part one: Like New, Lo Miles © by Russ Walling
Like New, Lo Miles
© by Russ Walling
Here I am in the Yosemite "Mountain Room Bar", trying to swing a last deal of the season. It's getting to be late in October, and so far the weather has been holding. Good weather, this late in the season, is the best sign I know of to head out to Joshua Tree, or maybe Hueco. Not if, but when, the first big storm comes, it could trap me here for weeks, or a lifetime, if I let it. It seems that some German rock climbers are leaving for their return flight back to the Fatherland early in the morning, and have to sell their car tonight. I could use a new car to get out of here in. I might even take it all the way through the great Southwest on a winter cragging tour as disposable transport. If the beater blows up in Demming, New Mexico, or somewhere similar, I can just walk away from it. Rack on one arm, thumb out on the end of the other. No strings and no problem. Opportunity was about to knock, and I figured I should answer. "Hey Huntz, how's it going," I say, as I pull up a chair to a round table, near the fireplace, occupied by Huntz and four of his traveling companions. "How much for that beater you guys are trying to sell?" I ask, while pouring a beer from a near full pitcher sitting on the table. "200 dollars, no less. It's a good car, and perhaps a classic," said Huntz, a fellow I had met a few times over the course of the summer. "Come on, that thing is a pile" I say, trying to look basically un-interested. "And besides, there's nothing classic about a 1962 Oldsmobile that has forgotten how to run." "Aw, rubbish, it runs, it just needs some work. Minor repairs at best," says one of the Germans, wearing his "honest salesman" grin. I had heard of this "minor repairs" stuff before. My idea of minor repairs was filling it with gas, but usually it went along the lines of "buffing the crankshaft" or something just as ludicrous. A ten minute job they say, encased in 18 hours of greasy toil, or 800 bucks --my choice. No thanks. I figure that the later it gets, the better my chances of bagging this relic with minimal expense. A few more drinks should loosen up the price, and 200 dollars had a lot of room to get loose, so I ordered another pitcher of beer from the passing barmaid. "Let me get this straight," I ask huntz, the apparent owner of this auto for sale, "what appears to be the problem with the car anyway?" " It doesn't want to start on cold mornings, and I think the battery is dead, you know--kaput," he says while moving his index finger across his throat in a sawing motion. Nothing could get lost in that translation. "It doesn't want to start on warm mornings either," adds a now slightly tipsy comrade, laughing. He is quickly hushed and given a small talk in German by the other part owners. "Don't listen to him, he can't even drive a car," offers one of the others, and then lands a stern look on the gabby offender. "Look fellas, a busted down car, beached in Yosemite Valley with winter coming, is hardly worth 200 bucks American. Hell, truth be known you should be paying me to take it off your hands. We have laws over here preventing guys like you from littering the landscape with abandoned wrecks." A look of concern now comes over their faces, thinking that maybe the law could be involved. "What will they do to us if we can't sell it, and have to leave it here?" asks the tipsy fellow, now with real worry on his face. "Probably some "big guys" will meet you at the airport, and chuck you into the slammer." Hoping to drive down the price, I add, "for life!" "Der slammer? vas is das?" queries one of them. "You know, the hoosegow, clink, cooler, gulag," I say, as I hold both hands in front of my face, clenching mock bars. This last comment got another round of beers out of the fellas in a heartbeat. It seems that talk of the "slammer" makes just about everybody thirsty. I sat without talking, enjoying my beer, while the Germans discussed this latest development in their native tongue, wearing concern on their brows. funny thing about the flat tap beer the Mountain Room offers, it always seems to taste just fine when someone else is buying it. A few more sips and I was beginning to enjoy myself. "You are right, we cannot leave the car here and go to the "slammer" as you put it. We will drop the price to 175 dollars, American, right now only," said Huntz. After this offer, he put out his lower lip and looked across the table at me. "Well?," he says, waiting for me to reply. I leaned forward in my chair, and focused on Huntz directly across the table from me. "Buddy boy, you're living in a fantasy world. In about 40 minutes this bar will close and you'll be out of luck. If you think you can find a buyer, in the middle of the night, in "Camp 4" no less, go at it." I said, motioning towards the general direction of camp with my beer, only allowing a little to slosh over the rim. I sat back in my chair and continued to hit my beer, looking around the room at nothing in particular, seemingly losing interest in this whole affair. "Ok, 150 dollars American, and the car is yours," he said, now showing some worry. I sat quietly and let this offer go unanswered. A barmaid floated up to our table and informed us that this was last call. The threat of last call quickly brought me around. "What'll it be?" she asked. "Yeah--yeah--," I said in a long drawn out drawl, tracing the line of stubble on my jawbone a few times with my hand before answering, "land a double round of "Stoli" on us, with a Budweiser chaser, and make that "Stoli hun'erd", too boot." I was motioning with my finger that all the boys were in on this one. "And--oh yeah," I added, "hang a sidecar of Cuervo 1800 on mine if you could." She looked at me kinda funny because in the last four months, I had yet to order a single "real drink" in this bar, even though I was in here every night, till closing. "And can you plop a few olives into those "Stoli" bombs?" I asked, now really getting the hang of ordering drinks. She nodded, quickly wrote down our order, and headed back to the bar under full swish. "Ok fellas, start coughing up some dough for the drinks," I said, while leaning back in my chair, chest out. "Local custom, guys selling cars have to buy the prospective buyer drinks. House rules." The Germans looked at me as if i was insane. I kept a straight face and acted as if this went every night here in Yosemite. No big deal, a few drinks, some house rules, a little mumbo jumbo, standard operating procedure. The barmaid soon returned with a full tray of drinks and started collecting a wad of wrinkled bills from the slightly disbelieving Germans. She smoothed and counted the green, then stood there, tray in one hand, the other resting on her hip. Her eyes scanned the germans and her face was terse. I had seen this look before, the look that said "you bums ain't thinking of stiffing me, are you." "Now fellas, how about a tip for the lady?" I said sternly, and gave her a quick wink. Haltingly they all pulled out assorted change and a few token bills from their pockets and offered it up to our server. She collected the cash, sorted it from the lint, and said, "thanks boys, and drink up. We're gonna' close in about 20 minutes." Satisfied with her tip, she sauntered away, swinging her hips side to side, in perfect time with the tray held head high, seemingly glued to her left hand. A table full of German eyes followed this action all the way to the bar, perhaps trying to get a little more than just drinks for the $65.00 they were just separated from. "Salut," I said, while raising my glass and moving it side to side in front of my hosts, duplicating the motion of an out of control crane. I quaffed the first shot of "Stoli", chucked the olive over my left shoulder for luck, and in dramatic style, slammed the empty shot glass to the table. All the Germans quickly followed suit and downed the first shot, chucked the olive, and slammed the empty glasses on the table. And then to my surprise, did the same with the second, right away, no chaser. Pretty impressive. "Ok, back to business. How much will you pay for the car?," asked Huntz, now fully revitalized. "25 bucks, no more," I said, and toasted the Germans with my second shot, downing it quickly and making that post shot face you sometimes see on a lightweight when he is in over his head with that demon "alcohol". "25 bucks! you are crazy!" Huntz said in a loud voice, thick with accent from anger and disbelief. "Ok, 25 bucks, and I'll throw in an updated topo of the Zodiac. Whaddya say Huntzy?" I said with a smile, now starting to feel the liquor. "Oh, a Yosemite funny boy," said Huntz, obviously quite upset with this last remark. " The topo might help me next time, so I wont have to be rescued from three pitches up. Is this what you mean, funny boy?" he said, leaning over the table, chin jutting, eyes wild and red. My latest offer didn't go over real big. in fact it didn't go over at all, but how was I to know they had just been plucked off the Zodiac and weren't too happy about it. Well, i guess I did know, owing to the fact I was in on the rescue and all, but--anyway. "Look, huntz--babe--I'm sorry about that Zodiac stuff, but I'm going to stand pat on that offer of 25 bucks." Huntz pushed his chair back from the table, stood up, and scanned the bar, looking for a better guy to try his sales pitch on. As was standard this late in the season, given the hour and such, the bar was a ghost town. Huntz sat down, let out a sigh, and decided to try his pitch on me again. He bellied up to the table and gave it one more try. "150 dollars, and I'll even take a check," said Huntz, now clasping his forehead, hair leaking over his hand. I sat there nursing my Cuervo 1800 and looked at Huntz just long enough to say "nah," then I went right back to my drink, studying it. Again the Germans huddled and talked it over while I sat quietly and began to work my chaser. "Look, we need to get out of here tomorrow. That car must be sold tonight, but not for less than 150 dollars," said Huntz as the others nodded in approval. I sat there and thought about it for a moment, and hit my Cuervo to the bottom. "Here's what I can do," I said. "I'll give you the hundred dollars you guys want for the car, if you can make it run, tonight, even for a minute. If not, I'll take it for free, and keep you boys out of the slammer." I now leaned back in my chair and gave my Budweiser chaser a little kiss on the business end. "It was 150 dollars we wanted," Huntz added quickly, "not 100." "Yeah," I said, plopping my chair back down to all fours. "150 bucks, minus the fifty that new battery is going to cost me. You guys said it was dead, and that's an "implied defecto habeas delecti". Looks like you'll have to take that 50 bucks right off the top of the purchase price. That's the law here in California," I delivered the last line the way Roy Coffee, the bonanza sheriff might do it--for added effect. Huntz tried to explain this last part to the rest of his party, with limited results. I guess some of it didn't have a direct translation. Huntz now breaks from his buddies and asks, "100 bucks if it runs?" "Yup, 100 bucks if it runs, tonight," I said. "Got the C-note right here," and I tapped at one of my empty pockets. After another short huddle by the Germans this offer seemed to hit its mark, especially with the "out of the slammer" trump card thrown in, and that "delecti" crap for icing. One more huddle by the Germans sealed the deal, and after finishing off our drinks, we all headed out to the parking lot to make it happen. It's hard to realize the complexity of a modern car engine, well, relatively modern anyway, until you see one at night, bordering on drunk, and trying to fix it with no flashlight, in the camp four parking lot. the hood was now up and would-be german mechanics were crawling all over the engine compartment fiddling with components they knew nothing about. Somehow the Germans had found a willing fool to try and jump start the long dead battery in the Olds. With cables leaking in and out of the hood of each car, Huntz was behind the wheel of the borrowed car, gunning the engine to about 8000 rpm, and barking commands out the window in German to his cohorts. All the very worried tourist and myself could do was stand back and watch. The Olds was turning over in slow, mournful, cycles. The car donating the jump was literally having the life sucked out of it. Huntz was doing "the leadfoot" in the borrowed car as its headlights dimmed to about 1 candle power. The Olds was still laboring heavy for each revolution and small flashes of white-hot light were appearing from inside the engine compartment. The lights of the donor car continued getting dimmer, but were still bright enough for me to see true solicitude on the owners face. I was starting to think he didn't enjoy this late night jump start business very much. The olds continued to cycle laboriously with the juice provided from the tourists' family wagon. "See, it runs. Now pay us so we can go to bed," said one of the Germans, thrusting his hand out, palm up. "Now, wait a minute!....pull it off the life support pal, and let it run without those jumper cables," I said, pointing at the life giving cords snaking under the hood. I looked on as one of the guys tugged at the jumper cables. As quickly as the cable came off, the Olds stopped. "Well fellas, it appears the car has stopped," I said, absolutely unsurprised. "Just wait, we can make it go. Can you get us a flashlight? Maybe it will help," Huntz shouted, as he hopped out of the tourists car. "Sorry pal, don't have one," I said, knowing exactly where one was, but it wasn't worth a C-note to go and get it. The jump start donor, wanting nothing more to do with it, had now slipped away from these maniacs, got into his family wagon, and drove off...with its own lights noticeably dimmer after the bout with the Olds. It was now truly getting late. At least two of the Germans were flaked out in the plush reclines of the Olds, and one was in the nearby bushes, down on his knees, losing a little weight, fast. Maybe he got a bad olive or something, was my guess. Huntz continued to fiddle with stuff under the hood, and kept trying to turn it over with the precious little juice left in the battery. With every minute that passed that "hunski", supposedly in my pocket, felt more and more secure. "If you get it going be sure to come and get me, I'm gonna' to call it for the night," I said. "Jah, jah," was the muffled reply from under the hood. I headed back into camp knowing that by morning I would be the proud new owner of a free 1962 Olds Cutlass, a "classic" crag car, at least by my standards. I was awakened near dawn by Huntz and the rest of the Germans banging on my tent wall. "Yeah, yeah, what's the scoop," I asked. "That car, that damn car, it is now yours." Huntz said. "Here's the key," and he tossed a screwdriver into the open door of my tent. "We have left the papers in the box for gloves. Good luck and good bye." "Thanks boys and have a nice trip home, hasta la veeta zin--or whatever," I said, and slumped back down in my sleeping bag. I heard the troupe plodding off toward the parking lot and decided to get a few more winks in before I checked out my new ride. After getting up and downing a few cups a java in camp, I moseyed out to the parking lot to eyeball my new rig. Looking it over a little more closely in the light of day, I decided it was, in fact, a pile. The rear end was almost dragging the turf, last sign of no shocks. The tires were devoid of tread and had spots of hemp showing through. A close inspection of the muffler showed it was suspended to the undercarriage with a tube chock, a #1 wired,and a Gibbs ascender. It seemed like a good place to keep those, so i left them alone. Oh well, you get what you pay for I figured. First things first. I popped the hood, removed the battery, and took it to the filling station for a quick charge. While waiting on the battery I checked out rest of the engine. Not knowing exactly what I was looking for I just wiggled some stuff around and took off the air cleaner, the part I'd seen in the movies. Wow! A squirrel had been hoarding nuts for the winter in the carburetor. This would definitely not be helping matters when it came down to the miracle of internal combustion. I cleaned out the detritus from the carb, checked the oil, the water, and waited for the battery to be filled with new life so I could give it a go. Rushing things a bit, I picked up the battery at the garage and handed the mech a five spot for the trouble. Returning to the Olds, I popped the hood and lashed the battery back into it's place with some webbing and re-connected the wires, red goes on--uhh, positive, black--goes on, who? I assumed that it was fifty-fifty with that wiring stuff, and feeling lucky, hopped into the drivers seat. I fitted the screwdriver, that was now the key, into the slot and and cranked it over. No luck. Again I turned the "key", feathered the accelerator, and still nothing happened, save a deep electrical hum. I get out of my new rig and stand there with my hands on both hips, appearing to be deep in thought, when in actuality my mind is a total blank. It's at times like this when I wished I'd taken "auto mechanics 1a" in school, instead of playing hooky out at the Stoney Point boulders. I walk my eyes over the entire length of the car as if a cue card might be pasted on a quarter panel somewhere saying, "do this and it will run like a dream." A second pass confirmed it. No card. Looking around for help I see a friend of mine and yell over, "yo buddy, give me a hand over here," index finger in the air, motioning him over. He shuffles over asks with a yawn, "what d'ya want." "I need you sit in here and turn this baby over when I give you the word." "No problem," he says as he slides in behind the wheel, looking at the screwdriver kinda sideways. "Is this the key?" he asks while pointing at the hole in the dash with the screwdriver hanging out of it. "Yeah, just turn it when I give you the word," I said. "Hey, if your stealing this thing, the sentence is the same for pinching a nice one ya know," he offered with a snicker from behind the wheel. Ignoring this last remark I duck under the hood and give it a quick look, not knowing what to look for, take a step back, and give my buddy the sign to "hit it." Again nothing but the big hum and then a bunch of white sparks crackling to life down by the chassis. "Stop, stop, stop!," I yelled while waving my arms wildly. "What's wrong?" he asks, head now craning out the drivers window. "It's shorting out or something down under the, ah..., the..., ah... whatchamacallit, right where it meets the Johnson drive." I thought I should calm him with my knowledge of the whatchamacallit and that Johnson stuff. It seemed to work, and he sat there behind the wheel, both hands on it, pretending to drive, complete with sound effects. For repairs of wiring when sparks are involved, the old standby, duct tape, seemed like the obvious choice. I procured a roll and headed under the car with it, seeking out the area where I saw the sparks. Once under there, it looked like the lead to the starter was frayed and was grounding out on the chassis. I wrapped it a few times, like fifty, and crawled out to test my "quick fix". "Ok, hit it," I yelled, while taking a few steps back. My buddy turned the "key" and stomped down on the accelerator. Jesus! It was actually trying to start! The engine groaned and wheezed and backfired. Dust was starting to rise out of the engine compartment and the whole wreck shuddered under it's own weight. "Cut it!" I yelled. Thinking that it might need a prime or something to get it over the hump, I rummaged around in the trunk and found a one gallon can of the Germans camp stove fuel. I know this stuff burns in a big hurry, so I headed to the beckoning carb with this can of instant life. Not knowing exactly how much to use, I figured about a quart of this makeshift starting fluid ought to get the job done. I poured it down the throat of the carb and peered in to make sure it swallowed. It did. "Ok, gun it," I said, now taking more than a few steps back. My buddy turned the "key" and then with a mighty bang, accompanied with eight foot flames leaping over the hood, it was idling, albeit roughly, under it's own power. "Good God man! what was that?" my buddy yelled from the drivers seat, poking his head out the window to get a better view of the flames and excitement under the hood. "Nothin', just keep giving it gas," I bellowed, while moving back about a half a pitch, and looking on from a half crouch, in total confidence. The flames were quickly sucked back down into the carb and the mighty V-8 was starting to settle down into a steady, been there before, idle. It seemed sane enough to creep back towards the Olds, but only with my hands partially covering my eyes, for fear of further pyrotechnics. I looked over the engine, from about 10 feet away, and declared it safe enough to run up on to slam the flame blackened hood down over the rumbling power plant. "Nice work pal," I said, coming around to the drivers side. "Now get out of there, so I can take this baby for a spin," I motioned to my buddy with that "hit the road running" thumb action some of us have seen too many times. "I'm not going too--am I?" he says, somewhat hesitantly and unsure if he really wants to go any where in this machine. "Nope, flat out too dangerous," I tell him. "Besides, if this thing blows up out there on the loop, you'll have to fill the rangers in on what happened--they might think it was a meteorite or something." I gathered up the parts I'd no longer be needing, like the air cleaner and a few hoses, and chucked them in the back seat. Little need for those I thought, since this baby eats fire, a little dust surely won't hurt. I slid behind the steering wheel and landed the shifter in a forward gear. After a slight whir, a clunk, and a shudder, the forward gear was engaged and I pulled out slowly and decided to head around the main Valley loop for the maiden voyage. Hell, it even had half a tank of gas. With the rear end as low as it was, it felt like I was piloting a boat--a large boat--rather than "proud Detroit steel". Not to worry....I kinda' liked boats. I thought I should take it easy while going around the loop, at least for the first 1/2 mile or so. I got the pile up to ramming speed down at the "El Cap straits", burying the speedometer into the far side of its cage. Everything started to get real quiet up around 120 m.p.h., and the Olds was seemingly floating over the tarmac, sucking the yellow line up into its wide grill as we went. Lookout Hueco, here I come! After doing the loop in style, I returned to the parking lot to check over the paperwork and clear the Germans junk out of the trunk. The glove compartment yielded the paperwork alright, but it was less than current. Hmmm--no pink slip, not registered for four years, no current tags, no smog, a blank bill of sale, and three parking tickets, two from Yucca Valley and one from Hollywood. Trying to tie all this together in my mind, I surmised that Huntz and the boys went to Joshua Tree for some craggin'--stole the car in Yucca Valley, and then headed to Hollywood--perhaps for some haggin'--all before showing up in Yosemite. Seemed reasonable enough, after all, they were on vacation. After checking out the paperwork it looked like I might be the one going to the "slammer". Figuring I could take care of this paperwork stuff later--read, much later. I wadded it up and pitched it back into the "box for gloves" as Huntz had called it. I went around to the rear and removed the bungy cord that holds the trunk closed. I'm guessing the bungy has been used as the lock since the day that screwdriver took over as the ignition key. The chisel marks on the trunk lid and the hole where the lock mechanism used to be, will support this theory. I opened up the trunk and propped up the lid with the broken ski pole provided. I hesitantly rummaged around in the leftovers of the Germans summer vacation. After unloading the obvious trash and spent beer bottles, a final tally yielded the following items worth keeping: four dollars in change, a half dozen wired stoppers, one domestic porno mag, a belay plate, a Timex that took a lickin' and just quit tickin', and some dirty laundry, gender unknown . The laundry was the first to go, which I promptly donated to the nearest dumpster. The four bucks I put in my pocket, the stoppers and belay plate went right on my rack, and I traded the porno mag and the spent Timex to a buddy for a sandwich to be named later. I secured the trunk with its bungy cord, hopped into the drivers seat, and fired that baby up, second try. As I sat there being mildly jiggled by the V-8 power, I listened with an untrained ear to the surging idle. I thought to myself, this must be what they mean when someone says, "just listen to that baby purrr". I reached down to the console, put it in drive, and patiently waited for it to catch. A couple of whirrs, a bit of a clunk, an indescribable noise, and I was under way. I pulled out of the parking lot and headed to Degnans Deli to shake down some lunch, plan my winter climbing tour in the great Southwest, and perhaps sample an "Old English" cylinder or three, as a toast to my new ride.