“What do you have in the bed under the tarp and blankets?” the security agent asked me at the Hoover Dam. “Three suitcases, a backpack, a box with party food, a spare rear axle and four tires,” I replied. The man scrutinizes me — a Romanian-German who is visiting the U.S. for the very first time with his new wife — looks skeptically over the contents of the old farm-truck’s rusty bed, and sighs. “Ok, please uncover everything, we need to check for explosives.” “Damn it, Tracy!” I mumble to myself as I climb all the way to the front of the eight-foot bed to lift the moldy blanket off of my friend’s scrap pile.
Seven years ago a then relatively young car journalist from Detroit, whose articles I’d recently discovered, wrote that he’d soon visit his parents in Germany near the city of Nürnberg, my hometown. Since my parents taught me to never get into a car with a stranger but actually never said anything about meeting strangers from the internet I figured the best thing to do was to just drop a comment asking if he was interested in me showing him around. Needless to say I was very excited when David replied with “Sure, let’s do car things!
And indeed, we did many car things the following years. I showed him probably the most amazing Mitsubishi collection outside of Japan, let him drive his first Porsche and even bought a cheap, old diesel minivan on his behalf:
I also eventually got into a car with him when we roadtripped one of his holy grails to a Romanian wedding (which totally came out of my altruistic plan to help out a young journalist with an article idea and not of my need for a press car that would survive the trip).
During all of these adventures, David kept insisting that my girlfriend Josi and I visit the U.S. but I’d just started my Masters degree and Josi had just started her medicine studies. David persisted and tried to convince us basically every other month, so in March 2020 we finally gave in and had the plan to book the flights on the weekend. And then, to say it in the words of Bo Burnham, the funniest thing happened.
The Plan Was For Us To Have A Nice, Reliable, Comfortable Vehicle For This Trip
We had to wait another two years to finally make more concrete plans, but as Josi’s finals were set for the end of the year and I really needed some time off my work as an automotive engineer, we decided it would be best for me to take a sabbatical and Josi to start her work life after that. Suddenly and without any notification also our 10th anniversary came up and I decided that it would be a great idea to propose (where David helped me with getting a critical component, Currywurst from the city of Jena, home of Jenoptik, David’s old company I guess?). So we decided to also squeeze in the wedding and call the roadtrip our honeymoon, just so we can spend more on it without any guilt.
So the scene was set; we just needed a detailed plan on what to do in the U.S. It was roughly at this point that David started mentioning that he should move to California as it would help him a lot with running his new website. He just couldn’t find a good apartment, he proclaimed.
I started wondering if we could plan the trip around David’s move, as he’d have lots of cars he’d needed transported, he could be with us for some of the trip so we get accustomed to the roads and we wouldn’t even have to feel too much guilt for the environment because this trip would have to be done anyway. But we couldn’t just pressure David into this big step just to have an excuse for a great trip. Or so we thought. Turns out when we wanted to fix the dates for the flights David was happy about the clear deadline he’d have to meet for finding an apartment and clearing out his Detroit house.
Only one variable left that we wanted to clarify before we got there: the ride. At first the answer was clear: It will be the Golden Eagle. Great, cool car, lot’s of space, reliable. This was when Josi started following David’s articles and social media more closely, while I stopped reading anything, probably to secure myself from any shenanigans of David that might risk our trip. But Josi told me anyway: The Golden Eagle’s engine broke. David was sure he’d have the car ready again by the time we arrived. We know how this went, so at some point David suggested we could just buy a cool car that I’m interested in. I would lie if I told you I wasn’t tempted to get my hands on a real American land yacht or a cheap P71 Crown Vic. But one of us had to keep focused, and it surely wouldn’t be David. “You’re trying to get rid of cars before you move, remember” I told him. “Oh yeah, right,” he remembered after having somehow forgotten.
Wanting to provide us with the most comfortable and plush experience he could offer, he hesitated to offer us the J10, as it’s a bit…rough. “You know it’s just a bench seat and we’d have to cuddle in there with the extra complexity of a shift lever on the floor, but at least we could warm each other up and put a whole lot of stuff in the bed,” he said. I didn’t notice it at the time, but I should have listened twice when he suggested that the source of the heating would be solely our body emittance. It still didn’t sound ideal. Not least because David wasn’t even sure if he could register the J10 in California due to emissions, and we didn’t want to get pulled over.
I suggested David get a press truck for review; particularly, one that could tow one of the vehicles he needed transported. He’d drive one of his cars, and we could switch out between it and modern luxury to help us all stay fresh. Eventually he’d leave in the press vehicle since he can’t keep it for a month, and he’d leave us with his car. So that was the plan.
Okay, The New Plan Was To Use The Comfy Jeep Grand Cherokee
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It was clear that we would tow his broken Grand Cherokee overlanding build with the press vehicle. As for our road-tripping car — the vehicle we’d spent most of our honeymoon in? This is when David came forward with one of his “holy grail” Jeep ZJ Grand Cherokees, the nice, low-mileage red one. “Worst case scenario we can use this, which is in perfect condition. I was planning on selling it up here in Michigan but it doesn’t make a difference if I sell it in LA.”
Josi loved the idea, so we had a plan and continued in peace with our wedding preparations and Josi’s finals schedule.
Or so we thought. Roughly two weeks later the ZJ showed up as a listing on Facebook Marketplace. “Nobody will pay the asking price and I’ll stay firm on that, so don’t worry.” David said. But somebody did pay the asking price (see above) not long after that so we were back to square one.
Nevermind. Looks Like We’re Taking The Farm Truck
Since David also sold his reliable Chevy Tracker, our options came down to only two of his cars: the 1966 Mustang and the J10. The Mustang would have been the more appropriate honeymoon vehicle, but after David put snow tires on it, which was our only condition, and drove it in the snow, he quickly came to the conclusion that it was a complete deathtrap, and he decided to bring it to California separately (that was a good call, as it was not ideal for such a trip, it turned out). So it was decided: Our honeymoon vehicle would be a rusty farm truck from the 80’s.
My Wife Was Now Nervous
Again Josi got hyper sensitive with David’s social media, so shortly after this decision was made she said: the J10 has no heat. David did his best to fix this problem, but Josi was very nervous about this and I was mainly concerned about the defrosting performance, as visibility is key when navigating a two ton monster on unknown roads. He sent us videos to prove to us that the heating does indeed work, just not perfectly, but the skepticism remained. Our trip would be in February, after all, and the country had had a ridiculously frigid cold spell recently.
Add to this the “brand new, never fitted” five-year old winter tires that he got for the J10, and we were thankful for the press vehicle. Oh, by the way the press vehicle didn’t come about due to logistical problems, so the support vehicle would be a U-Haul.
I had to calm down Josi by searching for rental car prices to show that we always have a backup. Well, at least we’ll be with David to get used to the truck and to have help if something went wrong, right?
Our wedding was at the end of January, and it was everything we could have hoped for and even more. We had an open ceremony and a medium sized party at a great car museum in Nuremberg, Merks Motor Museum.
Of course David also flew in specifically for our January wedding; as it was no option to fly to Germany two times in a month, and he couldn’t take off work so much, this resulted in him nearly being completely alone on Christmas. But David had a blast at the party, got filled with home made Vișinată (Romanian sour cherry liquor) and learned a lot about custom keyboards (voluntarily or not — one of our guests talked his ear off). And look at this great Porsche he gifted us!
Our flight to the U.S. was two weeks after our wedding; when I asked David if he’d stay in Germany and fly with us he just looked at me very disturbed and mumbled: “There is too much to do in the house before you can come. It’s a nightmare that you cannot ever see. Ever.” while staring into the distance. He flew back immediately.
I guess it didn’t help that David decided to throw a farewell party shortly before we arrived. As we sat in the plane from Nuremberg to Detroit (via Amsterdam) and looked down to beautiful Greenland, a message came in. “My house is a mess. So I got you a motel for a few nights while I get packed.”
While on the plane, we got a last minute crash course in traffic regulations by a nice Dutch-Texan lady, but some of her advice was definitely to be taken with a grain of salt (like e.g. always drive 10 over as to not look suspicious).
We landed safely in Detroit; during the approach I honestly saw more Ford F-150s than in all of my life combined. We were picked up by David and shortly got to know Jason, who fled the EPA superfund site that David called his home. Tired but happy that we’d finally arrived in the great US of A, David led us to the J10 (well, actually it was Josi who spotted the truck, as David immediately forgot where he’d parked in the airport parking lot when he came to the arrival hall). It looked glorious. The clear, crisp lines are beautiful and exactly how a six-year-old would draw a pickup. The huge greenhouse would ensure that visibility is great and that we can always position the vehicle as intended. The all-terrain tires and protruding fenders gave it a mean presence so nobody would mess with us on the road. It had battle scars that proved that it could tackle so much more than what we were going to throw at it. The canopy addition would save our belongings from the weather or thieveish hands. The bed to cabin ratio promised us that we could throw in all our luggage and everything we’d collect along the way without worrying too much about packing efficiently.
The J10 Didn’t Make A Great First Impression
David opened the tailgate/rear canopy window for us to throw in our luggage and lo and behold the bed was completely filled with trash. Not only that, but the smell of very, very old gear oil came crashing down on us. He promised us that he’d bring everything to a landfill apart from a spare rear axle that will come with us to California.
But even without the axle, the gear oil smell probably wouldn’t have disappeared, as the source of it seems to have been the wood “bedfloor” that over many years of Davids projects got impregnated with various fluids. “We should get a tarp as soon as possible” I whispered to Josi, while David wrestled our suitcases between an old mattress and a cardboard box. “Oh and by the way, the bed and canopy are not lockable, so always put your backpacks into the cabin when you leave the vehicle. Great.
After we puzzled ourselves onto the three wide bench seat, we were very happy that we didn’t pull through with the plan to drive together solely in the J10. While the right seat collapsed under my weight, the middle seat just didn’t have enough seat belt length for my body circumference. I decided to go into the middle seat anyway, as there is still a floor mounted shifter and I figured it would be more appropriate for all of us if David didn’t have to handle the shifter between Josi’s legs.
So off we went and directly headed towards the interstate towards Troy. This was i;, we would now experience what the next couple of thousand miles would offer to us, how the car feels, handles, sounds. We were horrified. The terrible Detroit roads were not damped, but amplified through the suspension. The whole truck sounded like it would come completely apart and let the frame continue without the cabin. It rattled and squealed. There was wind coming from vague places. “See? The heater works!” David screamed. “Oh and I put in a FM transmitter! But I think it will be useless!” He turned on the radio, but the sounds would completely deteriorate at the volumes that would be needed to understand anything.
I turned down the volume. “There is a weird springy noise in the front right corner” I said, as if that was the biggest concern. “Huh, you’re right…will be fine, you know, I did a 3,000 mile road trip some years ago in this thing; it’s indestructible!” David assured us with fake confidence, but internally I seem to have struck a nerve, as we learned that he did a complete damper job later that night.
To play this off, he revealed the food plans for the night. We would go to a famous Hot Dog place to start it off and then afterwards to a famous burger place.
On the way we drove through downtown Detroit, which was actually way nicer than expected. But what we also didn’t expect was to see Christmas decorations still up and running. We observed this actually in most of the country, which is weird for us, as most people in Germany put the decorations down on January 6th [Editor’s Note: This is the most German thing ever. To have a specific date to remove decorations?! -DT]. Anyway, we arrived at the hot dog spot and parked the huge ship.
In Germany you’d have trouble to fit anywhere, but it turns out the land of the big cars also provides infrastructure for big cars, so even in the tightest cities we never had any problems parking the truck. But then the choreography began. Get out of the truck, open the trunk, take all the backpacks, put them on the bench seat, lock the passenger door, lock the driver door. Oh by the way the passenger door lock doesn’t work, it has to be pressed/pulled from the inside. The driver side lock on the other hand at least barely works.
The chili hot dogs gave us the much needed energy to move on. They were fantastic, and if this was just the start of our culinary experience in this country then we had to pull through, no matter the state of the vehicle. We also experienced the free tap water that came with the meal, which was unusual for us. But even more so the terrible taste of the chlorinated water and ice cubes was something that we could not get used to during our stay. Sometimes it was so bad, that even the lemonade that contained ice cubes would taste terrible.
From here we went on to the burger place where I directly made a classic European mistake: ordering a big soda with my burger. What I expected to be maybe half a liter turned out to be 2l. Two lessons learned on the first evening; great!
Tired, full and nearly rattled to death by his truck, David finally brought us to our motel so we could get some much needed sleep and so he could bring his place to a more presentable state. The next morning he took us to a classic diner for breakfast where he gave us a crash course in tipping. Boy is that complicated, and contributes to a difficulty that follows us through the complete journey: You never pay what is written on the label. There is always a tax, tip or tariff that is added to anything, and the cost goes up significantly without you noticing it.
Well, enough complaining about the country; on with complaining about David. After David fed us well and taught us the weird prepay system at the gas station (in Europe we just pay after filling the gas), we finally arrived at the battleground that I have read so much about in the past years. I don’t know if David managed to get it into a more presentable state while also doing the damper job, but if so I don’t want to know how it looked before. We had a soft target to start the roadtrip on Thursday the 9th, and it was Tuesday, but what laid before our eyes would take a while to clean up.
The front lawn and the driveway were littered with car parts, bolts, tools and other stuff of different sizes. Mowing the lawn here must cause more shrapnel than a standard hand grenade [Editor’s Note: The lawn service refused to mow my lawn after destroying too many of its blades. -DT]. Again there was an ever-looming smell of gear oil. The Troy proving grounds in the back looked more like a plowed field, with the remains of a burned down tire in the middle of it. The garage looked like a firecracker of questionable origins went off harder than expected.
The house itself looked as if a herd of forest animals ran through, probably feeding on all the leftover party snacks that were littered across the house, as there were leaves and pine needles ground deeply into the green carpet. And none of it was locked, which makes you wonder how not even a single 10mm socket was ever stolen from David. Then again, the property probably looked already looted from the streets in the first place.
This man needed help, and we were here to provide it. I quickly made the plan to tackle the house first, emptying room by room while Josi followed through with the shitty vacuum that seemed to be on its last few breaths. Chronically-unfocused David always ran away, finding other stuff to do, while I screamed at him “DAVID, YOU MUST STAY FOCUSED, THIS ROOM ISN’T FINISHED” which could contain him for another 3-5 minutes. At some point the vacuum got completely overwhelmed by the amount of organic material that it had to extract from the carpet, and just gave up while producing the most horrible smell I had in my nose for a long time. But we managed to tidy up the rest of the house completely by the evening, apart from all the oil stained walls that David seems to have used as navigation points for his bad eyesight in the last couple of years.
Then, not even 24 hours after entering the country, David made us accomplices in…activities… that I won’t go further into details here…
We celebrated all these milestones with a dinner for kings: Lunchables on a plastic bin. The last time I had these was when I was around six. I think they got banned in Germany shortly afterwards, but I was very delighted to find them at Walmart.
We had also set up a mobile internet solution for our trip while shopping, and drove the car for the first time. So after seeing how much was still left to do at the house we had to be honest to each other and decided that we should leave David behind to take care of his business and leave the next day. Maybe we would meet along the way, but probably not, as David would take the more direct “southern” route while we were determined to cross the Rockies. But the truck wasn’t completely ready yet.
The next morning we brought the truck to a workshop in order to bleed the brakes, which pulled a little to the right, as well as to fit the winter tires. While we waited there for the job to be done, David the old army brat started a chat with a friendly old veteran who had some work done on his Dodge Durango. Now I don’t know if he spoke a dialect I wasn’t familiar with or if he suffered a speech problem, but unfortunately I didn’t understand half of what the gentleman said. Immediately I got concerned that we will not be able to communicate at all in the more rural parts of the country. But Josi and David didn’t seem to have this problem at all. So afterwards I asked them how much they actually understood. David said 60%, which was a huge relief to me, while Jose claimed over 75%. I guess these are the skills that make a good doctor.
The truck had the job done in no time, and we got kudos for it by the manager. I took the opportunity to poke David in the back and asked her in his presence if the truck looked technically sound overall and if she thinks it would survive a cross country roadtrip. To all of our surprise she actually confirmed this.
So we were set, and after dropping David at his house where he quickly tightened the squeaky, loose side mirrors we started our road trip.
Our first destination would be the windy city — Chicago. But not without stopping at what might be the greatest bookstore we ever saw, John K. King’s Used & Rare Books, right in the heart of Detroit. It had four stories filled to the top with books, but when I complimented the manager for the shop she just said “wish I had more room though.”
We made our way towards Chicago and learned that what seemed near on a map could take ages to get to in this country — a fact that was made even worse by driving an unfamiliar vehicle on unfamiliar roads, measured in unfamiliar units, which resulted in me actually mostly driving 10 mph under and the trip taking ages.
Transmission Issues Right Out Of The Gate. Or Not?
Being the moveable roadblock also led to the first shock moment, as it would take some hours of slow but constant driving before I had to slow down and downshift when I turned onto the Chicago Skyway.
I tried to put the transmission from 4th to 3rd, but it would not enter the gear. Then I tried to get it back into 4th, which led to horrible grinding. Eventually I managed 3rd and then also 4th again and we arrived in Chicago very late and tired, but I had the same problem repeatedly during this last leg. We informed David about this, who was very confused, as he personally completely rebuilt this transmission and would have guaranteed that it was the last piece to fail on the Jeep.
But he found the solution to this mystery the next day after consulting with different people: it was pure user error. Blame it on fatigue or unfamiliarity or just pure dumbness, but it wasn’t 4th and 3rd I was trying to select, it was actually reverse and the nothingness that sits above reverse on the shift pattern. The J10’s transmission is a 4 speed with reverse on the right side to the bottom and both the center position and the reverse lockout are very vague, so it seems I just smacked the lever completely to the right and went into the wrong column. This was very embarrassing, but at the same time a huge relief as it meant that we could continue our journey without having David come over to Chi-town or calling AAA.
Our stay in Chicago fortunately was much more relaxed than this experience luckily, albeit also quite rainy and cloudy. Nonetheless we had a tight schedule, as a friend of Josi gave us a list with restaurants and other food places that we absolutely had to check out. Did you know for example, that Chicago had the biggest Starbucks in the world? It’s five stories tall!
Also we met with our friend Alex, whom we’ve actually only got to know about 2 weeks earlier, but who was kind enough to both show us around and also save us a bunch of money by giving us some of his guest parking stickers.
Making Some Modifications To The Truck Before Heading To Hannibal, MO
The next firm stop would be Topeka, Kansas, but as we learned now the country is huge and we tried to target about four Google Maps-hours of driving per day, which realistically translated to 6-7 hours of actual time on the road. So we tried to find an interesting place that was right in the middle of the route. We settled on Hannibal, MO, as we wanted to not only see the big cities and also visit the Mississippi river. This confused not only Alex, whom we’d told about the plan the night before while eating a delicious Pizza, but even David enough so that he immediately called us to see if we were serious. After we confirmed this he seemed happy that we also wanted to see the real America, but probably he was secretly concerned that we’d end up too far from the next car parts store or workshop.
Speaking of which, we couldn’t leave Chicago right away. First we had some optimizations to do to the car. We headed to the nearest Walmart and got ourselves some supplies (which were neatly packed by the cashier into 12 plastic bags! This would be unacceptable in Germany) and went to work in the parking lot. First we taped up some holes in the floorboard, after sweeping the floor with a snow brush, which took care of some of the undefined air entering the vehicle.
Then we added some tape to the edges of the little triangle side windows as a makeshift gasket, which actually took care of these winds and some whistle noises. Also the roll down side windows had no gaskets left whatsoever, which led them to bump around furiously inside the door. This was solved by making small, longitudinal loops made from tape, with a small sticking edge left out, which I then stuck to the upright edges of both side windows. These acted as small bump stops which actually fixed all of the rattling!
I also got a cheap socket set in order to finally adjust the mirrors, which actually have to be rotated with a wrench, and also a pillow for the collapsed passenger side bench.
While I took care of the mechanicals, Josi went to town in the cabin with wet wipes and glass cleaner. The amount of grime that came out of all the surfaces was unbelievable and probably built up over the last four decades (especially on the sun visors).
With all of this done and every possible consumable liquid stocked in the bed we felt more ready than ever to head on. The truck felt truly great now and the only annoying noise that was left was the one that would not have been able to be taken care of: wind noises. But all these improvements made us happy, to the point that I even compared the truck to a Bentley in a text message to David (who confirmed that the bar for improvements was very low). (And even the wind noises could be tuned out by the usage of noise canceling headphones, as these highly periodic hissing noises are a prime target for opposing sound waves.)
We arrived late in Hannibal and basically only had dinner before going to bed. The hotel had a Mexican restaurant on the ground floor and as I love Mexican food, but there is next to no authentic Mexican food in Germany, it turned out to be the best Mexican food I’ve had in my life up to that point. After that we fell asleep and had a rough night due to a train line passing through between the riverfront hotel and the Mississippi and also due to what sounded like an adult film production in the room next door.
The next morning we had to continue early, but we wanted to take a stroll through Hannibal, the boyhood town of Mark Twain, and find ourselves some breakfast. In hindsight both of us would have loved to stay another night, as this city was very charming and exactly how we’d imagined a small town in the US. We even had a “music stops and everyone looks at the foreigners” moment when we entered the only open cafe in the town. But after eating our breakfast at the Mississippi and checking fluid levels we continued our journey to the west.
Shooting Guns Near Topeka
Topeka was always going to be a firm destination along the way, as our friend Loyal lives here. David and I got to know Loyal back when he still lived in Erlangen, where I had the workshop where David fixed Krassler. It was actually Loyal who got the old VM Motori diesel engine running, while David and I looked at him in awe as he did his literal magic. But he moved back to Topeka to be with his family which I can’t blame him for. A CT technologist by trade, he decided to take a step back and live the autopian lifestyle: fixing cars that others dispose of and flipping them.
It was great fun to visit him on his small plot of land, that is both way fuller with project cars then David’s Michigan house, but also way tidier and more organized.
While he showed us around the nearby college town of Lawrence he asked us what we thought about the country so far. We told him that everything is exactly like we always see it in the movies and every picture is like a screenshot from a flick. As he asked what we meant by that we turned the corner and ran into some girl scouts selling cookies, which Loyal assured us happens very rarely. They were delicious!
By chance we arrived at Loyal’s place the day before the Super Bowl, in which the Kansas City Chiefs played against the Philadelphia Eagles. Since KC is only an hour east of Topeka we decided to head there, have some barbeque and watch the game.
Instead of going to a sports bar, where Loyal expected drunk people and idiots, we went to a family friendly cafe where some friends of Loyal went with their kids. It was actually the right call, as these people really were there for the game and not for the party, so the atmosphere was incredible. Even Josi, who never watched an American football game in her life and didn’t know the rules, was completely invested into the game and ecstatic when the chiefs actually won!
The next morning Loyal brought us to his friend’s farm, where we shot some rounds at tin cans. For me this was an outlandish experience, as this would be unthinkable in Germany. Even though Loyal was very disciplined about this, made sure to get all the routines into my head, and even though it was quite fun, it was just too much stress and responsibility for me. I filed it under “once in a lifetime.”
After that we had to continue our journey, as a snowstorm was announced for the next evening in Denver, where we wanted to go next. Again due to the distance we had a layover in the small city of Goodland. Driving through Kansas wasn’t all that interesting to be honest. The problem wasn’t even the nothingness, but that there were much more rolling hills than I expected, which didn’t give the nothingness the room to have an effect.
What had an effect though was the sun. While we were concerned at the beginning of the trip that it might get too cold, the opposite was actually the case. The huge greenhouse of the truck trapped enough solar radiation that we actually had to turn on the A/C, which worked flawlessly.
We arrived in Denver in time before the snowstorm was bound to set in. It was very strange for us to see all the electric signs that mentioned that the traction law was enforced, meaning that you had to have snow tires, AWD or chains. In Germany it’s simply mandated to have snow tires always on during winter. But as we had two of these three things we would be safe.
Despite our choice of vehicle, we actually tried to stay at reasonably nice and comfortable hotels, which had valet parking. Of course I didn’t use it (but once), but I oftentimes had the urge to throw them the keys, tip them extra and tell them with confidence “park it in the front” while winking at them, just to see how they reacted.
After refreshing ourselves we took a stroll on 16th Street Mall, had some good Asian food but also nearly regretted staying there for two nights while the storm raged in the city, as everything seemed a bit bland. But this changed fortunately the next day when we went to the Art District, where a nice waitress referred to 16th Street Mall as the “armpit of Denver.” The Art District on the other hand was filled with charming shops, lot’s of cool murals and great food at the market hall.
For me personally it was quite amusing to see your domestic cars that some people cherish as prized possessions in Germany (and lock away during the winter) just street parked while the biting snow storm blew over the city.
I also for some reason grew very fond of Toyota 4Runners and Tacomas during our stay in Denver. They were so plentiful that the opposite should have been the case, but something about the “lightness” of the design talked to me very deeply. Thankfully we don’t really have the opportunity to go offroading back home, otherwise I might have to get my hands onto one.
After arriving back at the hotel in the evening I checked the route for the next day. We would take the Vail pass over the Rockies on our way towards the holy Jeep land, Moab, UT. This was the single most concerning part of the trip for me from the beginning, as I wasn’t sure how the cooling system would handle the uphill section with up to 8° inclination and how the brakes would handle the long downhill sections.
But now it looked uncertain if we could cross the mountains at all, as the webcams showed a complete whiteout of the route and then it also turned out that a truck toppled over both lane directions, blocking the entire route and only leaving a completely infeasible detour that would have taken triple the time. But they managed to clean it up by the next day and also the snow was mostly plowed, so we could continue. But not without first engaging the front axle by turning a knob on the front hubs.
The truck handled the mountains beautifully. While it was clear that, at 11,000 feet, many of the original 112hp had disappeared, and yet still the machine managed to chug along at about 50 mph in third gear, only shortly needing second gear, all while even reading a little bit too cool on the temperature gauge. The same story was the case while coasting downhill in third gear which pinned the GPS speed to exactly 52mph (did I mention that the speedometer does not work?)
Moab, The Off-Road Holy Land
Later that day we arrived in Moab but as always directly fell into our bed after a quick food search. This was a good thing, as we needed the energy the next day because David had many recommendations for us about what we should see and do in Moab.
Of course we had to take the Jeep off-road and David had just the right beginners trail for us: Gemini Bridges. Arriving at the trailhead I lowered the tire pressure to around 25 psi. David recommended 20 and I probably should have listened to him, as 25 still felt rather stiff and bumpy. But it was my first trail experience and purposefully evacuating a tire felt weird to me, so I wanted to play it safe.
When we entered the trail a modern Jeep Wrangler was right in front of us. But as the path got steeper and snow was present they realized that all terrain tires might not cut it and turned around. We decided to still give it a go and after a little chat with someone coming down the hill and recommending to only drive “to the bird and then back” we started our adventure.
The J10 did very well in 4L, we never lost traction or got stuck. The only casualty was Josi having to take something against motion sickness as the road got bumpier. At the Bird we decided to have a picnic on our tailgate and experienced utter quietness for the first time in a long while. The only sounds came from a lone bird circling above us.
As Josi took a nap on the tailgate I decided to take a look around the corner before we would turn around. I built up quite some distance to the vehicle when I remembered a dialogue that I had with Loyal a few days earlier. I asked him what the most dangerous animal would be that we could encounter on our trip. His answer was immediate and confident: mountain lions. As I walked the path alone and in silence I started to notice how far I’ve gotten from the car and how many potential hiding spots for a vicious predator were around me. Josi surely wouldn’t see and probably not hear me if I was attacked at this point. Fear got the best of me and I quickly turned around. I am quite sure though that the only animals were that one bird and the wild sheep that live up there.
As a next stop we went to Dead Horse point, where we had one of the most amazing views of the whole trip. The view over Canyonlands National Park was breathtakingly beautiful and we felt very lucky to be there during winter. The bright white snow provided an astonishing contrast to the red rocks and I honestly didn’t even know beforehand that there was snow in the desert at all.
We also drove along the Colorado river and visited Arches National park while being around. We felt very weird driving around in national parks, as back home you’d always drive to a central parking lot and hike from there . But in the US you could always drive right up to the sightseeing destination. Then again as all things national parks are way bigger in the US, which mandates accessibility by car.
In the morning of our trip onwards to the Great Canyon we checked fluids as always and this was the first time that coolant was running a bit low but we had a bottle in the back so we thought it should be fine. As I decided to unlock the front axle I took a quick look under the car, and, through sheer luck, caught coolant dripping in a steady but fast rhythm. So we stocked up on coolant and I checked again to figure out where the leakage was located. Thankfully it turned out to only be a loose hose clamp right at the radiator outlet.
Eventually we were able to continue on, visited Monument Valley and Forrest Gump Point on the way and actually managed to arrive at the Grand Canyon with about two hours of daylight to spare.
It was a surreal view. We completely lost any depth perception in this vast landscape, as nothing moved and the shapes and structures just seemed to continue. It felt like it was all just a very big, high quality photo wallpaper. Maybe this lack of comprehension was what in the end made us like the aforementioned Dead Horse Point more, or maybe it was the masses of tourists that spoiled it a little for us.
Our next big stop was Las Vegas where we arrived in the afternoon following a visit to the Hoover dam on our way (where the security guard at the checkpoint was very skeptical about the contents of our bed.) It was very nerve wracking to take a selfie up high on the interstate bridge that provides the viewpoint for the dam, while semi trucks sped past us within an arm’s reach, which led to us nagging each other a little bit. This turned a little bit embarrassing when we found out that the tourist next to us came from Kassel, Germany, so he understood everything we said.
We had a great room at the Palazzo with a view over the city.
Even the Jeep got a suiting parking spot.
The luxurious suite helped us to make the decision of retiring to our room early as we did not enjoy the city a lot (especially after getting lost at the Caesars palace, where we seemed to walk in circles for hours). Everything was overwhelming and tried to be so special that it lost its appeal. We felt like Las Vegas makes more sense when you have a certain event in mind rather than just strolling around.
The City Of Angels
The next morning we started the last stint of our cross-country roadtrip. We felt invincible, both because the truck performed so well and also because whatever happened from here on could be David’s problem again, as he could come to help us in a matter of a few hours. And even though this might sound like a problem was yet to come, it didn’t, and we arrived safely at David’s new apartment, where we had to slowly wrestle the truck into the subterranean garage so as to not scrape the roof on the ceiling. Precisely two weeks and over 3000 miles after fleeing the gear oil stench of the Troy proving grounds, we found ourselves at the foot of the prestigious Hollywood Hills, helping lowering property values forever in this neighborhood.
We were greeted by David in his still very empty apartment and spent the next couple of days helping him with his interior design and just generally raising him to be an actual adult human being.
This might sound like the wrong activity for a honeymoon, but we arrived perfectly in time for the rainiest winter that California had in a long time, so there wasn’t that much to do anyways (and who knows when these parenting practices might come handy at some point?)
As the weather didn’t really get better and the national parks we wanted to visit were all closed due to up to 15 ft. of snow, we decided to pack our things for the last time and head north to the bay area. On the way there we had a great time in San Luis Obispo and drove the southern bit of the PCH, but couldn’t do it all because of a landslide blocking the highway roughly in the middle.
Arriving in San Francisco late as usual we were completely confused as to why anybody would build a city of this size on a terrain that was so steep and mountainous. Even though I got to know the truck by this point pretty well in and out I was not comfortable searching for a parking spot near to our hotel that was located pretty centrally in Nob Hill. This was the only time that we paid for a valet, and I felt bad about it – both for the valet and for the truck, whose clutch probably hated me anyway by now. Safe to say I tipped the valet accordingly.
We then spent the next day by foot, cable car and boat, and headed back the day after, but not without visiting Lombard Street and the Golden Gate Bridge. Driving through the city was a daunting task, as most people drove modern cars and seemed not to understand that we didn’t have hill assist. I had to spin the wheels a few times so as to not roll into the car behind me when we started from a red light on the most terrible inclines.
At the Golden Gate Bridge we then actually had a park ranger come out of his office because he recognized the truck! He was excited about it and proclaimed that it was possibly the cleanest left in the whole country. I liked his enthusiasm so I didn’t tell him about a mint conditioned one we saw in Moab (which we couldn’t get a picture of unfortunately.)
After this encounter we then headed back “home” to LA after spending a night in the cheapest Motel in Monterey. While searching for a place to stay on the internet while we were parked outside of a classic car dealership there late at night, the owner of the dealership suddenly appeared next to our window. I rolled it down, fearing that we illegally trespassed or looked suspicious, only for him to be excited, telling us how much he likes the truck and asking what amount of money he’d have to offer for us to sell it immediately. After politely declining he said “Well, can’t blame you!” and disappeared as fast as he appeared.
The next morning we drove down to Big Sur, knowing that we’d have to turn around there because of the land slide, but it was totally worth it. While not as fun or twisty as the Transfagarasan or the Stelvio Pass, it was simply breathtakingly beautiful. And might I even say that the truck handled super well? It was no sports car by any means, the over assisted power steering let through no inputs from the road and the bench seat did very little to hold you in place, but the suspension kept the truck reasonably planted, and it was the first time during this trip that I actively had to monitor my speed as to not break any speed limits.
It Was An Incredible Trip In An Incredible Truck
Back in LA we could finally enjoy a little bit more of the city. We went movie surplus clothes shopping in Burbank, explored Santa Monica, downtown and other parts of the City. We drove through the Hollywood Hills and through Bel Air, where I was sure that police would follow our truck everywhere, but they didn’t. We went to a comedy club, to an improv theater, and to the Chinese Theatre.
We went to Bob’s Big Boy’s Diner for a great car meet.
David even snuck us into the exhibition opening at the Petersen!
We did this all while David repeatedly told us why he should buy the cheapest BMW i3 he could find since it was similar to one of my most favorite cars of all time, the Audi A2 (he had a point there). The only thing I couldn’t do was to rent a sports car and drive through Angeles Crest, as again there was just too much snow and the road was closed. But that leaves more stuff to do for our next visit.
David brought us to LAX in the J10, 4.5 weeks after arriving at DTW, with 5,000 miles more on the clock. It never let us down and it was the best honeymoon vehicle we could have imagined. It wasn’t comfortable, it wasn’t prestigious, and it sure as hell wasn’t fuel efficient. On the contrary, with its average 17 mpg I very roughly calculated how far we could have gotten with the energy content of the fuel we’ve burned in a small, efficient European EV and the result was literally ten times as far.
But we had a supremely memorable trip. We basically did an extended version of the National Lampoon’s Vacation in a car that for our European minds could as well have been a caricature of a real car like the Wagon Queen Family Truckster in the movie. We learned to trust the simple mechanics of an old car and now I appreciate my 1981 Autobianchi A112 at home even more (which I’ll definitely daily during the summer from now on). We managed to deal with the small problems that arose in ingenious ways ,and returned the truck to David effectively in a better shape than we got it. (At least for a short time before the A/C and a headlight died a few days later).
We helped David with leaving his old life behind and starting his new one. Gone are the days that forced living and working under one roof, and his new living situation should help him with becoming a more responsible man who can keep his grease far from his living quarters. There will be some relapses (he told me the other day that he currently has a crankshaft on his kitchen counter), and I still have to remind him to wear his loafers instead of dirty street shoes inside. Though at the same time the plants we got him still seem to live and the clothes from his suitcases at least in theory have a place in a dresser now, so we are celebrating the little steps here.
Looking back at our meeting with our old friend Loyal on his home turf, we learned a lot more about his redneck-ish side that always only came out a little bit while he had to pretend to be a professional expat. He taught us a lot about the topics that the country and its people deal with, but also showed us how Americans like to spend their free time.
We seem to have brought joy to strangers along the way (perhaps through our naivety) and felt a little bit like celebrities whenever someone noticed the most famous Jeep J10 in the world.
We saw sights of this huge country that people only know from the movies or most likely would never see at all. And all because of this old, junky farm truck and because of a slightly-more-grown-up car journalist who could have turned out to be a killer.
After being there and back again, all that’s left to say is: I’ll never again complain about the technical condition of David Tracy’s cars. What a machine — and I’m not just talking about this truck:
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Lemme guess, you’re an accomplice in helping DT dispose of some old cart parts in a sketchy way?
That’s so David
So glad you got to eat at Gates Bar-B-Q, one of my favorite places to eat in KC, and a good example of the best BBQ style in the country 😀
wonderful article, thank you..
My wife and I roadtripped a 82 Ford Econoline around the whole USA, up to Alaska and back, in 1992. We were penniless immigrants, your experiences of the US are so familiar..
Now we have assimilated a bit and I can often make it through a whole day without being asked where I’m really from.
“which led to us nagging each other a little bit. This turned a little bit embarrassing when we found out that the tourist next to us came from Kassel, Germany”
this always happens.. we ran into people making snarky comments in Afrikaans, had to explain to them we could understand every word..
This sounds like an amazing trip for europeans – I should aspire some day to be able to do sth like this! Thanks for sharing and kudos on the write-up. Thouroughly enjoyed the read.
Congrats on the wedding and on a beautiful friendship with DT, too.
This is basically a Top Gear Special, with a few minor differences.
What a story. Gooney Bird Rock brings back memories where we were camping beyond it and a cow fell off the rim of the cliff into the canyon we were sleeping in.
Yes, a cow fell off a cliff right near us in the night. It sounded like an ATV tumbled down the rocks. The cow did not survive. It was quite an exciting event.
What a great adventure! Congrats to you two!
And thanks for trying to raise David up a bit. That’s hard and frustrating work!
Congrats on the wedding and so glad you enjoyed your honeymoon road trip. this was such an enjoyable read.
I believe I saw you guys on 55 southbound around Normal, IL. Speaking of Normal, I saw you snagged a picture of a Rivian! Excellent read all around, that sounds like an amazing trip.
Amazing story and an amazing journey, thanks for sharing it with us! I have a friend who is just like David. All you can do is love them, be patient, and evict them from the apartment that you share with them when they stop paying rent!