The Road to Alaska: Forget Mountains, We Need to Eat

June 4

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The experience of time and velocity is a weird thing in a car going 70 mph, at least to me. Objectively, I know that I am moving very quickly. I don't just have the speedometer, I have the road right there. I look down and the world whooshes away so fast my eyes can't even focus on it. And yet, 100 miles is still a non-trivial 90 minutes away. On this day, even the intermediate destinations aren't that close. There are many more hours to go, many hours of views like that one in the photo up there before we reach anywhere, whether it be lunch or the next gas stop or whatever need pops up. At some point, the plan goes, we need procure food so we can apply heat and thereby transform the food into something more valuable to the body. We already have a device that creates heat. The thought has finally occurred to us: what are going to put the food in to cook it? Only Google can tell. And there's no rush.

When I was preparing to make this journey on my own (which is crazy, but I did think it was possible), I planned an elaborate podcast schedule. I was going to binge on Presidential and Filmspotting and High on Film. I was dabbling with crafting a massive music playlist. Not long before the Alaska trip, I took another road trip, out to see my parents in Nebraska. It was essentially a mission to pick up a juicer and whatever books my mom wanted to pawn off on me (that ended up including The Souls of Black Folk, so I will call that a win). Ellicott City to Lincoln was 19 hours (which I did in one day . . . not the smartest decision I've ever made). The return leg featured a quick detour through Oklahoma, the penultimate state to be crossed off my US of A bucket list,  so that was 24 hours (I stopped in Nashville, mistakes not repeated). Instead of just throwing the playlist on random (which Apple devices are TERRIBLE at), I sorted my music alphabetically by artist and hit play. 43 hours later, I got to M. When I did the math on the driving time to Alaska, I realized my device wasn't big enough. I would need six days of music and podcasts. The phone only has 3.2 days of music in 1,187 songs and digital real estate would be required for video and picture taking. Music and podcasts were just not going to cut it. Anyway, music and podcasts were for the times when I needed to just stop thinking. Which is not to say, that I wanted to avoid thinking, about . . . things . . . the state of my life and the world (not that I had dreamt of what Trump was capable of in those halcyon days) or whatever. Thinking time is one of the impulses to a road trip, at least for me. The philosophical point of the journey was to keep my hands and lizard brain occupied with survival, and leave my subconscious and conscious selves to tussle, surfacing ideas jangled loose by the roiling action of my subliminal selves.

 Is Chicago

Is Chicago

But I am not alone on this journey, so that scrambled my plans a bit. The burden of filling time with sounds other than road noise was eased considerably. Eric and I, aside from being old friends, have actually done the road trip thing before. When I was car-less and my belongings and my person needed transport to Louisville in the first place, Eric offered his "Taj Mahal," a 6 speed Volkswagen diesel wagon with the full factory aero kit and some authentic Golf badges. The Taj Mahal felt gargantuan on the inside. The amount of cargo room was truly epic. My belongings did not come close to filling it. We pulled an overnighter on that trip and by "we," I mean Eric drove all 9 overnight hours between DC and Louisville. According to my swiss cheese memory, that's when Eric introduced my to John Oliver and Andy Zaltzman's utterly brilliant satirical podcast, The Bugle (it's different now that Oliver has that other gig, but the archives are brilliant). We ended up at a solid breakfast joint in St. Matthews in Louisville whose name escapes me, sadly (I don't think it was Meridian Cafe or Highland Morning, but I recommend both of those places).

On the roads outside of Chicago, after our quick trip downtown to take some photos at the beginning of the second day, Eric and I try the podcast thing for awhile. He introduces me to Welcome to Night Vale and the hilarious predecessor to the now resurrected Bugle podcast called The Department. We attempt Presidential, but it didn’t suit the pace and the mood. We never listen to music. It's just the second day, but we find that we don’t need to listen to anything but the road and ourselves. Eric is a pretty damn good talker, so I don’t know why I ever thought we would run out of things to discuss. We don't dwell on how many miles stretch before us or how we will fill all that time. We just converse, or not, with our thoughts or not, always looking. Not that we were looking for anything at all in this stretch of the journey. Except for a pan. Google informs us that Cabela’s, the outdoor superstore, which will surely have a vessel of some kind for that cooking task, is quite close to a natural lunch break and to a liquor store whose barley based offerings Eric has had his eye on. Our routine is to end the day with beverages and recaps. The plan is for it to become routine at any rate. But that's for North Dakota. In the mean time, there's not much to see from the highway, except for the high density of water park signage here in the Wisconsin Dells.

 

April 2012 (Before and After)

I don't remember why Eric and I were looking at Lancia Betas in Louisville when I manifestly did not have the scratch to buy a car, nor was I in a place to pay back any kind of loan (not that a reputable bank will loan you the money to buy something like a Lancia Beta). I guess because I'm an American and cars, even ultra unreliable but sexy Italian cars from THE 70's, have a certain attraction (even if they come with vise grips for operating the hood release). I would also blame Top Gear's Botswana Special. But there they were, just dying to be seen. No, owning a Beta was not to be and I spent my time in Louisville, without a car.

 Not one, but TWO Betas in a parking lot.

Not one, but TWO Betas in a parking lot.


When the time finally came, as it quite often does in America, to own a vehicle again, there was one overwhelming factor: mileage, which I used as a proxy for longevity. And when the Subaru popped up on eBay (I was also scouring Craigslist and cars.com), it was the mileage that caught my eye: 114,000 miles, to be precise. On a 1997? That is under-driven, like Grandma’s car levels of under-driven. The US average is ~15,000 miles a year. So from 1997 to 2012, that should have had like 225,000 miles on it. Most of the cars I was looking at had 150,000 to 175,000 miles. 114,000 seemed like a massive cosmic gift.

The Louisville, KY area used car market was, um, thin, so I had to think around the corner to find a car with the right combination of cost and mileage. I started looking around where I had people: the corridor that runs from Washington, DC through Baltimore to Philadelphia. Those used car markets are much more interesting and MUCH bigger. Lots of older Beamers and Mercs that have lost their shine, but not their badges (or the reputation for being expensive to own). That’s how I ended up staring at that mileage on an eBay listing from Rafferty Subaru in Newtown Square, PA (they still send me sales emails — hope never dies for a used car sales floor). I finally pushed that Buy It Now button, flew to BWI, got my sister to ferry me to Newtown Square and then drove my newly acquired 1997 Subaru Legacy L the nine hours back to Louisville, KY, amazingly without incident.

 What the eBay photo sorta looked like . . . 

What the eBay photo sorta looked like . . . 

In hind sight, I should have interpreted the mileage of an omen, or a warning sign, not a gift. My own grandmother had to give up her 1998 Saturn wagon with under 100,000 miles on it because it wasn’t driven enough, which had essentially ruined the brakes and the suspension and hadn't been particularly kind to the transmission. The thing about under-driven cars is they actually cost a lot more than their sticker price (though at $2100, it did not actually qualify for a sticker or a place anywhere near the showroom). Economists love to point out the difference between the out of pocket cost and the true cost of a good or service. True cost factors in opportunity cost, that is the price of not taking the next best opportunity, and externalities like complying with Maryland inspections, a seriously wackadoo form of legalized extortion negotiated in some backroom deal with auto-mechanics' trade organizations (I assume). The Subaru had needed very little mechanical work (i.e. none) to drive it to Louisville and back. It was registered in PA and passed that annual inspection without much ado. It wasn't until I moved to Maryland and tried to become a Maryland resident that the inspectors uncovered a raft of problems with the Subaru that would need attention in the long term. The Subaru didn’t just have quirks, it had flaws. 

Forget about not being able to unlock the driver’s side door from the outside, inspectors don’t give a shit about that. Forget about not having a functional trunk release (or a friendly lock). The headlamp assembly is a study in neglect. The wiring for the headlights had been charred into oblivion and a thick layer of disuse on the lens assemblies prevents even functional lamps from doing much illuminating (driving at night was never fun - I avoided the unlit confines of the Baltimore Washington Parkway studiously). The car didn’t start cleanly (ok, I didn't need a mechanic to tell me that). After the first inspection, the mechanic told me the entire steering rack needed to be replaced. I got a second opinion on that because I had actually driven the car and knew that was a crock. Both mechanics agreed that the torn boot on the CV axle meant that it had to be replaced (the CV axle is the part of the car that takes what the engine is doing and makes it happens to the wheels, it is . . . non-trivial to replace). Both tie rod ends were bad (they connect the steering rack to the wheels). The steering knuckle needed to be replaced. One of them suggested that the engine had an oil leak. The first inspector wanted more than I had paid for the car to do the work to get it to pass Maryland’s inspection. I didn't bother asking about the cost of an engine rebuild from the second. The bald fact is this car is never going to pass a Maryland inspection. The entire time I own the car, it is registered in PA and I make an annual trek to a trusted mechanic to keep the car legal. And the only reason I am getting rid of it is because my sister got married . . . and moved.

 I tried to fix the driver's side door lock. This is the mess I discovered.

I tried to fix the driver's side door lock. This is the mess I discovered.

So, the economics were clear. I didn't have thousands of dollars tucked away for rainy days or car repair, so I had to do something else. I had worked as a theatrical electrician, so I am more than comfortable taking things apart. I’ve been doing that since my mom destroyed our video camera by tripping over a cord while she was vacuuming. I was not able to bring the camera back to life as a 12 year old (which still feels like a failure), but I’ve gotten a lot better at putting things back together since then. Plus there's YouTube and the Subaru service manual. I can RTFM. I was going to fix this car my own damn self.

The headlamps were an easy fix. I did that in the parking lot of the Advanced Auto store in Shrewsbury on my way back from the 2nd Pennsylvania inspection. Fall was approaching and the "not starting cleanly" thing seemed like it was going to be an urgent problem in winter. I replaced the battery, because that’s another easy one. No joy. Huh.

 It's just a couple of bolts . . . in very weird places

It's just a couple of bolts . . . in very weird places

The system for starting a motor in those older cars is pretty simple. See? Just a single unit. Turns out, the part itself isn’t that expensive, the top of the line stuff is only $100, which barely pays for the time it takes a mechanic to pop the hood. How hard can it be, as the man said, or asked or whatever, usually before it all goes to crap. But the starter really was not hard at all. I fumbled with the bolts, got my hands dirty, and the car started beautifully. It felt great. "It’s going to be fine, repairing my own car is going to be just fine," I thought. No matter how complicated or daunting the repair should probably have been, I was certain I could accomplish it. Sure, I had discovered, even with the starter, that fixing a car yourself with horribly inadequate or inappropriate tools has it’s own costs, but they are just sanity related costs. I work in theatre; I pay sanity related costs all the time.

Naturally, it got much harder after that starter experience. I had to buy a big jack, jack stands, a breaker bar, a 4 foot long steel pipe, multiple variations on lubrication, and a blow torch to waken the nuts and bolts from their slumber. I didn't just tackle the CV axle, I went after the tie rod ends and the knuckle (which is just a hard bit of formed plastic). Nothing I did to the wheel axle nut budged it, not even the puny pneumatic impact hammer (I'd get an electric one later for twice as much, but it actually worked, so there). When I finally bowed to reality and started cutting at the nut, I ended up going through like 40 Dremel cutting discs over the course of 8 hours. It was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life. But it got done. Even if slotting that axle into the transmission was also more than a little terrifying. 

I’m a pretty good electrician, but the fact that I, an untrained civilian, could do my own repairs, meant that there was always a thought, lurking in the background: maybe I did it all wrong, maybe the next mile the car drove will prove to be its last. It’s disquieting at first. When the car made funny sounds (which was often), I thought, “Is this car just going to die under me like an abused horse?” But it didn’t die. In fact, I took it from 114,000 to 197,000 miles wondering if it would die. Actually, at some point, kind of around 185,000, I stopped wondering that and just assumed that it wouldn't.  I am kinda disappointed that I don’t get to have the psychological symmetry of personally doubling the mileage. I worried and researched and sweated, but I learned to trust the car and have some faith in my ability to solve all but the biggest problems that came up (and nothing bigger than the CV axle ever did). I was learning to live with uncertainty, to be comfortable with it. I lived with the possibility of this car’s death for thousands of miles. In a way, working on this car made it possible for me to become a freelancer, a lifestyle that demands a very high tolerance for uncertainty. I didn't reflect very hard on this at the time. It's not something you can see happening up close. 

June 4 (Reprise)

We do not use the pan we so desperately Googled back in the Dells. Partly because light is falling on another long day and all either of us want is to have this tent up so we can have a beer, have a good look at the sun setting over Jamestown Reservoir, and go to sleep. But mostly because I am an idiot. I got the address for the campsite from a website purporting to list campsites. Unfortunately, the reality of the trailer park in front of us proved how unreliable such information can be. That is a tough thing to discover when you still have to get groceries, let alone actually cook them. There is an actual campground (so said the North Dakota state park service). We arrive JUST after it had technically closed (we pay online just in case). The day had begun at 5 AM (as Eric put it "Fuck it. Let's roll. Eastern time it is") with a photo tour of Chicago and it was now 8 PM. I am hungry and tired, as I am sure Eric is as well, and I'm just plain mad at myself. By the time the tent is up, we come to accept that we are not going to leave the campsite until the morning. We have snacks but no food, let alone the will or time to use the stove. Maybe we'll get to it tomorrow, when we cross into a new world, the, um, exotic breadbasket of our neighbor to the north, Saskatchewan. While we don't have much food, thanks to Eric, there is beer and that is a marvelous salve.

 A Christmas gift that comes in handy . . . 

A Christmas gift that comes in handy . . .