Zen and the Art of Automobile Maintenance
Martin and Eric's Excellent Adventure or
The Travels of Eric the Red or
Across America in a Longboat
It all started on a cold, November night in Vancouver. Tom Abrahamsson and I were sipping a glass of Lagavulin overlooking the Pacific Ocean when I was lamenting the lack of transportation in Columbus (both public and private) and my complete, total, and utter ignorance in all matters automotive.
"Oh, buying a car is easy," says Tom.
"Oh yes. I've owned about 200 of them. I have two rules: I never buy a car with fuel injection, and I never pay more than $1500 Canadian."
Being the complete and utter automotive neophyte I am, I only just grasped the bit about fuel injection, but I am familiar enough with money and Ohio car ads to know that 1,500 Canadian dollars for a car was a hell of a deal. Besides, when I'd arrived at the airport, Tom and Tuulikki had picked me up in their 1984 Chrysler Fifth Avenue which was every bit of the over-the-top, V8-equipped, 5m long steel monster that I imagined a real American car to be, and it had apparently passed Tom's stringent requirements on both counts.
"Besides, people try to give me cars for free," he added.
"What do you mean, 'try'?"
"Oh, I don't want them. I already have a car."
"Great," I concluded, "when the time comes, I'll give you a call."
And with this we turned our attention away from the messy business of cars, towards the glorious liquid in our glasses, and exactly what uses you have for a 15mm lens on a rangefinder camera.
Fast forward to June. I now reside in the US with the financial blessing of my home institution and find myself in a position where I can afford to not only get a license, but also a car. So, I take two driving lessons from an instructor called Craig, who was so impressed with my driving skills that he spent most of the time in the passenger seat telling me of the driving violations he'd committed in his first two years as a licensed driver and what he'd seen in Europe as a dental hygenist in the US Army, pass my test on a Wednesday with flying colours, and spend that weekend driving the 1,400 miles to and from Boston in a rented Chevrolet Cavalier to meet with my MIT friends. They can't quite decide whether I'm Way Cool or just plain barking mad to drive for 15 hours to attend the "Day after Bastille Day" party they're throwing.
With that financial blessing came some travel money, so I book flights to New Orleans to attend the computer graphics conferance SIGGRAPH for a week, then on to San Diego for the Human Factors and Ergonomics Societies conference the following week. I had to buy my ticket late, so I paid a high price, but was bumped up into first class for free. I got a nice, wide seat and cashew nuts instead of peanuts ("tourist only has peanuts: we have cashews too".)
We flew at dusk over a thunderstorm. It was probably the most breathtakingly beautiful sight I have ever seen, to cruise at 30,000ft above dark clouds that every now and then flash with lightening. My nose pressed against the thick, scratched glass of the window, eyes open in awe at the stupendous magnitude of it all. Lightening bolts that travel for miles and miles under the plane; soft, dark, billowing shapes that are briefly illuminated, stand out in stark contrast and sharp relief, then lapse into the dim sea of cloud again. All completely silent.
New Orleans and I didn't get on very well. It seemed to me that the whole city was engineered for one purpose: to relieve you of any disposable income in your possession with the greatest possible speed. Three times I was warned, without asking, to not stray from the major streets into sparsely populated areas. I even saw an advertisement for some entertainment establishment that claimed:
Vultures are outside.
Vultures like flesh.
You are flesh.
...where they'd happily relieve you of some more of that disposable income, since they, presumably, were not vultures. Or something.
Which is a pity, because I recognize that New Orleans is an interesting city from a historic and cultural point of view. I'm sure that if I spent more than a week there, and got to know some people, and preferably didn't spend that week in a large business hotel, and did something else than shuttle back-and-forth to a conference each day, I'd see a much nicer and more interesting side of the city. But, unfortunately, that didn't happen on this trip.
Knowing that I was going to be driving from San Diego up to Seattle later in this epic journey, I decided I needed something to read on aircraft, busses, and eventually at rest stops. I found a artsy bookstore in a mall along the Mississippi where I picked up a copy of Jack Kerouac's "On The Road". A few hours later, while stumbling through the French Quarters, I fell into a wonderful second-hand bookstore where I picked up a $3 copy of Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test". Only much later, upon embarking on the latter novel, did I realize what a superb companion pair these would make.
San Diego was bizarre. We flew in at night, so I saw little other than the sparkle of lights against a velvet black backdrop, which makes any city look beautiful. My room had been pre-booked for me by my collegues at Linkoping, and at the airport, I recognized from the hotel information board the green octagons along the roof line of the tall towers of the Wyndham Emerald Plaza Hotel. I called them and they sent a shuttle. At the check-in desk, I asked for a room as high up as possible and got a fabulous view of the city from the 21st floor.
In daylight, downtown San Diego is like Disneyland. You get the impression is has been painstakingly engineered, constructed, and crafted to give the impression of the American Dream and The Happy Life. Streets are wide and clean (I don't think there is anything less than four lanes in all of San Diego). Colours are bright pastels by day and glimmering neon by night. Lawns are meticulously maintained, there isn't a hint of graffiti on the commuter trains, everyone's car is newly washed, waxed, and German, and police officers look like they're plucked from the show Baywatch.
Yet, I came across more beggars and homeless people in San Diego than I have in any other place I've been, except London. On the one hand, I can understand it. Hey, if you're homeless, San Diego has a pretty nice climate and the beaches are soft. But it's as though the whole city lives in denial: I saw no hint of social services, there is nothing, anywhere, to indicate that there is any awareness of this problem, or anything being done to help these people. Rather the opposite: everything pointed to wealth and well-being, to oppulance and optimism.
I spent a day at the World Famous San Diego Zoo, as they call it. When I was in Dublin a number of years ago, I went to the Dublin Zoo and had a blast. I was five, again, walking around, looking at all the amazing animals and dreaming of becoming a veterinarian doctor, marine biologist, or any other of those fascinating professions you see on the Discovery Channel. So, I was hoping to be transported back to that time again.
Didn't happen. Sure, the zoo is large, and the animals well cared for, but they are so bored our of their brains that I felt lucky I'd spent the winter as a PhD student in a small flat in Columbus, rather than a primate on display in San Diego. The only ones that looked like they had a good time were the California sea lions, but then they got a fish stuck in their mouth every time they opened it and flapped their flippers, rolled over, swam through the water, or "oinked" on command. If you consisted of 700lb of flubber, you'd probably also be happy at the prospect of getting fed that often.
In San Diego I rented a car made by Dodge and shaped like a well-used bathroom soap. Long, sleek, and swift, we zoomed up along I-5 the following day to Universal City outside Los Angeles. I remember seing a documentary on the making of the "Terminator 2 3D" ride a number of years ago and since then I'd made a pledge to myself to go and see it. Universal City itself is also worth seing. It's like something out of a 1950's musical, with gigantic neon signs hanging only a few feet above your head along the main entertainment drag in town. Apparently, it is a city unto itself, with it's own major, police, and fire department. I wonder if they drive their engines infront of a green-screen?
The theme-park part of Universal City is pretty much what you'd expect. Generally expensive, very glitzy, horrendous queues (but then, I did make the mistake of going there on a Friday), and a great escape from reality. "Terminator 2 3D" lived up to the hype, so much that I saw it twice. Almost lost my lunch in the "Back to the Future" ride, decided I didn't need the drenching of the "Jurassic Park" ride, took the obligatory factory tour through the backlots, saw some interesting behind-the-scenes stuff, peeked into the on-location shoot of a car commercial, and emerged eight and a half hours later exhausted, about eighty dollars poorer, and with my head spinning.
I got out of the major metropolitan Los Angeles area along I-5 and spent the night sleeping in the passenger seat of the car in a rest area that warned of poisonous snakes. Tomorrow I was going to be heading north along California Highway 1 that hugs the coast for the drive up to San Francisco.
I had woken early, so I hit the Californian coast at about 7:30 in the morning. It was breathtaking. I drove through mist and fog, which cleared at times to show enourmous vistas of Pacific Ocean. Rest stops were frequent as I exercised the shutter release of my now gloriously black-painted M2. The road twists and turns along the coast, and even though you're probably only averaging about 30 mph, it's a roller-coaster ride. The most fun I've had on four wheels, but then I haven't had a license for very long.
I got into the bay area around five in the evening and found a motel on El Camino Real, a long stretch of road that runs south of San Francisco. I had picked up a tourist brochure in Pacifica that listed motels and hotels, but stupidly I didn't look in it until after I had checked in, or I would have phoned the ones in downtown San Francisco. As it was, I was in the township of San Bruno, about 45 minutes by bus and BARTA (rail) from the SF city center.
Sunday was spent in San Francisco. I took the BARTA train into Embarcadero, walked along the water to Fisherman's Warf, then plunged straight into the heart of the city. It's a fascinating city, with tremendous variation between different parts. Having come across the names of Embarcadero, North Beach, Chinatown, and Telegraph Hill in my role-playing youth, it was a bizarre feeling walking through a town whose geography I knew, but had never seen in real life. It's also a city which is possible to explore on foot, something that I particularly value. I wish I had had more time to explore it, but I was on a time table. Tom had already before my trip told me that he'd found a car for me. A 1977 Lincoln Continental, something that in and of itself meant nothing to me, other than Tom's assurances that it would be the perfect highway cruiser for my explorations emminating from Columbus.
So, I had only the Sunday in San Francisco. Monday morning I started out early and found myself driving through the Golden Gate national recreation area, through the Presidio, and across the Golden Gate bridge shrouded in fog at about 8 am. Then along highway 101 up the northern Californian coast for more breathtaking scenery. I thought I knew what a pine forrest looked like, having grown up in Östergotland in Sweden and for much of my youth living in the middle of one, but I was mistaken. The trees in the Redwood National Park simply defy description and I spent a fair amount of time driving with my mouth gaping open while hanging out the driver's side window.
Eventually I hit the Oregon border. By this time my mind had overloaded on beautiful scenery and I decided to scoot over to I-5 and do some serious zooming on up to Seattle. I'd told Tom and Tuulikki a day or two earlier that I expected to hit Seattle on Tuesday, but decided that if I put my mind to it, I should be able to make SeaTac before midnight, allowing me to take the early morning bus to Vancouver. Said and done, my apologies to anyone who might live in Oregon, but all I saw of it was whatever you catch from Interstate 5 while doing 75 mph. Oh, interesting tidbit: I pulled up to a gas station (petrol station for those of you who only speak British) just north of the Californian border and tried to fill up the car, when I was abruptly interrupted by a station attendant who carefully explained to this clearly ignorant foreigner that it is illegal in the state of Oregon to fill up your car yourself. It has to be done by an attendant.
"Aha," I said, thinking that I'd figured it all out, "you've had too many problems with people filling up their cars and then taking off without paying?"
"Eh, no," she said, confused. "It creates more jobs, I guess."
Hmm, interesting labour legislation.
When I reached Portland, dusk was falling. I ended up on I-205 and zoomed around the city, cursing myself for being in the wrong lane, rather than staying on I-5 on going straight through Portland. I end up in the wrong lane a lot: it's not very efficient, but I get to see a lot of parts of cities that I'd never planned to. Only today I was in the wrong lane and ended up circumnavigating Columbus, rather than going straight through it, but as a result, I figured out how to get to the Hoover Dam (yes, there is one just outside Columbus, though not the Hoover Dam which is in Nevada), something that hadn't been quite clear from the maps. So, while not exactly the Dirk Gently method of nagivation, it's a sort of distant relative version.
In hindsight, ending up on I-205 around Portland at dusk was perhaps not such a bad choice after all. In any case, there is a river that divides Portland from Vancouver. No, not Vancouver in British Columbia, but the Vancouver in Oregon. Taking the bridge over this, there was suddenly a smattering on the windshield. The skies were clear (infact, I was looking left at a beautiful sunset) so it wasn't rain. Then I noticed that the "raindrops" left dark marks and stayed put. Bugs. Lots and lots of bugs. There must have been a good few hundred of them I picked up just along the short stretch of bridge. When I pulled into the next gas station, the car looked like it had contracted the measels.
Southern Washington was pretty uneventful and by now it was dark so I couldn't see much of the surrounding countryside. Again, my sense of direction and navigational skills almost got me lost, but somehow I found myself in the right lane by mistake for SeaTac and before I knew it, I had returned the bathroom-soapmobile and was standing inside the airport phoning Tom. It was 10pm. San Francisco to Seattle in a day. Worthy of Neil Cassady.
Tuesday morning I took the bus up to Vancouver. By this time, my body was convinced that I was in a moving car, no matter what surface I was sitting on. Cafe chairs, bar stools and concrete steps outside the airport all felt like a Dodge doing 70 mph to my rear. Even standing up I was at times concerned because I was convinced I could feel vibrations through the floor. The rest of Tuesday was spent getting my bearings and trying to remember which city I was in.
Wednesday was the big day. Tom had briefed me, albeit somewhat carefully, on the Lincoln. He and Tuulikki had by this time seen the car and checked that it was in working order. Tom was quite enthusiastic, describing with great vigour and large arm movements how splendid this particular car would be for my intended use, while Tuulikki was more sceptical. At one point, she assured me that I was under no obligation to buy the car, that I was fully entitled to walk away from the deal if I felt that it wasn't a suitable car. Tom, if somewhat reluctantly, concurred.
We made our way out to Bowen Island where the car was parked, with the noon ferry. Bowen Island is a small, pine tree covered island just west of Vancouver, about twenty minutes ferry ride from the coast. We were met by the owner of the car, Robin, down by the ferry terminal. I was introduced, while Tom and Robin clearly had met before and got on like a house on fire. Robin had recently bought the island's only gas station and Tom had joked on the ferry about how he couldn't afford to keep the Lincoln even owning that.
The drive took all of three minutes and we pulled into a private driveway. About 70 meters away I could see a red car and Tom enthusiastically announced that that was it. As we got closer, so the car in the distance grew. We got closer. The car got bigger. And bigger. And bigger.
Robin parked his Mercedes, which in Europe is a full-sized car, behind the Lincoln. Back when we were living in the pine forest, sometimes the school bus consisted of the local taxi drivers driving the kids home in their cabs: there were not too many of us living out there in the sticks, so this was some kind of deal that had been worked out with the school. Anyway, almost all of those taxis had been diesel Mercedeses, just like Robin's. I remember them as being enormous, luxurious vehicles. Robin's looked like a small Japanese compact in comparison to the dark red Lincoln parked in front of it.
Now, if you don't know the 1977 Lincoln Continental first hand, here are some figures to put it in perspective. It is about 20 ft (6 m) long. It's 7 ft (2.1 m) wide. It weighs around 5,000 lbs (2,400 kg). It comes with a 460 cid (7.5 l) V8 engine that puts out somewhere in the neighborhood of 350 hp. That, by the way, is one hell of a neighborhood. Suddenly, I remembered Drew's 6.2 l diesel-V8 that I thought was so outrageous back in Cambridge and I realized that the beast lurking inside this car was 1.3 liters larger. It would take about four of my parent's Volvo engines to match the volume of this one. I gulped.
The thing that strikes you first about the car is not the 20 ft in length, it's the 7 ft in width. The only other things that are 7 ft wide on public roads usually have a police escort and carry a large, florescent orange sign stating: "WIDE LOAD". Looking at the car from the front, you can't help but laugh. It's got a Texas grin if there ever was a car that did.
The car had been standing unused for the past year and was pretty much covered from bonnet to boot in pine needles. The leather interior had odd coloured blotches on it and smelled of mould. The boot was filled with unimaginable amounts of rubbish and I got the impression that the whole car had served as a sort of outside-the-house filing cabinet for stuff that had nowhere else to go. At this point, I was beginning to think that Tuulikki's scepticism may not be far off the mark.
The worst of the rubbish was cleared away from the driver's seat, and I was given the keys. It was out of registration, so I could only go along the private driveway, but it had a couple of tights twists and turns at either end, so I figured I get an opportunity to figure out how horrendously difficult it was going to be to manoeuvre. I was expecting a roar as 7.5 l of V8 engine sprang into life, but it was surprisingly quiet and well-mannered. Of course, everything on a '77 Lincoln is power-assisted and automatic, so it was a matter of delicately shifting it from "park" to "drive" and giving it a touch of gas.
We glided off effortlessly. The steering wheel required only the lightest of touches and it pointed the massive wheels wherever you wanted them. The late-70's, Detroit luxury-car suspension gently rocked in response to the unpaved road's large bumps and the V8 purred like a whole litter of newly-fed kittens. It was magnificent. Buttons in the driver's side door adjusted seat angle and height, small joysticks under the dash did the same for the power-assisted rear-view mirrors. The automatic transmission was so smooth, you couldn't tell when it shifted gear. I wasn't driving, I was gliding, majestically, twelve inches off the ground, suspended gently on soft, early morning fog, surrounded by 5,000 lbs of Ford's finest steel and softest leather. The car had been standing still for over twelve months and now someone was exercising it for the first time. It was though it was gently purring "Please, take me off this island, let me roam free on the vast interstate freeway system, show me the open road, and I will carry you in style, comfort, and luxury to where ever you wish to go." We were made for each other.
The car had done only about 113,000 miles, which is low for a car of that age, but then there aren't too many roads on Bowen Island. Besides, park it in the wrong direction, and each end of the car is touching the Pacific ocean, given the island's size. It had new front Michelin's, brakes had been replaced about two years ago, and it had a reasonably coherent service record. At one point, an 80 ft pine tree had been struck by lightening and fallen across the hood. If you looked carefully across the hood and the light was right, you could see three small dents where the tree had hit the car. The tree didn't fare as well and was shattered by the incident. But the piece de la resistance was the quadraphonic 8-track stereo system, complete with about twenty 8-track tapes with everything from Elvis' greatest hits, through Johnny Cash, to Mantiovanni.
Robin carefully sorted the contents of the car into two bags. One small bag for stuff to keep, one large bag for stuff to throw away. When they were done, his daughter took the small bag into the house, while Robin carefully carried the large bag from the Lincoln, and placed it in the boot of the Mercedes. The honour of semi-mobile filing-cabinet was clearly being passed down the ranks.
We made our way down to the local registrar and insurance agent. A bill of sale was made out and C$1500 changed hands. The title transfer papers were filled out and a ten day insurance with a C$1,000,000 liability was obtained. I was now the proud and slightly apprehensive owner of my first car. And what a first car.
Another of Tom's car-buying rules is that you should expect to spend about half of the purchase price on initial maintenance and repairs.
"Old cars always have some hidden problems," he said reassuringly.
So far, I trusted Tom's ability to wiggle the massive vehicle through Vancouver traffic far better than my own, so he was the designated driver. We spent the afternoon getting the oil changed, and replaced various filters. I discovered that cars are not actually vehicles, but really mobile repositories for various toxic fluids with exotic names and expensive prices. Transmission fluid, power-steering fluid, brake fluid, anti-freeze, oil, gas, chassis lubricants, all come in odd-shaped plastic bottles and are poured into various orifices or recepticles by men with hairy arms and black-rimmed fingernails under strange incantations. I was beginning to realize that owning a car was quite a different proposition to renting one.
We'd known at the time of purchase that there was a leak of some kind in the coolant system, which is just a fancy name for the absolute mess of rubber tubing that runs from the radiator, through the engine block, and somehow back again. Robin had assured us that it was probably just a worn hose, but Tom was taking into account the fact that Robin was a real-estate salesman, and so we took it to the local radiator repair guy he knew. It turned out to be a missing bolt that held the water pump to the engine block: someone had not been able to refit a rusted bolt, and simply just left it empty instead. Perhaps not the best of strategies, since that ensures that you will not get sufficient pressure on the gasket and water can creep into the socket and turn it a nice, rusty, reddish-brown colour. We left the car there overnight, while the engine was pulled apart, gaskets replaced, a new bolt found, and the whole thing was put back together.
In the meantime, we put together a rudimentary toolkit (more for psychological comfort than actual practical use), including a Haynes repair manual which I have subsequently discovered must be the single most useless piece of printed information ever produced. It almost, but not quite, tells you precisely what you need to know, but manages to omit the very last crucial pieces of information you need to actually discern the location of a part, identity of a component, or step in a procedure. The result is that it leaves you with a feeling that you are too stupid to understand it, and therefore to own a car, and tremendously more annoyed and frustrated than you were before you consulted the damn thing. I now have absolute, total, and complete empathy with anyone who is unfamiliar with computers who has ever tried to read a computer manual. I am also convinced that Haynes works in collaboration with mechanics to get them more business: even the simplest jobs are described in a manner that makes them seem insurmountably complicated and each step is littered with italicized warning text hinting at the disasterous consequences that can result if you don't do everything exactly right. Which, of course, given the utter uselessness of the manual, is virtually guaranteed. At about 1.5 inches thick, it's not even much use as a pillow when sleeping in the back seat.
When we returned the following day, we were informed of a small leak in the top, left corner of the radiator, which prevented the flushing of the system we had planned. Instead, we bought a couple of bottles of sealant that made the water looked like a decent tall double latte once they had disolved, which supposedly was going to take care of it. The coolant temperature guage sender unit that is mounted on the engine block was defective and, apparently, a very difficult item to locate. So, I was going to have to keep an eye on the level of the radiator fluid, manually, so to say, in order to avoid the engine overheating.
Sometime through all of this, we were joined by Chris Cameron. Chris is a friend of Tom's and an outstanding black-and-white photographer in the classic photojournalistic style that once made (and kept) Magnum great. He'd recently been to Cuba on a couple of trips, taking pictures of the jazz musicians and we were invited to look at these over coffee at the Espresso Head cafe. When I see stuff like Chris' pictures, I don't know whether to take it as a challenge, or just give up photography and take up finger-painting instead. Increadible stuff.
Chris, of course, had heard of the Lincoln. In fact, it turned out, just about everyone Tom knew also knew about the Lincoln and the mad Englishman living in Ohio who'd decided to travel to Canada, buy a 23 year old car that had been standing still for a year, and drive it the 2,700 miles back over five days to Columbus. I fully expect to overhear stories of this madness in pubs ten years from now, when they have undergone a decade of telling and retelling and become part of modern mythology and folklore. We drove over to Chris' apartment, armed with every toxic cleaning product we could find at Canadian Tire and set to work. A couple of hours scrubbing later, the interior looked like something you wouldn't actually mind coming into physical contact with. Meanwhile, Tom had mounted the aforementioned 15mm lens on his camera and took pictures of the car from every conceivable angle to try and convey the sheer amount of real-estate it took up.
Being well informed of my impending trip, Chris presented me with a travel kit. It consisted, appropriately enough, of an old Absolut Vodka box filled with various useful bits and pieces. A torch, a few old rags, a screwdriver, some Chinese flu-medication (which Chris carefully explained to me in case the US customs officers took an interest in the strange pills packed in wrappers scribbled only in Chinese pictograms), some tea bags, and a bar of chocolate. The chocolate, he explained, had a very special purpose. It was for major disasters. If I ever found myself beside the road in the middle of nowhere with a broken down car, the first thing I should do is eat the chocolate.
"You panic much less with food in your stomach," he reassured me.
That evening, we parked the Lincoln in Tom's underground garage. He rents two parking spaces, not because he has two cars, but so that he can park the Chrysler ascew, without having to conform to the white lines that someone else has decided should govern the placement of vehicles. For this evening, the Chrysler was in one lot, and the Lincoln next to it. The Chrysler, which had looked so massive and enormous on our first encounter last November, was dwarfed by the Lincoln, in every dimension, and the Toyota Corolla on the other side looked like something manufactured by Corgi or Matchbox. Tuulikki came down to take a look at it and burst out in laughter, for a minute forgetting her Finnish stoicism.
On the night before my departure, Tom was as enthusiastic as ever, while Tuulikki was painting nightmare scenarios of how I'd be standing at the side of the road, in the middle of the night, miles from anywhere, with a gigantic ocean-liner of a car that refused to move. She was probably just preparing me mentally for the worst, but somehow I felt much better listening to Tom's fancies of how the flanks of the car begged for flames to be painted on them, although our tastes in decoration differ quite drastically on that point. Somewhere among these two discussions, the question of a name was raised. It was clear that this was a car that begged for a name, but what name could do it justice?
I think Tom had the winning entry.
"Eric the Red, discoverer of America," he said quite plainly. It was brilliant. Eric the Red.
"I could nickname him 'Big Red'," I chimed in with glee.
"Or you could call it a longboat," sighed Tuulikki, who by this time had resigned herself to the idea that this poor, feeble-minded 30-something obviously had no clue what he was getting into.
"In a Longboat Across America," Tom announced, saying it like a title.
He was paying no attention to Tuulikki's attempts to knock some sanity back into me again. I loved it. Eric the Red, the Longboat. And so he was named.
Now, a critical part of the circumstances surrounding this trip is that I had already booked tickets to go to Sweden on the morning of Thursday the 17th of August. They were cheap tickets, which means that they are not refundable other than with a doctor's certificate signed by the Surgeon General, stating that you're suffering from a life-threatening, airborne, infectious disease, that has the potential of getting the airline sued if you're taken on as a passenger. So, I pretty much had to be in Columbus by early evening on Wednesday the 16th, since I needed time to wash all my clothes (I would have been on the road for three weeks by then), pack, and get my stuff ready for the trip to Sweden. It was noon on Saturday when I packed Eric with my bags and hugged Tom and Tuulikki goodbye. So, I had 2,700 miles to drive in an, essentially, unknown car over the next 101 hours, which would get me in Columbus by 5pm on Wednesday. If you do the maths, you'll learn that you need to be doing just over 26 mph for each of those 101 hours to make the trip in time. Denial can be a powerful force.
It was a glorious day. I set off for the Canadian-US border, driving in the sunshine, a smile on my lips, and one of Vancouver's rock stations bubbling out from the quadraphonic stereo speaker system. A few days earlier, Tom had discovered that you could push one of the radio's knobs in and turn it and had managed to find a sweet spot where you were completely surrounded by music. It seemed to drift just slightly as the electronics heated up, so my head was suspended in music that was slowly phase-shifting as it played. This suited me just fine, since there was a pretty long queue at the border, so I sat there listening to classic rock from Pink Floyd, The Eagles, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and others as the long line of cars inched forward to the inspection point.
I'd been through this border a number of times before. When you travel north, the Canadian immigrations and customs officers are friendly, polite, and at least appear to take the view that you're not a drug-smuggling terrorist until they get indications of otherwise. Their US brethren have a slightly different approach. From my two previous encounters, I'd got the impression that you were guilty until all your paperwork and the story you told proved otherwise. Being friendly was clearly not part of their job description. Still, I knew I had all the paperwork I could possibly need, both for myself and for Eric, so I wasn't too worried.
We pulled up to the booth. The INS officer took one look at my passport, the IAP-66 and I-94W forms and handed them back to me.
"Did you buy the car in Canada?" he asked.
"Yes, I have the bill of sales and all the documentation here. Do you wish to see it?"
"Pull over to the side and enter the Customs Office door on the left."
I did as instructed. Once inside, I was met by an officer in his early 30s who took a look at all my paperwork.
"How old is the car?" he asked.
I told him the year of manufacture. He pulled out a gigantic file binder and started flipping through it. His brow furrowed as he read two lines. Apparently, there are two age limits for importing cars into the US. The first is at 21 years. If the car is younger than this, then the Department of Transport needs some kind of paper. Since this didn't apply to my 23 year old Lincoln, there was nothing to worry about. The other limit is at 25 years old. Cars younger than this must have a piece of paper from the manufacturer, stating that they fulfil the US Federal Emissions Regulations. This, apparently, was not among the vast number of papers which I had presented to him.
"Let's step out and take a look at the vehicle," he suggested. We went out, I popped the hood and he looked around.
"I can't find any sticker stating that it fulfills the emissions regulations."
We went back inside. He pulled out another, even more gigantic ring binder and started flipping through it. During this process, he explained to me that what I would have to do is write to Ford and get the required piece of paper, then drive to the border and re-enter the US, legally importing the car. I would be able to drive it in the US on my ten day temporary permit, but I wouldn't be able to title or register the car in Ohio until I'd done this.
I explained that that was probably going to be impossible. I was leaving for Sweden the day after I returned to Ohio, and the temporary permit would expire while I was in Sweden, meaning that I would not be able to drive the car to the border or back again. At least, not legally. He found the passage he was looking for and confirmed: yep, the requirement was for all cars less than 25 years of age. Mine was 23.
"How much did you pay for the car?" I showed him the bill of sale, which was made out for C$500. Hey, what they don't know, doesn't hurt them, right?
"Let me talk to my boss," he said, closed the ring binder with a thud and walked off.
I was left to ponder my options. The most realistic one appeared to be to turn around, drive the car back to Tom and Tuulikki, and then take the bus from Vancouver to Seattle and fly back from Seattle to Columbus. The only problem was having to face Tuulikki with the prospect of storing the car in their garage. She had been quite adamant that the car be removed from their property. In particular, she had been worried at one point that Tom would offer to keep the Lincoln and give me the Chrysler in exchange, should I find the Lincoln to be a bit "too much". Privately, I suspect she was really worried that Tom had fallen in love with the size of the Lincoln and wouldn't want to see it go. In any case, it was painfully clear to me that Tuulikki did not want to see this particular car on the Canadian side of the border ever again.
The customs officer returned with his boss, who was shaking his head. Things didn't look too good. I hoped that I would be able to get a reasonably cheap ticket back to Columbus, even though it was short notice. The boss took off and the young officer approached the bench where I was standing. He pulled out a form and started filling it in. I'd no clue what this was all about, but I waited patiently. When he was done, he flipped the form around to me.
"As far as we are concerned, this car is 25 years old," he said with a wry smile. "Sign here, here, and date it here."
I couldn't believe it. I signed the document and he said:
"This document proves that you have legally imported this vehicle into the United States. Present this to the Deputy Registrar when you register the vehicle back in Ohio. Normally, we wouldn't be doing this, but since you're not paying any duty on the vehicle, we're making an exception. Have a nice day."
And I did. I drove the short stretch from the border to Bellingham where I filled up the tank and checked the radiator fluid level in a state of disbelief and minor shock. A bureaucrat with a heart! Two, in fact! And customs officers to boot. US customs officers! I instantly regretted every bad thing I've ever written, said, or thought about all bureaucrats being automatons.
I drove through the state of Washington, heading away from the sunset. I was beginning to get the first incling of the size of this country. We were moving rather steadily upwards in elevation, but still the hills were gently rolling. Dusk fell, and I pulled the switch marked "Lights" to switch on the headlights and raise the eyelid-like protective covers. They came on, but flickered after about a minute. Then on again, then off again, then on again, and off again. Every ten to twenty seconds, the lights would go out for about as much, then come on again. The sun was setting rapidly, and without lights, it was impossible to see a thing. I pulled into a collection of gas stations and diners close to Ellensburg, WA, where I tried to do some preliminary diagnostics, resulting only in a lot of really dirty fingers and confusion. I couldn't believe the complete and utter dense mess of wires, hoses, nuts, bolts, springs, knobs, and a fair number of unidentifiable parts crammed into the engine bay, all caked with about 23 years worth of muck.
It was time for the first emergency call to Tom. I'd more or less promised to send them nightly progress reports, and I later learnt that Tuulikki was plotting my progress on a map, and keeping the Leica Users Group mailing list updated with reports. I had visions of whole groups of people with Leica spotting scopes and telephoto lenses, complete with BBQ grills and deck chairs, stretched along I-90, peering westward for a glimpse of a red '77 Continental. Our telephone discussion concluded that it was probably a faulty switch, either in the dash, or in the headlight covers. I decided to follow Tom's advice, which was to park the car, go into the diner, have a good meal, and then start out early tomorrow morning instead. Food and sleep seemed like a good idea.
The restaurant/diner was a pretty standard model, but the people inside were unlike any I've seen in real life. They were straight out of a modern western movie. All the men wore white Stetson hats, the kind with the two ridges on top and brim sides that flail upwards. The women were dressed in odd pastel and lace dresses that were straight out of Madonna's 80s wardrobe. Then again, the one who got looks was me: Dressed in black, with two stainless steel earrings, carrying a black satchel, I clearly didn't belong in there. The food was welcome, apple pie with ice cream and a cup of coffee rounded off the meal and it was into the back seat for my first night's sleep on the road.
I woke at dawn. To my surprise, the back seat was not long enough to lay along stretched out to full length, but I had to curl up a bit. Then I discovered that the back doors were about a foot thick, which accounted for the difference between the outside and inside size. I knew from experience that the engine needed a bit of trottle on the morning start, so I pumped the accelerator a few times. The engine kicked into life and started roaring. Tick-over seemed to be at about 3,500 rpm, which is a tad high for this model (650 rpm is nominal). It wouldn't go down. I thought it might change as the engine warmed up, so I coasted off, and had to keep my foot on the brake to keep the vehicle from moving slower than 50 mph. Fortunately, most of the next stretch was downhill and for the next 50 or so miles, I had my foot off the accelerator for the whole trip. Eventually, I needed to fill up the tank and pulled into a gas station. The engine was still roaring, until I shut it off. When I was done, I started the car and it was still roaring. I carefully shifted from "park" to "drive" and let off the brake. The car heaved and lurched forward and with a thump the engine's idle speed came down to a much more civilized level.
I thought that the engine might have been racing so that the cooling fan blew more air over it, or something. In any case, the radiator leak (which actually had been repaired by the sealant, as it turned out) was foremost in my mind, but Tom's take on it was more accurate. Most likely, either the cable to the trottle linkage, or the carburator had got stuck. Having driven something like 700 miles in the past couple of days, after having the car stand still, it was more than likely that accumulated muck was now being worked loose and could interfere with the operation. We decided that a spray can of carburator cleaner and some fuel additive might be in order.
Sometime during the day, I passed through Idaho and into Montana. In Montana, I pulled up to a town that consisted of three houses and a gas station. The station was manned by a kid of about 17 whose eyes almost popped out of their sockets when he saw the Lincoln pull up to the pump. I decided to take a half-an-hour rest here and popped the hood and applied the carb cleaner. After about ten minutes I was joined by another kid with a pick-up truck, who was also taken with the sheer size of the Lincoln. I don't know, but there's something rather funny about two 17-year olds remanicing about a 1977 Lincoln and how it's a classic, as though they were two old geezers talking about cars they'd owned in their youth. After about 30 minutes of shooting the breeze, I jumped back into the car and took off for I-90 East again.
Once when I was perhaps around eight or ten, we were on holiday in England, driving along in the English countryside. Whomever was driving at the time (I don't think it was my father, but I may be wrong) was telling me to keep an eye out, because we were going to be travelling along the longest, single straight stretch of road in all of England. We turned a corner and there was a line of tarmac disappearing into the distance. We entered this vast expanse of space and it seemed to go on forever, until we finally at the end of it made a gentle turn and we had left this magical stretch of road. I remember being told that it was more than a mile long.
I don't quite remember which state it was in, if it was Washington, Idaho, or Montana, but I think it might have been the latter. I turned one of the gentle corners and came upon a straight stretch of road. I was on the top of a gentle hill, and the road sloped down into a valley and up onto the top of the next, gentle hill. Beyond that, the pattern repeated. And repeated. And repeated. After about 10 miles, I realized that the road hadn't turned once. Then another ten miles. I remembered the road in England, and how I thought it was endless, and here I had been sitting for about half an hour and going in an absolutely straight line. Five more miles. The road continued, straight as an arrow. Finally, after about thirty miles, the first turn. Suddenly, the prospect of travelling 2,700 miles started to dawn on me. Somehow, that 30 mile straight stretch of road put those other 2,670 miles into perspective, although I had probably done close to 800 or 900 of them by this time.
One of the big news items up to that point had been the forest fires that were raging in the US that summer. At this point, I'd pretty much stopped listening to the radio, since all I could get outside of the big cities was country and western music, and I don't particularly care for either style. So, what I didn't know was that one of the fires was not only in Montana, but very close to Interstate 90. How close? Well, I started suspecting it was really close when I noticed that the hills to my left were smoldering. A few more miles down the road, police officers were instructing traffic to slow and helicopters carrying large pouches of water were flying above. Smoke was billowing down from the hills over the road. We slowed to a 30 mph crawl and I looked left and saw the orange flames consuming pine tree after pine tree. Thick, fog-like, white smoke poured from the fire and slid down the hill, engulfing the road. You drove by following the tail lights of the vehicle infront of you: drop behind them more than 30 m and you'd loose them.
We got out of the worst of it pretty soon and the visibility cleared. But the sky was completely overcast with smoke and haze. A good few hundred miles later I entered Butte and as I got out of the car, the smell of smoke was heavy in the air. I can't begin to imagine how the firemen must feel, trying to combat something of that magnitude. Even the helicopters looked puny, and the enormous quantities of water they dropped on the fire with each load looked as though it could do nothing to halt the feriousity of the fires. To imagine that people are actually on the ground, inside that inferno, breathing that air.
Given my short progress the previous day (not being able to drive by night) I had set a target for myself for this day. I wanted to get to Billings in Montana, but dusk came quickly and I only made it to, appropriately enough, Columbus, MT. It turned out that Columbus was a major truckers' stop and there were close to a hundred trucks lined up in loose formation in the vast parking lot. I phoned my progress report to Tom and listened to his comforting words. When you are a new car owner and particularly when you are on a long road trip, your senses take on a new level of sensitivity. You become accutely aware of all the noises the engine and chassis are making. What's that odd ticking sound? I don't recall hearing that creaking noise before? Did the rear axle really have that rhythmic beat before I stopped at that last gas station? Tom's chief job, I think, was to reassure me that all of this is perfectly normal and I was simply getting more attuned to the noises that a vehicle makes. As a passenger, you lump all sounds together and call them "engine noise", while infact the engine is probably the quietest component of all. Road noise, transmission, brakes, cooling fans, even some small electrical motors can be distinguished separately.
I woke early again, just before dawn. I made a pledge to find a mechanic that could check the electrical system of the lights and get those fixed, since I was clearly never going to make it to Columbus in time if I couldn't drive after dark. The morning was glorious, and I managed to pick up a Billings rock station, which made a welcome break from the Elvis Gold or Johnny Cash Songbook 8-track tapes that I'd been playing. 8-tracks may be cult objects, but quite frankly, the technology sucks. Apparently, there are inherent problems with the design, something to do with the alignment of the tape head against the tape. The tape itself is only as wide as a standard Philips cassette tape, but instead of two tracks, there are four stereo pairs, or eight tracks. Hence the name. The tape is a single, continuous loop, so you never have to turn it over. You get about three songs in one track pair on one loop, and then the mechanism is supposed to automatically shift to the next pair of tracks. Of course, the one thing you can guarantee with 8-track, other than the abysmal sound quality, is that the first thing to fail on a tape is the automatic track shifting mechanism. So, you have to punch one of the stereo's knobs and it will shift tracks for you. The sound itself is a bit like a very, very poorly aligned Philips cassette player. Not much base, certainly no treble, and the whole thing sounds like it's being played through a small, wet, paper bag. Which is a pity, because the speakers in the car are much better than the 8-track technology.
So, a good radio station is welcome. This morning I found one that was playing "Hotel California" and I was singing along at the top of my voice while cruising at a leasurly 60 mph along the sparsely populated western end of Interstate 90. I left Montana and crossed into Wyoming. The state slogan for Wyoming is "like no place on Earth". I wasn't too impressed by this, having just experienced the Californian coast line and redwood forests, but I was convinced after 50 miles. Each valley was completely different from the previous, and each landscape looked like something from another planet. It was increadible. I-90 skirts a number of national parks in Wyoming, but even from the interstate you get a feel for the unbelievable variety that exists here.
I zoomed through Sheridan, ignored the turnoff to Casper, and continued to Gilette. I entered the outskirts of the town and found a mechanic, who checked the lights. It turned out to be the switch in the dash that was faulty. Now, this is no standard switch. It has a number of electrical contacts, but then it has a number of vacuum contacts too. A number of systems on the Lincoln are powered by vacuum, including the eyelids. So, you need a special switch. One, which by the way, costs $46. Add to this $29 labour and you're looking at $75 to replace a burnt out switch. Car ownership sure has its perks. But, I now had lights. I knew that I was going to be able to drive through the dark, so I adjusted my schedule and took more frequent but shorter stops. I figured I'd keep driving until about 2 am, sleep for about five hours, and then continue. I'd typically sleep for 10-15 minutes when I took a rest stop, so I was pretty refreshed, even after all that driving.
I-90 only does a short kink through north-east Wyoming, then it enters South Dakota. The second place on the map after entering western SD is Sturgis. Sturgis is the gathering place for Harley-Davidsson motorcycle fans all across North America (and probably other parts of the world too, who travel there). I believe it started as a race-meet once upon a time, but now has turned into a gigantic HD community circus that has little or nothing to do with racing, although at least a few years ago there was still dirt-track racing going on somewhere in the middle of this cacophony. I had entered the first rest area on the SD side of the border which was located just before Sturgis. It was now Monday the 14th of August and it turned out that the Sturgis meet had ended the day before. I decided I'd see if I could see anything from the interstate, and if it looked promising, I'd take some time off from my driving and get some shots of Sturgis. I had been seeing almost endless numbers of Harley motorcycles going westbound along I-90, so I figured that most of it was over. I asked the lady at the rest stop if she knew if anything was still happening there?
"No, thank God, it's all over now. For this year!" Guess she wasn't a Harley owner.
Dusk fell and I pressed on. I now had lights, so driving at night was no problem. I stopped for a meal somewhere, filled up gas, hit the road again. The target for today was to make Sioux Falls in South Dakota. Actually, I had decided I was going to get off I-90 just before. My initial plan had been to drive along I-90 through Minnesota too, but consulting the map, it looked like a quicker (and more interesting ride) to drop down along Interstate 29 into Iowa and make my way across to Illinois that way. Columbus is quite a bit south of Minnesota and my new route would allow me to cut diagonally across Indiana, rather than having to drive first due east, then due south. As I approached Sioux Falls, I again started to be able to pick up radio stations that offered something other than C&W in their programming. National Public Radio (NPR) kept me company for part of the way, then I managed to find some serious rock stations that offered Nine Inch Nails, Stone Temple Pilots, Metallica, Kid Rock, and Godsmack in their line up. Amazing stuff to keep you awake around midnight. I approached the outskirts of Sioux Falls feeling very alert and perky and much too awake and eager to stop now. So, I took a right onto I-29 and started heading down towards Sioux City just on the SD/Iowa border. Time to say goodbye to I-90, the road I'd stayed on since leaving Seattle, more than a thousand miles earlier.
I-29 was sparsely populated, with only the odd truck travelling southbound towards Sioux City during the ghost hour. My broken radio antenna was no longer picking up the radio stations, so I had turned it off. Windows down, I was listening to the doppler sounds of the grasshoppers by the road as I sat in the cool, midnight breeze looking at the pulsating white lines in the middle of the road about 40 miles north of Sioux City. Suddenly, there was an explosion and the car lurched toward the passenger side. One second I had been doing a nice, steady, silky-smooth 65 mph, the next I was lopsided, with the sound of metal grinding against tarmac. It's funny how the mind works in emergencies. It all happened so fast, I didn't have time to panic, but I have this very, very clear memory of some strange car consumer show from TV many years ago that was suddenly running in my head. A somewhat overweight guy with a beard and glasses was looking directly at me and saying:
"In the case of a tire blow-out, it is very important that you do not brake suddenly. Take your foot off the accelerator, let the car slow naturally while you compensate for the change in balance, and very gently apply a little brake to bring the car to a halt by the side of the road."
I did as the the TV programme memory instructed me. I came to a halt on the shoulder and switched on the hazard lights. Engine off, I stepped out, walked round the back, and took a look at the passenger side rear. The tire had exploded, taking with it one of the beautiful hubcaps, the wheel-bay skirt and a long, chrome board that runs along the bottom side of the car.
A few minutes passed while the whole thing sunk in. I remembered Chris' advice and opened the boot and reached into the old Absolut Vodka box. I found the chocolate bar and pulled it out. Apparently, the boot becomes quite hot after prolonged driving, or at least, well above the melting point of chocolate. As I picked up the wrapper, I could feel and hear the liquid of a completely melted chocolate bar inside. It was obvious I wasn't going to be eating it. Shit. Before this, I'd been relatively calm, but somehow the fact that the chocolate bar had melted signalled bad things on a new scale. I knew I had a spare, so I used the torch to locate the jack, got it into position, and then realized that while the car came with a jack, I had no lug-nut wrench, nor did I have the handle necessary to operate the jack. I closed the boot, stood by the side of the car looking out into the dense darkness of the southern South Dakota fields. About one truck passed every ten minutes and they were going at a speed which signalled that they had no intention of stopping for some dumb-ass Englishman who'd got himself into a mess at the side of the road at one in the morning. Then, it dawned on me. I was standing at the side of the road, in the middle of the night, miles from anywhere, with a gigantic ocean-liner of a car that refused to move. Tuulikki's prediction had come true and I couldn't help but laugh out into the night at the whole situation.
I figured I could sleep in the car until the morning (even if the weight on the tire-less wheel rim wasn't going to do it much good) and my chances of finding help, getting towed, or whatever, would probably improve. It dawned on me that missing the hub-cap and wheel-bay skirt must mean that they were somewhere further up the road, so I took out the flashlight and started walking back and collecting the pieces. After about five minutes, I'd found the skirt, lots of pieces of tire (including almost all of the tread in one thick slab), and the chrome board, and I was ready to turn back to the car to dump them in the boot and then look for the hub-cap, when a white hatchback passed me and started slowing down. The car stopped about fifteen meters infront of mine and two tall, slender guys in their early twenties stepped out.
"Got a flat?" one asked.
"Yep. The passenger side rear blew out on me."
They came around and took a look at the debris. "Ugh, that's ugly, man. Do you need any help?"
"Well, I have a jack and a full-sized spair, but I don't have a handle for the jack and I don't have a lug-nut wrench."
"Oh, no problem," says the shorter of the two, "I've got that in my car." And with this, he dashes off and returns with the goods.
I get the car jacked up, somewhat precariously, since the shoulder of the road tilts slightly and this is the lowest side. But the lug-nut wrench he has is a straight-handled model with a single socket. It doesn't clear the profile of the hub and it looks like it's too small in any case.
"No problem," says the taller. "I live only about four miles down the road and we've got one of those cross-bars. Just wait here, we'll be back in a few minutes."
And with this, they're off.
Again, I'm beside the road in the middle of the night, but now with the car jacked up. The wind picks up and is, of course, blowing from the high side of the car, so I decide that leaning against the car from the other direction is probably a feeble thing to do, but it gives me psychological comfort and a purpose in life until they return, so I do. A police cruiser comes along the road, travelling in the opposite direction, and presumably he sees Eric lurching, because the cluster of lights on his roof spring into life and his tail-lights glow red as the brake is applied. About a minute later he's on my side of the road and pulls in behind me. He sits for a good thirty seconds in his car after it's come to a halt, with his headlights and a torch blaring in my face, before he decides that I'm probably harmless.
"Tire blowout?" he asks.
I tell him about the two guys who are getting the tools I need to complete the job. He asks for my driver's license, which he gets, and then he's off into his cruiser again. This time, he sits there for several minutes, chatting on the radio and tapping on some kind of terminal.
The two guys return, this time with the goods. The cross-bar has a socket that fits perfectly and unbelievably enough, I can undo the lug-nuts with hand force. Usually, with the pneumatic tools used today, it's impossible to move them. I get the wheel off and place the spare on the hub.
"Hey, it's a Firestone," says one of the guys. The recall of certain models of Firestone tires had been in the news recently. The Ford Explorer and some other vehicles are fitted with this as their factory tire and a number of people had suffered tire blow-outs with death and injury resulting from the accidents. I point the torch at the tire and sure enough, it's a Firestone alright. The damage is extensive. Almost all of the tread has come off, most of it in a single pelt. The steel radials have been bent outwards by the force of the explosion, and the side wall of the tire has split in a perfectly straight line down the side to the lip. I suddenly feel extremely lucky. As I'm putting the final twists on the lug-nuts, the police officer returns. He returns my driver's license, then says to the other two:
"Aren't you boys going to give him some help?" I've enrolled the shorter guy for torch detail, and the other replies:
"I've just had surgury, so I can't do heavy work."
"Don't worry about it," I reply, "it's pretty much done now."
"Well, looks like you've got it under control now," says the officer. "Have a good trip."
And with this he returns to his cruiser, turns off the x-mas tree on the roof and takes off into the night. I finish off the job, stick the broken tire in the boot and wipe the worst of the muck off my hands. I told the two guys how he'd examined my license for ten minutes in the car.
"Oh yeah, they've got a terminal there where they can see any violations and accidents that you've been involved in. He was probably just checking you out."
"For a tire blow-out? What was that all about?"
"Yeah, I knew him in highschool. He's like that."
I shake their hands and thank them profusely for stopping and helping me out. I tell them about my trip, where I've been and where I'm going. I think they quite enjoyed the adventure.
I went back out serching for the lost hub-cap, but coudn't find it. One more item to put on the bill to Firestone, I guessed. I checked all the other tires. The two front ones were new Michelin's, as was the spare I'd just put on the passenger side rear. The driver's side rear, however, was a Firestone, just like the one that blew. I decided that caution was the order of the night, and so I drove the remaining forty miles into Sioux City at a gentle 35 mph with my hazard lights flashing all the way. I found a diner close to I-29 where a guy gave me directions to the Sears Autoshop south of the city. Sioux City appeared to have even more road construction going on than Columbus and after some consideration, he decided it would be easier to show me, so he drove first and I followed. Stopping at some lights, he came over to my car.
"Just continue down this road until you see the malls, then make a left and there it is."
I thanked him and plodded along at 20 mph in the direction he'd indicated. Once there, I puttered around the parking lots, looking for the Sears, but never found it. Instead, I found a Penske Tire Service company stuck on the side of a Big K-Mart building and took up residence in their parking lot. It was now about 3:30 and they opened at 7:00. Ah, time for sleep.
Tuesday morning, 7 am. I told the tire guys my story, picked out some decent looking Goodyear tires, asked they put the Michelin spare back in the boot, was told that it would take twenty minutes, got a cup of coffee, bought a lug-nut tire wrench, enrolled in the American Automobile Association as a complete and total guarantee against anything else happening on this trip, and paid my $135 for the tires and labour.
They call New Jersey the Garden State, but I thought that the description would have fitted Iowa perfectly. Everything looked like it was neatly trimmed only last week, immaculately in order, perfectly in place. I-29 takes you south of Sioux City towards Omaha on the Nebraska side of the border, then you shoot across I-680 to I-80, which takes you pretty much in a straight line across the bottom third of the state. Des Moines, Iowa City, and Davenport were all just names on the road to Illinois.
I had a headwind almost all the way across Iowa, which meant the milage dropped like stone. I also discovered that handling a car the size of the Lincoln, with American suspension, in high wind, was a challenge. Basically, it means keeping the car under 60 mph. Above this is starts lurching too much, while at 55 mph, it'll cut through anything. Milage was another consideration. At a nice and steady 55 mph, I could get close to 20 mpg (about 1.2L/10km). Step on it and do the Montana state speed limit of 75 mph, and this drops drastically to 15 mpg (1.6L/10km), while city driving with lots of red lights and an enthusiastic right foot leaves you looking at 10 mpg (2.4L/10km). Good job the petrol price is a quarter of that in Sweden. Nevertheless, the headwind across Iowa was killing me and I was looking at 15-16 mpg over 300 miles.
In Davenport on the eastern border of Iowa, the plan was to circle the city southward, get onto Interstate 74 and head down through Illinois, past Peoria, Bloomington, Champaign-Urbana, and Danville, to pick up Interstate 74 to Indiana. Take a look at a relatively detailed city map of any US city circled by the interstate system, and you will instantly recognize that it bears a striking resemblance to a coloured drawing of a bowl of spaghetti. Davenport is no exception. What looks simple enough on the state map of Iowa in the Rand McNally Millenium Edition 2000 Road Atlas is, in reality, an absolute mess of on-ramps and off-ramps, of lane changes, construction work, and impatient city-bound traffic. In addition to this, some cities will have the road numbers on the direction signs, and others will have the names of the nearest of largest cities that that road leads to. I knew, while driving around Davenport in the late afternoon, that I wanted Interstate 74, but I didn't know that I should have been looking for the turn-off towards Rock Island and Molina. So, I ended up crossing the Mississippi twice, and eventually found myself on I-80 heading east.
The other truth about the US interstate system is that once you've positively identified that you're going in the wrong direction along the wrong road, there will be no turn-off for the next twenty miles. I-80 East was no exception. Finally, I got to a rest-stop, where I had the first change to pull out my map and figure out where I was. As it turned out, I-80 East heads straight for Chicago (something I knew from the signs and a city whose traffic I'd rather avoid, if possible, apart from it being way too far north of where I wanted to be), but about half-way there, you can turn onto I-39 and head straight south for Bloomington, allowing me to link up with I-74 as I had previously planned. Said and done.
Dusk fell and I continued. Bloomington, Champaign-Urbana, and Danville flashed past my windscreen and I entered Indiana. Names like Fountain, Montgomery and Hendricks County zipped by as I headed for Indianapolis. I was going to take the ring-road anti-clockwise around the city, but I-70 linked up with I-74 a short distance along the ring-road and I took this. I-70 was a familiar name. I know it well, it runs less than five miles south of my home in Columbus. Getting onto I-70 was like being three steps from my front door. By now I'd been driving two hours, sleeping twenty minutes, for the past 12 hours at least and had no idea of what time of day it was. I knew that I could get home sometime on the Wednesday morning instead of the evening if I kept this up, which was only about four or five hours of driving away. Indianapolis was littered with construction work zones with reduced speed limits. I was only doing 55-60 mph in any case, but by now my only road companions were 18-wheeled trucks.
Truckers own the road. It's their place of work. From what I can tell of how truckers drive at night, they feel that anything going slower than them has reliquished its right to existance. Now, the state law may be that trucks can only do 55 mph while cars can do 65 mph, but you'd be hard pressed to find any truck driver doing less than 70 mph around Indianapolis at one in the morning. Whenever we'd hit a single-lane construction zone with a 55 mph speed limit, I'd have a long line of trucks behind me, desperate to get past, cursing, praying, hoping that the single-lane limit would end so they could pass me with a roar from their diesel engines.
At one point, we entered a single-lane, 55 mph zone with no shoulder and concrete barricades on either side of the lane. It caught me by surprise and suddenly I was getting stroboscopic flashes from the headlights being reflected of the white concrete. I was going at 50 mph with concrete barricades about 3" (15 cm) from either side of the car.
It was like the end sequence to Star Wars, where Luke Skywalker has to shoot two rockets down a Death Star waste recepticle (or something like that). The spirit of Alec Guinness was echoing in my head:
"Use the force, Luke. Use the force."
It was clear I needed proper rest. I pulled over into a the parking lot of a gas station and tried to go to sleep. The problem was that while my mind may have needed rest, it was so wired on caffeine and powerbars that fireworks were going off inside my head. And my body certainly didn't need rest: it had been doing nothing at all for the past three and a half days. If anything, it needed exercise. And the humid night didn't help. With no temperature guage functioning and a potential leak in the engine cooling system, I hadn't dared to use the airconditioner. While moving, it wasn't much of a problem, since the breeze cooled you off, but sitting still in a parking lot in the dead of the night, with high temperature and high humidity, there was no escape.
So, I jogged on the spot. I did push-ups. I stretched. I did the aerobic exercises I could remember from the jiu-jitsu practice a few years back in Linkoping. I did this for about an hour until I was drenched and couldn't think or stand any more, then slumped into the passenger seat, set the alarm for three hours, and slept like a baby.
All in all, it was not the smartest of moves, but it was useful experience. I'd learnt to read the warning signs, without getting into any harm. I woke rested and refreshed at dawn and drove into Ohio. Past Dayton, past Springfield, onto Columbus. Through the morning traffic, off I-70, up Neil Avenue, take a left onto Third St., a right onto Northwest Boulevard, a right onto Independence Rd, a left into the parking lot.
I was home.
The question I get alot is, "would you do it again?" Absolutely. In the bat of an eyelid. But, I wouldn't do it the same way. Some things I'd do differently are:
- A car that I know better than one which is 23 years old and has spent the twelve months up to four days before departure parked on an island and unused.
- Have a travel companion. Someone to talk to, someone to share the experience with, and someone to do half the damn driving.
- More time. Given my time table and the unknown state of the car, I had virtually no time to stop in interesting places. I would have loved to see so many places along this trip, but there was just no time.
But that's pretty much it. There are two other cross-US trips I'd love to do, one taking the middle route, and one taking the southern route. With any luck, a friend of mine will be coming over next spring and we'll do the trip from Columbus, down to Georgia, across Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, northern Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California.
And, knowing me, we'll probably scoot up to Vancouver just for the day ;)