First Steps


Turns out I was a little overly optimistic about jumping into a long road trip without putting a bit of work into the engine first. I had a mechanic come with me to check it out when I got the van, and after looking at the service records he announced excitedly, ‘The whole engine was replaced in 1999! It’s over 20 years newer than the body!’ Whenever anyone questioned Turtle’s safety or reliability, I had just fallen back on that. ‘The engine is new! It’ll be fine’.

But there are a lot more moving parts in a car than just the engine.

Overhauled or not, fuel injected engines at altitude have some of the same side effects that leave you sucking wind after jogging up a hill at an easy pace when you’ve just gone up to an altitude your body isn’t used to yet. Cruising along I-70, Vail Pass reaches heights of more than 10,000 feet, and has some pretty steep climbs for a multi-lane interstate road. Turtle didn’t like these hills. In the thin mountain air, engine roaring, downshifting all the time, I managed to average just under 30 mph. Things got really hairy when a huge convoy of aggressive semis came trundling up an especially steep stretch near the highest point on the interstate’s snaky route through the Rockies. My goal at this point was just to keep from rolling backwards down the mountain. In second gear, barely topping 20mph, I hugged the shoulder as close as I could and cowered in the shadows and angry blaring horns of the truckers as they swerved narrowly around me. Eventually I was rewarded with fifteen to twenty mile stretches coasting down from the ritzy Colorado ski areas in neutral, giving the engine a much-needed break. I sat shivering in the unheated van, the bitter icy-cold air creeping in through the not-so-airtight front face and doors of the van, steering through the snow-covered mountains. I had never been to Moab, but from everything I’d ever seen, it pretty much looked like a desert. And deserts are warm. I couldn’t wait.

Finally, after many hours of shivering and hundreds of miles through the Rockies, the road started to level out and the snow began retreating in the distance. Dark rocky faces were replaced with sandy red stone and scrubby underbrush. I hopped out at a gas station, savoring the warm dry breeze and blazing sun overhead, spirits sky high.


For about sixty seconds. After popping the gas cap back on, I began the familiar wrestling match with the clutch to engage reverse, which involves jamming the giant red-capped joystick into the floor and pulling it back somewhere near where second gear is supposed to be. It inevitably took a few tries and some finagling, but I always managed to get it. Only this time, after ten minutes of cursing and shifting and useless engine-revving, I was still sitting squarely in front of the gas pump. There was a wall in front of me so going forward wasn’t an option, and I could see the attendant through the window looking out at me and the line of cars behind me with a concerned look. It became pretty clear that I was not going to go anywhere backwards at the moment.

At my wits’ end, I hopped out and started shooing the line of cars back away from the pump. Once I had what I thought was enough clearance, I put the van out of gear and turned off the parking break. I had heard about people jumpstarting cars by rolling them forward in neutral, so why not backwards? I planted my hands firmly on either side of the front spare tire and pushed with all of the strength my scrawny, hundred-ten pound, five-and-a-half-foot body could muster. And Turtle began to move! Once I got some momentum, it was easy to push it out to a spot where I could pull away onto the highway without having to back up any farther. I slowed my pushing, but to my horror, Turtle kept gaining speed. I frantically sprinted around to the back and tried mightily to stop the trundling progress towards the line of parked cars a few dozen yards behind me. Feet sliding uselessly against the concrete, I had no hope. The van outweighed me by quite a bit. It wasn’t moving very fast, but I knew nothing good could come from the big dumb green rectangle coasting into the backsides of the shiny bumpers down the parking lot.

Muscles straining, I watched the gap get smaller and smaller and thought ‘Hmm, I bet this is what Han Solo felt like about to get squashed in that trash compactor’. Your mind always jumps to fun things like that in emergency situations. At this point I wouldn’t have enough time to run around to the driver’s seat and slam my foot on the break. Then, out of the blue, a big bulky dude in a blue shirt walked out of the gas station sipping on what looked like a ten-gallon slurpee. He saw my plight and, bless him, dropped the frozen drink in a dramatic cascading splash of red on the concrete to run over and halt Turtle’s progress just a few feet away from the cars. I quickly ripped the parking brake as far out as it would go and thanked my savior profusely, offering to buy him a replacement Icee for this troubles. ‘Don’t mention it, man’, he said. ‘It was only 79 cents!’

Shakily, I got back in the car and started the van. Clutch out, first gear, no problem. Second, third, okay, maybe it’s just reverse. I pulled back on the stick for fourth gear as I got up to speed, and it stuck, hard. Oh no. This isn’t happening. I kept my foot on the clutch, jammed back with all my might and on the third try, caught fourth gear. Okay. So that wasn’t just a fluke. I was going to have to get the shifting rods looked at.

My first stop was in Moab, the little desert tourist town situated within spitting distance of such awesome areas as Arches National Park and Canyonlands. By the time I was nearing the town it was pretty late, with just the desert and darkness all around me. With no headlights or towns on the horizon and stretch of straight road as far as the eye could see, I cut my headlights down to just the glowing little orange fog lamps on either side of the front spare tire, just enough light to follow the yellow lines on the side of the road, and plenty dark to see the awesome panorama of stars through the big bay window. I felt like I was piloting a spaceship through some dark, unknown galaxy instead of along a dusty desert road. It was awesome.

Hope that rock doesn’t fall.

After camping out in the BLM land outside of Moab (making sure to pick a road wide enough to do a U-turn when I wanted to leave), I spent the next afternoon wandering (and running) around the majestic red cliffs and arches before setting out for the Grand Canyon for what promised to be an epic hike. My friend Kathryn was working as an intern for the park’s education department, and we were setting out the next day to hike down to the bottom of the canyon to camp and explore down by the Colorado river. I arrived late that night, strategically positioned the van facing forward in front of the parking spot I wanted, and pushed it backwards until the parking block arrested its progress. Perfect.

Kathryn looking contemplative

We spent the next few days enjoying the majesty of the Grand Canyon first-hand, Kathryn spouting facts about the geologic history of the different layers as we descended into the canyon, effectively traveling backwards through time. I love spending time with her for that. Makes me feel justified in my total nerdiness when it comes to that stuff. Nice to know I’m not the only one with a science degree just because enjoyed it. After a few days of hiking and camping, we emerged sunburnt, thirsty and happy. It’s hard not to be happy unplugging for a few days and spending time in nature with friends. Come Tuesday morning though, I was back at it, headed down to Phoenix for work.


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