I discovered the American Desert in the late spring of 1976 – my mom took me to Death Valley when I was about eight but I’m not counting that although it probably did plant the seed – it was a spiritual experience.
On the first trip, I drove a 1974 BMW Bavaria 4 door sedan. A friend had called and said that he had just been to Death Valley, it was fantastic, and he wanted to go back (in retrospect, he probably wanted somebody else to take their car). We drove across most of the Mojave Desert, in the dark, and camped in an empty Mahogany Flat Campground at 8,133 ft, on Telescope Peak. I slept on a cot so that I wouldn’t be attacked by snakes.
It did not take very long – but longer than it took to fall in love with the desert – to figure out that a Bavaria was not the ideal vehicle to get into the desert. The next vehicle was – and here I am quoting from a list of my cars that I made in 2003 – A 1976 GMC 4 wheeldrive pickup: desert tan with whorehouse red vinyl interior and a GMC, OHV V8, big enough to pull a tree-stump out of the ground. It burned more gas than a 747 but was a very handy vehicle: four people could ride in the front (only) seat and drive to Death Valley. The truck really wasn’t mine, it was a company truck used by one of our superintendents, and I would use it the couple of times a year that I went to the desert.
Next was an almost new Jeep Cherokee that I bought from a friend. He sold it cheap because his parents had spilled milk and then let the milk dry under the seats and the Cherokee smelled. I don’t remember how we got rid of the smell, but it became Samantha’s car except when I wanted to go the desert. Finally, in 1988, I got a new Range Rover, described in my Car Log as A 1988 Range Rover: Olive Drab with grey interior and powered by a Rover V8 (really a modified mid-60s Buick V8 that Rover bought from GM). The perfect car for me at the time, it would go anywhere from the symphony to Coyote Gulch. And finally, A 1992 Range Rover: white. Same-o, same-o.
But it wasn’t the Same-o, same-o the 92 Rover took us all over the Western Outback – mostly the Eastern Mojave Area, the Escalante area in Utah, and Northwestern Nevada – for over ten years. It wasn’t particularly reliable, but it never left us stranded until March 29th, 2013 – about 4 o’clock in the afternoon when it gave up on 395, just north of Minden.
Before that, we did have a couple of close calls. One memorable close call was when the alternator gave out in Soldier Meadow – probably 40 miles from the nearest pavement – but we were able to limp home.
As an aside, that problem taught me a great lesson on a difference between Rustic and City Dweller Morality – or, at least, Guiding Principles – that I think is part of the Red/Blue conflict. When the Alt light came on in Soldier Meadows, we immediately decided to try to get as close to help as possible. We got all the way to Bruno’s Texaco Station in Gerlach where we consulted with Bruno’s son-in-law, Cecil. Of course they did not have the parts to fix it, but they suggested giving the battery a very slow charge over night. They thought that would get us to Reno. We spent the night and, the next day, drove to Reno. The Guiding Principle in Gerlach is to help a stranger (and, I suspect even more so, a neighbor). Just outside of Reno, we stopped at a shop that specialized in foreign cars but they didn’t have the parts either (no surprise). When I asked them for suggestions, they said that they couldn’t give us any because they didn’t want to be responsible if anything went wrong. I suggested recharging the battery and they said they would do that if that was what I wanted, but it was my responsibility. We charged it over a very long lunch and departed for the Bay Area, with no real idea of what our range would be. To be safe, the next stop was an open Amoco shop near Vacaville, California. They couldn’t fix it and, when I asked about a charge, they said that they wouldn’t touch the vehicle because of the liability. We were back in the City where not getting sued was the Guiding Principle. We limped home. End aside.
A year and a half ago, when the 92 Ranger Rover gave out, it was the first time since 1976 that I haven’t had a vehicle to go to the desert. Anything reliable would be in the 20 to 25,000 range and I began to think that the money would be better spent in restoring the Rover. My complicated theory was as follows: old car prices – and I am using the term car, very loosely – start going up again when men, and it is overwhelmingly men, get enough money to buy the cars they lusted after when they were twelve. That means that old Range Rovers should start increasing in price as people who were twelve , or so, in 1988, reach their 40s. And prices are going up, especially in England.
There are so many things to like about the Range Rover, it has a super cachet, is rugged and will go almost anywhere, has heavy-duty leather seats, a nice bin sunk into the dash for an altar, great visibility and…well, there must be other things, too, but there are also some real problems.
The Range Rover was designed for Royals to drive in Scotland or, maybe, a lance corporal in Northern Europe when it was a military vehicle. It does not do dust very well – about 99.999% of the dirt and gravel roads in the west are dusty although we did cross a creek once in Soldier Meadows so maybe it doesn’t like water either – and, at almost any speed on a dusty road, the dust seeps in through the back window. Well before the Rover croaked, the electric doors and power seats no longer worked because the contacts were clogged with dust.
The Range Rover was noisy, not noisy in a good way like a Ferrari, noisy because it was shaped like a brick and had a rain gutter – an actual rain gutter – around the roof, noisy. Oh, and the radio didn’t work, grounding out with a 90 dB squeal at random times. The biggest downside to the Range Rover, however, was its miserable gas mileage, 15 miles to the gallon. The Rover’s V8 engine was originally designed by Buick in the late 50s/early 60s, in terms of engine design, the late 50s were the late Pleistocene and everything done to this engine since has been pretty much makeshift resulting in the lousy gas mileage.
None of the problems were deal breakers though, until we rented a cheap Chevy to go to Oregon.
The Chevy was ugly as sin – indeed, if sin be ugly, as my mother used to say – quiet, comfortable and had a great radio. Its power seats and door locks actually worked, and the Chevy got spectacular, by our low standards, gas mileage. At 60, on a dirt road, no dust came in as we rode in air-conditioned comfort. Intellectually, I know that a cheap 2014 car is a better transportation appliance than an expensive 1992 car, but – driving around Oregon – we became believers.
Now the question becomes what next. The Range Rover is at a repair shop in San Francisco and that is part of the problem. I asked the shop what it would cost to get the Rover restored and, clipboard in hand, the owner said my timing was perfect because he was just getting into that business. He said he would work up some numbers and get back to me, that was in April and I still haven’t heard from him. I called Landrover Ranch in New Mexico and left a message asking about restoration, they never called back. Meanwhile, Michele is starting to read reviews of VW Tiguans and I am starting to wonder about all the restored and updated Toyota Bj61s I keep seeing.
As for the Rover, it occurs to me that my first off-road car described, again in the Car Log, as A 1948 Pontiac 4 door sedan: faded blue with chrome stripes on the hood and an Indianhead hood ornament that lit up; powered by a OHV straight 8. My maternal grandparents’ car I was asked to buy (for $300) when they got too old to drive. They had covered the seats with thick plastic seat covers so, when I got the car, it was a 8-year-old beater with new gray wool – derogatorily called mouse fur – seats. About this time I started camping and this car did many uncomplaining miles on dirt roads. had a good life. That car eventually died on a dirt road near Longs Peak, Colorado while being driven by the second owner after me. He, fittingly in my opinion, left it by the side of the road to exfoliate back into the earth.