The truck has given us no grief. Or at least, no grief I can’t forgive it for. There was a wheel seal in Virginia. A punctured tire in Portland, Maine. A piddling leak in the air conditioner somewhere outside of San Diego. Hose clamps of one size or another that loosened their grip in one state or another. I’ve kept up with it all. Maintenance, too. Changed fuel filters and oil. Air filters. Did it on the green grass of a Northern New York lawn and in a dusty California driveway.
The power steering started leaking in Seattle, a few drips that became a pour by the time we made Austin. It was a simple problem. The long miles and constant vibration had taken their toll on the old spring clamps that held the low-pressure hoses together.
And there were other problems, too. Our electrical woes kept getting worse. What started with a few lights on the dash grew to bigger issues. First, no power windows. The locks followed, as did the mirrors. Then the air conditioning. Finally, the intermittent wipers. If there’s a chink in this machine’s armor, it’s in its electrical system, and the internet is full of owners who’ve had the same problem. It never gets better. If you’re lucky, it progresses to the lights and the ignition. If you’re not, the truck burns down.
We’ve been in Austin for a month, de-camped with our friends, Abby and Nelson. They’ve been our patron saints this year, swooping in to save us when we found ourselves in deep with the water rising. It was Abby who found us a place to be back in September when the roof was leaking and the Wyoming sky was hateful and cold. When we couldn’t get out from under the snow and rain. When I was desperate enough to ask for help.
She reached out to distant family, cousins she hadn’t spoken to in years, separated by a gulf of time and hurt. Did it anyway, for us. Found us a house, yes, but a place to work on the truck, too. And months later, when I was reeling from sudden unemployment and drowning in anxiety about the coming holidays, she invited us to her home. Gave us a place to be for Christmas.
I don’t have the words for what that meant. For what it means.
Austin’s a good town. A place that hasn’t quite scrubbed the dirt from its nails. The city proper might be flooded with ironic book stores and $7 coffee joints, but the town’s working bones are intact. Mechanics in mid-century Quonset buildings. Light industry of all sorts. Used tire shops, their walls painted in bright, Latin murals. Scrap yards here and there. I’m more comfortable among the rusting hulks than I am at any of the hipster bars on Sixth.
The way I was raised, I guess. We always spent our Christmases in Tennessee, usually with my step mother’s family, the lot of them going at each other like wildcats, sniping and fighting like folk who couldn’t stand to share a roof. I could count on Dad getting his fill of it by the second day. He’d grab his keys, his coat, and say we were headed to the store. We’d head out of town, out to Cumberland County’s oldest junk yards. We spent our gray December days wandering the twisted rows, daydreaming about what we’d bring back from the dead and how we’d do it, our eyes wandering over the rusting Chargers and Mustangs, Lincolns and Cadillacs. It’s where I learned to love what’s lost.
And its why it felt so right to be picking my way through row after row of derelict domestics a few days before Christmas. Yards have changed from when I was a kid. There’s no more knocking on strange doors. No more being met by the owner. No more small talk, asking the right questions to find out if they’ll let you wander around. Now it’s pay your entry fee, sign your life away, and go at it. Everything’s organized. Categorized. Cataloged. Fewer snakes this way. More turnover. Fewer jewels hunkered in the back 40.
Nelson and I dug up a new fuse panel for the Dodge, the supposed culprit behind my electrical woes. A new gauge cluster, just in case. The problems could be caused by one, the other, or both. That left me with a new need: a place to wrench. Abby and Nelson rent a place close to town. The city’s towers loom over the pecan trees that line their wide street, and it’s a short bicycle ride to state capitol building. There are bars and restaurants, libraries and greenways, all within easy reach. It’s a good place to live, and a hard place to work on a vehicle.
Which is why Austin DIY exists. It’s a functional, full-service shop that happens to rent out bays. Fifteen bucks an hour will get you space under a roof on a clean piece of concrete, complete with basic hand and air tools, as well as access to a number of specialty tools. Thirty will buy you a bay with a lift.
It was a quiet day when I arrived. Mark Jones met me at the door, walked me around the shop, and explained where everything was. After I’d filled out some paperwork, he pointed me towards my work space, rolled over a tool cart, and left me to my own devices.
I’d almost forgotten how nice it is to work in a proper space. There’s light and a smooth, even surface underneath me. No rocks jabbing at my ribs or mud grinding into my coveralls. And to have everything within reach. To skip needing to buy or fabricate a drain pan. To use a legitimate floor jack rather than the questionable bottle jack that came with the truck. And jack stands, too. I had the leak knocked out in under an hour, and spent the rest of my time trying to straighten out the electronics.
A few other customers wandered in and out. A guy in a new 911, teaching his son how to change the oil. Someone in a Mini Coupe changing their brakes. All wrenches welcome. Mark’s partner, Bundy, says the idea for the shop came from his days in the Navy. Most bases have do-it-yourself areas. Wood and metal shops. Mechanic bays. Places for people to put their hands to things. It makes sense in Austin, where so many people live in apartments or in packed subdivisions. The shop holds cookouts. Teaches welding and powder coating. It’s a hell of a resource.
Nothing I tried worked on the truck’s electrical gremlins. Not the fuse panel. Not the instrument cluster. Even the steering wheel I bought to replace the hammered leather wheel in our truck had different splines. I’m left with an expensive pile of useless parts, and no solution to our problem. Some days, all you want is a win. Any win. I pay, pack up, and head back to the house.
More internet sleuthing reveals an unfortunate truth: both the fuse panel and the instrument cluster have to be programmed to the truck by a dealer. Short of buying a $3,000 scanner to program the thing myself, there’s no way I can fix what ails the Dodge. Reluctantly, I pick up the phone, dial the closest dealer, and make an appointment.
It’s easy to be furious. Easy to hate the thing for the frustration, but the truth is, the truck has been a miracle for us. The odometer burns with 320,000 miles. It has taken us through ten months. Thirty-seven states. It has ferried us through the forgotten corners of our country. Into the Texas wastes and the green Maine wilds. It has crossed this country five times, all the while overloaded with our family on its back. This is an easy thing, by comparison. A thing I owe it.