by James McGirk
My wife and I live in Oklahoma. But for the past few months it's felt like we haven't really been living here. That's because you need a car to live in Oklahoma, and until recently we didn't have one.
Actually, what you really need to live here is a truck. Maybe not in the cities, but out here, in the foothills of the Ozarks, where the roads flood when the creek overflows its banks, and even traversing a parking lot means tumbling into tooth shattering ruts and axle scraping bumps: you do. Given that my 'job' is being a freelance writer, and my credit is shot to pieces and my income is totally erratic, buying or leasing a new one was out of the question. So that left buying a used truck. And buying a used truck in Oklahoma—especially when you don’t know the first thing about them—is downright scary.
That's because people out here use their trucks. Take my neighbors as an example. There is a family of fishermen (and –women and –children) who live across the street from me, and they have at least a half-dozen trucks and truck-like sport utility vehicles parked in their lawn, and they drive the hell out of them. At the crack of dawn each morning I watch them hook huge boats to the their trailer hitches, and pile huge people inside of their huge trucks, and form a convoy and go wheeling off toward the Illinois River. They return around noon, caked with mud, with a dozen of the neighborhood cats in tow. My neighbor is a nice man, but there was no way I wanted to buy a truck that was used the way he used his.
I wanted a mall crawler. An off-road vehicle that had never been off-road. So I started looking at the auto listings in California, where my folks live. My thesis was this: that a California car would be more gently used and have much lower mileage than its Oklahoma-equivalent (enough to justify flying out there and driving the thing back).
I found one that met our requirements: a 2004 Grand Cherokee Laredo. The seller was selling it on behalf of his son’s fiancée, who was moving to Europe to become a champion cyclist. This was her beloved “Daisy”, according to the ad; Daisy was painted a glossy, sparkly black, had 4×4-wheel drive, and the famously reliable six-cylinder Jeep 4.0 engine, was big enough to fit my wife’s paintings inside of it (or her stretcher bars), had under 100,000 miles on the odometer, had an automatic transmission, and best of all fit, comfortably in our meager budget (which was about $6,000, generously loaned to us by my folks). A comparable car in Oklahoma, according to my hourly scans of Craigslist, was going for about a $1,000 more and had at least another fifty thousand miles on it.
Mind you, I’m a little shell-shocked when it comes to buying used cars. The last time I bought one (a 1995 Mitsubishi Galant) its engine block exploded on the first long trip I ever took, leaving me stranded in a small town about an hour outside of Seattle, and sticking me with a $3000 bill. Not an experience I wanted to repeat.
My dad test drove the car, and took it to a mechanic who said it was fine, and on my okay, bought the thing. And just before I flew out there to pick it up, he passed along a happy piece of news: “Jamie, did I tell we got a discount on the car? The mechanic found a couple of problems with the steering…”
And that wasn't all. On the news, a record-smashing heat wave was forecast, and my route home took me directly through California’s Low Desert—the hottest place in the world. What’s more, I only had enough money to pay for liability insurance, registration and enough gasoline to get home. I didn’t even have enough for Tripe-A membership (which gives you a couple of free tow trips a year). If anything happened, I was doomed. Plus, I could only spend one night on the road (thanks to a coupon for a free night at a Motel 6). I considered postponing the trip, when my dad gave me yet another unwelcome bit of news: the car had New York plates and its registration was about to expire.
New York State license plates have to be returned before ownership can be transferred. So I had to get Daisy back to Oklahoma and get her registered within three days of arriving in California, otherwise I would have to surrender the plates and register the car in California—which would cost 10x as much as it would in the Cherokee Nation (not to mention the fact that Oklahomans harbor a bit of prejudice toward Californians, who for decades dismissed them as “Okies,” and besides, we wanted Cherokee Nation plates!)
Have I mentioned that I am very anxious driver? My wife and I lived in New York before Oklahoma and we rarely drove, and then we drove all of our stuff in a 20’ UHaul half-way across the country. The Grand Cherokee would certainly be expected to handled better than the UHaul, but there was yet another piece of scary news: the National Transportation Board was asking Chrysler to voluntarily recall vintage Grand Cherokees on account of an exploding gas tank (Chrysler decided to fix them with a trailer hitch—in my model year the fix was merely recommend but not mandated.) And then to make even matters worse, the official press representative from the Cherokee Nation weighed in on a New York Times article about reviving the ‘Cherokee’ nameplate, she implied it was a little offensive, and since my wife and I were living in the capital of the Cherokee Nation, I started having second thoughts about my purchase. But really there was no time to think about that.
The Jeep was stashed in my grandmother’s garage (my folks were a little worried the previous owner might try to unscrew the plates and send them back on his own; this was another source of anxiety). I opened the garage. Daisy was indeed a splendid beast, although ‘she’ had a rather stern face and with her blacked-out windows looked quite fierce, so I didn’t think the name ‘Daisy’ really suited her.
My folks were terrified, they’d heard all those news reports about the hellish weather and the exploding gas tank, and have never really trusted my judgment (perhaps for good reason) and despite having lived and worked in some of the most dangerous countries in the world, picture Oklahoma as a twister-ravaged Mongolian moonscape, and couldn’t bear the thought of me driving 1,700 miles across the country by myself in two days, and insisted my mother join me for a milk run, the first leg of my voyage down to Newport Beach, California (about an hour south of Los Angeles, this would also allow me to extend my voyage a third day). I agreed.
We loaded up with supplies and drove inland. The outdoor thermometer crept up, from about 70F by the coast to 80, then 90, and as we swung south it went up to 105. The steering did feel loose, which was not exactly comforting, and at one point I managed to get the 4×4 stuck, and had to read the manual to disengage it. But the radiator gauge stayed put despite the fierce temperature outside. We struggled up The Grapevine, the nickname for the notoriously steep Tejon Pass through the Santa Clara mountains, which divide Central California from Los Angeles, and for awhile I could barely keep up with 18-wheelers grinding their way up in the slow lane. (Later I realized this was my fault – I was supposed to disengage the overdrive button as I climbed, which would downshift the engine from fifth to fourth). I was not confident in the car. But we arrived on schedule, and drove around town visiting our extended family, and I handed the wheel over to my mother; who’d grown up in Newport Beach, and knew the area better than I did. This was a mistake.
Within five minutes she was lost. Then, all of a sudden, after she made particularly a sloppy U-turn, an unmarked Crown Victoria that had slid quietly behind us, lit up with red and blue lights. Thankfully, the Newport Beach Police Department let us go without looking at our tangled registration (or noticing the wine we’d drunk that evening) and we made our way back unscathed, but it was hardly an auspicious omen.
The next morning I drove into the desert alone.
They say that when you walk the Blue Ridge Mountains by yourself, you cycle through every single you have, and achieve a sort of clarity; but of course that route takes two months of walking, and I had plenty to preoccupy myself for two days of driving.
I left at the crack of dawn, before anyone else was up and drove toward the rising sun. The outside thermometer on my dash ticked higher and higher. The distance between gas stations grew. I stopped in a small town and paid $4.23 for gas. I was so disgusted I couldn’t fill the tank just got enough so that I could get to the border with Arizona. But just before the border, in Needles, with an eighth of tank left, I saw what I thought was my last chance at buying gas: $4.67—a near European price for unleaded petrol—and caved and filled my tank. Naturally, literally just around the corner, beyond the border, was a station that sold for petrol for $3.67 a gallon. I drove on, tasting bitter defeat between quaffs of lemon-lime Gatorade.
The outside temperature gauge on my onboard computer ticked even higher, 110 and then 115, and I drove and faster and faster, wanting to get through the notorious Low Desert before my engine exploded or worse. The traffic was heavy, clustering together at nearly a hundred miles per hour (the speed limit was 85, so I wasn’t going that fast). Since that is not really the speed the Jeep was designed for, I kept fighting with the automatic transmission (I’m used to a standard) trying to trick the thing into revving higher so I could drive it even faster. The outside temperature read 118 degrees Fahrenheit and, by now the previously unflappable radiator gauge was creeping up, and then all of a sudden I heard the most horrible ‘thunk’. And a light on my dashboard lit up an ominous orange displaying the words: “transmission overheat.”
I pulled into the slow-lane, eased off the accelerator and limped into a gas station. I opened the door. Outside, it was like the updraft from a pizza oven. The asphalt wobbled. Something horrendous was wrong with my new car. Again! And if anything, paying for blown transmission is just about the only thing more expensive than an engine block. I felt utterly defeated.
I called my wife, my voice meek and pathetic, telling her where I was, (where the hell was I?) trying to sound confident, as I flicked through the manual, my heart racing. See, the first time I’d bought a car and blew it up, in a really stupid way I felt like I’d blown my chance at being an American adult; that I’d failed as a driver; and that because I'd failed as a driver I'd failed as an American; and I think that was actually one of the reasons why squirreled myself away in New York City for ten years instead of exploring the massive new continent I’d found myself in when I arrived.
My hands were shaking. The sun was baking me. I felt like an ant trapped under a magnifying glass. I found the page with the warnings. What expensive fate was about to be delivered to me by the automotive gods? The transmission was too hot. To solve the problem all I had to do was let the thing cool down in Neutral for a few minutes. On the same page was a little note explaining how to use the overdrive button. Obviously that was why the thing overheated. I said a hearty goodbye to my wife, telling her “everything will fine,” with confidence this time, and I let the thing cool down for a few more minutes, and then the light disappeared, and I set out on the road again, reinvigorated, albeit at a slightly more reasonable speed.
The interesting part of my story ends there. My route after that more or less followed Route 66, Amarillo, Texas; Gallup, New Mexico, Flagstaff, Arizona… (though not in that order!) I saw incredible storms, lighting flashing in the mountains and skinny pillars of dust swirling through the desert, and great expanses of dusty crops, and lots and lots of Oklahoma’s famous red dirt, but after that spooky brush, I was calmer, and weirdly the car felt calmer too, she seemed to respond the way I wanted her to. And I could anticipate what she wanted. It was as if we had learned to respect each other.
Using the overdrive button correctly made climbing hills a cinch, and the car and I made it back to Oklahoma without anymore complaints from the car.
And then a really strange thing happened. As I pulled into my driveway, having seen the entire continent from a car, as a proper American I suppose, I suddenly felt as if I were home—that for the first time ever home was more than just where I lived, it was where I belonged, I was in the right town, in the right state, in the right country, the right continent, and finally I could relax and let my guard down a just little bit.