And now, the exciting conclusions to Dan and Jan’s Excellent Adventure.
Roughly a decade before Dan and I arrived in Twin Falls, Idaho, Evel Knievel had attempted to jump the Snake River near the city on a rocket propelled motorcycle, but failed as an unexpected wind blew the vehicle off course causing the daredevil to deploy a parachute. Mr. Knievel had had more fun than we were having on our trip as we hauled my junk from Kansas to Oregon in a rental truck pulling a vintage VW bus.
We’d been besieged by a number of mishaps that had delayed our progress including (but not limited to) mechanical problems with the truck, a blowout on the bus, bad motels and bad food. We were becoming as pessimistic as Afghan peasants.
Twin Falls appeared on an exit sign off I-84, the highway we took going east from I-15. It was the first town in Idaho that seemed to have a number of motels, but it soon became evident that Twin Falls was not really on the Interstate. Instead the city was on US 30 as a link that gave access to I-84. It was getting late, and, in consideration of our record on this trip, the dark road seemed to represent an invisible threat.
I was driving while Dan stared moodily out at the shadows in the fields next to the road. A sign proclaimed that the crops in the barely visible rows were sugar beets. Our bored conversation revealed that neither of us had ever seen a sugar beet. We speculated that they might be white.
There was nothing memorable about Twin Falls or the motel where we spent the night other than the next morning we noticed that there seemed to have been a fight in the parking lot. It appeared to have spilled out of a dingy bar called the Beet next door to our lodgings. A Dodge parked next to our rental truck had a smashed windshield and a broken mirror that hung off the driver’s door. Glass splinters were scattered all around, but a brief walk around revealed that neither the truck nor the VW were damaged.
The bar appeared to be open for breakfast, but we decided that we’d opt for the mini mart at the edge of town where we wouldn’t have to crunch our way across a parking lot full of broken glass. Inside the store we found a heated glass case with a few pieces of what might have been yesterday’s deep fried chicken and something that resembled greasy folded cardboard. We opted for coffee and granola bars.
I was driving, feeling tired and put upon while Dan was dozing fitfully when I looked at the oil pressure gauge and noted that the needle was resting at the low end of the range. After sneaking a look at Dan, I poked at the gauge with my finger, a desperate effort that I knew was useless. The needle did not move.
After due consideration, I decided that it was probably better not to mention the oil pressure issue to Dan. After all the truck was running and there was no reason to disturb his rest. The gauge was probably broken.
The traffic on I-84 again increased as we got closer to Boise. The Interstate ran along the southern end of the city, but it seemed that every driver in Boise decided to jam onto the highway at the time we were passing by. It was also at this point that construction and repairs to the road caused the driving lanes to be reduced to one each way. The vehicles slowed to a crawl with frequent stops. The distance between the first city exit and the last was no more than fifteen miles, but after twenty minutes, we were stopped and we had ten miles to go before we’d be at the western city limits of Boise.
Dan, still in the passenger side, looked over at the heat gauge and casually mentioned that the engine was about to overheat. I put the truck in neutral and gunned the engine which after a couple of minutes lowered the temperature a couple of notches. By that time we started to crawl forward again, but with the slow pace, the needle on the gauge started to creep up again. There was nothing to do but take the next exit, stop and let the engine cool.
There was stream rising from the grill by the time we pulled into a K-Mart parking lot, and the cab began to fill with the sweet smell of hot engine coolant. We both rolled the side windows down and got out to wait.
It was late morning and the sun was blistering hot on the asphalt. Rather than risk sunstroke, we ventured into the air conditioned purgatory of the box store. We were immediately informed by an announcement of a blue light special in women’s lingerie for ten minutes. Indeed, we could see a light similar to what might be on a police cruiser turning in an isle on the far side of the store. Women dragging small children were rushing in that direction.
Dan and I were not tempted, but instead wandered over to the automotive section. That department, at the time, still had a large selection of floor mats, wiper blades, engine lubricants and, as luck would have it, antifreeze. We went for the K-Mart brand rather than Prestone, which was was twice as expensive.
We farted around for another half hour in the cool atmosphere of the store and returned to the truck. Happily, we found that the engine had cooled, but the parking lot had become hot enough that some of the tar was getting soft. The edge of our heels left marks on the surface of the asphalt and the smell of coal assaulted our noses.
After dumping some coolant in the radiator reservoir, Dan climbed into the drivers seat. He turned the key to start, and after a few seconds of making a suspicious groaning sound, the engine started. Dan turned his head and gave me a hard stare, as if I’d sabotaged the truck.
I said nothing.
He turned on to the surface streets parallel to the Interstate even though the speed was slow, but at least we could keep moving. The temperature gauge indicated that the engine was not overheating. We would have to deal with the odor of the coolant for the rest of the trip.
A few miles east of Boise we were able to get back on I-84 where the traffic was now light and continued that way as we crossed into Oregon and Pacific Time. We gained an hour, not that it made any difference. We were still way behind schedule, and Dan had to call his work to inform them that he needed to take another couple of days off.
After crossing the Snake River, we stopped in Ontario for gas at an Exxon station near the bridge. I filled the tank and cleaned the bugs off the windshield while Dan went into the minimart to get coffee. Thinking of the pressure gauge, I checked the engine oil level and found, with some relief, that , although slightly low, there was no need to add more. The stick did show that the oil was pretty dirty, actually looking like crude petroleum.
Dan came back with a bag of pork rinds as well as two large cardboard cups of coffee and handed me one before he hopped behind the wheel to take over driving. After climbing in on the other side, I sipped at the coffee and judged that it had been on the burner for most of the day. I left the pork snacks to Dan.
The last big challenge to the truck were the Blue Mountains of Eastern Oregon, but they were mere bumps in the road compared to the steep grades of Colorado and Wyoming. The truck, however, did not respond well to the climbing highway, and slowed considerably to the work load as semis crawled past us. Black smoke came out of the exhaust pipes while Dan poked his finger on the oil pressure gauge trying to nudge it into action.
It seems that both of us had noticed the inactive gauge, but neither of us had called the other’s attention to it. Why raise unnecessary concerns?
Having gone over a pass, the truck seemed to take heart in the downward pitch, and Dan let it have its way as it caught up with the semis that had chugged by us earlier. As he pulled by one of the larger trucks I looked up to see the driver giving us a baleful glance. He was probably thinking of how he would have to pull around us again when the next steep grade came up.
We stopped for food at a Denny’s off the Interstate in Pendleton, but parked in the lot of a nearby truck stop so that the truck had clearance with nobody parking in front or behind. Dan had pointed out earlier that, with the puzzling mechanism that attached the VW to the truck, it would be advisable not to reverse. So far, the strange hitch had held and there was no reason to give it a chance to fail.
The interior of Denny’s was delightfully cool, and we decided to actually eat in a booth rather than sit at a counter. There were few customers, and our food, breakfast specials that were served all day, arrived in small skillets. We were hungry, so we did not question the way the food came but dived in like a couple of starving dogs.
It was my turn to driver, and, in spite of the heat and the lingering odor of the radiator additive, I was rather cheerful. This would be the last leg of our long trip to Portland, and I was looking forward to off loading my junk as well as getting the truck off my hands.
I jumped into the seat and turned the key in the ignition. The engine seemed a bit hesitant, but, after a few stuttering turns, it started, blowing out the charcoal exhaust behind. Then the dark smoke became lighter, white, but not invisible. I put the clutch to the floor, shifted into low, and slowly engaged the transmission. The motor did not stall, and we started to creep forward. I pulled forward and did a u-turn at the end of he block and started back toward the on ramp. Then I spotted an old familiar looking VW bus sitting on the side of the road.
It took a couple of seconds before I recognized the bus as mine just as Dan sputtered.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake!”
It took us twenty minutes to reattach the hitch and another ten minutes of double, triple and quadruple checking to make sure the connection was solid.
Dan and I looked at each other with tense relief after the truck started again, and I shifted gears as we pulled back onto the Interstate. Our minds were, no doubt and despite our lack of spiritual acknowledgement, saying the same thing.
“Please, please, please; just get us over these last two hundred miles.”
After a long hill just west of Pendleton, I-84 becomes a straight line that moves horizontally across a dry landscape with patches of irrigated alfalfa fields. The arid, flatness of the area, and the heat allows frequent winds to blow from south to north. There are signs warning drivers of occasional dust storms that can rise up quickly, and motorists are urged to leave their headlights on during daylight hours.
So it was that I found myself trying to drive in a straight line as a strong wind kept trying to force the truck off the right side of the road. It wasn’t a blinding dust storm, but tumble weeds and roadside debris dashed across the highway in front of the truck. It was tiring work, and to make matters worse, the coffee from Denny’s had passed quickly to my bladder. It had only been about fifty miles, but it was necessary to stop at the next rest area.
Blowing dirt got in our eyes and stung our faces as we ran toward the restroom. The wind overcame the pneumatic closer of the building and the door slammed behind us as we entered. As we left, it was an effort to open the door against the wind, and we faced the same beating returning to the truck.
It was a mistake to open both doors at the same time. As I wrenched open the driver door against the wind, Dan was bowled over by explosion of the passenger door. Our jackets flew out of the cab and danced across the parking area. It was by sheer luck that a fellow traveler was able to grab them before the coats launched themselves into the sky.
Once settled inside the truck and after we stopped coughing and blowing the dust out of our nasal passages, we were ready to continue. I twisted the ignition key, and nothing happened. The starter tried to turn the engine over, but the motor seemed frozen. The heat gauge indicated that things were not hot. The battery was good. We had filled up in Pendleton.
Dan explained the situation clearly.
“God damn it. Fuck!” And then, “well, wait a few minutes.”
“As if a miracle will occur,” I said, silently, to my self.
We sat in silence, except for the howling wind, for about five minutes.
“Okay, try it again, but for Christ sake don’t flood it.”
I could feel my face getting red, but I did not respond. With little faith, I turned the key.
Chug. Chug. Chug, roar. Roar.
We looked at each other with wide eyes. It was a miracle indeed. The truck had changed its mind, and we could go on.
Dan, “Let’s get the fuck out of here, and don’t stall it.”
I took no offense this time as I slowly pulled out of the rest area and back on to the highway.
As we approached the Columbia Gorge, the wind changed direction and the truck now had to labor against a gale that was bringing clouds from the ocean. The air became cooler and a few drops of moisture spattered against the windshield. The wipers smeared dirt and bug gunk across the glass. By the time we pulled into Biggs to get gas (roughly the halfway point between Pendleton and Portland), the sky was beginning to clear again, and the wind let up.
An attendant was walking up to the pumps (Oregon requires a gas jockey to pump the gas) as Dan was about to speak. I shut off the motor.
“I was just going to say, ‘don’t turn off the engine ‘.”
I knew that the attendant wouldn’t fill the tank with the motor running, but that wasn’t the point. I hadn’t even thought of it.
Once again there was silence in the cab as the truck was fueled. After I’d paid inside the station, I found Dan sitting in the driver’s seat——-with the motor running!
He had a proud, shit eating grin on his face, but then admitted he had no idea that the truck would start again.
It was getting dark in Portland, but we were lucky enough to find a storage facility that was still open for business on Division Street. It was sheer luck. I had no idea where anything was in this city, but after two hours of labor, the truck was unloaded.
There was no point in trying to find the Jartran truck rental office, it was late, and it had closed at six. It would have to wait until morning, and the guy at the storage place said that there was a decent motel just up a few blocks.
We found the Star Dust Motel easily enough, but the vacancy sign wasn’t lit. Nevertheless I pulled in and parked the truck (with the VW still in tow) in front of the office.
“Don’t——,” advised Dan.
But it was too late. I’d turned off the engine.
Immediately, I turned the key.
There was a vacancy at the motel. In fact the place was almost empty, and, upon inspection of a room, it was obvious why. Although reasonably clean, the furnishings were old and worn. The bed covers were worn and the sheets were almost transparent. The selling point was not only the cheap price for the room; the clerk said nothing about moving the truck.
The Jartran Truck Rental place was several miles south of downtown Portland and I had to buy a city map to find Barber Avenue. Getting from the east side is not easy now, but it was a nightmare for me as there was no such thing as GPS in the mid-Eighties. All the streets west converged on a single bridge over the Willamette River, and then came a maze of circles and turns to find another street that went south.
It was about ten in the morning when I finally arrived at the Jartran place where I immediately complained about the shape of the truck that I’d picked up in Kansas.
The man sympathized with me, but said there was nothing that could be done about my problem. He had no method of compensating me or giving even a partial refund. He suggested that I write a letter of complaint to the president of the company.
A month later I learned that the company had filed for bankruptcy and went out of business.