Around the Southwest in 15 Days
By: Erick Hunter
“If you want to cross the country, take an interstate. If you want to see the country, take a two-lane road. But if you want to meet the country, drive an old car.”
That is the opening line to a 1996 article my father wrote for Classic Auto Restorer in his days as an automotive journalist. The article details his road trip to California in a 1960 Rambler Cross Country station wagon. Stories like this were favorites of mine growing up, listening to my dad tell me about his automotive adventures around the country.
Partly because of those stories and partly because my sister Anna wanted to do something spectacular with me before she entered grad school, we decided to take my 1965 Rambler Classic 660 on a road trip to California as our last hurrah before we became actual adults. We also decided to do this in January, but more on that later.
Before we get into the trip itself, some context needs to be considered. The car Anna and I drove to California I bought about a year and a half before the trip. Her name is Rhonda and she has been a reasonably reliable car, a necessity considering she replaced a 99 Honda Civic. I bought her to be a daily driver that would give me opportunities to practice my shade-tree mechanic skills. A role she has more than amply filled. To start with I had to clean her, paint her, and rebuild her carb, but otherwise she was in good running order as purchased. Not to mention she gets decent gas mileage. Courtesy of her the legendary 232 ci inline-6, and her 3-speed transmission with an overdrive, I can squeeze up to 23 miles per gallon out of her if I keep between 55-65 mph.
For scheduling reasons Anna and I decided to take our trip during winter break starting from Arlington, Texas, where I go to college, and making a big loop out to San Diego, up to San Francisco, over to Colorado Springs to visit family, and then back to Texas in time for classes to start. We were both flying home to Wisconsin for the first part of the break, and then we planned to fly back to Texas, hop in the car, and go west. This plan hit a snag when Rhonda turned out to be in the process of eating her front wheel bearings, a fact I discovered mere days before flying home. Fortunately, a fellow North Texas AMC club member named RJ agreed to help me fix the problem, so Anna and I adjusted our itinerary to spend the first day and a half at RJ’s to get Rhonda roadworthy. So the great circumnavigation of the American Southwest opened already over a day behind schedule.
Days 1 & 2.
Anna and I flew into DFW just after noon, then headed over to RJ’s house to prepare Rhonda for the trip. My sister and RJ’s wife, Candy, spent time chatting while RJ helped me repair the car. By which I mean RJ repaired the car while I tried not to injure myself with shop tools. In addition to replacing the front wheel bearings, Rhonda also turned out to have a bad master cylinder. This was surprising because a new master cylinder had been installed by RJ and I less than a month prior. The original master cylinder had leaked slowly under the lid gasket, a fact I discovered at a red light on my way to work six months after buying Rhonda. It was a slow leak, and could be handled by topping off brake fluid every time I filled the gas tank. In contrast, the new master cylinder turned out to be leaking fluid past the piston, slow enough that the brakes worked for the time being, but not a good sign for long term driving. At least the new-new master cylinder worked properly. Actually, it also leaked slowly. It leaked the same way the original had though, so at this point I threw in the towel and resigned myself to carrying a bottle of brake fluid with me for the rest of my life. To finish off, we checked all the fluids, drained and refilled the overdrive unit, and then buttoned Rhonda up at last.
Of course, the original plan had been to take the afternoon and morning of days 1&2 respectively to fix Rhonda, then be on the road after lunch on day 2. Instead, Anna and I began driving around 10 PM. Only 8 hours to El Paso! RJ had generously put us up for the first night, and offered for the second, but Anna and I had an itinerary to keep, a full tank of gas, and a reckless lack of care for our own safety. So, we drove to El Paso. Or we tried. After about 3 ½ hours of driving, we admitted we couldn’t reasonably drive and pulled over at a highway rest stop for the night, both too tired to drive. Also, it was raining, did I forget to mention that? With more than a few muttered curses, I buried myself in a sleeping bag and dreamed of dry weather.
We left the rest stop around 6 AM after a refreshing 4 hours of sleep in the car. No regrets. The rain had stopped and we made a beeline across Texas to El Paso. The hill country scenery was pleasant, and we finally stopped for lunch in El Paso around 3 pm. Given that our plans to see Saguaro National Park and spend the night there were flushed due to the government shutdown (thanks Washington) we decided to see how far we could make it past Tucson before we fell asleep. We called it a night at Gila Bend, AZ, 2 hours west of Tucson around 11 PM. Not only had we made up for lost time, but with 1,089 miles covered in a single day, we were now ahead of schedule. Not to mention, it was a beautiful day of smooth driving and nice weather.
Anna and I left Gila Bend around 8 AM in dense fog, tired and resigned to a long day of endless plains and straight roads like the day before. Suddenly, we broke out of the fog bank into open sunshine and saw the Arizona desert in sunlight for the first time. When we reached Arizona last night it had been dark, so we hadn’t realized we’d cleared the plains. It was an astonishing sight. We drove hard to make California, and stopped briefly to see the Great Sand Sea. The wind was gusting hard enough, sand was actually blowing around the edges of the windows onto our laps. We then froze our butts off trying to fill Rhonda up at a California gas station over 4,000 ft. in altitude (mountains are cold in December, go figure). This was not helped by the fact that the gas stations we visited all had funny nozzles at the pumps, and it took a while to find a station that could fill Rhonda up.
Eventually we made it to San Diego. We spent the afternoon and evening poking around. I misunderstood just how expensive a two dollar symbol restaurant is on Google Maps, and we had a fantastic(-ly expensive) Italian dinner. To wrap it up we watched the sunset over the Pacific for the first time in our lives. It had been a long day, and Rhonda had excelled. She was more than willing to run with interstate traffic at 85 mph all day long without getting hot, and her brakes had held up against San Diego traffic. I was discovering at this point that more than four hours driving at a time made my right knee hurt, but it didn’t seem to be permanent so who cares? Anna and I relaxed in our soft bunk. We weren’t entirely sure we’d parked Rhonda right, and there was a chance she was going to be towed overnight. We figured it was fine.
We left the hostel in San Diego around 7:45 to make sure we got to Rhonda before our theoretically free night parking expired. Happily, we still had a car. Then we discovered that the strange gas pumps in the mountains weren’t flukes, California has laws requiring a rubber boot on gas pump handles to reduce emissions. This boot is perfectly shaped to make it almost impossible to fill Rhonda without spilling gas everywhere. Great. Fortunately, just as I was beginning to panic, some local Rambler owners on Facebook told us the trick to using the pumps. Actually, they told me several, including drilling holes in used coke cans. The one that worked for me was pointing the nozzle towards the back of the car, and only slightly squeezing the handle to fill the car slowly. The process was long, but it worked.
After that excitement we hopped on Highway 1 and finally puttered on up the California coast, the planned highlight of our trip. It was long. And unexpectedly boring. Turns out, the coast from San Diego to Huntington Beach is a fully developed, continuous strip of charmingly identical shops tourist traps and fancy homes. Not the scenic vistas and hokey tourist traps we’d hoped for. Personally, I think this was actually the most boring drive of the entire trip. After almost a thousand barely discernible clothing stores and seaside villas, we reached Huntington Beach and finally touched the Pacific Ocean. Which turned out to be cold. In January (who knew?). The rest of the day was spent reading on the beach and enjoying a dinner of cold canned food because we’re too cheap for firewood and matches. With no morning obligations, we looked forward to sleeping nice and late.
Sleeping in didn’t work well. Anna gave up and slept in the car after only an hour or so, I stuck it out, but we were both cold and miserable. Evidently, we were naive about the warmth of Southern California. Around 6 AM, we both called it, packed our tent, and hit the road for Santa Barbara. Still determined to trace Highway 1, we finally broke out of the endless developments into nature reserves. We were taken aback though, because the nature we were finally seeing was stripped bare, victim to a recent wildfire. It still held a sort of desolate beauty, but hardly one to lift the spirits.
We arrived in Santa Barbara shortly after noon for lunch, then set off to explore a little. We planned to spend an hour or so poking around before continuing on to Lompoc CA, but instead we liked Santa Barbara so much we spent the day there. After dark, we finished our drive to Montana de Oro State Park. In the dark we only saw the road and some grass on either side. That night, Rhonda crossed the 100,000-mile mark. Watching all those 9’s become 0’s was impressive, although evidently my sister had ignored my many, many explanations of what rolling over the odometer meant, because immediately after filming the rollover, she asked, “Why is it all zeros?” Once at the state park, we set up in the dark, and I spent the night annoyed at the traffic rushing by on the nearby highway.
We more or less figured out how to stay warm this night, and both slept reasonably well. The secret was to wear socks and sweaters inside our sleeping bags. In the morning Anna and I hopped in Rhonda to drive off to San Luis Obispo for the day. On the way out of the park we discovered two important things. First, the dark little road we wound along through the park the night before was stunningly beautiful in the daylight. Second, the highway I was hearing cars go by on all night turned out to be the waves crashing against the cliff less than a quarter mile from our campsite. Whoops.
Sadly, the town of San Luis Obispo turned out to be underwhelming, but the city of Morro Bay was very nice. And closer to our campground anyway. We enjoyed a relaxing walk along the beach. This area of coastal sand dunes was used as a practice grounds for amphibious landings during the second World War. Accordingly, there were numerous signs warning hikers not to pick up anything that looks like a bomb, because it probably is a bomb.
This day was a bit of a mixed bag. We woke up bright and early in Montana de Oro state park, having actually been too warm that night. It was a bit cloudy, but still pleasant, and we were bound for Hearst Castle, then Big Sur campground. We piled into Rhonda, and made tracks towards Hearst Castle, arriving two hours before our tour. Then it started raining. Hard. After walking from the bus into the castle, I could feel water pooling inside my jacket sleeves. The tour was very nice, the castle is stunning and our group had only four tourists, one of whom was an architect from San Francisco who added a lot (too much) to the tour guide’s information.
After our tour we headed further along to see Elephant seals along the shoreline. Then we headed into Los Padres National Forest towards our campground in Big Sur. I should take this time to mention Rhonda’s waterproofing. There is none. There are numerous holes in both front floorboards up to an inch in diameter, the windshield leaks in heavy rain, and the side windows leak in really heavy rain. We were driving in really, really heavy rain. At least the view was gorgeous… in the gift shop picture books. All we saw was mist, rain, and cliff faces verging on mudslides. To our left was a single lane of traffic, a guardrail, and a several hundred-foot drop into the Pacific. To our right was a towering cliff face made of loosened mud and large rocks. All the way up the road, I was dodging rocks up to the size of my face falling from above onto the road. Then we rounded a corner to see a stream of muddy water accompanied by a steady shower of rocks pouring onto the road directly ahead of us. Immediately after desperately dodging that by mere feet, we found the road curved back in a 20-mph hairpin curve. Then poof! The windows all turned opaque in less than a second. Rhonda’s defroster had quit. I didn’t know how or why; the heater was still moving air and the interior of the car was actually uncomfortably warm. Nonetheless the entire windshield fogged over in less than a second. Did I mention I was practically wetting my pants driving along the cliffs back when I could see out of the windshield? In hindsight, I realized this was a moment when we genuinely could have actually died.
After a couple minutes of almost blind driving we pulled over at the first chance we found, a tiny scrap of gravel wedged between the road and the cliff, leaving no more than a foot between us and traffic hurtling by. I couldn’t find anything wrong, so we took the only solution we had. Turn off the heat and open the windows. This kept the windows from fogging over, but only by making our lives significantly colder, wetter, and less pleasant. After dark it stopped raining, mostly, and the defrosters caught up again, kind of, so we closed the windows. When we rolled into our campsite well after dark (most of which was under 6 inches of water) we didn’t bother with the tent. We slept in our sleeping bags in the car. With all of our wet clothes. And wet shoes. And the wet tent. Everything was wet. Not a great end to the day.
We woke up very early, both of us finding it rather difficult to sleep in the humid, wet, and quite ripe-smelling interior of Rhonda. It was not raining, but was still humid and gray. Fortunately, the stuff we had kept in the trunk, like our laptops, was only mildly wet. We showered at the park, put on what few clean(ish) dry(ish) clothes we had left, and started off again by 7:30 AM. This day, we were going to finish our drive through Big Sur, hit up the Monterey Aquarium, then enjoy an evening in Santa Cruz. It sorta worked out. In the morning the fog lifted enough for us to see the views we’d missed yesterday in the mist and rain. Even under a gray sky, the central coast is uniquely beautiful. After a lovely morning driving out of the park we arrived in Monterey. One aquarium and one barbeque joint later, we began our drive to Santa Cruz.
It’s only an hour drive and we left by 3:30, but the rain resumed. The defrosters again proved thoroughly incapable of keeping up with the rain even though the heat was working great. Reluctantly, we rolled down our windows and grumbled all the way to Santa Cruz. The rain and our general mood prohibited further exploration of the city, so instead we did laundry! And took long hot showers! And spent our evening in a dry building! The hostel there is very nice, a little collection of old houses tastefully re-purposed. Anna and I enjoyed our dry, peaceful, dry, productive, dry evening there.
Anna and I said goodbye to the coastal highway on day 10. Since we didn’t get to see much of Santa Cruz the day before, we took some time there in the morning. It was here I had the observation that in addition to the copious quantities of old beetles and VW vans that I expected from California, there were also an astonishing number of 70’s and 80’s Mercedes puttering around. Evidently Californian taste for German cars extends beyond the people’s car. Besides the aging fleet of German imports, we saw two local state parks and a neat little tourist trap in the woods called the Mystery Spot. Then we got back on the road and started our last stretch along the coast into San Francisco.
We stopped at several roadside attractions enjoying the lack of rain. Eventually we picked up the pace when Anna noticed the clouds were darkening and we didn’t want to get rained on. Again. We spent all day with the windows down trying to dry out the car, and we mostly succeeded. After conferring with my father, we came to the conclusion that the excessive amount of water in the car had caused the humidity to overcome the defrosters, and drying out our clothes, sleeping bags, tents, and floors was the solution. This actually worked. Shortly before dinner time we started crossing San Francisco Bay (just in time for rush hour. Awesome). Then we reached our relatives who were putting us up for a few nights.
Our relative’s famous tour lived up to its reputation. We gave Rhonda the day off, and explored in the backseat of a Ford. For starters we climbed Coit tower and got a view of the city, then went to Chinatown to poke around a bit. For lunch we ate at Hang Ah dim sum, the oldest dim sum parlor in the United States. After lunch we walked over to the Cable Car Museum which is also the power center running all the cable cars in the city. Following the museum, we strolled along Fisherman’s Wharf and enjoyed the zany Musee Mecanique, full of old arcade games and mechanical contraptions. Some of which were pretty nifty, and some of which were truly nightmarish. The laughing mechanical lady by the entrance still haunts my dreams. We topped off the day with a cable car ride and dinner at an elegant seafood restaurant by the wharf. Amazingly, we didn’t get any rain. The bay was impressive, even under a gray sky, and San Francisco is a fascinatingly cosmopolitan urban center to see.
After the headlong rush of our relatives’ tour, this day was quite relaxed. We hopped back in Rhonda and zipped back to San Francisco. And by zipped, I mean sat in 2 hours of bumper to bumper traffic. Once in the city we enjoyed strolling through the Palace of Fine Arts, the only remaining building from the 1915 World’s fair. We learned a lot about the fair in a little exhibit, evidently one of the most impressive fairs in history. After all, what other event can claim to have held aerial acrobatics shows, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and the Great Houdini all at the same time? The Ford Motor Company even set up an assembly line in the transportation building, producing 12 Model T’s per day. In the final months of the fair they had to scale back production because they couldn’t park all the new Model T’s.
As far as city driving, the hills were particularly terrifying, and I made good use of the parking brake at stop lights. I was very careful to never park on a hill. Just before noon we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, it really is a beautiful work of architecture. On our way out of the city for the night, a pickup only doing about fifteen cut us off on the interstate. Rhonda couldn’t stop in time and we only dodged the truck by swerving into the next lane to our right. I had no time to check if the lane was open, so it was pure luck that saved us. This was the last day before we had to begin the long race to Colorado Springs, but we enjoyed our last night in those soft beds.
Bright and early, Anna and I swung Rhonda’s nose east for the first time. So began the 2,400-mile trek back. Our plan was to make Rock Springs WY for the night, and surprisingly, we did. Not much stopping or sightseeing, just driving. We had a goal to keep after all. Although we did stop to admire Donner Lake in the Sierras. Yes, we took the Donner Pass. No, we did not feel hungry. Yes, we brought snacks “just in case.” Yes, I have heard all of these jokes many times.
Anna and I woke up in Rhonda at the truck stop in Rock Springs WY to find our car dusted with snow. After a panicked round of scraping ice off of the INSIDES of all the windows we rolled back onto the interstate. Some minor slipping and sliding later the snowstorm weakened and we made better progress… until we discovered the interstate was closed because a semi drove off a bridge and hit the neighboring bridge. We think. So, we waited a few hours, holed up in a rural subway, cowering with our toasted tuna salad sandwiches. At last we gave up and took a much longer route to Colorado Springs, and ended up battling snowstorms all the way through the Rockies. Rhonda handled it pretty well, the defroster kept up, and she scaled mountains fine as long as we kept overdrive disengaged. Still, our 6-hour drive became 11-12, and we didn’t get to Colorado Springs until after dark. But we survived. I hope. If this is heaven, I’ve got a thing or two to say.
Anyway, we enjoyed an evening with more relatives. After board games, hot showers, and not quite as much sleep as I would have liked we hit the road for the last time. The drive back to Dallas was almost uneventful. Almost. We had no bad weather, made good time, and ran into no traffic. Then I got pulled over for speeding. It was 7 hours into the 10-hour drive, we were crossing the endless Texas plains, and I decided it was safe to go 85 in a 75 zone. I was wrong, evidently. The officer appreciated the car, and I think he noticed I was visibly shaking (I’ve never been pulled over before) so he let us off with a warning. I went exactly the speed limit the rest of the way back to my dorm in Arlington TX. Well, closer to the speed limit…
Anna flew out flew out the next day for Boston, and I started classes the day after. I gleaned a lot from this trip. A broader knowledge of the west, an understanding of all the things I like about my sister, and a deeper understanding of all the things I don’t like about my sister. Mostly though, I was reminded just how sturdy Ramblers are.
A month or so before the trip, Rhonda had been up on the lift, and RJ had helped me to spot all the glaring problems my car has. The front right strut bushing is almost split in half, the bleeder nozzle on the rear left brake cylinder has sheared off, the engine, transmission, overdrive, and differential all leak oil. There are holes. So many holes. The suspension is too soft, the radiator cap is too weak, the steering is too loose, the side mirror has to be tightened every couple days to prevent it falling off completely, etc. With all of these clouding the back of my mind, I left on this trip, certain that Rhonda had to catastrophically fail along the way. There were just too many things wrong with her. Nevertheless, at the end of every day Rhonda was still running, and she always started the next morning. After that trip, I no longer worry every time I get into my car if I’ll get where I’m going. As long as I try to take care of Rhonda, I know she’ll take care of me.
To wrap up this little adventure I’d like to contemplate some numbers. Disclaimer, the cost number is deceptive. Before we left, numerous concerned friends and relatives gifted us $890 for the trip, so we actually finished well below our budget.
Miles travelled: 4,892.6
States visited: 8
Average Miles Per Gallon: 19.94
Planned Cost: ~$1,400 ($700 each)
Actual Cost: ~$1,940
Oil Used: ½ quart
# of people met who remembered owning a rambler: 4 (Maybe three, one woman and her grandfather couldn’t agree if her dad’s car had been a Rambler or a Ford)
Number of times we really could have died: 2
# of future road trips Anna plans to take with me: 0
Memories made: countless.