I Had Three Strange Run-Ins With the Police in My $500 Postal Jeep

Art by Jason Torchinsky. Photo: Michael Tracy

I still have so many stories to tell about my $500 Postal Jeep adventure from Michigan to Utah, including what the final legs were like, what it was like to off-road, and of course, what it all cost. But first, it’s time to describe the three bizarre and hilarious encounters with police I had while driving my most Hail Mary project car to date.

The first time I saw red and blue lights in my 1976 Jeep DJ-5D Dispatcher’s mirror was late at night in Del Norte, Colorado. I was feeling a bit fatigued, and wanted to check my map to make sure I was on the right track, so I pulled off of U.S. Route 160 into a neighborhood street, and parked on the side of the road.

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I popped into park, began looking at my phone and just generally relaxing my mind, which had been intensely focused on the drive for many hours.

After about 25 minutes free-falling down deep internet rabbit holes that quickly converted my mind from its overly-stressed state into mush, a police car pulled up behind my boxy Jeep. It was clear he was there because of me, and not just parking in some random spot, as the rest of the street was empty.

The car remained in my mirror for a minute or so, and I wondered if this was a hint for me to leave. I pulled the shifter on my left down into drive, and inched forward. “Maybe I shouldn’t?” I thought. I stepped on the brake and my Jeep came to a halt. I looked at my mirror, and—seeing the policeman still there—thought “Or maybe I should.” I put the car back into drive, and gave it some gas, moving forward about six inches. “Does he want me to go?” I continued to wonder, deeply confused. I hit the brakes. Then let off. Then hit it again.

There I was, in the middle of the night in a small town in south central Colorado lurching my rusty shitbox back and forth in utter confusion as a police car sat only a few feet behind, its driver likely wondering what the hell was going on.

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Finally—out of pity, I would guess—the officer turned on his lights. I put the car into park, and shut off the motor.

The officer walked to my window and, though I don’t remember his exact words, I do recall him saying I didn’t have to turn the car off, and then something to this effect: “The reason I’m here is that a lady called us confused as to why the mailman is sitting in front of her house in the middle of the night.”

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What?

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I couldn’t help but laugh. The woman who called the police wasn’t wrong—there was a mail vehicle outside her window, so I could see why that might be confusing. After telling the officer what I was up to, he let me continue on my way.

The next police encounter was similarly bizarre. I was driving through Topeka, Kansas, when I noticed the speed limit drop (I can’t remember if it was to 20 mph or 25—I think the former). I let off the gas, and my 232 inline-six engine quieted down from its 50 mph cruising RPM until my speedometer needle landed somewhere in the low 20 mph range.

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I crawled down this street, and eventually accelerated a bit once I thought I was pretty close to the end of this school zone. In short order, I saw flashing lights reflecting off my trusty steed’s A-pillars, ceiling, and rusty dashboard. I pulled over and let my leg dangle out of my latched-open driver’s side door.

“What a beautiful day,” the officer began as he walked up to my vehicle. “Does the speedometer on this thing work?” he asked. Slightly amused that my car apparently looked so awful that the officer assumed I was speeding because it was broken, I answered honestly. “It’s a bit off,” I told him (it usually reads around 4 to 5 mph low).

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He said he thought I’d been going a bit too quick through the school zone, so he used his radar gun and clocked me at 29 mph. I offered no excuses; I trusted his radar gun better than I did my memory or my speedometer. He asked for my documents, which I produced after a bit of digging behind my seat. The officer retreated to his cruiser. For five or 10 minutes I waited, unsure if I’d get a ticket (since it’s especially uncool to speed in a school zone, which I immediately felt very bad about) or if he’d let it slide since I was driving pretty darned slowly and not endangering anyone.

“Your record looks good,” he said as he arrived back at my sliding door on the right side of the Jeep. “I did get a text from my deputy while I was running your papers. He said that if it’s David Tracy in that postal Jeep, he’s been following your postal Jeep journey online.”

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My mind turned blank as I tried processing what I’d just heard. Then things got even more amusing.

After telling the officer what my $500 Jeep build was all about, he took his cellphone out of his pocket and showed me a photo of a red GMT-400-platform Chevy Silverado pickup from the 1990s with big black plastic aftermarket fender flares, presumably there to hide the rust above the wheel openings. “Here’s a truck I bought for $350. My son and I have been fixing it up. We’ve put about $2,000 into it—new tires and all. How much are you into this Jeep?”

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“Two grand,” I guessed, at which point I asked him which motor was in his truck (it’s the 350 V8, of course). He then told me that he and his son use the truck to haul scrap metal to make a few extra bucks on the side, and that the truck has already paid for itself.

The officer was clearly into old beaters, and he and I talked on the shoulder of the road about cars for a few minutes before he kindly let me go on my way without any written warning or ticket or anything. The whole thing was strange, but kind of hilarious—especially the bit about his deputy following my journey.

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I pulled into the parking lot after talking with officers to get a bit of rest (to make them feel a bit more comfortable that i’d be okay to drive), though I really wasn’t that tired.

The last story isn’t quite as humorous as the first two—but it is truly bizarre. It happened in Michigan. I had just pulled off the road and into a Citgo fuel station, as I figured I was low on fuel (my fuel gauge doesn’t work, so I wasn’t exactly sure how low). Upon putting the vehicle in park and shutting off the motor, my mind relaxed after essentially being over-clocked for the prior 35 hours of driving. My lids became heavy, my upper torso relaxed, and I fell asleep.

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Five minutes later, I woke up from the short nap, and began fueling up my Jeep. The gentleman filling his truck on the other side of my pump then told me he’d called the cops on me. I gave him a confused look. “Yeah man, I’d never seen anyone fall asleep so quickly in my life. I figured you had a medical problem” he said, clearly trying to hide the fact that, deep down, he knew he was wrong for calling the authorities without even knocking on my window or talking with me. I was only six feet away; it would have taken essentially no effort on his part.

“Just know that the police and fire department are coming,” the man—who claimed to be a policeman—told me, before zipping off in his pickup.

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“Well, crap,” thought as I fueled my Jeep up, trying not to spill gas everywhere as I often did because of the vehicle’s poorly-designed filler neck. A big puddle of gas splashing out of my tank as I filled it up would do nothing to convince the incoming police officers that I didn’t have any medical problems.

In an effort to prevent this geyser of fuel that might bring my medical condition into question, I bent over and placed my ear close to the fuel nozzle, listening carefully as it poured gas into my tank. As the tank filled, the noise from the fluid entering the tiny nine-gallon receptacle reached an ever-higher pitch. I had honed my ear to know exactly which pitch—and particularly which rate of change of pitch—corresponded to when the tank was full.

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In retrospect, me bending over with my ear against my fuel filler as I pumped gas was probably less effective at communicating a clear bill of health than if I’d just spilled a few splashes of gas on the ground. But in any case, if I recall correctly, it was just as I finished topping off my tank that the cops showed up.

They asked if everything was okay, and I—dressed in pajama pants because those were literally the only non-greasy clothes I had—responded that I was totally fine. Just a bit tired. The police had to do their due diligence, so they asked me a bunch of other questions. There were a handful of officers on the scene in three different vehicles—a big scene created at this gas station all because one guy was too afraid to just tap on my window and ask what was up.

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It was clear the officers were a bit puzzled by my Jeep. “So... you’re driving this, eh?” Yes, I replied.

“How far are you going?” I told them I’d just driven to Utah, and was on my way back to Troy, Michigan.

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They looked at each other, and at the Jeep. It seemed like they weren’t sure what to do. Michigan doesn’t have a state inspection, so technically this Jeep was road legal, but something tells me these officers were a bit conflicted about whether to let me continue driving what looks like a death trap (underneath, the car is in great mechanical shape, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at it).

“What do you do if it rains?” one officer asked, pointing to my lack of windshield wipers. I told him I use Rain-X, which does a good job at repelling water. “Do you... live in this thing?” was the next question, as the officer looked inside my Jeep. The interior at that point definitely looked like a sleeping quarters. Here’s a photo I took a bit later:

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“No, I don’t live in it, though I have been sleeping in it for a few days,” I replied.

After that, the officers jotted down my phone number, and seemed to just slowly loiter around. I got the feeling they weren’t really sure what to do about the pajama-wearing, grease-covered man semi-living in his horribly rusty shitbox, and possibly hiding some kind of medical issue (again, I was fine, just a bit tired).

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In time, the vehicles left, and shortly thereafter, I did, too.

The rest of my journey was thankfully police-free, but while these encounters were strange, they added a lot of extra flavor to a trip that was already eventful enough on its own.

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About the author

David Tracy

Writer, Jalopnik. 1979 Jeep Cherokee Golden Eagle, 1985 Jeep J10, 1948 Willys CJ-2A, 1995 Jeep Cherokee, 1992 Jeep Cherokee auto, 1991 Jeep Cherokee 5spd, 1976 Jeep DJ-5D, totaled 2003 Kia Rio