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Road trip!

What is it about college road trips that makes them so much fun? Is it the trashed-out used cars? Is it the perpetual lack of sleep? Or the lack of funds, and the accompanying feeling of dread that one might at any moment have a major breakdown and have to hitchhike home and never see the car again?

I didn't have a car until my second senior year, so I had to depend on friends. Most of my early trips were back to the old hometown, scenic Hobbs, New Mexico, with my older friend L. E. Fields, who had a '62 Pontiac named ``Old Pont.''

The road to Hobbs, especially the Hondo Valley between Carrizozo and Roswell, is pretty twisty, and most of it had no shoulder back then. In the winter, there are some spots with northern exposures that can be treacherous. Old Pont was not exactly a sports car; it went off the road a couple of times over the years. One spot we called ``L. E. Curve'' bucked Old Pont off at an icy patch and she wound up down in the bottom of a draw. I wasn't riding in her that day, but the boys never failed to remind L. E. whenever he went by there.

One day as we were passing through Tinnie, we overtook a state policeman. I was not expecting L. E. to speed up and roar by, and I certainly wasn't expecting my friend Dex Torhan to pull his pants down and moon the officer. I was sure I would sleep that night in the Hondo jail. Turns out the officer was an old friend they hadn't seen in a little while---but they didn't get around to warning me about that beforehand.

Old Pont was moderately reliable, but she had her bad days too. One Sunday evening as we were approaching Roswell on the way back to school, the headlights started to get dimmer and dimmer. By the time we were through town, they were hardly bright enough to see by, so we stopped at the only station we could find that was open. Woody's Truck Stop is defunct now, I'm happy to say, but it used to be the only 24-hour joint on the main drag through Roswell, out on the west side where the truck bypasses join the highway.

We rolled into Woody's and pleaded for help. The ``mechanic'' declared that the problem was that our battery was dead, and he had a brand new battery that he would sell us for only $25. Only problem was that it was a dry-charge battery and he didn't have any acid for it. He was even kind enough to loan us the station's beat-up pickup truck so we could go look for a station that was open and had battery acid.

After about three hours of wandering around town, we finally found a station that was open and had about half the acid we'd need to fill the battery. We brought it back, paid for the battery, installed it, put in what acid we had, and filled it up with water---definitely against the manufacturer's directions.

But it wouldn't charge. The smiling station employee announced that our voltage regulator had probably died first, which is why the battery went down. He rummaged around the new parts stock for a while, but he didn't have a replacement for the regulator.

Over against the fence was a long line of abandoned cars. The pump jockey told us that if we were to go over there and steal a regulator out of one of them, he wouldn't notice. One of the ``roll-ins'' was an old Caddy that had the same type of regulator. Moving the regulator to our car took only a few minutes, but the battery still wouldn't charge.

Adjusting old-style mechanical voltage regulators was not for the faint-hearted; most were not designed to be field-adjusted. After about forty-five minutes of hammering on the thing, suddenly the ammeter kicked way over into charge. We piled in and headed out of town.

Somewhere not too far into the Hondo Valley, suddenly the ammeter went back to slightly below zero. A few miles later the headlights were noticeably dimmer. By the time we got to Carrizozo, they weren't much use for seeing the road.

L. E. had already had a few run-ins with the city police in Carrizozo. They loved to give out tickets. We knew that if they saw us driving around with our barely visible headlights, they would probably lock us up as a menace to public safety. At one point, driving around Carrizozo and trying to find a service station, we saw the cruiser paralleling our course a few blocks away. He cut a high-speed turn and headed for us. We played tag for a bit, lay doggo for a bit, finally lost him, then finally pulled into the one station in town that was open.

The guy working there had no idea what to do about our problem. He didn't even have the same kind of predatory attitude as the guy at Woody's in Roswell---``sell them whatever you can.'' After a little swearing and a few useless phone calls, we slunk off on side streets, trying to avoid the police car. We got to the edge of town and decided there was no hope for driving from there to Socorro without headlights. We pulled in under a Schlitz beer sign in front of the Nike Bar and slept the few hours until sunup.

When it got light, I woke up frozen, with a ferocious cramp in my thigh. We push-started the car and made it the rest of the way home without incident. The problem turned out to be a melted winding in the alternator. The battery and the voltage regulator we had taken out were both in fine shape. I could imagine the guy back at Woody's with a big smile on his face.

One of my college roomies, who worked for a gas station, explained the economics to me. Stations would pay minimum wage for pumping gas, but if you sold any parts or service, you got ten percent.

He said that he had often observed a scam called the PQ. The pump jockeys would wait for a tourist from Canada with a White Rose credit card. For some reason, these particular sorts of tourists tended to be gullible. While checking under the hood, the gas jockey would pull a wire off the starter.

``Oh, won't start, huh? Lemme see what I can do. Hmm, looks like you need a new starter.''

Take the starter out and take it into the back.

``We don't have one, let me take it across the street and see if they have one.''

Put the old starter into a box. Take it over to your friend who works at the station across the street. Paint it quick (hence the name, PQ). ``You're in luck, they had one, here it is, nice and shiny.'' Put it back in, charge them forty bucks, pocket four of that. Four bucks was a lot of money back then.

The longest road trip I took was a complete failure. In 1967, we were all dying to go out to San Francisco and check out the music scene in the Haight-Ashbury. At one point my friends Gerry Graff and Fred Beach and I actually set out for California in Gerry's 1960 VW Beetle.

I was asleep in the back seat when, five miles before we got to Hackberry, Arizona, I was awakened by a loud racket. It sounded to me like somebody had put about half a bushel of assorted stove bolts into an agitator washing machine and turned it on. Gerry was a little curious about all this noise, but the vehicle was still moving, so we drove about three more miles to the next phone booth and called a tow truck. That was a bad idea. If he had stopped immediately, the pieces of the broken rod might not have had a chance to completely destroy the crankshaft.

Beautiful downtown Hackberry is about 35 miles east of Kingman. This was before I-40 was finished through there; Hackberry is on the old road now. I remember the mileage because the towing charge was a dollar a mile and we had to pony up the 35 bucks in cash. The VW dealer in Kingman wanted $300 to rebuild the engine, or $360 to put in a factory rebuilt replacement. Gerry didn't hold with factory rebuilds, he said, and pointed out that the engine we had just lunched was an under-the-counter engine that he had bought in Bakersfield, after he had destroyed the original engine on his previous trip to California. He said he had saved $80 on that engine.

Gerry and Fred hitchhiked on to San Francisco and then eventually hitchhiked back to Socorro. I had a total of $25 on me, which was supposed to have fed me and gotten me into a few concerts. Conveniently, that was also the price of a bus ticket to Albuquerque. If we'd made it as far as, say, Bakersfield, I don't know how I would have gotten home. I have never cared for hitchhiking.

Even the road to Albuquerque used to be somewhat of a challenge. You students nowadays have it easy---the freeway goes all the way there, you can do it on autopilot. But in my day the freeway only went as far as Belen. Beyond that it was two-lane much of the way. The segment of U.S. 85 from Belen to Los Lunas was notorious for collisions; there were a lot of drunks around there, and farmers with hay trucks liked to pull out without looking and putt along at ten miles an hour. A bit further north the route divided; the left fork turned into Coors Road and the right fork turned into Broadway.

The standard route to Albuquerque was to bear right at this fork, go a quarter mile or so, and then turn right over the railroad track and take a twisty little road that went through a residential neighborhood on the Isleta Reservation, then across the river on a one-lane bridge.

I saw a lot of games of chicken on this bridge. Normal, polite drivers would wait at the far end until all the traffic was off the bridge, then cross. But occasionally somebody would refuse to follow the protocol, and enter the bridge when you were already on it. The bridge was barely wide enough for one semi, but one trip when I was riding up in a Chevy Impala, we had a standoff with another Impala coming toward us. 1960-era Impalas were pretty wide, too. We couldn't back off because the guy behind us wouldn't back up. So we squeaked by, without losing too much paint.

At the far side of the bridge, a left turn put you onto Bosque Farms Road, which went into Albuquerque right by the wonderfully fragrant meat packing plant. Nowadays Bosque Farms is all four lanes wide, with a real shoulder, but back then it was narrow and twisty and crossed an awful lot of ditches. There were several places where the road would go up over a ditch and then turn sharply. If you were going a little too fast, you might become airborne just when you needed a little cornering traction. This was typically more of a problem on the trip back, late at night.

Of course, Bosque Farms road wasn't quite as good for jumping vehicles as Neel Street in Socorro. Once upon a time, a friend of mine decided to go for a ride on his motorcycle when he was severely drunk. Starting in the parking lot of South Hall, he accelerated continuously down Neel until he hit the dip. He went airborne, and his next point of contact was a window on the front wall of the laundromat. The woman who was sitting next to this window was quite surprised when my friend and the bike came through and landed on her washing machine. He said later that he would have made the turn just fine, but air tends to provide relatively poor traction.

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John W. Shipman,
Last updated: 1997/01/25 21:41:32