Further On Up the Road by Brian Beck

Things just creep up on you sometimes. Like when you try on that old pair of jeans in your closet and realize that you’ve had a few too many Frappuccinos. Or when you try to fit yourself and your two kids in a two-person tent and you realize they aren’t 30 pounds anymore. It happens so gradually that you don’t notice until it’s too late. That’s what happened when I rolled our sleeping bags into our dusty LL Bean 2 person tent that the three of us have used on every Man vs. Machine so far. As I looked at the kids and looked at the tent, it suddenly came home to me that these kids are growing up really fast.

After I poured the last of my scotch and a gallon of water on our campfire, I unzipped the tent in the dark and felt for some empty space in which to slide into the double-wide sleeping bag (the aptly named “Big Agnes”). Our tent was pitched on a slight grade, so Parker had worked his way down the hill and I nearly sat on his head as I tried to wrestle my pants off while balancing precariously on my backside. I managed it, then hung my glasses from the loop at the top of the tent. I grabbed Parker with one hand and Big Agnes with the other and pulled them both back up to the top of the tent where they started. Then I wriggled myself into the narrow gap between the two kids and closed my eyes. It was going to be uncomfortable, but on the positive side, I was way too close to Parker for him to execute his patented 3am crotch kick.

We spent Wednesday exploring the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and having a picnic lunch. Hayes Valley was full of bison, so we got some excellent close up views. On Thursday we went west to Old Faithful, arriving just minutes before the geyser blew. We had lunch at the Old Faithful Inn and then caught the geyser for a second time before heading up to Firehole Lake Drive, one of the hidden gems in Yellowstone. On Friday we explored the Madison to Norris paint pots and cut across the park for a second drive through Hayes Valley, where we spent a considerable amount of time watching a bald eagle pick apart a carcass. The bison had moved to the southern end of the valley this time, snarling traffic, but providing some exceptionally close up views of the animals.

* * *

My iPhone alarm rang at 6:40 on Saturday morning, just after the sun lit up the top of our tent. It was about 40 degrees, but the wind carried the smell of dry pine through the dappled sunlight. It was the kind of late summer day that would warm up quickly once the sun climbed. We broke the tent down, said goodbye to the Oehmkes and were underway by 7:15. The plan had been to stop somewhere in Utah on Saturday night and then complete the drive on Sunday. Unfortunately for us, the desert was in the midst of a tremendous heat wave, and the forecast called for Las Vegas to reach 110 degrees. Finishing the drive on Sunday morning and risking getting bogged down in the Vegas-to-LA Sunday traffic would surely spell trouble. Once again, the “getting in and out” of LA was shaping up to be the biggest challenge.

After breakfast in Jackson, we settled into the grind, skipping lunch but stopping for dinner at R&R, our favorite Salt Lake BBQ joint. Refueled, we soldiered on as the sun set. The wheel bearing I tightened earlier in the week held its own, and by 10pm we were descending into the Virgin River Gorge, the heat wrapping itself around the car like a python. We’d been on the road almost 12 hours, but as the mercury climbed in the dark, I decided sleep was only a siren call. The better bargain, despite my exhaustion, was to make the final run for home before the brutal sun could magnify the pain. To be honest, I just wanted to get it over with. I wanted to get the old Pontiac back in the garage. Following the war of attrition that defined our trip last summer, and then the mechanical issues on the first half of this one (major ones before we even left LA), I was tired. Man vs. Machine is overdue for a reboot, a reimagining. I decided I’d get the car home, enjoy some downtime, and then see where inspiration leads me.

The kids turned off their iPads before we hit Las Vegas, and I toughed it out the rest of the way in solitary, jacked up on Coca-Cola and the smell of gasoline. Somehow after midnight the miles always have a way of stretching out like some kind of Twilight Zone time warp. No matter how fast you go, it seems you don’t get any closer. The road becomes a watched pot. I was 14 hours and 800 miles in, with another 5 hours and 300 miles to go, which meant I wasn’t going to make it home until almost sunrise. I switched the music to Johnny Cash and hit play. Moments later the Man in Black was crooning:

Now I’ve been out in the desert

Just doing my time

Searching through the dust

Looking for a sign

If there’s a light up ahead

Well brother I don’t know

But I’ll meet you further on

Up the road…

Old Faithful blows her top. Nikon D800, Nikkor 24-120mm lens @ 48mm, f 7.1, 1/800 sec, ISO 100, -1/3 stop exposure adjustment

Old Faithful blows her top. Nikon D800, Nikkor 24-120mm lens @ 48mm, f 7.1, 1/800 sec, ISO 100, -1/3 stop exposure adjustment

A bison considers whether I’m worth it… Nikon D800, Nikkor 300mm lens, f 7.1, 1/2500 sec, ISO 800, -2/3 stop exposure adjustment.

A bison considers whether I’m worth it… Nikon D800, Nikkor 300mm lens, f 7.1, 1/2500 sec, ISO 800, -2/3 stop exposure adjustment.

A bald eagle circles over Hayes Valley in Yellowstone National Park. Nikon D800, Nikkor 300mm lens, f 8.0, 1/5000 sec, ISO 1000, -2/3 stop exposure adjustment.

A bald eagle circles over Hayes Valley in Yellowstone National Park. Nikon D800, Nikkor 300mm lens, f 8.0, 1/5000 sec, ISO 1000, -2/3 stop exposure adjustment.

Grant Village by Brian Beck

Before leaving Idaho Falls on Sunday morning, we made a detour to the local Big O Tires to have the front tire balance checked. I described our trip and the problem we were having and the manager had the car in the bay in under 5 minutes. Following a road force balance of both tires, the manager reported that the balance was dead-on, which left us all perplexed. They re-mounted both tires for me and said the work was on the house, wishing me luck and hoping that I could figure out the issue.

By the time we arrived in Jackson, I had an idea. I set the kids up with the TV in our hotel room and headed off to find a parking spot in the shade to jack the car up. Once I had the right front tire off the ground, I rocked the wheel and discovered that the right front wheel bearing was loose—the very same bearing that I replaced in the parking lot of an O’Reilly Auto Parts in Eureka, California on Man vs. Machine IV. It didn’t make sense. Having a wheel bearing fail again in less than 10,000 miles meant something was very wrong. The bad tires from last summer had clearly destroyed one set of wheel bearings, but had they also destroyed this one? The worst tire from last summer was in the left rear, but maybe the right front was bad too? Possibly, but I didn’t think it was bad enough to have killed this wheel bearing. Regardless of the cause, I was reasonably certain that I had found the problem, and this time, I had a spare set of front bearings in my toolbox in the trunk. If need be, I could change it anywhere, but at the moment it wasn’t strictly necessary. It wasn’t making noise, so I popped the cotter pin out, cranked the axle nut until it was tight again, and slipped the cotter pin back into the hole. In five minutes, I was cruising down highway 89 south of Jackson satisfied that the shimmy was much improved. Not gone entirely, but much, much better. Enough that the latent anxiety that had been with me since leaving LA was put to rest.

The Oehmkes arrived about an hour later and we spent Sunday night and Monday doing all the usuals in Jackson—the stage ride, the shootout, Moo’s ice cream, Persephone and Pinky G’s Pizza. We were now two dads and five kids, and the energy level was considerably higher. You could hear us coming a mile away everywhere we went.

On Tuesday morning we set the GPS for Grant Village, just inside Yellowstone’s south entrance. I have a preference for Canyon because it’s more centrally located, but I’d waited until early April to make the reservations and Canyon was completely sold out. The drive is exceptionally pretty and we decided to take the inside route through Grand Teton, which was new for us. We got in about 4pm, pitched our tent and settled in for the next few days of campfires, s’mores, hot dogs and sightseeing. Yellowstone is such a beautiful place.

The Becks pose for a photo at the south entrance of YNP. iPhone XR.

The Becks pose for a photo at the south entrance of YNP. iPhone XR.

Parker, Tavi, Samantha, Maggie and Henry at Artist’s Point in Yellowstone. These kids are getting so big! iPhone XR

Parker, Tavi, Samantha, Maggie and Henry at Artist’s Point in Yellowstone. These kids are getting so big! iPhone XR

Why? by Brian Beck

After the timeout for overheating and fuel percolation (and some In-n-Out), we settled into the hot drive through the Mojave. I’ve written about this particular hellscape before, so I won’t rehash it again, but when we stopped for gas in Baker, California at about 10pm, it was still close to 100 degrees. The fact that people have crossed this desert on foot (and still do) is just incredible to me.

We stopped for the night in Saint George, and after a few hours sleep and some minor adjustments to my new brakes (a post-Man vs. Machine V repair), we were back in the saddle mid-morning, kids glued to their iPads while the scrub desert towns flew by. As is my custom when I’m spending hours on the road in an antique car, my thoughts drifted to my machine and the recent repairs. I had noticed a vibration the night before that I attributed to the heat, but with more time to explore the various speeds, road conditions and transmission settings that it could be associated with, by Cedar City I’d determined that I had another tire issue—the very same demon that I thought I had exorcised through the repairs this past spring. I didn’t waste any time though, and I promptly started through the flow chart, pulling over after lunch to inspect and swap the left front and rear tires, where I thought the shake was emanating.

It helped, but didn’t cure it, and I pressed north anyway, keeping the speed down to avoid the worst of the shakes. We stopped for dinner in Salt Lake and then headed back onto the I-15 for the last leg of the day into Idaho with the sun setting in a gorgeous rose color to our left. We pulled into a gas station in Pocatello, Idaho at about 9:30pm and filled the monster gas tank. While I was checking the oil, a farm kid of about 18 approached me, clearly fascinated by the old Pontiac.

“What is it?” he asked in a flat, slightly aggressive voice. I’ve noticed that when you get deep into rural America, you sometimes encounter a coarseness that I attribute not to impoliteness, but rather to practicality. They get right to the point in a way that can feel abrupt.

The obvious answer was that it’s a car, but I chose to interpret the question more generously. “It’s a 1960 Pontiac Star Chief,” I said proudly, while some other customers looked it over from a distance. He pulled his weathered Deere cap up, stroked his hair, and then settled it back down on his mop of rusty red hair.

“Huh,” he said, twisting his mouth into a sort of frown while sticking his head deep into the engine bay.

“It’s all original,” I said. He pulled his head out and looked at my face in exactly the same way he had just looked at the engine, his gaze turning quizzical.

“Whatcha doing here?” he asked.

“Well, we’re driving it up to Yellowstone,” I said, somewhat bemused by the growing strangeness of the this particular line of questioning. Usually these conversations tack in a different direction, centered around engine size, performance or tales of so-and-so who had an old car similar to this one. This kid had something different in his head though, and I was growing curious as to what it might be. He was clearly unsatisfied with my answer, and so he went straight for the heart of the matter.

Why?” he said almost before I’d finished speaking, delivering the question with a mixture of incredulity and perplexity. I’ve been asked a lot of questions over the course of my travels, but never in the space of eight words has someone forced me to articulate the entire Man vs. Machine ethos. “Why” is almost always a great question, but I got the sense that this kid wasn’t interested in complex answers. I doubted that he wanted to hear about the challenge of matching wits against an antique hunk of metal, the opportunities to meet new people, the old-timers who are transported to an earlier time and share stories of days long gone, the kindness of strangers who have helped us along the way, the memories I’m creating for myself and my kids… I recalled once having dinner in a restaurant in Paris with a carpenter who was missing half his fingers as a result of spending most of his life creating intricate inlay patterns by hand for fine furniture. I had recently seen an article in This Old House about computer-controlled lasers that could create such patterns quickly and cheaply, and after sharing the thrust of the article with him, I asked why he did it by hand. I’ll never forget the instant sense of regret and embarrassment I felt as a storm of disgust rolled over his face. I had inadvertently revealed that I didn’t “get it.” It’s not about that. There’s beauty in the art that comes from the challenge of doing it yourself, with your own hands, mind and soul. It’s about the journey.

I contemplated my answer for a second as he searched my face and then decided to take the easy way out. “Well,” I said slowly, “it’s a car, and they’re meant to be driven.”

He absorbed the answer like dry ground absorbs water. It was clearly unsatisfactory at some level, but the elegant simplicity of it seeped in just enough that he was willing to accept it. After a few seconds, his face softened and he pulled his dirty hat off his head, transferring it to his left hand. I thought for a moment that he was about to hug me, but instead he thrust his right hand toward my chest and I instinctively grabbed it. He shook my hand hard and looked at me as though I was about to depart on a perilous military mission from which I might never return.

“Good luck to you sir,” he said earnestly, the delivery in a tone that suggested he’d be reading about us in the newspaper the next day with a by-line that insinuated that them city folk just don’t have no common sense. And just like that, he turned and walked back to his late-model oversized pickup truck while I closed the hood and slid into the drivers seat. The old girl fired as soon as I turned the key, and we swung slowly out of the parking lot, up the ramp and into the darkness.

* * *

An old timer followed me into a parking lot the following day and pulled up next to me, his eyes distant as he looked at the shining chrome. He said he hadn’t seen one of these particular cars in 50 years. He didn’t ask many questions, but he kept shaking his head as he took it all in, clearly transported in his mind to a time long relinquished to a dusty corner of his memory. All he said was a couple “wows” and “thank you” before he drove away. Perhaps the better question is, “why not?”

Escape from LA by Brian Beck

The hardest part of each Man vs. Machine is finding a way to get a vintage car out of LA traffic in the height of summer without overheating. I usually spend some time with Google Maps to plot our route, analyze the expected traffic and then make an educated guess. So far, it’s worked. Morning is usually good heading east, but by late afternoon, it’s gridlock. If you miss the window, the best bet is to leave after dark to avoid the worst of the heat. Parker had a play that ended Friday at 3pm, so we either had to roll the dice and leave immediately after that, or wait until about 7pm, which would have meant arriving in Saint George at around 3am. I knew better, but I was tired and eager to get underway. You guessed it, I chose the mid-afternoon departure.

From the moment we left, the traffic was worse than usual—so bad, in fact, that I contemplated turning around immediately and waiting for dark. But I had a new radiator and I was feeling the call of the open desert beyond all those taillights, so I pushed on. From Pasadena to San Bernardino we crawled along, watching the temperature gauge rise steadily and then slowly fall when we got a little space to speed up. We were hanging in there until we turned onto the I-15 to start up the Cajon Pass. There was a crash about half way up and the traffic had slowed to a crawl, compounded by the uphill grade. I saw the backup coming, and I ducked into the breakdown lane to look for an escape. Just then, the old car coughed, and I knew time was running out. I slipped down the first ramp, hung a right and pulled into a turn out as the temperature gauge hit 250. The engine vapor locked and stalled as I coasted to a stop.

We sat there in the 100 degree heat for at least an hour with the hood up, until finally the first cool kiss of an evening breeze could be felt rising through the canyon. A grizzled biker named Noah brought us some water to pour on the fuel lines and we passed some time swapping old car stories. I finally coaxed the engine back to life around 5:30 and steered her back to the intersection, pausing an extra minute to make my choice. It was only 50 miles back to Pasadena where I could still call it off and throw our gear in the Honda. It would be easier for sure, but good stories require conflict and the conflict is what leads to adventure. There’s nothing romantic about a Honda. You don’t have gas station conversations with strangers about a Honda. Nobody tells you about their memories of riding in the back of their family Honda. I shook my head and looked at the kids watching me expectantly. “Screw it,” I said. “Let’s get back on the road.” I cranked the wheel around and put the hammer down, the engine roaring back to life. “It ain’t even close,” I thought. Bruce Springsteen said it best:

“Now some folks say it's too big
And uses too much gas
Some folks say it's too old
And that it goes too fast
But my love is bigger than a Honda
Yeah, it's bigger than a Subaru
Hey man there's only one thing
And one car that will do…”

We flamed out just off the I-15. iPhone XR.

We flamed out just off the I-15. iPhone XR.

Man vs. Machine VI "The Resurrection" by Brian Beck

To my surprise, Man vs. Machine VI rolled out of Pasadena on Friday afternoon. After completing all the repairs that spelled an early end to Man vs. Machine V (brakes, rear wheel bearings, new tires, rebuilt power steering pump), I started shaking the car down in May, assuming I’d have plenty of time to beta-test all the new parts before hitting the road again. It was time well spent, because I noticed a drip of coolant on the floor after one of my evening runs and traced it back to a leaking radiator. I took it to a respected shop in Paso Robles in mid-June and begged him to have it back to me before our scheduled departure date. He met the date, and I got the radiator back in the car almost a week early. But then, disaster struck.

On a test drive after installing the rebuilt radiator, I noticed a slight slip in the transmission. Or did I? Maybe it was my imagination, but I checked the fluid level and it was too high. After another run, it was too low. It proceeded like this for much of an evening until finally the car would barely move. Puzzled and exasperated, I slowly came to the conclusion that something catastrophic in the transmission had failed.

“Better in my driveway than central Utah,” I thought, so with only several days to spare, I pulled the transmission and began a rebuild, expecting to find broken parts or obvious signs of failure. After many hours and with parts scattered across my garage, having identified no obvious defect, I reassembled the parts and put the transmission back in the car “just in case”, but fully expecting that our 2019 road trip would be made in our Honda. Once it was back on the road, however, it ran better that ever. Transmissions can be finicky like that, especially ones eligible for AARP. There was plenty of debris in the filter and one little piece lodged in the wrong place can wreak havoc. Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth and notwithstanding some trepidation at not having identified a clear problem, we departed fully loaded on Friday for Yellowstone.

Man vs Machine VI is just out and back this time—two days driving to Jackson Hole, two days there, then on to Yellowstone for four days with our friends the Oehmkes, then straight back to Pasadena. Last time we packed four national parks into the same space of time, so this time I’m trying to keep it simple. What could possibly go wrong?

Digging into the guts of a transmission is not for the faint at heart. It’s the automotive equivalent of brain surgery. iPhone XR.

Digging into the guts of a transmission is not for the faint at heart. It’s the automotive equivalent of brain surgery. iPhone XR.

The Gambler by Brian Beck

I didn't get much sleep on Saturday night.  We played the whole day in Cherry Hill and hit the sack early, but at about 10:30pm our tent suddenly lit up like Times Square.  A multigenerational extended family had pulled into the site behind us and began assembling their camp, flashlights sweeping across our tent like searchlights.  They were loud, spoke Spanish, and seemed to be all around us.  We had no idea what was happening and before long Quimby implored me to go outside and see what the hell was going on.  By the time I got my pants on, grabbed a flashlight and emerged from my tent, the site behind us already had about twelve tents, a general store, two restaurants and a saloon.  To make matters worse, they had even erected a tent between our tent and the one the kids were sleeping in.  I stood there, watching the action in disbelief at this gross breach of camping etiquette, but I lacked the energy and the language skills to intervene, so I simply shook my head and grabbed my computer and went off in search of an outlet to plug in my macbook to write the Cherry Hill blog entry.  At least if I got hungry for a burrito, I knew where to go.

The morning air was cool as we broke down our campsite the next morning, but the sky had an early September clarity that promised a mean heat by afternoon.  After a quick stop for breakfast at Pig & a Jelly Jar in central Salt Lake, we hit the I-15 for the penultimate leg of Man vs Machine V.  We started with the windows up, but as we pressed south, the windows inched lower as the sun rose and the mercury climbed toward 100.  That's been the achilles heel of every Man vs Machine--at some point you have to cross the desert in a ride without air conditioning and it's brutal.  I won't lie.  Vinyl seat sweat is a form of torture that is specifically called out in the Geneva Convention.

As if to register her discomfort, the old Pontiac began to growl in the early afternoon, soft at first, but it grew louder as the day dragged on.  When we pulled off for fuel in St. George and slowed down for the first time in two hours, I began to worry.  Not only was it turning into a howl, it was also making a scraping sound that could only be heard at slow speeds.  We planned to stay overnight on Sunday in North Las Vegas at our friend Shauna's house, which was only about 100 miles away, so I figured we'd just limp it the rest of the way and I'd have a look when we got there.  I suspected that my brake adjuster had come loose in the brake drum, which was unfortunate but not critical.

When we got to Vegas, we unpacked and took a quick shower.  Shauna had an amazing tri-tip on the grill already and before we knew it, we were several bottles of wine into the evening and my plan to pull the now-constantly-suspect left rear wheel would have to wait until morning.  

We got up around nine on Monday morning and I pulled the Pontiac out of her driveway and into the cul-de-sac to jack it up and remove the wheel to see what was going on.  It was then that I noticed the puddle under the wheel and upon closer inspection, it was gear oil mixed with millions of tiny metallic flakes.  I knew immediately I had a more serious problem.

With the wheel removed, the entire brake drum was full of gear oil and when I tugged on the wheel hub, the entire axle was loose.  The tire that had caused me so much trouble had done more damage than I had anticipated.  For hundreds of miles, it had hammered on the axle bearings like a tomahawk, and the death blow had been delivered well before I had replaced the tire in Utah.  The old girl was bleeding out, and she needed more help than I could render in a cul-de-sac in Las Vegas.  She needed surgery.  If I drove her home, I'd likely do real damage, and even though I could probably pull the axle and replace the bearing right there, I really needed to flush the differential case to remove all the metal.  I also had a host of secondary problems--I had a flight to catch at 8:10pm, the I-15 had already backed up with Labor Day traffic and the temperature was again inching over the century mark.

I slipped the brake drum back on the hub and bolted the wheel and took a moment to consider the import of my diagnosis.  Man vs Machine V was over.  It wasn't about winning--the old Pontiac had already won.  It was now about something else.  The victor was also the vanquished, and the least I could do to repay her for 16,000 heroic miles on Man vs Machine III through V was to carry her off the field of battle parade-style on the the back of a flatbed.  To push her any further just wouldn't be right.  So I did what the day before would have been unthinkable: I pulled out my AAA card, swallowed my pride, and for the first time ever... I called a tow truck.

*     *     *

For years now I've paid for the premium towing package through AAA, and in my mind I had decided that the towing range was 300 miles.  In fact, on every Man vs Machine, I've done an air-high-five every time I've crossed the 300 mile radius.  Turns out, I was wrong.  It's only 200 miles and since I was 278 miles from Pasadena, with the holiday weekend, the extra miles came in at $10 per mile.  It stung, but it didn't change my mind.  Conscious of the clock, Quimby and Shauna sped down to McCarran Airport and got us a rental car while I waited for the tow truck.  He finally appeared at 1pm and after half an hour of old-car shop talk, he winched her on the trailer.  Because I was paying by the mile, he was obligated to take the shortest route.  We had no such restriction, so we pulled up Waze and tried to thread the needle to get me to the airport in time for my flight to San Francisco.  It was one of the more insane drives I've ever taken, speeding down desolate desert roads that I barely knew existed, past a rolled-over SUV as a life-flight helicopter touched down, and into LA through Palmdale (of all places).  We were sierra hotel all the way and made the airport at 7:30pm, just a few minutes before my flight boarded.  The flatbed finally pulled in at 10:30pm and the driver was weary.  He'd spent nine straight hours in jammed-up traffic on the I-15.  If proof was needed, this was it--there was simply no way the wounded old Indian would have made it under her own power.  Sometimes you have to know when to hold 'em, and know when to fold 'em.

 

The Pontiac is safely back in the garage.  She'll get some TLC before she rides again.  iPhone 6.

The Pontiac is safely back in the garage.  She'll get some TLC before she rides again.  iPhone 6.

Because yes, this is a real thing and we ate them.  Maybe we'll have another on Man vs Machine VI. ;)

Because yes, this is a real thing and we ate them.  Maybe we'll have another on Man vs Machine VI. ;)