Rod and Charlie’s Excellent Adventure

October 18, 2007

For years I’d promised myself that when I retired I’d buy a vehicle somewhere far away, go get it and drive it home. Things came to a head the first day I took a load of walnuts to Neil’s farm for hulling. I had opted to load the nuts into the back of my SUV rather than attaching a trailer. I’d sprinkled preservative over the nuts to inhibit mould and I didn’t know how toxic it was, so I wore a fume mask and drove with the windows all open. That gets old after a couple of miles on a cold, wet morning. Walnut flies being what they are, and the nuts having sat for a couple of days, there were some grubs in the nuts. One of the tubs had a crack in the bottom. After unloading the nuts in Neil’s yard, I looked in amazement at the entire back of the 4Runner alive with maggots, an exact match for the beige carpet.

The time for a pickup truck had arrived.

It had to be a Toyota, of course, but I’ve historically had a hard time with their dealers. Brockville and Kingston outlets simply didn’t sell what I wanted to buy, a four cylinder, five speed, regular cab, four-wheel-drive truck. I found the ideal new truck in Watertown, only to have the salesman throw me off the lot when he discovered I am Canadian. They’re a bit paranoid down there.

I inquired at customs about bringing a vehicle from the States into Canada. The helpful U.S. guy heard my tale of woe and immediately called the Watertown dealer. Turns out a used truck had come in that day. I drove home from the border, eager to call and set up a deal on the new trade-in. The salesman wouldn’t give me the time of day. I must rub that guy the wrong way, or something.

In desperation I turned to eBay. With ridiculous ease I had purchased a truck within the hour. Gleefully I emailed my pal in Reading, PA to ask him to have a look at my new truck in Pittsburgh. “Pittsburgh? Why did you buy one there? That’s five and a half hours away!” Ulp. Guess I should have looked at the map.

O.K., I’ll fly down and pick it up. Watertown to Pittsburgh takes six and a half hours, with stopovers in Boston and New York. I could drive it in that time.

Charlie offered to run me down the following weekend, so we set up a meeting in Lansdowne, Bet packed enough food for two days, and off we went on Saturday morning.

This was my first ride in Charlie’s Audi A4 Quattro. Nice car. The Audi navigation system he bought on eBay and installed in the dealer’s parking lot (specialized tools) really came into its own on this trip. A savvy Internet guy can download just about anything these days, even a complete installation manual for an Audi navigation system. I nicknamed it “Claire.”

After the right turn at Syracuse I began to see more and more walnut trees. They seem a bit spindlier than the ones growing in Forfar. Then came the wine country. South of Lake Erie is a lovely drive through a rich landscape. The grape harvest seemed to be in full swing on the same day that I had scraped my windshield in Smiths Falls. Very few trees had changed colour down here.

I looked at these vast fields of vines and thought of my own puny efforts hand-picking Neil’s grapes. Then I saw a grape harvester, a tall device for straddling the vines, apparently based upon a 1950 Farmall tractor. Maybe they don’t get used a lot in the off-season.

Claire’s instructions kept us in the correct lane into Pittsburgh, across the bridge and into the tunnel. Tunnel? Charlie told me that the computer detects that it has lost signal and assumes it’s in a tunnel, so it relies upon inertia and dead reckoning to keep the driver on target until it can find a satelite again. Clever Claire. Before long it told us to look to the left because we had arrived at our destination. After eight hours of driving I saw the new truck, parked on the street in front of a little used car dealership.

There’s no elbow room in Pittsburgh. The car lot was full. To examine the truck I had to risk impact from passing cars and trucks. I crawled under for a look, anyway. Not bad, though they apparently haven’t heard of rustproofing that far south. Someone had done a magnificent job of cleaning the truck, inside, out, top and underside.

While I test drove the truck with a dealership employee as guide, the manager discovered that Charlie’s a photographer, so he strongly recommended a trip to the top of the mountain to view the cityscape. We couldn’t reasonably ask Claire to direct us on this trip, so Charlie set off and I followed in my new truck. Chaos quickly resulted. Pittsburgh is no place to get lost in convoy. After a couple of near misses we abandoned all hope of photographs and headed for the tunnel.

On the first hill the Tacoma seemed a bit anemic in the power department. The tires rode rock-hard and shook on some surfaces. We pulled off at first opportunity, a service centre about twenty miles from the city centre.

Turns out the used car dealer’s crew could wash cars well, but that’s about it. The emergency brake was stuck on, leaving a back brake drum quite hot. That explained the lack of power on the hill. Tire pressures were forty pounds on the left side and fifty on the right, instead of the 26 recommended. The spare, of course, was flat.

A little worried that these bozos had also changed the oil, we pressed on and found a motel for the night. Charlie had to have a room with 1) no evidence of cigarette smoke and 2) wireless Internet. The third motel offered both, and a cot for him. I gratefully settled into a novel and he re-established contact with his world.

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