When my brother was moving back to Atlanta from San Diego, he needed someone to drive his old car back east. My friend Tom and I thought it would be a nice trip, so we agreed to do it over Thanksgiving week. The details are fuzzy now, because it was about 20 years ago, but here’s what I remember.
First, of course, we had to arrive in San Diego without a car. Tom’s idea was that he would drive to Georgia from New Mexico in his little pickup, and we would drive back and catch the Amtrak train from Santa Fe to Los Angeles. It sounded good to me, so that’s what we did.
The first part of the trip was uneventful. We had both driven back and forth between Georgia and New Mexico many times, so the trip through Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee was pretty boring. About the time we reached Arkansas on I-40, it started raining. Hard. We heard a weather forecast on the radio for snow, and we both thought it was ridiculous with all the heavy rain. But as we kept going into the night, it got colder, and the rain turned to snow.
It snowed hard. The interstate started getting slippery. Tom’s truck was four-wheel-drive, so we didn’t have much trouble, but we did have to slow down quite a bit. The highway was covered with snow that was packed by the traffic. We watched a big truck driving up a long grade curved to the left. The tractor was in the right lane, and his trailer was sliding along in the left lane.
It was pretty tiring, so we stopped for a while at a motel in Amarillo. The next morning had turned bright and sunny with only a few icy spots between Amarillo and New Mexico. We headed up towards Lamy, which is where the Santa Fe train station is located. We intended to buy a ticket for the next day’s train, but found that that day’s train was late. It had been behind a freight train that had come apart on a grade, so we were able to get tickets for a compartment on that day’s train.
We had a while to wait so we went over to the Legal Tender Saloon for a little nip, and then came back to the station. Tom was a fan of detective novels, so we joked about Murder on the Orient Express and whether there might be a death on the train.
It was so late after the delay that they started serving dinner almost immediately after we left the station. We went up to the dining car and sat down to eat. After a while, we looked outside and then asked each other whether the train was slowing. It was. Out in the middle of nowhere between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, a drunk had decided to take a nap on the tracks, and the train had run over him. The almost imperceptibly slow stop was called an emergency stop.
It was a long time before the ambulance and police cars came, and a lot longer before the train started again. And then it went almost immediately into a siding where every wheel was inspected for damage. Apparently that’s required after every emergency stop.
Eventually the train went through Albuquerque and then headed west across Arizona and into southern California.
I think traveling by train may be the best way in the world to travel. The western Amtrak cars are two stories tall, so you sit up high. In the compartment we had, the seats faced each other on either side of the window. There was almost no sensation of motion, just the western landscape passing silently by. At night the seats fold down to make one bed, and the upper berth lowers immediately over it. It was a comfortable ride, but I had a cold so it was hard to sleep. Even so, when I got off the train in LA, I felt like I had just walked out my front door. There was none of the drone and low oxygen levels of airline travel, which usually leaves me exhausted after a four or five-hour flight.
We rented a car to drive down to San Diego. My brother, who was back in Georgia, had told me that his car, a 1967 Porsche 912, would probably need a tune-up. We got some tune-up parts and I started working. The car kept running worse and worse as I worked, but finally, at the end of the day, I had it running about as well as it had been before I started. At that point it seemed best to consider the job done.
We left the next morning. It was ice-cream weather in San Diego, but the cold weather we had passed through in the middle of the country was still there. In case you’re not familiar with old Porsches, I’ll explain. The 912 looked exactly like its bigger, more expensive brother, the 911, but it had a four-cylinder, air-cooled engine more powerful but otherwise not much different from an old Volkswagen’s. Since an air-cooled engine doesn’t have cooling water that can be used to heat the passenger compartment, Porsche and Volkswagen got heated air into the cabin by putting an envelope of sheet metal around the exhaust manifold and a blower to push hot air from the engine at the back up ducts to the front of the car. It’s a perfectly logical solution, as long as there are no exhaust leaks, but it sounds much better in theory than it works in practice. We never could feel any heat from the little vents. Riding inside the 912 didn’t seem much warmer than some of the cold days I have spent on a motorcycle.
When we decided it was too cold to take it any more, we found a K-Mart and bought a Sterno stove. A Sterno stove uses a little can of jellied alcohol placed in a small, squarish metal stove. You light it with a match and it burns with a weak flame. We put it down in the floorboard between the passenger’s legs. The main problem with it was that it produced a lot of water vapor that kept fogging the windows.
This seemed like a good idea at the time, but it was probably a worse idea even than the original Porsche heating system. It did, however, provide enough heat that we were almost comfortable.
Around that time the Porsche’s starter stopped working. Our first idea was to make sure we parked on a slope so we could push it off. That idea also turned out not to be so good, but at least it gave us some exercise. After one stop, we couldn’t get the car started again until someone stopped and helped push it off. After that we decided to simply drive straight through the rest of the way without turning the engine off. That might not have been a good idea, but it worked.
On Thanksgiving day, we pulled into a truck stop, filled up the tank and parked in front of the truck stop restaurant. We left the engine idling and went in for our Thanksgiving Day dinner.
We managed to make it back to Georgia without any further adventures. We parked the car in my parents’ driveway in Rome and turned the engine off. My brother had to come up from Atlanta to get it. I think he had a hard time getting it started again. I don’t remember how Tom got back to Lamy to pick up his truck from the train station.