There is no temperature gauge. It broke several thousand miles ago in the desert. But you can feel the trouble coming, puffs of radiator fluid sliding in the air stream ahead of the engine niche. That’s when you know it’s time to quit. It doesn’t happen often. The 318 likes to ride hot, but climbing mountains with a 12,000-pound RV on your back will eventually overheat any small-block engine.
I start looking for a place to stop. There is nothing. The left side of the road is a steep cut of rock, quartzite, phyllite and limestone exposed by dynamite. To the east, as far as I can see, the barren rocky foothills of the White Mountains bubble up and slash their way to a desert valley floor, dust-swept and brown. Sprinkled here and there, clumps of creosote and mugwort are occasionally interrupted by splashes of yellow rabbit. It is an austere but magnificent landscape. Without withdrawal. But that’s okay, we haven’t seen another car for at least an hour on the road. We are on Highway 168 somewhere in Eastern California between the Nevada ghost town where we camped last night and the top of the White Mountains.
So I stop in the middle of the road.
When the engine stops, a silence settles. No wind. No birds. No chatter. We – my wife, my three children and I – just listen to the faint hiss of steam escaping from the radiator cap, then a slight gurgling of coolant into the engine. It’s October, but I’m glad I had the presence of mind to stop in the shade; the desert sun casts a harsh light on the road. After a minute, my wife turns to the kids and says, “Do you want to go for a walk and see if we can find any fossils? »
As a kid in the 70s, I spent quite a bit of time on the side of the road next to broken down vehicles. This is what the vehicles of the time did. The 1967 Volkswagen fastback that managed to get us home safely after I was born was replaced by a mustard-yellow 1976 VW Dasher that regularly overheated near Yuma, Arizona, on the way home from my childhood in Los Angeles to my grandparents’ house in Tucson. To this day, my father curses this car. There was also a 1969 Ford F-150 pickup that was reliable until you strapped an RV on your back and tried to climb the Sierra Nevada mountains. Previously, it was more necessary to know how to repair a car. These days it is often, if not a luxury, a labor of love.
My father passed on this F-150 to me. I wanted to work on it, but the truth is, I was intimidated. What if I broke something irreparable? What if I couldn’t hack it? I was a computer programmer then. In principle, repairing the code is not that different from repairing an engine. But a computer will tell you what’s wrong with your code. An engine, at least an old one, does not do this. When working on an older vehicle, You are the computer. And I was one without software.
It made it hard to know where to start, and so I didn’t. Instead, I helped more knowledgeable friends with their cars. In the process, I discovered that, for me, solving mechanical problems brought a kind of satisfaction that numerical problems did not. One weekend I was helping a friend bleed his car’s brakes, pumping the pedal while under the chassis turning the bleed screws. As we worked, I could feel the resistance building up, a tactile feedback that I loved. I was hooked. I wanted to learn how to fix engines, but to do that I knew I needed a project of my own, a project with higher stakes than the F-150.
In June 2015, my wife and I purchased a 1969 Dodge Travco, an RV that at the time was about to turn 50 years old. My kids called it the bus. Which was appropriate. When you say “camping car“, most people imagine something that looks nothing like our old Dodge. To call it an RV is to say that a Stradivarius is a fiddle. The Travco is a 27-foot fiberglass container long filled with beauty and joy. It is 1960s turquoise and white with slender curves and rounded windows. It is bold in a sea of beige modern motorhomes. The Travco was cool enough to be featured in Playboy magazine, back when it was a sign of cool. Johnny Cash had one. James Dean and John Wayne too.
We didn’t buy it just for me to have a project. We bought it to make it our full time home. We were tired of the suburbs and wanted our children to see the United States, to have a better idea of where they were born. I didn’t want them to read about deserts, mountains and forests, I wanted them to be there. I wanted them to know the difference between the South, where they were born, the Midwest, the West, the Northeast. I wanted them to also experience the frustration and joy of continuing down the road through your own sweat and effort. Through a confused sense of autonomy born of stubbornness and ideals, I wanted them to know that anything worth fixing can be fixed, and anything that can’t isn’t worth fixing. hard to have. But sitting there in the hot California sun on Highway 168 that afternoon, the bus looked more like a giant check my ego had written that my clumsy fingers and tools couldn’t cash.