorta’ married once – – nice girl, good cook, biiig chest. Then I went walkabout, and when I came back, she’d gone.”


Turns out, the ocean right in front of our villa was a world surfer destination.  Though we came to Mehdia Plage by happy chance, our new Aussie friends had come here for the waves.

Here is a link to Surf Photos of Mehdia Plage

Their collective walkabout, defined by a passion for surfing, was to hit every great surf beach on the African continent.  Most had been traveling well over a year in a caravan collective of VW, Peugeot, Land Rover and Citroën busses and vans with surf boards strapped on top.  They’d even picked up an American from New York City somewhere around Cape Town some months back, and he was starting to talk with a mixed New York/Aussie accent, which was sometimes unintelligible, but still a delight to hear.

camper 1
VW camper from that era
camper 4
Land Rover in its element

That was our big, happy family at Mehdia Plage: US Navy, US Peace Corps, Australians, and a wide range of Europeans.  We co-existed peacefully with Moroccans, who were either very pleased to be making so much money from renting out their villas or who were Moroccan military from the nearby garrison.  A poste de garde at the entrance to the village, protected by a Moroccan soldier with an AK-47, kept watch on everyone coming and going.

Mid-winter coastal North African weather was a little chilly at night, with the morning sun quickly moving temperatures to the mid-70s.  For Westerners, the uniform du jour was shirt, shorts, and sandals.

Daily routine was simple, beginning with a light breakfast of fresh oranges, Berber bread and coffee.  Afterward, perhaps a lingering game of chess on the balcony, a trip to the Kenitra markets, a walk on endless beaches that stretched from one horizon to the other, or watching the Aussies catch wave after wave.  Dinner was cooked chez nous, or we might walk up the street to join the Peace Corps, often barbequing a large fish that someone had picked up at the fishermen’s dock that morning.

The evening almost always ended with a glass of wine somewhere in the village with our Navy, Peace Corps, Australian, European or Moroccan friends watching the most spectacular sunsets imaginable over the Atlantic Ocean, the sun sinking slowly, slowly down, then suddenly, in a fleeting moment, being swallowed into the sea in a blaze of shifting color.

A word of caution: never try to outdrink an Australian.  Consider yourself doing well if you can just keep up the pace.