The Little Engine That Couldn't: My Worst Day On The Road

Waiting for the car to cool down, hours slipping away. Photo Credit: Raphael Orlove

It had somehow narrowed down to hours, how I was measuring time. It wasn’t a question of days or weeks anymore. I was doing hour and mile calculations to see if I’d make it back in New York by the time I needed to be back for work. And stuck on the side of the road again, New Mexico heat all around, it felt like I’d let my chances of making it slip away.

(Welcome to another installment of The Little Engine That Couldn’t, wherein I try to drive across the country in a 1974 Volkswagen Beetle that I bought five days before departing. It all seemed pretty do-able. After all, I had only needed to do a single engine-out repair in a driveway.)


I’d spent the first day in what felt like constant motion, though a good chunk of it was on a flatbed. The 1974 Volkswagen I’d bought not even a week prior seized its brakes before I made it out of my Northern California town. It got a reset master cylinder in the next along with a new carburetor. My little blue Beetle then ate half its rear wiring harness a few towns later and ditched its front calipers before it reached the Sierra Nevadas.

I crossed the Sierras on three cylinders with a busted spark plug lead the next day, overheating most of the way. Same for day three: a different busted spark plug lead and more long, slow miles. But I was making progress. Each finger-burning fix promised easier miles to come.

I woke up early on day four. Three hours after midnight. Could I make 800 miles in the day? A thousand?


I watched the sun rise directly in front of me as I drove through the Navajo Nation, clouds still hanging low over the horizon, a single band of gold broken by distant buttes casting shadows across the desert floor. It was a good and fast morning, eating apples out of the back and covering 250 miles to an early lunch in Grants.


It was a kind of run down town, and it was still cool out, so I parked the car and walked around looking for something like a junkyard. I needed to replace the seats in my car, particularly the driver’s seat, which had two busted springs; one jutted up into my driving leg, the other poked right next to the middle of my spine.

But nobody in town had any old air-cooled VW parts to sell, and only one restoration guy told me to stop in Albuquerque an hour east.


I loved the idea of a southwest junkyard, where everything is rust-free and preserved, and I figured it was worth a stop as much as for tourism as anything else. I cut off of my bloodline I-40 in Albuquerque and stopped first at one import junkyard, then another, then a pick-your-part farther down some industrial boulevard. The clouds had burned off and jets ran overhead in the open sky. I think the heat got to me. I looked over every row of junked cars in that yard looking for good, cool seats. Subarus and Tempos and Omnis. Nothing. Even the tacos out front weren’t good.

And by the time I got back into my car and back onto 40 and back onto making real progress in my trip, it was the middle of the afternoon and I had barely covered 300 miles in the day.


The numbers didn’t seem right. I tried to figure out exactly how far I could stretch each gas stop and how many times I could eat off these chunks of two hours/120 miles and how long I’d need to let the car cool at each stop and how far I thought I might be able to get and if I can just get up this grade out of town I might be able to beat Texas to Oklahoma by dawn and it coughed. The engine. Stuttered. Shut down.

Overheated again.

Photo Credit: Raphael Orlove

The one rise out of Albuquerque and I pushed the car too hard. I pulled over, got out, got my book. Read a page. Realized I’d sat on an ant hill. Re-located in the brush, 18-wheelers and event he slowest traffic breezing past me. I finished a chapter of my book, walked back to the car to start it up and got nothing. Another chapter. Back to rumbling down the road.

I managed 180 miles before stopping again in Tucumcari, a weird collection of neon signs, “Historic Route 66" notices, vintage cars parked as advertisements, and dry western nostalgia. I took some pictures. I don’t remember eating.

Out in Tucumcari. Photo Credit: Raphael Orlove

But it was so nice to see my VW under the old neon, my vintage car in this vintage town. There was a minute after the sun set when its paint matched the fading sky. Even after all of the drama of the day, it was satisfying to walk up to this sweet little car, mine, key in hand. The way the door thunked closed and the thrum of the engine starting up sealed me back in my little world. Satisfying. My little travel capsule.

Leaving Tucumcari. Photo Credit: Raphael Orlove

I put a single headphone in my right ear leaving town, good for listening to a podcast. The radio in the car was busted, of course, and I was tired of listening to myself think.


When I got paced by a state trooper as I entered Texas in the dark, I was sure the headphone was the problem, and I yanked it out as I watched his lights turn red and blue in my rear view mirror. He was only displeased by my busted license plate light, and I explained that my cooling fan had eaten that line of wiring back in California three days ago. He ran his flashlight over the back seats, and saw the crate back there.

“You living off apples?” he asked before shuffling back to his cruiser, then back to me again to point out that my car was smoking. I’d somehow started overheating in the cool night air while we sat parked on the shoulder. I asked to get out and let the engine lid up. He did, and let me off with a warning.


I found the shittiest hotel I saw on the whole trip in Amarillo and slept another three hours there. Up again under the stars. I wanted the whole day behind me, stuck in the West, unmoving, covering a pitiful 600 miles what had been 21 hours.

All the time I’d spent hurriedly pulling the car’s engine on my friend’s driveway after buying the car, all my long hours behind the wheel over the mountains and across the desert. It all had washed away in the New Mexico heat, what could have been 400 miles lost to junkyards and pictures and walks and overheating waits.

The moon was so big I couldn’t believe it really was the moon. The cross leaving Texas was bigger. Photo Credit: Raphael Orlove

I watched the sun rise again, this time slowly burning the black away on the horizon into blue. By the time the sun rose I was in Oklahoma. I didn’t feel particularly optimistic, but at least I was happy, maybe losing sense as the days started to blend into each other.


I dreamed of my last miles up Appalachia and into New York.

Crossing into Oklahoma. Photo Credit: Raphael Orlove

I never made it past Arkansas.

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About the author

Raphael Orlove

Raphael Orlove is features editor for Jalopnik.