December 1, 2003

The Bad Trip

The following story recounts a trip that Jenny and I took in 1998

I have a rich cousin who always has a July 4th party for a few hundred of his closest friends at his farm on the Illinois/Wisconsin border. It’s always a ball, I haven’t been there in a few years, Jenny had never been there and was up for a road trip, so we decided to drive up from our home in Austin, Texas. This was in a 1987 Thunderbird with 150,000 miles on it. We’ll call it the “blue bird” because it’s blue.

My dad had a 1964 Thunderbird, which is an incredibly cool car, that he was thinking of getting rid of. He’s had it for about 15 years, but never really did anything with it–he just got it to have as a toy. We’ll call it the “black bird” because it’s black. He said we could have it if we wanted it. We did. We thought we would each drive one of the birds back to Austin, and then sell the blue bird.

We decide to bring our cat, Squeaker. We know that most cats don’t like car travel, but Squeaker is so laid-back, we figured that she’d be OK. Well, she’s not such a great traveller, we learned.

On the trip up, we take only back roads. State highways and some US highways–no interstates. We take our time and spend one night on Lake Greerson in Arkansas, the next somewhere near Cape Girardeau, Missouri. When we get into Cape Girardeau on day 3 of the trip, the fuel line seems to blow. We get the car towed into a shop pretty quickly, and it turns out that the fuel filter had been installed wrong, and the line just popped open. Easily remedied–we were back on our way quickly.

Up in Chicago, my dad is having some work done on the black bird, and it is taking longer than expected, so we decide at first to forget about it and drive home in the blue bird. Then on the 6th–which was to be our last day in town–the blue bird dies. First the automatic shifting starts acting really strange, and then after we stop, it just won’t start. Starter motor won’t even turn. Have it towed again to a nearby Ford dealer. They look it over and pronounce it almost too dangerous to drive, but they do manage to get it started. On my dad’s advice, I drive it home. It makes it OK, although the top gear won’t engage. At this point, we are feeling pretty dubious about driving the blue bird back to Texas, so we decide to wait until the black bird is ready, and just drive that instead. My dad offers to find some way to dispose of the blue bird for us.

Now our troubles really begin.

The black bird isn’t ready until the evening of the 7th, so we head out in darkness, taking the most direct interstate route we can. Despite the work done on it, it still has problems. The most obvious is a bad exhaust gasket, so the car is really loud. The handling is also amazingly bad, and occasionally, the front end starts rattling to the point where the car is almost uncontrollable.

Around St Louis, the headlights start going out intermittently. I discover I can bring them back on by tapping the brites on and off, but pretty soon this is a constant dance. We stop for the night just west of St Louis at a “Pear Tree Inn.”

The next morning, we drive to a nearby service station and have them put the car on the lift. He says our ball joints are worn out, which accounts for the rattling, but replacements are not readily available. I forget to even ask about the headlights. He shoots the ball joints full of grease to stabilize them and wishes us good luck. The grease does help, at least for a while.

Once we’ve made it most of the way across Missouri, almost to Joplin, the right-rear tire flats. This is not a big surprise-all the tires are antiques, and are pretty chewed up. What *is* a surprise is that my lug wrench doesn’t fit the lug nuts on this wheel. There is a small business near the road. I go in there, ask the proprietor for help, and he calls a nearby mechanic with a wrecker, Jim. Jim comes out with the correct lug wrench, and we change the tire. Of course the spare is flat, so we get that filled as quickly as possible, go to Jim’s shop, and put a new tire on the flatted wheel. He points out a nearby auto-parts store, and I get a new lug wrench.

And a good thing it is. Shortly after crossing into Oklahoma, the left-rear tire starts coming apart. It doesn’t flat, exactly, the treads just start coming off the carcass. So I change that. The heat was unbelievable–I later learned the high that day was 108°F. I wished I was dead. Squeaker is going insane in the heat, too. Mewling disconsolately, drooling horribly, refusing any of our cooling-off tricks, even refusing to drink water while in the car. Mind you, this is a black car without AC, and while driving, we were keeping the windows rolled most of the way up, lest Squeaker try to make a break for it.

We make it to Tulsa, spend the night at a cruddy Motel 6, have dinner nearby at a legitimate Mexican restaurant. Once stopped, the car overheats. The next morning, we go to a nearby Wal-Mart, and I have all the old tires changed out (and the coolant topped off). On the advice of a trucker, we decide to take US 75, which is more direct than the interstates. The new tires are a big improvement, but as soon as we get a little ways away from Tulsa, the front end starts rattling and knocking horribly. Jenny and I both think a bearing has seized. Jenny hitches a ride into the nearby town of Okmulgee, and lines up a tow. This takes about 2 hours. At the shop in Okmulgee, the mechanic can’t see anything really wrong with the bearings, so he just repacks them and the car seems OK.

We get on the road again, and now it sounds like the belts are loose–they’re squealing. At the next town, Atoka, I pull over and have a mechanic look at the belts, and fill up the tank. He says the belts are OK but dry, so he squirts some “belt dressing” on them. That seems to help. I later realize it was coolant dripping on them the day before that must have caused the squeal.

The road running through Atoka–US 75–is heavily used as an alternative to I-35, and is currently being widened, so traffic was at a crawl. The heat is still off the charts. All of this is bad for the car. By the time we reach the adjacent, even tinier town of Tushka, the car is blowing white smoke out the rear. A lot of it. A cop pulls us over almost immediately after the smoke starts pouring out and says “I can’t let you drive that like that–people can’t see through that smoke.” When I turn off the car, it knocks and rattles for about a minute, and gives a couple of lusty backfires. It is leaking oil from the back of the engine block, and then the gas tank starts leaking too, just for good measure. The cop thinks we’ve thrown a rod. But he is incredibly helpful–he pretty much puts himself at our disposal. He lines up a tow, and tries to arrange for us to get a rental car. It turns out no rental cars are to be had in Atoka. So we investigate Greyhound. There is a Greyhound station in town, and we catch the ancient, deaf, batty agent right before he pulls away. Then we learn we need to pay in cash–more than we’re carrying. So the cop ferries Jenny to an ATM. Then we learn that Greyhound does not allow pets on board, and at this point, we start feeling just a mite discouraged. It turns out that the cop has a bunch of cats, and he volunteers to take care of Squeaker until we can pick her up. This guy was a hero five times over.

At this point, we meet the wrecker driver back at the black bird. He thinks it isn’t a thrown rod, but a bad rear main gasket, which joins the engine block to the transmission. He gets the engine to start right up, but we all agree that the car is not fit to be driven to Austin.

Well, we caught the bus, made it home in one piece (although without our pet), somewhat poorer and wiser for the experience. A week later we drove back to retrieve Squeaker. About 6 weeks later, the Ford dealership called to say the car was ready. With great trepidation, we went up there to retrieve it, and when we arrived, the thing I had secretly been hoping to happen did happen: the dealership owner bought the car from me.

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