The Wheels That Get Me There

No journey is complete without a way to travel. My collection of conveyances has not always been the most glamorous. In fact, none of them could hold a candle to the greats like Thomas Magnum’s Ferrari, B.A. Baracus’s Chevy Van, or Cordell Walker’s Dodge pickup, but each acquired its own story and soul.

“Badass” was the last term anyone would use to describe my first two vehicles. They were the soccer mom rigs of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The only claim to coolness either could make was that they rode like boats and had V8 engines. The first one, a 1984 Grand Marquis Wagon, even sported dual exhaust. They both rusted like crazy, and what was Mercury thinking when they left the bottom of the spare tire well open anyway? Even before the rust ate out the tailgate, driving on dirt roads with those beasts was a respiratory nightmare.  They were great for travel, a comfortable ride and spacious enough to allow for a make-shift class B RV setup, but I never got to take even the ’91 out-of-state. After graduation, my friends and I wanted to take a trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota, but they were short on cash and I was short on repair knowledge. So that never happened.

Toward the tail-end of my senior year of high school, the ’91’s ignition switch went out requiring some magical Gerry rigging from my brother to shut it off one afternoon. Rather than repair it, we parked it, and I ended up taking the 1994 Corolla to prom.

“Ended up” is probably not an adequate way to put it. The Corolla had a 2.2L engine and despite racking up 140,000 miles it had take-off power and rode smoothly enough that I once hit 120 miles per hour without realizing it. Washed and polished, its only drawback was that it was sedan. Only a week after prom, I made a fatal mistake in city traffic and rear-ended a Volvo with it, totaling both cars. At least the mistake was only fatal to the vehicles. By then, I gave each vehicle I drove a theme song. The Corolla got The Eagles’ “Take It To The Limit” for being the first car I took over 100mph and the first, and so far only, car I’ve crashed.

A week later, after a few days in the shop, I was back in the ’91 Wagon. Now this car was probably the first that I really developed a “relationship” with. It was the first car I “owned” that still had a shiny finish. I even had my senior yearbook picture taken with it. That car rode great but lacked fantastic rally racing suspension: Ironic since it saw more high-speed chases than any other of my vehicles. One of those races even involved the cops. It was homecoming week, the night of the bon fire, and the first time I really “cruised town”. I remember showing off what the thing could do to a bunch of the popular girls loaded into the back while jamming out to Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” That’s how I wound up fleeing one of my classmates which turned out to be one of the local police officers. That was the first check I ever wrote and it went to pay the fine for a moving violation.

Being a typical Mercury (Ford) product, it had a few problems, but the most fatal for it was the result of human error. An over-heat destroyed the seals on the engine before it got the privilege of driving it. The engine seized on my dad one night and it was sold to the scrap yard. That was how I came to drive the 1993 Celica ST.

It was the first stick-shift car I ever drove and probably the best looking car I drove for many years. The first owner added a European racing stripe to it and the only rust it showed was a small patch on the driver’s rear fender, a common occurrence on these cars kept in salted-road states. I first soloed it several months after one lesson from Dad. It was on a summer day when he sent me to town on an errand. I asked to take it, and he said, “If you can get it out of the yard, you can take it.” It took fifteen minutes and that many stall-outs, but I got that baby out to the street and to town and back. For the next three years, that little car was my freedom. Reliable enough to get me across the country, I drove it from the Grand Canyon up the west coast and back and forth between Montana and home several times. I logged over 70,000 miles on her before a glitchy engine temperature sensor landed it in the shop repeatedly. Thus began my growing distrust of dealership mechanics. They tried selling me a new car early on, but the only one I came close to affording was a gutless Rav4 with a 2 Litre engine. So I started searching the classifieds and eventually bought my first Jeep. Upon finding out that I had purchased another vehicle and was selling the Celica, the dealership finally and successfully repaired the chronic problem. I sold the little car back to Dad for as much as I’d paid him for it. Not a bad investment. He eventually sold it to one of my brothers who dumped additives in the gas and oil until it died. I tortured that car pretty good, drag raced it and sped it through mountain passes like a Monte Carlo contestant, but after two years of a steady additive diet and never revving over 3,000 rpms, it struggled to reach highway speeds. It went for scrap within 1,000 miles of 300,000 on the original engine and tranny, and that was because someone cut the engine computer out of it.

I didn’t hate the Celica, but living two states away from home and knowing enough about cars to half-fill a thimble, I needed something that didn’t break down every week. I perused the classifieds for a week before I found the Jeep that would be my most reliable “friend” for next 11 years.

She was a 1996 Grand Cherokee, black with a bug guard. It was the only Grand Cherokee I’d ever seen with running bars, listed as “running boards” in the ad. I had the image of fiberglass skirts, popular on higher-end Chevys in the 1990s, and I was none too thrilled with the prospect of those, but I fell in love with that car at first sight. She had just short of 96,000 miles when I test-drove her. The all-wheel drive system was an early one, and it made the handling a little squirrelly, but it was fun to drive and showed almost no rust. I remember cruising at 70 down a Montana two-lane listening to Yellowstone Public Radio and just knowing this was what I wanted. Of course, I didn’t tell the lady selling it that I was going to buy it. I needed to think about it since I had to finance it.

I called her back the next day and offered her $500 less than her asking price. She took it, and that was the beginning of a very long life for a vehicle.

A few years before Car Talk went off the air, I heard one of their episodes where a caller presented the idea that people’s relationships is reflected in how long they keep cars. Though I have seen significant anecdotal evidence to support this hypothesis, I decline to attribute undying loyalty to how long I kept that Jeep. Instead, I think it had more to do with the fact that a catalytic converter recall on the thing finished off my trust in dealerships, especially when the fine southern gentleman salesman declined to return the car to me because the Jeep needed minor work done on it. After that, I bought a Haynes Manual and started learning the difference between a push rod and a tie rod. Another thing can be said for proper naming of the vehicle. In her book “Girls Auto Clinic”, Patrice Banks recommends naming your vehicle, which doesn’t hurt, but the Jeep was the first vehicle I named.

I adopted the naming system of naming my vehicles after ships of any kind. For the Jeep, I chose “Black Pearl” and that was the primary reason to which I attribute its undying function.

Some people say that Jeep stands for “Just Empty Every Pocket”, but considering the fact that this thing outlasted two Chevys of the same year and same quality of treatment (if not better since they were my dad’s), I’d just say those folks are jealous or severely miss-led. Considering how many things went out on this car and it still kept rolling, I’d say I more than got my money’s worth from it.

It traveled coast to coast once, north border to south border twice, and to many other places in between. As a solo traveler, I have resorted to giving a beta fish his own camera and helping him take pictures with it and carrying on “conversations” with said fish, named Haze, in an attempt to break up the loneliness. Hence, The Perl took on a life of her own, and she had enough of the typical Chrysler electrical issues to seem alive. With the advent of Facebook, she got her own posts, featured in many pictures, including major landmark crossings and visitations to historic places. When I was upset or stressed out, a drive with Perl usually settled me down. I learned how to perform maintenance on that car beyond the basic oil change. She and I shared blood and oil in equal parts, and the more she aged, the more I learned to do.

During the last two years I had her, I was the butt of a few jokes, one of which wasn’t entirely intentional. When visiting my uncle in South Carolina, he insisted on keeping Perl in the garage. Since he lived in a slightly upscale neighborhood, I figured it probably was a bit embarrassing to have such an old vehicle sitting in front of his house. That and he might have caught flack for having something not made by the motor company he worked for in plain sight on the street. I was still proud of Perl though. It was a great boost in confidence to know that I could maintain my own vehicle as long as I had the space and tools to do the work.

When I went to work in the oil field, I started making enough that I could catch up on repairs that waited years for work. Perl was on her way to being a fully-restored vehicle, but the needed repairs started accumulating faster than completed repairs and I gradually lost ground.

What finally “killed” her was an over-heat which happened one morning when I left her to warm up in the middle of winter. The radiator blew through a badly corroded spot and drained out almost every last drop of coolant when the thermostat opened. It warped the head just enough that a year later, the engine took on a new noise, a slight knock which serves as a death knell for any engine. Coolant had crossed into the oil, reducing the needed lubrication to the moving parts and creating gaps too wide for smooth motion.

Following this discovery, the same sinking, gut-wrenching feeling hit me as when I was told as a child that my dog had to be put down. The cost of a new engine added to the various other things that needed doing that year would be more than the annual price of a new car. I knew that day was coming, but being prepared made it no easier. I knew what I wanted to replace Perl, but still, I hesitated for several days, until I convinced myself it was time, and went out searching for the right replacement.

For two years, I researched vehicles to figure out what would replace my Jeep. I quickly found that there was no way to pay $5,000 for a ten-year-old car and get anything of substance or reliability. The last thing I wanted was to trade a known money hole for a black box of repair costs. So, I decided to go with something five-years-old or newer, but then I ran into the issue of gentrification, to put it nicely. The new SUVs, including Jeeps, not only had smaller motors, they had transmissions designed for optimum gas mileage and little torque. Instead of the compact little powerhouses of the 1990s, they were now as useful as a rail-thin runway model. They looked great, but lacked substantial power. They also had about as much ground clearance as a standard sedan. They were all-wheel drive, but not off-highway worthy, which left me with one choice, up-sizing.

So, I started looking at pickups.

Dad has had a long love affair with Chevrolet products. Unfortunately, this history has not inspired a glowing recommendation for the brand. He went through three within the time I had the Jeep, and all met the fate of blown engines or transmissions.

As a child, I never missed an episode of “Walker, Texas Ranger” and, in those days, dreamed of owning a Dodge Ram. That dream started to die when I spent the better part of four years driving them for work. They were poorly fitted for me, handled like their namesake implied by dodging everything but the roadway, and more unreliable than Chevys.

Toyotas were out of the question for price, and Nissan just wasn’t me. Yes, I wanted something with good gas mileage, a towing capacity equal to or greater than the Jeep’s and decent reliability. I also wanted something with history and legend rooted in America.

So, I went with Ford.

After comparing the models made in the last ten years, I decided for the 13th Generation F150. I contacted the dealership through one of those online free price quote deals which are one step shy of a phishing scam and submitted the list of requirements I needed for a pickup ranked by importance. The salesman came back stating that there were only two on their lot which fit the bill and pricing options (sad considering the dealership’s “lot” included two city blocks). I told the salesman I’d look at them that day. So I put on my Carhartt vest and fire department ball cap with muck boots and went up town to do business.

Yes, the choice of outfit was deliberate. It was a cold February day, and I did not want to come across as a very cute little female whose only interest in a vehicle was the looks and status. I wanted a good-looking truck with substance to back it up.

He showed me two trucks. One was a SuperCab (extended cab) with a long bed in white and the other was a SuperCrew with a short bed in navy blue. Neither truly spoke to me, but I was still in mourning for what I was about to do to my old Jeep. I test-drove both and liked both, but it came down to two things, the center console and price. I was leaning toward the blue one, but I had to sleep on it, because that was still a lot of money.

When the salesman allowed me to take the truck home for the night, I was floored. I figured they could just declare the thing stolen if I didn’t come back the next day, but I left the Jeep as collateral. So, I went home, picked up the dog and went for a drive.

I put that truck through its paces, from 4×4 on dirt roads to narrow, windy two-lanes 10mph over the recommended speed. I even took it off the line a couple times, fiddling with the performance features. Once I got it stuck in 4Lo and nearly panicked that I’d broken something. Eventually, I got it figured out and kept going.

At the end of the day, I sat on my back porch, cigarette in one hand and beer in the other and stared at that truck. I liked it, but I missed the Jeep. I knew what I had to do, but it made it no easier. Perl needed to be retired and sent on to the next person, but I hated doing that to a car that suffered my worst times and saw my best times with the same stoic steadiness that only an object can manage. When I lost friends, she was still there, chugging away as she always had. When my family had more important things to deal with than my hardships, I found comfort behind her wheel. Out of a miss-placed sense of loyalty, I wanted to give Perl better than a trade-in to an unknown fate, but I also did not want to see what the next nut did to her.

So the next day, I went to the dealership and told them I’d take the truck and offered the trade-in.

That last day with Perl, I took her to the county shop to have the search and rescue mobile taken out. On the way back, I took her on the interstate one last time. 80mph was hard for her, but she managed. I cleared my stuff out and made one last loop around town, documenting it all with pictures. It didn’t really hit me fully until I removed the license plates in the dealership lot. I’d stripped the stickers off the back, cleared out all traces of me except for the stained rugs, worn seats and musty bed, but removing the plates was like pulling the plug and watching the life, the soul, drain away. 150,343 miles, 23 states and 11 years came to an end. I patted her hood one last time and went inside to sign the papers.

Two weeks passed before I started coming out of grieving. Getting the plates for the truck helped, because then I had to think of a name. I chose Voyageur, half for the French trappers of the Upper Midwest and half for the Star Trek ship, because I intended to have many adventures with her.

It also helped that it was Voyageur’s fault that my boyfriend and I started our relationship. Or maybe it was just my technological clumsiness. Who knows, but I ended up calling him for the first time through the Sync system, on accident, and now I’m moving a state over to be with him.

26,891 miles and a year later, my life almost meets the requirements of a country song: A good truck, a good dog, and a good man. Only female country singers rarely sing about their trucks, if ever. I plan to take Voyageur beyond 300,000 miles and to as many places as possible. Voyageur’s story has just begun.