Man vs Machine IV pulled out of the driveway yesterday morning around 8:30am. As you may recall, last year's trip was something of a manifest destiny, a trip I always knew I would take. I traveled some of the same roads I traveled as a kid and visited some of the places I visited on my post-bar trip almost twenty years ago. It was conceived in my mind long before I had kids and long before I imagined doing it in a vintage car. I also imagined a longer trip that would capture almost the entire Western United States. When our trip to Paris and Hawaii were over last summer, I realized that the voyage I had imagined was too big, too long and way, way too much for me to handle alone with two kids. So I chopped it in half. We saw the crown jewels of national parks in Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota and skipped the Pacific Northwest. With my sabbatical year nearly complete, I decided to close it the way I opened it, with an epic road trip. I dug out my original itinerary from last year and made some edits and what emerged was Man vs. Machine IV. A trip up the West Coast to Oregon, Crater Lake, Mt Hood, east to Glacier and Montana and then south through Yellowstone and the Tetons, doubling back on the northbound portion of last year's trip. I rebuilt the car over the winter, so as I pulled out of the driveway, I confess that I felt a knot of anxiety about the reliability of the machine that had served us so well last summer. Any time you rip anything apart and put it back together, mistakes will be made. They just will.
As I loaded our gear into the back of the old Pontiac I looked more than once at the Honda CR-V sitting in the driveway. Modern cars are so much better than the antiques that were made when our parents were young. They have fuel injection and power outlets and navigation and yes, air conditioning. They are built to run 200,000 miles with little more than regular oil changes. But they don't have soul. They don't have chrome. And they don't have a piece of you inside them. They don't have traces of your blood on the inside of the cylinder walls. So I kept packing the trunk of the Pontiac.
As we barreled up the I-5, fate smiled. The temperature in the Central Valley was about 95. Hot, but not unbearable. We ran almost 80 mph the whole way and the rebuilt engine performed flawlessly. But somewhere around San Francisco, Allen Ginsberg's ghost swept alongside us and I began to hear a howl, softly at first and then louder. It wasn't my kids, no, this time it was coming from somewhere up front. After we crossed the Golden Gate, traffic slowed and we drove the rest of the way to Sonoma at little more than 25mph. The noise abated and it didn't overheat, which was a problem that plagued us last summer. We stopped for dinner and got a motel.
This morning though as we resumed our journey over to Highway 1 and up to Mendocino, the howl began to roar. As I do when I begin to troubleshoot, I imagined the car as being made of glass, so I can visualize nearly every moving component. As I drove, I dropped the shifter to neutral and noted any changes, I swerved to the right and left, I braked and accelerated. The noise vanished when I turned right, but otherwise it was constant.
We stopped in Mendocino for lunch and when I got out of the car, I walked around to the right front wheel and on a hunch, pushed the fender back and forth. The right front wheel flopped about an inch in both directions. The wheel bearing had failed. After lunch, I found a quiet spot and tightened the spindle nut. The noise disappeared on the afternoon leg of the drive but reappeared as we approached Eureka, California. The damage had already been done.
As luck would have it, I was only a few miles from an O'Reilly Auto Parts store and when I walked in at 5:15pm they announced that their cutoff for having the parts delivered from an outlying warehouse was 5:30, so they would have them by 9am. We limped the rest of the way to our campsite and set up for the night. It's not the best start to our reprise of last year's epic road trip but mistakes are inevitable and all we can do is fix them and drive on. So tomorrow, I'll perform the requisite surgery in the parking lot of an O'Reilly Auto Parts Store in Eureka. And then, on to Oregon.