Why I Chose an Ancient Dodge Pickup

For the next year, Zach Bowman and his family will be living in a truck and camper. Meet their workhorse: An old diesel Ram with 290k on the odometer.

byZach Bowman| PUBLISHED Jan 12, 2016 4:30 PM
Why I Chose an Ancient Dodge Pickup

The alternator’s been giving me fits. A good cold morning will send it dead, leaving a pair of shiny new AGM batteries to shoulder the burden of keeping the lights on and the heater spinning. With enough eyebrow raising and a few quiet curses, it will wake up long enough to get me where I’m going.

And lately, that’s been everywhere. Virginia. Alabama. North Carolina. I’ve been pouring miles on our 2003 Ram 2500, desperate to beat the kinks out of the thing before leaving the cozy and capable organization of my shop behind for good. I’ve become consumed with racking up the odometer, already a dizzying pile of figures. At last glance, it sat at a shave below 290,000 miles. By the time we depart in two months, that number will be closer to 300,000.

Why take a truck so tired, so destined to disappoint? Why put my family in its worn hands? Because I love it the way one loves all fallible things.

I plucked the Dodge from the backwoods of Tennessee the day before my daughter was born. It was dirty. Neglected. Abused. It wore a Texas state inspection sticker on its shattered windshield. I never intended to do more than trundle around Knoxville, lugging lumber or dragging a passel of derelict motorcycles, never venturing outside the radius of a $100 tow bill. Buying it was a half dare, a shot at tempting the fates of high-mileage and Chrysler engineering. I wanted to find out what was more powerful: the Legend of Cummins or the Mopar Boogeyman. Turns out the truck and I make a decent pair. We’re both too stupid or stubborn to lay down.

Beth Bowman

Really, though, we’re taking the Dodge because it’s ours, through and through. When my wife and I decided to leave everything and go roam for a year, it was because I’d trapped myself. Felt hemmed in by a beautiful job I resented and the bills that necessitated its accompanying paycheck. I wanted to prove you didn’t need a six-figure salary to take a walk. That a little reliance on the skills at hand and ragged determination could fill any financial gulf we encountered. It’s what my family has been doing for generations.

So when we decided to use the Cummins as our home for the next year, I embarked on what has evolved into a rolling restoration, replacing, repairing, or improving all the parts that can succumb to farm use over the course of 13 years.

That’s a long list. Every wheel bearing and axle seal, u-joints, and steering component. Injectors and CP3 pump. Water pump and pulleys and tensioners. Bits of trim. Heater core, air-conditioning lines. I’ve kept track of it all, scribbled it down in a notebook that sleeps in the center console.

If worrying was a sport, I’d be an Olympian. I turn off the radio at random hoping for some hidden noise, maybe the whine of a rear differential or whisper knock of a valve. Each parking lot turns me into a bloodhound, walking around the truck and sniffing for gear oil or coolant or clutch.

When the alternator’s eyes started to droop, I savored the rare vindication of a hypochondriac. I wasted no time. Skipped the remans and went straight for a brand-new Bosch unit. It arrived in pieces, a victim of shipping. When its replacement did the same, I shucked it in the mail and turned to Mechman, a local company with a spotless reputation for building unstoppable, high-powered units. The expensive kind capable of keeping up with the demands of charging our small universe of devices, then topping off two batteries with a combined 1760 cold-cranking amps.

It’ll warm up in a few days. And when it does, I’ll go under the hood again, another scribble in my notebook. One step closer to having the truck buttoned up and ready for a few modifications.

That’s when the fun starts.