Rhonda’s Atlantic Adventure
Texas, to Georgia, to Maine, to Wisconsin
In January, 2019, my sister and I drove my 1965 Rambler Classic 660, from Dallas, to San Diego, up to San Francisco, over to Denver, and back to Dallas in two weeks. Affectionately named Rhonda, my car handled the trip with ease, and my head was buzzing with possibilities. I was eager for another taste of the unique experiences brought on by driving a classic car across the country. Fortunately, such an opportunity appeared when my sister found herself in need of a car to move home from college. She attended Wellesley College in Boston, I attend the University of Texas at Arlington, and we were both bound for Wisconsin in May. To make the situation better, my semester ended almost a month before her, giving me up to three weeks to get from Dallas to Boston. So in March, I pulled up Google Maps, opened a new Google Doc, and began scheming.
There were a number of obstacles to the trip. With the most prominent being the growing pile of work Rhonda required. Few of the projects were particularly urgent, and my financial status during the semester prompted me to choose only a couple lighter tasks to complete before my departure in May.
The first of these projects was to replace the valve cover gasket. A year or so previously I had overtightened the cover and split the gasket in multiple places, creating a very slow oil leak. I seldom had to add oil between oil changes, but enough leaked to smell bad, and a replacement was cheap. Sadly, on installation, I discovered that the valve cover itself was bent and deformed around the rim. This meant that the new gasket leaked worse than the old, because it wasn’t formed to match the uneven edge of the cover. The new leak was still slow, so I decided to wait and install a new valve cover after the trip.
The second project I tackled was started only the day before my planned departure. While replacing the master cylinder in 2018, I discovered the front brake pads, although still quite thick, had what appeared to be fractures running through them. Having since taken those pads across the Sierra Nevadas and the Rockies, I was interested in replacing them before another long trip. This project had a rough start when Napa failed to ever deliver the front brake shoes I paid them for. Rockauto was more successful. I began the disassembly process only to discover that the Rockauto shoes were faulty. The springs simply slid off the retaining tabs on the shoes immediately. Without time to order replacements, I had to reinstall the old shoes and trust them to get me home. As a final punch in the gut, the cotter pin for the castle nut snapped during installation, too late at night for me to reach the nearest Ace. So I went to bed, pondering how to get a ride to the Ace the next day.
My misfortune only continued the next day when I found all my friends had already left campus for the summer, and it was raining. So my grand road trip began with a 2 mile round trip walk to an Ace in the rain, to buy a $.54 cotter pin.
After my brisk morning stroll, I ran a few errands, picked up supplies and food, and said farewell to some acquaintances, finally hitting the road around 5 PM. Five hours behind schedule. Between the late start and the rain, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the similarly inauspicious start to my California road trip. Despite these omens, I pushed on until 1:45 AM about halfway across Mississippi, spending the night at a truck stop in the car.
Another day of interstates, and another truck stop night later, I reached the Southport ferry in North Carolina, enjoying the lush scenery of Green Swamp State Preserve. The ferry ride was relaxing, and a number of my fellow ferry patrons were very curious about the car.
Shortly after departing the ferry I noticed Rhonda’s exhaust note was louder than usual. On inspection, I discovered one of the muffler mounts was broken. This was not surprising, Rhonda has soft suspension, and whenever she’s loaded heavily with luggage or people she tends to scrape her exhaust on bumps. It was disappointing though, as only a year prior she had scraped off her entire exhaust system on a gravel road in Oklahoma. This particular muffler and mount were only a few months old. A hasty trip to Ace hardware and some bailing wire remedied the situation, although Rhonda still sounds quite peppy! Given that she leaked both oil and brake fluid, and brake fluid leaked enough it had to be topped off every time I stopped for gas, a broken exhaust mount was far from my biggest concern on the trip.
The next day, after visiting the Fort Fisher museum, I carried on along the North Carolina coast, hugging as close to the ocean as I could on two-lane roads. A little after noon, I found a sandy pull off along the road, leading right down to the water. Perfect for a quick photo of Rhonda with the Atlantic. I pulled her right up to the water’s edge, nabbed a few nice shots, and discovered she was stuck.
Not one to admit my mistakes, I decided I could fix this without calling a tow. I pulled the collapsible metal snow shovel out of my trunk, found a few washed up planks along the shore, and set to digging. Thirty minutes, many curse words, and quite a bit of clutch wear later, a pickup pulled off of the road behind me. The driver asked if I had a tow coming. Slick with sweat, and covered head-to-toe in sand, I said “Naw, I wanna try a few more things first.”
The man grinned, and got out of his truck with a tow strap in hand. He pulled me onto solid ground with ease, and warned me off soft sand in the future. As he turned towards his truck, I noticed his t-shirt said National Park Service. I asked about it, and he explained he was a ranger for Cape Lookout National Seashore, a few miles offshore from my little beach. He just happened to be onshore for his weekly grocery run. He said I picked a good day to get stuck.
After my rescue, I arrived in Sea Level Village for the night. My campsite was about 6 inches above water, and the road past the campground was submerged starting a hundred feet beyond the driveway to the camp. Much of the town was in similar condition, partially underwater. I asked the clerk at the campground if this was normal. He said “Only when the wind comes inland.” I asked how often that was, and he said “most people around here own boats.”
Despite the concerning proximity of seawater, I slept like a baby, waking up around 7. Quickly realizing that the ferry to Ocracoke left at 7:30, and was a 35 minute drive away, I decided it was a good day to test Rhonda’s handling. Averaging about 20 over the speed limit I made the ferry at 7:28. As the last car aboard, the entire crew was lined along the ramp watching me as I boarded. Their faces ranged from irritation to amusement, and none of them talked to me on the voyage.
Once on Ocracoke, I poked around a couple local historic sites and museums, before moving on to Hatteras. Almost immediately upon boarding the ferry leaving the north end of Ocracoke, I received a text from my father informing me that my cousin just happened to be getting off the ferry on the south end of the island. After some rushed communication, we met a few hours later at the Hatteras Lighthouse. He tells me his travelling companions were alarmed that he didn’t ask where I was parked by the lighthouse. Evidently, he assumed there would be no other Ramblers in the parking lot that day. He was right.
Leaving North Carolina, I took a bridge directly across the Chesapeake, passing right through the docks and shipyards at Norfolk-Hampton. It was immensely exciting to cross that endless bridge surrounded by container ships and docks stretching off across the horizon. Rather than a lift bridge for the ships to sail under, the road becomes a tunnel under the sea so that ships can sail over the middle of the bridge.
Once in Virginia, I made a stop in Old Jamestown. The museum was very nice, although they did focus heavily on the cannibalism in 1609. Perhaps to much. There were numerous exhibits explaining the means by which the colonists, well, “had their friends for dinner.”
The following day, I stopped in Baltimore to visit Ft. McHenry, the birthplace of our National Anthem. I enjoyed the park immensely, although my usual attire of khaki pants, a grey button up, and a broad-brimmed hat turned out to be a mistake. On three occasions I was pulled aside by parents who, mistaking me for a park ranger, asked me to explain something to their children. Being a History Major, I was able to answer some of these questions. Which probably didn’t help my situation.
After the fort I set out towards my campground for the evening. I had been on empty when I arrived at the fort, but figured I’d fill up on my way out of Baltimore. Unfortunately, Siri didn’t route me straight back to the nearby interstate. She decided it would be faster to go through the heart of Baltimore, and connect with the highway on the other side. It was desperately hot. Rhonda’s thermostat climbed so high I had to turn on the heater, to help cool her down, but city traffic was too slow for my vent windows to scoop air, so I cooked. As the possibility of running out of gas in the heart of the urban sprawl loomed, much regret was felt. I ended up driving on empty for thirty minutes before I could find a station and fill up.
Having averted that disaster, I gave myself 4 hours to arrive at Belleplain State Forest in New Jersey. Siri predicted it would only take 3. We were both wrong. 5 hours later we dragged into the park. I have never encountered Interstate traffic that bad anywhere else in the country. It was infuriating. And hot. Rhonda’s lack of air-conditioning means my patience is short for slow traffic on hot days.
Somewhere along this sluggish drive was Delaware. I planned to stop somewhere to walk around, unfortunately, it’s a very small state. By the time I realized I was in Delaware, I was no longer in Delaware. Whoops. Guess I’ll have to go back for that one.
Upon my eventual arrival at the park which was, thankfully, still open, I pulled out a can of chicken dumpling soup to treat myself after my ordeal. Then I was struck by another misfortune. While experimenting with a new cook stand to hold the can, I accidentally melted my campstove. This forced me to conclude that cold canned food was really just as good as the hot alternative, and stoves were overrated. I went to bed early that night, and ruminated upon the cruelty of the cosmos.
On the 8th day of my trip, I finally climbed back into Appalachia. The plan was to go straight towards Ithaca, New York, from Belleplaine, New Jersey. This plan did not work. First, I discovered New Jersey requires full-service gas stations, so the attendant must pump your gas for you. Second, New Jersey requires vapor boots, which makes filling an old car almost impossible, certainly for someone with an untrained hand. Like a gas station attendant. Finally, every single one of the four gas stations I visited in New Jersey declined my card. By the fourth gas station, I had been on empty for about 20 miles already, and was starting to panic. I whipped out my trucker’s atlas and charted the shortest route to the Quaker State, simply praying I would have better luck. It was 28 miles to the border, and 8 more to a gas station.
56 miles after hitting empty, I pulled into a Pennsylvania station. They accepted my card, Rhonda’s tank was filled, and I decided I’d seen enough of New Jersey. This being my second low-gas incident, I decided to open my owner’s manual and check exactly how large my tank was before taking off. I assumed 15 gallons, because on empty I only put in 14 ½ gallons. I was considerably shocked when I discovered that Rhonda actually has a 19 gallon tank. That means an extra 80-100 miles when I hit empty! Had I known that before, it would have saved much panic. If stress takes years off of life, I doubt I’ll live to match Rhonda’s current age.
At any rate, the drive through Pennsylvania was astoundingly gorgeous. My first highway traced the Delaware River and Canal, laced with small towns, green woods, old bridges, and Amish people. Lots of Amish people. Plowing, digging, selling quilts. I believe the appropriate word is ‘quaint.’
Then I climbed into the Appalachians, and the two lane roads changed dramatically. As inclines grew steeper, and curves sharper, I decided it was time to initiate Overdrive Kickdown Procedure. I floored the gas, heard the engine scream as the overdrive unit disengaged, then pulled out the overdrive lock handle. With engine braking enabled, and my safety no longer entirely dependent on Rhonda’s questionable brakes, every slope became an adventure. Hurtling through the quiet forests at a blazing 45 miles per hour, Rhonda slalomed around corners with the agility of a fully loaded moving van, suspension groaning like an arthritic racehorse. Up every ridgeline Rhonda’s engine roared lustily in second gear, and down every ridgeline my descent was accompanied by a cacophony of crackling and booming as unignited fumes detonated in the exhaust pipe. Supposedly after they left American production, Classics were used as rally cars in Argentina. It may not have been fast, but I could see it sure was fun.
The next day was similarly spent. Passing through New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, I had to conclude that rural New England is some of the most verdant country on God’s green Earth. The roads were peppered with small attractions. I found an old hardware store turned museum, a Sunday evening small town car show, and the home of the schoolteacher that inspired the story of Ichabod Crane, just to name a few. All entirely by accident just following the route Siri charted, avoiding tollways. The interstates may be fast, but nothing lifts the spirits like a smooth two-lane highway.
After what might have been my favorite day of the journey, the next day received a rude start. A group of college students in the campsite next to me began lighting off fireworks and crackers around 2 AM. Darn kids! They were probably all older than me, but I couldn’t help but feel something of the symbolic geriatric that night when I gave them a good dressing down.
Despite the efforts of my neighbors, I was determined to make the most of my last day on the road. I would be pulling into Boston that night to camp on my sister’s floor until her graduation, so my solo lifestyle was coming to an end. I packed my simple camp up, and made a beeline for Cape Cod. I drove to Provincetown, and stopped in the national park for some photos. From there, I discovered it was only a two mile hike to reach the Provincetown Lighthouse on the very tip of the cape. I figured a brisk 45 mile hike was the perfect way to cap my trip. I didn’t account for terrain. There was no trail, just long, windswept sand, with a light gale coming south off the Atlantic. After two hours of gruelling sand, and at least one pack of cannibal seagulls, I trudged over the last dune to the lighthouse.
I sat down hard, and began pouring sand out of my shoes and muttering curses as I ignored the impending return trip. Suddenly, I heard a guy calling to me. He was the volunteer lighthouse keeper, and had seen me come scrambling across the last dunes. I acted cool, hoping he hadn’t seen me unceremoniously banging my shoes on the side of the lighthouse to knock sand out before he arrived. He decided I’d earned a special treat, so he unlocked the lighthouse and let me up to the top! Then he offered me a ride back to the parking lot in his sand-specialized Suburban!
After getting off the sand, it was only a couple hours back to my sister’s place, where my solo road trip came to an end. In the week immediately following my arrival my sister and I would drive up to Maine, and try to drive back out on the Cape. This is where this trip reached a somewhat tragic climax.
I let my sister drive on the way to Cape Cod so I could nap. Around Hyannis, Massachusetts, I was jerked awake by the sudden jolt of brakes. I looked up just in time to see Rhonda’s front left fender crumple like a tin can against the bumper of a Ford Explorer. There was no mechanical damage, although the fender did end up slicing open a tire.
After prying the fender away from the wheel, we were able to drive Rhonda back to Wisconsin. The oil leak became measurably worse after the accident, the impact seems to have loosened the already tenuous seal between the valve cover and the gasket. Rhonda only used ¼ quart of oil from Dallas to Boston, but 1 ¼ quarts from Boston to Wisconsin. New valve covers are cheap though, and a fender shouldn’t be too hard to track down. She’ll be repaired by the end of the year, so I consider myself lucky.
In any case, Rhonda has earned these battle scars. She’s seen both coasts within six months, as well as over half of the lower 48. In just the first six months of 2019, Rhonda carried me 10,310 miles. It might prove costly, but I owe it to this car to bring her back in shape. I have never driven or owned a finer, or more enjoyable vehicle. Rhonda has been too precious a companion to abandon. I look forward to many more happy miles in my Kenosha Cadillac.
As a final note, I will leave some numbers on this trip. These do not include the drive back to Wisconsin, or the expenses of the accident, only the trip from Dallas to Boston.
Days on Road: 10
Planned Cost: $835.34
Actual Cost: $931.69
Miles Travelled: 3,127.6
Oil used: 1/2 quart
States visited: 18
Lighthouses Spotted: 4
Times I thought I was gonna run out of gas and get stuck: 2
AMC’s spotted: 2
Random Relatives bumped into: 1
Stoves Melted: 1
Fun had: incalculable