It’s something you catch, like the flu I guess.
Growing up outside meant I’d had my fair share of run-ins with camping, hiking, hunting, and fishing. Being born in West Virginia meant all that good stuff was already inside, passed down in the same vein that gave me green eyes. Some have to catch a love for the outdoors, but I’m blessed to say I was born with it. What I wasn’t born with was a four wheel drive.
Well, not exactly.
Four-wheel Flu Symptoms
When I left home for college, an ’84 AMC XJ left with me. Through it, the four-wheel drive disease had a very slow onset. I never had the interest (or the money) to play in the rocks or the mud, but Jeeps being what they are meant I wouldn’t be able to avoid the inevitable temptation forever. Especially considering that my Jeep was as old as me. Literally.
Things wore out. Things broke. The Jeep thing…
But here’s how Jeeps get you. Why just fix it when you can upgrade? And upgrades only aggravate the condition. More capability leads to more confidence, leading to more risk and the discovery of more weak links. It’s a vicious cycle. But worse, is that slowly this new affliction began to mingle with the innate love for nature, and long before I’d heard the term “overlanding” or whatever the cool kids are calling it these days, the diagnosis was pretty clear.
Problem for me was that once this bug’s symptoms began to manifest at their height, I was already happily married, happily fathering four sons. How do you fit intense vehicular wanderlust and a family of six into a Jeep that’s in a thousand pieces…on a rice-and-beans budget?
Whether a basic math problem, a mental health problem, or a financial problem, we needed to come up with a solution. And for my wife and me that solution would be found in Middle-earth by way of a Mitsubishi.
The S Is Implied
I told myself once that I’d never let myself become a “previous owner.”
For whatever reason, I’ve always seen owning a car as a commitment, something kinda like a marriage that’s only supposed to be broken when “death does you part.” My first car was literally a part of my family. That ’84 Cherokee I rode off to college in had been in my family for three generations, bought brand new by my grandmother mere months after I was born. She passed it on to my father, where it would become our adventure-mobile as I grew up.
When he passed it on to me it felt natural, meant-to-be. I loved that silver piece of crap for all the right reasons, it was a conduit of shared memories. Family memories. It was a part of our story.
When it finally died a few years after I got married it was a no-brainer what we’d replace it with. It was among the first of the XJs to roll off the assembly line in 1983/84, and the silver 2001 I bought in its absence was one of the last. But this new Jeep had something my ’84 AMC did not, an unknown previous owner.
I never considered my dad or grandmother previous owners. They were family, and though there was a change of name on the title, there was never a gap in Rimmer ownership.
So what do I consider a “previous owner”?
Well, let’s just say that they’re affectionately known on internet forums the world over by the acronym “PO”, and I’m sure if an “S” got tacked on there by mistake there would be no squiggly red line underneath. From my experience they’re the people who forget to mention the bank lien on the title, or the check engine light that they cleared before your test drive, or the minor accident hidden from CarFax that irreparably damaged the steering knuckle, or the fact that they forgot to change the oil…every single service interval, or installed bling electronics but couldn’t afford a roll of electrical tape… (I could go on ad infinitum).
I’m sure they’re not all like this, but I’ve dealt with three in my lifetime, and without exception they’ve all been bad experiences.
I bring this up for two reasons.
First, we’ve got more kids than a Jeep Cherokee can (legally) transport. In addition, it has been undergoing a several seasons long Tim the Toolman Taylor style garage restoration, currently sitting on two wheels with a seized engine. It’s out of the current consideration.
Second, remember the inverse relationship in the equation… more kids, less money. The “less money” means that I’ll never escape the reaches of the PO when it comes to the vehicle portion of the problem. The previous owner is an unwanted, but necessary evil in my “adventuring by vehicle” formula. It also means that the used vehicle I want probably won’t be the vehicle I get. There’s gonna have to be some compromises made.
Basically put, I need something that seats six, goes reliably off-road, and isn’t subject to the Toyota Tax. So, after months of researching and searching I decided to take a chance and rescue a black and tan Mitsubishi Montero from an unintentionally abusive previous owner.
The Mechanical Jesus
My wife was not immediately taken in with the Japanese ogre, and for good reason, ahem, reasons: It leaked every fluid, everywhere. Transfer case stuck in AWD. Tires sounded like they were rolling howler monkey cages. Interior, just gross. Electrical gremlins, aplenty.
Like I said, it was abused.
I tried to pull the Jesus angle on her saying that kinda like how Jesus adopted us when we were all messed up and broken I could likewise adopt this thing in its unsaintly state. Jesus is fixing us, we’ll fix the Montero. “But you’re not mechanical Jesus,” came the apt reply.
I love my wife.
She patiently and supportively let me roll in the pig pen of a decision I had made, me doing what I could to make the best of a not so great starting position. Brakes, tires, fluids, transfer case repair, a few modest but necessary upgrades, and a plethora of annoyances later I assured her that we were ready to go.
The Fellowship Departs Rivendell… in the Rain
Our scheduled departure time was the morning following our battlefield treasure hunt. Overnight rain meant loading the roof rack had to wait until morning, and then morning rain meant it had to happen regardless.
The weather forecast had made a sudden and ominous turn in the days before our scheduled setting off. Heavy thunderstorms were predicted in the areas we’d be venturing.
It’s hard to describe what I was feeling that morning as I lugged our gear onto the roof of the ogre in the early drizzle. Apprehension, sure, I mean I was taking my four young boys five hundred miles into bad weather with an untested truck on dirt roads that would be outside the reach of even Verizon’s over-hyped towers.
It was easy, natural to think of all the what-if’s and holy crap situations. It was obvious who would get the blame for this going bust, not just from my family but also anyone who might catch wind of our failed venture, our reckless… no MY reckless ambitions.
“What were you thinking? Why’d you want to do that?”
These seem like they’d be rational questions from rational people that I don’t think would be impressed with me spouting off about wanderlust and blaming Tolkien.
I ran into the house to grab a roll of painter’s tape, the blue stuff, and a black marker. Finding a small strip of center console, right behind the coffee cups, I stretched a piece across it, scribbling two words for my wife and I to remind each other throughout this trip into the unknown.
It’s hard to imagine anything more wasteful than worry. Won’t change the weather forecast. Won’t make the Montero bulletproof. Surely won’t get rid of these accursed rings. Worry was there, but worry is worthless.
Beyond the apprehension and worry I’d say there was also something like eagerness, an impatient longing to just go do something, indifferent to the circumstances and hindrances. The more the Montero took on our burdens the more resolved I was to hit the road and find out what it had in store for us. I wanted to put things to the test, to find them out: the Montero, myself, our family’s abilities and limits.
That Amelia Earhart saying “Adventure is worthwhile in itself”… yeah, let’s test that too. Bet she didn’t say that in an airplane with four kids in the back!
So with four kids loaded in, fridge filled to the brim, gear strapped down, and seven golden rings safely stored away we finally set off. We pounded the interstate, plowing through the rain all the way to Rockfish Gap and the entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway. I thought to myself, “Now the real adventure begins.”
We rolled to a stop.
Left would go north up the Skyline Parkway of Shenandoah, while right would take us south down the Blue Ridge Parkway to our first camping stop. I hit the indicator, and as I looked down to see the right arrow flashing I notice three other lights flashing as well.
“Hmm? What are these three warning lights for? Oh, wonderful. It’s the Check Engine, ABS Warning, and Traction Control lights, nothing too important,” says the sarcastic side of the keyboarder’s brain.
My eyes look right, meeting my wife’s, who with a smile reads me the note on the blue tape, “Choose Joy.”
I love my wife. This is gonna be a great trip.