OLD TRUCK, TAKE CARE AND GO WELL
Truck at the pool on July 13th, 2006
"If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it."
old truck folk wisdom
I have read in a very interesting book that two photons on the opposite sides of the universe influence each other to some degree through the medium of gravity. When I was twelve we lived in Maine and my thoughts of cars or trucks were as minimal as they could probably be. In 1962 perhaps there was a connection, an infinitesimal spark, between me and this Chevy pickup that was rolling off the line in Detroit, a truck I would buy fifteen years later for twelve-hundred dollars and drive for twenty-nine years. My first significant association with Chevy as a name came fourteen years later from a ten-year-old boy I had just given one of my sweet girl Mam’s puppies to. When I asked him what he thought he would name him, he smiled and without any hesitation said, “Chevy.”
When I gave “Chevy” away, I had recently acquired my first vehicle, a red VW bug. I pretty much destroyed this car at the end of that summer when I drove it up to Eugene, Oregon, to start graduate school in Anthropology. I had yet to destroy another vehicle—another VW: they were so easy to destroy—before buying a metallic-blue half-ton Chevy pickup from someone in Castro Valley, California, who lived near Strobridge Avenue. This person had put a champagne cork in the end of a hose fitting that projected from the valve cover. My dad was with me and I forget which of us asked what that was about. “Oh, that’s just the old smog control.” The guy pointed to another colorful plastic gewgaw attached to a hose of some kind, “That’s the new one.”
Except for that one glitch, they had done a pretty good job rebuilding the truck. The single thing that going through three engines in two VWs in less than two years had keyed me to was any unusual sounds from the motor. South of Redding on the drive up to Eugene, I began to hear such a thing and pulled over—concerned. The engine was more than a quart low in oil and there was oil all over the inside of the engine compartment?
I put in more oil and eventually found a mechanic who took pity on me and, though he said he was busy, would take a quick look. Wiping his hands on his coveralls, he popped the hood and after a moment said, “What the hell is this,” grabbing the cork and working it free. “That’s your pressure relief system. You’re blowing all your oil out around your dip stick handle.”
Compared to my experience with VWs, driving the old Chevy was a piece of . . . well, it was as easy as raising blue gills to a dry fly: the truck had power, it . . . she [the truck was a female entity to me] had headlights that did more than just—maybe—show other people you were on the same road with them. Working on the truck was much simpler too, minimally not requiring an extra joint in your forearm, and virtually every garage in any dinky town in the middle of nowhere probably had parts, if not a local expert in Chevys who would advise you for a beer and the pleasure of sharing what he knew. And these parts were cheaper than VW parts. This was one of my first experiences with a maxim I have since taken to heart: virtually everything is opposite to what you’ve heard and may believe. Besides Volkswagens, a fine example of this is what most people hear from game departments about hatchery salmon.
Starting with a girlfriend in 1981, people began giving me plastic and rubber dinosaurs and other things and I arranged them on my dash, rearranging them occasionally. Now and then I would hear a shout and usually a child would be trying to get my attention in some town and he or she would be smiling widely and would point to my dash. Starting in 1991, a few hours before the successful termination of a lawsuit with a federal agency, I added a sea turtle that I attached to an ancient salmon lure and hung from my passengers-side visor where it swung eccentrically when the truck and I were in motion.
I once picked up a hitch hiker on Highway 101. He stared at the swinging turtle for a time and then pointed, asking, “Turtle island?” “No.” I said, “It’s just a toy.”
I spent many years as a field archeologist around tiny towns way off the beaten path from Lukeville and Patagonia to Paradise Valley, Midas, and McDermitt. Over the years I had the engine of the pickup rebuilt twice, the first time in Elko, Nevada, making use of a bonus from fighting range fires during the summer of 1985. It was there I had the body painted Kelly green.
In the middle winter of 1984/85, I finished replacing a broken axle in my brother’s garage in Corvallis, creeping the truck out on tires I’d had to deflate to get her inside of. Stopping about every hour or so to stamp some motion into circulation in my feet—the heater didn’t work—my sweet pup of the time, Muchacho, and I had driven over from Silver City, Nevada, the whole way on packed snow. It had taken two days, the first night sleeping on the edge of the road in some small town that was nameless to me. There was a six-inch fall of snow during the night. The next day I found myself hanging on as the truck spun in clockwise 360°s going down the west side of Willamette Pass. I only gained control of the spin fortuitously when the right-front grill banged hard into the guard rail twice.
After inflating the tires, Muchacho and I drove to the North Fork of the Alsea and hooked and lost and then, an hour later, hooked and landed a wild winter steelhead on a multicolored variation of a skunk pattern. Interestingly, the first skunk was a half an inch from the second in the steelhead’s upper jaw. This was my first steelhead ever and Paul, Anne, my nephew Mike, and Anne’s parents, Bill and Louise, ate about half of it that night.
Three years later in late September, with Muchacho, and my good friend, Jerry Patterson, I drove the old truck down Canton Creek to the North Umpqua early in the morning on my thirty-eighth birthday. As the more experienced angler by far, Jerry suggested I fish Boat Hole while he went downriver to Kitchen, both are runs of the famous Camp Water stretch of the river below the confluence of Steamboat Creek. I hooked and landed my first North Umpqua River summer steelhead on a modified Brad’s Brat. It was a strongly colored-up nine-pound hatchery buck.
Jerry and I had more fishing to do for the day and I never carry ice—this is a religious conviction—so, to keep the fish cool, I went up into the trees beside of the Mott Bridge parking lot and, turning over a thick layer of moss, slid the ungutted steelhead under it, dropping the moss back into place. We came back for it five or six hours later and when I lifted the moss and hooked the carcass out with a finger in its gills, the time it had spent resting against the ground had somehow or the other turned that side of the steelhead a bright molten silver as though it had just left the marine environment.
A few years later, I was fishing the fly-water stretch of the North Umpqua River fifty to a hundred days a year for summer steelhead and people were becoming aware of the green pickup where she was parked in the pullouts along the river. I found this out later when people pulled over and shook my hand saying they were glad to meet the person who drove this truck. One time, I was at the Steamboat Inn and overheard an exclamation by a guest in the parking lot, “I want to fish with the person who drives this truck!”
During this time I was familiarizing myself with the river, all the river, the whole thirty or thirty-two miles of it, whichever it is. The 1962 Chevy pickup was a beater and had never had a speedometer or an odometer. Neither did she have turn signals, only half the time an ignition switch that worked—I rigged up a switch on the underside of the dash that jumped the poles of the battery and another switch, a toggle switch in this case, that changed the headlights from high beam to low beam and vice versa. The driver’s side door was always unlockable, and the latching mechanism for this door went south after my time in Elko—I held it closed with a nylon rope, an eye bolt in the door, and a bungee cord. The headlights were also held in place with bungee cords. Perhaps a better way of showing what I am trying to say is to say that I lost my brakes three times before I had the emergency brake hooked up with the help of a friend in his eighties on Vashon Island, Gene Sherman. Throughout the twenty-nine years I drove the truck and we gradually yielded up one and then another ancillary—I thought—system to the powers that be, I kept her in running condition and she was for me a very comfortable vehicle to drive and, particularly, to take long drives in.
The evident nature of the green Chevy on the river gained me a certain notoriety that was not matched by my expertise casting flies for steelhead during this time when my go-to fly was an odd Comet pattern with a black squirrel-tail wing that projected forward over the hook eye and had a sparse peacock neck-feather hackle.
In mid-July of 1996, I hooked, landed, and released a forty-inch wild hen steelhead in the Kitchen Hole. This happened in full sun with upcreek breezes blowing and, I found out later, with two simple wind-knots in my leader. While the fish did cartwheels around the pool, I have no memory of her taking much line—I keep my drag set quite high for the sake of getting steelhead in quickly. I had her in to me in under ten minutes and I never removed this fish from the water or photographed it. She took off strongly when I released her tail. In some strange way, this steelhead gave me the invaluable gift of allowing me to let go of some of my obsession with fishing. I retired the Comet fly—it would never catch me a better fish—and only extremely rarely (once every five or six seasons) fished the Camp Water holes and never again with a point on my fly. I began to experiment tying and fishing different flies that I could present on the swing. By the end of the year or early the next season, I had adopted a bright blue bucktail streamer and a variety of waking patterns as my go-to flies. During the summer of 1997, I managed to modify the Muddler pattern into a sparse moose-hair fly that I fished riffle-hitched and designed to wake through standing waves. During this pivotal time, Sis and I camped for much of each summer at William’s Creek with our good friends, Rob Arita, Tony Kaltenberg, Matt Ramsey, Fred Chatty, Bob Carroll, Mike Williams, and others, including Clay Kinsell (then just graduated from high school in Roseburg) and Tod Ostensen. The social nature of those back two camps at William's Creek made talking, fishing, and tying flies a richly interactive environment.
Rob told me later that they could always tell it was me and Sis who had pulled into the parking area of the camp more than a hundred yards away by the dieseling and wheezing the engine made when I turned it off.
I fished solely the moose-hair Muddler that hundred-two-day summer season of 1998 and rose seventy-seven steelhead to it, landing about half of them including a nineteen-pound hen. This was all the evidence I needed to show me that a person didn’t need to fish anything but a waking fly for steelhead on the North Umpqua River if they didn’t want to. It is the only fly I have tied on and fished in the last fourteen years and it has risen fish in deep 36° water next to standing waves. Honoring the death of Sis, I fished the last moose-hair Muddler I tied on while fishing with this good dog for eleven and a half months before loosing unknowingly to riparian vegetation. This fly rose nine steelhead during the time it was tied to the end of my line.
During the early part of that 1998 season, The North Umpqua Foundation had approached me about spending my summer camped at Big Bend Pool on Steamboat Creek protecting the wild summer steelhead that gather there every season. This pool was the Mecca and Medina for local poachers and had gained the name of The Dynamite Hole.
I was already spending eight to ten days a season at the pool, volunteering along with many other folks. I had to tell the Foundation that I couldn’t do it, that I had a report-writing commitment to the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs that would take about two weeks whenever the review of the draft was completed.
Sis at the truck window in early 1999 (photo by Pam Moran)
[photo taped to the cover of one of my pocket journals]
While I was off the river and ensconced in a barn room in the Coast Range outside of Eugene finishing up the lengthy draft archeological report, I permanently mounted pipe fittings as fly-rod holders on the hood and the top of cab of the truck. During this time I also touched up the paint job with a few cans of green and blue spray paint and painted the first of what in a few years would be many steelhead forms on the side of the truck. I made sure the adipose fin was obvious on these fish.
While I was a bit better known as a person along the river, I believe that it was still the green Chevy pickup that had made me the sort of recognizable entity that the Foundation clicked on of when they were trying to make Big Bend Pool more secure. I have never asked, but think it likely that when the board of the Foundation tried to imagine a season-long caretaker for Big Bend Pool, someone said how about the guy that drives that green pickup we see so often from spring to autumn parked in the pullouts of the fly water stretch.
For the simple reason that it seemed like the right thing to do, I set aside 1999 to camp at pool all season long and Sis and I did so, leaving the pool shortly after the steelhead did that year on the 7th of December. We had such an interesting time and enjoyed the simplicity of life up here so much that we decided to continue spending seasons at the pool. Fortunately, the Foundation was in agreement with this.
Throughout 2006, Sis had increasing difficulty getting up into the old truck. She was the apple of my eye and sixteen-years old by this time. I had begun to make regular winter trips to a small town in central New Mexico to visit my folks during part of the winter and the truck was giving me signs that, like Sis, it was wearing out. On June 13th of 2006, when I had left the truck with a local guy to work on, only slightly joking around, I wrote in my journal, “Does my truck think I have abandoned her?”
After my—and everyone else’s—great friend Dan Callaghan died in the spring of 2006, Mary Kay asked me if I wanted his blue Ford van. I reasoned that it would be much easier for Sis to get into the van through the sliding side door and I was right. I made a bed for her behind the driver’s seat, but I missed having her snugged up beside me on my drives. That winter I drove Dan’s van to New Mexico and I parked the truck in Bryan and Kim Deck’s side yard.
On the 13th of May, 2007, I gave the old truck to my good friend Ron McMullin who had expressed an interest in having her. He used her for dump runs and reported to me regularly about how she was doing. This spring, Ron told me that the old truck had given up the ghost and mentioned he was thinking about having her towed to a junk yard. I told him that was his decision but that I appreciated him letting me know about her.
During the twenty-nine years I drove this truck—more than half my time on earth as an organized being by the time I gave her to Ron—she only stranded me once and this was in the extreme southeastern part of Arizona, one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. She was, through most of this time, one of the most distinctive things about me and I was proud of her and especially how dependable she was. I regularly had to work on her but she only cost me about three-hundred dollars every other year when I had to get a real mechanic to fix something. This is cheap. I easily put more than a million miles on her driving around the western United States primarily during the twenty-five years I was a practicing prehistoric field archeologist. She ferried Mam, Chicka, Muchacho, and Sis and was definitely part of my relationships with Candy, Caty, Lucy, and Margot, to name the more long-term relationships I've had with women during this twenty-nine years. She was a good truck to me.
Take care and go well, old Chevy.
Take care, go well,
Lee and Maggie