Crusty Goes West
Any trip can be challenging, but when you start with a 2002 that should never leave home, survival becomes your destination.
By the late great Dan Ewrin
Roundel Magazine, October 2002, All Rights Reserved
Roundel Magazine, October 2002, All Rights Reserved
“Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. It will teach you to keep your mouth shut.” -Ernest Hemingway
Papa was right: It is a universal truth that, whether you're flying high on a dozen Tequila Fanny jaBangers or riding the crest of passion for a Great Idea, opening your big mouth will surely lead to fear, loathing, trepidation, remorse, and grievous physical injury—maybe simultaneously. Substitute manic enthusiasm for the elevating qualities of single malt in that quotation, and you have the story of a life—but I have yet to learn to keep my damn mouth shut. So when the editor says, "You're going to drive an 02 to Oktoberfest, eh? Good! Give us a mad-trip story!", the fateful phrase "No problem!" pops out before I properly analyze my chances of getting to Keystone, Colorado, in my only running 02. A quick trip out to the garage, wherein resides Crusty, the nastiest 2002 this side of a hydraulic car crusher, provides the answer: None. Zero, zip, nada. Not a chance in hell.
Or maybe—well, Crusty is a car I had dragged out of the weeds in a fit of misguided redemption, a neglected, rusty orphan. True, I did have big plans for this car... so why not just drive this wreck to Colorado? I mean, July was months away. Surely I'd have time to get this sucker jam up by then.
You know how much hard work transpired by July. Lots, actually–but not on old Crusty. No, he just squatted in the garage, hunkered down on one side with a couple of incipient flats, growling at me whenever I passed. It was sort of a mutual admiration society: I was afraid of him, he was afraid of me. But finally, a month from Zero Hour, I drew myself up to full height, took a deep breath, and dived into the garage. Crusty got a rebuilt head, a new water pump, an actual 320i radiator, and a Pinto carburetor. (Don't ask; it was what I had in the basement.)
The next requirement for such a monumental undertaking was a co-driver. You know, someone to share the pain of a driveshaft clattering to the pavement at 3:00 a.m. in Des Moines. The obvious choice is tech editor Mike Miller. "Call Mikey," I thought. "He's young and stupid. He'll do anything."
But apparently the word was out on Crusty. "Gosh, I'd love to," said Miller, "but it's this damn Galloping Leprosy. Just contracted it day before yesterday. Body parts falling off right and left. Painful, too. Horrible, really. And the smell: deadly. Sorry, bud, I'd really love to spend a week in the parking lot of the Salina Cracker Barrel trying to fix your wreck, but I just can't."
Photographer Jon van Woerden was next. After all, he was committed to Oktoberfest; wouldn't he like a ride? "Gee, I've got this airplane ticket, see, and I just couldn't let that go to waste now, could I? Besides, Erwin, your taste in music sucks." That does it: My moderate enthusiasm hardens into bulldog determination. I will make this trip no matter what–and I will have loads of fun. I'll show 'em. Boy, will they be sorry.
So, with me doing my own creative wrenching, Zero Hour comes... and goes. I am still completing the hold-it-in-with-safety- wire installation of Crusty's radiator when I glance at my watch and exclaim, "Oy. No it's a jillion miles of driving we gotta do." By my calculations, Keystone, Colorado, scene of the Big Party, is roughly sixteen hundred miles away. At this point I do not know if Crusty will run sixteen consecutive miles–at sea level, much less at 14,000 feet. But he does crank over, fire up, and run, after a fashion, so I throw the contents of my basement in the trunk, pitch all my moderately clean underwear in a duffel, and I'm out the door and down the street. I like this kind of planning. It suits my need for chaos.
Actually, I do have a few checkpoints in mind. If Crusty makes it to Chattanooga, I'll be good to go on the next leg to Nashville, and so on. I find that if you break a long journey down into manageable segments, it–well, actually, it prolongs the agony, making a long trip seem a hell of a lot longer. The real key to a long distance journey in an 02 is to straight-line the old encephalogram as much as possible, allow your eyes to glaze over, get into the proper Zone of Zombience, and let the miles slide by. Ignore, if you can, the fact that the hot, noisy, rough mode of transport currently beating you to death is better suited for tooling around the home burg than for transcontinental epics.
But by Chattanooga, Crusty is still humming along quite nicely, and I begin to have good thoughts about the Grand Adventure. "Crusty's a good ol' hoss," I mutter in a sort of stupefied cross-country karaoke. "Crusty's a sturdy ol' skate. Yessir, good ol' Crusty's... on fire. What? Fire! Crusty's on fire! All hands on deck! Abandon ship!"
Fortunately, I have an extensive background in dealing with disaster, so with smoke billowing from the dash pod and conditions quickly going south my first thought is, "We're doing 70 miles an hour in heavy traffic on I75... do not do anything to surprise your fellow travelers." This translates to not cramming the brake pedal through the floor, instead steering gently onto the shoulder–and then cramming the brake pedal through the floor. After that, it's simply a matter of ripping the instrument pod out of the dash, pitching it into the rear seat, and locating the offending hot wire in the wiring harness. There it is: The smoking, bubbling insulation gives it away immediately. I yank it off the ground it has welded itself to and rip it out of the harness. A similar action in the engine bay stops the conflagration. Then I have time to sit, let my pulse rate come down from 200, and think about the whole venture.
"Idiot," I say to myself. "What made you think you could nurse this piece of... of automotive history all the way to Colorado? Idiot!" But then the rational lobe–or the tiny remaining rational corner of a lobe takes over: "Well, nothing major has fallen off, and the motor still runs, so let's do a damage assessment." When I determine that the only electrical casualty seems to be the tach–which didn't work anyway– I decide to continue. Idiot.
Call me stubborn (or other things), but one motivating factor at this point is the vision of my self-righteous Roundel colleagues nodding their heads at the news that I'd bombed out less than a hundred miles from home. "I knew it," they'd say. “Lucky for us we bailed on that lunatic." Well, no way: Failure has become an unacceptable option. And Crusty seems filled with new determination as well; on into the early twilight hours, he doesn't miss a beat, and I begin to relax. Calm, cool, collected, that's me–except for the fact that every nerve is on edge, waiting for the next hint of trauma. It takes a while to really relax when you know that hideous, smoking immolation is a mere hot-wire-to-ground away.
North of Nashville I stop for gas. At the next pump is a refrigerated van; painted on its side is a graphic representation of juicy steaks grilling on the barbecue. A character not unlike myself, slightly disheveled and bearing the marks of extended travel, saunters up and says in a low voice, "Hey, buddy, you want to buy some really nice steaks? I got to sell 'em quick or they're gonna go bad." I picture my friend chasing a herd of Mad Cows with his cleaver, in search of product for his van, and I hesitate. And yet, in my present advanced stage of hunger, an exhaust manifold-grilled filet mignon would be heaven—also, given my state of mind and mode of transport, it would be so right. But in the end I decline, as ptomaine would adversely affect my ability to effect roadside repairs on Crusty. Yes, I retain a sneaking suspicion that there might be more patchwork activity involved in this particular road trip, even though I call home and report, "No problems. [I somehow fail to mention the fire.] Nope, trip's going smooth as a double-chocolate gelato so far." To myself I say, "Problems? That's when Crusty's on the roof or in the ditch."
Twilight descends as I soar up I57 into the agricultural environs of Carbondale, Illinois. Good name for a coal-mining town, eh? At this point I've almost relaxed again, and when a couple of local kids in their kitted-up Japanoboxes zoom up, laugh at my 02, and give me a high sign, I do a quick study of their rides; the body kits are not obtrusive, and one has vinyl graphics that aren't way out of line. These guys are having fun running the highway on a Friday night–maintaining the speed limit, in fact–and I find no fault whatsoever in their passion or behavior. But when one smiling shotgun rider circles his index finger in the air, I shake my head and respectfully decline the invitation. Crusty, at 26 flywheel horsepower on a good day, is not yet ready to take on the dual-overhead-cammed sixteen-valved turbocharged denizens of the genre. We ride like this for quite a while, until the boys drop back, suddenly. I wonder why they've reduced speed so radically, since Br'er Valentine, ensconced on my windshield, don't say nothin'.
A bridge transition answers my question. It seems that the Illinois DOT doesn't really do transitions, those gradual ramps onto bridge surfaces. Instead they do steps. Really big steps. As in, "Wham!" and four wheels off the ground. But what would have broken one of the Hondas in half merely rattles Crusty's fillings, and I resume my progress after cutting speed substantially. All appears well, as Crusty seems to be answering the helm nicely, but what's the deal with my temperature gauge? It has begun a series of slow, spastic lurches toward the red end of the dial. It's a VDO aftermarket gauge, and I've verified the accuracy. (See, you thought I was a complete moron, didn't you? Now you can take it all back.) Something is definitely wrong.
I pull into a grungy all-night gas station south of Mount Vernon, Illinois, to survey the situation. As I raise Crusty's bonnet and study the cooling system, I see a thumb-sized gusher of water pouring from the very bottom of the aluminum 320i radiator... and the fan has that chewed-on look. Is it possible that the jolt of that nasty bridge non-transition has flexed my lovely radiator into the fan, or vice-versa? It is, and it has. Damn. And I used really good safety wire when I installed the radiator, too, one of those temporary lash-ups that never got done right because I didn't have the time. Well, I have time now. Weeks and weeks of it–months, even–at an all-night gas station south of Mount Vernon, Illinois. Contemplation of my fate leads me to an inescapable conclusion: This place, the whole state of Illinois—nay, the world and its environs, indeed, the Entire Known Universe–just sucks. Anybody contemplating the location, purchase, and installation of a replacement BMW 320i radiator at midnight in rural Illinois may be forgiven for thinking the same.
After a few off-the-negative-scale thoughts about the Illinois DOT, I take a more rational approach to the situation. After all, I am standing outside a Mini- Mart; who knows what manner of powerful healing devices they might have in there? I stroll in, and the bemused teen with a scraggly blond goatee points me toward a rack of various Insta-Weld products. He lives with us refugees nightly, has seen our countless pitiful attempts to patch traumatic failures and get just a few more miles down the road. Like John Steinbeck's Okies in The Grapes of Wrath, we have grit and determination, but little else to ease the pain of our journey. I eye the blister-packed miscellany, and–"Wait a minute!" I cry. "We got Silicone Seal here! Friends and neighbors, salvation is at hand! Hallelujah!"
Popping the radiator out of the car is a snap, since the safety wire formerly holding it in wasn't all that secure in the first place. Now I debrade and clean the wound, which consists of one severed down-tube and one with a nasty reverse-aneurysm, and apply the treatment. For those unfamiliar with silicone seal in its various forms, know that it's a vinegar-smelling, sticky snot-like substance touted as a permanent moisture-excluding caulk for bonding any sort of similar or dissimilar materials. In my experience, however, if you are not bonding surgically-clean pieces of specially-prepared material, silicone seal is worse than useless: It makes a big mess and sticks to nothing. But it's better than actual snot–at least I think so–so although my radiator is something less than operating-table clean, I squeeze half a tube of the stuff into the cut, cross my fingers, and let it set. This involves reclining Crusty's shredded driver's seat, lying back, and taking a nap.
Hey, it's what us Okies do in the middle of the night when we're all broke down.
After twenty minutes of Safe and Restful Sleep, I arise, gently lower the radiator into position, fasten it tenuously with what's left of my safety wire, and borrow a bucket from my goateed friend to demonstrate the non-permanent properties of my ugly patch. I carefully gurgle the first gallon of water into the radiator, holding my breath, averting my eyes to the preordained sight of gouts of water spouting out my jack-leg fix...
And it holds. Gracious Mother of Roadside Repairs, it's holding! It leaks nary a drop. It's time for a gentle twelve-mile dash up the road to Mount Vernon proper, where, my friend alleges, they have such things as motels. There I shall regroup, assess my fate, and rest–and after a partial night's sleep at a Motel 6 in The Coldest Room in the World, I arise to a lovely sight. No, not the sun: I hate the sun, which makes Crusty run hot. The sight I'm talking about is water–or rather the absence of it, on the asphalt beneath Crusty's radiator. It is a beautiful, spirit-buoying sight indeed, especially so since the only auto-parts store in Mount Vernon is some sort of Mr. Auto Parts blister-pack city, not the sort of place to find a BMW 320i radiator, new or used.
The only salvage yard, probably a veritable treasure trove of clapped-out '76 Buick LeSabres, is closed on Saturday, which it is, alas; so no help there. But Walmart we got, so–electing to purchase some insurance– I cruise on over to Sam Walton's Better Idea. I drift to the automotive department; I know what I'm looking for, and I know it's here. It has to be. A friendly blue-vested helper directs me to the proper row of shelving, and there, prominently displayed, is the Ultimate Salvation: JB Weld. If silicone seal is the world of corporate crime, broken promises, and global warming, JB Weld is the space program, John McCain, and the stuff holding together the earth's core–and now we have JB Kwik, which sets in four minutes. Better than a belt, suspenders, and a Prudential policy against the possibility of an inadvertent wedgie. I'm beginning to get my confidence back. I also purchase about a pound of black plastic tie wraps; when the earth's core begins to come apart, we'll use these to tie it back together.
In the parking lot, a Midwesterner roughly my age is attending his hard-bit S-I0 pickup. "How old is it?" he says, gesturing at Crusty. Everyone wants to know how old Crusty is, but, like any hard-workin' cowboy, Crusty's outdoor life belies his age. Crusty looks 130, but he's a mere sylph of a Bimmer at 34. I explain that he's a 1968–the oldest sunroof 02, to my knowledge, imported into the U.S. That bit of information never fails not to impress, but this is a nice guy. "At first I thought it was a Corvair," he says. He sees me tying Crusty's radiator in place with tie wraps. "Need any help?" he offers. I laugh, tell him I'm only going as far as Denver, and politely decline. He looks hard at me and shakes his head. "Denver, huh? Okay... well, good luck," he says. And he means it. I love the Midwest.
Crusty, meanwhile, is ready to hit the rowdy road. He's humming like a good fake Rolex (Taiwanese). I check the water (full!) and launch down the moonscape Illinois DOT on-ramp toward St. Louis. The morning is cool, Crusty is happy, and I just know that this is the beginning of The Easy Part Of The trip as we do a splendid early morning run into St. Louis. I approach a sign that says "Exceeding Speed Limit When Flashing"–and it's blinking like mad at Crusty's approach. Yes! High five! Take that, you local revenue generators; I'm exceeding your stinkin' speed limit! Then I glance nervously at Br' er Valentine. He don't say nothin'. I relax, and cruise through the Gateway to the West.
Are we there yet?
The answer, of course, is no–hell, no. There's Kansas. There's always Kansas. Kansas: Voted state most likely to be given to Canada for free, provided they'll cart the place off. Kansas: the state that makes Illinois seem lush as Maui. Kansas: the state with a motto that says, "Twice as long as Texas, with half the interesting bits." Why am I bashing Kansas, all you Kansasians are asking? It's your sadistic DOT, friends. When you roll into Kansas from the east, there are signs posted at the border, big signs, that say Limon: 555 miles. Limon is at the very border of Kansas and Colorado. And it's half the earth's circumference away, or so I'm told by this malevolent DOT signmaker's idea of a joke. No telling how many people have just turned around at the very thought of 555 more miles of Kansas and driven back to Philadelphia because they couldn't face the pain, or just driven into an abutment because death seemed preferable to the endless monotony of further travel.
Other than that I like your state just fine.
In fact, I'm doing so well in Kansas that, at a gas station outside of Salina, I get just a little cocky and tighten my radiator cap. This puts pressure on the system, makes it a little more resistant to temperature rise, and provides a nice test of the sealing qualities of my nasty little patch. Is this a good thing? I have my answer within 30 miles as the temp gauge needle begins its now familiar tap, dance up the dial. Why do I do these things? Intellectual curiosity, friends, spelled a-b-j-e-c-t s-t-u-p-i-d-i-t-y. So with the gauge telling me that stopping any time in the next 30 seconds might save what's left of Crusty's motor, I wheel off I70, up the ramp, and hang a right into–
For a million miles–or at least thirty in any direction–there's every bit as much vibrant life as one might see on the surface of Mars. I proceed down a nominally-paved, narrow two-lane road until it turns to gravel. This coincides with pained exclamations from the tortured two-liter, so it's time to shut down and consider my situation. I spot a weathered sign in the distance: probably the Bates Motel advertising a nice vacancy, but no, the sign says "Easy Jack's." And it's a salvage yard! I pull Crusty off the beaten path out of the blazing early-afternoon sun and into a small patch of shade. I have my JB Weld, I have my tie wraps, and I'm at a junkyard: Things could be worse. But there's still no sign of life. The dust from my recent arrival hangs in the air like a bad memory. With Crusty shut down, there are no sounds, not even birds singing. It's spooky. Even spookier is the fact that I don't have enough water to fill my radiator once I repair it; I need water to clean, water to test, then water to fill the thing. I have one gallon. It's time to call on Mr. Easy Jack.
As I trudge, gallon containers in hand, toward the outbuildings that pass for storage and repair space at Easy Jack's, I take note of the junked hulks lining Jack's fences, and I'm startled to see that they aren't hulks after all. In fact, they're in damn good shape considering that they date from the '20s to the '60s. It's all American iron, from Model Ts to DeSotos and classic ' 50s Chevies and Fords. Most of them have surface rust, but little else. And they haven't been stripped, cut up, or left to molder away. The windows are closed, the cars are neatly aligned, and they're mostly complete. Where the hell am I, anyway, a museum? At this point I expect Rod Serling to step out from behind a tree and intone, "Yes, a Chevy man's heaven is a Bimmerhead's hell in... The Twilight Zone!" But I still need water, and I don't see Rod anywhere, so I approach the only house in the group of buildings.
People have been shot for trespassing, but I'm a desperate man and I need water. I find that knocking on a door in the middle of nowhere is easy if a horrible, lingering sun-parched death is the alternative. As I knock again, more insistently, I detect faint movement in the bowels of the dwelling. Then a curtain is pushed aside. Finally, footsteps approach the door. I'm hot, tired, and semi-delirious; and now either I'm going to get shot dead or I'm going to get some water. At this point it's a no-lose situation.
A rumpled figure opens the door. He's maybe in his late 50s, wearing a uniform shirt that says "Jack" above the left pocket "Hello, I'll bet you're Jack," I opine, thereby preserving my reputation as a master of Ie bon mot.
He nods, not impressed with my humor. "What can I do for you?" he says.
I gesture up the road toward Crusty and say, "Well, I'm broke down right up your road there... radiator problem... but all I really need is some water... unless you happen to have a BMW 320i radiator lying around." He lets a half-smile slide off his face, shakes his head.
"Man, this is the best salvage y-" I say, cutting myself off before I complete the phrase. "Well, it's more like a museum, isn't it?" I recover. "It's the best collection I've seen in a long time."
"Thanks. I've been at it awhile," he says, this time with a genuine smile. "There's a water spigot over in the side yard," he adds, gesturing to his left, "if that's all you need."
I nod my head and thank Jack for his kindness. If I have to break down once on a 1,600- mile trip, at least I've found the perfect place to do it. I could wander around this yard for a week in complete bliss. But I have miles to go before I sleep... and miles... and miles. When was I due in Keystone? Yesterday? Probably–today at the latest. But what day is it now anyway, Saturday? Hell, I don't know. I fill my gallon jugs and shuffle up the gravel road to Crusty–who, alas, looks worse than anything in Easy Jack's yard.
I've got one shot at the brass ring, so I'd better make sure it's a good grab. I have two tiny tubes of JB Weld components, a roll of paper towels, and a pair of needlenose pliers for yanking the failed silicone seal from between the fins of my precious radiator. I spend maybe 30 minutes pulling and scraping at the silicone seal and cleaning the damaged fins, but finally there comes a point of diminishing returns where the dirt migrates into position at the same rate I'm getting rid of it, so it's time to roll the dice, all or nothing.
JB Kwik has a very limited set-up time, so I have to work fast, and with surgical precision. My glasses are so fogged up and sweaty that I can't even see the car, much less the holes in my radiator. One last swipe at the glasses and it's show time: Squeeze out half the contents of both tubes, mix quickly, and bloop-blop the resulting gray pancake batter into the radiator fins. I use only half the JB Kwik because I'm going to apply two layers of the stuff; the first will take care of the major trauma, and the second should seal the pinholes. In place 30 minutes later, the patch looks good–a hell of a lot better than my silicone seal mess–and I'm good to go, at least in theory. In practice, well, it's me doing this, after all. I ease the radiator into place, double tie-wrap it, gently droozle the water into its dark confines, and offer up a small prayer: Holy Matriarch of Twice-Patched Radiators, please guide your addled son along the torturous path of righteousness to his Ultimate Destination. Amen. Oh, and could you do it without a whole lot more of this crap? Thanks. Amen.
I resume my journey. In a spot of honor on the seat beside me is the damn radiator cap. No way is that Instrument of the Devil going to get near my radiator.
The good news is that I only have half of Kansas left to traverse; of course, that's the bad news, too. The rest of the drive west will be an exercise in eye-foot coordination. I have one eye always on the temperature gauge. If it stays steady, I gently increase pressure on the throttle until it moves up ... just a little. When it stabilizes at half a needle below an indicated 200 degrees, I've discovered just the right throttle position for this gradient, elevation, and outside air temperature. This stasis lasts about ten seconds before I have to repeat the procedure. It's a Zen exercise in the art of controlling every muscle in your body toward a given end with an infinite number of constantly-changing variables. The likely outcome of this sort of exercise is institutionalization in some maximum security hospital for the hopelessly insane not a bad option at this juncture.
Finally, in the darkening evening, the lights of Limon appear on the horizon. Kansas no mo! Free at last! Tears of joy erode clean tracks down my grime-smeared face. I think about gas, but I've got a quarter tank. Enough for 40 miles, at least. However, forty miles later, way west of Limon, there's not a damn thing for... well, another 40 miles. The gas gauge needle bounces into the gutter; I'm about to turn into a pumpkin in a really lonesome place. Panic! But then what seems to be the only Colorado road east of Denver, Deer Trail Road, saves me from running slap out of gas. It's the middle of the night in the middle of Real Nowhere, but an unattended Phillips station, the only one for miles and miles, is a hot spot. As I gas up, two truckloads of early-twenties cowboys in 4WD Fords do the same. Their women are youthful, pretty, and blonde. The first two descriptors aren't likely to last in this outback, I reflect. Then the world's rustiest Datsun 510 creaks in for a fill-up. Crusty, sensing the competition, growls. It is midnight.
Chasing on through Denver, tank full, engine cool, I begin to have celebratory thoughts... between naps. Whoops! No napping! No, not even a cat-nap! At this point, pain is good, the more the better. Where's that ball-peen hammer? But the fresh mountain air soon banishes the flying monkeys, and I find that shifting becomes a constant diversion. As I gain altitude, I lose gears, going from fifth (yeah, you, purists, it's a five-speed) to fourth, and finally to third on some of the steeper grades. I spot the ultra-modem Front Range house that Woody Allen cavorted through in Sleeper and I know that its glowing rounded contours are showing me the way home. I'm going to make it. C'mon, Crusty, one more big effort and we're there!
The Eisenhower Tunnel is our Last Great Obstacle. Crusty climbs the grade easily in the cool air. Hell, this afternoon I was heat-prostrated, and now I'm freezing, thinking about the heater! (Yes, it works, too). We zoom through the brightly-lit confines of the tube, out the other side, and I know that from here on in, I can coast if necessary. There's not much traffic on the final approach to my destination, the Arapahoe Motel; I guess 2:00 a.m. on Sunday morning is not party time in Keystone. I ghost into the Arapahoe parking lot so as not to disturb the legitimate guests, claim a parking space, and with my last shred of energy, pack-mule it to the front desk, where the manager has left a room key. I stagger up the hall, insert the electronic card, and I'm home at last. I glance in the mirror and the red-rimmed goblin staring back at me flashes a victorious rictus. "We made it, pardner," I tell him. "But no offense intended, you look like pure distilled hell." He laughs back at me as I tum and stumble toward the neo-westem bit of heaven that is my bed, collapsing face down as the world goes black and I hear the fading tinkling pings and snaps out in the parking lot as Crusty, too, settles in for the night. Dreaming, no doubt, of the upcoming Oktoberfest Concours.