Remember when you first started climbing, or skiing, or mountain biking, and you went out and bought all the gear, and then you immediately sped to a car dealership to purchase a reliable $45,000 sport utility vehicle so you could drive to all places you needed to go?
Me neither. I do remember, in 2006, when someone rammed into my college car, and I got really excited because I was sure it was totaled and I would finally be able to buy an all-wheel-drive station wagon. And I did, for $4,000. Its odometer just turned 220,000 miles a couple weeks ago. It smells kind of like dirt and feet now. One time last fall when I was trying to sleep in the back of it, I started thinking about how its trade-in value was $650, and the box of climbing gear I was spooning was probably twice that.
I always smile at advertising that uses outdoor sports to sell new SUVs, because hardly anyone I’ve climbed or skied with drives a new SUV, let alone an expensive one. No offense if you do drive an SUV — there are plenty of reasons for buying one. I’m just saying the marketing is interesting when you’re, well, essentially the guys and the girls in the ads.
Lots of Americans need a car with the functionality of a minivan, but they want something “sexier.” So they get an SUV. The SUV is sexier than a van, because that’s what climbers drive, right? It’s a sport utility vehicle, and “sport” = mountain sports. Which I guess makes mountain sports sexy.
But most of us outdoorsfolk drive something quite different than a Hummer H3, or BMW X5 or Mercedes G-Class. We drive old pickups with toppers, and then we sleep in the back. We drive old Honda Civics and Subaru wagons with rocket boxes and ski and bike racks on top. Volkswagen vans with stickers covering the bumpers and windows. When the power windows stop working, we help them up by hand instead of spending $300 to fix them — I mean $300, Jesus Christ, that’s like half a ski pass, or a new puffy, or five cams. Every windshield of every one of my friends’ Colorado vehicles has at least one crack in it. You just don’t see too many $60,000 SUVs at trailheads.
I was sitting in my friend’s living room talking to him about cars this past fall, and I made some remark about starting a then 2-month road trip in a car that had 200,000 miles on it and no air conditioning. He brought up his old truck, a Toyota pickup with a topper, and said it had broken down on the way back from his 5th wedding anniversary celebration, and he had battled whether or not to fix it or just get rid of it and buy something new. I asked how much the repairs cost, and he said $2,300. I said What did you decide, and he said I just bit the bullet and got it fixed. Ouch, I said, how many miles are on that truck?
I thought that was pretty rad.
Brian, another friend of mine who I consider to be a hero/mentor in the ways of living as a dirtbag tumbleweed, once bought a car in Tallahassee for $500. He drove it out to Colorado, then Moab, then all over the place. It went to Telluride Bluegrass. Then he decided he wanted to go teach English in China, so he sold all of his stuff, and the car. Without any mechanical improvements aside from an oil change and some new tires over his 10,000 miles of driving it, he sold it to someone for $950, within hours of posting it on Craigslist.
Brian e-mailed me this photo: “Take a look at that roof rack though. A pair of Yakima bars attached to some some 2×4 blocks with conduit tie-downs, which are then cam-strapped through the door frame. A solid rack though. You could probably lift that fucking car up by it. I am sort of surprised there isn’t a commercial design like this–it’s 100% universal!”
I bought a minivan a couple weeks ago. I needed something with most of the functionality of an SUV, without the sexiness. So I got an all-wheel-drive Astro Van. I got excited when I discovered it had two cupholders in front, and one perfectly held a Nalgene 1-liter bottle, and the other perfectly held my Pablo’s coffee mug. When I told friends I bought a van, a few of them asked, Did you sell your Subaru?
I said No, it’s a good car. This past weekend, I pulled it into a storage unit for a little rest, and three of the four zip-ties that have been holding the front license plate in place since 2008 disintegrated as soon as I touched them. The car has no rear defrost, and the rear windshield wiper is stuck pointing toward the sky where it had stopped a couple years ago when the wiring harness melted back there. No cruise control. The molding is missing from the entire right side of the windshield glass, having ripped off on a windy day crossing Nebraska in 2008. There’s a slight rattle coming from the gearshift, but if I turn the music up enough, I can’t hear it. The air conditioner compressor started slowly dying a couple years ago, just after I had put $1,400 into a new transmission and clutch. Baki, the owner of Roos Only, my auto shop in Denver, had opened the hood, unplugged the wire to the A/C compressor, and said, “There you go. You get some money, you get it fixed.”
But I didn’t get it fixed. I sweated my way out of Denver last July, starting a five-week road trip that turned into six months, and I put 16,000 miles on that car, drove the entire length of the Pacific Coast, to the Sawtooths, City of Rocks, the Bitterroots, Tuolumne, the Wind Rivers, Zion, the Grand Canyon. I had some of the best people in the world in the passenger seat of that car, and the only time I wanted to apologize for it was when my friend Greg and I pulled up to the valet at the Wynn Casino in Vegas, you know, sorry it smells like a dude has been living in here. But instead I just handed the lady a $5 tip.
Like I said, it’s a good car.