The big, red 2008 Ford F-350 SuperDuty makes me think of a Terry Allen song called "Amarillo Highway." It features the line: I don't wear no Stetson, but I'm willing to bet son / that I'm as big a Texan as you are. When people find out where I'm from, they often say, "You don't sound like you're from Texas." I correct them by pointing out that I'm from Texas, not a cartoon about Texas. But, driving this big honkin F-350 around the Lone Star State, there wasn't any confusion.
Whereas this large, bright monster of a vehicle would have stood out in my current residence of Chicago, there's not much novelty to the F-350 SuperDuty in Texas, where the back row at most restaurants and shopping centers is unofficially reserved for vehicles that are too long to fit into a regular space. At more than 20 feet long, the Ford wasn't short on kin at the mall.
Though many Texans still require this kind of off-road ability and towing capacity, it would be wrong to assume that most people in the sprawling suburbs of Dallas and Houston that own a big ass truck actually utilize anything but the country glamor that comes with a vehicle so large you have to fold in the mirrors to fit through toll booths.
Most of my driving was spent in the suburbs, which make up most of the state (though it may shock some, three of the ten largest cities in the US are in Texas). With suburbs come interstate highways and the F-350 performs well as a highway cruiser if your definition of "well" includes being able to see over everything but buses and suck diesel fuel with a typically Texan disregard for moderation.
The FX4 - now a trim level — was formerly the off-road package for the SuperDuty, but has been replaced by the 4x4 Off Road Package. In addition to the badging and special interior trim, the FX4 comes with a limited-slip rear differential and Rancho shocks. This means that the slightest bumps in the road are met with a jolt as opposed to the smoother riding suspension of other variations in the SuperDuty series.
Nevertheless, most Texas highways are smooth and straight and, sitting up so high, I started to feel the stirring of something akin to the Manifest Destiny the not-quite-original settlers felt when re-re-conquering this beautiful expanse of land and water. Like many big truck drivers, it started to feel as if the road was mine and mine alone, and anyone entering was doing so only with my casual, unstated leave.
My fiancée, a Texan of Midwestern Danish stock, has always looked good in a truck. When I first started dating her in college, we shared (and by shared I mean I stole when I could) a red Dodge Ram 1500, a truck that is dwarfed by the F-350 both in height and length. As we cruised the beltway that encircles most of Houston, she laughingly chided me for the kind of attitude I often criticized while piloting the same patch of concrete in my diminutive Escort hatchback. What really pushed it over the edge was the magnanimity with which I waved people into my lane, as if it were my decision.
After touring the suburbs of Houston I took the truck out towards Brazos Bend State Park, a popular fishing and camping spot accessible only by a series of long, straight and relatively abandoned Farm-to-Market roads. Out here I was able to stretch the SuperDuty's legs, getting a feel for when and how the big 6.4-liter turbo diesel PowerStroke V8 was able to trot. Lag is, not surprisingly, noticeable when trying to get 7,000 lbs of truck to take off, but the sequential setup of the turbos makes it quicker than you'd expect. One turbo gets you moving, then the other one helps the truck pull aggressively and confidently until you either wimp out or the physics of pushing this giant brick through the air take over.
Did I mention it's a bright red truck? Though Brazos Bend is full of large trucks used to pull campers (and one awesome Vanagon), I couldn't drive it too far without getting looks from passersby, which was true of everywhere I took it. People didn't look for too long, though, as everyone here remembers the sign on the front of the park that advertises the place as "Home of the American Alligator." And if they missed that, the park's map is filled with advice like "If an alligator gets a hold of a fish you've got, let it have the fish," and the ominous "Do not under any circumstances let your pets into the water."
The reasons for the rough suspension - a pain back in the suburbs - become apparent as soon as you take it off road. My usual off-roading spots had, unfortunately, been developed over the past few years and I was forced to head to an area popular with flat billers in Jeeps with big tires and little regard for their own safety (there are many stories of poor saps who pushed too far and ended up with a vehicle full of mud and snakes).
To make matters worse, this particular patch of muddy earth had been softened by recent rains. What's tough to do in a relatively weightless Jeep is a different challenge in a truck of this scale. While my grandfater served as a guide, I pulled the F-350 off the highway and onto a path hidden by a large evangelical church.
Where the path turns out to a pond there were crevices eight- to ten-feet wide and a couple of feet deep. Unwilling to sink a nearly $60,000 truck into muddy water, I decided to test the FX4's ability by asking it to negotiate a hill at such an angle that the rear-parking sensor started going off, spooking me more than a little. Though not my idea of an ideal driving experience, trying to pilot the truck's four wheels over the uneven, soft terrain was still a kick.
As I got more comfortable with the suspension, and with the idea of driving without all the wheels touching the ground, I let myself abandon memories of getting my friend's dad's Suburban stuck in a similar area. There would be no calling someone else with a winch and a more capable truck to pull us out. In fact, with some chains, we'd probably be able to do the same for some other dumb kids. Though not as wild as mudding a Wrangler, the FX4 proved capable enough to keep us from getting stuck or huffing too much when climbing.
Returning home after a weekend of navigating the F-350 through highways, city streets, state parks, dirt roads and crumbling mud I felt more at peace with the joy I feel with driving a vehicle this large. Fords have been the best selling trucks in Texas for about as long as I've been alive and now I sort of understand why. Though a Woody Allen-watching, organic food-eating, straight-ticket D liberal, I still get a big old kick from driving the shit out of a truck. Even if I do so while listening to NPR.