Surprise Off-Roading And Other Joys Of Driving A 1974 VW Across The Country

I glanced down at my phone to double check the directions Google was giving me and I looked up, at highway speed, and the road in front of me disappeared. I didn’t even have time to shit myself.

This was the third day of my cross-country drive in my recently-acquired 1974 Volkswagen Beetle. On the first day, the master cylinder seized, the car critically overheated, and then a brake caliper fell off. On the second day, a spark plug wire failed and I crossed the Sierra Nevadas on three cylinders.

And on this third day I overheated before I finished breakfast and had to re-change my spark plugs burning hot, but I’m getting ahead of myself.


(Welcome to another installment of The Little Engine That Couldn’t, wherein I try to drive across the country in a 1974 Volkswagen Beetle that I bought semi-running five days before departing. It all seemed pretty doable. After all, I had only needed to do a single engine-out repair in a driveway.)

I finally made it out of California in the morning, passing Mt. Whitney in the early morning light, getting more and more comfortable with my new car. That meant I started spending more and more time behind the wheel in between stops to get gas and let the car cool down.


I thought I had planned one stop perfectly, running the tank all the way down to fumes to barely make it to Yucca, Arizona. Chrysler’s middle-of-nowhere proving grounds happens to be right there off of Interstate 40, and I imagined myself getting gas next to some cool and secret new prototype vehicle. But as I passed through the town, I quickly realized that Yucca, Arizona does not have a gas station whatsoever.

I checked my phone, barely any battery left on it, and found two nearby gas stations. One was a truck stop eight miles away that looked very much closed. The other was only six miles away, taking me off of the highway and into another small settlement off of historic Route 66. I picked the closer of the two.

It was at this point that I looked down to double check my directions and when my eyes went up, the road was gone. There are mountains in front of me, blue sky above me, sage brush around me, and not much else. The pavement simply disappeared. Now, there are many things worth dying for, but in that instant I calmly reflected that this shitty 1974 Beetle was not one of them.

And just as my brain was resolving that final thought, I heard the familiar clunk and sound of rocks pinging off the bottom of my car. The pavement had given out into a wide, flat, even dirt road. I let out a breath.


But then that dirt road stopped, and pretty much just tee’d out into nothing. There was a street sign pointing, as far as I could see, directly into the wilderness. But Google was telling me that this was the way to the gas station, and my car had already hiccuped once starving for fuel.

I had come too far to go anywhere else, so I turned onto was basically a car-wide clearing in the brush. But at least it was an even dirt road, I thought. I’d get somewhere eventually. And then the road (if you could call it that) dropped out. Two solid feet.

A dry creek bed crossed the road and just as I was feeling happy that my front wheels were still attached, I thumped across another drop. It was immediately clear to me that I had basically transitioned to off-roading.

I stopped to re-attach my roof rack, looked around to see that I was in the middle of nowhere, and resolved once more to continue on to the station.

A mile or two down the so-called road I discovered that this was not a gas station so to speak, but an actual station on a gas pipeline. As in, it was a bunch of tanks and pipes fenced off for maintenance use only.

At this point I really had no options left. My phone was at barely one percent, I was still a good ten miles from the nearest other gas station, and Google had already lied to me once.

I was long past any thought of frustration or desperation. I only had one half-assed option ahead of me, so I limped the car around until I eventually came across a paved road and hypermiled it as best I could to where the mysterious truck stop was supposed to be.

It turned out the truck stop was fine (it featured a very extraordinary Indian-spiced hamburger and a very questionable-looking strip club), and I filled up the tank to its brim.

It felt like my first real bonding moment with the car, strangely enough. Normally repairing a car bonds me with it, and I had done quite a bit of repairing to this one. I’d taken the engine out in my buddy’s driveway, changing the clutch, flywheel, pressure plate, and throwout bearing all in the first few days after I bought the car. A new carb changed in a parking lot. Brakes repaired in a hotel parking lot in an unincorporated town.

But all of those times it had been the car that had inconvenienced me. This was the first time I really felt like I had fucked the car up. We now had knocks on each other, and we were now partners in this madcap trip, another two and a half thousand miles ahead of us.

It would be barely 25 miles before we betrayed each other again.

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