“Would you like help not dying in Colorado?” asked Denver reader Jason in an email. I’d soon be flying in and renting a car to drive over the Rockies during a bad snowstorm and Jason, whom I’d never met, was offering me the keys to an old Chevy GMT400-series pickup truck—one that would capture my heart and change the entire tone of my trip to the middle of nowhere to rescue a 260,000 mile “Holy Grail of Jeep Grand Cherokees.”
“I hesitate to say your plan has a fatal flaw when it’s basically made out of fatal flaws,” Jason’s email read, “but there’s 1 thing you may not have realized - if you rent a cheap compact at the airport it’s not going to have either snow tires or AWD / 4WD, and as such there’s a very good chance you’re going to be sent back down the mountain due to the Colorado passenger vehicle traction laws.” Those traction laws require that automobiles driving in adverse weather conditions be fitted with either snow-rated tires, chains, or four-wheel drive, or else be subjected to a hefty fine.
“If you’re 100% committed to this insanity,” he continued, “I’ve got a couple mountain worthy beaters you can borrow. One is a beat up ‘05 Suzuki XL7, and the other an even more beat up ‘93 Chevy 3/4 ton 4x4.” Both of them were equipped with snow tires.
Jason wasn’t the only one worried. I had received a number of emails from concerned readers warning me that “there is an epic winter storm headed to the Rockies this weekend” and that “things change pretty quickly in the mountains especially with snow.” Just look at the responses to “Here’s My Idiotic Plan To Drive A Broken 260,000-Mile ‘Holy Grail Of Jeep Grand Cherokees’ Across The Country,” my initial story laying out the logistics of the foolish mission. Here’s an example:
Clearly, I wasn’t kidding when I included the term “idiotic” in the aforementioned headline. And while I’ll admit that I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to handle the daunting snowstorm bombarding the dangerous mountain pass (I was pretty much planning to wing it—probably renting a 4x4 and getting as far up the pass as I felt comfortable going), any worry I felt immediately turned into enthusiasm when I received that email from Jason. Mostly because of this quote: “Plus the truck is a regular cab stick shift.”
Upon reading that, both of my pupils turned to the shape of a heart. I accepted the offer without asking many questions. Were there liability issues associated with borrowing a random reader’s truck to take on this dangerous journey? I actually didn’t know, nor did I really care. I just went for it, because who wouldn’t? Just look at the photo below, which Jason sent me as an attachment. It’s a beautiful GMT 400-series 1993 Chevrolet 2500 with a Chevy 350 V8 under the hood bolted to a five-speed floor-shift manual transmission hooked up to a 4x4 system with low range. What’s more, Jason told me, it was equipped with a bench seat!
Truly a classic.
So I’ll continue this story where part one of the the “Holy Grail Rescue” series left off: My friend Brandon and I had just arrived in Denver on a Spirit Airlines flight from Detroit, and all of the tools and car parts we’d checked in were intact and accounted for.
I texted Jason, and within about 20 minutes, he was at the arrivals curbside in his Chevy Bolt, ready to pick up two random idiots carrying 120+ pounds of mostly-steel luggage. After an introduction and a pleasant conversation about the future of automobile electrification, we arrived at Jason’s house, where he introduced Brandon and me to his trusty steed:
As it had spent much of its life in Colorado, the 2500's body looked great: no significant rust spots anywhere. And while the paint had disappeared from the fenders, hood, and roof, I think that imperfection just added to the truck’s “workhorse” aura.
Brandon and I threw our luggage in the bed, which Jason had graciously filled with a floor jack, an engine support bar, and a number of other tools that he thought would help us in our Quest For The Grail.
Brandon and I said goodbye to Jason, hopped onto the split-bench seat, and prepared to point the boxy Chevy towards the peaks. First I had to figure out how to close the driver’s door—a process that required an unbelievably hard slam, one that would have probably broken most of my vehicles, but that this “Like A Rock” old Chevy handled without a problem. Next, I had to get the engine to actually start, which meant I had to shove the rather stiff clutch all the way to the floor (the pedal travel was longer than I expected), and then twist the also-rather-stiff key in the ignition located in the classic old Saginaw steering column.
The throttle body-injected 350 V8 motor fired up right away, even in the cold, and rumbled through the muffler-less exhaust pipe that shot gases out under the truck just after the catalytic converter. I pulled the enormous shift lever hard to the left and up into first. I gently let off the clutch, and the truck leaped out of the parking spot, quickly requiring a shift out of the granny first gear and into second.
With Brandon in the passenger’s seat, I headed west into the dark, snow-covered mountains, enjoying the warmth from the truck’s excellent heater, and loving the long, almost oddly-notchy throws of that five-speed stick. My old Chrysler engineering friend and I realized that we were taking a big risk by climbing the mountains at night, especially with little understanding of the road conditions at the peak. The fact that we were relying on a 191,000 mile beater truck to get it done just added another variable to the equation that I was continuously trying to solve in my head as I stared through the windshield at the steep grade ahead.
We stopped by a Walmart for food, water, and a big sleeping bag, just in case things went south.
Interstate 70 had been bombarded all of Friday night and well into Saturday, the day we arrived in the evening. We began our drive at 7:45 p.m. during what seemed like a break in the precipitation. The start of the pass seemed like it had been well cleared, and the truck felt remarkably poised even at 60+ mph.
Even in fifth gear, the Chevy had plenty of power to get up the grade, and while the steering had quite a bit of play in it, the truck tracked straight down the road without a problem. The biggest issue we had was visibility, since we couldn’t figure out how to work the defrost properly, and the droplets of precipitation kept freezing on our windshield. Luckily, Jason had just fixed the wipers the prior day, so liberal use of wiper flood bought us a few minutes of clarity before we had to wash the glass off again.
The whole drive was magical, and so much more soulful than it would have been had I rented a Hyundai Tucson or a Ford Escape. Everything from the way the truck’s V8 motor and cut-off exhaust sounded, to the compact regular cab that Brandon and I found ourselves sharing, to the floor-mounted stick shift between us, to the huge bed behind us carrying our tools, to the choppy ride quality, to the vague steering gave this 26-year-old vehicle character. It was impossible not to fall in love with.
As we approached Georgetown, Keystone, Copper Mountain, Breckenridge, and Vail, the road turned into a carpet of compact snow through which the truck’s winter tires clawed with confidence.
When we go to the back slope of the pass, Brandon made that overdrive gear work, driving the truck smoothly at speeds over 80 mph towards Grand Junction. We arrived at our cheap motel at around two in the morning. Tired from a long day of packing, flying, and driving, I retreated to my room, but only after taking one last photo of the trusty old truck before bed:
I was so smitten by this Chevy—a vehicle whose GMT400 family I’ve always admired, but never really properly appreciated until this point—that as soon as Brandon and I got into our motel room, I shot out this tweet declaring just how glorious it had been driving that boxy truck through the Rockies in the middle of the night:
I dreamed all night of that Chevy V8 motor, and how it worked together with the broken exhaust to send a ferocious but steady rumble echoing through the Rocky Mountains. In my dream, I saw us from above; I watched in the night as huge snow-capped peaks surrounded the beat-up white and green two-tone pickup that was slaloming up the pass, almost as if to intimidate it into cowering back down the eastern slope. But the truck, despite its high mileage and dinged up old body, responded with a steadfast roar, muscling its way through its competition; This was a battle between nature and a humble, old-fashioned work truck. The truck won.
The following morning, after not nearly enough sleep thanks in part to the motel’s rather cold temperature and thin blankets, Brandon and I headed out of Grand Junction and into the middle of nowhere to finally lay on the Holy Grail Jeep Grand Cherokee that I’d purchased sight-unseen on Black Friday for $700.
The condition of the Jeep when we arrived, and what Brandon and I did to try to get the machine ready for a 1,500 mile trip back over the Rockies to Michigan will be the subject of part three (here’s part one) of this five-part series.
I’ll just say that our efforts to fix the clutch were among the most grueling, miserable hours I’ve ever spent with a wrench in my hand. I know Brandon would say the same because things got so bad, he nearly boarded an airplane and left.