My precarious and intrepid trek to “The best-kept secret on the border.”
So secret I’ve not been able to find it.
by Paul Q. Stover
The phone rang. Steve announced, “Your car is ready.” Many years ago I bought a Triumph TR3 roadster. After scouring the country I found the beauty in a barn, in pieces, off of highway 17. Hardly a beauty then.
“Come and get it, I need the space.” I realized the impact. A trip of nearly 2,000 miles from San Francisco, California, to San Felipe Del Rio, Texas, in a rebuilt TR3 with totally new running gear, untested. “Steve, please drive the machine to work for a while. See what falls off.” “Naaa! Got no time for it.” It was rude for me to ask, after all he has done. Was I up for the adventure?
On the morning I arrived, Steve briefed me on the last four years. It was a miracle. Rebuilt engine, transmission, rear axle, generator with voltage regulator, reworked radiator and gauges. Plus thousands of small items of just plain thoughtfulness to detail and authenticity, too many to enumerate. He sent me on my way with a spare fan belt removed from his car, not on the road yet, and the loan of his torque wrench to re-torque the head bolts at 500 miles.
“How much do I owe you, Steve?”
“For what?” he said.
Steve Farrell is one of those infectious lads who embraces life with gusto. He loves sailing, he loves photography, and he loves Triumphs. When he learned about my reluctant move to Texas, he proposed: “Leave the TR3 with me to polish up mechanically. Just toss me some money for parts when you have it.” So I left my Vintage Roadster in the hands of the neighbor kid, thinking, “I gotta have rocks in my head. I will never see my beauty again.”
The Ferguson tractor engine purred while I re-familiarized myself with the positive steering (no sneeze factor), rough ride, and the slap of tires from cars and trucks in the next lane as I sat at hubcap level in the low-slung car with the low-slung doors. The 1960 TR3 was tuned to a nice throaty sound that inferred class and power. “Neat car!” People passing would say, giving me a thumbs up. I was a bit shocked at all the attention.
Steve was in his dark room processing color photos or already starting on the restoration of the next Triumph. He thinks he is going to get away with it, doing all that labor for nothing, because he loves Triumphs. I suspect a large Moss Motors gift certificate will arrive in his mailbox.
I need to check the wheel balance again. The untrue wire wheels were at times a little shaky, and there was a matter of a fine greeeeerrrr in addition to the whaaammpaa–whaaammpaa made by the wheel wobble. I stopped to talk with Larry at the wheel shop about it. “Yeah, yeah it’s not good, but you’ll make it. No, I don’t know what the greeeeerrrr is, maybe a wheel bearing, maybe a U joint. Ah, you’ll find out on the way.” That was not exactly what I wanted to hear.
It was 2:00pm, Tuesday September 2, when I pointed the nose of the Triumph south. At the Altamont pass between Livermore and Tracy I watched the temperature gauge climb above the 205 mark. My heart lodged in my throat, and I was about ready to pull off when I crested the pass and the gauge began to fall. I resolved to check that gauge once every minute.
I reflected on a year ago, the phone rang, it was Steve saying, “I have for you a new re-manufactured temperature gauge, authentic.” “Good, how much?” “$150” “AAAGH!!!” I said. He said “No problem, I will take it then, just giving you first crack.” I quickly learned that Steve was real—take care of him, because he was taking care of me. A photo came. The gauge polished, laid out on black velvet as though it were a priceless string of pearls. Four years and $150 later, I scan the dial with joy.
Manteca, the name means lard in Spanish. I turn south on Highway 99; there are flashes of lightning in the Sierra foothills off to the left. It’s September. It’s against the law to rain here in the valley—everybody knows that. I have the cockpit half covered with the tonneau, not to worry. Fuel gauge calls for a stop. Hmmm… only 100 miles driven. I gas up, eight gallons—wow! Not too good. Well, Steve said it will take a while for the new carbs to settle in. I picked up Windex, paper towels, flashlight batteries.
At 58 mph: whaaammpaa–whaaammpaa wheel wobble. At 64 mph: greeeeerrrr, whatever that is? I hold my speed in-between thinking maybe nothing will happen. Something does. I watch my new speedometer turn mushy. Ten miles later it stops indicating. Not a show-stopper. I can get along without that.
I had packed an old leather purse with tools: multimeter, flashlight, a lead mallet, and my brand new handy dandy Authentic Triumph jack. I was ready, I thought.
I selected two-lane roads instead of the shorter Interstate 5. I drove through farm towns. Farm towns have tractor parts and ingenious farmers who can just about get anything working with what’s on hand. It was the farm boys who won WWII by getting the trucks, tanks, airplanes and ships functioning again when they broke.
Water drops start to splatter the windscreen. Not bad, I can handle this. Later as I cruise through Fresno the streets are wet with big puddles. Poa Pop-Popa. Rain. Drops the size of marbles. Aw gee, I’m gonna get wet with this one. The cloud dumped. Most of the water went over the windscreen and back-winded my head. It actually felt good, cooling from the heat. The tonneau kept most of it out of the car and what was getting wet wasn’t being damaged.
The rain stopped by the time I had reached King’s River. The Visalia and Tulare signs sprung up in front of me. Today’s trip is nearing its end. The sun is getting low and my backside feels every crack in the pavement. Tipton, then Pixley, (The village from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath), my first stop on the road and a visit with my ex-mother-in-law, Mary Best Smith.
The smell of coffee brewing and bacon sizzling got me going. I waved goodbye as I backed the Triumph out in the street. Listening to the smooth throaty sound of the engine. Mary’s second daughter, Jackie, had put a care package in the car: tomatoes, cornbread muffins, two biscuits with sausages in between, and two boiled eggs. It was a good visit in spite my apprehension.
Mary Best was a child of the victims of the Oklahoma dust bowl and the great national economic depression. The Best family truck broke down in Pixley in the mid-1930s, and there they stayed. The village population of 1200 never grew nor waned. Mary and her brood had moved away many times, only to return. This was really their home no matter what. Pixley is a slice of America at its best. Families cloistered—mother, daughter, and grandchildren, all scratching out a living, all pulling together, gardening, canning, putting up fruit preserves, surviving, in a communal economy and lots of love, and always room for one more, even an ex-son-in-law. “Kids, make out a pallet on the floor. Uncle Paul is going to sleep in your bed tonight.”
Gas up. Eight gallons. 150 miles. Better. As the car settles in at freeway speeds the wheel wobble seems less. My eyes scan the gauges: ampere meter, 10 amps—okay; temperature, 175 degrees—watch that one; oil pressure, 100 pounds—whoop! 100 pounds pegged, that’s not good. Plugged oil passage port? Aww gee! What now? What to do? I eased off the freeway and watched the temperature of the engine climb to 190. When the temperature began to fall, the oil pressure dropped, too. At 95 pounds there had to be some oil flow.
Before I got to Bakersfield the oil pressure had settled out to 80 pounds. My guess is the cold oil built up more pressure till it got warmed up. I developed a sense of confidence now, almost 300 miles under my belt and the car appears to be smoothing out. The sign reads: Los Angles 150 miles. Yes! This is going to work out just fine.
Hmm? Perhaps it’s the cracks in the cement road. I am feeling vibration in the steering. Change lanes. No change. I hang my head over the door and look at the wheel. Bad wobble, pull over! “Weedpatch 6 miles.” The arrow on the sign pointed east. Got out my lead mallet, walked around the car pounding the spinner nuts. They were all tight. I shook each wheel till I got to the driver’s side front. Loose! Okay! So I got out my new handy dandy Triumph jack. Knocked off the spinner, lifted the car, pulled the wheel off, and the splined hub extension came off with it. Four lug nuts fell to the ground… Huh? As I looked at the studs my heart sank. No threads, not one thread, on any of the four studs. I believe this is a show stopper.
I sat down and thought about this for a while, considering the options. The sound of locusts chattering. Whirr of traffic nearby on the freeway. Sweet tang of sun dried grass teases the nostrils. Moments later I hear, “Hey, fellow, need a hand?” I focused on the farmer getting out of a VW Rabbit. “Looks pretty bad,” he announced, putting out his hand, “My name is Carl Putnam.” “I’m Paul, nice to meet you Carl” “Hey, let’s knock those studs out of that hub and I’ll run over to the parts store down the way and see if I can get some.” Carl suggested.
Fat chance, I thought to myself as he drove off, English measurement all right but English threads and knurls… Just wait, you might learn something. You didn’t know the studs were pressed in—you thought they were welded.
As I waited for Carl, vehicles carrying people from all walks of life stopped to offer help. All had remarked, “Neat car!” One hour later, here comes Carl. “Ha! Sorry, that took little longer than I thought.” He lays out four studs, four tapered nuts, and a flat washer to pull them in place. The threads and knurls were coarser than the English, but no matter; if we could get the knurls to press in, the nuts would work fine. The bolts were long. “I can cut those down,” and off Carl dashed.
While waiting, I leaned on the car. It fell off the jack, flat on the ground. Gee! That was dumb! As if I need more to deal with. I located a long board and a rock and pried the car up high enough to set it back on the jack.
Three hours after I stopped, hot, drained and dehydrated, the wheel was on. “I’ll follow you to the first exist and we’ll see how it goes,” Carl said. I wave as Carl takes the off ramp. I drive on. My mind returns to the band-aid repairs we installed. I am insecure. When Carl trimmed the studs, two were slightly too long. Carl had forced them, galling the threads. The nut seemed to start cross-threaded. On torquing, Carl said they felt like they were going to strip at 45 foot-pounds. I worry. Each noise, vibration, fuels paranoia, and I play “what if?” But things are going smoothly and eventually I relax.
I wander through 40 miles of hilly, curvy, mountaintop four-lane freeway then down toward Los Angeles. More lanes now. Traffic thickens. And quickens. Eight lanes. I’m in the center of a herd of stampeding rhinoceros! 75 MPH. DON’T STUMBLE AND FALL NOW. YOU’LL BE TRAMPLED.
No more LA signs, replaced by San Diego signs. Traffic slowed to stop and go. It’s HOT! I hang my head out over the door and look at the wheel. Seems to be okay!
Forty miles outside of San Diego I call John Benya. His wife Rosemary gives me directions. 7:00pm I knock on the door, dripping wet, totally depleted. “Please, a shower first,” I request. John, the mad scientist, showed me their lovely home, a miniature and simplified Frank Lloyd Wright prairie-style house in Point Loma. The next morning I examined the band-aid. The two nuts I worried over were stripped on the studs! Call Moss, parts please, “Be there before noon tomorrow.” And it was so! I took the day, relaxed, recuperated, regrouped. By noon the next day the car was repaired, bolts re-torqued from 20 foot-pounds to 50. My handy dandy authentic Triumph jack saw its last lift, but it got me through when I really needed it.
I entered Interstate 8 and started east. Earlier that day, I had removed the tonneau cover, put the hoops up, and installed the top, being a little sunburned and expecting rain.
The engine purrs smoothly with its throaty sound as I start to climb the pass. The traffic thins leaving El Cajon. I begin to detect an unevenness in the engine running. Th th th thp th thp pht pth th th???!! It doesn’t seem to degrade the power. What could it be? Spark? Points bouncing? Loose contact in the wiring? I drive on, at times it smoothes out, later returns to haunt me. Over the crest at 4,187 feet of elevation. The air changes aroma, a damp sweet smell like curing hay. Wonderful! I can tell the effect of the monsoon rain that has been present from San Diego to El Paso for the past several weeks. I had been monitoring the weather looking for a break; the outlook was not good. San Diego has been HOT, unusually hot, 85 degrees and 95% humidity. I welcomed the cool.
“Sea level” the sign said. The lights of El Centro come in to view. I stop and top off with gas. The engine smoothed out at lower speeds while I am cruising around town. I slowly come up to freeway speed; at first it seemed smooth then steadily began its roughness. It must be the needles hanging up in the carburetors. Th th th thp th thp pht th thp th pht. Yuck!!?? I don’t know what it is. I’ll try to find a lighted place in the next town and take a look. I wish I knew more about these carbs. Think! It’s my job to fix things I’ve never seen before. I’ve been doing it for 20 years, that’s why I’m a Project Manager, a shotgun engineer. Funny how you can fix things for others, but not so easy for yourself.
60 miles to Winter Haven, 10 more to Yuma. The lights of Yuma come and go. I’m on adrenaline now; I can probably go all night. Flashes of lightning on both sides of the road. The light show is spectacular. There is hardly a moment when there is not a strike in that quadrant. Silent thunder. Only light, with a subtle spectrum of colors haloing the bolts. Jumps from ground to sky, sky to ground, and cloud to cloud. The smell of wet earth elicits long buried memories of my childhood, of springtime in Oklahoma, contrasting the dry West Texas that my family had moved from. The Oklahoma catastrophic weather: tornadoes, downpours, electrical storms, and just straight hurricane force blows, made all other climates bland by comparison. The only thing that comes close to expressing it is Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Primavera. Now the rain shower begins, not hard. I turn on the wipers. They throw the water off the edge of the windscreen only to blow back on my face. I turn off the wipers. Quarter-hour later, the stars are out. Tires sing on the wet pavement. The light show is behind me. I drive on.
Rounding Gila Bend
I gas up, make a pit stop, walk around. “What time is it?” I ask the attendant. “Just after midnight.” I climb back into the tight cockpit. Turn the key. Press the starter. Silence! Nothing! Dead! What happened? Everything was fine when I pulled in here. Hell, even the engine was running smooth. I turned the lights off. Huh? Got out and pushed the car away from the pumps. Some Mexicans saw me and came running over to give me a hand. “Neat car! Get in,” they instructed. We push started the engine; it sounded good. The electric fan came on. Oh! The fan was set to come on at 175 degrees; the engine was normally running at 185. So the electric fan is running all the time. The generator probably can’t carry the load of both the fan and the headlights. I opened the bonnet and set the fan thermostats to the highest position. I checked the ampere meter, it was charging. I pressed the clutch to put the car in gear. It died! Hit the starter. Nothing! Wow! The battery is down. The Mexicans came running to the rescue again. “Hey man, my tío, he has a car just like this. We have to push start it all the time.” The engine started. “Muchas Gracias!” I called, and I was off into the night. Going for it. I thought about Steinbeck’s book, and the people that helped the Okies on their odyssey to a new land, their new home, the unknown. How did they deal with fear? The anger? For me, I knew where I was going. I had been there. Yet there was fear.
The rain starts to pour. No lightning, just black spray seeping through the seam where the top meets the windscreen. Not bad, I can live with that, for a while anyway. 90 miles to Tucson. The engine lumps along, steady, seemingly reliable. I would like to rest easy with this, but I cannot really. An hour passes. Casa Grande lights come in to view. I debate whether to go on. The town passes by and I press on by default. I wonder how many decisions are made by that method. The night now turns very black. I don’t know if it’s the rain blackening things out or my lights are dim? I drive on, hoping to make it to somewhere before the lights go out completely.
The morning sun shines through the drab drapes. Coffee! It is the first order of business. The Triumph is still by the motel office under the car cover where I left it last night. I walk across the street to Bob’s Big Boy. With a large coffee in hand, I sit for a while on a bench to let things settle and let the coffee do its work. I ask the motel clerk about a mechanic garage. “No. There is a man named Jim who has a van, roadside service. Costs $50. I think that’s kind of expensive,” she says. I agree.
Under the bonnet I tighten a loose fan belt and check wiring connections. “Need help?” I hear someone say. “Yeah! I could use a jump start.” “Not a problem.” I continue. I hear a generator start up. “Excuse me, let me connect these cables to the battery.” I back away, look around. There’s a van. “Hi! I’m Jim,” the friendly face says and sticks out his hand to shake. “Nice car.” Jim putters on the car, checking the points, the carbs, tightening this and tweaking that. He is the sort of guy that is hard not to like—and hard to get away from. He had a garage. Locals all wanted his service on credit. He could never collect. So he closed the doors, painted a sign on a van and helps people passing through, 50 bucks a pop.
11:00am, I am rolling down the road. The battery is charging well, though the engine is still running rough. I feel good, better after having lunch in Tucson. 30 years ago I had traveled this route. It was desert. Now it is green, beautiful farms. It is hot, but with the apparent wind of a roadster it’s not uncomfortable. I enjoy the scenery, play tag with other travelers, I notice that some cars and trucks keep passing me and honk, give me a thumbs up or call out, “neat car!” Frankly, I am not prepared to handle all this attention. I see a lot of cars and pickups with trailers packed to the hilt and California licenses plates, often in caravans, sometimes stopped along the road making repairs.
Four years ago, with my pickup truck loaded, I too, was part of the exit from California with tears in my eyes. Gave up my dream family, my dream friends, and my dream home, lucky at my age to find a job. The submarine shipyard at Mare Island, in Vallejo, California had closed, and the nation seemed to rejoice. And now, on my way home, driving the symbol of my triumph over total ruin, my heart is with these people. I know they are feeling scared and sad.
Into New Mexico
I hardly notice, the mileposts read 00, 01, 02. Lordsburg, Las Cruces, then stop for the night in El Paso. I look forward to my visit with my cousin Randall and his wife, Maria. Maria had grown up in Chihuahua, Mexico, the daughter of a Land Baron. Emit Randall Johnson came from Colorado and was the son of a peasant sharecropper, but he didn’t know that. He didn’t know he was out of his class. He thought he was just like every body else, and in Colorado he was. He fathered a dozen children, and educated each one, doctors, engineers, professors and such. He is a retired schoolteacher now. Lovely people.
“Wake me when you get up, Randall. I want to get an early start.”
“PABLO! It’s 4:30, is flied lice and coffee okay?” “Fried rice and coffee sounds great.”
5:00am I was rolling through southeast El Paso, reminiscing of walks with Randall as he pointed out 300-year-old buildings. And all the people, his students, 40 years and younger, running up to him. “Oh, señor Johnson, how good to see you!” followed by embraces and kisses from men and women alike. He seemed bewildered by it all. Each student of his felt personally loved and cared for, and now he is loved and cared for. I drove on.
450 miles of vastness, the Border, Big Bend country, The Great Vast. Nothing. The last of the Great Wilderness. Only one village with more than 12,000 people. I was sure I would make it home now. As I climbed over the pass east of El Paso the weather was cool. I considered putting on a jacket that I had brought just in case.
Inadvertently I put my hand on the canvas car top. Hmmmm. The th th th thp th thp pth th th of the engine seem to match the th th th thp th thp pth th th of the wind vibrating the canvas. You kidding me? Is that all it was?!!
The conclusion to The Odyssey Home will be shared in the Summer issue of Moss Motoring. Stay tuned!