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February 17, 2006

Picacho Peak

I used to have a Volkswagen, an old Transporter pickup, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest.

No, wait, that's Dillard's cat, and she didn't even have a cat. Start over.

I used to have a Volkswagen, an old Transporter pickup, the kind that looked like a van that had been chopped. Mine quite resembled this one, albeit without the advertising in back, and was a cream of tomato soup color rather than the cherry-red in the photo. It was a huge boon to my gardening business: unlike all other pickup trucks of which I am aware the Transporter had sides that folded down like tailgates, which greatly aided loading and unloading of bulk materials, especially if I was using a forklift.

And once I got that pallet of sod loaded on the back, my Transporter's mighty 40 horsepower engine was just thrilled to lug it up into the Berkeley Hills at a stately 15 miles per hour. The 40-horse engine was what the car guys call an "after-market modification": a lean and economical 36-horse version was part of the original equipment, or so I understand. My pink slip claimed the truck was a 1961 model, but the number stamped into the chassis, which I looked up in a VW fetishist's catalog, indicated the truck was actually a year older. The truck was in no danger of being declared a museum piece, with its well-used aspect and rusted undercarriage and abundant dents and Bondo. I took the VW circle plate off the front, spray-painted a black Anarchy sign — the "Circle-A Ranch brand" — and named it The Buford, after the ship on which Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were deported from the US.

The Buford needed work, which is why I got it for 600 bucks in 1989 dollars. As I mentioned, the undercarriage was rusted out. The rear bumper was missing. I planned to, but never did, mount a redwood four by four back there, or a length of driftwood. The absence of a bumper greatly facilitated pulling the engine, which I did about five times in my first month of ownership. Becky and I drove it out to a remote beach one night early in our friendship, parked for a while, and when it was time to go home the clutch plate had somehow magically disintegrated. Chris Donahue, my housemate and VW mechanics guru, drove out to rescue us, gave us his car, and speed-shifted The Buford forty miles home on Highway One.

He just happened to have a new clutch plate that fit, stuck away in a box in the garage.

What else? Well, The Buford's starter switch had fried some time during the Johnson administration, and the previous owner had hot-wired it. I had the choice of trying to find a working switch in a junkyard, or not trying to find a working switch in a junkyard. I chose the latter. Instead, I drilled a hole in the passenger side dash, mounted a doorbell in it, ran the wires beneath the dash to the button. To start it one needed merely twist the key, reach across the passenger's lap, and push the button. I figured the button's placement would make its purpose less obvious to would-be VW thieves.

No gas gauge, which was actually a design feature of that particular model: when you ran low, you were supposed to flick a lever for the reserve tank and then drive to the most convenient gas station. If you forgot to close the reserve tank after filling the tank, or if your reserve tank lever, like mine, was no longer connected to anything, you would either keep careful accounts of mileage and gas station visits or get stranded once in a while. No windshield wipers, which was another after-market modification by a previous owner. Always meant to replace them: never did. The doors didn't lock. The windshield leaked. Shockingly, the truck possessed neither cup-holders nor onboard entertainment system. It had a six-volt electrical system, which meant you could almost read the large print edition of Readers' Digest if you held it in front of the headlights at night. In essence, it was a piece of bent metal on four rubber wheels with an engine of sorts attached.

One day I was shearing a big Pittosporum hedge in the Berkeley Hills when I realized I needed to head for the desert immediately. I finished up, dumped the leaves at the compost yard, called Becky at her house to tell her I'd be away for a week or so, and gassed up The Buford. Where should I go? Organ Pipe sprang to mind, and sounded good. I left first thing in the morning, and a mere twelve hours later I was 300 miles away climbing the west flank of the Tehachapi Mountains outside Bakersfield at dusk, the scent of dust and orange blossoms and diesel exhaust drifting in through the sliding split-pane windows.

I slept that night in the truck bed, parked discreetly behind a Joshua tree at a rest area east of Mojave.

Indigo morning came and I was headed for Barstow, forty miles east. Mid-morning came and I was just entering Barstow. Have I mentioned that The Buford had a top speed of 45 miles per hour with a good tailwind, and to get it going even that fast you pretty much had to drop it out of a cargo plane? It had all the fine aerodynamic engineering of a cinderblock bolted to a sheet of plywood, and an engine nearly as powerful as many inexpensive chainsaws. Halfway between Barstow and Needles I made the mistake of trying to pass an 18-wheeler that was doing 20 in the slow-lane, and as soon as I was even with its back tires the road sloped slightly upward and I could not pass. Which was of some concern to the five hundred cars that would suddenly have been riding The Buford's rear bumper had it a rear bumper. I tried valiantly to pass for a mile or so, then gave up and drifted back behind the semi, which was now doing about 15. Ah, the cheery greetings I got from the backed-up passing traffic.

I not only made it to Needles but to Kingman after that, and then to the scenic and winding Route 93 and south through Wikieup. It was by no means the most direct route, but I wanted to see it again after my ex, Elissa, had nearly killed us there five years earlier. An unimaginable stretch of hours after leaving Mojave I pulled into a small viewpoint overlooking Burro Creek. A black vulture - the first I'd ever seen - regarded me phlegmatically from the fence. I thought briefly of sleeping there. It was a nice place. But the several dozen cups of coffee I had drunk pushed me onward, and before long I was looking down from the Mogollon Rim onto the lights of Wickenburg, and Phoenix beyond, as the sun set on the vast stretch of desert behind me.

The clutch started to feel a little funny heading down from the Rim. This happened every so often at home, and I'd merely use Chris' 13-millimeter ratcheting box wrench to adjust the nut on the back end of the clutch cable. I had foolishly neglected to bring a 13-millimeter ratcheting box wrench on my desert camping trip, so once I'd circumnavigated West Phoenix I stopped at the Casa Blanca Pima Reservation and bought a crescent wrench at the general store. I crawled under the truck in the parking lot, prompting at least four locals to ask if I was okay, and tightened the nut a little. The cable had likely expanded in the desert heat all day, I reasoned, and I could loosen it the next morning if I needed to. It was probably three in the morning when I got to the campground at Picacho Peak, about forty miles north of Tucson. I slept in the truckbed again.

At seven or so I awoke, finally feeling in the desert, my campsite neighbors peering nervously from behind RV curtains at the long-haired guy sleeping in a truck full of garden tools. The pincushion cacti were blooming that April morning, and it was a banner year for globemallow, whose orange flowers had punctuated the desert all the way from Boron. I hiked around for an hour or so after rising. I figured I'd head into Tucson, get some breakfast, check out the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which I'd longed to visit for years, and then mosey west across the Tohono O'odham Reservation to Organ Pipe. I walked back to The Buford, strapped myself in, and started the engine.

And it refused to go into gear, no matter what I did to the clutch.

I crawled under the truck, loosened the clutch cable nut. No good. I loosened it more. Nope. I tried tightening it. Nope. The clutch pedal, actually, was moving just fine, smoother than it had in weeks. It just wasn't doing anything. The gears just ground horribly as I leaned on the shift lever.

The gas station just outside the park was closed, and what would they know about 30-year-old VWs anyhow? I realized I needed to get to Tucson, where the local hippie community no doubt supported several Volkswagen specialists.

This is how you drive a 1960 VW pickup truck with no clutch the forty miles from Picacho Peak State Park to Tucson. With the engine off, you put the truck in first gear. You then hold on tight and start the engine. The engine will gasp to life and jolt the truck, and you, forward. Be careful not to run into anything as you are thrown about in the cab. Enter the freeway, being careful to avoid the semis doing 80 in the right lane. Once you are well underway and have a little room in front of you, go as fast as you can in first gear until the engine screams, then pull the shift lever out of first and lean it into second. It will grind horribly, until the engine's r.p.m.s hit the point at which the transmission will pop into second gear. Get into third gear the same way. Fret about potentially needing to replace a burned-out gearbox in Tucson as well as the clutch. When you get to Tucson, go through the same process every time you hit a red light on the Miracle Mile. Find a phone book and look up a Volkswagen repair joint in the Yellow Pages. Call them. Remember that it's Sunday and they're all closed until tomorrow.

I stayed at the home of a friend of a friend. I ate dinner with the sister of another housemate, who had visited some months before and on whom I had a rather remarkable crush. On Monday morning I found an ATM, took out most of the money in my checking account, and speed-shifted across town to the WagenHaus. (Or something.)

The clutch plate Chris had stashed away in the garage was not the right kind, it turns out. A simple matter of putting the right kind in - really, in essence just applying a large poultice of dollar bills to my ailing truck - and I was ready to go. I drove up and over the Tucson Mountains and visited the Desert Museum, where I've been about half a dozen times since. That night I got stopped by Arizona State Police in Gila Bend, because The Buford's six-volt electrical system was so weak they thought I was driving at night with both taillights out. I decided to take it as a sign, skipped Organ Pipe, and high-tailed it to my present sister-in-law's place in La Jolla where Becky met me and we played on the beach for a few days.

At the WagenHaus (or something), I had forgotten to tell the mechanic about my starter switch bypass setup, and was getting up to do so when I heard The Buford roar to life and speed-shift onto the lift. I talked to him about it later. "Yeah," he said, "when one that old doesn't start I just look for the button."

Posted by Chris Clarke at February 17, 2006 12:59 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Another gem from Clarke Natural Jewelry. Thanks Chris...what a deal...only $600...worth every cent of $499.

Posted by: OGeorge at February 17, 2006 01:54 PM
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What an excellent story about a most excellent (in the sense of providing anecdote material) vehicle. My first car was an orange VW Bug that my dad painted back to something resembling the original red, and it saw many a trip out to the desert and mountains, prompted a county sheriff to trail me for miles because it was belching scary smoke, was fixed once with electrical tape and once with dental floss, blew an entire piston outside of Chico, snapped its clutch cable in a parking lot in Portland, got enmired in a dairy farmer's field, taught me about jimmying open windows, frightened my brother's high school friends with a fishtail, carried all kinds of gear, was slept in, and melted a credit card (literally, not figuratively). Damn, that was a _great_ car. Thanks for provoking the memory of it back to life.

Posted by: Rana at February 17, 2006 03:35 PM
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Thanks, guys.

I neglected to mention that the reserve gas tank lever was not on the dash, but was rather on a panel underneath the bench seat, on the passenger side. Thus to move the lever you needed to reach over and between your passenger's legs, making the 1960 Volkwagen Transporter an excellent vehicle for first dates.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at February 17, 2006 03:58 PM
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i put the doorbell button under the rear seat in my 6 volt bus. not enough juice to go allll the way to the front and then allll the back again. when alone, i turned on the key, made sure it was in neutral, and walked back between the split seats to reach down and push the starter button. a passenger made the whole operation easier.

Posted by: dread pirate roberts at February 17, 2006 03:59 PM
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Great story. I love the image of your dropping the shears and firing up the truck, bound for the desert.

I tried trackbacking you several times with my post linking to your story, but was unable. Perhaps you're blocking trackbacks?

Posted by: carpundit at February 17, 2006 04:11 PM
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No, but I'll admit I've given up trying to figure out why some legitimate trackbacks don't make it.

I encourage people to link to referring posts on their own blogs as a workaround.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at February 17, 2006 04:14 PM
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Um, OK, this is what I said about Chris's post.


Posted by: carpundit at February 17, 2006 04:22 PM
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The later description of gear-changing reminded me of my childhood first driving in the 1960s.
Father's only car for most of my minority was a 1928 Paige (see ) we called Jemimah.
She travelled, at that time, few long distances, but was taken out of the garage to work on, and maybe putter up to the doctor's a few blocks away. Still in primary school, but big enough to sit behind the wheel & reach things, I was taught to be able to start & gently move her a few yards.
A "Synchromesh" gearbox was not part of her construction, so you had to listen & feel for when the rpm was correct to move to the next gear up or down, and do that organ-player's thing co-ordinating feet & hands to change gears without stalling, hopping, or damaging something.

Posted by: Mez at February 17, 2006 05:20 PM
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The 40-horse engine was what the car guys call an "after-market modification"

If you ever feel like going back, I've heard the indomitable Subaru 2.5L is quite an easy fit. You could get to the desert real fast with that, which might lead to the first ever speeding ticket issued to a Transporter!

Posted by: Ross at February 17, 2006 06:16 PM
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Reminds me of the 196? Karmann Ghia two friends and I borrowed for a trip to Minneapolis in 1981. They rode in the seats, I rode on the shelf in back. It had three forward gears and no reverse -- so we had to push it out of the gas stations when people pulled in ahead of us. The really great thing about that car was that it caught fire. The shelf in back was not a good place to be as flames began to come through the "firewall." I got out of the car before my friends did. After the Minneapolis fire department put out the fire, we called the owner. He got on the phone and, without even pausing to ask who was on the line, said, "Don't worry, I can fix it!"

Posted by: Charles at February 17, 2006 06:22 PM
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Gratuitous Annie slam, minus ten points.

Posted by: Janeen at February 17, 2006 07:35 PM
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I can't be positive, but it's possible that your old VW truck is featured in the "Curious George" movie. They claim it's a Touareg concept vehicle, but I think it's a Transporter. (And yes, there are product placements. In an animated movie.)

Posted by: Orange at February 18, 2006 10:48 AM
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"which might lead to the first ever speeding ticket issued to a Transporter!"
Maybe not, Ross. A guy I know here from the local dog park (high school) put a 351 Ford engine into his Transporter.
He sometimes tows a twenty foot boat with it and says he gets the strangest looks.

Posted by: Dick Durata at February 18, 2006 12:25 PM
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I found your site through Ross: I seem to remember a Subaru powered bus...the Su-bus-aru? Their may even be a WRX powered variant in existence.

great story. Thanks.

Posted by: WheelsTV at February 20, 2006 08:55 AM
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Ahh VW memories - let us be thankful that they repose in that category! By the time the mechanical fiends responsible for VW "engineering" came up with my 1969 Beetle (RIP), the non-synchro transmission was apparently slightly improved, to the point where one COULD effectively shift between gears without the superfluity of the clutch. I learned this thoroughly on one journey when the clutch cable broke on the way out of Yosemite Valley. We managed to run the entrance/exit station with a moving exchange of "Did you pay?" "Yes!" (not true) through the open door (the driver's side window mechanism was nonfunctional), and then smoothly shifted clutch-free without stopping all the way to Gilroy, where at about 11 PM a CHP didn't like the three point (right-turn and U-turn) maneuver I performed to avoid stopping completely at a light. The tailpipe being imperfectly connected to the muffler at the time, the engine was running on the loud side - and I didn't want to stop the engine so I could avoid the lurching associated with clutch-free starting. I somehow (don't remember the details) managed to jam the tranny into neutral, and left it running by the roadside while we had a discussion. After my brief explanation, the friendly officer (who fortunately overlooked the fact that we had been consuming a beer or two on our epic journey) simply said "I thought you Deadheads took better care of your Volkswagens" (abundant be-stickered evidence being readily available), and helped us get going again with a push-start. Needless to say, this is but a sample of the mechanical adventures I happily no longer endure in the safety and sanity of my Saturn. But, somehow, driving just doesn't have that same sense of venturing off into the unknown every time I get behind the wheel anymore.

Posted by: Fred Levitan at February 21, 2006 11:11 AM
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