Home at last!

I finally made it back home, under time and under budget, I only dropped an additional $70ish dollars today, buying gas, oil, and more soft drinks. I’ll do a bigger update tomorrow with some fresh photos of the HKIGTB-mobile, but for now I’ll leave you with this quick story.

You may remember that several posts ago, I pointed out that I felt pretty good because I hadn’t been pulled over. After all, the plates don’t match the car, and well, it is a 1987 Dodge Diplomat. Tonight, five minutes from home, in Urbandale, I broke that streak.

I was in the home stretch, rocking out to the bus on the radio, and all of the sudden I noticed those tell-tale headlights in my rear-view mirror. (Crown Victoria headlights are very disctinctive, and anyone who’s ever been pulled over has had plenty of time to memorize their exact shape) Checking the shadows in the side mirror I could see that it was a cop car, and in Urbandale no less. (For those of you who don’t live in the greater Des Moines area, keep in mind that Urbandale is the sort of place that doesn’t have any real crime, so the force spends most of it’s time manufacturing it’s own.)

Just as I started to think that I’d be able to cross over into the relative safety of Des Moines I saw flashing lights. I pulled off onto a side street, and before you know it, I was stepping out of the vehicle. (You’re right James, I should have replaced that tail light.) They didn’t comment about my out of state ID, or North Carolina title, but they did want to search the car. (After years of having long hair, and/or a beard, I’m used to getting profiled, and I’ve learned over the years that if they want to search the car, you’re better off just letting them do it. They’ll find a way to search it one way or another, and assuming you’re not carrying anything that you’re not supposed to be carrying, you can watch the whole scene with a smug smirk because they’re going to turn up empty handed.

So first we waited for the second car to show up, because lord knows, there’s nothing to do in Urbandale, so we might as well get the whole force out. This guy turns up in an unmarked Crown Victoria, which might have been a good disguise 30 years ago, but the only people driving Crown Vics these days are cops and grandmothers.

So they search, and they search, and then they search some more. I got a few good laughs out of watching them pull up the rear seat and stick their hands in places I was afraid to put the shop vac when I cleaned out the interior. They couldn’t get the glovebox open so they had to ask me for help. They went through my luggage, and in fact, I’m pretty sure I saw one of the guys sniff my dirty underwear. (Word to the wise buddy, I wore those for three days, I’d wash your hands ASAP)

So, since they didn’t find anything, they decided to let me go after giving me a stern warning to take those plates off.

Like I said, home on time and under budget, and I ran the gauntlet.

I win!


Check back tomorrow for a big blog post filled with the rest of today’s excitement and some decent shots of the HKIGTB-mobile.




Let’s Keep on Rollin’!


To start things off today I’ve finally decided on a name for my newest, meanest, machine. Every good vehicle needs a name, and just like my old Subaru Impreza wagon was affectionately known as the “Green Burrito” I’ve dubbed this addition to the fleet the “Hello Kitty, I’ve Got the Blues-mobile” in light of its status as a former Nashville, Tenn. Police car and its glorious Hello Kitty accouterments.  

Today’s post is brought to you by Runza and Z Wireless. No really, I’m typing this on the demo laptop at the cell phone store where Laura works. (By the way, she can hook you up; don’t hesitate to call her at 308.380.5993)

I made Grand Island Nebraska after a long day across eastern Colorado and Western Nebraska.  After changing the fuel filter (without a set of flare wrenches it was going to be nearly impossible to get the fuel pump so I abandoned that plan) I went for a short test drive. The car still wasn’t really running optimally, at full throttle it started backfiring and kicked like a mule.

I thought about putting on the spark plug wires that came with the car, but once I opened the box it was easy to see why the previous owner hadn’t. The wires were cut-to-fit, which meant you needed a pair of spark plug crimping wires. This was an un-budgeted expense, so I decided to skip it. After all, the car seemed to do ok at part throttle, and really, who can’t drive 700 miles with only part throttle?

Side note: Years ago I had a Fox-body Mustang convertible that the transmission blew up on. After replacing it with a used unit in Tucson Arizona I set out for Des Moines. Heading down the big hill into Alamogordo New Mexico overdrive and third gear went out at the exact same moment. Suddenly we were heading down the mountain in second gear, banging off the rev limiter in heavy traffic. After pulling over to change my underwear I checked the fluid in the transmission fluid (why, I don’t know, but I checked anyways) and since the motor was still running I decided to press on. I drove from Alamogordo to central Kansas in second gear the whole way, bouncing the motor off the rev limiter at 52mph. In Kansas the alternator blew up, I threw in the towel at that point, called Justin and waited for him to show up with the truck and trailer.

So, in short, you could say have some experience with being patient. This experience was going to come in very handy in the hills of eastern Colorado. With the fuel/spark/whatever problem the car’s effective speed was hovering somewhere around 62mph. The only way that I could exceed the speed limit was the use the rolling hills as slingshot, giving all of the throttle I dared without touching the brake so I could maintain an uphill speed of somewhere around 45-50mph depending on the steepness of the hill.

Using this approach I didn’t have to worry about passing any cops unless of course they got curious about the non-matching plates, the burnt out taillight, the missing turn signal, the body damage, or any of the other semi-serious issues with the car.

Fortunately I haven’t been pulled over (yet) and I haven’t stopped rolling. There have been a few hairy moments, including the heavy rain and winds I encountered in eastern Colorado which tossed the car around like Mike Tyson kicking Steve Urkell’s ass.

Dodges of this era use a torsion bar front suspension, which Mopar freaks love, and regular folks believe is a design only slightly more advanced than the stone wheel. Based on what I read on the internet (an always reliable source, to be sure) these particular models had issues with the front suspension in severe service applications. Combined with the “light as a feather” over-boosted power steering I think I could handle any slalom by just steering with a single finger.

It also means that if you lean down to change the radio station the car is likely to violently swerve into the other lane, and when you panic and over-correct to then swerve to the opposite side. After swerving back and forth several times across both lanes of traffic I finally figured out those smaller corrective inputs would allow me to stay out of the oncoming traffic lane.

I did manage to get in some gravel travel when I made my own detour after a highway closing. With the setting sun in my rearview mirror I made tracks down some lonely gravel roads, hoping that the car held together, because I was long walk from anywhere.

After arriving in Hastings I stopped to buy gas, and after executing a U-turn (always a big of a gamble when you’re rolling with the turning radius of a city bus) and the check oil light came on. (I thought I’d been hearing a bit of a lifter tick) Two quarts of Pennzoil quieted it right down however, although I’d run into another problem.

The battery on my cell phone had been getting low, and I’d sent Flo a message telling her to meet me at the Z Wireless store in Grand Island at 1:30AM, and also to bring beer. Since my phone died before she responded I had no idea whether or not she’d gotten the message.

I can’t tell you how I excited I was to see her when I pulled into the parking lot at Z Wireless (promptly at 1:30AM I’d like to point out).

Even though it had gotten dark hours ago the heat and the humidity were still oppressive. The temperature was still over 80, and everything just felt damp and sticky. And after hours of handling the Hello Kitty steering wheel cover my hands had started to get dirty and sticky as well.

At this point, I really, really, really, wanted a shower. Sometimes the funk in the Hello Kitty I’ve Got the Blues-mobile got to be too much. Plus, I was getting really tired of the Christian radio station, which seemed to be the only thing I could pick up even after I re-bent the antenna in hopes of improving the radio reception.  


The best thing about staying with Flo in Grand Island has to be that her guest bedroom is in a basement room with no windows, which is perfect for late nights at the bar or late arrivals. You can sleep in as late as you want, and even in the midst of the hottest summer I can remember Flo’s been keeping it so cool in her basement that you could literally cure meat down there. It’s a perfect spot to rest up, relax, and sleep as late you want.

Flo, on the other hand, didn’t get as good of a deal. We stayed up until 4AM; drinking and talking outside, and then she had to get up for work at 7AM, which meant she had a much shorter night than I did. I went to bed at 4AM, but I didn’t even start to think about getting out of bed before noon.

After I woke up, took a shower, and stripped down the sheets and tossed them in the washer (am I a great house-guest or what?) I hopped back into the HKIGTB-mobile and headed across town to meet up with Flo at Z Wireless.

As soon as I got there Flo grabbed her keys and we headed over for some Runza. Now, I’ve discussed this particular tasty treat before, and it’s still the highlight of any trip to Nebraska, (besides visiting Flo of course). Also, when I set out on this great adventure I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t pass a Runza without stopping at least for one of their delicious slushies.

Passing through McCook Nebraska last night it killed me to pass a closed Runza. After eating nothing but pretzels all day (I screwed up and left the box of candy I bought on the roof of the car) I would have killed for a fresh, hot, Runza sandwich.

Seriously, if you haven’t been, you’re missing out.

Now that I’m showered up, belly full, and gas tank full, I’m waiting out the heat in hopes that sometime after five it’ll cool enough to make being in the car more bearable. Driving it across town it’s still got the same miss it had before, but I’ve already made it this far, I just need to go a little farther.

And now, time for a budget update!

Yesterday was an expensive day, I spent:

$8.47 at the Dollar Store (power steering fluid, brake fluid, water, snacks)

$6.47 at Savers (I bought a used cooler to keep my drinks ice cold)

$34.00 at the Walnut Café (I bought James lunch)

$53.01 (gas in Erie Colorado)

$7.41 (snacks and Iced Tea in Erie)

$55.02 (gas in the middle of nowhere, Western Nebraska)

$49.00 (gas in Hastings, Nebraska)

$27.05 (2 quarts of 10w40 oil, a soda, and a case of Coors beer in Hastings Nebraska)

$8.43 (a cell phone car charger, bought in Grand Island to try to charge my phone in case I needed to call Flo, but since the cigarette lighter doesn’t work this was pretty much a waste.)

I spent a total of $248.86 yesterday, leaving me with a total of 196.01 to spend. I lucked out today because Flo took me out to Runza for lunch, and I filled up the tank last night right before I got to Grand Island, which means once I hit the road I shouldn’t need to make too many stops. I’m averaging about 14.25 miles per gallon, which while not great, isn’t terrible either.


Next stop Iowa! (Look out Crystal Korth, I’m coming for you!)

Over the weekend I’ll get some of the shots uploaded onto the blog, I forgot to bring my card reader with me. For now though, I’ll leave you with this cell phone shot of the state line.

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Here We Go!

Well, just like Lane Frost said “Here we go boys, here we go!”

But first, a little back-story. With $1k burning a hole in my pocket, and after finding myself unexpectedly in Denver, I decided that the best way to get back to Des Moines was to drive back, even though nearly everyone I know thinks it’s impossible (namely my parents) I’ll feel pretty vindicated if I make it.


To make it a little tougher I’m staying off the interstate, holding myself to a strict budget, and eating at every Runza I pass by.


Burning through Craigslist I managed to find three gems, with boatloads of potential. A ’79 928s Porsche, an ’86 Subaru GL wagon, and a 1987 Dodge Diplomat, an ex cop car from Nashville Tn.


On Tuesday my brother James and I test drove two of three potentials. (We decided to rule out the Porsche once I realized that it was 2 ½ hours away from Boulder and it didn’t run.)


The first car we went to look at was the Dodge. Sitting in the owner’s backyard it had definitely seen better days. Part of the urethane nose cone was missing allowing the driver’s side headlights to dangle in the wind a little bit. It had a scrape along the passenger side doors, and the driver’s window was busted out.


It was also exceptionally filthy. It didn’t smell like a homeless guy had been living in it, but it smelt like a homeless guy might have been using it as a trashcan.


The owner had worked at Autozone once upon a time, and like most Autozone shoppers (we can forget right now about Autozone sponsoring the blog can’t we?) the car was slathered in cheap seat covers, fuzzy dice, and a steering wheel cover. A cop car remade as a Hello Kitty car.


(For those of you not familiar with Hello Kitty, well, it’s a Japanese thing. I’m not sure how much else I can tell you about it.)


Still, despite some obvious issues the car seemed to run ok during our brief test drive, and owner was pretty desperate to get rid of the damn thing.


The Subaru was another story. We got to the guy’s shop, started it up, let it idle for a few minutes, and everything seemed to be going well (a sign that we’d doubtlessly overlooked something.)


The interior was clean, fairly presentable, and it came with some interesting junk.


Sidenote: One of the best aspects of buying cheap used cars is that often, the owners don’t bother to clean them out, or they simply don’t care anymore. Which means that you end up inheriting all sorts of unusual treasures. (More on this in a minute)

In the back of the Subaru wagon was a beat up acoustic guitar (missing only one string) and a book of guitar chords. The sight of these things made my heart swell. I pictured myself, sitting on the side of the road after a devastating engine failure, waiting for a tow truck, plucking away on a 5-stringed guitar and warbling every country western song I know.


The first time we went around the block in the Subaru everything went well. Most of the guys on the Subaru club forum (well, all of them actually) had strongly suggested I buy the Subaru, and to be honest, I’ve always been a fan of the older models. We had several when I was a kid, and the GL’s have a quirky streak that’s just a mile long.  After all, who but Subaru puts the spare tire on top of the engine?


Unfortunately disaster struck on the second lap around the block. The route that wed chosen required climbing a fairly steep hill, and the second time around the Subaru just wasn’t up to the task. The car started to stumble and run roughly and halfway up the hill I made an executive move and decided to abort. I floored the throttle and with my brother hanging on for dear life I whipped around into a U-turn and we coasted back down to the bottom of the hill.


Which still left us about half a block from the guy’s shop. By dumping the clutch and flooring it, I managed to get the ‘Roo going again, but every step of the way it shuddered and shook like a mental patient undergoing shock therapy.


Of course, the seller feigned ignorance about the problem, and even though we waited it out for about 10 minutes (I was hoping he’ d offer to let the car go for say, $200, instead of $750, it didn’t look promising.)


So our pool of three became a pool of one, assuming some other deadbeat didn’t swoop in and snag the Diplomat before I could get back there.


Sidenote: I’ve always wanted to own a cop car. You guys know the drill, it’s got a cop motor, a 440 plant, the last model before catalytic converters so it’ll run good on regular gas, cop tires, cop suspension, cop shocks, whaddya say, is it the new bluesmobile or what?

The next morning I called up Eric, the guy selling the Diplomat. He was asking $700, I offered $400. (Don’t be afraid to negotiate substantial discounts when dealing with cheap used cars)


He countered with $450, and I told him I’d be over that afternoon with a check.


When we got to Eric’s house his mom was having a garage sale, and I managed to get Eric to toss in two boxes of records in the trunk of the car for free. (Of course, I also ended up paying an additional $50 for the cd player that was in the car already, so maybe it’s a push.)


We stopped at a gas station on the way home to add a little gas, which brought my total up to $531.06.


After getting back to Boulder we slapped my plates on it, and I grabbed a bucket of soapy water and started scrubbing the dash. It wouldn’t be untrue to say that the dash changed colors, going from a poop brown to more of a light tan. James got out the vacuum and we managed to get most of the broken glass from the driver’s side window out, although every time you shut the driver’s door you can hear the rest of the glass rattling around inside.


All in all I spent about 2-3 hours scrubbing the interior, vacuuming out the trunk, and inventorying the interesting stuff that came with the car. It’s not a Bill Morton job, but it looks a lot better than it did. What follows is a partial list of what we found in the car.


Condom wrappers and box (empty, thank God)

Broken glass

A pair of Vise Grips

Several miscellaneous sockets, and a T-handle

Flyers advertising a website called www.JeffGoldblumiswatchingyoupoop.com

The A/C compressor

The smog pump

The original air cleaner assembly

A kazoo (no one was brave enough to see if it worked)

A speaker grill

Pokemon cards

A new fuel pump still in the box

2 docu-dent kits (unused, despite the body damage)

Heart-shaped ruby ring

Spark plug wires (new)

Old business cards, fast food wrappers, small pieces of hard candy, and assorted nuts

Numerous ballpoint pens


Tennessee temporary plate

Receipts for carb rebuild, new radiator, and new water pump


It seems like it’s running a little rough so we made a test flight over to the auto parts store to pick up a new fuel filter in hopes of solving the problem. After $24.07 in auto parts I had a new fuel filter, some RTV (solves almost any problem), power steering stop leak, and a few screws (some of the trim is nearly falling off).


This morning I replaced the fuel filter (the pump is going to require tools I don’t have with me at the moment, so back into the trunk it went) and took it for a long test drive. It felt better, but it still seemed to be down on power, and possibly missing a little bit. Based on some internet research, I’m guessing the lean burn distributor and module may be the culprit, and while a new “orange box” ignition control module and distributor may be the fix, I don’t want to wait another day, and order parts that would blow up my budget to fix it. There’s a junkyard in Greta, Nebraska that has the window I need, hopefully I can grab a distributor and the wiring there, and I’ll need a new module. (If I need it, I may be able to make it all the way home without it.)


With $444.87 left in my budget, I’ve got half a tank of gas, and I’m headed to the dollar store to score some cheap snacks, get some lunch at the Walnut Café, and then it’s time to hit the road. I’ll try and post up to the minute updates on Facebook, and I’ll get a longer update with pictures when I stop next.


Next stop, Grand Island, Nebraska! (Get ready Laura Flores!)


The $1K Challenge (Or I Might Be Crazy)

This is burning a hole in my pocket:


After coming to Denver, Colorado on an unexpected last minute trip, I’ve got to find a way to get back to Des Moines, Iowa. As any math major can tell you, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and the easy way to get home would be to buy a plane ticket, ($248 on United Airlines, according to Kayak.com) but that wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as my plan.


Instead of taking the easy way out and buying the plane ticket, I’ve got another idea. I’m going to buy a car to drive back to Des Moines. If you’ve got plenty of cash, it’s pretty easy to buy a car that’ll haul you across three states (including the desolate wilderness of Nebraska), but what if you’re not loaded?


Sure, five thousand, even two thousand dollars will easily net you a reliable ride to roll you down Interstate 80 in style, but what happens when you slash that budget in half?


Giving myself a budget of $1000, I’m going to buy a car, make any necessary repairs, and count on the sucker to haul me all the way home. I’ll account for every penny spent on the car, including gas, oil, and any other miscellaneous expenses that come up. To make things even more interesting I’ll set a few rules for myself.


1.     The $1000 amount must include everything: i.e. food, lodging, repairs, the purchase price of the car, as well as the countless fountain sodas I’ll undoubtedly be consuming on the way home.

2.     No interstates. Taking I-76 to I-80 is the easy way. I’m going to hit the highways this time, taking a route that’s nearly all two-lane blacktop across Western Colorado and into Nebraska. (This may cause me to spend enough time traversing Nebraska to consider suicide, but that’s why rule #3 will be my saving grace.)

3.     I won’t pass a Runza without stopping in to eat. For those of you who don’t know, Runza serves delicious loose meat sandwiches filled with gooey melted cheese and allows their customers unlimited access to their slushie machine.  This is good stuff folks, and it’s usually the highlight of my pass-through visits to Nebraska.

4.     The car has to be a fun car, an interesting car, in short, a car guy car. I’ll run it at the local SCAA autocross when I get home, and it should be a car that other guys at least “get”, if they don’t admire it.

5.     I’ll attempt to sell the car when I get home, and assuming I’m able to get back to Des Moines, hit the SCAA autocross, and send it down dirt roads sideways I’ll attempt to recover my investment. If I break even I’m declaring this whole adventure to be a huge success.


So, let’s look at some potentials then shall we? I spent the morning browsing Craigslist (manna from heaven for anyone looking for a cheap, interesting, set of wheels) and I’ve narrowed it down to three distinct possibilities. One German, one Japanese, and one American. (It’s a pity that I don’t have two other friends with an endless supply of time on their hands, because I’ll only be able to purchase one of these beauties.)


But since I can only bring one I’m relying on you dear readers. So vote early, and vote often, and I’ll try to bring the winner home!


The German

In the first corner, hailing all the way from Stuttgart, Germany is a 1979 Porsche 924s. The seller has had it for sale on Craigslist for over a month now, originally listing it for $1400, but recently he’s come down to $1000. While it’s rust free, a five speed, and the desirable “S” model, it does need a little help. The seller claims that the fuel pump is out of the car right now, but tossing a little gas down the carburetor lets it fire right up. Over the phone the seller told me he’s willing to deal, and offered me the car sight unseen for $800. I’m confident he’s willing to take less.


Pros: It’s a Porsche, duh! High potential resale value, rust free, interior and exterior look like they’re in good shape, but everything could use a good cleaning.


Cons: In direct violation of my Mother’s “if you can’t drive it around the block, don’t buy it rule”, no idea how long it’s been sitting, parts are expensive and somewhat difficult to find.


The Rising Sun

On the other side of the world is our next contender, a 1986 Subaru GL Wagon, equipped with 4×4 and a manual transmission. Also rust free and clean, the Scoob has been for sale for about a month on Craigslist with no takers. Currently the owner has lowered the price from $850 to $750, perhaps in hopes of enticing a cheapskate like me to call in. While the boxer engine and the rugged durability hasn’t changed, these older Subaru models are a lot different than the 02 WRX wagon I took on the ALCAN Rally last year. They’re true 4×4’s, not AWD, and in the early 80’s they still featured lots of unusual quirks that Subaru was famous for. (For example, the spare tire is mounted over the engine in these cars, made possible by the low height of Subaru’s famous boxer engines.) It’s also unusual to see such a clean example of the model, most were prone to rust, got used hard, and put away wet.


Pros: Easily the cleanest GL wagon I’ve seen for sale in years. Famous Subaru reliability and good resale potential means that making it home would be a no-brainer.


Cons: Not nearly as exciting as the Porsche, most girls who like Subarus played softball in college (if you catch my drift).


The Red, White, and Blue

Last, but never least, is the American contender. The 1987 Dodge Diplomat is a model that most Americans have likely forgotten. Prior to the return of the Chrysler 300 and the Dodge Charger, it was the last rear wheel drive sedan that Mopar built. This example happens to be the police version, which is its saving grace. Equipped with a 318-wedge motor, a Rochester four-barrel carburetor, headers, and duel exhaust, this is the perfect machine to live out those Blues Brothers fantasies. (You’re saying the lines right now aren’t you?) This particular example was a Nashville; TN police car that’s somehow found it’s way to Denver. Along the way vandals broke the driver’s side window, and the state of Colorado labeled it as a gross polluter, which means it’ll have to be titled out of state. (Not a problem for a guy holding a pair of Iowa license plates, just begging for a new home.) At just $700, it’s calling my name just like a Springsteen song.


Pros: It’s a V8, it’s made to slide around on gravel roads, I can repeat Blues Brothers movie dialog all the way home. The major hard parts are usually indestructible.


Cons: Gas mileage, gas mileage, gas mileage.  Oh, and I’d need to find a new window somewhere.


Tune in tomorrow after some car shopping, and hopefully I’ll have a new update, with pictures!


The Return of the Desert Fox

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Best Friend James and I headed out to the desert earlier this week to get some shots of the Mean Machine while she’s still (mostly) in full rally trim. There’s a town out on the edges of the Mojave known as California City, where at some point city planners built roads and put up signs for a huge subdivision that never was, making it a destination point for off-roaders of all shapes and sizes.

Since it was a Monday we saw nary another soul while we were out there, but it’s pretty clear that some sections of the subdivision have been marked off to make a rudimentary racetrack. Since the tune’s still a little off and snows on the goldies are a couple of years old we took it pretty easy, but we did mark a few locations to head back to in the future.

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Valdez, Again and the End of the Fellowship


After all of the Iditarod run, we headed back to Valdez on Sunday afternoon to see about getting the clutch replaced. Nate, whose number I got from Jerry, called me, and suggested that I call his buddy Geo, and that Geo would be willing to let me use his shop to replace the clutch.

When I got in touch with Geo on Sunday night, hoping that I’d be able to get started on things Monday morning he told me he wouldn’t be available until Monday night to get the car into the shop.

Bummer. I was really hoping to get things moving along, in hopes of getting back out on the road as soon as possible. Every day we’re stuck in Valdez costs us close to $200 with food, hotel, etc. (All of this, and they still haven’t fixed the Wi-Fi at the Best Western, although the free breakfast is pretty first rate.)

So with Monday to kill we decided to go skiing. Sara had never been, and Valdez is known as one of the premier locations for heli-skiing in the United States.

First off, I should mention that we didn’t go heli-skiing. Although, at $8k for a week’s worth of heli time, it sounds like it couldn’t be much more expensive than the ALCAN was. Rather we found a local shop called the Prospector, where we were able to rent skis and then we spent several hours driving around looking for what locals told us was called the “road run”.

Note: Despite being a premier destination for heli skiing Valdez doesn’t have a traditional ski resort or anything like that. The “road run”, turned out to be just that, running down the side of the highway back into town.  I called Nate and asked him where I could find the road run, to which he told me, “Bro, if your girl’s never skied before, then you don’t want her out on the road run.”

Instead, we settled for Salmon Berry Hill, Valdez’s newest, and only ski facility. It’s a big hill with a tow rope, but it was plenty fast enough for our needs. It also happened to be closed the day we were there, but that didn’t stop us from hiking up the top, skiing down, and then hiking back up again. (In short, we trudged 30 minutes through the snow in order to ride 5 minutes down, only to go back and do it over and over again.)

Mom, Dad, and Ryan opted not to ski, and I spent most of my time helping Sara get the basics down, but she and Daniel got a few good runs in.

Heading back to the hotel I got a call from Geo that he wanted me to bring the car over to the shop so that we could get it inside and warmed up. So Mom and I dropped everyone else off at the hotel and went back to Nate’s shop to get the car, and make one last pass at mastering our flat towing skills.

Actually, it went a lot better this time. The only time that was really nerve wracking was when Mom missed a turn, and I nearly hit a snow bank.

At the shop we got the car, inside (heated floors!) and made the arrangements. I needed to pay Geo $250 per day to use the shop, and I needed to work out a similar arrangement with Aaron to assist me. Aaron was to be on hand to supervise, show me where things were located, and hand me tools when needed. (Aaron’s job turned out to be a lot more than that, but we’ll get to that later.)

A note on Geo’s shop: It’s quite possibly the cleanest shop that I’ve ever been inside in my life. The floors were clean enough to eat off, the walls were stark white, and every tool was neatly organized and put away in its proper place. The crash was well organized, and had a place for nearly every tool you’d want closely at hand. (Justin Fyfe, eat your heart out!)

Aaron and I decided that we’d get started at 8AM the next morning, and that Mom and Dad offered to drop me off on their way out of town so that Daniel and Ryan didn’t have to wake up early.

That night it started to snow, and I mean, it really started to snow. The forecast was for two feet of snow, and when we woke up that morning, it was clear they weren’t lying.

I managed to brush enough snow off the rental to get it out of the parking lot, we loaded up Mom and Dad’s bags, and after a quick stop to buy coffee and get gas we were headed to Geo’s. Mom and Dad dropped me off, and I headed over to Aaron’s trailer to wake him up so that we could get started.

I won’t bore you with the details here, but let’s just say that if the book rate (the amount of time it’s supposed to take) is 8 hours, it took us a lot longer than that. In fact, it took us 24 hours. It takes a long time when you install the throwout bearing incorrectly, and then you have to take everything out and start over again. It takes a long time when you don’t know how to separate the axles. In short, it just took a very long time. We drank large quantities of PBR (Sorry Geo, I owe you a case) and even when we got tired, we just kept working. Aaron was determined that I wouldn’t have to pay Geo for another day of using the shop, and we both had set our sights on the free breakfast at the Best Western. After finally wedging the intercooler into place we fired it up for the first time in days. She started on the first kick, and when I put the transmission in gear, the wheels moved! I was so happy I could have cried.

Note: Huge thanks to Paul Eklund and Blake Lind here. They both served as my shop manual, and they were the first person I called every time I hit the wall. Thanks again guys! And as for the rest of you, go buy something from Paul’s company Primitive why don’t you?

As we backed the car out of the shop it was hard to believe that I’d been up for 24 hours. Man, I was tired. I also was really looking forward to that breakfast at the Best Western. Aaron caught a ride with me in the WRX because his truck wouldn’t start, and we ran into Sara in the lobby. Breakfast was fantastic, but it was hard to keep my eyes open. Sara and I said goodbye to Aaron again, and thanked him for his help, and then I went upstairs to take a shower, while Sara tried to wash some of the grease out of my clothes so I’d have at least one clean pair of pants to wear.

After sleeping 2 hours, (thanks for the late checkout Best Western!) we loaded up the car and headed out. Well, we headed about a mile, and then we stopped for lunch at Fu Kung (yes, it’s really called Fu Kung) for lunch.

While I’d been working on the car nonstop Sara, Daniel, and Ryan had been taking in the sights of Valdez. Between the people who stopped into the shop, and the folks that the 3 amigos met, we were getting to be pretty well known in Valdez.  Case in point, Sara, Daniel, and Ryan had dinner at Fu Kung the night before with the same waitress, so she greeted them by first name when they walked in the door that afternoon.

We made quick work of Thompson pass, and it wasn’t long before we were back in Tok again. For those of you that didn’t Google it, (everyone except Crystal Korth) it’s pronounced Toke, just like Bob Marley used to do it.

Unfortunately, there was no room in the inn for us at Fast Eddie’s, which meant we needed to find a different place to stay. The clerk at Fast Eddie’s recommended the Snowshoe Inn, and thus, we decamped and headed to try a new motel. (I will try to not every use the word hotel in this narrative, simply because nearly everywhere we stayed was a motel, rather than a hotel.)

The Snowshoe had a distinct charm, if funk is a charm that is. Each room was actually divided into two rooms, with a hallway/bathroom separating the two. But I digress. I’d slept 2 hours in the last 48, and it was a bed, it was warm, and I couldn’t see any cockroaches from where I was standing. At some point, there’s just no reason to be picky.

The next morning we got up early and headed back out onto the road, with a goal of reaching Watson Lake by the end of the night.

We drove, and we drove, and then we drove some more. By late afternoon, we’d reached Whitehorse, the town where my gas cans were stolen, and we’d started to pick up some serious weather. Big, fat, fluffy flakes were raining down on us, and Daniel decided that he’d put in enough time on the road today. They wanted to stay in Whitehorse and Sara and I decided to press on, confident that we’d be able to make Watson Lake before midnight.

On a street corner in downtown Whitehorse we shook hands, said our goodbyes, and the last two ALCAN teams parted company, headed out alone into the night.


The Finish Line, At Last!

While some of the ALCAN teams are home, for others the adventure is just beginning.

After hitching a ride to Anchorage with Jake he managed to help me find a clutch and flywheel available in Anchorage. Where you ask? At Alaska Clutch of course! (Right down the street from Alaska Brake and Alaska Muffler)

After picking up the clutch I checked into my room in Anchorage, rounded up as much of my luggage as I could, and freshened up before grabbing the shuttle over to the banquet. It was kind of bittersweet heading over to the banquet, knowing that the ALCAN adventure was over. It seemed like we’d come such a long way, and met so many interesting people along the way.

Case in point, at Alaska Clutch the owner apologized for not having a rebuilt clutch to sell me, and didn’t want to sell me the new flywheel since he was confident that I wouldn’t need it. He also took me into the backroom of his shop to show me his hobby, which was forging custom knives. (They are very, very, very sharp!)

That night at the banquet Gary won first overall, and made a magnificent speech to the group, reminding all of us that it’s an adventure first, and a race second. Mom and I got a DNF, which was expected but Jerry still gave us an Arctic Award glass for being such good sports.

Side note: Since the legendary Paul Eklund and R. Dale also finished with a DNF when people ask how the ALCAN went I can casually mention that well, I finished tied with Paul in the final standings.

Paul was looking pretty sharp in his tuxedo complete with matching bow tie and cummerbund that night, although it was a relief to find out that everyone else was wearing a t-shirt and jeans for the most part. (I’d read through Paul’s blog of past ALCANs to prepare for the most part, and bombarded Paul with long phone calls on a daily basis, so I wasn’t quite sure that the banquet wasn’t a black tie affair.)

The Marc/k’s generously kicked in $100 towards the purchase of a new clutch, which was greatly appreciated.

After the end of the banquet we decided to hit the town and see how much hell we could raise in Anchorage. Brian, Troy, John, Daniel, Ryan, Paul, and Nicki, and myself headed down to Darwin’s Theory on the basis of the front desk clerk’s recommendation.

With the Iditarod going on the bars where packed full of out of towners which meant that it was standing room only. And not just standing room only, but we were standing in the barmaid’s path, which meant that she pushed me aside nearly every four minutes as she made her rounds through the crowded bar. After a series of Yukon Jack shots (don’t get confused and ask for Yukon Gold, that’s a type of potato, and they’ll laugh at you) we stumbled out into the street.

We hit another bar, the F Street lounge, after a suggestion from a local, and although its clientele was primarily flight attendants and pilots we managed to make ourselves feel at home.

The F Street Bar also featured the largest block of cheddar cheese that I’ve ever seen sitting on the bar. On top of the block of cheese was a cheese slicer, and next the block was a bowl full of saltine crackers. Yet, despite all of the promises implied within, a large sign above the block of cheese specifically forbade eating the cheese.

Five shots of Yukon Jack and four Alaska Ambers to the good, I decided I didn’t care anymore, I was going for it

I ate the cheese. Surprisingly good, although a little warmer than I would have liked, which may be a result from it sitting out all night.  Forget popcorn, every bar should have a giant block of cheese on the bar.

Before too long it was getting close to the witching hour, and I needed to get back to the hotel to ride the shuttle over to the airport to meet Sara. Ryan graciously agreed to accompany me, and the rest of the group decided that they’d check out was rumored to be Alaska’s finest strip club, the Alaskan Bush Company.

Note: They found it, although not without a few challenges. At one point they became severely disoriented and managed to walk all the way from downtown Anchorage to the airport, in heavy snow (John wasn’t a coat) before flagging down a cab and riding across town to the strip club. Instead of heading back to the hotel like he said, Troy told the driver to take them to the nearest strip club. Once there, they had to switch Brian over to water immediately and on the cab ride home they were so drunk the driver took them on a ride around town, racking up a $25 fare before dropping them back off at the hotel. Considering the circumstances, I’d say it’s a miracle no one froze to death in a snow bank.

(John also reported that the strippers were not nearly as attractive as the cocktail waitresses, and none of them could hold a candle to the women of Whitehorse.)

Ryan and I took the easy way out. We picked up Sara, I fell asleep in the shuttle on the way back to the hotel, and then I didn’t even bother suggesting that we go back out.

Waking up the next morning felt strange. No car to pack, no coffee to gulp down, no TSD math to triple check. It reminded me of a scene from Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods. In the book, Bryson and a high school friend decide to walk the Appalachian Trail, from top to the bottom. After a month of carrying a heavy pack they finally reach a break in the trail where they’re able to do some laundry, make phone calls home, and eat at McDonalds again. For Bryson, the sensation of walking around town without the heavy backpack was exhilarating.

For us, the feeling was the same. We didn’t walk, or trudge. We strolled, we ambled with our hands in our pockets, and we took in the displays in store windows. After 9 days on the ALCAN running right through the world it was nice to have a day where we didn’t drive anywhere.

Tourism note: You can walk to nearly anywhere in Anchorage. Seriously, even in the winter. It’s not a very big town.

But, after a long farewell dinner with the remaining teams at the Benihana in the parking lot of the hotel on Saturday night it was time to face facts. There was a clutch kit and flywheel sitting on the bed in my hotel room and I had a date with destiny.

Sunday afternoon we packed up the rental car, and Mom, Dad, Sara, and I, with Daniel and Ryan from car 20 accompanying us headed back to Valdez to start the second part of our big adventure, the journey home.

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Rolling to Tok

New clutch in and we are headed to Tok.

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Way Up North, to Alaska!

Note: I wrote this in Valdez, but due to an exceptionally poor internet connection at the Best Western, and general fatigue, I’m just now getting around to posting it.


Tok Junction to Valdez

Fast Eddies is quite the place. For dinner, the waitresses brought huge plates of food, both tasty and reasonably priced. For any of the ALCAN teams that had eaten at the Chinese restaurant in front of the Robber’s Roost in New Hazelton this was a god send.

Note: If you didn’t eat at the Chinese place then consider yourself very, very lucky.

In the morning we all went back to Fast Eddies for a buffet that was a mixed bag of ALCAN teams and snowmobile racers. It may be de rigueur to sport a beard if you race snowmobiles, but I’ll admit they did have an impressive array of winter gear.

Leaving the hotel the clutch was slipping a little bit, but after talking to Paul Eklund and a few others, I decided that Mom and I ought to keep going. After all, we’d come this far, and I was really thinking that we’d be able to nurse the clutch at least to the ferry in Haines Alaska, and then back to Portland.

(Insert ominous foreboding music here)

Leaving Tok Junction, and heading west with the other teams we were able to rejoin our back of the pack crew with cars, 20, 17, and 18. Brian ended up falling behind us a little in the Volvo due to some mechanical issues and when we stopped for gas at a junction somewhere he hadn’t quite caught up to us yet, although he was running hard.

Unfortunately, he was running a little too hard for the likes of the Alaska State Troopers. Both Brian and Colin got speeding tickets, and while we waited for them to catch up we checked out the gas station.

Note: Gas stations are always interesting. It’s amazing to see the variety of things they sell, or don’t sell. This one had a huge souvenir section that was actually larger than the food and snacks area. It also had a food truck. That served Thai food. In the middle of nowhere Alaska. Diamond Jim and Christy reported that the food was really good too. Of all of the things I’d seen in Alaska before, this blew me away.

I mean really, a food truck? That serves good Thai food? These guys were definitely ahead of the curve.

As we headed into the mountains the clutch started to slip a little more, and then a little more. To conserve it as best as I could I adopted a strategy of speeding down the mountains as fast as I could and then coasting up the mountains to try and keep the clutch from slipping nearly as much.

The scenery on this run was fantastic. Absolutely amazing, we pulled over several times to take pictures of mountains moose, and everything in between.

To get into Valdez there’s a mountain pass that you have to navigate. At first it’s all uphill, and then just like Isaac Newton promised, it’s all downhill. Running downhill through the Bridal Veil Falls, which are frozen in the winter, is one of the most amazing sights I’ve ever seen. The falls like someone just said stop, and they froze. (I know, I know, it’s winter, these things happen)

And then, Valdez. I’d read about the snowfall in Valdez, I’d seen pictures, listened to reports on the radio and television. (When your friends find out that you’re planning a trip to Alaska in the middle of the winter, they really enjoy forwarding you stories about the extreme weather conditions that you’ll encounter.)

There’s a lot of snow in Valdez. There’s so much snow that the first thing we saw when we hit town was a guy with a snow blower cleaning off the roof of the grocery store. There’s so much snow every street sign is buried in snow, and the names of the streets are spray painted onto the snow banks at every intersection.

But for all the snow, there was something that Valdez had that made Troy and John very happy. A coffee shop! They claimed it served pretty decent coffee too, although honestly, as long as it was open I don’t think would have cared too much about the quality of the coffee.

After gassing up, and coffee-ing up, we headed up to the ice race. Epic snowfalls meant that it was impossible for the city staff in Valdez to plow the ice racing course, but they were able to find a street where we’d be able to practice our race car driving skills. It also happened to be the street that lead to the town dump, but hey, who’s counting?

Basically, the course was about a mile long each way, and required the driver to execute a Rockford turn at the end to return back to the starting line. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Rockford turn, it’s named after Jim Rockford, a detective on a TV show. Rockford, played by actor James Garner would often end up needed to turn his Pontiac Firebird around and head the other way. There’s a little more to it than that, but basically, pulling the handbrake, and cranking the wheel around will get you there.

(Whoops, it’s actually a bootlegger’s turn, not a Rockford turn) You can read more about it here.

So, a word about Mom. She’s done pretty well on the ALCAN, but when she gets nervous she starts to get real snappy. As we lined up for the first runs on the course it was pretty obvious that Mom was getting a little worried. I tried to suggest to her that even if she drove the course at 30mph instead of 90 she’d still have a good run.

I told her not to worry about the clutch too, since everyone (including me) was pretty confident that it had enough life left to at least get it onto the ferry.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t true by a long shot. The clutch expired on Mom’s first run, and she had to coast the last 100 yards.

We weren’t; the only team who paid the butcher’s bill on the ice race however. Colin managed to roll his A4, and Paul blew up the motor in his Forester.

Colin was the luckiest by a long shot. When you roll an A4, you just flip it over, add a little power steering fluid, and tape up the hole when the sunroof used to be.

Paul and I were going to need a tow.

Note: There’s only one towing company in Valdez. The idea that two people with Subaru’s might need a tow, and that said tow might need to be to Anchorage was too much for them to process. The dispatcher kept telling me, right you already called, and I kept telling her, no, that’s the other guy.

So, to get back to the hotel, the South Africans, team 22 offered to flat tow the car. When I agreed, I must have forgotten that it was down a mountain. On icy, windy roads.

Now, let me just say this. I’ve flat towed before. But I’m from Iowa. I’ve flat towed on flat surfaces. Coming down the mountain I thought I literally might die. Following me in the M3 with Daniel and Ryan Mom said that the fear radiating off me was so palatable that she could feel it even in the M3.

We dropped the car in the car in the parking lot behind the hotel and when I went back out to grab the bags a guy approached me and said I was parked on US Government Property. The exchange we had might go down in history as one of the dumbest things I’ve ever said.

Me: US Government? Is this an Army base or something?

Guy: No, it’s a Coast Guard facility.

Me: Coast Guard? Is there a body of water around here?

Guy: Yeah, it’s called the Ocean, its right behind you.

I was tired. The clutch it dead, but we’ve got a plan. A friend of Jerry’s has offered the use of his shop to work on the car, and since Sara is flying up I’m hoping she can buy a clutch and flywheel in Los Angeles and stuff it into her suitcase. Then we’ll just have to come back to Valdez, RandR the clutch and we’ll be on our way. Simple right?

Also, Steve and Bill, in car 13 had made it back. They put some long hours in on the road, but they might end up being the only team to finish the entire route this year.

I’ll update more tomorrow, but it’s getting late, and tomorrow is sure to be filled with more excitement.


The Eagle Plains Crew Hits The Arctic Circle!

Update: Looks like the Eagle Plains crew did make it at least as far as Inuvik, check out Annette’s blog with pictures here.

I don’t think the make it to Tuk, but they made it farther north than any of the other teams did, and they stuck it out when things were looking pretty grim. Here’s hoping they’ll make it to Anchorage in time to rejoin the rest of the group.

As for the rest of us, we’re going to ice racing today! I’ll do my very best to get video of Mom’s ice racing runs to post tonight after we make it to Valdez.

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