The Traveling Midget
By Tyler G. Hicks-Wright
Acquiring a Midget
I scheduled a meeting to see the car in Boulder. Despite being April, the weather was nice and the owner had the top down. He took me for a drive to show me the quirks of the car. Then he let me take it out on my own. As soon as I got back, I told him I would take it, and we started negotiating the price. Two days later, I drove it home. I named her “Rosie”. Little did I know I was continuing something of a family legacy. After buying the car, I learned that my paternal grandmother, who I never met, had owned an MGB, which she eventually passed on to my uncle.
I kept my early drives short. Rosie and I were still getting to know each other. The days were getting warmer and it was fun to drive the quiet, curving road along Cherry Creek. As I got more familiar with Rosie, I got more ambitious. I started planning my first drive into the mountains. My goal was to have breakfast in a small mountain town 30 miles west of Denver. I set out early to avoid traffic. The first half of the trip went smoothly. Rosie was running well and climbing into the mountain canyons was a thrill. We turned onto smaller, steeper roads. It was becoming clear to me that the smaller and curvier the road, the more fun it was to drive. A few miles from my destination, I glanced down to see the engine temperature had climbed all the way to the H on the gauge. Joy gave way to worry. I tried to take it easy, but the increasing grade didn’t give poor Rosie any respite. Coming around a bend on a particularly steep section, the engine died and steam began pouring from under the bonnet.
Rosie was my first old car and I was still learning how to be a good owner. I had neglected to check the coolant before my journey. I learned it was running low, so it was not able to keep up with the heat of the engine climbing into the mountains. Topping up helped the problem, but the little car still wanted to run hot.
Rallye Glenwood Springs
In June, I asked my best friend Jeff to be my navigator for the 63rd Rallye Glenwood Springs, a precision rally from Denver to Glenwood Springs. A week before the Rallye we installed an electric fan in front of the radiator with the hope that it would help keep the engine cooler.
Part of the Rallye was a climb over the Continental Divide via the 11,000-foot Berthoud Pass. Part way up, coolant began shooting out from between the block and the head. It hit the distributor and saturated wire #3, shorting it out. We managed to summit on only three cylinders by driving on the shoulder in second gear with the pedal to the floor. At the top of the pass, the cylinder began firing again, leaving us puzzled about the cause of the problem. It was several weeks before we finally diagnosed the leaking head gasket.
Puzzles like this led to projects. Replace the head gasket. Fix the broken hood frame. Reconnect the reversing lights. The list was endless, but every fix and improvement endeared the little car to me even more.
The Rallye Glenwood Springs lead me to trust Rosie and I began to think about longer road trips. Soon, a memory from high school came to mind. When I was 17, my family and I drove down the Pacific Coast Highway, stopping to visit colleges along the way. The little red MG would be the perfect car to take down the PCH; I just had to figure out how to make it happen.
The idea bounced around the back of my mind for the next six months. In theory, the trip was perfect. But logistically it was a bit of a nightmare. How do you get a 46-year-old car from Colorado to California and back? Drive it? Ship it? Then on New Year’s Eve, the answer presented itself. My father sent my siblings and me an email asking if we were interested in going to Seattle to watch Team USA play in the Copa America soccer tournament. My brother had recently moved to Seattle, and it was a great opportunity for us all to go out and visit him. It also gave me an excuse to start putting my trip together.
Planning the Trip
I called my father and told him I was interested. I then asked if he would be interested in road tripping out there with me. He was. I began planning. Planning a road trip has become very easy with modern inventions like Google Maps, but this trip wouldn’t be so simple. While Rosie could do interstate speeds, it was not a comfortable experience. The wind was deafening, the steering wheel shook, and semi-trucks buffeted the small car.
This trip would have to be more like a motorcycle trip: on small back roads and two-lane highways. Using a variety of online tools, guides, and maps, I began plotting the route. Google Maps lets you choose to avoid highways, which gave a rough route. Next, I used Roadtrippers.com to find roadside attractions and interesting roads. Since I was participating in the Moss Motoring Challenge photo scavenger hunt, I added a few detours to pick up some hard-to-find points.
After a few weeks, I had a full circle route planned. I split the trip into four legs. The first would take my father and me from Denver to Seattle, where we would catch a few games from Copa America. For the second, I would be on my own, going from Seattle to San Francisco along the Pacific Coast. In San Francisco, my girlfriend Shelby would meet me and we would drive the third leg along the Pacific Coast Highway to San Diego. The fourth leg would be a solo crossing of the deserts of the Southwest back to Denver.
While I was planning, I was also getting Rosie ready. During the dead of winter, I removed the cylinder head and replaced the leaking head gasket. That solved the chronic overheating problem. Then I worked on the interior. I repaired rust in the footwells, replaced the broken seats, and installed new carpet. This would make the trip much more comfortable.
By late April, I had everything sorted. I planned some longer day trips in May to make sure there weren’t any lingering problems. My biggest fear was Rosie breaking down on a deserted back road, far from help or cell service. I brainstormed ways she could break down and began acquiring spare parts and tools to do any roadside repair of which I could think.
Because of my experience overheating the engine, fluids were top on my list: a gallon of coolant and a few quarts of oil. Next I thought about the basic needs of the engine: air, fuel, and a spark. For air, I only needed tools so I could adjust the mixture as I changed altitude. For fuel, I packed a spare pump, filter, and flexible lines. And for spark, I brought a spare of everything: plugs, wires, distributor cap, rotor, points, and a coil. The Lucas wiring was also a concern. If the Prince of Darkness showed up, I had a pocket multimeter, spare wire, bullet connectors, electrical tape, and a wire stripper. For the tires, I got a small air compressor, replaced the original jack with a scissor jack, and stuffed as many spare tubes as I could fit in the rear fenders. The last category were the MacGyver items: duct tape, zip ties, self-fusing tape, and JB Weld. To keep the toolset small, I ordered a tool roll and filled it with a basic mechanic’s set of wrenches, sockets, and screw drivers.
With all of that packed into the boot, I could handle a lot of problems that might arise on the trip. But there were a lot of other potential issues that I could not prepare for. If I broke a suspension member or a steering component, Rosie might be able to limp to the next town, but we’d be stuck until parts arrived and repairs were completed. Same with the transmission and clutch. If we lost brakes for some reason, I would still have the handbrake. But what about the engine? It had been rebuilt eight years prior, but it’d only had a few hundred miles on it since then. Fixing the head gasket had cured the known problems, but what about all of the internals?
The 64th Rallye Glenwood Springs acted as a final shakedown. The tour included a climb over the 12,000 foot Loveland Pass, which posed no problem for Rosie. She flew through the Funkhana and its backward slalom. And the Rallye was a breeze. She was ready for the trip. Or as ready as a 46-year-old car could be for a 5,500 mile trip.
Our plan was to drive 465 miles to Dubois, Wyoming, maximizing our time in Grand Teton and Yellowstone the following day. I took the first shift, driving north along the foothills to meet my sister in Fort Collins for breakfast.
Somewhere between Medicine Bow and Casper, the peace was broken by the sound of a punctured tube and a rapidly deflating tire. We pulled over onto the side of the two-lane highway to find that Rosie’s right front tire was completely flat. Because she wore original chrome wire wheels, I had to use tubes in her tires. Unfortunately, one of the spoke heads had worn a hole in the tube, leading to its failure. The upside of the wire wheels was they were easy to change. Jack the light little car up, apply the oversized wrench to the oversized center nut, remove wheel. Soon we were back on our way, figuring we would likely find a tire shop in the next town on our route.
By the time we pulled into Dubois, we’d driven 527 miles over the course of thirteen and a half hours. Aside from the flat tire, Rosie had done well, and my father and I were working well as a team. Tired, but content, we found a small restaurant for dinner and then got to bed.
I had been looking forward to day two since I started planning the trip. We only had 250 miles to cover, and most of it would be in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. One day was hardly enough to see those two parks, so we took our time enjoying the sights along the main road. Unfortunately, with so many things to see, we couldn’t stay in any one place for long.
As daylight started fade, we reluctantly left the park and turned toward Bozeman, two hours north. Without the sun, the weather got cool, and we stopped to put on our jackets. We bundled ourselves to the chin, but we refused to put the top up.
We left Bozeman the next morning, following the interstate west. My dad, who had taken the first shift, decided to try driving on the interstate to see how Rosie would do. As we got up to interstate speeds, the steering wheel began shaking, a symptom of the wire wheels working themselves out of true after so many years. The first semi that passed blew us off course, forcing my dad to abruptly correct. Several more trucks passed with the same effect. As we approached the next exit, we decided that the frontage road was more of our speed.
Our route for day three had us driving through hills and mountains on curving, two lane roads. We passed through Kalispell without stopping at our hotel and continued on to Glacier National Park. On day four, we were supposed to go from Kalispell to Spokane. But we called an audible. Eastern Washington is known for being dismally empty. Neither of us was looking forward to it. So we decided to cross into Canada and follow the border west. Instead of 200 miles of empty farmland, this route would put us in the rolling hills between the Rocky and Cascade mountain ranges.
Shortly after our border crossing, I smelled something metallic burning. I began checking everything that came to mind. The brakes were good, the clutch was still working, and the transmission was shifting smoothly. But for some reason, Rosie felt a lot more sluggish than usual. I was about to pull over to the side of the road, again in the middle of nowhere, to diagnose the problem, when I happened to look down. In my excitement crossing into another country, I’d forgotten to release the handbrake after the border stop. Feeling silly, I lowered the lever and Rosie perked right up. She got us to our lodging that night was in Grand Forks, British Columbia.
We left Grand Forks for our last day of driving. Later, we got caught in Sunday afternoon traffic, as everyone who spent the weekend in the mountains was returning to the city. Soon, the windy mountain roads turned into suburban freeways and city overpasses. We had reached my brother’s house in Seattle and the end of the first leg of my trip.
We spent the next four days watching international soccer matches, visiting with friends and family, and seeing some of the highlights of Seattle. We took Rosie on the ferry to Port Townsend and back. Then it was time for everyone to leave.
From Seattle to San Francisco Rosie and I would be on our own. We had 1,100 back-road miles to drive, and I had to meet Shelby’s plane in three and a half days. Before setting off, I removed the air cleaners from the carburetors and adjusted the mixture nuts on Rosie’s twin SUs. Now that we were at sea level, she would need a bit more fuel to compensate for the additional air that we were lacking at a mile high in Colorado. After I put the air cleaners back on, I went to the other side and loosened the distributor. We had picked up a bit of engine knock under heavy load, so I retarded the timing slightly. It hadn’t occurred to me earlier, but the increase in atmospheric pressure at sea level affected the timing. The charge going into the cylinder was denser, causing it to combust faster, which created the knock. Adjusting the timing quickly cured that. Rosie felt strong with more air in her lungs.
We started on the ferry back across Puget Sound to Bainbridge Island. On the other side I turned north, away from my destination of Long Beach. Instead of going direct, I wanted to take the long way around the Olympic Peninsula. At a place called Ruby Beach I got my first glance of the Pacific Ocean. The dream of driving Rosie down the Pacific coast was becoming a reality!
My excitement was short lived, however. A sign just outside of the logging town where I got lunch indicated that it would be 40 miles to the next service station. Some mental arithmetic said I had 60 miles in the tank; plenty to make it, with the better part of a gallon to spare. 40 miles came and went without any sign of a gas station. Several miles later, still without any sign of gas, I began to worry. There didn’t seem to be anything out there, and I had no cell service. To make it worse, Rosie’s gas gauge became less reliable the lower it got. A misreading of the gauge or a bit of errant math earlier in the day and I could end up on the side of the road with my thumb in the air.
Anxious minutes ticked by. Finally, hope arrived, “Gas 1 Mile.” Rosie’s tank was teetering just above the “E”. As the gas station came into sight, I breathed a sigh of relief and pulled in. From there, I should have been able to reach Long Beach on one tank, but I didn’t want to risk adding any more undue stress to my day, so a few hours later I stopped for another top-up. As I was filling the tank, I heard a familiar rumble behind me. A 1969 MG Midget had pulled up next to the adjacent pump. The dark red paint was much more worn Rosie’s, but it sounded to be in good mechanical condition. I chatted briefly with its driver, a local high school student. He had acquired the car for a senior project and was working on fixing it up to take to college. I hadn’t thought about it until that point, but that was the first MG I had come across in nearly 2,200 miles.
The next day, I didn’t plan on doing much in Oregon. None of the landmarks I’d planned to stop at were along the route, it was just a day of driving. But what a day! My route took me down Highway 101, also known as the Oregon Coast Highway. If Highway 1 in California has a rival, it’s the Oregon Coast Highway. The road wanders back and forth between the dense forest and the stunning coast line. In the forest it twists and turns before spitting you out onto a scenic overlook to beaches and bays below. It was spectacular, even more so because I hadn’t expected it.
In Crescent City, California, my overnight stop, I opened the bonnet to investigate a high idle and rough running we’d picked up in the last couple of hours. I pulled off the air cleaners to check the carburetors, but couldn’t find anything. On the other side of the engine, I was about to start adjusting the timing when I noticed a bit of fraying on the vacuum advance line. Looking more closely, I found the rubber line had split, causing a vacuum leak. That explained the Rosie’s symptoms. Fortunately, there was enough slack in the line to cut the split end away and reattach it. When I started her up, she was back to her happy purr.
Part of the reason I didn’t have any planned stops in Oregon is because I had some big ones on the itinerary for the next day in northern California. When I was a kid, my dad told me that there was a tree that you could drive through. Now I’d have the chance to do it myself, and there was no chance Rosie wouldn’t fit. I found the first drive-thru tree on my route. The tree was absolutely immense. Standing at its base, the trunk reach endlessly for the sky. I drove through the hole carved out of its trunk and got out to take photos. I could easily open Rosie’s doors all the way without them touching the tree.
Not too far down the road was the Avenue of the Giants, a 31-mile stretch of road surrounded on all sides by the densest stand of virgin redwoods in the world. Already a Midget, Rosie was dwarfed by the massive trees. Felled trunks could have been hollowed out to form a garage for her.
Of course, all good things come to an end, and we got back onto 101 to continue our journey south. The freeway was much less fun. Speed was not an option, it was necessary. Straight, boring, wind-screaming speed. In other cars, that might be where the fun is, but with only four gears, it becomes stressful. I broke up the stress with a lunch stop.
A bit further on was the tiny town of Leggett and the start of Highway 1, commonly known as the Pacific Coast Highway. At that point, however, there was nothing coastal about the highway. In fact, for the first 21 miles of Highway 1, I couldn’t see any coast at all. Instead, the road wound through a dense forest. Shadows from the leaves dappled the road and, at times, the canopy came completely together, casting the road into deep shade.
The highway twisted and curved as it climbed up and then back down the last inclines of the Coast Mountain Range. We found ourselves in a pack of other sporty cars enjoying the turns and hairpins. Pushing through the corners made us feel like racing drivers while only doing 30 MPH.
As the trees opened up, the road rose into a gentle left hand curve, and the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean opened in front of us. This was it, the Pacific Coast Highway. Unlike the coastal stretch in Oregon, the road didn’t get any straighter when it met the ocean. It followed the cliffs, staying high above the beaches below. Like a contour on a topo map, it had to turn inland for every river and valley. Signs warned of sharp curves with recommended speeds of 15 MPH. On one of those turns, I was having a little too much fun and gave myself a bit of a scare. I came over a small rise into a sharp left hander with no guardrail protecting the road from the cliff that was eating away at the white line marking the shoulder. Rosie reacted quickly to the sudden steering input, her rear tire making a puff of dust as it reached the edge of the road before shooting back onto the asphalt.
The following morning, I was still fatigued from the previous day’s driving. My plan had been to return to the coast and drive to the Golden Gate Bridge on Highway 1. But that route would take twice as long and I had to meet a friend for lunch in San Francisco before Shelby’s flight arrived later in the afternoon. So instead, I continued inland to the freeway, making a stop in Petaluma to give Rosie a much needed bath.
Just before San Francisco, I pulled off the main road and climbed the hill above Kirby Cove. I could see the Diablo Mountains in the distance, behind the great red span of the Golden Gate Bridge. Once we descended back to the road, we were in the land of giants again. The towers soared overhead as we drove through them, with massive cables hung elegantly between them. Rosie’s diminutive frame seemed even smaller as I stared up out of the little convertible.
San Francisco was less fun. Stop signs seemed to be placed on the steepest part of each hill. Going up required operating three pedals with two feet. Going down needed a very heavy foot on the brake. I took the most direct route to the restaurant, relieved to arrive a little early.
After lunch, I drove down to the marina, got a coffee, and went for a walk. Back when I was a grad student at Stanford, I participated in the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon. The triathlon started with a swim from a boat anchored just off Alcatraz, back to San Francisco. Ten years later I was in the same spot where I had come ashore, but this time I was on a very different sort of adventure.
Soon, it was time to continue on to the airport. Shelby’s flight was arriving soon, and I didn’t want to be late. After I picked her up, we continued south to Palo Alto. I wanted to swing by my alma mater, specifically the main entrance to the campus. Starting at the main gates is a mile-long stretch of road lined on either side by perfectly placed palm trees. Palm Drive leads directly to Stanford’s main quad and the imposing stone buildings that surround it. Driving down it a decade before had always felt special. Doing it in a little red convertible felt like being in a movie.
After a quick tour of the campus, we went back into Palo Alto to meet another old friend at the Rose & Crown Pub. I figured it was the most appropriate venue considering our mode of transportation. We celebrated the successful completion of Leg #2 before turning in for the night.
It was great to have a traveling companion again. I had enjoyed the time on my own with Rosie, but it was better to be able to share the experience with someone else. When I was on my own, I was willing to put Rosie and myself through long hours because I enjoyed the driving. But with a passenger, I wanted the trip to be more about what we saw and did along the way, so I planned a number of stops on our route.
Our first was Pigeon Point, a picturesque lighthouse built in the late 1800s. Next stop was a berry farm just north of Santa Cruz. We had the option of picking our own berries, but we decided the ones that were already picked were just fine. Being short on time, we skipped the boardwalk in Santa Cruz in favor of Cannery Row in Monterey. But these were just minor stops, though. The big features were just beyond the tip of the Monterey Peninsula. 17-Mile Drive is a scenic loop through Pacific Grove and Pebble Beach. The road weaves between holes of the famous golf course, following the rocky shoreline. There’s a small fee to do the drive, but the dramatic coastline and extravagant neighborhoods made it worth the price of admission. Toward the end of the drive, we pulled over at a scenic overlook of Carmel Bay. Framed by massive driftwood and windswept trees, the waves crashed into boulders, sending a fine mist into the air. Carmel-by-the-Sea was just visible in the distance.
But the gorgeous views from 17-Mile Drive were only a warmup for what came next. Francis McComas described Big Sur as the “greatest meeting of land and water in the world.” I don’t think he’s wrong. The serpentine coastline was punctuated with dramatic islands of rock spires and outcroppings. Sheer cliffs dropped hundreds of feet into the ocean. Around each bend was another breathtaking visage of rugged coastline. Rosie was back in her element, effortlessly nipping the apex of each curve and bend.
As we climbed the hills away from the sea, the temperature began to climb as well. While the marine layer had cooled us along the coast, we were unaware that the temperature a few miles inland was almost 100°F. Because of my early experience overheating Rosie, I was exceedingly cautious not to do it again. Over the previous year, I had become accustomed to using the heater as a second radiator to pull more heat away from the engine. Unfortunately, it dumped that heat directly into the cockpit. Shelby curled up on the seat to get her feet as far away from the heater as possible; I didn’t have that luxury. For 45 minutes we sweated through our shirts, keeping a watchful eye on the temperature gauge.
Not wanting to suffer the heat again, we started our next day in the cool of the early morning. We returned to the coast at Moro Rock and followed the roads inland as they gravitated to the population centers of Southern California. Outside Santa Barbara, we stopped at Moss Motors. A few employees came out and we chatted for a while about the trip. Knowing we would eventually hit traffic in LA, we got back on the road. A small detour through Malibu gave us a glimpse at some of the famous homes in the area. In Santa Monica we took Ocean Avenue. That’s when we found the traffic. And it didn’t let up until almost Long Beach.
Our hotel for the night was the Queen Mary, the White Star ocean liner moored in Long Beach. We caught a quick glimpse of it as we were crossing the high arching bridges of the Seaside Highway. But it was soon obscured by the colossal machinery that serves the port. Cranes danced back and forth, whisking shipping containers from one place to another.
We exited the freeway, following the directions to the Queen Mary. As I was looking for our left turn, Shelby started yelling. A semi-truck with an empty trailer was entering our lane from the right, seemingly oblivious to our presence. As the rear tires of his trailer closed in on us, I braked hard and jerked the steering wheel to the left. Unfortunately, the center line was marked with pylons, and Rosie took two of them out with the maneuver. The truck continued on, unfazed by the close call. At the next opportunity, we pulled over to assess the damage. Fortunately, everything was fine mechanically. Rosie’s front bumper had completely flattened one pylon. The other left small scuff on her rear fender, but it was just a bruise. Somewhat shaken but glad to be in one piece, we continued to The Queen Mary.
When I booked the hotel, I wasn’t sure if it would be a good place to stay or more of a gimmick. The reviews were good, so I took the chance. I’m glad that I did; It was by far the best hotel (and museum) of the trip. The ship had been restored and guests had free reign to explore. The rooms were kept in fairly original condition. Since we’d splurged on an ocean view (a $20 upgrade), we had two portholes overlooking downtown Long Beach. After checking in, we grabbed a drink at the Observatory Bar on the bow of the ship to unwind from the day.
In the morning we enjoyed breakfast at one of the ship’s restaurants before spending few hours exploring. Feeling satisfied with our exploration of the ship, we got on the road. We only had to make the short trip down to San Diego where we were staying with Shelby’s cousin Karen and her family. We attempted to follow what was left of the Pacific Coast Highway, but soon found that it was just a congested local road, so we returned to the interstate.
At a gas station south of Los Angeles, a black Nissan Z pulled up to the pump behind us. As the octogenarian driver got out, he noticed our Colorado plates and commented on how far from home we were. He proceeded to tell us about how, back in the 1950s, he had driven an MG TD from Washington DC to Los Angeles in the middle of summer. To keep the engine from overheating, he’d hung canvas water bags in front of the radiator, a technique I had started pondering on our infernal drive into Paso Robles. As parting advice, he glanced back at his Z with a smile and told me, “Don’t ever outgrow sports cars!”
After we got to San Diego, we met Karen, her husband Eric, and their seven year old daughter Katya for dinner at a Thai restaurant. After dinner, it was decided that Katya should drive with me in the convertible and Shelby would go Karen and Eric. We strapped her booster into Rosie’s passenger seat and took off. As we pulled onto the freeway, she began giggling uncontrollably. “Having fun?” I asked. “My hair is flying everywhere,” she responded, “I would say it’s annoying, but really I love it.” At an interchange, we got separated from the lead car, but fortunately the precocious 7-year-old was able to give me exact directions back to her house.
I dropped Shelby off at the airport before 6:00 AM. She had to be back in Denver for a wedding, so Rosie and I would be on our own again for the last leg home. My original plan had been to do a longer drive out of San Diego, aiming for Flagstaff. Unfortunately, a heat wave had settled in over the southwest. Daily high temperatures around the California-Arizona border were over 120°F. Driving in those temperatures could easily kill Rosie. And if Rosie died on a desert back road, I would be in trouble. The only option was to drive at night.
To prepare for the heat, I made some modifications to Rosie’s heating system. Since I didn’t have a passenger with me, I would be able to vent heat from the heater out the passenger window, keeping both the engine and the cockpit cooler. First I duct taped the heater and defroster outlets on the driver’s side to keep the heat off my legs. Then I joined the two defroster ducts together to form one long hose that I could hang out the passenger quarter light window. This bit of MacGyvery allowed me to blast the heater on full while staying relatively cool.
About 11:00 PM I said my goodbyes, loaded up Rosie, and started the overnight drive. It was still 94°F outside, which confirmed my decision to change my schedule. There wasn’t much to see in the dark and the roads were empty, so I did a lot of driving on the interstate. With plenty of fuel stations and the cool night air, Rosie could keep driving forever. But I would be racing against fatigue, and sticking to the interstate made the trip shorter.
I still had to transition from I-10 up to I-40, which I did on an empty stretch of two lane highway between Desert Center and Needles. The roads were in great shape, and without traffic, I was able to make good time. My only stop was to pull over and shut off all the lights to get a look at the stars without light pollution. In the dark and silence of the desert, it occurred to me that this was the sort of place the Lucas gremlins loved to strike. I turned the ignition key, glad to hear Rosie’s low roar. I was enjoying the deserted roads, but I was eager to get back to civilization.
I made one detour up the Needles Highway into the tip of Nevada. Since I was passing through every other state west of the Rio Grande, it seemed silly not to complete the map, even if I only spent 20 minutes in the state. Of course, there was a spate of casinos right at the border.
In Arizona, I made a beeline for I-40. I took frequent breaks to make sure I wasn’t getting too fatigued. About an hour outside of Flagstaff, my focus started wandering. It was just after 6:00 AM and I’d been on the road for about 7 hours. I stopped in Seligman to get some breakfast at a greasy spoon off the interstate. A plate piled high with eggs and hash browns and a bottomless coffee perked me back up.
The downside to driving on this schedule is that there’s no hotel ready for you when you arrive. Not knowing quite what to do with myself until check-in, I drove into the center of Flagstaff. I stumbled across a farmer’s’ market in a neighborhood park, so I found a shady spot to park and wandered around the booths. On the other side of the park was a pet adoption event, so I walked over and found some puppies to play with. I still had some time before my hotel room was available, so I walked back to the shady spot where I’d parked Rosie and got the tool kit out. I had started the night at a few hundred feet above sea level, but now I was at 7,000 feet and she was feeling the change. A quick adjustment of the mixture and timing got her engine running smoothly again. I took a short drive to test out the new tune, stopping to grab a couple more photos for the Moss scavenger hunt. By the time I circled back to the hotel, my room was ready, so I checked in, went up to the room, and climbed into bed.
One of the best drives I’d ever done was through Monument Valley in southern Utah four years earlier. I was driving to the Grand Canyon by way of Moab. Without realizing it, I had chosen a route that put me through the middle of the towering rock spires and vast desert scenery. For this trip, I made sure Monument Valley was on the itinerary. Rosie and I left Flagstaff before sunrise to give myself as much time as possible before the heat chased me off the road. At the Utah border was a sign welcoming us with a picture of the famous rock monuments. Just past the sign, and even larger, were the monuments themselves.
The formations vary from delicate rock spires to massive mesas. For the most part, the rocks are red, contrasting with the green and yellow desert plants. One of my favorites was Mexican Hat, near the end of the valley. On top of a small mesa was a boulder with large circular rock on top of it, the profile of a man wearing a sombrero. Not long after Mexican Hat, I crossed back into Colorado. I had visited 10 states; the only one missing was my home state of New Mexico. Fortunately, a short detour south brought me to Four Corners and the Land of Enchantment.
The next day was the last day of the trip. Since I would be traveling through the mountains, I wasn’t worried about heat, so I took my time eating breakfast. As I got on the road, I heard the whistle of the train ahead of me and saw the smoke in the distance. Always up for racing a train, Rosie’s engine hummed as we passed the steaming locomotive.
The road out of Durango turned into the Million Dollar Highway. The road winds through towering mountains, deep valleys, and old mine sites. For most of the drive, the rocks and earth that make up the mountains are a deep red. As I approached Denver, I noticed a pile of large thunderheads over the city. Checking the weather on my phone, it was clear that I would be arriving about the same time as the peak of the storm. I decided to stick to surface streets in case I needed to put the top up quickly. I was planning to meet Shelby and Jeff at one of my favorite bars as a small welcome home party. Even with the detour, I was on schedule to meet them there at 6:30 as planned. Twelve blocks away, the storm hit, and it hit hard. I pulled under a tree and got the top up before the interior got too wet. It was starting to hail, so I tried to find refuge in a gas station, but it was full of cars already doing the same. I pulled under a tree, but found little shelter there. The hail was getting more intense.
I remembered that a grocery store a couple of blocks away had a parking garage. I zipped out from under the tree, across four lanes of traffic, up two blocks, and into an illegal parking space in the garage. Soon, the garage was completely filled with cars hiding from the hail.
I waited as the peak of the storm passed over. There was so much water that geysers were forming in the parking lot. Fearing the streets would be flooded, I waited a bit longer. When cars started leaving the garage, I thought it might be worth trying to get to the bar. I pulled out of the garage. There was water flowing swiftly through the gutter, but it wasn’t very deep. I stayed to the right, merging into the turning lane to turn right. The lane had some water on it, but I could still see the street.
As I came around the corner, it became clear that I had made a mistake. The street was completely flooded and it was too late to stop. I chose what I thought was the shallowest route and gave Rosie a little extra speed. My hope was that a little more momentum would carry us onto the crown of the road, where the water would be shallowest. We made it about halfway before the engine cut out. The water was almost up to the floorboards, but the wake of the front wheels had sent enough water into the engine bay to cause problems. I turned off the ignition, grabbed my raincoat, hit the hazard lights, and got out. I was close to one of the other garage entrances, so I started pushing poor disabled Rosie back to shelter. I got her to the curb, but I couldn’t get her up the incline. A good Samaritan had seen me and got out to help.
In the garage, I waited for a few minutes, and then tried to start her up again. Her engine wouldn’t fire, but at least it was turning over, which meant that it wasn’t hydrolocked. Good news. A couple more minutes and I tried again. Again, no luck. With the streets still flooded, even if she did start back up, I couldn’t drive her anywhere, so I grabbed my computer bag and jogged over to the bar where Shelby and Jeff were waiting. Our celebration was dampened by the news about Rosie. Still, it was good to be back in good company.
After a drink, Jeff drove me back to Rosie. The streets had finally cleared; if we could get her to start I could drive her home. We spent a couple of hours trying to get the engine to fire. We checked the cylinders, the distributor, the spark plugs, the coil, and the carburetors. A couple of times she sputtered, but she wouldn’t start. Defeated, we strapped Rosie to Jeff’s Outback and he towed Rosie the last five miles home.
Rosie drove 5,332 miles across eleven states, one Canadian province, and six national parks. She conquered 12,000 foot passes, 100-degree deserts, dense rain forests, winding coastline, and rugged mountains. She had done everything I asked of her and more. In my optimism and eagerness to finish the trip, I had failed her. We pushed Rosie into the garage and I pulled the spark plugs to let the engine dry.
In the morning, I reinstalled the spark plugs. Climbing into the driver’s seat, I pulled the choke all the way out, inserted the key, and turned it. Rosie roared to life, defiantly spraying the remaining water out of her tailpipe. I adjusted the choke and got out to inspect the engine. Aside stuck to the engine, everything looked good. I gave her a proper tune up, feeling grateful that my impulsiveness the night before had not caused any permanent damage. When I was done and everything was put back together, Rosie and I drove back towards the garage where we had taken refuge. We passed the spot where the engine cut out, and continued back to the bar. I stopped for a proper celebratory drink.
I knew that Rosie and I could make this journey together. What I didn’t expect was how well she would do it. Of the few minor problems we had, and one major one, not a single one of them could be attributed to the little car. I couldn’t believe how tough she was.
When I started planning this trip, it was a bit of a lark. Taking a quirky old British roadster around the whole of the western United States was just a little absurd. But piece by piece, different parts of my life fell into place to make it happen. I was joined and aided by some of my closest friends and family, I visited places I hadn’t seen since childhood, and I was reminded of memories I hadn’t thought of in ages. And all along the way I was making a whole new set of memories that I will never forget.
After the bar, Rosie and I turned for home. It was a sunny day, and her engine was purring as happily as it had when we set out three weeks earlier. We had made it.