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Truck's not pretty but it runs

Posted: Sunday, February 06, 2000

My feelings were distinctly hostile as I stood on the side of the Sterling Highway waiting for the tow truck to remove its stalled-out carcass recently.

When Mike, the cheerful tower, asked me what he should do with the key after he dumped the rig behind the office, I told him to leave it in the ignition. Who could steal it when it doesn't run? Who would want to steal the oversized, rolling rust bucket anyway?

Only a mind-boggling series of Murphy's Law coincidences had put me behind its wheel that grim Saturday.

The previous day supposedly had been my day off, but circumstances had conspired to send me off to do a school story interview. As I left Kenai Middle School, it became painfully obvious that my car -- my Good Little Car -- was stricken. The dash lights lit up and the engine let out a weird ululant cry of pain. Looking under the hood, even an amateur like myself could see that a major belt thingee was missing.

Actually, that Toyota ran pretty well.

But after a few miles, the heat gauge was moving into unknown territory beyond the danger zone. I decided I would feel pretty stupid if I blew up my car, so I pulled over.

A nice couple from Sterling offered me a ride to the garage, where I called the tow truck.

These things happen.

Normally, this would be a hassle with a small "h." But this became instead a Hassle with a capital "H" because my husband -- and the other working car and the cell phone -- were stranded in Anchorage.

I expended three hours on car chaos and learned that the garage could not look at my ailing auto until Monday. I trekked a mile down the Kenai Spur Highway on foot, feeling like some suburban version of Doctor Zhivago from the blizzard scene, noting as I went that: (a) my briefcase was getting heavier with every block and (b) none of the sidewalks were plowed and berms were way awkward.

Eventually my kind friend Linda rescued me and gave me a ride home.

The next morning I awoke to the unhappy realization that I had to work even though it was Saturday. And I had no car.

The Big Ugly Truck is a 1979 Ford F250 pickup with about 110,000 miles on it.

Its original owners were a pair of testosterone-crazed cretins who loaded it up with macho frills like extra-high suspension and a heavy-duty hitch. They used it to pull stumps in Minnesota. The bank repossessed it before they even had a chance to trash the transmission.

In 1981, the truck came into my life.

That year, on a goofy and inspired impulse, I married my old college chum Doug Loshbaugh and ran away to Alaska with him.

It was a little more complicated than that. For the first few months of our marriage we lived thousands of miles apart, with him checking shrimp trawls in lower Cook Inlet while I finished up my degree at the university in St. Paul. I needed to get to Alaska, and I wanted to take a fair number of things with me, the most problematic of which was a horse. My little blue town car was not up to the task.

I needed a real Alaska-type vehicle.

Friends found the truck. It was in the possession of guy who liked to fix up stuff but had not gotten around to banging out the dents in the bed. He gave me a steal of a deal.

The truck looked like an automotive Darth Vader. It was shiny black and dwarfed every vehicle on my street. Nobody I knew in Minneapolis drove anything remotely like it.

The truck became my Alaska Highway Conestoga wagon that summer. We installed an extra gas tank, hooked up a horse trailer and put a camper on the bed so we could sleep in it. The truck cracked a fuel line in Saskatchewan and got about 8 miles per gallon moving through the northern Rockies.

Nearly 20 years later, the truck has lost whatever good looks it once had. Its second bed is sagging, the brakes need rebuilding nearly every year and it stalls at intersections. You can see pavement through the floor, snow blows in through the missing seals and the rust-pocked doors barely shut.

But the amazing thing about the Big Ugly Truck is that it still runs darn well.

The year we left it sitting in the rain and snow for 10 months, while we were off in the Bush, its tires went flat. But after we replaced those and squirted some ether into the carburetor, it started right up.

The fateful Saturday two weeks ago I sensed that it had stalled out because of something dumb I had done, and not because of any mechanical failure. That is why I had the tow truck driver -- who was quite bemused to bill me two days in a row -- leave it in the parking lot instead of at the auto shop.

Eventually Doug came back and confirmed that the fuel lever, which I thought had been fixed about four years ago, was still on backwards. By turning it to a nonexistent setting, the problem was solved.

Simple.

I drove the Big Ugly Truck most of the week, while the shop waited for Toyota parts to make it down from Anchorage despite the highway shutdown. This past week I have probably spent more time driving that F250 than I have in years.

It is not pretty and it sure is not economical, but it has some great advantages this time of year. For one thing, perched three feet higher off the ground I can see better over the berms on the corners and the parked sport utility vehicles in the grocery parking lots. And if a moose ever walks into the road in front of me, I pray I will be in that truck instead of in my crunchable compact car.

Some days we talk about getting rid of the Big Ugly Truck despite its historic role in our family. But we will probably keep it for years to come.

Besides, you can't beat that old beater for a dump run.

Shana Loshbaugh is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.



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