Taking a break from tying the other night I ran across this photo, taken in 1975 on my annual cross country trip from Boston to Montana. It was shot in a junkyard somewhere in Wisconsin (Janesville comes to mind), one of several I paid a visit to on my way West that summer. If it wasn’t one part breaking down in that rusty old Ford Econoline van, it was another. This time, I believe, it was the steering mechanism or shaft. I remember only that the steering wheel became disconnected from the shaft while I was driving. Same with the gear shift lever, too. Ah, well, it was a long time ago.
Looking at the photo brings back memories of a time when I gave no thought to driving across country with only a few hundred dollars to my name in a vehicle that was destined to die on the road. And maybe me with it. I had only one thought in mind, though: get to Montana SOMEHOW. Trouble along the way seemed part of the deal.
And trouble there was on that trip. This was only the first visit to a junkyard or mechanic. When the problem with the steering was fixed I headed West again. Outside Minneapolis I smelled smoke–and soon saw–and felt–flames coming from beneath my driver’s seat. Seems the metal seat frame had come in contact with the battery. Time to abandon ship. I gathered up my cat–by now scared out of his mind and wanting to scratch–and handed him to the friend who was travelling with me. Luckily I found the small fire extinguisher I’d bought at a yard sale and put out the fire. Not all that much damage, really, just to the seat and the battery and a few wires. Oh, yeah, and also to my face from the cat scratches.
A few days later the problems were fixed and I was on my way again. It was smooth sailing until the Black Hills of South Dakota where I developed a leak in my rusted-out gas tank which I solved by stopping up the hole with Dentine gum.
The problem with the van, though, was only a small part of my stay in that Black Hills campground. There was another problem, this time with my cat, Merlin, a Russian Blue, a beautiful cat that a few years before had strayed away from his owners one winter day and had found a home with me. I really loved that cat; he was a great travel companion and by then had spent three summers in Montana with me, camping out and following me as I fished the streams and rivers.
My friend and I had planned to spend only one night at the campground but in the morning when it was time to leave, there was no sign of Merlin. I looked all over the campground, asked all the campers if they’d seen him.No one had. I was devastated! He was my buddy–and I cared for him a lot more than I did my friend, who was begging me to leave (his vacation time was running low). I couldn’t just leave Merlin there and told my friend that we were going to stay until I found him. I almost lost my friend–but, happy to say, I did find the cat.
After making one last round among the campers and the campsite, I met a man who said that the night before he had heard a great commotion up in the trees outside his tent, sounds like a cat yowling. He stepped outside to investigate and upon looking up he saw what he thought was a great horned owl taking off and what looked like a cat dropping to the ground. This was hopeful, but only sort of. Where was the cat now? I called and called but no Merlin. I finally gave up and went to my tent and slept, thinking that I’d get up at first light and try again. Around four in the morning I heard a cat’s cry. It was Merlin. I jumped out of my sleeping bag, opened the tent flap and looked outside. In the moonlight I could see him crawling towards the tent, as close to the ground as he could get, heading “home.”
Merlin had indeed been picked up by the owl. He had two holes in his back where the owl’s talons had pierced the skin. Fortunately the owl hadn’t broken his spine and the holes healed up before we made it to Yellowstone. In case you’re wondering, Merlin lived to make eight more trips with me to Montana but I noticed that he was much more reluctant to wander around at night than he used to be.
We left South Dakota that morning and made it as far as the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming without a problem–that is until we had to climb one of those mountains. Seemed the timing mechanism had to be re-set for the higher altitudes. Found this out when I had to back down a mountain road that the van couldn’t quite make. Live and learn.
Finally made it to Yellowstone after seventeen days on the road. My friend was kind of upset, since he had only three weeks of vacation and had used up most of it visiting junk yards and mechanics or looking for a cat. Can’t blame him, really.
When you look at the photo you may notice that there are a number of tires on the roof of the van. This is because every time I visited a junk yard I would buy up almost any used tire that would fit the tire mount. Didn’t matter if the tires were fifteen inch or fourteen inch or whatever they were; as long as the holes on the tire frame matched what were on the mount I’d buy them. Cheaper than new tires. So what if they wobbled a bit. Didn’t bother me. As long as they’d last the summer–and maybe the trip home.
Well, they never did last the trip home. Ever the optimist, I didn’t know that the days of this Ford Econoline van were numbered. I should have realized it when, towards the end of summer I headed west to visit my friend Bob in LA. I was driving west of Elko, Nevada when, much to my surprise, I saw a tire rolling down the highway just in front of me. At about the same moment my front end collapsed like a wounded elk and I realized it was my front right tire that was rolling down the highway. I skidded to a stop and got out to look further into this problem. Now you’d think by this time, being the owner of a mechanic’s dream, that I’d know a lot about cars, but I really didn’t (still don’t) but I could see from a quick examination of the wheel well that the number of studs required to hold a wheel to the rest of the frame weren’t there. Apparently most of the studs had crystallized and snapped and the other nuts had come loose, which led, I guess, to the sudden departure of the tire. What to do?
The first thing needed seemed to be to recover the missing wheel. Not an easy thing, it turned out. If you’ve ever driven west out of Elko you know that it’s a pretty straight road, goes on for miles without a turn. I finally found the tire just off the side of the road after walking along the highway for about half a mile. Nothing to do now but roll it back to the van and take it from there. It was a long walk, I can tell you that. Hot, too, as I recall.
Back at the van, I jacked up the front end and mounted the wheel onto the two remaining studs, tightened the bolts, and headed back to Elko. I don’t know if you’ve ever driven a car whose tire is held on by only two bolts but I don’t recommend it. The van wobbled from side to side as I drove along the highway at about ten miles an hour until I finally exhaled the breath I was holding and pulled into the next garage I saw. Just my luck, it was closed and wouldn’t be open until Monday (this was Saturday night). There were no other garages open either I soon found out and so I now had a day or so to explore Elko (nice town but I wouldn’t want to live there).
On the road again on Monday–after being fitted with new studs–I made it to LA without any major problems–if you don’t count the fact that the van now didn’t go much more than about twenty miles an hour without overheating. Seems it now needed a new head gasket. This proved to be the final straw and so I decided to sell it. But who would buy it? There’s no Museum of Junk Cars that I know of but after a few calls I did find a junk dealer in LA who said that if I could drive it in he’d give me seventy-five dollars. Seventy-five dollars was exactly the cost of a flight from LA to West Yellowstone, and having no hope of a better offer I headed off in search of the junk dealer. The van actually made it to the junk dealer but not before I was cited by a California state trooper for driving too slow on the Santa Monica Freeway. The minimum speed there is thirty miles an hour. Which to this day I think is very unfair since according to my speedometer I was doing twenty-five.