Adam, Oregon, and Two Blue Beaters
“I don’t have any scientific evidence whatsoever to back this up, but I really think that kids whose parents cut off the crust of their PB&J sandwiches grow up to be terrible people,” Adam proclaimed as we snaked north along the Oregon Coast. This wasn’t an unusual way for Adam to start a conversation, and it was a prime example of why I’d missed hanging out with him so much since we both moved away from Utah a year ago.
My goal in visiting Adam was two fold: I wanted to visit and explore the Oregon coast with one of my favorite people, and I wanted source material for a story showing that great automotive experiences don’t require high-dollar cars.
Like most great friendships, ours started out through happenstance during our first year of graduate school. Adam had posted a message on the class Facebook page asking if someone could drive him and his car back to campus from a hospital near our school after a small operation; I’d seen Adam around and replied I’d be happy to help. After I found another student to drop me off at the hospital I found Adam a little loopy from his recent surgery, where he gave me the keys to his 1999 Ford Explorer, Limited trim level. Looking at the exterior, it was obvious the blue SUV had a long, well-used life. After receiving a brief education on the nuances of unlocking the broken driver’s door and then figuring out that I needed to count the clicks on the column-mounted shifter because the gear shift indicator failed to reflect reality, we were on our way. Surprisingly, driving revealed the vehicle to be in fine mechanical condition.
This interaction spawned a close friendship. We speak almost every week and have shared memorable adventures together touring Southern Utah, Peru, Spain, and Morocco. I’ve come to appreciate Adam’s perspective, his honest, barely-filtered opinions and his authenticity. Adam is the kind of guy many people don’t quite understand when they first meet him. They can’t decide if he’s pushy, thoughtfully understanding, curious, aloof, or all of the above. He is always processing multiple thoughts at a time, and though the uninitiated may think he isn’t listening, he’s usually processing the conversation and moving a few steps ahead. There was so much mystery around Adam at graduate school, from his not-fully-explained international work, that many of our fellow students were convinced he worked for the CIA or some other clandestine government organization. I don’t think he appreciated the extra attention much. But as soon as anyone spends some time with him, they love him. He’s a loyal friend, a no bull shit honest opinion giver, and someone who genuinely enjoys getting to know other people and exploring the world.
I’ve always found it interesting how people’s cars reflect their personalities. On my long drive to Oregon I thought I’d be writing about Adam’s other car, a Regatta Blue Karmann Ghia, equal parts misunderstood and endearing, with a trove of interesting stories. Little did I know, much of this story would unfold through his beater Ford Explorer. Adam’s choice in cars at first seems bizarre to an outsider. Why would a fairly well-to-do 30-something year-old be driving such a well-worn antiquity, let alone road-tripping it regularly? Yet this vehicle with 240,000 miles, fading paint, hardened leather, and brand new tires has taken him--and me--on some epic adventures. The more that I’ve gotten to know Adam, the more I realize his cars are an extension of him as a person.
Prior to attending graduate school Adam spent a few years as a consultant of sorts and entrepreneur in Afghanistan and Mongolia. He has so many stories from those parts of the world it’s sometimes hard to reconcile the man in the stories with the Adam you're sitting on the couch with. In Afghanistan, Adam was in a helicopter accident that forced him to consider switching careers and attending graduate school. After completing his contract and being accepted to the MBA program at BYU, he returned home to Oregon for a couple of months where he bought the Ford Explorer. How and why Adam purchased this vehicle capturesAdam’s eclectic personality, and the story actually begins with his 1968 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia.
After a prior spell in Afghanistan close to a decade ago, Adam purchased the old V Dub for $6,000. “I wanted a vehicle I could develop some mechanical skills with,” he explained. He’d daily-driven and road-tripped that car for some time before heading back across the world. The Volkswagen’s charm is accompanied by a tendency to leave passengers with the scent of rich exhaust and occasional body odor on account of the lack of air conditioning. The Karmann’s lack of air conditioning, something Adam had lived with for years, proved to be the reason for buying the Explorer.
“I literally bought the Explorer just for grad school,” Adam told me. “The school’s website and all the marketing materials showed students in business attire, so I thought I’d have to be dressing up in a suit all the time and that I’d need something with air conditioning. That turned out to be BS.”
The good news is the Explorer only cost him $300. The bad news is that the engine blew within a week of purchase and had to be replaced with another 5.0 V8, this one from a Mustang. Still, $1,500 is a fine price for how reliable the vehicle’s been since. A sagging headliner was fixed with some spray glue and Adam was off to graduate school, with plenty of cold A/C for ‘suit’ days. Since then Adam has put 20,000 miles on the odometer and the Ford is still going strong. So strong in fact, that before I left California, I asked Adam if I should bring my wife’s Subaru Outback, in case we encountered any rough roads, to which Adam replied, “I’m bringing my Explorer, so bring whatever you want.” Personally, I would have never considered purchasing a very used 20-year-old Ford Explorer, much less continued to put tens of thousands of miles on it. Adam, however, is very comfortable with his vehicle and his confidence calmed my unease about completing the multi-terrain road trip in an antique with an uncertain service history. At one point I brought this up, to which Adam replied, “The service history is certain: certainly neglected. But no worries.” Undaunted, we set out from Portland for the small coastal town of Lincoln City.
Every time I sat in Adam’s rig I was forced to reconsider my apparent need to have a newer, “reliable” car, a justification I’ve used in the past to justify upgrading an older vehicle. But the old Explorer has developed character and a personality of its own over the last 20 years: accelerating the old V8 sounds like a muffled vacuum; the throttle pedal is springy and light, with about as much responsiveness as a pontoon boat. The transmission makes noticeably harsh, but not yet overly-concerning shifts, and the steering feels about as disconnected as a Cruisin’ America arcade game. The driver seat feels concave like a banana chair with a headrest that is about 7.5 inches too far rearward to comfortably rest your head--unless you’re taking a nap, which Adam frequently did between classes in our grad school parking lot. Rather than closing with a solid thud, the doors make more of a thwack-click-bang-click, accompanied by the creaking of old plastic that’s not sure if it appreciates the stress you’re applying. Despite all of these quirky touch points, the Explorer is an endearing vehicle, like a trusty pair of broken-in boots. But still it works and the car eagerly does everything it’s asked.
After 3 hours of driving we arrived at our motel, a quaint, three story, multi-unit building with shockingly salmon-colored bedding and a beautiful ocean view. After we jettisoned our luggage we left for Depoe Bay, Otter Rock, and Yaquina Head Lighthouse.
The second morning we decided to head north from Lincoln City. Adam was excited to show me a beach on which he’d often camped as a teenager. The drive was accompanied by stories of baked teenagers losing their cars to the rising tide or being rescued by redneck monster trucks. To access the beach we had to drive down a rugged and rocky trail, which was conquered with ease in the friendly Ford. Adam cautiously drove about a quarter mile down the beach and did a couple laps on the solid and flat sand.
“Do you wanna do it?” he asked, unexpectedly.
I replied in confusion, “Do what?”.
“I dunno, drive on the beach?” he said, a little shyly.
Yes, yes I did want to drive on the beach. I don’t think I’d ever driven on a beach before; the scenery was spectacular and the low tide left a solid surface for driving. After only a few hundred feet I decided to test the limits of grip by weaving left and right on the sand. After discovering there was a surprising amount of grip I couldn’t resist the urge to get the blue block of a car sideways, which I accomplished with limited success. The turn in was vague but worthy enough. The real difficulty was with the 5.0’s glacial willingness to rev, despite which I was able to leave a couple sand-sprayed curves on the beach. I kept looking over to see if Adam had any objections to my driving, and I couldn’t tell that he mind
ed but was afraid to ask. Satisfied with my efforts I drove back up the rocky trail to the familiar comfort of asphalt.
During our drive we passed through tall, dark green pines, small towns and stunning views. We stopped for everything that looked interesting, sometimes hiking to a breathtaking viewpoint or starting down a trail and deciding to turn back if it didn’t suit us. We talked about hopes and dreams, business, personal shortcomings, and theories about life. At one
point conversation turned into a long conversation about the merits of hard work. Adam
shared, “America’s just running on fumes of previous generations. We don’t know how to pull together and we don’t know how to suffer.” This was a couple of months before the COVID crisis hit the
USA in full force, an event that has proven as divisive as any to the American people.
Being on the Oregon coast, I was expecting rain, which eventually came. But mostly the weather was fair enough to keep the moonroof open and enjoy watching the tops of the trees reaching for the sky. When the rain did fall, I jumped out of my seat startled by the “RGHRRGGRGRRHGR” of an unexpected pass of the windshield wipers. After some debate about whether the wipers were “working just fine because they cleanly wipe the water off” Adam admitted he had some new wipers in the trunk, so we installed them at our next stop. When the next
rain fell Adam excitedly commented, “Wow, this is really nice, I didn’t expect the new blades to be so quiet. I would have done this a long time ago if I’d known.”
The Karmann Ghia
The next morning it was time to get to know Adam’s 1968 Karmann Ghia. As we pulled up to the Regatta Blue Volkswagen Adam explained, “The front was lowered to match the sag in the rear; it looks good, but it’s maybe a little too low.” I took a walk around the car, surprised at how tiny the thing was--your living room sofa is probably longer and heavier than this car. Climbing inside, the cabin was spacious enough, given how small it looked
from the outside, enabled by the lax safety standards of the 1960’s. As Adam opened his door he remarked “This is one thing I want to fix,” pointing to a torn door panel on the misaligned door, “the door is jacked.” The ride was pleasant, though Adam’s comment on the ride height was validated by the occasional sound of rubber rubbing on metal. “When you make a hard left, the outside of the right tire rubs on the wheel well,” Adam explained, “I’m kind of worried about it.” Still, the rubbing wasn’t too noticeable and was easily avoidable; touring Portland in this classic piece of automobilia only added to the experience of seeing a new city for the first time.
On our drive I asked why Adam bought a Karmann Ghia of all cars, as a four-seasons daily driver it doesn’t seem like a practical choice.
“I’d been in Afghanistan for a year and a half and I just wanted to get a new car,” he said. “Something that was fun, something I could learn on. I wanted to learn how to do basic mechanics and I had heard that old Volkswagens were simple and that parts were cheap, so I went for it.” Over the years Adam has added various gauges and repaired odds and ends, resulting in a car that is as characterful as it is delightful. “As luck would have it I got a new short block for free. This is now one of those rare VWs that doesn’t leak oil.”
After driving to Discount Tire to check the tires I excitedly got behind the wheel. From the driver’s seat every truck and SUV appeared like Godzilla;, I’ve never been so afraid of what might be lurking around each corner. Driving this Karmann made me feel like a baby pig thrown into a cage of lions: a heightened sensory experience. Not only was I hyper aware of lurking garbage trucks and Suburbans, but getting to first and fourth gears was a stretch, braking required tremendous forethought, and the steering felt like it was adopted from a river boat. Despite the antiquated mechanics, the car was a joy to drive, and I felt surprisingly at home cruising on the freeway. Certainly no rocket, but I never felt a need for more power.
The most noticeable thing about driving this car is the joy it brought others to see it. The Karmann Ghia is a smile inducing car. At every stop light kids pointed with admiring and smiling faces, and I watched adults' faces light up as we passed. Driving this car felt like providing a public service to the Portland Metropolitan area. After such a pleasant drive it was time for me to reluctantly head south, back home.
Like all great road trips, this one contained a healthy dose of introspection, a large shot of close friendship, a refreshing jaunt in nature, a thrill of adventure, and a handful of experiences empowered by cars. Possibly the greatest thing about road trips is being able to take a step back from daily life, forced to be with your own mind, and taking that rare look at the life you left at home. Despite sometimes feeling a little guilty about leaving work for a couple days, I don’t know that I’ve ever been on a road-trip I regretted. A couple of months after our trip I was talking with Adam on the phone, “I’ve never really been into road trips” He said. “I thought they were kind of silly, but man that was great. That’s really got me wanting to go explore more, It was such a great time.”
On the long drive back to the Bay Area, I pondered how for much of my life, I’ve seen cars as vehicles of passion, excitement, and art. But, as I get older I recognize and appreciate other great transcendent functions of the automobile--exploration, adventure, and connection. When you stop thinking that desirable cars are only those that cost more than the average person’s annual salary, you can discover how accessible great automotive experiences can be. When people find out I am a car guy, they talk about how expensive it is to drive a nice car and then ask what some of my favorite cars are. When I tell them that the funnest car I’ve owned--though admittedly not my dream car--cost me under $3,000 (an old 1992 Mazda Miata) they’re usually taken aback. For me, being a car guy doesn’t mean driving the fastest, most beautiful steed on the road. It means enjoying the driving experience--the connection with the road and the calculus of maneuvering a hunk of metal down that road. Connecting with people and places makes cars what they are to me. Adam’s garage--the beater Ford SUV and the 60s Karmann Ghia --proves you don’t need to spend big money to have great automotive experiences.