The Road Trip That Took 30 Years To Overcome
Nothing can clear your head like a good road trip. The long miles provide a perfect opportunity to allow your brain to take a break for awhile. Nothing to think about but planning out your next fuel stop or lunch break. It may sound odd, but I had a 30 year period in my life where I was terrified to go on a road trip. Sure, I could do a “One Tank” Las Vegas or a Phoenix trip without any hesitation at all, but a LONG road trip? No way, dude. For that three decade segment of my life, I just flat refused to do it.
Let me tell you the story about the road trip that caused it all…
In 1984, I was in the Air Force stationed at Moody AFB in Valdosta, Georgia. Living in the barracks didn’t allow me the space to have a lot of material things. My two prized possessions were my stereo and my car. My stereo was a one-time purchase, and it provided me great entertainment in my room, but the car consumed every spare dime I had. I bought a beat-up 1969 Camaro from an older brother of a guy in my squadron for $900. It ran, but it was tired.
I was in love with that car. I spent every moment that I could working on it, and within a few months, it actually looked pretty decent. It received a coat of fresh gray primer, a set of Corvette rally wheels with disc brake center caps, new spoilers, and new black carpet. The drive train needed to be rebuilt, but I had a grand plan.
I was going to freshen up the 302 engine and turn it into a ground pounder. The trans would get upgraded from a Muncie M20 to an M21. The 12-bolt rear axle would get rebuilt. The problem was, I was doing this on an E-3 Airman’s budget. I ate every meal in the chow hall, I stayed in my room instead of partying, and I ensured that every dime I made became Camaro money.
The rear axle and the trans were handled relatively quickly, and within a few months, I had all of the parts for the engine except for the pistons. Those dreaded pistons. I still remember the TRW part number. It was L2210AF-30. I ordered them through Summit, which back then was just a small operation with only one warehouse. The 302 Chevrolet pistons were a low volume seller, and they had a backorder of 8 weeks. TRW had to make them before Summit could ship them. The promise of 8 weeks quickly slipped to 12 weeks, and I was hosed.
THE MAD THRASH
During this same period, my sister Kathleen was also in the Air Force. She was an officer stationed in Nebraska, and had met a fellow aircrew member, and they were to be married in June. Kathleen told me of this months in advance, but I was so focused on the Camaro that my concept of time was based solely on when those damn pistons would show up. Time was running out, but by some miracle, the pistons finally arrived. The problem was, it was about a week before I was due to be in Louisville to meet up with my Dad.
We were going to rent an RV and drive it to Omaha for the wedding. I had the engine together in a few days, and installed it into the car with the help of a few fellow dorm rats that were bribed with the promise of free beer when the job was done.
We fired off the engine and it sounded awesome. I checked the clutch, and it felt good. And for the first time in months, the Camaro was moving under it’s own power. I drove it from the Base Hobby Shop back to the barracks with the intention of putting some very easy street miles on it the next day. Things had come a long way in a very short period, and I was relieved.
I drove the car around the base and it performed great. No leaks, no weird noises, and it seemed happy. The high compression of the 302, the rough idle of the GM 140 Off-Road cam, and the stiff clutch made the car feel like an angry bull ready to get released from it’s chute. I was due to leave for Louisville in two days, but I still had a lot to do. I re-checked all the fluids, aired up the tires, and gave it a full detail. The car looked and sounded the best it ever had. I was ready.
THE START, OR LACK OF IT
The distance from Valdosta to Louisville is right at 650 miles. I had planned gas stops at certain intervals along the way, and figured that I would grab a bite to eat whenever I got gas. Waking up at 03:30 AM, and I planned to hit the road at 0400. I was dead tired from the crazy weeks I had leading up to that day. I loaded the car, put the shoebox full of cassettes on the passenger seat, and turned the key expecting to hear the sound of a thundering small block. Nothing. The battery was dead. It’s 0400 in the morning, I’m not going to wake anyone up for a jump, so I came up with an idea.
My buddy Brian had a pair of cables in his Mustang, and he never locked his car. I pushed the Camaro across the parking lot over to the stall next to the Mustang, and by sheer luck, the battery had enough static power to jump the Camaro, and it lit off. I forgot to mention that in the rush to get the engine built, I didn’t have the money to get the exhaust done, so I had bolted on a pair of blown out Thrush header mufflers with the intent of getting a full system installed when I got to Louisville.
It was LOUD. The sound of the engine was bouncing off of the brick walls of the barracks, and I was sure that I was waking people up. I had to get moving as quickly as possible.
LOOSE BOLTS AND RATTLED CONFIDENCE
The roads from the base to the I-75 interstate were rural country roads, and the Camaro is singing along. It was such a great feeling to have the car back on the road. All of the gauges are reading right, but I still don’t have the guts to load up a cassette in the stereo and crank up the tunes. The car and I needed to have our “alone time” first. I’m hyper sensitive to every sound the car is making. I get to the sleepy town of Hahira, where the rural road meets the interstate. The sun is just starting to illuminate the horizon. I make the right turn on to the interstate, and I have it all to myself.
As soon as I shift into second, I stand on it.
The Camaro comes alive with a shriek. I shift into third, and it’s pulling hard. I go to shift it up into fourth, and in the ultimate mood killer, the Hurst shifter decides to depart the transmission. The shifter boot was the only thing that kept me from pulling it into the car. The mood instantly turns from fun to fear. I push the clutch in, miraculously find neutral, and limp it over to the side of the interstate. Coming to a stop, and I reach for the ignition, and I have a chilling revelation.
I had to jump the car to get it started 30 minutes ago, and I never deduced whether the culprit was a bad battery or a bad alternator. If I shut the engine off, it may never restart. It’s 0500 in the morning and I’m in the middle of nowhere. It’s too far to walk, and I’m not leaving my pride and joy unattended on the side of the interstate.
MAKING MACGUYVER PROUD
Have I forgotten to mention that the header mufflers were directly under my seat, and the radical cam that I installed in the 302 is shaking the engine so much that the mufflers are beating against the floorboard like the ominous sound of tribal drums? I chock the wheels, grab the bumper jack, and get the car up as high as I can so I can slide under it and look at the transmission.
I do the limbo with my arms outstretched above my head and I get to where I can see the transmission. Sure enough, the two bolts holding the shifter to the transmission had come loose and had fallen out. The holes in the case of the Muncie were obviously worn out and needed to have heli-coils installed. The shifter snugged up tight when I had installed it, but they obviously didn’t stay.
I looked through my toolbox and found two 3/8″ bolts that would work. I had Permatex blue gasket sealer, but that wouldn’t be enough. So, in a move that would make McGuyver proud, I started unraveling one of the rags I had in the trunk, separating the threads. I took these strings and wrapped them around the bolts in an effort to slightly increase their outer diameter. I crawled under the running car and while my forearms were getting burned by the hot exhaust, I packed the bolt holes with Permatex and ran the bolts in. They went in tight, but only time would tell for how long.
Declaring victory, I cleaned up the mess and lowered the jack. I was completely dirty and my forearms looked like I had laid them on a BBQ grill. I changed clothes on the side of the road and hopped back in the car. This time, I gingerly pushed the shifter into first and eased the rumbling Camaro back on to the interstate. Second, third, then fourth, no issues. I was back in business, but already behind schedule.
THE CAMARO BECOMES A CLUNKER
For the next two hours, I listened to the engine with my heart pounding. I was a nervous wreck. The shifter debacle had completely shattered my confidence. The Camaro was trotting along like a racehorse, but it wasn’t soothing me. It was beginning to warm up outside, and the Camaro had no A/C, so the windows stayed down for ventilation. The road noise and the ambient heat were intense.
I stopped for gas in Macon, and the same revelation about shutting off the engine hit me as I reached for the ignition switch. I left it running, mufflers banging like the rhythm section for Cool and the Gang. So, I tried to ignore the locals, who were looking intensely at an idiot pumping gas with a running car that sound like a battery of Civil War cannons. One old boy walked over to me and pointed at the car to shut it off, and in a brilliantly crafted excuse, I said, “I just built the engine, and I’m breaking it in, can’t shut it off.”
LIKE A CHEAP RIDE AT THE COUNTY FAIR
He gave me a dirty look and walked away. I left the station, and made the sharp left hand turn to go over the freeway. As I made the turn, the rear axle started clunking like one of the cheap rides at the county fair. I broke out in a sweat. The rear end was locking and unlocking violently. I thought to myself, “The posi unit just grenaded”.
Quickly, I pulled the car over to the shoulder, and got out. I crawled under the back of the car and inspected the rear axle. No leaks, no gear smell, nothing broken, and nothing obvious. I sat in the driver’s seat and pondered the situation.
Is the rear axle broken? Do I turn it around and head back home? I had gone 155 miles. My mind got to thinking about the rear end and when I had it rebuilt. I remembered telling the guy that I wanted the posi unit set up TIGHT. Then it dawned on me that the rear end was essentially now a locker, and the posi was locking and unlocking when I had made the tight left hand turn.
Up to this point, I had never felt it before. I felt like an idiot. More time wasted, and now, I’m even further behind schedule.
I get just outside of Atlanta in a town called McDonough and get gas. I don’t shut the car off. More dumb looks, and I use the break-in excuse again. I’m beginning to relax, but I’m still nervous. I head back on to the interstate towards Atlanta. Clunk… clunk… clunk.
THE I-75 SPEEDWAY, ATLANTA STYLE
The ride though Atlanta was intense, but it was just what I needed. Those people like to drive fast and they like to do it in close formation. Suddenly, I wasn’t looking at the gauges anymore. I was watching traffic and driving like Richard Petty. We ran the entire length of Atlanta like a pack of stock cars at Talladega. The sound of the barely muffled 302 thundering through the tunnels was intoxicating. It was so much fun. With my new found confidence, I decided to put in a cassette. I had to crank the volume to hear it over the sound of the engine and the open windows, but it sounded so good. The Camaro and I were starting to connect.
HOT AND BOTHERED
The mountains of North Georgia and Southern Tennessee have breathtaking scenery , and it was such a great part of the drive. The Camaro is running great, climbing up and down the hills, with the sound of the exhaust echoing off the limestone walls on the edge of the freeway. At a stop in Chattanooga for gas, I keep the car running. I quit telling people the story about the car’s new engine breaking in, as I don’t care what people think anymore.
I’m on a mission.
Next stop, Nashville. There’s a ton of road construction, and it takes forever to get through it. I see the I-75 / I-65 split, and I start to get a second wind. I’ve been driving 450 miles. I’m hot, and the exhaust sound and the air blast from the open windows are wearing me down. It’s like riding in a 100 decibel blast furnace. I just want to get to Louisville, so I don’t allow myself any time to walk around and stretch my legs. Just gas and go.
THEN THE RAINS CAME…
I get to Bowling Green and fuel up. The sun is starting to go down, and the sky is filling with clouds. I’m 110 miles from home, and maybe I can beat the rain. I was too tired to figure out that I was driving into the rain, not away from it. I get on the interstate, and light sprinkles are hitting my windshield. No problem, I’ll clear them with the wiper. I slide the wiper lever over to the right, and nothing happens. I reluctantly pull off at the next off ramp into a Wendy’s parking lot so I can look at the fuses. The wiper fuse is good. The electrical connector on the wiper motor is secure. Great, the wiper motor is dead.
And then, the rains came. It starts raining buckets, and I sit in the parking lot waiting for it to pass. After 30 minutes of waiting, it’s now dark, and I’ve been listening to the Thrush Symphony Orchestra banging against the floor. I’m going stir crazy. I have to leave. My stomach is in knots as I pull the car on to the interstate. I can barely see out of the windshield because it’s raining so hard, and then, the lights from the off-ramp fade away in my rear view mirror. I’m now driving in pitch black in an intense thunderstorm.
WHAT A MISTAKE
The next off ramp is 6 miles away, and I’m now committed. I’m in the right lane doing 45. The windshield is fogging over, I’m getting soaked, and the semi trucks are passing me and honking their horns. My visibility is right about to the edge of my hood. I’m a danger to everyone on the road. If I pull over to the shoulder, I’ll get rear ended by a semi in the rain and darkness. So, I keep going. Each mile felt like ten, and every light in the distance became my destination.
Because I was in the right lane, I would occasionally hit huge puddles and hydroplane. Each time it hydroplaned, I prayed that the car would stay straight. It was one of the most intense driving experiences I have ever had. It was nearly 90 miles of continuous white knuckle driving, and I was certain that it was going to end badly.
The rain cleared up about ten miles before I reached Louisville. The puddles were still there, but at least I could see the road. The roads started to become familiar, and I began to calm down. I finally pulled into the driveway, and I sat there for a moment. The 302 was burbling away, the mufflers banging the floor, but I felt an instant sense of accomplishment. I had won a battle that I was ill-prepared for. As I reached up to shut off the ignition, and I hesitated. I reached over and rubbed the dash to thank my loyal Camaro and turned it off. Then I sat there in the silence for about 10 seconds, and the suspense was killing me. I turned the ignition key and it lit right back off, ready for action.
It may have been able to do the same thing and restart after I stopped to fix the shifter, but I’ll never know, and it didn’t matter anymore. The Camaro had gotten me home.
I climbed the back steps of the house and walked inside. Dad shook my hand. He had been waiting up for me. He handed me a beer, which I pounded down like victory champagne. My ears were ringing, and I could barely hear him because I had been subjected to intense noise and heat for the last 16 hours straight. I was exhausted, and that may have been compounded by high levels of carbon monoxide. I was so sore that I couldn’t sleep that night. The next morning, we went and got the RV, which is a story that I’ll tell at another time. I didn’t get a break from driving for the entire following week.
THE ROAD TRIP THAT CURED ME
This experience was so intense for me that I didn’t want to make any long road trips for the next 30 years. For me, it wasn’t about all of the cool stuff to see and do, it was about what could possibly break on the car. It wasn’t until years later that I broke my phobia. I found a nice Civic Si for our son Kyle and decided to drive it from California to Missouri to deliver it to him. I dreaded the upcoming trip for weeks; was scared to death.
The wife and I left the house at 0400, and once the sun came up, I was fine. The car was in the left lane and we were sailing happily along. For fear of incriminating myself, let’s just say that I was not adhering anywhere close to the posted speed limit.
The trip was 1470 miles, but it honestly didn’t feel like it. The car ran great, we ate at some excellent restaurants, and Lynn and I just had quality time to hang out together. We both have extremely busy work schedules with different work shifts, and that rarely gives us the opportunity to blank out all of our work headaches and just talk. It was a GREAT trip, and we still remind ourselves about how much fun we had.
My confidence was back, and for the first time in 30 years, I was OK with road trips again. Part of me was mad at myself for not getting back on the road many years sooner.
JUST DO IT
So, if you’re starting to feel like every day is Groundhog Day, maybe you need to hit the road. Go see something you’ve always wanted to see. Go see a relative. Just drive and let the road be your guide. Every once in a while, we all need to do a mental reboot, and the road is a great place to do it.
What are you waiting for? A set of TRW L2210AF-30 pistons? If that’s the case, let me recommend putting a few more miles on the car before hitting the highway. Happy Trails……