Thursday, February 19, 2009

Goodbye to a good car

Date: Feb. 18
Mileage: 28.1
February mileage: 498.8
Temperature: 36

The low-lying fog was just starting to break up when I wheeled my bike out of the shed just after 10 a.m. Streaks of sunlight tore through the gray curtain and dusted the road, which was already slushy atop a thick layer of decaying ice. I was dressed for springtime, a fleece pullover and tights, and it felt like springtime. In fact, this whole week has been unbelievably, unseasonably nice. It makes me glad I'm not moving away from Juneau just yet. If my original plans had worked out, this would have been my last week in town. It would have been a tough week to leave behind.

As I lubed my chain, I caught a glimpse through my spokes of Geoff's 1989 Honda Civic. The bike rack was gone, as was the strap that held the trunk shut. Melting snow dripped down the sun-faded paint and icicles clung to the rusted edges. I remembered Geoff told me a guy was coming to pick it up at 11 a.m. Geoff listed the car in the freebie ads last night for $100. He had six calls on it by morning. And as I rolled away, I realized that glimpse would likely be the last I'd ever see of that car.

It was early January 2002 when I first met the Civic. I was visiting Geoff and his family in New York when Geoff's brother offered to sell him a 13-year-old car for $700. Geoff, who lived in Utah, thought that sounded like a perfectly rational business deal. He bought the car and then talked me out of a perfectly good American Airlines ticket so I could help him drive it across the country in two and a half days. I took one look at that car - drooping bumper, rust holes all the way through the body, and 200,000 miles on the odometer, and said to Geoff, "That thing is never going to make it to Utah."

The cross-country trip was fairly uneventful. I saw Indiana for the first time, and Kansas. We spent the night in the car at a rest stop in Wyoming at 8,000 feet. Temperatures probably dipped below zero. I shivered in whatever K-mart sleeping bag I owned at he time as Geoff wheezed and mumbled with a fairly nasty flu bug he had come down with. I thought we were going to die, and I blamed the car.

I had to drive the rest of the way with Geoff unconscious in the passenger's seat, but we amazingly made it to Salt Lake with everything still in one piece. I gave that car three months tops. Geoff spent nearly every weekend in either in the Uinta Mountains or the Southern Utah desert, driving hundreds of miles a week and bouncing that car down the worst kind of roads the BLM and Forest Service can dish out. One time we took it on an excursion to find an over-mountain route from Heber to Little Cottonwood Canyon. Geoff dropped the car into first gear as we bounced over boulders the size of basketballs, skirting cliffsides and grinding up pitches so steep I didn't know if I'd be able to walk down them once the thing broke down. I couldn't imagine four-wheel-drive trucks going up that road, but the Civic kept churning along. Loathing boiled up from my gut. I thought we were going to die, and I blamed the car.

Later that year, Geoff bought a 12-foot aluminum boat in Wyoming. He drove the Civic all the way back to New York to visit family and had a friend gerrymander a towing hitch on the back. He then drove to Wyoming, picked up the boat and trailer, and drove it back to Utah. For the rest of the summer and fall, he'd head up Parley's Canyon twice a week to fish for perch and rainbow trout. Even when it got late in the year and there was snow on the road, there Geoff was, driving down an icy 6-percent grade towing a boat and trailer with a Honda Civic. I thought he was going to die, and I blamed the car.

But the years just kept rolling by, and the odometer kept rolling up. There were countless more trips to the desert, more trips out East, that first trip to Alaska, that first winter in Homer, the frequent hair-raising drives up the Sterling and Seward highways, moving to Juneau, a summer trip all over Western North America and then back again to Juneau. The odometer crept above 300,000 and then 310,000. I never lost my faith that the Civic was going to die, any minute now, and yet somehow seven years passed.

The brakes finally went out, completely, in early February. The '89 Civic has 313,000 miles on it. Geoff finally had to come to a decision ... $500 of brake work that would probably bring to light the myriad other repairs needed, or going car-free.

And Geoff, who mostly bike commutes these days anyway, put his car up for sale.

I know we're cyclists and not supposed to get all emotional about cars, but I can't help it. I'm gonna miss the clunker.


  1. me too. even though I was impressed last year that it even made it out of my driveway.
    I'm gonna miss that car.

  2. That $500 worth of brake work is probably less than $100 in parts if you could do the work yourself.

  3. You can't beat a Honda. Wow, eight years out of a $700 car, that's a great investment.

    ...and if you're not experienced with working on cars, I don't recommend doing your own brake work. It's one thing if you mess up and you can't get it to start, it's something else entirely if you mess up and can't get it to stop.

  4. I would have paid $110.00 You blew it man.

  5. How many miles per gallon did the car get? Would you say? If you have time to answer.

  6. I love the Geoff stories from "back in the day". Especially from your book. You need to talk him into letting you do a Biographical novel on him.

    "From Hemp Hocker to HURT Hero."


  7. I completely understand your emotional tie to a car. Just as your bikes share in your adventures, resulting in an unmistakable bond, so did the Civic. But, down the road, there may be a new clunker to get you to a far-off trailhead. Maybe something from the '90s this time.

  8. 313,000 miles. Wow, wow, wow.

    Let me know about dinner in Anchorage next week!

  9. I've been worried about my 1998 Civic with 100,000 miles lasting until I'm out of grad school. I feel better now :)

  10. Wow, Heber to Little Cottonwood. I am in awe. When I was an instructor at the U. I would do epic one day cross-country ski trips, including SnowBird (Little Cottonwood) over to Heber. But I would never think of doing those in a car. Awesome!

  11. I have a car like this--a 96 dodge neon. The paint is flaked in so many places, it traversed the Oregon Trail in the back of a Uhaul, and every moment I think she is down for good, a miracle happens and another 50,000 miles are to be had.

    Thanks for making me smile!

  12. my next car, surely will be, a honda civic. what advertisement!

  13. Is that the school bus Chris McCandless was living in ?.

  14. I too was once the owner of a 1989 Civic, same color maroon. I was the third owner and it was given to me by my parents as a wedding gift in 1992. My wife and I drove it for about four years then sold it to a family friend for $800. She drove it for another six or seven years. We all got our money out of that little car. It's probably still driving around somewhere. I always figured it would last forever...

  15. I once put a new clutch in my Corolla when it was 15 degrees outside. I laid under the car on a piece of cardboard to keep me out of the snow, and put the transmission on my chest and lifted it up into place while putting it back on. After doing it a few times I got to the point where it only took me 45 minutes to remove the transmission.

  16. That car was incredible. Probably the best $700 he ever spent. 313,000 miles is INSANE!!!! I have heard of like one other car that went above 200,000 miles. Those old Honda's were very well made!!

  17. Peter, back in the day it used to get 40+ mph. That went down as the car got older, probably closer to 30 now. Still pretty good.

    Karen, I'll shoot you an e-mail with my phone number. I'm not sure how I'm getting around, but we can work something out. I'll actually have a fair amount of free time.

    CyclistRick, as I recall we didn't make it all the way to the pass. I don't remember how we got down that road, though. :-)

    Anon 4:49, someone asks me that every time I post a picture of a bus. To me, it's an interesting commentary on the cultural phenomenon of it all. Suddenly every old-looing bus in Alaska is "Chris McCandless's bus." This one is an out-of-commission ski bus in Juneau, many hundreds of miles away from the Stampede Trail.

    The thought of me trying to fix a car makes me laugh. I can barely understand my bikes.

  18. Mike fro WI say's

    Hi Jill,

    It turns out that Civic was a great vehicle for writing this particular blog story...nice job.

    This year was sad for me also with the death of my 1985 Toyota SR-5 Pick-up...335,124.4 miles on the odometer before the Main Oil seal blew...brings back some fond memories.

    Have a Great Race!!!

  19. Haha-
    The word verification to leave a comment is fluckr

  20. Ive been reading your blog for years and this may be the best non Iditabike post ever.

    I started writing a song this morning based on it - great concept: I blamed the car.

    Eric from NC

  21. Jill,

    I've been reading your blog for the past several months, partly because I enjoy the cycling bits and partly because I enjoy the writing and photos.

    But as the chief mechanic at the Busted Knuckle Garage (Repair and Despair Under One Roof) I must comment on your slight to shade tree mechanics everywhere, and the one in New York in particular. Politicians gerrymander. Shade tree mechanics jury rig. Jury rigging can be an art form!

    Keep up the good work!

  22. I think she was going for "gerry-rig," Which is essentially the same as "jury-rig."
    Of course, (J)gerry-rigged would have been offensive to the German people and the engineering skills of their WWII ancestors. I'm sure Jills subconcious would just not let her be so un-pc.
    As an old kraut, I give you permission to slur... as long as it's in the German way- over a beer.

  23. My wife and I bought a Honda Civic new and kept it 14 years. It only had around 140M on it. It looked like yours only white in color. I didn't replace the tires until 80M which I thought was incredible. I often wonder how that car is doing knowing it could still be running today. It was the best car I have ever had. Never had any problems with it. The only reason we got ride of it was our family was growing and I needed a place to put my 90 pound lab. My lab looked really funny in the back seat of that car. Anyways, Good Luck to you and Geoff on you race. I'll be cheering for you guys from Chicago. Thanks again for the great photos and stories. Can't wait for you next book.

    John S.

  24. Hondas are amazing cars. I'm on my second. It's nearing 12 years old with 175,xxx miles on it. Still getting great gas mileage.


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