Josh and Kim pretty much have one week left in Michigan. On the 18th, they load the last of their belongings into the big, turbodiesel Ford Econoline they bought because it was actually cheaper than a one-way truck rental. Their destination? Phoenix, Arizona. I’m excited to have them as new neighbors, even if they will be living an hour away from me on the far side of the valley and I might seldom see them.
Twice, now, they’ve stopped by on their way across the country in a rough-around-the-edges, 25+ year old Mitsubishi they bought thousands of miles away on the west coast. These trips are the stuff of gearhead dreams. The open road is adventure, escape, freedom. A few months ago – already well into move planning – these two flew out to the west coast – again – to pick up a 25+ year old Mitsubishi and drive it home. This is how the story begins.
Northern Washington State; some of the best looking landscape I can relate to. There’s a lot of other fantastic landscape out there, but Washington reminds me of Michigan and feels like home, with a twist. For me, Washington felt like a state that had the same splendor as Michigan, yet the occupants were more aware of the value of nature and decided to make a conscious effort to preserve it. Michigan, for all its beauty, has a side that gave way to greed and industrialization that has destroyed it like a cancer. This could simply be my biased opinion from spending 30 years in Michigan and only 3 days in Washington, but in my short stay, that was the vision I came up with.
Speaking of my ‘short stay,’ three days was actually two more than I had planned to spend in the evergreen state. The plan was to fly into Seattle, pick up a 1975 Mitsubishi Galant station wagon, and then drive down the coast with the love of my life. Just like anything else in life, things did not go as planned. The car had sat for a year undergoing upgrades and the owner, a good friend of mine, had decided to part ways with the car and focus on his Galant Coupe. We struck up a deal: the car would be mostly stock and he could sell off the fancy upgrades, dual carb set up, other odds and ends.
Unfortunately he got stuck working away from home for the month before we were due to arrive so the car was in much less of an operating state than we had originally planned. Luckily, he was there to help and the shop was well equipped with pretty much anything we might need. We were out in Washington countryside and it just so happened a small corner store called “Rome,” stocked full of vegan, organic, vegetarian and local foods, was right next door, attached to the house and shop. An odd situation, since there was only countryside around us, but it was at the fork of two roads and, in our stay, we found that store to be quite busy.
We set to work sorting out this little wagon. The road ahead seemed easy. First things first, it was too loud and I’m too old. It was open-header loud – not something I wanted to deal with for two thousand miles – so I got to work on a quick exhaust for the car. Flux core welder at my side, I pieced together a full exhaust for it, including a cheap 2.5” muffler from the local O’reilly’s. That seemed too easy, so it was time for a test drive.
One mile down the road and the car was running very hot. This started two days of wrenching and troubleshooting. The wagon had an engine upgrade from an 80’s Mighty Max pickup truck. The new engine was a touch more than two and a half liters of single overhead cam, stump-pulling torque; perfect for a tiny wagon that originally came with a 1.6L. A great power plant to haul a couple down the coast, through the mountains, into the desert, and on all kinds of adventures… if we could get it running right.
Mitsubishi was much like the rest of the auto manufacturers in the 80’s; a strange cocktail of traditional mechanical parts and modern electronic widgets. This made for either a sophisticated and comfortable ride or, if any combination of any of those parts failed, a bucking, overheating, sputtering waste of metal under your butt. I had the latter and was determined to get it back to it’s former glory.
The carburetors on the Mitsus from the 80’s were total garbage. Strict protectionism, I mean, “importation laws,” had forced them into a complicated system of hundreds of feet of vacuum lines to reduce carbon output which, if any were unhooked, made the car worse for the ecosystem than if the car had come with an older style, smog-free carb.
This car had been ‘upgraded’ to a Chinese copy of a Weber carb, so fit and finish was nothing like a real Weber, and the way the car was running led us to believe that this little knock-off carburetor was the cause. After some trial and error we made some improvements in idle and drivability. The car started to run cooler. Progress, it seemed, was being made. Unfortunately, that all went to the side when we found the vacuum advance was hooked to an inactive port.
Once the advance was correctly connected, the demons really started to come out to play (which should’ve been a red flag). The car would quickly overheat and have to cool down entirely before it could return to the shop. Eventually we figured out the distributor was at fault the entire time. Timing advance was going all over the place, the springs inside the distributor had worn out, and the advance was no longer properly functioning.
When the vacuum line had been hooked to an inactive port, the advance was not advancing, so we had been tuning the carb around an engine stuck at 5 degrees timing. When the advance was hooked up, it was going crazy. So we unhooked the advance and locked the ignition back to five degrees, put some miles on it, and went into town for a celebratory Mexican dinner with the whole gang. We came back and loaded up our stuff, said good byes to our friends and Noah; the owner of the store next door. Off we went, Portland bound!
Two hours later, two days of wrenching had started to catch up with me and I began to feel like I made a big mistake. With 2,000 miles to go, I was already feeling tired and sore like I had been on the road for two weeks. We checked into a hotel north of Seattle with what had to be the most comfortable bed I have ever been in (or the previous night of sleeping on a couch had adjusted my outlook).
I woke up the next morning and laid in bed staring at the route I had planned. Trying to decide. Should I just forget having fun on this trip? Buckle down, stick to the highway, and go? Or alternatively, find a storage place in Portland and spend the week there? I could fly home and come back with the parts I needed to get the car in order. We had planned to be in Portland by Saturday afternoon. It was now Monday morning.
Everything in my head was telling me I had done something I would normally never do – limp a partially functioning car through an unknown (to me) length of road. I was familiar with the roads and the obstacles south of San Francisco, but this was northern country. I had never been here. The Pacific Northwest was an area I had never visited. I had no idea what kind of mountains, road conditions, or even what kind of weather to expect for the next couple of days.
SUPPOSED TO BE A CHARM
It wasn’t until I was eating breakfast that it dawned on me. I’ve been down this road before, not literally the road I was about to drive, but the road of limping a car across a landscape I was not familiar with. My ignorance in the past had made it much easier.
The first adventure of this kind, I drove a 73 Galant wagon from California to Michigan. The engine had JB Weld plugging the EGR ports. It had JB Weld plugging a leaking sight glass on the carb, the secondary was stuck shut, the brake master cylinder had failed, the car would overheat in 5th gear, there were various electrical gremlins, the transmission mount was completely trashed, and the heater wasn’t hooked up, but we made it.
The second trip, I showed up to buy a Montero SR and the timing tensioner failed right in front of me when I was about to go for a test drive. We wound up buying an immaculate 1987 Montero; a 20 minute test drive and I forked over the cash. The distributor on this truck worked itself back to -10 degrees timing somewhere in New Mexico and I had to nurse it home running underpowered and not knowing why. (I didn’t have a timing light with me and didn’t think about it.)
Oddly enough, my previous inexperience had given me a sudden burst of confidence. It was time to get back on the road towards Portland. I was far better off than years prior. This could work.
DOWN TO BUSINESS
The road to Portland was intended to be a beautiful drive down the 101, past Willapa Bay, over the Columbia River, through Astoria [you goonie – bd], and then we would ride alongside the river right into Portland. The two day delay, however, forced a compromise of less awe inspiring – but still beautiful – drive down Highway 5. Far more inland, but much more of a straight shot; a ‘down to business’ kind of morning.
We took in the wonders of Seattle from the window of the car, bounced our way through its tunnels, out into the open countryside of pine trees and semi-trucks. Portland was our first objective for this trip, to see the city and meet up with a couple of our friends, Aumie and Shauna; a couple that live in Portland and do a lot of travelling and photography. We had planned to meet with them on Saturday, enjoy some food, and see the sights around Portland. Due to our delay they were both back at work and only had time for lunch, most of which we spent trying to sort out the best places we could see in the least amount of time – a very unfortunate situation, but we enjoyed even the short amount of time we spent with them.
Oregon is a host to a number of amazing sights. The travel guides outline at least seven major things to see in Oregon. One of them I wanted to see most was Crater Lake. Unfortunately, the amount of time this scenic detour would take would limit us to driving to it, taking a picture, and getting right back on the road. We chose an alternative. We decided to Vista House to take in the view, instead. This did not feel like a compromise, simply an alternative.
We followed the narrow, winding road beyond Vista House toward Multnomah Falls. When first pulling up to the falls you get this touristy feel, this momentary rush of embarrassment for thinking you’d be in some secluded location. We parked and made our way over to the falls. By then we had completely forgotten about the days leading up to this, the things we might have missed or the changes we had to make to our route. We climbed our way up eleven switchbacks, zigging and zagging over a mile of trail to reach the very top of the falls, 620 feet from the ground.
Suddenly we were secluded in a very natural environment; nothing to hear except the chirping of birds and the rush of water. There’s a lookout point that allows you stand right over the top of the falls and look down to the ground where the water crashes. If you’ve ever launched an AWD car at around 5500 rpm you know the feeling I’m talking about when I say I got one hell of a rush looking out over the falls.
As the sun began to set we made our way back down the falls to the small restaurant situated at the base. The ceilings are glass and you can look up at the falls while you eat. The food was good and the atmosphere was casual. We jumped back in our wagon and made our way back to Highway 5 to keep on keepin’ on.
Driving on Highway 5 south out of Portland at dusk, you get a distinct feeling that there’s a party going on somewhere nearby, just not where you are. The purple and red glow from the sunset over the coast was inviting us to detour out to the Pacific Coast Highway. We hustled along, through Salem, then Albany, down to Eugene.
Our car loaded down with luggage, tools, camping gear, extra parts and bonus parts for my wagon at home – a stock black leather interior – pretty rare and the first one I had ever seen in person. This wagon was lowered about 2” and, on some good bumps, the driveshaft would scuff the emergency brake lever. A subtle reminder to keep a steady pace and not push the limits. We slowed down and stopped for the night in Eugene. Awake by 7AM and on the road by 8, we were headed toward Grant’s Pass.
To us, Grant’s Pass was gateway to the entire trip. This trip was centered around two things – picking up this wagon and – for the first time in our lives – seeing the ancient Redwoods of northern California. I feared steep climbs, sharp corners, and a full body workout ahead of us. Excited to see the sights, I skipped the chance to stop for lunch and headed into the woods.
Surprisingly the drive through Grant’s Pass was one of the most relaxing drives we had taken thus far; slow enough for the wagon to be comfortable in the corners, and just the ride speed that I didn’t have to downshift to go up any hills, nor did I have to worry about the car getting warm. Did I mention it gets hot when driving slow or doing city driving? If so, I’ll edit this out later. Or forget and you’ll be reading it.
The Redwood Highway through Grant’s Pass, Highway 199 winds its way alongside the Smith River, a clear, blue river made from mountain snow melt. We stopped and walked down to the river. The water was everything the pictures on the little plastic bottles at the gas station brag about – cold, crisp, refreshing.
As fast as the beauty of Grant’s Pass began, it seemed to disappear. The woods opened into four lane highway and the pace picked up. Then the pace slowed down again for Crescent City, California, the northernmost city of decent size on the coast of California. We detoured immediately, realizing we were at the ocean, and drove straight to the beach to take in some cool salty ocean air.
THE GOLDEN HOUR
The coastal redwoods were waiting for us an hour south of the city, so back to the road we went. The highly recommended Lady Bird Johnson Grove was our destination. As we made our way down the coast, in and out of the redwoods, the ocean to our right and giants to our left, it was easy to get lost in the scenery and lose track of where we were, what we’d planned, or why we were there. We found ourselves pulling off at every other scenic outlook to see the ocean, sometimes from hundreds of feet up on a bluff, sometimes right down at the coast.
Pretty soon we realized that we were nearing the golden hour. That hour of great ambient light shortly before the sun disappears. We got back in gear and made it to the grove. Under the shade of the redwoods, the temperatures drop significantly. They do a great job of blocking out the sun. We changed from shorts to pants and hit the trail through the quiet forest of sleeping giants. These trees are mostly indestructible, except for when humans get involved, otherwise they’ve withstood just about anything nature’s thrown at them. Some of them, 8 feet in diameter, had scars of forest fires up their sides, charred black bark, but the tree was still growing, still providing shade for the ground below.
HANGUPS IN BAT COUNTRY
By the time we made it back out of the grove, the sun was almost gone. The low light and lack of civilization brought a real danger to mind. I’m a skinny white guy with a beautiful girlfriend driving through mostly wilderness toward a couple small cities. If we break down, we could be in trouble. My concerns got worse when I stopped at the bathroom before leaving the parks gates. The ‘missing’ signs all seemed to be young women, all last seen in the area.
Both my girlfriend and I grew up out in the country, in the woods. Nature has never concerned me. Compared to humans it’s rather predictable. I jumped backed in the car and told her to start looking for some larger cities nearby. She was coming up short. As we headed down the extremely steep road that led out of the park, one of the front calipers on the wagon started to hang up. This quickly became an issue because the hills were too steep and the corners too sharp to not be using the brakes. We pulled off and I grabbed a hammer, crawled under the car and gave the caliper a couple of hard hits. This was a hopeful solution and, luckily for me, it worked.
Back on the highway as the sun lit the skies with orange and red, we found ourselves in Eureka, California. Northern California is a strange place. I mean no offense to anyone that lives there, but the people I encountered gave me the feeling that 80% of the cities occupants did not have a place to live. As the sun set, it seemed everyone was migrating to the beach, carrying weathered backpacks and rolled up sleeping bags, in clothes that look to have spent some time traveling, and everyone’s shoes were worn down.
Prior to taking the exit, I suggested finding a hotel. We stopped at a Mexican food truck for a great burrito, Kim pulled up her phone, and started reading up on Eureka. With a 10% unemployment rate, tons of drug, gang and prostitution problems, I was excited!
Not really. Any other day I wouldn’t care, but due to us being on our own with nothing more than a SOG Seal Pup knife and a handmade hunting knife we picked up for my Father in Portland, we weren’t exactly equipped to deal with things that go bump in the night. I pulled myself together, sat up straight and put the car back in gear. We needed to make it somewhere more comfortable. Maybe a sleepy seaside town. Maybe a farming town.
The sun had gone down and I took an exit into a small town. I noticed a sign for “Eel River Rd.” and pictured a river, teeming with eel, writhing over each other as the water flowed out to the ocean. I got about that far with the mental image when I saw another sign – “Cannibal Island Rd.” At that point, I didn’t have any pictures in my head aside from my flashing turn signal as I whipped the wagon back around and jumped back on the highway. No cannibals for me tonight, thanks.
We woke up still in Humboldt County. We had made it as far as Fortuna. Feeling like we barely spent any time in the redwoods, I felt like I had let me girlfriend down. Every year I ask her what she wants for her birthday. It seems every year she says “I want to go to the redwoods.”
Shortly after I first met her, she left on a month long road trip with one of her good friends. They drove from the midwest out to the west coast and worked their way down the coast. She wound up flying back home before they got to the redwoods and had regretted it ever since.
Unknown to me, there were still miles of redwoods to go. Once we got back on the highway, we started seeing signs for Avenue of the Giants, a scenic drive through the redwoods, where the giant trees grow at the edge of the road. Sometimes they even grow into the road. We took the detour and started winding our way through columns of morning sunlight shooting down through the canopy, the only car on the road, quiet and majestic.
From the time we left Eureka, we were headed inland on Highway 101. After 100 miles, it forked. We had come to beginning of California’s Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, the famed PCH. From the 101, you have to navigate a long series of sharp corners, massive elevation changes, narrow roads, and the thing I fear most – blind corners with giant, lumbering RVs barreling at you from the other side.
When we turned left, the front sway bar rattled. When we turned right, the driver side rear tire scuffed the wheel well. When we hit bumps under acceleration, the driveshaft gave the e-brake handle a love tap. This was gonna be intense. The wagon, in all it’s simplistic glory – manual brakes, manual steering, manual gear select, manual windows – was becoming a chore to drive. My long slender arms were getting a serious workout and I was almost to the point of giving up when I saw the opportunity to do something I had always wanted to – drive through a tree!
I know it’s totally touristy and pretty ironic to be so excited about exploiting one of these giants, but they no longer do this to the trees. The few drive through trees that still exist are from an earlier time, when the greed of mankind wasn’t so carefully hidden in corporate policies and government lobbying. These things were made back when the greed of mankind was an honest kind of greed, out in the open, visible to others.
I paid my five dollars and drove through the tree with a smile on my face. Soon we hit the coast again and, as we came out of the forest, were greeted by a giant cliff, endless waves, beautiful weather, and some of the most breathtaking oceanside driving I have had the pleasure of doing.
Once clear of the redwoods we stopped for the above picture. Written on the guardrail was the story of a man walking from Portland to Joshua Tree National Forest. He had been walking for six months by the time he reached the spot we were at and had a long way to go. I hope he made it.