After a summer of skyrocketing gas prices and a desire to drive as little as possible, I thought back to when I drove the West Coast twice, mostly alone, in a 1976 Chevy Vega. , Google the car to see what hardships I put on myself. It was my college car, so when I got an internship in Modesto, California, it made sense to drive it west.
A guy in my dorm lived in San Francisco, I offered to take him home. We drove a third person to Springfield, Ohio, literally let him go at an intersection and I never saw him again. It’s a wonder I had room for anything else in this car. I was young and stupid, and I thought we could go all the way without stopping. I was wrong. We made it to Laramie, Wyoming, which is 1,400 miles from our starting point in Athens. This would end up being our only stop before reaching the Bay Area.
The trusty, rusty Vega survived the summer. I delayed leaving California at the end of the summer to attend a mega-concert called the American Festival and left myself just enough time to return to Athens for classes.
Over the summer I had bought a cat named Nikkor (the brand name for the lens of Nikon cameras) and started the journey east with the little guy who rode a shotgun . Dorm mate moved back to Athens, probably because the Vega had no air conditioning, and we couldn’t decide what music to listen to for thousands of miles.
I stopped at the Bonneville Salt Flats Visitor Center and started talking to a college student from Minnesota who had spent the summer hiking in California. I offered to take her to Iowa. He was a better member of the road crew than the dorm mate heading west. We had a great time and I dropped it off in Iowa before stopping a few rides later for the only stop I made eastbound. I arrived in Athens with enough time to make a quick trip to Marietta to drop off the cat.
A year later, I was a college graduate looking for his first job.
In August, I accepted a job at the Mesa Tribune in Arizona. The Vega headed west again, still without air conditioning. It stopped working in Des Moines and about every 200 miles thereafter. Despite visiting with a few dodgy mechanics along the way, I was never able to determine what was causing the engine to suddenly stop. Driving through Oklahoma, a father and son who were from Meigs County stopped to see if I needed help and towed me to the next exit with an old piece of rope that I had in the trunk. They were my angels sent from home in a Ford van.
The engine shutdown problem has never happened in Arizona, not once. That never happened on the long drive home when the Arizona newspaper cut staff and I left.
I continued to drive the Vega for the first year I worked full-time at the Times. For some strange reason he only seemed to stop when I drove him to Caldwell.
I never understood the link. Last I saw it was in the parking lot of McDonald’s in Glendale, hood up, in the rain, as the next owner tried, probably unsuccessfully, to figure out why it wasn’t working.
I had paid $800 for the car and sold it 40,000 miles later for $400, making it the best value car I had ever owned. There was something about the surprise factor of never knowing when it would stop that probably kept me from owning the popular and now well-built brand again. Being stranded on the side of I-40 in Iowa was a life lesson I could have done without. To this day, I have never done cross country again.
Art Smith is the Times Online Manager, he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org