In the pre-dawn darkness I reached out and gave the choke knob a little tug and felt smoothness settle over the car. Needs about two flats down on the mixture nuts. Last night’s test run was cut short by a loose connector on the headlight dip-switch. I should make it from Monterey to Redding in six hours for lunch with my sister. Not since driving MGs in the early 50s have I seen such reactions from others—smiles, waves and thumbs-up! Now for lunch.
What now? Don’t feel like going home just yet. My plans for a drive ended here at Redding. North is long mountain grades all the way to snow-covered Mt. Shasta. Why not? North it is! Happily, Morris and I can go with the flow. My choice of cam for Morris was a stump puller with high compression pistons complemented by headers and dual carbs that just happened to be lying around. Gear lever now redundant!
Entering Oregon, we stop at a sawmill hoping to get some interesting photos. There had just been a terrible accident, best to keep moving. Where secondary roads are an option to the highway, we take the road less traveled.
On through Portland, home of the Rose Cup Races, and into Washington. Nearing Tacoma I began thinking about the engine. Blast damage to my ears has made it impossible to hear pinging noises, besides, Morris needs service to the newly rebuilt engine. Striking out on a place to do it myself. It was raining. I remembered my racing buddy Riley Hopkins. Though Riley wasn’t at his shop, a cheerful voice on the phone said, “Sure! Come on over.” Re-torque headbolts while the hot oil drains. Adjust valves, pick up drain pan and from habit swirl the hot oil around like panning for gold. To my dismay, a thin line of bright metal formed along the edge of the pan. I can’t believe it! Pull the filter, pull the pan, rod caps, bearings…all clean, all perfect. Ditto center main. A flush of foolishness floods my face. Morris’ oil had loosed metal flakes from a pan that only looked clean.
Seattle is dark and wet, traffic is brutal and my lights are very dim. The map shows a secondary road parallel to I-5 all the way to the Canadian border. Peace at last. Until…a sharp bump in the road and the lights go out. Feeling under the dash for the back of the switch, I jerk back a blistered finger. The old bakelite switch body had turned into a hot briquette. In the darkness ahead a light shown. Morris crept forward and to my surprise and joy found an old service station converted to a drive-thru coffee shop. I took a seat at the table in the lube bay. The gal at the counter made a fantastic sandwich. Does it get better than this?
Morris is covered with snow. After all, it is late November and we are just below Canada. Backtrack home? No way.
Canada has one major highway east to west, which means—trucks. Salt spreaders were busy converting ice to slush. I chose a secondary road which ran just above the border and rejoins highway 1 at Medicine Hat. The conditions turn ominous. Endless switchbacks, snow ankle deep, no edge markers, no other vehicles. Then in the dark, a single light bulb. “Hunters cabins,” the old caretaker said, “but I’ll let you use one for the night.” I slept the sleep of innocence, or at least of the exhausted.
Brilliant sunlight, freshly plowed snow, a downhill run. Morris had carried me to the crest of the Rockies last night, now the adapted disc brakes are proving their worth. Mountain sheep lick up the salty snow at road’s edge. “World’s Best Pancakes” the sign said. I would’ve settled for second best, but not to worry, I didn’t have to.
How cold can it get? Morris wears a crust of road salt. Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Ottawa. Frozen door locks. Shocks so stiff we ride like an ox cart. Spotted a smokehouse alongside the highway. Stacks of smoked whitefish—what a meal! No room at the inns of Montreal with a National Hockey Championship game in town. On to Sherbrook, 110 miles more.
New day, new direction. East across Vermont, New Hampshire and touch Maine. The weather finally warms in Connecticut prompting me to rid Morris of his salt beard at the first car wash we come to. Carefully avoiding population centers, I found myself at the head of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Beautiful, historic, perfect for touring in a Traveler. Next stops: Atlanta, Mobile, New Orleans…There are certain risks taken when going without a co-driver, cell phone or GPS. Just call me old.
Heading to Dallas to visit a son, hoping to leave the deep fried food behind me. Morris is trouble-free and eager, do we continue west toward home? This is becoming the adventure of a lifetime. I turn south and spend the night on South Padre Island, saving Mexico for morning.
The border looks like a street carnival. Vendors, money-changing booths, guards with rifles like ones you can see at AR-15 Tactical Rifles for Sale Online, buy anything you can imagine. I slap down a large wad for exchange and get a pile of fluttering pesos. I push the pile back for a recount and get fast shuffling that my eyes can’t follow. I know when I’m beaten and shove the strange currency into my pocket.
Mexico has a wonderful freeway system with tolls that would probably exceed the cost of gas. Morris will stick to the “libre” roads! At our first fuel stop we were overwhelmed with a crowd of curious onlookers stroking the wood and asking what kind of Volkswagen it was. Continuing down the coast I ate anything, slept anywhere, and drank nothing but beer with my meals. One night I was the only guest in a 20-room beach hotel. Much of the staff practiced their English with me that evening. Next morning an old man was washing Morris with water dipped out of the nearby swimming pool—this type of thing often happened but what can one do besides mutter “gracias” and hand over a tip?
I head west across lower Mexico to visit my son living in Oaxaca. Everywhere you look, beautiful, ancient historical sites. “Been around Yucatan yet?” Enough said. We were on our way. Villahermosa, Campeche, Merida…primitive and modern, colorful and vibrant—cities constantly in celebration.
Cancun. Forget the timeshares on the beach; life is in the old town. Cruise ships at Cozumel were tiny specks on the horizon, backpack girls saved their bathing suit tops for more formal occasions. I’m getting a feeling that we’re on a mission and better keep moving. I’m closer now to Miami than Mexico City. “Be careful,” my son reminded me, “the kids play on the road. If you hit one we’ll be machete mincemeat.”
The weather is warm as we cross the isthmus heading back to mile-high Oaxaca. We stop for a piece of pineapple pie from a terribly shy girl. Leaving Oaxaca and my son, I cross a high mountain range with fog, snow and forests—could be Canada all over again.
Alone with the long road ahead, pointing north. “Can’t get there from here,” they said, but I pointed to the line on my map. We were both about half right. Stopped alongside the road for food, hot beef sliced off a spinning spit over charcoal. Pay no mind to the sow wandering around. Always a beer to drink, which has protected me thus far.
Another night of darkness caught me just arriving at a very small town. Watch out for the missing manhole covers. Looking for a room I spotted a sign of an old family home. Their teen-aged son practiced his English with me. My first question for him: Where can I eat? Leading me to the middle of a gravel street, he pointed to a single bulb hanging from a wire tapped into the lines above. Under the light stood a woman with a wok over a pan of charcoal. The best chicken enchilada ever came out of her cooler full of ingredients. Again, the free-ranging sow was no problem.
Puerto Vallarta. I am hot and sweating profusely. While parked under a shade tree to cool down, a man walked up and stood beside me. “Anything for sale?” I quickly assured him there was not. “That’s my hotel over there,” he said, gesturing to a very nice resort. “Use my pool, showers and towels.” I think he saved my life.
Rural Mexico’s most effective traffic control has to be the speed bumps upon entering villages. They are a point of commerce for locals. The bumps, I discovered, will also tear off your exhaust system if you fail to slow for it. I took a room at a nice motel off the main drag. In the parking lot I pulled the headers. About six blocks away I found a welding shop. When I explained what I needed, the owner insisted I use his equipment and refused all attempts at payment. The next day, with Morris whole again, I returned to his shop for a show-and-tell. He was overjoyed. When I was back in the states I took all my unused Mexican money and mailed it to him. I fear a postal worker found it first.
After a long stretch of gravel, Morris was gasping for a sip of gas. Just in time we came to a station and pulled to a stop at a pump. Soon a curious crowd formed in front of us. I jumped out to see a thin stream of yellow liquid forming a small pool on the ground. Morris was taking a pee. After pulling the grill and draining the coolant down below the level of the leak I sprayed the area with B-12 to clean and dry it. I took a tiny screw out of the ID plate, threaded it through a small leather washer cut from my belt, then daubed it with blue silicone. After gently, gently easing this patch into the tiny hole, I grabbed another coke. After about 20 minutes I topped off the radiator, leaving the cap loose for about an hour of driving before tightening it down. Did the trick.
It was late at night when we entered Los Mochis. Some kind soul, assuming I wanted the ferry to La Paz, motioned me to follow. What a godsend. Soon he was gesturing toward a motel then waved good-bye without ever stopping. On the ferry the next morning we tossed and rolled. Hungry, I wandered below deck and hit the jackpot. A smiling cook heaped hot food on a plate and handed it to me. With a full belly I was soon asleep for most of the day-long trip to La Paz.
Home turf! At least it felt that way. My wife and I have driven the length of the Baja Peninsula a couple times on our more adventurous trips. Morris has given a stellar performance but I sense that he, like me, is happy to be on a final leg toward home.
A Beechcraft Bonanza sits off on the side of the road with a boy acting as guard. Must have been pure desperation to set down here. I saw a dead horse on the freeway, almost hit a large sow dashing out of tall grass, dodged two coverless manholes, climbed mountains so steep and turns so sharp that crossed arrows on the road meant for traffic to move to the wider radius side. On one stretch, an elderly lady totally nude sat in the middle of the road looking ever so much like a large chubby baby.
After the border checkpoint it was one more night, then one long day’s drive back home to Pacific Grove. Wave at Woodies!
By Bob Hohstadt