By: Holland McGraw
Americans are mad about automobiles. Many believe the car they drive is a reflection of them selves, others see it as a means of transportation. One day, I was watching cars from the inside of a bus and noticed jacked up Monster Trucks made to explore desolate places and sports cars designed to travel at high speeds, stuck in traffic. Automakers have fooled people into working for machines through illusions of grandeur and success when all the while it is the machine that is supposed to work for people.
Henry Ford is known as the man who popularized the automobile by making it affordable for the common man to purchase. He added neither frills nor illusions of individuality with the Model T stating, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” It was the Dodge brothers who made the American car a status symbol. They built cars that were souped-up and slick, with a little of this and a little of that, at twice the cost of Ford’s Model T.
Fast forward more than a hundred years and you get a modern car that practically drives itself with radio’s, TV’s, computers and maintenance costs that will keep you working the rest of your days.
Refusing to modernize I traveled back in time and purchased a 1972 VW Beetle while in California on a 2014 photo tour with my wife Alisha and three dogs. An automobile built to be affordable, yet simple enough for the driver to be the mechanic. This was the beginning of my transformation to both driver and mechanic. As a measure of good luck I named my bug Boo; a nickname I used to call my Boxer who recently passed.
As I began my drive back to Seattle I immediately realized the complexities of driving an older vehicle on a modern road. It’s not that the roads are any different, if anything they have gotten better. The problem is that the superior performance of modern vehicles give drivers the ability to accelerate, stop, and maneuver while talking on the phone, drinking a coffee in one hand and steering with the other; all at a speed of 80 miles per hour.
Boo the Beetle tends to shake and rattle as if he is about to get a treat when the speedometer hits 65. I came to the realization that the Volkswagen beetle is a car that takes two hands two feet and all of your senses to drive amongst the swarms of shiny plastic cars that franticly swerve, stop and accelerate on a dime.
Driving back to Seattle, Washington from San Diego I stopped to say goodby to my sister and her family in Orange County. After a short visit they followed me out. As I started up Boo, he quickly puttered out not once, but four times. I looked up over the steering wheel at my sister holding the hands of her two children; she raised her eyebrows and flashed worried crooked smile. On the 5the turn Boo came to life rattling and shaking.
“It was just a little flooded?”
I yelled out the window…
and just like that we were gone.
Driving North through LA on the ever changing 405 freeway I couldn’t help but think about the construction workers who have spent a lifetime working on a highway that never seems to be finished. My father first drove I-405 in 1963 when it was a brand-new and simple 4 lane highway. Today the Los Angeles I 405 expands and contracts between 4 and 6 lanes, but I have no doubt that this concrete monster will continue to grow well into the future.
The 405 turned into the I-5 and it was around the second Los Angeles aqueduct, where a large pipe runs down the side of a mountain that I felt Boo begin to falter under the gas peddle. Fearing the inevitable I steered Boo out of traffic and onto the side of the road where he died.
Looking up at the aqueduct I couldn’t help but think of the stories, scandals and wealth that revolved around the water that rushes down from the Owens Valley Reservoir to feed the ever-growing city of Los Angeles. The movie China Town staring Jack Nicholson is a great movie about water and the history of Los Angeles.
I called Alisha who was just ahead of me and let her know where I was; I could only hear every third word she said over the LA traffic.
“HELLO…HELLO…BOO BROKE DOWN.”
“BOO BROKE DOWN.”
“I CAN’T HEAR YOU, WHERE ARE YOU?”
“CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?”
“I’M ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD ACROSS FROM THE LA AQUEDUCT.”
“NEXT TO THE GIANT MOUNTAIN WHERE THE BIG PIPE COMES DOWN.”
“I’LL CALL YOU WHEN I GET OFF THE HIGHWAY.”
I opened Boo’s hood and nosied around in the engine compartment like a detective searching for a clue, but didn’t see any clear signs of a problem. I did notice the fuel filter didn’t have any fuel in it…hmm maybe the engine was being starved of fuel. But what did I know and to make things worse Volkswagen Beetles don’t come with heat gauges, so there is no definite way to tell if Boo is stalling because it’s over heating.
Not long after I coasted off the highway a designated city tow truck tasked with the job of towing cars off the highway in order to keep the traffic moving stopped and asked me what the problem was.
“WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOUR CAR?”
“I DON’T KNOW, I WAS DRIVING ALONG AND IT JUST STALLED ON ME?”
“IT WONT START?”
“OKAY, I’LL TOW YOU TO THE NEAREST SERVICE STATION.”
After hooking Boo up the driver jumped inside the cab.
“Nice bug, what year is it?”
“Thanks, it’s a 72.”
“I used to have one like that when I lived in Mexico.”
“Was it made in Mexico?”
“I can’t remember, but it looked just like that.”
The driver unloaded Boo and I at the nearest gas station. About 5 minutes after I had been dropped off, Boo miraculously came back to life at the turn of a key. I called Alisha to let her know that everything was working fine, then hopped back on the highway and headed north on the I-5 where I began my ascent into the Tehachapi Mountains. As Boo climbed, his peddle began to falter. I nursed him along as we went forward and fell back between the cars and commercial trucks. My anxiety soared as I steered the wheel, worked the pedals, shifted gears and jockeyed signals in an ever delicate manner to ensure we didn’t come to a stop.
After climbing the mountains steep slope Boo once again died at the top of California’s notorious grapevine. I called Alisha who had been driving ahead and told her where I was. It was really beautiful at the top, I couldn’t think of a nicer place to break down.
The highway was in a ravine between these two large golden hills that were dotted with green arid shrubs and trees. Having crossed an invisible line that is considered the start of Northern California I was now in what I have always seen as Steinbeck country. I can’t help but visualize the characters from his books walking over the golden hills that sparkle in the warm sunlight, or resting in the shade of an elm tree.
I called road service and they sent a tow truck to pick me up. I also found a mechanics shop in Bakersfield over the phone who was hesitant to look at Boo due to the technology differences between a 72 Beetle and a modern car.
“Hello, I have a ’72 beetle that has broken down and I need you to take a look at it.”
The mechanic replied, “Gees, we normally don’t work on those.”
“Really, well, can you recommend a place in town?”
“No, unfortunately I don’t know of any.”
Feeling trapped I asked, “Well can’t you at least take a look at it, I mean you guys are highly recommended on the AAA website.”
“Well, I guess we can check it out,” said the mechanic, “but we’ll be closed by the time you get down here. Just park it outside our fence and I’ll look at it in the morning.“
The tow truck driver was a nice young man. Prior to driving a tow truck he was a photographer for a studio at the mall in Bakersfield.
“You’re a photographer,” I exclaimed. “My wife and I are photographers, we’re just heading home from our West Coast Tour. “
“Yeah, I used to photograph kids and families. Our packages were ridiculous. I was working on commission and the way our packages were setup, it was difficult for me to make a living. When the recession hit the studio went under and now I’m doing this.”
I could here in his voice that he was frustrated about how things had turned out. He’d given his all to something that hadn’t given back.
“Sorry to hear that. Photography is a tough business. My wife and I work constantly just to make ends meet. It’s frustrating; most people don’t see the costs and time involved. But you know if you really like photography you could still do it. You could start a small business on the side and do a few photo shoots here and there…or just photograph for yourself. You drive around to different places all day, put your camera in your cab. I bet you could capture some really cool stuff on the road.“
“Yeah, my girlfriend and I have been talking about doing something like that. We live just up that road on the other side of the hill.” He stretched out his arm and pointed with his index finger to an area that was visually stunning. Covered with long golden wheat like grass on top of round hills that were dotted with trees and shrubs.
We continued talking on the descent into Bakersfield as the sun began to set. The mechanics shop was located in an area that I’d describe as sketchy, but figured I’d ask the tow truck drivers opinion since I wasn’t from the area.
“So what kind of an neighborhood is this?”
“Mmmm…not a good one,” he replied.
The auto repair shop gate was locked, so Boo was unloaded to the adjacent parking lot of a stab and grab type market. Opening the cab door of the truck was like opening an oven door. I jumped out into the heat and looked around. The driver lowered Boo and drove away. There was an uncomfortable feeling as people pulled into the parking lot and stared at Boo and I. I walked over to Alisha’s car and told her,
“You guys can get a hotel room tonight, I’m going to sleep in the car. I don’t think Boo will be here in the morning if we leave him.”
Alisha had a worried look on her face. “Well, wait a second,” I told her, “let me see if I can get him to start.”
I turned the key and got nothing. I cranked it again and again and again and again…then like magic…Boo turned over. I looked at Alisha with a huge grin as he shaked and rattled.
“Lets get back on the road, I’ll follow you,” I yelled.
Within minutes we were back on the road driving north. As the golden sun was falling below the earth we cut through California’s central valley that is surrounded by giant brown hills that look like baked loaves of bread and a billion stars that speckle the night sky.
To be continued…