[Editor’s Note: This is the first article in our new series, “Trailhead Vehicles,” about the vehicles that get us to the trail. Car, truck, van, bike, or unicycle, what is your go-to ride and, more importantly, what does it mean to you? We want you to tell us about your trusty steed that climbs mountains, evades potholes, and crawls through mud so you can get in your weekly running miles. Contact us for potential inclusion in this series!]
My first car, a 1984 Dodge Mirada, was a gift from my uncle, who’d left it sitting in our machine-shed lot until my dad was able to get it up and running again. It was a glorious boat of a car, one of only 54,000 manufactured, and marketed as a “personal luxury vehicle.” Indeed, it was driven by Richard Petty in a 1981 Daytona test race, which it failed miserably, unable to hold speeds over 185 miles per hour. My clunky, red Mirada never reached speeds even close to that, instead, exploding in a glorious black cloud on Interstate 90 in South Dakota, its crank shaft broken in half after only three months of use.
The next car, a 2004 Pontiac Grand Am, was from my grandparents. She served me well for over 10 years. Though I never named her, the vehicle always seemed like a she. I put well over 150,000 miles on her, driving between my parents’ house in southwest Minnesota to the Twin Cities where I went to college, across the country at least once a year, and once made the mad dash from Ketchum, Idaho to Santa Fe, New Mexico in a single day. This Grand Am held nearly all my worldly possessions, including my bike, thanks to the ample backseat room and trunk space — that even Robert DeNiro would agree could hold multiple bodies, should one require. She gave me very few problems, even after all that aggressive cross-country driving. I think the beginning of the end was when I decided to plow forward up a steep and rugged incline in the Black Hills of South Dakota, bottoming out the poor thing. That was her first and last journey to a real trailhead.
Finally, I decided moving out West in the U.S. required even more trunk space than my beloved silver bullet. Picked up on a short stopover in Minnesota before moving to Flagstaff, Arizona was the smaller-than-I-remembered 1998 Honda CRV. The square, boxy kind, none of these sleek, new-fangled aerodynamics. She was my grandma’s work vehicle for years, and retained her fingerprints, including a one-inch pencil hanging from a string on the rearview mirror, shiny and red stick-on stars adorning the wheels, and handheld auto-shop calendars, the kind where holidays are marked in red.
With higher clearance and all-wheel drive — even though the gate guardian at Snowbowl Ski Area in Arizona didn’t seem to believe she could make it safely up the mountain in the winter — she was ready to hit the trails. While our roads around Flagstaff aren’t exactly rugged, I was confident she could make it anywhere, despite the warning above the driver-side visor that reads, “THIS VEHICLE IS NOT LIKE OTHER CARS AND WILL TIP OVER AT HIGH SPEEDS ON SHARP TURNS.” Even on Interstate 7 heading down to Phoenix, Arizona, my parents dubbed it a death trap. While not a true death trap, the CRV decided to give me issues right from the get-go. Turn her on and she rumbles and shrieks, turn too hard to the left and you get her namesake — Squeaks.
I drove from Minnesota to Arizona in a long two-day stretch last December. I spent the first night in Silver Plume, Colorado at 9,100 feet, at a higher elevation and after a longer single-day mileage than this vehicle had seen in its entire life. I left from Silver Plume at 4 a.m. on a Sunday morning, with nowhere to go but down. Down we went, but on went the brake lights, stating they needed imminent service. Just perfect for a cold December morning, cruising the steep declines of Interstate 70 while surrounded by trucks. I must have held onto the emergency brake until Grand Junction, Colorado, and since there was no real incident, I dubbed the CRV a trustworthy ride. Despite three flat tires in the first six months – one of them at Kendrick Mountain Trailhead, where I had to limp the car out to get cell service so my partner and fellow adventurer Pete could bring yet another spare tire – I grew fond of my tiny boxcar as we drove to Zion National Park, the trails around Flagstaff, and to races in Phoenix.
Despite my affinity for the finicky SUV, there was one thing she was missing: sleeping space. I rarely need to sleep at trailheads, but with COVID-19 dying down and a few races in Idaho coming up, I wanted a van. Not to live the #VanLyfe per se, but to have a place to sleep on a nice, soft mattress before a race, or when the elements are less than comfortable outside. Pete also wanted a van, but everything we looked at was out of our price range. A Sprinter would be amazing, but so is remaining loan-free and out of credit-card debt. Enter Ms. Beastly.
Bought from a single mother in Prescott, Arizona eager to get rid of the memories of her ex, Ms. Beastly is adorned with a partial paint job likely exposed when the previous owner tried to sand it down. Where this van lacks four-wheel drive, it more than makes up for it with high lift, rugged tires, and a cattle guard to boot. This 2004 Ford E-350 is ugly as all get out. She is a beast, and she is perfect. More of a weekend warrior than a full-time adventure van, Ms. Beastly is a great ride to the trail. Other than minor inconveniences (the milage counter is wrong, the bed frame is welded into the floor, and the passenger side window electronics are backward — down is left, up is right), she’s plowed through mud, dirt, rocks, steep slopes, and flat stretches of highway, taking me to races like the River of No Return Endurance Runs, Beaverhead Endurance Runs, Western States 100, and Hardrock 100, with no problems to show other than a permanent sweat stain of my backside on the driver’s seat, from when the air conditioning went out on my toasty 14-hour return journey from Western States.
Pete and I thought about painting Ms. Beastly, to make her look more respectable, but decided to keep the meth-head/child-snatcher vibe, thinking no one in their right mind would break into this heinous ride. Not that we have much valuable inside: trail running shoes, a bunch of gels, cooking supplies, a thrift-store table, and the impossible-to-steal bed frame. The inside is decidedly spartan. With the price of lumber as it is, we’ve decided to keep her partially finished, but functional, for now.
To our trailhead vehicles and getaway cars, to the loyal rumblers and the common breakdowns, to sleeping bags and spare tires, may they continue to power us to our early morning and late night trail adventures, wherever they may be.
Call for Comments
- What does your whip look like?
- Do you end up camping out in your vehicle at trailheads, or do you make more day trips out and back?
- And, most importantly, what does your mode of transport mean to you?