We held off for as long as we could, but it was inevitable I suppose. The time has come for us to buy a safe, legal and decent car. For the last few weeks the three of us have been riding around together in our in single cab pickup, the only vehicle of our fleet of four that has been rescued from the considerable drifts of winter snow. Not that it matters much, the others are unfit for duty for one reason or another – summer cars, outlaw rigs that have so many violations a cop wouldn’t know where to start writing tickets. Make no mistake – we love these cars, they are just our style, but a baby changes everything. We now have another life to consider.
To get by we’ve been using our freight-hauling, boat-pulling 4wd Chevy pickup for our ‘family car’. It may have a big bed, but it’s a small cab! Put two large breed Scandinavian types and a 5 point toddler car seat into the thing and you’ve got a full load. The stick shift juts up like a studio microphone and demands a space all its own. Tyler drives and I ride in the middle, between his broad shoulders, the hulking car seat and the menacing, arrogant presence of stick, I am forced to twist and contort my body in unnatural ways to accommodate the requirements of getting this truck down the road. For some reason I keep thinking I need to visit the chiropractor lately.
When it comes to change, especially change that requires spending money, Tyler is a little…well, slow. I knew I would have to initiate the search for a more accommodating vehicle. When I broached the subject he quietly acknowledged the suggestion and a few minutes later asked “now why exactly do we need another car?”. When I offered to drive from now on so that he could do the contortionist act he declined and the matter was settled.
Sometimes I feel like I’m living in the wrong century. The other day when Tyler returned from his first drive into town since returning from the woods he told me he thought that driving was a detriment on one’s quality of life.’ I have to agree, but since I can’t go back to a time when we got about by horse an’ buggy, the need for a new car remains.
But at least I live in a state where there are still a few renegades gettin’ their groceries with a dog team! A particularly resourceful and scrappy friend of ours (also another reality tv personality, I’ll leave it up to you to guess who) was hitting up the Fred Meyer’s dumpsters to feed himself and a big dog team for years. Now before you judge a man for eating from a dumpster, consider that every time we went to his squatter shack behind the railroad tracks west of town there were heaping bowls and boxes of every kind of fresh fruit and vegetable: beautiful avocados, mangoes, pineapples, onions, plantains, leeks – you name it, his cornucopia was downright bountiful during those glorious pre-trash compacter days!
He didn’t have wheels at the time, but he did have an excellent, well-trained dog team. He would wait for the cover of darkness and the slow hours of the night, to steal into Fairbanks along a complicated route of trails, bike paths and back alleys. There was even a harrowing crossing of Fairbanks’ busiest thoroughfare – Airport Way! At the right moment he’d bullet across the road, dip into a parking lot, exit into an alley behind Freddy’s and rip up to the dumpsters. Once in position, he’d anchor the sled off to a corner of the dumpster and dive in. He’d sift through the rich contents with the snoody discernment of a conisseur, taking only the most select vittles and
freshest produce, food that had just minutes before been for sale on the floor for real money. He’d put as much weight in the sled as his dogs could pull and away he’d go, disappearing into the ice fog, a modern day subsistence dumpster diver. Grocery shopping was done for the week – CHECK!
Tyler and I have always driven what some people might call jalopies. For the last 8 years we have gotten around in a 1988 Mighty Max pickup about the size of an El Camino. Cost at purchase, $800. Our other car is a 1989 Toyota Corolla wagon that has 289,000 miles on it which cost us a whopping $600 bucks. If they’ve needed work over the years we’ve done it ourselves so they’ve remained very cheap cars for us. The truck has a small bed but it has worked to haul home some loads for us over the years and as long as you didn’t load it up too heavy and ask its 4 cylinders to climb any giant hills with a load, it did the job fine. There’s a few things we have always looked for in a vehicle: it has to be cheap, first and foremost. And it must be practical, it must possess the quality of haul-a-bility. If it can’t bring home a load of scraps from the butcher, a dog team, horse manure for the garden, chickens, jugs of water, a road kill moose or anything else of the sort it isn’t of much use to us.
There aren’t too many anecdotes to relate about the Mighty Max. It’s sort of the strong, silent type. Dependable, quiet, no non-sense. The sort of car that goes through life doing a fine job, always giving, without asking for much in return. An uncelebrated, underappreciated hero of the road who will eventually die a dignified, undramatic death, pulled off into the willows to decompose and be forgotten.
The corolla on the other hand is cut from a different, more colorful cloth. We’ve created a lot of memories in that old rusty white wagon over the years. It’s almost like a member of the family. It came with what we call an ‘Alaska windshield’, one so badly cracked that it can distort your depth perception. The hatchback latch didn’t latch so we took to ratchet strapping it down. Try picking that lock thieves! We learned to do that after I lost my luggage out the back end while pulling out in a wild turn onto the Parks Highway on the way to catch a flight at the airport several years ago. One spring Tyler ran the dog team by the car and hooked the side mirror and ripped it off and slid into the headlight putting out one of her eyes. We decided not to take it out after dark anymore. You may ask, ‘why not just get another headlight?’. Fair enough, but when the headlight is worth more than the car itself it doesn’t make a lot of sense. When we buy a car we buy it for good. The rule is – drive it till it dies and don’t dump money into it. The problem is some cars just won’t die. Eventually, the way things are going with the sloughing off of parts and pieces, we may just have to put ‘er down. Pull it back there in the willows alongside the Mighty Max.
For all its unique features the one it is best known for is its noise. A few years ago we got a mysterious call from a friend who lives clear on the other side of town. We had been gone all winter and had just recently returned from the bush. There was no way he could have known we were back. But we had driven through his neighborhood, however, at no time were we less than a mile from his house. When he called I asked him how he knew we were back, he said he heard the Corolla when we drove by and had no doubt it was us!
The summer after we bought it Tyler decided to make it even more handy by installing a roof-rack fashioned from salvaged 2×4’s. He bolted the boards right down through the roof and sealed up the holes with silicone. It has proven to be an extremely useful modification and one that we would recommend to all practical folks out there. You can haul everything from sheets of plywood, couches, 50 gallon drums, moose, totes of fish, dogsleds and even culverts!
One summer we were putting some work into the driveway and needed a culvert for the ditch. A lady had one over in Ester, 15 miles away. It happened to be the 4th of July when we went to get it. Ester is famous for its Independence Day parade around these parts. The culvert turned out to be a little longer than we thought but we decided to put it on the rack and ‘see how she looked up there’. It didn’t look right. ‘She’ stuck out a full 7 foot front and back of the car. When we drove down the hill back into Ester the parade was in full progress and we just swung into line and cruised right out of town. I don’t think we looked out of place at all.
The car has developed more character these last few years. Though we’ve replaced the starter, cyllinoid, alternator and battery it key starts only about half the time. It’s not such a big problem in a good ol’ car like this one in which it is still possible to clutch start it in a pinch. All you have to do is remember to park it on an incline so you can get some momentum going when it’s time to leave. This is especially important when you don’t have a partner along with you who can push the car around the parking lot till it starts. One option would be to leave it idling for short stops but it’s so loud that it would draw too much attention to itself. Somebody might steal it.
Once I was working a construction job out of town down by Denali and I had to leave Fairbanks real early to get to work on time Monday morning. When I got to Nenana, about half way there, my coffee had taken affect and I needed to pull over. When I got back in the car it wouldn’t start and no one was around to help that early in the morning. I happened to have parked in front of a slight incline so I grabbed onto the door frame and pushed it up the slight slope as far as I could before the weight overcame me and I would quick-jump in the car as it rolled back down and try to pop the clutch before it lost momentum. It took numerous tries and a good deal of exertion before I finally made the car roar to life again. It might seem tacky to some folks but to me it was an empowering experience and I bombed down the road hooting and hollering, celebrating my victory over the stubborn Corolla. Inconveniences like these don’t tend to ruin my day, I usually find them to be entertaining and interesting. And they are always good for a story when I get home.
The absurdity of clutch starting in a crowded parking lot usually gives me a case of the giggles. I usually make Tyler do the clutching while I do the pushing because I tend to get performance anxiety in crowded places. If you live in Fairbanks you might have seen me fully pregnant giving the car a zestful shove in a parking lot somewhere. Tyler’s Uncle Bob drove it around town when he came to visit and claimed the girls really gave him a lot of looks, and I’m sure they did. When Tyler drives the car around he usually wears hearing protection because it’s as loud as flying in a bush plane. The dogs start howling when he’s two miles down the road from home because they know he’s coming. He’ll be driving it again this summer (and probably the next). If your in the area keep a listen out for him and if you see him struggling alone to push start it kindly lend a hand.
Fairbanks is far enough away from everything that finding a good used vehicle isn’t cheap or easy. Anything that has all wheel drive and isn’t’ a gas hogging truck tends to go pretty fast off the used car market. We put an offer in on a sedan yesterday that has front wheel drive and studded tires. It’s really small and doesn’t look very handy. They just don’t make them like they used to. We gave the woman a low offer because if we got it at our asking price it would be a great deal, safe for Sydney and last for a long time but we only want the car if it is a really great deal because we yearn for car racks and roomy trunk space. I will remain in the center of the truck squished between the two loves of my life until we find the right one.