Sierra Tales

I believe that the longer you own a vehicle, the more you invest in that vehicle. By invest I do not mean pennies and cents in the form of oil changes, new tires or car washes. I am talking about investing part of your soul and personality. You don’t need to be a Gearhead to add an accessory to your car and make it stand out from the pack. It could be any cosmetic or performance modification like achrome valve covers, 8-ball shift knob, bumper sticker or even Betty Boop floor mats. Gearheads take it to another level since they not only like what they drive, but also genuinely love and care about what they drive and see it as part of the family like a pet or an extension of their own identity. Every adventure, near miss, run-in with the law or break down you have with your car means investing a small part of yourself into the machine. Sometimes, especially with older model vehicles, the car will reveal itself to you in the form of mechanical imperfections I call, “quirks”.

My 97’ GMC truck is a perfect example of this theory, over the nearly eight years of ownership, it has been totaled and restored, using a cocktail of new, aftermarket and junkyard parts to get it back on the road. It has developed quirks over the years which usually end up with my questioning the supernatural on the side of the road in a profanity fueled rage, or falling on the praise of dumb luck in front of the law.

One night I was driving home from a party at a friend’s house. It was around three in the morning and I was holding steady at 70mph when suddenly the bass line to “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” by the Hollies was cut short as the radio turned itself off. When I tried to switch it back on, the lights on the dashboard began to flicker, and a few seconds later the whole truck went kaput. No power, and on a dark highway, I steered the truck over to the side of the road. Turning the key, I heard the infamous clicking sound of a dead battery, — I was stranded. I had to call my friend, whose party I had just left, to rescue me. By the time he found me, it had started to rain hard. The weather didn’t matter. Even with a jumpstart my truck simply did not want to turn over. It just sat their clicking away as if it was somehow laughing at us, soaking wet and afraid of electrocution. The night ended with us leaving the truck on the side of the road and getting back home at four in the morning, cold and wet with no truck, which my parents were not happy about. Around eight in the morning, my father drove me back to the spot where the truck sat. I decided to turn the key one last time before we did anything — just for the sake of it — and to my amazement the truck fired right up without skipping a beat. It idled like a lion with a full stomach — almost smug. I drove it home without an issue, and I never found out why it lost power since the battery, cables and alternator were all fine. Whenever it pulls this stuff, I joke around saying it is, “pulling off a Christine,” after the Stephen King novel from the 1980s about a 1958 Plymouth Fury that can repair itself.

Its most Christine moment happened when I was 18 years old and had spent less than a month with the newly restored truck. I had just topped off the tank and was getting ready for the drive home when my little brother asked me if he could drive it home. He had just gotten his driver’s license and was anxious to practice. Feeling generous, I tossed him the keys, and we set off for home. Night had fallen by the time we were on the highway, and I could tell my brother was a little nervous, not because of the driving, but because he was driving his older brother’s recently restored pride and joy. We had the highway to ourselves, so I wasn’t worried, and I sat back and tried to get used to the awkward feeling of riding shotgun in your own car. Five miles in, I glanced at the gauge cluster on the dash and was horrified to see that the gas gauge was reading half a tank. I scanned the rest of the gauge to see if anything was wrong but all read normal. I told my brother to pull over quickly because I suspected a gas leak. Walking to the back of the truck I couldn’t smell any gasoline fumes and when I glanced underneath the bed all I could see was the greasy undercarriage of an old truck. I decided to drive the truck the rest of the way home and deal with the problem in the morning, but I was feeling upset because half a tank meant the old girl had leaked or burned $40 dollars’ worth of go-go juice in less than ten miles.

What happened next still gives me chills. Every mile the truck rolled, I gained another gallon of fuel. As I drove along the road, I glanced at the gauge and could see the needle slowly crawling its way back to full on its own. By the time I got home, the gauge read a full tank once again, and my brother and I were in disbelief. My brother turned to me and said, “I guess she didn’t like me being behind the wheel.”

Although these quirks have often gotten me in trouble, there was one case where it saved me from a much more serious situation. I was driving my drunk friend home after a late party. At the time, the latest quirk the truck had developed was that the brake lights would turn off whenever I applied the brakes and come back on when I took my foot off. A simple electrical issue, but the quirk would come and go. Months would pass without a problem, and then I would have a passing car or friend tell me my brake lights were out. Life, time and money prevented me from fixing the issue. I was regretting my procrastination that night when I noticed a police car in my rearview mirror. Paranoia turned to fear when I noticed that my tipsy friend had an open beer bottle in the truck since open containers in a car being illegal in the state of Texas. We had just passed a stop light, so I suspected he noticed my brake lights. There was another stop light ahead that would surely reinforce the officer’s probable cause. My only hope was to slow down so the cop could pass me on the left lane and drive off into the dark, so I slowed down until I was doing a 25 in a 40, but the cop stayed fixed in my rearview mirror. I decided to get rid of him by turning onto a side street as if I had reached my destination, but the second I turned on to another street the officer switched his red and blues. I slowed down enough so I could shut off the truck and then apply the brakes in order to hide my brake light issue.

The officer walked up, greeted us, and asked me to turn my vehicle on because he wanted to check my brake lights. I did as I was told, and the lights came on. He walked back and shouted back asking me to apply the brakes. In my head, I was sure to get a ticket for faulty brake lights, which would lead him to ask if we had been drinking, which would ultimately lead to him finding the bottle and causing even more trouble. My heart was pounding as I applied the brakes, but instead of a ticket I was greeted by a phrase that I have never heard a police officer say, “Sorry, I guess I must have been mistaken.” The brakes lights came on! He sent us on our way, and I had a good laugh to shake the nerves away. One of the few times the old girl saved me.

Now I do not want you guys to think that I need a trip to the funny farm. I am not crazy. I know that all these quirks can be explained or fixed by a good mechanic, but the point is that the truck has its own persona now. The truck is no longer just a GMC truck, it has become “La Sierra”that all my friends and family know can, “misbehave,” whenever it wants to. Even with the risk of being stranded on the side of the road for the twelfth time, I would never trade or sell this truck for a new Toyota or reliable Honda because I have invested so much time, money and memories into this truck, which makes it priceless.