Neil Young sang “Long May You Run” about a car (in his case a hearse!) that he was apparently attached to. I can relate.
Dennis Cruise found my car in early 1972. His father owned a junkyard in LA, and Dennis was an excellent mechanic. He figured that it would be easy to find a car that had been well looked after with something like 100,000 miles on the clock for about $100. Every day, we went through the classified ads in the Edmonton Journal looking for that car, with him calling the number in the ad for each likely candidate. He did the calling because he knew a whole lot more about cars than I did. On the phone, he wanted to find one that had been garaged, had not had many owners, and was said to run well. In person, when he drove us around in his old Volvo to check out the better likely candidates, he looked for other more mechanical things: each car was subjected to an emergency brake application and a gear change from low-speed Drive to Reverse, for example. How were the tires? Did the compression pretty much match on all of the cylinders? That one involved taking each of the spark plugs out of the block and attaching some sort of gauge to each cylinder. He was a seller’s nightmare! Checking out these cars took a lot of his time over about a month.
Dennis was like that, just a very giving man. He pretty much adopted me in Edmonton. I was only there for about three months, but in that time he did more for me than any therapist I ever had, and he was a Ph. D. candidate in psychology, the chemical aspects, not the clinical. We would chat about the challenges of rebuilding his Sportster’s Ironhead engine as he drove the Volvo around parts stores and machine shops: think “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” And we would sit around in the living room during the evening, chatting our way through a six pack of Guinness while Kathy looked after Shauna, their baby, or made the home-made candles which I sold for her door to door.
Dennis had been a roadie on the Doors’ Roadhouse Blues tour, their final tour. While he did not follow the band to the Isle of Wight festival, their last concert on the tour, the last concert before Jim Morrison died, I was delighted to share with him that they had put on an awesome set and sounded fantastic, but it was almost completely in the dark. Someone had blown the lighting. Much about that festival said that the hippie dream was over; that’s what I told Dennis. He promptly put the Doors’ Morrison Hotel on the stereo, a very nice stereo, and of course as soon as the songs played the dream lived on. Dennis was like that.
The car that he eventually found, a one-owner pink 1959 Chevy Impala with a 283 cubic inch V8 engine, one of the standard engines that he believed in, passed all of his regular tests, with compression across all cylinders particularly good considering its age. He thought that at $125 it was a little overpriced. I had sold enough of Kathy’s candles by then not to be put off by the extra $25, and so I bought it. There was a fair bit of rust, around the headlights, for example, but that was unavoidable in Edmonton with its constantly freezing temperatures, frozen roads and permanent salt. Even garaged all its life, which Dennis believed that it had been, rust was inevitable.
The first car that I bought with my own money!
Its first use was to sell more of Kathy’s candles. Edmonton was extremely cold, to the point where the candles would crack unless they were kept warm when outside. So I started and warmed the Chevy at Dennis’s house, rushed out to the car with the candles under a blanket, put them on the back seat in the warm car and then drove to apartment buildings or college dorms where I sold them door to door.
Once I had enough money saved up, more or less (and of course Kathy and Dennis did not charge me any rent), I found Geoff Buss, a rider, to share the gas and driving (we had at least 40 hours to drive to Toronto, and more if the weather was bad), said goodbye to the Cruise family and drove East. It was still winter in Canada, there was often ice on the roads, and we drove through a blizzard overnight in North Ontario. Learning to drive on ice, as we often did that trip, was wild: you have to feel it when you start to slide before you lose control of the car, and the sound of the tires on the drifting snow or ice does not help because it does not change when you slide. Sometimes you correct for non-existent slides! And when you accurately sense a slide beginning, you have to correct the steering to compensate very delicately. Too abrupt, and you’re in a spin and off the road! We slid and slithered through the Lakehead night, across the massive width of North Ontario, a thousand miles of ice, snow and slush, not taking a break until we reached Geoff’s friends’ place in Toronto.
True to form, I did not stay there long. It only took a few days to find riders for New York City on the rides board at the University of Toronto, and off we went. Each rider (I think that there were four) chipped in about half the estimated gas, and making a little profit seemed reasonable: half the gas was way less than the bus fare, and it was my car which suffered the wear and tear.
There was more wear and tear than expected. That night in upstate New York I missed a left turn until almost past it, and throwing the car left at about 30 mph, way too hard for an old car filled with people, something gave way and we ground to a halt. The riders discussed things quietly among themselves and moved on, because there was obviously no way that the car was going to start until a mechanic had worked on it, at the earliest the next day. We had driven for about five hours, with maybe four and a half left. I snuggled into the sleeping bag with all of my clothes still on and waited for morning. I may have slept some.
Morning brought the kind of angel who populates the back roads of America in the form of Seeley’s Garage of Nichols, New York. Father and son came out, checked out the Chevy, and towed it to the dad’s shop, with me in the tow truck. I warned them that I didn’t have a lot of cash, although none of the riders had asked for a refund before they all left, and so I was better off than I might have been. The dad showed me what had happened after raising the car – my memory says that he had a pneumatic lift, but in retrospect that sounds doubtful – the front right A-frame had given way. I’m getting nervous: an A-frame had to cost a fair bit, and how long would it take to get one? The dad pulls out his welding equipment, and jerry-rigged a repair for the A-frame right then and there. He told me to get it replaced ASAP, but we both knew that I wouldn’t. For one thing, this man had skills. He asked me how much gas I had, which was not a lot, and filled the tank. “$20,” he said. That’s all that I paid for the tow, the welding and the gas. Like I said, a back roads angel.
I gave New York City a bye after this disruption and headed straight to Cambridge, NY, home of the Roys, the host family for my high school exchange two years before, still my US home base. I put the Chevy out to pasture in Allen Green’s grandfather’s barn, and picked it up there after a few months at mum and dad’s in Marlow working overtime and living rent-free. As soon as I had money in my pocket, I was back on the road, and now with the luxury of my own car.
This time Adrian and I went west together, with George Parr, a friend from Cambridge, picking up riders at Pierre Trudeau’s temporary summer youth hostels, one in each major city where we spent the night. Our feelings for two of them, Julie and Margaret, a cute blond and a black beauty, ended our trip together, and interrupted Adrian’s and my friendship for quite a few years, but not before a couple of typically regrettable travel adventures.
After a warm snogging session with another fellow-traveller met at the local hostel, I somehow managed to run into the back of a car parked in front of me on a side street in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Very regrettable. Shamefully, I immediately drove off incognito, without leaving a note, justifying doing so in my head on the basis that it looked like a new or almost new car which would be insured against actions like mine. 45 years later a drunk driver lost on a Santa Cruz side street slammed into the side of Nick’s RAV 4, and drove off without leaving a note. I had insured the car against that risk; what goes around comes around.
In Winnipeg, the next city on our way west, Julie and Margaret were busted for shoplifting at Hudson’s Bay Company. Equally regrettable. Somehow the court that heard their case the next day was convinced that Adrian and I had put them up to it, which was crazy but maybe that was the story that they told. Who knows? The court sent them on their way – they were both pretty young, about our ages (19-20) – with the proviso that they could no longer associate with us.
That had a definite impact on our planned trip to British Columbia, and I ended up keeping the books at the Banff temporary hostel for a couple of months before driving south when the hostel closed its doors. A blond Hawaiian poet named Lauri whom I had met at the hostel had kindly invited me to visit her in Aspen, Colorado at the end of the summer. She even sent me $20 to buy a few rabbit’s feet at a trading post where she had found them herself in Banff. My job was to deliver those rabbits feet!
The pink ‘59 Chevy and I drove south across the 49th parallel and on down through Montana and Wyoming to Colorado. I kept to two-lane highways, and took regular breaks to explore the length of the foothills between the Rockies and the prairies. The mountains were never very far to the west, and the sky was always big and wide open to the north, east and south. I stopped to eat in small cowboy towns which had John Wayne westerns playing on the TVs in their diners, and pulled over to sleep in the distant corners of supermarket parking lots. There was no rush.
Somewhere in the middle of Montana, with the prairie rolling on and on and the highway hugging the foothills, I drove by a simple sign on the side of the road, did a quick double take, gasped, and pulled over on to the shoulder. Did that say what I thought it said? I reversed back along the gravel shoulder, throwing up a cloud of dust. Yes, it did: “Open Range: Stock at Loose.” You can say that again!
Maintaining the Chevy was a challenge. I never seemed to have the money to fix anything properly. I did have the oil and filter changed about once a long trip, because Dennis had told me to, and the plugs and wires once. Wiper blades were replaced, as were headlight bulbs. Frequent flat tires were either patched or replaced with already used tires. Neither patches nor replacements lasted very long, but the price was right!
The biggest problem was an odd one, the headlights. The Edmonton rust was visible around them when I bought the car, and its travels back and forth across the country only weakened the metal more. The lights themselves slowly detached from the quarter panels which held them in place. Initially, this meant that the beams bounced going over larger potholes, but before too long I was using wire to tie the lamps themselves to the panels in an attempt to point them in the right direction.
Results were mixed. I’d start out every trip with the lights wired in the right place pointing in the right direction, but roads are far from flat, and the older the car the more it shudders and jerks over bumps. The driver’s side light often ended up pointing above the horizontal and and to the left, effectively blinding drivers coming the other way. The passenger side light regularly lit off to the side of the road. I’m not even going to try to describe what happened with the high beams! By the time I gave the car up, I could barely see to drive after nightfall.
I ran that car for about 20,000 miles altogether, criss-crossing the continent for about two years. For $125. It was in Durango, Colorado at the western end of one of these trips that I realized quite suddenly that the game was up. I couldn’t go any further. Safety wasn’t an issue, so long as I didn’t drive after dark and the jerry-rigged A-frame held up, which it did. The car wasn’t properly registered or insured for most of its life, and somehow I’d just had enough. That 283 cubic inch V8 still ran well, the rusted floors still held up, and if I’d been a mechanic I would have held on to it.
But cars need real money sometimes, and I didn’t have any. Not enough to make needed major repairs, like reattaching the headlights to the corner panels, and not enough to buy another car. I left the Chevy with a couple of hippies who had given me a place to stay in Durango, no charge of course, and thumbed back to the east coast, across Texas and the South instead of the Prairies and Midwest. It was time to find another job at home in Marlow, and this time I found a serious girlfriend there. I would no longer be “on the road to find out.” I didn’t miss that life, either thumbing or driving, even though I had loved doing it; it was time to move on.