Friday, August 05, 2011

Goodbye to a good car

I called Cars for Breast Cancer at set up a pick-up time, tomorrow at 10, then began preparing for my 10-mile run. I planned to run straight from my apartment, but as I walked past my dust-covered car, I thought better of it. Geo, which has sat idle for nearly a month, at least deserved the dignity of one last ride. For everything Geo's given me, I owe it that much.

As Geo and I sputtered up the narrow switchbacks toward Skyline Drive, I reminisced about the good times. I remember the day we met, which was October 20, 2000. That date ended my long search for my ideal vehicle. As a poor new college grad, I was determined to avoid the clunker route, but I was also loathe to go into debt. I found the newest car I could afford with the cash I had on hand — a 1996 Geo Prism with 29,000 miles. The reason the car was so cheap was because its perks amounted to little more than an engine and wheels. It had a manual transmission, no power steering or really power anything, no air conditioning, and a jittery tape deck for a stereo. And it was a Geo. The budget cars had a reputation for being clunkers, even when nearly new. I remember once listening to "Car Talk" on NPR with my ex-boyfriend, Geoff. It was even before we were dating; actually, it was right around the day he and I first met. The radio show hosts were talking about engine failures and I mentioned that I had to get rid of my last car, a 1989 Toyota Tercel, because the engine burned out.

"That happened to my friend," Geoff said. "His car engine died at only 40,000 miles. It was a total piece of crap."

"What kind of car was it?" I asked.

"A Geo Prism," Geoff said with thick disgust.

"Oh," I replied quietly.

"So what kind of car do you have now?" he queried.

"Um, a Geo Prism. It only has 31,000 miles on it now."

There was a long silence. "Well at least you can get 9,000 more miles out of it," Geoff said.

Five months later, Geoff and I hit the road for a three-month, cross-country road trip that would push Geo's odometer to nearly that number. We left the car parked at a campground in central New Jersey while we spent three nights in Camden, selling hemp jewelry at series of Dave Matthews concerts to fund our travels. When we returned, our campsite was lined in police tape and a tangle of sycamore branches rested in the exact spot where Geo was previously parked. As it turned out, Geo was under those branches. A freak windstorm blasted the campground and dropped a 30-foot tree on top of my car. By the time the state park service removed all of the branches, a fair chunk of the roof was caved in, but surprisingly no glass had shattered. We drove the car across seven more states and three Canadian provinces in its semi-smashed state. Months later, I finally took Geo into a body shop to be fixed. But the frame was permanently bent in a way that let large quantities of cold air and rain stream into the interior, and the radio antennae never worked again.

That car came along on many of my earliest adventures — weekend camping trips to the high mountains and remote deserts of Utah, often venturing far off the beaten path. We once drove Geo down Hole-in-the-Rock Road, a 62-mile dirt track that leads from Escalante, Utah, to pretty much nowhere. We bounced on washboards for 30 miles, and then the road condition really deteriorated. When large boulders started to appear in front of us, I implored Geoff to turn Geo around. "This car wasn't built for this kind of road," I insisted.

"Oh, it's fine. Four-wheel-drive is completely overrated," Geoff said, right about the same time a piercing "crunch" vibrated from the undercarriage. "Uh," he paused. "But clearance is kinda good."

In 2005, Geo, Geoff and I moved to Homer, Alaska, yet another odometer-choking trip of 3,200 miles. We resided in a cabin on a bluff that was 1,200 feet higher than the sea-level town. That winter, our cabin and quarter-mile-long driveway was frequently buried in what turned out to be more than 300 inches of seasonal snowfall. Shoveling that much snow was all but impossible, and my bad habit of sleeping in often forced my hand when it came to car commuting versus "riding" (pushing) my bike to work. Few roads along Diamond Ridge were ever plowed on a timely basis, so I became quite good at riding the clutch and gunning the gas strategically to maneuver out of the tightest, deepest spots. Coincidentally, that was also about the time Geo's clutch started to slip. Nearly five more years would pass before I bothered to replace it, and even then only because putting a new clutch in Geo was still the cheapest way to shuttle all of my belongings from Anchorage to Montana.

I continued to defy Alaska vehicle conventions by taking on all kinds of tasks in all kinds of weather in my two-wheel-drive gutless wonder of a sedan. I used Geo to haul furniture, bikes and tires through driving snow on marginal roads. In 2006, we moved 700 road miles away to Juneau, Alaska, known locally as the place where cars go to die. Despite 90 inches of annual precipitation that turned other cars to rust buckets, slicked the roads throughout the winter and summer and, thanks to the car's bent frame, soaked the interior until I found mold growing in the trunk — Geo just kept motoring along.

The road trips and moves, of course, continued. In 2009, Geo went as far south as San Francisco, east to Salt Lake City, back and forth across Utah and back to Juneau while I prepared for the Tour Divide. In 2010 we moved to Anchorage and traveled all over central Alaska before loading the new clutch and hitting the road south to Montana. The clutch was the only major part I ever had to replace in that car, besides tires, brakes, and a rear window broken twice by thieves.

I know it's just a car, but I admit it's a little disconcerting to think about life without Geo. I've owned this car for 11 years. It's traveled through 29 states and six Canadian provinces. It's been registered in four states, and insured in five. It's been to Alaska and back twice, as far north as Fairbanks, as far south as the Mexican border, as far east as an easternmost tip of Maine. It's been clawed and fur-coated by my manic cat and smeared with the grease of a dozen different bicycles. During its tenure, I've had eight jobs and 11 different homes, not to mention several extended periods of travel where Geo was my home.  It's almost overwhelming to think back on what my life has been since October 2000, and realize that since then, the one thing that endured through all of it has been a car.

And now I'm going to give it away. It is time. The odometer reading of 192,000 miles puts it about 152,000 miles past its life expectancy. The interior, ravaged by years of bicycle hauling and wetness, is starting to fall apart at the seams. The engine struggles with most workloads now, the previously awesome gas mileage has dropped quite a bit and the tires are so bald that even heavy rain is frightening. It's time, but that doesn't make it any less hard. I'm going to miss the old car. Goodbye, Geo.


  1. Geo has been through so many adventures, changes, and advances with you. It will always be a part of your story. Goodbye to a trooper of a car.

  2. Ya. Geo seemed like a huge part of your character. Always there. I'm glad she served you faithfully for so long! Your new car is pretty nice, and in my opinion a good trade up!

  3. For similar reasons I miss my old 1988 Jeep Comanche pickup truck. It had the same lack of features and creature comforts but it is still one of my favorite vehicles. It even had a few problems and a little rust but it ran strong for as long as I owned it.

  4. Getting rid of a well used car is like losing an old friend. Our cars are such a part of our lives. Just think how many HOURS you've spent in Geo to accumulate THAT many miles! Quite a chunk of your life was spent inside those steel walls...and it protected you and got you where you wanted to go, WAY WAY WAY above and beyond the clunker call of duty.

    I look back on my cars and fondly remember them all...never had one as long as you though. But Geo did you proud, and you did Geo proud right back...not many vehicles out there that can list the locations it's been... quite an impressive list. This was a nice way to say goodbye too. Way to go Geo! And farewell! We'll miss hearing about you!

  5. Awesome post, Jill. As someone who also builds relationships with cars, I love it. Best of luck to Geo in retirement!

  6. First of all, a Geo Prizm is not a "Geo." Technically, yes, it is, but it is all toyota under the hood and lasts forever. Whoever had problems with their prizm - it was a fluke. I had mine for 13 years, 190k miles, and I thought it was a great car, also a manual transmission. Best function was the air conditioning - nice and cold. So rag on the Geo brand, but be kind to the Prizm! It served you well, just as mine did. It was the rust that killed mine off.

  7. Gobucky, you're right. The Toyota engine was still running like a champ even though the Chevy body and paint job was literally falling apart. I wouldn't be surprised if the car's new owner gets another 30,000 or more miles out of it. Of course I'll never know, but I like to think that Geo has more adventures in him yet.

  8. Good luck Geo. You're gonna make your new owner very happy.

    My car has a similar history, having lived all over, registered in many many states. There's still a giant chip from our trip up the Haul Road that eventually changed spread across the bottom of the windshield one bitterly cold Fairbanks morning. I can't bring myself to replace it. Now it's the only remaining way to tell that my car is a warrior.

  9. I sympathize. I think it is time for my '97 4Runner to go. It has 250K on it and with a ton of memories. The engine is still strong but its problems are starting to mount, though I am sure it go another 50-75K with another owner willing to put in the time, money and effort. But I will miss him (my wife nicknamed it the Grey Gonzo for the way it handled the offroad stuff). So, enjoy your last moments with Geo and start new memories with your new car!


  10. Oh, yeah. I feel exactly the same way about my old '88 Corolla, who finally gave up the ghost a couple of years ago, after many a backroads adventure...and like Geo, I lived out of her for a time, and she was the most stable "home" my dogs have had! She was a great old car. As much as I love my new one, it's not the same. But yeah, clearance is happy. Glad you had one last adventure together!

  11. My faith in you is renewed when you write a piece like this.

  12. Awesome post about a good friend, Glad I had a few rides =)

  13. Great post - well written. Tons of adventure piled upon that vehicle. Cool story.

  14. I'm enjoying these posts that are a bit more lifestyle, outdoor adventure, soul searching. You've been a roll lately. Nothing wrong with the vertical feet climbed posts - those are cool too - but I think that's kind of common in adventure sports blogs. Keeping it unique Jill - nice.

  15. Love the post Jill. My favorite photo is in there, the one with the couch. And I love Cadie's look in that last one.

  16. We finally laid to rest my husband's 740 Volvo wagon that had been in his or his parent's ownership since they bought it new in 1985... 26 years! Coming back from a vacation in November, the 740 gasped its last breath trying to get through the sprawl of Gresham, Oregon. After 312,000 miles and cross-country trips and exploring every inch of California and Oregon, the threat of known faulty wiring finally hit. We carefully towed it to a Volvo specialist who could use it for parts so that other Volvos could hopefully have extended lives.

  17. I came across your blog when I was looking for 1996 Geo Prizms for valuation purposes (my Geo prizm was hit by a truck). It really resonates with me.

    I bought my Geo Prizm new in 1996 and have it still, with mileage currently at 196,340. I live in Alaska and have driven my car to Girdwood, Soldotna, Kenai, Homer, Seward too many times to remember in winter and summer. I commuted 100 miles a day for almost 6 years. I've moved my belongings-including furniture-multiple times; regularly use my car to haul tree limbs, gardening supplies, rocks, pavers, trash, plants and anything else I can cram into it.

    Other than routine maintenance(spotty for many years) and fixing a little damage here and there from auto accidents I haven't had any major repairs: Same engine, transmission, etc.

    In short, I love my Geo Prizm and hope it will be with me for many years to come before I have to say goodbye.


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