You know your road trip is a shit show when crossing the highest mountain range in the lower 48 on three cylinders counts as a good day.
There is no way for me to adequately describe how optimistic I felt that morning, the second day of my cross country trip in a 1974 VW Beetle that had its engine sitting on a driveway only a few afternoons prior.
Mike, the kind mechanic in Drytown, California had indeed given me a ride to a local parts store and I was able to re-attach my front brake calipers after half of their bolts fell out the night before. Well, I was able to do it with the further help of another kind mechanic in Drytown after I realized I had lost a set of necessary washers I thought I had saved. He had some old spares he found at the bottom of the second or third toolbox he had in the back of his ‘1950s Ford pickup.
I set off towards the Sierra Nevadas, climbing up the gold country foothills, completely assured that my horrible first day was more of a shakedown run than anything else. My brakes worked and I had cleared the fist-sized lump of wires out of my cooling fan, so I didn’t expect any more overheating issues.
Oh, how I was wrong.
I was so filled with confidence that I decided to take the scenic way across the Sierras, the 19th century route of Highways 88 to 89. It was all pretty views and long grades, which had distinct pluses and minuses. The bad part was that it was only a few hours before the engine repeatedly started to stutter, then cut out, and then leave me with a few moments of extreme panic trying to make it to a safe turnoff in a dead car.
The good part was, well, uh, the weather was nice while I was stuck on the side of the road waiting for my car to cool down. I spent a lot of time in the Sierras growing up and it was nice to feel the wind rustling through the conifers again. Even the smells were the same, other than the faint whiff of what seemed like burning rubber.
I poked around the engine and discovered that my wire leading to the number one cylinder had lost its tiny retaining pin and was sitting loose against my hot engine tin. That mean that while it was melting up against one quarter of my engine, it wasn’t actually providing it any electricity.
In the past, this would have freaked the shit out of me. But in the years that I’ve owned an air-cooled Baja Bug, I’ve driven on three, hell, two cylinders before. I was used to this shit at this point, and I resigned myself to getting over the mountains with one cylinder taking a nap.
This was not an altogether relaxing experience. My 1974 Volkswagen was slow enough when it had all of its stock 1600cc at hand. Losing a cylinder didn’t help.
It’s not like it was dangerously slow, but it did have me, uh, spend a bit more time watching the scenery than I might normally have. Trundling up grades at 40-odd miles an hour gives you plenty of opportunities to take in the view. So I continued trundling up into the colder, thinner air, knowing that there just wasn’t anything I could do until I made it to a town with a parts store.
At least, that’s what I thought until I saw a Porsche 356 appear in my rear view mirror.
It was so beautiful and so unexpected, and it was shadowed by a Renault Alpine and a BMW 1600. I got passed by some ‘70s Volvos, a Dino 308 GT4 and a handful of other desirable, affordable classics. This was my chance!
Surely, I told myself in the considerable amount of time I had to think on uphill after uphill, one of these classic cars would have a spare spark plug wire I could use. I let the thought turn over in my head for a while. Now would be a good time to point out that the AM radio in the car did not work.
I eventually caught up with a pack of cars at some high alpine turnoff, and they told me I was in the middle of the Snowball Rally, an event that I had long ago dreamed of doing when I didn’t have a car of my own. I asked around if anyone had a spark plug lead I could use instead of my broken one, but the only spares anyone had didn’t quite fit. I mulled around asking different drivers if they had anything, but it seemed like they’d had enough of me and I motored on.
I later rejoined with the pack at their lunch stop and was able to find the guy who was driving a Karmann Ghia driver (hi Alex!). Sadly, he didn’t have any extra leads.
So I followed my lack of a plan, thrumming over the 8,600 feet of Carson Pass with what must have only been a few dozen horsepower. I spent the time peacefully watching the trees go by and listening to hear if the engine started coughing again or anything. The massive exhaust leak the car was developing didn’t make that particularly easy, but I’ve had much worse drives. Only briefly, when I started driving into falling snow, did I begin to wonder if I was in over my head.
The slow-burning stress of those slow hours only revealed itself when I finally made it to a parts store in Nevada, changed all of my plugs and leads in the parking lot, and fired on all cylinders. Joy. Real, pure, head-clearing joy. It made all of the stupid indecision of crossing the mountains feel—and I hope this is the only time I’m going to use the ‘a’ word—it made it feel like an adventure.
I pointed south now, down 395 on the dry side of the Sierras. Changing plugs and leads had worked me down through the whole afternoon, and the engine ran strong in the cool air.
I drove on without incident, stopping once to take pictures in the lot across from a nowheresville gas station.
I whiled away more quiet hours wondering if this new car deserved a name. Maybe it had earned something befitting a stout and eager mountain climber. Before I decided that the car had enough Nazi connotations as it was, I let ‘Leni’ roll around my brain for a while. The scenery around me made it easy to imagine the car zipping up some magical and stark corner of the Alps. Gaps between the Sierras burned to my right, the last sun setting behind the peaks. I felt very much on the other side of the West, though I had technically crossed back into the state of California. The thousands of miles ahead of me, once again, seemed easily within reach.
I bunked up at a little motel in a little town some more hours deeper into the night, falling asleep inappropriately happy.
Stay tuned for more of the Continuing Misadventures of Raphael and his New Blue Bug, when he finally realizes another car maintenance dream and maybe picks up a few small burns in the process.