An Unexpected Lesson: Making the Long Trip Home

Thomas Kreutzer
by Thomas Kreutzer
an unexpected lesson making the long trip home

In addition to advice about the long-term benefits of wearing sunscreen, the world’s most famous commencement address included this bit of wisdom: “The real troubles in your life are apt to be the things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.” And so it was, true to the author of that essay’s own meandering experience, that I found myself on a sunny, if not entirely idle, afternoon this past June tossing a small rucksack into the back of my well-worn Shelby Charger setting out for Seattle, some 1800 miles away.

That my mother was ill was a fact I had long known. Just how serious the situation truly was, however, took everyone by surprise. One day the doctors were telling my brothers and sisters that our mother had as much as a year left to live and then, almost the next day, were coming back to say that she might have just a few weeks. By the time the news reached me in Leavenworth, the prognosis had been shortened to just days. After an hour or two of hand wringing, I decided I should probably go.

I can say now that the right thing to do would have been to fly, but there were several factors that played into my decision to drive. The first was that I really didn’t believe the news. I had spoken to my mother the previous week and she had sounded healthy and happy, so this sudden turn for the worse didn’t really register with me at the time. She had been sick and then better several times and this was, I reasoned, just another low point that she would claw her way back from. She had done it before and she would, I thought, do it again.

Also, my time in Leavenworth was coming to an end. Graduation was just a week away and, the best year of our life completed, our household goods were set to be packed and shipped almost immediately thereafter. I had a thousand things on my mind — orders, passports, reservations, airline tickets, the kids, the dog, and, added in there somewhere, the disposal of my Shelby Charger. This last thing, surprisingly, was proving to be quite irksome.

Selling the Shelby should have been a snap. It looked great, ran good, and had a raft of new-old-stock replacement parts to go along with it. Someone somewhere, I reasoned, should want it. Originally, I had worried about selling it too quickly. I still needed a second vehicle for our final days in Kansas and so, overconfident that the buyers would beat down my door, I hung too high a price on it. Ultimately, I think now, that helped drive them away.

Looking back, I can see that a Shelby Charger isn’t the kind of car the general public is usually interested in. Most people who buy a car like this, a “near classic” I call them, have to be a model-specific enthusiast; someone who wants a specific car in good but not totally pristine condition, at a good price. These people, it turns out, are in short supply, so after weeks of running fruitless advertisements,I decided to send the car to my brother’s house where he could use it as he saw fit and where it would be when I ventured back to the Seattle area on whatever odd errand would eventually carry me there.

I was considering shipping the car and had already obtained several quotes when the news of my mother’s situation interrupted my planning process. Still not entirely convinced that she really was in her last days, driving the Shelby out to Seattle would help solve two problems at one time. The added benefit would be that I wouldn’t need to rent a car while I was there and, once mom got better, I could just fly home. It was a perfect solution.

With this in mind, I carefully packed the car with the many replacement parts that had been included when I purchased it, packed a small bag for what was sure to be a quick trip, and said goodbye to my wife and kids. It was about 3 p.m. when I put the little car on the road to the interstate and, although I had originally questioned the decision to go, now that I was on my way it felt right. After a stop for gas in Platte City, MO, I caught northbound Interstate 29 and gradually wicked the speed up to just under the limit. Although I had owned the car for several months, this was the first time I had taken it out for more than a short blast. As I rolled through St. Joseph, the town where my mom was born and raised, I was surprised at how smooth the car was running.

Way back in 1983 when the little Shelby had rolled off the production line, the speed limit was just 55 miles per hour and it seemed logical to me that the car had been geared to run most efficiently at right around that speed. To my happy surprise, however, the car wanted to run at 65. Although that was still slower than most of the posted speed limits in the many states that lay west of the Mississippi, it seemed a good pace. I could, of course, have pushed the car harder, but after noticing that the temperature gauge was hanging just below the red zone, I decided not to push my luck.

Nor was handling an issue. The Shelby felt at home on the superslab and tracked smoothly along at speed. The little car might be old, I thought, but it was definitely in its element on the open road.

I passed into Nebraska in the late afternoon and switched over to I-80 in Omaha just after the evening rush hour had cleared. As I ran westward, a line of severe storms plunged the countryside into an early, ominous dusk and soon I was observing lightning with an ever increasing frequency off to my right. At around 8 p.m. the storms that had been staying just slightly north of the Interstate finally worked their way south and began to dump buckets of rain onto the road. The little Shelby’s windshield wipers beat furiously on their high-speed setting, but no matter how hard they worked the driving rain made clearing the windshield impossible and I found it difficult to see. Blinded, I moved the car to the right side of the interstate, found the fog line, and switched on my emergency flashers as I straddled that glorious line at a bare 30 miles per hour like a slot car on a track. At one point, the steady drum of raindrops turned into the pinging of high-speed hail and, for the first time that day, I began to wonder just what the hell I had gotten myself into. As I approached the town of Grand Island, I decided enough was enough and pulled off the road for the night. Although that sort of weather may seem normal to some people, I felt lucky to just be alive.

By 5 a.m. the next morning, the skies had cleared and the raging torrent that had been the road the night before was once again dry. I spent a few minutes looking over the little car before I started on my way and was relieved to find out that the only damage the hail had caused had been to my nerves. After topping off the oil and filling up with gas I put the car back on the interstate determined to reach Salt Lake City in just one Jump.

It turns out that it is almost 800 miles from Grand Island, Nebraska to Salt Lake City, Utah. Google Maps tells me that it should take somewhere around 11 hours and, in order to make it, I had to push the little car relentlessly. Although I was confined to the slow lane almost the entire way, I made decent time as the sun rose behind me and about the time it got into my eyes I had noted that the countryside turned from verdant farmland into the drier, more varied terrain of the high plains. Sometime in the early afternoon , I entered Wyoming and, a few hours after, crossed the continental divide. From there, I reminded myself that it was, technically, all down-hill and I found myself relieved to be, once again, on “my own side of the continent.”

All through the long, hot day, the car beat steadily along at just over 65 miles per hour and, despite their age, the Shelby’s overstuffed, velour seats proved to be surprisingly comfortable. Once again the needle on the temperature gauge climbed and remained dangerously close to the redline and I worried as, from time to time, the slight odor of blistering hot motor oil wafted through the cabin. Still, as car after car screamed by in the fast lane, the little Charger continued to hum merrily along, looking good and, I’m sure, providing a fun momentary distraction to the bored passengers of those faster, if only slightly more comfortable, cars as they flashed by.

I had another run-in with a huge thunderstorm that again left me driving blind and questioning the wisdom of my journey and by 5 p.m. had reached the town of Rock Springs, Wyoming. By now I had been in the driver’s seat long enough to be tired and cranky and, as the day had progressed, left me spending considerable time thinking about my mother’s condition. Now, as I found myself stopped in the back-up for what had obviously been a terrible one-car accident, thoughts of life and death were hitting close to home. My mood was thoroughly dark when I finally rolled past the nearly unrecognizable hulk of what had once been a Jeep Liberty and got back up to speed.

I still had a long way to go and, to make matters worse, the Shelby struggled as I worked my way upward through the gears. The engine seemed to be fine. I had shut the car down during the long wait and it had cooled off nicely, but the clutch was having a real issue as its normally high engagement point had dropped to the final inch of its travel. Getting it to disengage as I ran up through the gears was a problem and, as I worked my way further west, I considered the possible mechanical issues. The car had a non-hydraulic clutch, I knew, and it seemed most likely that an lock-nut or adjustment screw had vibrated loose during the day-long drone. It wouldn’t be especially difficult to fix, I thought, but despite the fact that I had a car full of replacement parts not having any tools would be a problem. I was pondering my options when I passed a billboard for a place called “Little America” and noticed that they had a mechanic on duty 24 hours a day. Problem solved, I thought.

As the desert oasis known as Little America hove into view I worked the car down through the gears with as little grinding as possible and exited the highway. I limped over to a service area only to find that it was intended for semi-trucks, not cars, but by now the situation was obviously so bad that I could go no further. I shut it down right there and went inside.

It took some convincing to get one of the mechanics to come and look at my car, but to his credit, when he finally did, he spotted the issue right away. The plastic housing on the clutch cable was broken and the entire part needed to be replaced. Parts I had in abundance, so I unloaded the back of the car looking for what I needed but came up empty handed. I sat there pondering my luck, if it had been almost anything else I would have been fine, but for whatever reason it had turned out that the one part I needed was the one I didn’t have.

Of course I tried to cobble something together, to make some temporary modification that would make it work in order to get back on the road, but after an hour of rolling around under the car on the still-hot asphalt I realized my journey was at an end. Even if I could get the car back on the road, I thought, there was still a 150 miles of desolate western Wyoming terrain to cross and at least one major mountain pass to clear before I pulled into Salt Lake. Having a breakdown out there in the dark could be fatal and I had already had enough thoughts about death and dying for one day. Enough was enough. Defeated, I called my sister in Salt Lake and she agreed to come and get me.

With the help of a good Samaritan, I pushed the Shelby to the corner of the parking lot and wondered how much of it would remain there in the time it would take to arrange to get someone to come and get it. I couldn’t stay, I had to go on, and so it was likely I wouldn’t see the car again soon, if at all. Physically exhausted and emotionally drained, I walked past the gas pumps to the store to get a drink and, as I did so, noticed an almost empty car hauler at one of the pumps. “Are you heading to Salt Lake” I asked.

“No,” the man told me, “I’m going to Kansas City.”

I paused for a second and then asked, “How much would cost to have you take my broken down car to Leavenworth?”

The man thought for a moment and answered, “$500?” We struck the deal on a handshake and within the hour the Shelby was on the truck, headed back the way it came. Problem solved. I was exhausted and repaired to the snack bar where, it turned out, the food was pretty good and I had time to decompress.

It took a couple of hours for my sister and her husband to arrive and we returned to Salt Lake that night. As we cleared the pass and dropped down into the deep canyons that Interstate 80 followed into the city, I realized there was no way I could have made it with the car locked into 5th gear. Safe and relieved, I slept that night at my sister’s house, the steering wheel of the Shelby still buzzing in my fingertips as I drifted off to sleep.

The next day, my sister and I flew to Seattle and on Sunday afternoon, just about the time we probably would have arrived, my mother passed away. Although she was not entirely lucid during the few hours we had with her, I know that she knew my sister and I were there. If we hadn’t arrived when we did ,we would have missed it or needlessly prolonged her suffering while she strained to wait for us.

A few days later I flew back to Leavenworth where a classmate met me at the airport. After stopping at the local auto parts store to pick up the part I had ordered on-line prior to departing to Seattle, my friend took me home where I found the little Shelby waiting in my driveway exactly where the car hauler had assured me he would put it. The next morning, I used the new part to fix the car in about 10 minutes without any tools and then took it for a short test drive. Out on my favorite road the little car shrugged off the days of hard travel and buzzed along as happily as ever. Life, I realized, goes on.

As I worked the car up and down through the gears, noting the flawless action of the clutch pedal beneath my left foot, I pondered the mysteries of the universe and how I have, over the past few years, questioned the faith in which I was raised. God is in everything and every man, people told me; God has a plan but I wasn’t so sure any more. My mother believed but, having fought the good fight every day without reward and having only advanced myself in life through interminable struggles, I had my own doubts. But, after breaking down in a little car filled with every replacement part but the one I needed, and as a result taking the flight to see my mom that one last time when she was really there in the hours before cancer finally took her, I wonder now if maybe I haven’t been wrong.

Thomas M Kreutzer currently lives in Kanagawa, Japan with his wife and three children. He has spent most of his adult life overseas with more than 9 years spent in Japan, 2 years i Jamaica and almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. Although originally from Snohomish, WA he has also lived in several places around the United States including Buffalo, NY and Leavenworth, KS. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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2 of 66 comments
  • WildcatMatt WildcatMatt on Sep 18, 2015

    Thank you for sharing.

  • 71charger_fan 71charger_fan on Mar 18, 2017

    I was scrounging through the garage attic today digging out spare parts I could send to the swap meet and found a box with a carb, a starter, and, of course, a clutch cable for that car. Didn't remember I had it or it would have been in the car.

  • Inside Looking Out This is actually the answer to the question I asked not that long ago.
  • Inside Looking Out Regarding "narrow windows" - the trend is that windows will eventually be replaced by big OLED screens displaying some exotic place or may even other planet.
  • Robert I have had 4th gen 1996 model for many years and enjoy driving as much now as when I first purchased it - has 190 hp variant with just the right amount of power for most all driving situations!
  • ToolGuy Meanwhile in Germany...
  • Donald More stuff to break god I love having a nanny in my truck... find a good tuner and you can remove most of the stupid stuff they add like this and auto park when the doors open stupid stuff like that