The following events are all true, at least from my perspective.
My brother always said that, “Old cars are great because the only surprises you get are good surprises.”
I had a surprisingly good car growing up.
When I was sixteen my dad sold me his 1997 Saturn SL1 for $600. It always smelled weird and had odd stains in the rear carpet. We suspected someone died in it. Since I was working part time as a sales associate in the menswear department at a local department store, the car was a significant investment for me. Still, it was one of the best investments I ever made and I still have a fond spot in my heart for the plastic masterpiece that is the SL1.
(Related: Hiking and Reminiscing)
Preparing the Car
Of course any car, no matter how finely manufactured, is incomplete without some personal modifications. (Related: Minivans are Manly) One of the first performance mods that I did to the car was actually initiated by my friend, Tony, as he disconnected the battery. He was swinging the 10mm Craftsman in a wide arc when suddenly there was a loud pop followed by a screech as Tony jumped out from under the hood. A loud hissing sound and a cloud of something spewed out of the engine bay. We all stood around the car and asked each other what was going on. Soon Tony’s dad shed some light on the situation. “That’s all your freon leaking out!” he said. I was so upset by our contribution to the hole in the ozone layer that I chased Tony around the car fifteen times, demanding he put the freon back into the tube. It was all in good fun of course. We like to kid around like that. We had actually, in a very clever manner, picked out a perfectly sized wrench so we could contact the positive terminal of the battery and the high pressure aluminum line at the same time, which caused a sudden arc of electricity and burned a hole in the high pressure line. This way we disabled the air condition system and improved my car’s performance. The premise, like all good feats of engineering, was deceptively simple: If your A/C doesn’t work, you won’t use it. If you aren’t using it, your car is faster.
The next modification was a weight saving measure. My friend’s sister helped with this one. She deftly removed my old quarter panel by backing into it with her car. What genius! What would’ve taken me an hour to remove only took her fifteen seconds. Plus, the result was exactly the same – broken pieces everywhere. Now for the final step. I swiped every single bumper sticker from the local Sunoco gas station and used them to fabricate a flexible, lightweight skin over the gaping hole. I was surprised that the weight savings didn’t in a noticeable performance bump but every ounce counts. And really, if you’re a performance enthusiastic like myself, it’s the principle of the thing that matters.
I needed to save weight because the next modification involved throwing in my trunk seventy five pounds of the best stereo equipment that the local pawn shop could offer. I was a stereo buff and admittedly stereos don’t help with performance but they do help the driving experience. I could wire stereos together with zip ties, electrical tape, and mismatched pieces of wire. In fact, that’s the only way I did it.
The big stereo, although admittedly a creature comfort, was necessary if you were to hear any music at all because my friend Bryan and I had cut my muffler off and installed in its place an oversized chrome muffler tip. We affectionally called it a “fart pipe.” It indeed sounded like a cow farting through a bullhorn. It was bit tacky and drew some less than flattering comments from my dad but he was traditional and practical and so surely if he was complaining then I was on the right track. Besides, anything that made that much noise was definitely going fast.
The most useful modification was a large roof rack. Bryan and I fabricated a roof rack out of tube steel, scrap diamond plate, and a piece of plywood. Once it was bolted together we sprayed the whole thing with truck bed liner for a nice, classy finish. We attached it to my Saturn with metal roofing screws which, because the roof rack never came off, I can say without lying that they worked well. The whole assembly was topped off with an aging Sears cargo carrier that was held on by bright orange ratchet straps.
Planning the Trip
As my high school graduation was drawing near, I got the news that my friend Adam, who was serving at an orphanage in Mexico, was getting married! It was great news because marriage is sacred and all that, but now I had a good excuse to go on an adventure to Mexico. My friend Bryan and I promptly made plans for a road trip from where we lived in Pennsylvania to where my friend was getting married in Mexico.
“Hey Bryan, let’s drive your motorcycle to Adam’s wedding!”
Bryan had a Suzuki Savage which was a single cylinder, 650cc motorcycle that we both thought was the peak of awesome. I didn’t have a motorcycle but that was fine – I’d just ride on the back of his! We’d simply pack two backpacks and head for Chihuahua, Mexico… 2,150 miles away!
We quickly found two other friends, James and Nathaniel, who wanted to go along. They didn’t have motorcycles and so we reluctantly dropped the motorcycle idea. In retrospect, the motorcycle idea was insane and we would’ve surely died from saddle sores or choking from bugs jammed down our windpipes. In a fortunate twist of fate we decided to drive my car so we could all go together! I don’t remember exactly why we chose my car instead of someone else’s. I think it was because it got the best fuel mileage and had four doors.
“Hey, since we’re driving to Mexico, why not swing west first and see some sights?” someone suggested. We all agreed that was a good idea but couldn’t agree on which sights to see.
“Let’s just head west and see what happens,” someone else suggested. We all nodded. It’s not hard to convince a bunch of eighteen year olds fresh out of high school that planning is for losers. (Related: The Single Best Piece of Marriage Advice for Single Men) Nathaniel brought along his dad’s internet hotspot which at the time was a rarity and a novel concept – we had internet on the go! The plan was to Google a spot of interest somewhere close to us, go there, enjoy it, and then Google another spot of interest close by. We would repeat this pattern in a general westerly and then southernly direction until we got to our destination!
We were giving ourselves a month’s timeline to get to Mexico and back. Some of quit our jobs and some of us begged for extra time off. Because of this, money was in short supply. We planned on tenting in campgrounds to keep costs down and adventure running high. We packed a portable gas grill with enough BTU’s to heat a can of ravioli.
The planning was done. All we had to do was pack.
Setting the Stage
A week before our scheduled departure date, a group of my friends went to a beach in Maryland. Nathaniel, my road trip buddy, was along and was demonstrating his prowess on a skim board by doing involuntary somersaults in the surf while cursing. I was impressed. Suddenly his skim board bounced off his toe and into the surf. His cursing got louder and he hopped around holding his toe like a prized artifact. He wouldn’t stop complaining about how much it hurt. Still, we were used to Nathaniel’s sudden medical conditions that conveniently gave him an excuse to be subpar at rock climbing, mountain biking, surfing, skim boarding, or whatever activity he was attempting at the moment. We all used made up medical conditions to explain our lack of skill at one time or another and so we could spot it a mile away. Imagine our surprise then when he showed up with a foot brace that looked like an awkward flip-flop. He claimed it cost $100! It was clearly just a plastic board with a strap stapled to it. Boy, did he think we were stupid! He mentioned something about a cracked metatarsal or some gibberish he probably found on Google. (Related: Hiking North Fork Mountain Trail)
A few days later, Bryan was helping his parents install a brick wall. He was merrily cutting bricks with a cut-off saw, using his flip flop and big toe to keep the brick square against the saw rail when suddenly he slipped and almost chopped off his big toe! He hobbled into the emergency room and was quickly attended to by a doctor. Bryan mentioned that he wanted to get patched up quickly because he was going on a road trip to Mexico and he didn’t want to miss it. The doctor stopped what he was doing and said, “Huh. That’s strange. I worked on another guy just a few days ago who broke his toe. He was also going on a road trip to Mexico.”
Bryan laughed. “A guy with glasses?”
The doctor lit up. “Yea!”
“Yea! I know him. We’re going on the same road trip! Was his toe actually broken?” The doctor mumbled something about metatarsals. Nathaniel must’ve paid him off! We all agreed he was taking this fake illness thing too far.
Later James reported that he bruised his toe that week at work by dropping a hammer on it. I’m not a superstitious sort but I began tiptoeing around, warily keeping an eye out for heavy, sharp things lurking in corners.
Packing the Car
Finally the day to leave arrived! We all gathered around the car with all our luggage and looked at each, then at the car, then at our pile of stuff, then back at our car, then looked at each other again.
“Uh. How are we going to get all this crap in that little car?” James asked. Well, actually James never would’ve used such coarse language. Bryan probably said that. At any rate, the question was asked and it was a great question.
“Well, let’s pack the most important stuff first and then leave behind whatever doesn’t fit.” Apparently everything was important because it all fit. It took some teamwork to get the cargo carrier closed. One person laid on it while another clicked all the latches shut. The carrier still had a gaping hole in the front where the lid didn’t have enough structural integrity to compress the contents sufficiently. We assessed the situation and strategically placed another ratchet strap across the bowed lid. We tightened it until it resonated like a guitar string. I’m not musically inclined but I’d say it hit about the same note as the big string on the guitar.
The very first snag we ran into was Nathaniel. He claimed that he needed to keep his foot elevated for at least two weeks and then mumbled something about metatarsals. He insisted on sitting in the back seat and setting his leg straight forward on the center console. His foot stopped just shy of the shifter lever. My Saturn SL1 was five speed and so this unfortunate configuration resulted in Nathaniels foot being hit every time the driver shifted into fifth gear. It was inevitable. Vroom. Shift. Vroom. Shift. Vroom. Shift. Vroom. Shift. “OWWW!!! My foot! Watch it!! That hurts like a blankety-blank elbow in the blankety-blank.” Nathaniel’s complaining would fade just as the driver found it necessary to shift into fifth gear again, thus reigniting the tirade. We all laughed. Nathaniel’s fictional medical conditions were hilariously realistic at times.
The First Breakdown
We drove about twenty miles before the car developed some sort of unexpected electrical glitch and the stereo stopped working. I was used to the expected glitches such as having to thump the dash to get my dash lights to work but this glitch took down our stereo. The stereo was the only thing loud enough to drown out Nathaniel’s metatarsal rants. I had used a lot of electrical tape and hose clamps to splice a two gauge power wire together and now it was giving us trouble. How could anything with that much electrical tape on it stop working? The tension applied by a tightly wound roll of electrical tape could pop a watermelon, yet somehow my power wire had wiggled loose. We rolled into a garage, bummed a wire strippers and another roll of electrical tape from a very nice mechanic, and soon were on our way again, hoping that the pattern of stopping every twenty miles to fix something wouldn’t be repeated.
The Second Breakdown
Our first memorable stop was the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri. Then we drove through a corn field called Kansas. Bryan was the one driving and he decided to “rip it off like a Band-Aid” so he drove through the entire state in one sitting. Well, almost. It was the middle of the night and we were passing through yet another cornfield. Or was it still the same cornfield we drove through when we entered the state four hours ago? Anyway, the car suddenly just went dark. We slowly drifted to stop alongside the road. You could hear the long dry grass scraping the floor panels as we departed the highway. “At least my check engine light finally went off,” I commented. Bryan popped the hood and we started poking around. That’s when I looked up and noticed the stars in the night sky. I had never seen such a cosmic display before in my life. I was standing in the middle of the a deserted highway in Kansas in awe of the night sky. Cornfields do not give off light pollution like the tire factories and endless suburban sprawl of my homeland. Soon Bryan discovered it was merely a loose battery terminal. We whipped out the wrench set we brought along (our wrench set had only one handle and the word “Crescent” stamped on it) and fixed the problem. We were off driving past cornfields once again!
Camping in Colorado
A few days later we arrived in the Rocky Mountains and set up camp. The first step of making camp was to open the doors and fall sideways out of the car. I know that falling out of a car sounds a little silly but there was no other way to untangle your feet from garbage compressed around your legs. The car was so full that whoever sat on the back seat needed to stack things in between their legs. Then, as we drove down the highway, the cargo slowly settled into cement around their feet. The best way to get out was to throw yourself violently towards the open door and then lift your legs up and out as your torso tumbled towards the ground.
After we were out of the car, we would unstrap the cargo carrier. The straps would twang and flip off as the plastic cover bulged upwards. As the latches were opened, the contents would rise out of the carrier like a loaf of quickly rising bread. We could have a proper refugee camp set up within minutes.
This particular campground was memorable because it had a men’s bathhouse with no door. This made for the uncomfortable situation where you would walk in, assuming the lack of a door was an open invitation, only to be met by someone sheepishly huddled over a bare toilet in the middle of a large room. The shower cubicles were on the far wall behind the huddled toilet person. You quickly had to decide if you wanted to bolt back out the door, therefore confirming that the situation was awkward and thus making it more awkward, or you could continue nonchalantly into the bathhouse like finding someone on a toilet was no big deal. The showers, at least, had curtains strung in front of them.
We were lounging around a campfire when Bryan announced that it was time for his toe stitches to come out. Of course now we were a thousand miles from the doctor who put them in. James was a nursing student at the time and offered his help. “I think I can take them out. All you do is pull the string out. It’s just like unlacing a shoe.”
Bryan looked a little skeptical but shrugged and flopped his foot up on the picnic table at our campsite. “Go for it. It’s getting itchy.”
James took out a tweezers and unlaced Bryan’s toe as he grimaced and turned white. We all held our breath as we waited to see if the toe would stay on. Much to our dismay, it did. All was well. Bryan put his sock back on.
The wind began picking up as we heated baked beans on the campfire. It kept getting more and more intense until our tents resembled dogs with their heads hanging out the window of a car driving down a freeway.
Later that night hilarity ensued as Nathaniel came down with a bad case of diarrhea, an unpleasant but not entirely unpredictable result of eating campfire beans. Waking up and sensing impending doom, Nathaniel fought to open the tent door against the gale force winds, crashed out of the tent, and stumbled towards the bath house in the pitch dark, dragging along his cheap foot brace that was still attached to his bum foot. There was a drainage ravine running alongside the campground and Nathaniel inadvertently stumbled into it. As his body was overwhelmed by the panic of falling into a dark hole of undetermined depth, he inadvertently relaxed key muscles and pooped his pants! The local weather became warm and balmy from all the heated language rising out of that drainage ravine. We were all taken aback by how far Nathaniel was willing to go to try and convince us his boo-boo was real.
Arrival in Mexico
We eventually found our way to the Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, the Four Corners, Arches National Park, Pikes Peak, and countless little campgrounds along the way. We were traveling in the dead of summer. We collectively began questioning whether my performance upgrades to the Saturn, such as disabling the A/C and cutting off the muffler, were really worth it. Accusations of being cheap and stupid started drifting my way, even though I patiently explained the reality of engineering compromises. We had all the windows open and the stereo blaring. We were sweaty, deaf, and getting pretty annoyed with each other by the time we found our way to the Mexican border. The Mexican authorities pulled us aside for a “random” inspection although we all agreed that we did look pretty suspicious. James was even reading a book called “The Art of Guerrilla Warfare” which he left lying on the seat. Some soldiers motioned for us to open the trunk. I nervously obliged. The trunk lid sprang open and duffel bags, shoes, and dirty laundry cascaded down the bumper and into a pile on the ground. I started undoing the ratchet straps on the roof rack. The soldier emphatically shook his head and waved his hand. “No. No. Go.” Apparently they didn’t want anything to do with this circus. That was fine with us and so we jumped on the trunk until it closed and then continued south in an overwhelming display of exhaust noise and billowing dust.
Three weeks after we left Pennsylvania, we found ourselves at a Mexican wedding and were enjoying awesome food and warm fellowship. Then we all agreed we were tired of my stupid car and that we needed to back to Pennsylvania as soon as possible. We had all either quit our jobs or begged for an extended vacation time and our bosses were getting antsy that we’d never return.
The Return Home
There were a few concerning things that we noticed about my Saturn. First, we found out that my accessory belt was held on by two tired looking strings. We had driven thousands of miles with a belt that would fly to pieces any second. We replaced it by carefully rolling around in the thick Mexican dirt and applying wrenches to all the right pressure points. We had also discovered that metal cords were sticking out of my rear right tire! This prompted us to go to a tire shop and try to communicate that we needed a tire. Finally we just went out to the parking lot and pointed to the frayed cords. The mechanic understood the problem and slapped on a set of two tires. We were ready to go home!
The problem was that we had all purchased souvenirs. Leather cowboy boots, illegal fireworks, switchblades, and sombreros were purchased before any thought was given as to where we would put them. To our delight, we found that if the people sitting in the back seat would sit down, stuff things between their legs, and then stack more things on their laps we could get everything in the car.
We pointed the car north and floored the gas. Yes, we were in a hurry but we also had to floor it just to get the car to move. The Saturn SL1 is equipped with a 1.9 liter four cylinder which is anemic when the car is empty. Now that the car was loaded with four guys and several dumpsters full of luggage the performance was downright abysmal. Of course the irony was that once you got it going then it didn’t want to stop. This was highlighted a few miles down the road when we entered the city of Hidalgo Del Parral.
Bryan was at the wheel and I was sitting in the front passenger seat. James and Nathaniel were sleeping on the back bench seat. Everyone except Bryan, who was driving, had cargo crammed in between their legs and on their laps. The back shelf was loaded with laptops, cell phones, and various tidbits of technology. We were cruising through the city at a pretty good clip when suddenly the minivan in front of us violently left the ground! Dust, bolts, and debris scattered. A huge speed bump lay across the road. No signs, no paint, nothing! There was just a random lump of cement the size of a dead mule stuck firmly to the pavement, laughing as screaming vehicles got launched unexpectedly into orbit. It might have even been a literal dead mule, it happened too fast to really tell. Bryan grimaced and pushed on the brake pedal, using the back of the seat as an anchor for his extended leg. The car responded by shifting its center of gravity forward ever so slightly. It was not enough! Bryan and I braced for impact while the guys in back slept peacefully. BAM! The front suspension collapsed and the bottom of the subframe ricocheted off of the speed bump. The back tires kissed the speed bump and waved the surly bonds of earth goodbye. For a brief millisecond we were weightless, floating through Mexican airspace. Laptops were floating in mid air. Cell phones, McDonald’s bags, coffee mugs, and my two sleeping friends levitated above their perches. Stale French fries found their way out from under the seats. As soon as it all started, it ended. The car crashed back down to the ground. Everything else in the car crashed back down too, just in a different positions from where they started. The laptops landed on James’ and Nathaniel’s heads along with the stale French fires. Coffee mugs landed on the dash. McDonald’s bags landed in the cupholders. James and Nathaniel sputtered awake and began yelling in unison. Bryan and I looked at each other with concern. The car had sputtered and died a few seconds after reentry. Bryan slowly reached down and gave the keys a twist. The car cranked and started again! He revved the engine, and engaged the clutch. Off we went! There were gouge marks on the underside of the subframe for the rest of the car’s life. Still, what a trooper that car was!
We arrived at military checkpoint somewhere several hours south of the U.S. border. They asked many questions in Spanish and we tried to describe our destination to them. They emphatically tried to tell us something. Then again, anyone speaking the Spanish language seems emphatic to me. I’m not racist, I’m just ignorant of the Spanish language. We smiled and smiled and smiled and kept talking louder because that always helps other people understand you better. Eventually they sighed and waved us on. We were excited to be on the move again and happy that we hadn’t inadvertently admitted to having drugs in the trunk. Everything was fine until we got the border town where we wanted to cross. We had driven four hours through hot, dusty desert and arrived at the border town late in the night. We were eager to have all our visa paperwork behind us but when we got there the border patrol wouldn’t let us through! We asked around for someone who spoke English. Surely there was someone who worked on the border who was bilingual! Nope. At least not that night. One thing was clear, we weren’t getting through the border at that town.
We were clueless as what to do. We looked at a map and apparently the only thing left to do was to backtrack four hours to the intersection where those soldiers were, and reroute up to Juarez/El Paso. It dawned on us that whatever the soldiers were trying to tell us had something to do with the border closure. Still, we didn’t feel like backtracking that far so we decided to find a local that could help us. We found a large supermarket and wandered inside. At the checkout we find a cashier who could speak fluent English. The Border Patrol should hire her immediately! She explained that they had a lot of rain and the bridge to the U.S. was washed out and destroyed. The only way out of Mexico was to backtrack four hours, then drive north another two hours. We all sighed and got back in the car. We were really tired of this stupid Saturn.
Three weeks after we left, we were home again. The Saturn had several thousand more miles on it. It had collected dust from Mexico, salt from Pikes Peak, sand from Utah, many more bumpers tickers, and trash from every state along the way. It had never let us down. Well, not for more than an hour or so, anyway. Ironically, another guest who had driven to the wedding was stranded in Mexico when their brand new Honda Odyssey’s water pump disintegrated. They had quite the experience getting that sorted out while we were north of the border, chugging towards home in my humble little Saturn.
Later in my life I owned three Saturn station wagons and I enjoyed all of them. I’m a practical man. I want a few bulletproof options. I like manual windows. I like manual things that are mechanically connected to something solid that can’t be disabled because they haven’t been updated lately. I don’t like being babysat by something smarter than me, unless it’s my wife. I don’t like technologic wizardry. Call me old and grumpy (my wife insinuates I may have those characteristics) but every time I see an ugly Saturn with unpainted plastic bumpers, I resist the urge to run up, knock on the window, and offer the driver $600 for it.