The Roof Of The Car: Where We Tempt Fate

Have you ever set something on the roof of your car, thinking, “I won’t forget that’s up there,” and then been wrong? Of course you have. Was it your wallet? Oh, you’re not that dumb? Well, I am.

One night about ten years ago, at the Longs Peak Trailhead in Rocky Mountain National Park, I was changing my pants outside of my car and thought it would be a good idea to set my wallet on top of the car. It was a good idea, until about 15 minutes later when I was pulling the car into a gas station in Estes Park and went to pull my wallet out of my pocket and found it to be empty. Where was my wallet? Oh yeah, I set it on top of the car. And then driven 10 miles at 55 mph to the gas station.

What were the odds that I could find it? My girlfriend was skeptical. It’s worth noting that my “wallet” was actually just a stack of credit cards and IDs held together with duct tape, a homemade solution I used for years, which was very cheap—and in this case, pretty much invisible on asphalt in the dark.

We drove back to the trailhead slowly, scanning the road for my wallet, and found nothing. I figured it probably flew off the roof in the first mile or two on Highway 7, when we accelerated to 55 mph, so I turned around and drove the first two miles, slowly, still scanning. Nothing. One more lap, I thought. Just as my girlfriend was saying again, “You’re never going to find it …” I spotted it, and triumphantly steered the car over to the left side of the road, where I opened the door, leaned out and scooped up my wallet without even unclipping my seat belt. I am sure I thought I was pretty slick at the time, but on The Dipshit Scale, finding your wallet does not cancel out being dumb enough to drive off with it on the roof of your car.

The roof of the automobile is not a car part we think about that much, until we think it might be useful as either a temporary shelf, or as a place to put gear when driving. But when it comes to our stuff, I would argue that the roof of an automobile is one of the most dangerous places to put anything. Useful, but dangerous. It’s almost like rappelling off a long climb—very convenient, but one mistake can be deadly.

I mean, we’ve all seen mattresses sitting on the side of the freeway—how do we think they got there? That’s right, someone who put a mattress on top of their car and then improperly secured it to the roof in a manner that couldn’t withstand the force exerted on it at 55 to 75 mph. I’ve seen cars flying down the freeway with a mattress on top, the front of the mattress catching so much wind that it looked like a giant animal’s yawning mouth, the people inside the car none the wiser. Jon, a friend of a friend, while helping someone move between college apartments and realizing they had nothing to tie their mattress down, perched himself on top of the mattress on his belly, arms spread, hands gripping the tops of the passenger and driver’s side doors, holding the mattress onto the top of the car. Jon did a lot of drugs back then.

Most of us have put bikes or skis on top of our car to get them from home to the trailhead or ski area, and we all know that it only takes one lapse in judgement to ruin it all. Mention roof racks around a group of six to eight cyclists and at least one of them will have a story about driving their beloved road bike or mountain bike into the roof of their garage, or into a restaurant drive-through. Someone told me that the bikes are often fine in many of those accidents, and the roof of the car takes most of the damage. I can tell you that when it comes down to the “Low Clearance” sign at the El Paso airport, two mountain bikes, and the roof and roof rack of a 2005 Chevy Astrovan, the airport sign will have the least damage of the three.

Also, if you fail to properly secure your bike on your roof rack, you may think you’re OK until you’re halfway across Nebraska and it comes flying into your rear passenger window. Or so I’ve heard. Skis, too: My friend Tommy, while working as a ski lift mechanic at Breckenridge in 2003, found a snowboard on the side of Highway 9 on his commute back into Frisco one evening, which someone probably noticed was missing when they got home and found an empty roof rack on the top of their car—but that a grateful Breck lifty (our friend’s sister) used for the rest of the 2003 season.

You would think, maybe, that after losing enough stuff by leaving it on top of a car, or wrecking enough bikes and/or roof racks, we’d learn. I would like to think that after leaving my wallet on top of my car that time, my car-roof stupidity had peaked. Alas.

A few months later, a few friends decided to hike a set of peaks on the Boulder skyline—South Boulder Peak, Bear Peak, Green Mountain, and Flagstaff Mountain, ending at the parking lot on Flagstaff Mountain, where we’d park a shuttle car to take us back to the South Mesa Trailhead, where we’d start. In the trailhead parking lot that morning, I started telling the story of finding my wallet on the side of the road, and as I was saying, “I set my wallet right here on top of the car,” I for some reason thought it would be smart to *actually set my wallet on top of the goddamn car again*. An hour or so later up the trail, I realized my pant pockets felt empty—because I didn’t have my wallet. Because, in all likelihood, I had left it ON THE FUCKING ROOF OF MY CAR. So I spent the rest of the day trying to have a good time hiking with my friends, but also every four or five minutes imagining some stranger had spotted my duct tape wallet on top of my car and had absconded with it to Best Buy and bought themselves a new flat screen and a washer and dryer on their way to maxing out all my credit cards and destroying my credit rating for the next ten years.

Thankfully, when we returned to the South Mesa trailhead hours later, my wallet was right where I’d left it, perhaps partially obscured by the roof rack, and partially camouflaged by its drab outer duct tape layer. And from that point on, I learned, I got smarter, and I stopped leaving things on top of my car.

Just kidding. A few weeks ago, I drove three and a half miles from my house to the UPS Store on Colorado Boulevard in Denver with a water bottle sitting on top of the car the entire time.