We were three days into our all-but-agonizing road trip. Rife with troubles and issues, Andrew Sylvia and I had our fingers crossed that from Odessa, Texas, on, we’d have smooth sailing. Our sights were set on Tucson, AZ, to visit Nic and Steph Foster, our first true “stop” of the trip. With 8 hours of driving ahead of us, and wanting to make an early arrival, we were up and on the road at 4:00am.
Chapter Three: New Mexico, Old Tricks
The sun rose early over the Texan desert, and as the New Mexico border grew closer and closer, our speed carried, faster and faster. We couldn’t get out of the state soon enough. To this day, I still harbor a sincere hatred for the Lonestar State – its attempts to thwart our journey were taken personally. Nevertheless, we made it out by mid-morning; seeing the NM border has never been more welcoming.
In our heads, it felt as though a new state offered a “clean slate” – no problems, no stresses- just freedom from the hellish grasp of Texas. But we were wrong. Unbelievably, unrelentingly, and undeniably wrong. We assumed the seas would calm, but instead, we were met with more trouble than ever before. The first of it came as we arrived at a Border Patrol checkpoint. As cars arranged into two single-file lines, Rusty sputtered and popped. We pulled aside and got out of the car, which began to call attention to us and raised red flags. After waiting at the checkpoint for more than an hour – for both the car to cool down, and to explain to the men in uniform that we weren’t attempting any terrorist acts, we made it back on the road.
But that was only the beginning. Next, the exhaust fell off. Again. Our wire hangers and roadside solutions just weren’t up to the task – the low-slung poorly-built exhaust kept colliding with the asphalt with every chance it got.
A bit further into our day, things escalated, further and further. Rusty’s sputtering issue returned, this time worse, killing the car’s ability to drive. What we initially thought was overheating was deemed as something killing spark or fuel, but we struggled to solve it. All we could do was wait, so we did. We broke down again, this time due to an idle control valve. Again due to an AFM. Then once more, where I changed the clogged fuel filter on the side of I10 under the desert sun. Then we overheated. And then again. We made 15 minutes of progress every two hours, and the sun was beginning to fall in the sky.
Eventually, we broke down for our final time. Coincidentally, it occurred on I10’s exit marking the Continental Divide – perhaps it was fate attempting to keep us from making it to the West Coast. Unable to solve our issues, we called up AAA, asking for a flatbed tow for the remaining 220 miles to Tucson.
Once we pulled the car onto the flatbed, we found the silver lining of the situation – both rear tires were down to the cords, and had we made much more progress, they were sure to pop in no time. A blessing in disguise, if you will. Further, we had hoped our tow would cut down on issues, and, in light of admitting defeat, get us to Tucson in a hurry. But the story doesn’t go that way.
With just 40 miles from our breakdown point until the AZ border, we encountered a dust storm – a severe one, which our driver was unwilling to pass through. The progress we had hoped for was halted.
Eventually, however, we did make it to the border. Things felt good! We were finally going to “make it.” Until our tow truck driver informed us that local laws prevented him from towing us into the state of Arizona. Instead, he dropped us off at the closest rest stop, where we sat waiting for our next car recovery truck to arrive.
The sun had gone down, and Andrew and I continued to wait. We practiced “whipping” coke cans off the hood of the car with a torn semi-truck serpentine belt we had found in the parking lot. Boredom was at its peak, progress was at the opposite end of the spectrum, and our spirits were slowly falling. Eventually, our new driver arrived, and after some careful loading up, we got on the road. We were ready to make it to Nic’s place.
I’d hope by now that your foreshadowing skills would tell you that we’d never make it in one fell swoop. No. Instead, a spectacular interstate accident left us grid-locked on I10 for more than two hours. It’s the only time in my travels thus far that I’ve gotten out of the car in dead-stop traffic to pass the time. We talked with fellow weary travelers, explained to all those that asked what our odd vehicle was, and shot the breeze with our inquisitive tow truck driver.
After being up for nearly 24 hours straight, we made it to the Fosters’ place. Nic and Steph were awake to meet us, sometime around 2:00 am. We were beat, dirty, and ready for some much-needed rest. Steph was kind enough to give us her garage spot, which gave us a place to repair everything needed on the beast.
Chapter Four: Battle Ready – What the Road Does, Neeko Undoes.
The next morning, we entered the garage to assess the damage. We put Rusty in the air, and climbed underneath. It was to be a patient several days of overnighting parts, making repairs, and doing our best to make the car roadworthy – truly roadworthy – once again.
With all of the exhaust troubles we had, we knew the under side of the car was going to be in rough shape, but we had no idea we’d have to fix more-or-less everything from the downtube back. The lower bends of the headers were smashed and dented in, ground down to a paper-thin skin of metal. The catalytic converter was gouged, crunched, and resembled a stomped soda can. Lastly, the muffler was ground down, through the skin, with holes on seemingly every surface. The tail end of the muffler had been pried open, meaning a good bit of work was in store.
And, because I’m entirely unable to work on a car without covering myself in grease and grime, I needed a hose-shower after giving Rusty the once-over.
After testing each component of the car, as well as examining everything thoroughly, we ordered the necessary parts. The main culprit of our issues stemmed from a dead in-line fuel pump. The heat and load given to the in-tank pump caused it to exceed its duty cycle, leaving us stranded on more than one occasion. The car’s cap and rotor were worn out entirely. I ordered up a new set of rear tires, and a new power steering line to replace the patched part, and the rebuild began.
From there, we went after the exhaust. Nic and his welding skills, far superior to mine, were the saving grace of our trip. After hacking the all but destroyed exhaust off the car, we got to work chopping, patching, and rebuilding the crude but sufficient pipe.
Nic pulled together his spare scrap metal and devised a series of plates and patches to make the exhaust roadworthy once again. The first of many patched the main hole in the muffler. From there, we attached a skidplate, which helped seal things up, and provide extra protection for further driving.
Nic, with the finished product, which we later deemed “Battle Ready” with a sharpie. Some teeth added in to the front of the plate gave for a bit of fun, and attitude – we were prepared to take on anything the asphalt threw at us. Installing the exhaust was a bit of added effort. Aiming to mount it as closely to the car as possible for ground clearance, we routed it out of the rocker panel. Better safe than sorry, we thought! And why not add holes to an already rusty car?
Chapter Five: San Diego – The Dirty Waffle
On the morning of our departure, we loaded up the trailer, the car, and everything we had brought along. Rusty was in good, running order, and we were confident our next stint, this time to San Diego, would be trouble free. Less than 500 miles to cover in one day – we were ready. After some final welding to the floor of our trailer, Nic said his goodbyes.
Our trip to San Diego was, surprisingly, rather smooth. The new parts on Rusty kept things running well, without the endless hiccups we had come to expect. Every mile seemed to bring more expectations of a part failure, but the car gods were smiling upon us. Despite our luck, Rusty and his incessant, endless heat made for a hot trip through the desert. We made several stops to keep cool, and to keep our legs stretched and the blood flowing.
The new rocker-routed exhaust held up well over the harsh roads. It sat above most bumps, and when contact was made, a hearty thud occurred as the load transferred to the floor of the car – exactly what we wanted. The lack of a giant hole through the muffler helped the sound as well.
We passed the first signs for San Diego – 230 miles out. “The home stretch.” The final two obstacles were the dunes and the mountains. The heat of the dunes proved to be no issue, other than to our sweat glands. The mountains, however, we were concerned about. The steep inclines, the high altitude, and the added load of the trailer meant for the most stress yet on Rusty.
Along the mountainside, every mile or so, are those non-potable water tanks. “Who ever uses those?” we joked. Of course, we spoke too soon. Despite his best efforts, Rusty encountered a few struggles on the ascent. After topping off our now-leaking coolant system, we continued up and over the range.
San Diego was visible in the distance as the sun set. We had conquered the United States, and were within spitting distance of the West Coast. More than 2,000 miles were under our belt – and waiting in San Diego for us, Casey Withers and friends had prepared a photo shoot upon arrival. We were counting down the miles. And that’s where we’ll pick up next week in Part III!