1991 August 2

The Saga of the Century

Topics

1983 Buick Century

(A Tale of Scope)

Buick Century, that is. The car my grandparents were offering is a 1983 Buick Century, which is pretty nice cause it has this velour lining and big seats but is not so nice because it is everything I don’t like in a car: big, gas-guzzling, automatic, power windows…and when I first received it, its musical capabilities were limited to AM radio. Mono.

That got changed pretty fast, I can tell you. I put in an FM stereo tape deck with quadraphonic sound. This was a necessity for a cross-country trip, as neither Pete nor myself are exactly riveting conversationalists. Instead, we brought 110 cassettes. (And we listened to all but four of them.)

We left San Francisco on a Sunday morning, heading east towards Yosemite. A slight detour enabled Pete to visit some relatives who would (we thought) treat us to a hearty brunch. Except they didn’t tell us when brunch was, so when we got there at 11:00, it was over. They let us raid the fridge instead.

We stocked up our cooler (from a local Safeway, not their fridge) with essentials like junk food and soda, and hit the road again, arriving in Yosemite around nightfall. A quick drive around informed us that there were no campsites in the Valley (surprise, surprise!), but there were plenty of sites further up that were still in Yosemite Park. The one we found even had a pay phone, which was good because Pete had a need to call Sheila.

Yosemite doesn’t allow wood-gathering, so you either bring your own or skip a fire. After skipping the fire, we turned in for the night. We drove back into the valley and walked along various trails and up a creek (at Elliot’s insistance, the intrepid crew of two hiked in the creek itself, leaping with mountain-goatish agility from stone to stone) until arriving at a much-depleted Silver Lake. California summers will do this to bodies of water. But it was still pretty and serene.

Got back to the car and realized why the power locks weren’t working when we noticed that Elliot had left the lights on. My usual leaving-the-car routine was tailored for Hondas and had missed the Buick lights, which are off to the side. Oops.

But some nice people gave us a jump-start, and we were off. We proceeded south and east, cutting through the bottom of Nevada en route to Zion Nat’l Park in southern Utah. The first hitch of the trip came in that corner of Nevada, when I looked down (given our different driving tolerances—Elliot 5–6 hours, Pete 2–3—most things happening during driving happened to me) and noticed that the red idiot overheat light had come on.

Not panicking in the least, we pulled over, popped the hood, stared at the escaping steam, and waited for the car to cool down. Meanwhile, we studied the beautiful, barren, flat, empty, kinda boring Nevada landscape. After about twenty minutes, everything seemed back to normal, so we started the car back up and drove (cautiously) on. We made it to Zion without mishap, arriving once again around nightfall.

We found a site, pitched the tent, and rustled up some food on our portable Coleman stove. I had the same deal here that I made with Jacob in London when he would come to visit: I’ll cook if you clean. Ha-ha-ha. Suckers.

Spent the next day hiking through Zion, which was beautiful and full of ruggedly imposing cliffs. (I’m not going to waste too much time talking about the visual stuff, cause we’ve got billions of photos I can show you at Thanksgiving that will do the job much better.)

In the afternoon, we took off for the Grand Canyon. It wasn’t too far away, but we still arrived too late for the burro rides into the Canyon. We had to be content with hiking out along this narrow ledge of stone into the midst of the North Rim. We were content. We sorta sat on this rock in the middle of 4 billion years of creation, saying “Wow. This canyon sure is…grand.”

Since it was still early evening and Bryce Nat’l Park wasn’t far, we drove right on after we left the Canyon, pulling into Bryce at (guess when?) nightfall. This, by the way, is a really stupid way of traveling, and I highly dis-recommend it. You probably knew that, though.

Bryce Canyon was named by the Indians (and I don’t know which ones) “Place where red rocks stand like men in bowl-shaped canyon”…and it’s a perfect name. We stayed two nights at Bryce, because I wanted to take a horse ride through it all. Pete “I’ve never been on a horse before and don’t think this is the place to start” Hammond wrote postcards instead. I think he also called Sheila again, though I’m not sure about that.

We left Bryce and decided to head north to Salt Lake City, where we’d stop the night and then push on to Yellowstone. When we were about an hour outside of Bryce—in what Pete determined was “The most deserted area we traveled in the whole trip”—the car overheated again. So we pulled over and waited for it cool down, thinking that this time we’d better have it looked at.

Once it was operational, we drove to the tiny Utah town of Escalante. The friendly folks there said they weren’t equipped to deal with a Buick Century and sent us a little further down the road to a Buick dealer in Panguitch (pronounced “pang-witch”). The “Buick dealer” turned out to be Chevron station, where the main mechanic was off duty (back tomorrow morning). The chap who was there puttered around, couldn’t see anything wrong, and suggested that we gun the engine by racing up a hill outside of town and back. That might push the engine too hard so it would act up and he could tell what was wrong.

For reasons unclear to me now, we actually followed this proposal, but of course nothing whatsoever went wrong. The chap refilled our radiator with water and sent us on our way, reminding us that the main mechanic would be in the next morning if we had any trouble. We drove off, and everything was peachy until about ten minutes down the road we pulled over to check the map and heard bubbling sounds from the engine. So we waited for it to cool down, drove back to Panguitch, and found a (relatively) cheap motel. Pete phoned Sheila while I cooked dinner on the (illegal-inside-a-motel) Coleman.

The main mechanic was actually in the Chevron station when we got there bright and early Friday morning. He checked out the car and told us that our overflow tank was leaking, the radiator cap should be replaced, and the head gasket was blown (this was in stark contrast to the other chap’s “Looks OK to me,” but I guess that’s why he’s the competent one).

Naturally, he didn’t have the parts in to fix it himself, but he suggested we go to Cedar City and have the Buick dealer there look at it. Sound familiar? Well, we did drive an hour up the road to Cedar City, and amazingly enough, there was a Buick dealer. We turned the car over to the pros and settled in for a picnic lunch in the homey Cedar City park across the street.

After a few hours of tinkering, the Buick folks agreed that the radiator cap and head gasket were in bad shape. They replaced the cap, cleaned up the gasket, and told us that they didn’t have a replacement gasket but that we should be OK for a while. They also gave us a bill.

We got back on the highway and were feeling great until Pete said “What’s that sound?” I hadn’t noticed any sound because I was too busy wondering why the accelerator wasn’t working. Turned out the two were related phenomena—the car had overheated for the last time.

I mean it. Remember how earlier we would wait and start driving again? Not this time. The car had bit the big one, shuffled off its mortal coil, gone to meet its maker, rung down the final curtain and gone to join the bleedin’ choir invisible. This was a dead car. (Thanks to special scriptwriters Monty Python for that last paragraph.)

Luckily, there was a gas station about a ¼ of a mile back, so I trotted over and they loaned us their tow truck (well, actually we paid some guy too much money to drive it for us) and took us into the closest town—Fillmore.

Ah, Fillmore, Utah… Did you know that at one time Fillmore was the capital of the Utah territory? Neither did I. I wish I still didn’t.

We arrived in Fillmore too late that Friday for the mechanics to look at the car, but the tow-truck driver pointed out the lovely Spinning Wheel Motel and the delectable Cowboy Cafe for all our tourist needs. We duly checked in to the SWM, ate at the CC, and waited for Saturday AM (Pete called Sheila).

When it arrived, we were there at the auto shop first thing, where Tony explained to us that yes, the head gasket was shot, and yes, the radiator was in bad shape (needed an acid bath) but that no, he couldn’t take care of it all today. He wasn’t sure just how much damage had been done and needed to take the engine apart to find out. That would be an expensive (oops, I mean extensive—silly me!) operation requiring several hours. Of course, they closed at noon on Saturdays. No, they weren’t open on Sundays. They would know the extent of the trouble by Monday afternoon, though.

It was at this point, I believe, that the theme for the trip was born. I turned to Pete and mentioned that this series of events reminded me what George Carlin had once said about Scope (the mouthwash). His thought went something like this: You ever looked at the bottles of Scope in a supermarket? And they’ve got the regular size, the economy size, the extra large … and the gift size. Can you imagine getting a bottle of Scope … as a gift? I can picture some psychopath, he only needs ONE MORE THING to send him over the edge, he walks to his mailbox: “Dum de dum, what’s this? Scope? Scope! SCOPE!!! AAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”

It’s much funnier auditorily. But that’s how I felt—just needed ONE MORE THING to send me round the bend… Anyway, we didn’t want to waste the entire weekend in beautiful Fillmore, so we hit upon the bright idea of renting a car for the next three days.

After a few phone calls, we discovered that the only place who would consider renting to under-25ers was the Avis in … Cedar City. And here comes the only turn of good luck (well, that’s a lie. There one more later on … but that was after the trek was over): some couple who were picking up their car from Tony told us that they were driving two cars to Cedar City and would be happy to let us follow them in one of those cars. We didn’t wait to be asked twice.

After arriving in Cedar City and waiting around the airport for a while, the Avis man showed up and gave us a car. Since our wallets were already lighter than we wanted (when aren’t they? But I mean REALLY lighter), we waived the collision insurance and headed off north, through Fillmore to Salt Lake City.

(Did you notice the subtle foreshadowing in the last paragraph?—ETG)

Now comes the only truly stupid moment… There I was, driving a new souped-up Nissan something or other with acceleration that put the Century to shame. Plus, we were a day or two behind because of all these repairs. So in an effort to make up some of that time, I got a speeding ticket (75 in a 65 zone). Keep in mind before you decide to mentally class me as a dangerous speed freak that I’d recently returned from Italy, where driving lOO mph or so is the NORM … 50 seemed like crawling, and 70 was only sort of fast.

We spent the night in Ogden, Utah (Pete called Sheila), and arrived in Yellowstone the next day. Yellowstone was fab, with cool sulfur geysers and deep blue pools, not to mention lots of burnt trees from the forest fires. What Yellowstone didn’t have was a place to camp.

Nor did the Tetons National Park, which we drove through next. So we decided to keep driving as long as we could through the night and get back to Fillmore on Monday instead of Tuesday. It was around 11:00 at night, we were driving through some park in Montana, and I turned round a bend and saw a deer standing by the side of the road … my side.

He wasn’t in the road, but I had a nasty feeling, so I veered over into the other (empty) lane. There wasn’t enough time to brake. My bad feeling was correct, because the deer said “Wow! Headlights! Cool!” and rushed across both lanes to meet the lights. He missed them, but managed to take the right-hand mirror with him.

At this point, most people ask us if the deer was OK. Please don’t. The #%$&#@! deer was fine. I saw him running away, carving another notch into his antler. (Or, as Pete notes every time I use this description, I didn’t because it was a doe, not a stag, and therefore didn’t have antlers. But we did see the deer later, and she was in the pink.)

What we did not see later was the mirror. It was gone for good … from this rented, uninsured car. (Deer? Deer! DEER! AAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!)

So, we eventually found a place to stay, went to sleep, and drove back into Fillmore on Monday. I dropped Pete off while I continued driving down to Cedar City to return the car. After doing so, I discovered that a) I was stranded in the airport, and b) I was stranded in Cedar City—no bus back to Fillmore until 4:30 a.m.

I hiked back to Cedar City proper (45 minutes) and stood by the highway onramp looking for a kindly driver to take an admittedly threatening-looking youth (it’s the beard) to Fillmore. Only one person stopped in the 45 minutes spent by the side of the road … he was another college type off to do some laundry at a place a few miles away. Not far enough for me.

So I gave up, got a bite to eat at Burger King, and spent another hour looking for a reasonable place to sleep. Finally found one, and raced upstairs because the only thing I wanted in the world at that point was a bath. There was a tub, but no stopper. (Scope?…) Ever resourceful, your hero stuffed a washcloth into the drain and soaked for a while before flipping through channels and falling into the land of Morpheus.

The next morning, I found the bus station’s address in the phone book (1153 S. Main Street … every town we passed through had a Main Street) and allowed myself 45 minutes to walk there. I hit the 1150 block right on time and was only slightly disconcerted to discover that there was no 1153 in existence. Heck, at this point I probably expected that.

Some people in a shop told me that the Greyhound station was actually in the Texaco station down the road. It was—hidden in the back corner with no notice board out in front. These people don’t go out of their way to advertise. But the bus was only a half hour late, and two hours after that I was back in Fillmore (yippee-skip).

Pete met me at the Fillmore station and announced that there was good news and bad news. I asked him to pick whatever order made the best story. “Well,” he began. “The good news is that your grandparents have agreed to help pay for the repairs.”

I groaned. That was exactly what I didn’t want to hear, because if the grand-rents were offering to help, the repairs involved were going to be enormous. Pete confirmed my suspicion. According to our old buddy Tony, the whole engine had to be replaced. The cylinders had expanded due to the overheating, and had wrecked the engine. Or something. (Of course, it all made perfect sense to us auto mechanic geniuses at the time.)

Anyway, the car wouldn’t be fixed until Thursday. The next few days were spent in learning new card games, reading assorted books (well, I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which Pete had brought … Pete spent most of his time talking on the phone to Sheila. This man’s phone bill is not something I care to contemplate.), watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and wishing we weren’t in Fillmore.

We had originally told Sheila that we would spend the last week of our trip in Marblehead, which would’ve meant arriving there on Friday or Saturday. No longer … especially once we showed up on Thursday to pick up the car.

“No problem,” said Tony. “We’re just waiting for the radiator to come back from Salt Lake City.”

Huh?

“We sent it up there for the acid bath, remember?”

Oh yeah. Sure.

A bit later, Tony said “Hey, Bob, you send out the request to Salt Lake for that radiator?

Bob: “Oops.”

Tony: “Oh…guess we just missed it. But we’ll have it come in first thing tomorrow morning, OK?”

Sure, Tone, ol’ buddy, ol’ pal. Tough to argue when you’re holding my car’s life in your hands…

Checked in for yet another night at the Spinning Wheel (Pete called Sheila) and came back Friday morning in time to see Tony and Bob take off in the car for a test drive. They got back and started tinkering (“readjustment,” they called it), and I wandered back to watch.

The Tony and Bob Show was still running, as witness the following conversation:

Bob: You disconnect that wire?

Tony: What wire? Oh, this one?

The Car: Double, double, toil and trouble, water steam and engine bubble. (My interpretation of the car overheating.)

Bob: Betcha didn’t want to see that, huh?

You’re so right, Bob. How perspicacious of you.

I later joined Bob for a second test run, and everything seemed to be fine, so I paid them a huge sum of money (well, VISA did. I paid later. Or rather, the grand-rents paid, as they felt terribly guilty for having the car break down that way. It turns out—unbeknownst to me, which was the problem—that they had never driven this car on the highway before. They’d had it for 8 years, but they only drove it around town; so it wasn’t ready to handle long hauls at even moderate speeds [the ticket was in the Nissan. Neither of us ever drove the Buick above 65, and most of the time it would be 55-60. We weren’t using the AC, either]) and we headed east, on the road again!

We drove through Utah and most of Colorado when night came creeping. We did a lot of arithmetic, decided there really wasn’t anything to see in Kansas, and kept on driving. Me for four hours, Pete for two. All night. And the next day.

We thought we really should stop the next night, as a huge storm was breaking and visibility was poor. But after driving through all the outskirts of St. Louis and finding nothing and realizing that the storm was dying, I suggested we keep driving. Pete said “Are you serious?” I said “I don’t know. Am I?”

It turns out I was, and we kept driving until we hit Marblehead Sunday afternoon. That makes it a drive from Utah to Massachusetts (2000 miles?) in 48 hours.

There’s not much more to tell. The next day, Hurricane Bob hit. This is the other piece of good news I mentioned: the tree in Sheila’s back yard that fell over missed the car by two feet.

Meanwhile, we heard about the coup in the USSR a day after it happened, Sheila and her Mom treated us to a lobster dinner, Sheila had her wisdom teeth removed, and a week later we left. Spent the last night of our trip at Pete’s grandfather’s colonial farmhouse in New Jersey (the bricks on the farmhouse wall spell out “W & M. 1701” or something ridiculously ancient like that). Got back to Chevy Chase the next morning.

Well. Phew.