This is a greatly expanded chronicle of a road trip I took several years ago in a disreputable-looking old Oldsmobile. It is probably the lengthiest story I have published on Legacy Stories. It was simply such a grand, adventurous, "fun" trip for me that I want to preserve it in its entireity. It is entirely factual although somewhat romanticized. I invite you to ride along with me.
Twenty-Nine Crosses and One Dead Cow
Whoever created the old television series “Fantasy Island” knew that almost everyone has an unlived fantasy inside their head and that given a reasonable chance would gladly plunge into it. Sadly, other than daydreaming and entertaining wistful thoughts a “Fantasy Island” experience will always be just that for most people: a fantasy. But it was my good fortune that shortly after my sixty-eighth birthday I stepped into the exclusive circle of people who have lived out a fantasy.
It began when my youngest son Nathan wanted to rebuild his nice classic 70-something Buick convertible. While in that process he bought an old beat-up, junky-looking Oldsmobile. It was what pilots call “an airport car,” a vehicle to be used strictly for transportation from home to airport or they are sometimes found parked at small airports to be used as loaner cars for pilots who drop in and need simple transportation to town and back. Its upholstery was worn and torn with stains that only a dedicated CSI could identify. Its paint was leprous. No hubcaps adorned its wheels and its tires were well beyond their half-life. This Olds screamed “AIRPORT CAR.” But it wasn’t its looks alone that branded the old car a junker. It proclaimed its decrepit condition in a loud voice coming from deep inside its engine. The explosions that occur inside the cylinders of a 455 CID V8 engine are powerful. Powerful, noisy, and toxic. Those by-products of its power are normally shunted into the exhaust pipe, through the muffler and out the tailpipe. Those niceties were gone. The only part of this car’s exhaust system that remained was its exhaust manifold. No exhaust pipe, no muffler, no tailpipe. All the carbon monoxide and noise went directly into the engine compartment and from there into the ears, nose and eyes of anyone inside the car. But as did Cinderella, she had a hidden treasure. Her engine, which produced clouds of harmful fumes and noise enough to rival an Abrams tank, ran beautifully. It delivered raw, steady, massive power. My son wanted that power in his Buick.
The problem was . . . the Olds was in the airport parking lot in Miami, Florida and Nate’s Buick was in a mechanic’s parking lot in El Cajon, California. There were two ways to solve the problem. A mechanic could remove the engine in situ, crate it and ship it to El Cajon CA. Or, the car could be driven from Miami to California; putting faith in the belief that the running gear of the Olds was as sturdy and dependable as its engine. Driving it was far less expensive although much riskier. But given Nathan’s finances it was the better of the two alternatives.
The plan concocted was thus: Nathan would drive it from Miami to a small airport near Ft. Worth TX, where he would pass the ignition keys to me and I would press on to El Cajon. I had never seen the Olds when I agreed to this proposition but my nature has always been to “Say yes to an adventure and this certainly sounded like one. When I saw and heard that Oldsmobile after landing my little plane at a small airport near Ft. Worth, we agreed that if the old car developed some serious ailment on the road I would sell it for junk, find the nearest airport and fly home.
Without a conscious decision on my part when I took possession of that incredibly dilapidated vehicle my “Walter Mitty” persona kicked in. No respectable person would set out on such a trip in that car. It had to be a down on his luck, poorly educated, lacking in marketable skills vagabond. Only a person such as that would do it. In my “Mitty-ish” facade I became that person. It was a wild, improbable fantasy for a happily married, 68-year-old retired school superintendent, homeowner, father of five, holding a Ph.D. to live out and I was eager to plunge into it.
We hugged our goodbyes, Nathan strapped himself into the cockpit of my little plane, I slid over the torn upholstery into the driver’s seat, fired up that monstrous engine and we headed out in opposite directions. It was evening rush hour in the big city when I roared down the entrance ramp and merged into the traffic of Interstate 30. My immediate goal was to get the “feel” of this colossal vehicle by driving to a point well outside the Metro area where I would stop, eat dinner and spend the night.
I quickly discovered a few things. First, if there were shock absorbers on any one of the wheels, they were defunct. Similarly, it was immediately clear that steering the car was more akin to herding a sheep with a stick than making subtle changes in my course. I also soon became aware that the porridge of fumes generated by internal combustion, overheated oil and grease spills, and hot rubber hoses, blending with the cacophonous racket bellowing from the exhaust manifold created an unpleasant sensory stew in the driver’s compartment. I didn’t notice the heat coming through the floorboards yet because the evening coolness was descending onto the Texas plains.
I30 soon became I20, which I exited as soon as possible to follow U.S. Highway 180 which roughly parallels that Interstate but without the heavy traffic. The first outlying town I came to was Weatherford TX, where I found a motel with an adjoining restaurant. I eased into the parking lot running the engine just fast enough to maintain forward speed so as to dampen its bellowing, secured a room, parked my shambling beast, ate dinner and settled in for the night. It had been a long eventful day. Sleep came soon but my sense of adventure me awakened me before sunrise, goading me to hit the road.
Because most of the occupied rooms near mine were still dark I started the engine as quietly as possible. Despite my care, when that big engine fired it bathed the parking lot with enough noise to awaken all but the soundest sleeper. I didn’t tarry to see if any lights came on. I found a McDonalds a few miles down the road and idled through the drive-through lane trying to minimize the noise, picked up my breakfast and went on my way.
The early morning was fresh and clear, as was I. We began cruising at a modest 60 mph and I found that with constant vigilance I’d be able to keep the car somewhere between the center stripe and the edge of the highway. It wasn’t hot yet but the morning sun and clear sky promised to bring an abundance of heat to the day. The air conditioning unit in the car likely hadn’t worked for years but with air rushing through all the open windows I thought it would be bearable. We droned on in our capsule of noise and vapors. With the engine running at a constant speed I became accustomed to the noise and smells. In fact, they became almost hypnotic, I was lulled.
My reverie was suddenly broken by a crisp, metallic-sounding banging coming from behind me. Alarmed, I stopped and looked in and beneath the trunk and checked the back seat. Nothing wrong. I got underway again but as soon as I got up to cruising speed that rat-a-tat persistent banging commenced again. However, since I was not in a sleepwalking state of mind I saw out of the corner of my eye something moving behind me. I took a quick look over my shoulder and had an “Aha!” moment. The wind rushing through the car was making the metal ends of the rear seat belt slap rapidly against the metal frame of the rear window. I secured the belts and ended that little scare.
There wasn’t much traffic on the two-lane highway so I was enjoying the scenery and exulting in the opportunity to have this strange but exciting adventure. I had no radio, but the constant thundering of the engine would have made one useless anyway, so I entertained myself by singing and, yes, at times talking to myself. I was having great fun until a loud explosion broke my serenity. It was the right front tire exploding with so much force that a piece of the rubber sidewall hit the fender forcefully enough to loosen whatever was holding the chrome strip alongside the bottom of the fender and cause it to point outward at a ten to fifteen-degree angle. I tried to remove the chrome strip entirely but without tools couldn’t do it. Ah, no matter, I thought, the disfigurement adds to the overall picture of a completely derelict vehicle.
I herded the Olds onto the shoulder and was pleased to see that there WAS a spare tire in the trunk. It had only faint vestiges of tread left on it, but it should last long enough to take us to the next town where we could buy at least a slightly better used tire. I also found a bumper jack and lug wrench. What I did NOT find was a base plate for the bumper jack. With no base plate the car’s weight would be resting on a pinnacle with nothing to keep it from moving from side to side or back and forth. Obviously when I began loosening the lug nuts and pulling the wheel off the hub there was a good chance that the car would move and come crashing to the ground. Should any part of my body be in the wrong place when that happened, broken bones, crushed body parts and spilled blood were the likely result. I chocked the wheels as best I could, then breathing a little faster, not entirely because of physical exertion, I began raising the bumper – one click at a time – keeping as far away as possible. When the wheel cleared the ground I delicately began loosening the lug nuts. Two came off. The third was defying my strength. I had to be more forceful. Then as I feared – the car came crashing down. Having “primed myself” for that possibility my reflexes were quick enough to get all my body parts out of the way with no injury. I repositioned the jack and with no further mishap replaced the blown-out tire. I drove very carefully to the next town - Snyder TX - where I stopped at the first place that had used tires for sale.
The adrenalin had worn off and my breathing was back to normal as I stopped the car in front of the tire shop’s door. I was back in my fantasy of being a down on his luck, poorly educated, lacking in marketable skills vagabond. (I should mention here that I had a fair amount of experience as an amateur actor in my early days and had showed some talent in playing “character parts.”) I told the shop foreman that I was heading for California, didn’t have much money and needed as good a tire as a few dollars would buy. I enjoyed the incredulous look he gave me when I said that. He helped me pick out a tire that looked as if it would be up to the demands I would make on it, installed it and wished me best of luck.
Hours passed uneventfully except that as the Texas sun rose higher in the clear sky the heat inside the car began taking its toll on me. I was pretty sure the temperature was approaching or in the triple digits. My tee shirt, shorts and even socks were soaked with sweat. The cocktail of fumes, noise and heat were beginning to give me a dull headache. No joy in that. I had to do something, but what? I was already exposing as much bare skin as the law allows. “Walter Mitty” was paying a stiff price for his fantasy
The old car was running beautifully as I crossed into New Mexico sweating mightily. Because it had no shocks I found that it heeled over like a sailboat turning crosswind whenever I made a sharp turn. If the turn was to the left it rolled over far enough for the outward-jutting chrome strip to drag on the pavement adding additional color to the mosaic of a disreputable car.
Sometime in the early afternoon I made a rest stop in Carlsbad, NM where I enjoyed a decent lunch, tanked up on coffee and found a shade tree to lie under for a while. While resting I had an inspired solution to my discomfort with the heat. I bought a big Styrofoam cooler, a large supply of bottled water, some ibuprofen, a large bag of ice, a handful of energy bars and several small face towels. “Face Towels???” Not to wipe sweat off my brow. No. I poured water over the ice, put the towels into the ice water, wrung them out a bit and wrapped them around my head in a close approximation of a Sikh turban. As one would lose its cooling power I replaced it with another. I relished the quizzical and odd looks on the faces of the folks passing my relatively slow-moving vehicle. I was enjoying myself immensely. I kept the towels wet enough so that refreshingly cool water seeped down onto my neck and shoulders. By changing towels as they became warm I managed to bear the heat, if not well, then with equanimity.
I ended that day at El Paso where I showered layers of syrupy sweat off my body, ate a nice meal and enjoyed a blessed night’s sleep. One full day of the trip logged. Other than the early morning seat belt noise, the tire mishap and the discomfort of the morning heat and noise, fortune had smiled upon me. That disgraceful looking old car that common sense would have said would never make it from Florida to California was thumbing its nose at common sense.
I overslept a bit the following morning then enjoyed a sit-down breakfast before following the sun’s journey from east to west. I was a little apprehensive about this day’s trip because I would have to drive all day on an Interstate. I much preferred being on the less-traveled U.S or State highways because I felt that if I had a problem the people I would encounter on those by-ways would be friendlier. The only possible alternative to the Interstate was a route that would jumped from one highway to another and at one point would have me almost in Mexico.
It was the Interstate or idiocy, so I herded the Olds up onto the Interstate, claimed the right-hand lane for my own and settled in for the day’s drive. I had reloaded the ice chest with ice and bottled water and kept my head swathed in wet towels. My appearance wasn’t attracting the attention it had yesterday. It was the Interstate. Traffic was zooming past me too fast to notice anything unusual. I thought often about the well-worn tires, wondering how they would hold up to the heat that built up from driving non-stop on the Interstate. They held up just fine and this day passed uneventfully. In fact, had I not enjoyed the pleasure of reflecting on what an adventure I was having and looking at the Arizona landscape it would have been boring.
Having gotten a late start and seeing that I was going to be passing through a town toward which I had some sentimental attraction, I decided to end the second day in the small town of Willcox AZ. The thing about Willcox that tempted me to stop there was that it’s small airport was named “Cochise County Airport.” I had stopped at that airport when I made my momentous (to me) flight from St. Louis to Palm Springs CA back in 1994. When our youngest, Nathan, was young I nicknamed him “Cochise” because he was “The last of the Apaches,” referring to our family of five children. I stopped there to refuel my plane back in `94. Since I was sentimentalizing its name I bought a tee shirt with the words “Cochise County Airport” (As an aside, I still have that tee shirt although its collar is frayed and worn I still wear it occasionally.) Since my romanticist view of the world was largely responsible for this road trip, I chose to find a motel in Willcox and spend the night – “for old time’s sake.”
I arose early the following morning and settled for a fast-food breakfast so that I could be on the road without delay. It was still Interstate driving and there would be little “civilization” until I got to Tucson: not a good place for my Olds to give up the ghost. But “she” was behaving like a well-disciplined troopery, not a whimper or hiccup from the engine. My confidence in it was soaring. So much so that after a rest-refueling stop in Tucson I made a bold decision that showed how much faith I now had in “her.”
At Tucson, Interstate 10 makes a sharp northward turn and after a few miles intersects Interstate 8. From there on it would be Interstate 8 all the way to El Cajon. Interstate! I was sick and tired of them. They are a dreary, mind-numbing, “lets-just-get-there” way to travel. I looked at my Arizona map and pondered. Arizona State Highway 86 departs Tucson on an almost due-west heading, dips down toward the south a bit, then veers northwest to a hamlet called “Why,” where it became Arizona State Highway 85. That highway struck almost straight north until it intersected, ugh, Interstate 8. A huge portion of that route was through the “Tohono O’Odham Indian Nation” governed by the Papago Indian tribe.
Now how could “Walter Mitty” dismiss that route in favor of an Interstate? Answer: “No way.” This would take me 178 miles through an almost uninhabited, barren landscape, and once I was well out of Tucson there would be no roadside assistance for mile after mile. But I had “bonded” with the Olds and was confident she would “conquer.”
Not long after leaving Tucson I noticed two things: We were gradually but steadily gaining altitude and I began seeing a white wooden cross about three feet tall every few miles planted alongside the shoulder of the road. In my home territory people often erect a little cross as a memorial to a loved one who was killed in a car accident at that spot. Is it possible, I wondered, that such a large number of people had been killed on this highway? That didn’t seem plausible; but what did those crosses symbolize? The question intrigued me. I started counting them and was up to 39 when I saw something. There, a few feet beyond the shoulder of the road was a dead cow lying on her side with her stiffened legs jutting out angularly. Maybe it was the heat. Maybe it was the hours of solitude. I burst out in almost uncontrollable laughter. “Thirty-nine crosses and One Dead Cow.” My rational mind said there was no connection between the two but my sense of irony created a bizarre connection that struck me as wildly funny. To this day I don’t know what those crosses symbolize but, in my box full of things to laugh about, they were there to commemorate a dead cow. Funny thing is – I never saw a live cow anywhere out in that wasteland.
After a brief stop in “Why” to take a picture of its sign, I took Highway 85 heading due north towards Gila Springs where I would resign myself to Interstate driving for the rest of my westward quest. Although there were still many miles in front of me I sensed the end approaching. Two things caught my attention along Highway 85, first I saw a sign on a private club of some sort just off the highway in Ajo that would make any member of the ACLU break out in cold sweat. Posted on the front door, clearly readable from the highway, a sign read: “Caucasians Only.” WOW! A little further up the road I saw, out in the desolation along the highway, the first and only “Dust Devil” I’ve ever seen.
By the time I left Arizona I was totally confident we would reach El Cajon. But there was one final challenge to be met. Soon after crossing into California we began climbing the mountain range that stood between me and my destination. They weren’t the large majestic Sierra’s but they were demanding enough to put a continual strain on the engine and transmission of “my” car. Then, midway up the steepening slope I came to one of California’s “Inspection Gates.” I had nothing to fear about being inspected but I knew that when I pressed on the accelerator to begin moving after having stopped on this steep slope, the engine would make a hellish racket and there were “CHiP” patrol cars parked on the shoulder. I feared that when they heard the cannonade coming from under the hood of my Olds they would chase and give me a ticket for making excessive noise and driving a car without pollution control devices, or even confiscate the car until it was made “legal.” Luck continued to “be a lady” though. The cacophony of my departure didn’t raise an eyebrow.
A few hours later I pulled this old car that I had come to love into the parking lot of the shop where the mechanic would “gut her”- ending her life as a once-proud, powerful and beautiful Olds. I parked her in the space next to the Buick that would inherit “her heart;” leaving her to be towed to the salvage yard where she would be crushed and ultimately melted into molten steel.
I truly felt sad as I shut down her engine for the last time. In an epic journey that in terms of gritty determination and strength of character, rivaled the stories of pets who traveled hundreds of miles over strange territory to return to their master, that ancient hulk which until 10 days ago had for years and years not been driven more than 25 miles at any one time, had taken on the challenge of a coast-to-coast trip of over 2,600 miles and completed it like a champion. She had conquered torrential rain, scorching desert heat and steep mountain slopes with only one mishap – a blown tire. If I could’ve I would’ve painted “Veni, Vidi, Vici” on her hood.
As for me, I was closing the book on an adventure unlike any I’d ever had in my 68 years of living. A road trip of a lifetime. Three days living in a fantasy. Feeling both proud and sad I went to the motel, showered, put on fresh, nice clothes and went to dine in an upscale restaurant. The “down on his luck, poorly educated, lacking in marketable skills vagabond” was laid to rest.
The next day I boarded an airplane and within hours was back in Missouri, having been reborn as “A happily married, 68-year-old retired school superintendent, homeowner, father of five, holding a Ph.D.”
In a sad postscript; other considerations and needs intervened. Nathan couldn’t come up soon enough with money enough to pay for the engine transplant and the mechanic was not only unwilling to wait any longer, he said Nathan owed him an outrageous sum of money as a “storage fee.” Since Nathan couldn’t pay the exorbitant fee the mechanic said he owed, which must be paid before taking the Buick off the lot, he gave the Olds to him as payment and drove the Buick back to Missouri.
The last act of this drama came when Nathan consigned the Buick to a local person here in SW MO who said he could completely restore the Buick in the garage out in back of his house. He would remove all its parts down to the frame and running gear and repair everything needed to bring it back to its showroom condition. Many weeks passed. Nathan was busy with his job as an airline pilot and was unable to check on the progress of the restoration project very often. The last time he went to see how things were going he found the Buick almost stripped down to the frame but the man hired to do the restoration wasn’t there. His wife told Nathan her husband had left her recently and she had no idea where he was. So the story ended with the gallant Olds going to its hellsfire end in a smelting furnace and the Buick laying in pieces all over a treacherous man’s garage. Nathan gathered up the pieces and trailered them home. Ultimately he sold it for a pittance to a person who intended to cannibalize it for parts. And here the story ends by sadly acknowledging:
“Optimum consilium et mures . . .”
(“The best laid plans of mice and men . . .)