Weekly Wire
Tucson Weekly Off to Montana

There's a better way to get from here to there.

By Jeff Smith

MAY 4, 1998:  DOWN THROUGH THE Ages--Ice, Stone, Post-Modernist, Feminist--none has suited me quite so much as the Petrochemical Age. Sunoco 260 ethyl with lead in it, 110 honest octane, for 30 cents a gallon. We had gone to Heaven and we weren't even dead yet.

When I hit 16, the '59 Cadillac was still shiny, undented and had not yet passed from the hands of the golfers and country clubbers to the rednecks and white trash, as American status symbols inevitably do. The '55 Chevy was just getting affordable for a guy who dropped out of high school and got a paying job in a garage...and I was stuck with an Opel.

There's supposed to be an umlaut over the O, but I don't know how to make one on my computer.

This Opel was a little German shitbox economy car my dad bought from the local Buick dealer, and then dealt to me for $250 when the upholstery wore out. What I really wanted was a Jaguar, like my brother had. He was nine years older, had a newspaper job, and bought the Jag for $900. He was so blank on mechanical matters he thought you had to have credentials from Coventry in order to change the oil. The car was wasted on him.

By the late '60s I had a newspaper job, but no Jaguar. I had a wife and a Valiant station wagon, but I did con my way into a column in the Sunday Star. It was called "The World of Wheels" and it gave me license to drop by any car or motorcycle dealership in town and borrow the hottest things they had for the weekend. I'd take it off the showroom floor, all shiny and new-car-smelling, and bring it back 48 hours and 500 miles later with the tires worn out and the undercoating melting onto the ground in a smoking, stinking oil slick. It was wonderful.

In 1968 you could buy a Plymouth Roadrunner for $2,500 that made 400 horsepower, went 140 miles an hour, and had springs, shocks and anti-sway bars just like Richard Petty's NASCAR stocker. I remember tossing one of those boogers sideways downhill on River Road just west of Swan, and seeing a whole Oldsmobile full of foothillers coming at me through the passenger side window, ruining enough underwear to cost me a week's pay.

One time the sales manager from Bill Breck Dodge asked to ride along with me while I wrung out one of his Hemi-Challengers. He never asked again.

I was so much in love with gasoline and adrenaline that I even proposed to my wife in the front seat of my truck. It was a '47 Jeep panel truck with a 350-inch Plymouth Golden Commando V-8, a Torque-Flyte tranny with push-buttons, and a 5.11 rear end. It would do wheelies. I built it myself in the back lot of my dad's farm machinery shop, and proposed to Barb in it so she'd feel sentimentally attached to it. Over the next year's engagement I moved my entire household and all my possessions in that truck...seven times. It held everything I owned in this world. I named it Buck Mulligan, after the first character in James Joyce's Ullysses.

I don't know what I'm going to name my current project vehicle. It's bigger than Buck Mulligan and it won't do wheelies, nor will it hold everything I own. The years have a way of bringing me stuff I just can't bring myself to part with. Besides which I have a barn now, and a barn will find a way of filling itself with very little help from me.

But what my new hotrod has that none before it could either claim or accommodate is a hot-tub. This is so cool. I made it out of a galvanized cattle tank and it sits under the front seat, which I fabricated out of aluminum channel and sheet. It's heated by a transmission cooler that draws 212-degree water from the engine radiator. It sits down in the hot-tub water, behind a backrest I built, and acts as a heat-exhanger to bring to tub up to 104 degrees. I monitor the tub temp via an indoor-outdoor remote bulb thermometer on the dashboard, and regulate the heat with an in-line shut-off valve. Genius.

When I get to the day's destination, I flip down the seat back, slide back onto the bed thus formed, fold the seat base forward to reveal the hot-tub beneath...and soak away the road-wearies.

All of this is taking place inside an old Rainbo Bread van I traded off a guy in Patagonia for an old cement mixer with a busted motor I had sitting around. The van has an aluminum body made by Grumman Aircraft, a Ford six and automatic tranny. I've outfitted it with a fridge, a TV-VCR, sink, full-size toilet and sun-shower, my bullet-casting and reloading equipment and roof-mounted photo-voltaic collector to power the whole schmigega, and I'm bound for Montana for the summer to shoot steel silhouettes of buffalo at 1,000 yards.

Mona, my white bitch, is going along with me to take notes and remind me to e-mail columns back to The Weekly in a timely manner. Did I mention the satellite dish and cell-phone? A man of letters must maintain a pinky on the pulse of the world of action.

My Boy Caleb, who happens to be living in the Steinbeck Age just now, envisions this adventure as something along the lines of Travels With Charley.

I tend to think of it as an experiment in self-containedness. I'll keep you posted.


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