This Is Why I Bought a Dodge With 281,000 Miles
The long, long road east.
Zach Bowman has sold everything he owns, slapped a camper to his high-mileage 2003 Dodge Ram and has taken his family on the road. His clan numbers three, counting wife, Beth, and their infant daughter. They are touring America, working and discovering, and are sending The Drive periodic dispatches from the road.
The sun was a dim glow over the mesas outside of Grand Junction when we said goodbye to Brandon and Leigh. We loaded up. Four adults. A full 2,000 pounds of camper and propane and water on the tail. A heavy, galvanized U-Haul trailer and its cargo: Kevan’s fully-loaded, derelict Tacoma. If I wanted an exercise in using every ounce of capability the Dodge had to offer, I found it.
We fueled the tank. Passed the still-lit CAT SCALES sign at the truck stop.
“Do you want to weigh this rig?” Kevan asked from the passenger seat.
“Not until we make Knoxville.”
I didn’t want to know how much we were pulling, or where our gross topped out. There were so many people I’d potentially have to lie to if something went catastrophically wrong: the state police, U-Haul, the insurance company. Ignorance is my armor.
I pointed the nose east down I-70, gunning for Kansas. We were more than 24 hours from Knoxville, but the next four would be the test. This is one of the most gorgeous stretches of interstate anywhere in the country, but it’s also one of the most grueling, climbing some 6,500 feet as it makes its way through the brutal Rockies.
The truck was working. Laboring under the idiot weight I’d stacked on the thing and stuck to its hitch. It was slow work getting to speed, picking through the gears without slipping the clutch, but it felt fine once we got cruising, rolling along like a good locomotive. I was asking more of it than I had any right to.
The trailer was severely overloaded. We weren’t exactly sure how much the Tacoma weighed, but our guess was well more than the 5,000-pound capacity emblazoned on the trailer’s fender. When the woman behind the rental counter asked me what we were towing, I lied, knowing she’d never hand over the equipment if I was honest about our intentions.
“A little Toyota,” I said.
“Do you want the insurance?”
I had never wanted the insurance more.
I could just see the thing on the fringes of my mirrors, swaying back and forth and wiggling the truck’s hips with it. I edged the speedometer to 65 mph, as fast as I dared to go. We lumbered east towards Vail, the first of two serious mountain passes.
Low clouds flirted with the horizon, and we watched them, trying to pick earth from sky. The Rockies aren’t easily described. They don’t tower or loom the way the clichés would have you believe. Your horizon simply terminates at a wall of blue-gray stone veined with snow.
The interstate works its way up with a series of long, stern pulls. The first dropped me to fifth gear, my eyes welded to the engine monitor. We lost some speed, but coolant temperature and oil pressure stayed sane. The boost parked itself at 21 psi.
I couldn’t shake the thought of all those thrashing internals. All those pieces abused over the last 306,000 miles. The straining driveline, the tired clutch and original rear differential. Every second we lumbered towards the 12,000-foot Eisenhower pass was a dare, an excuse to come apart at the seams.
The snow picked up to an honest drive, frosting the trees and turning to slush on our windshield. Normally, snow in June would turn me irate, but I didn’t mind it so much. It meant there was good, cold air out there, and that’s exactly what the truck needed in its lungs. The temperature dropped to 30 degrees as we got our first look at Vail Pass. The road goes straight as it climbs to 10,000 feet. Widens to three lanes, a line of semis lumbering up the grade in the far right, their flashers blinking up the mountain.
I joined their ranks. Sixth gear, then fifth. Fifth gear, then fourth. The truck held us steady at 45 mph, the turbo screaming under the hood, forcing atmosphere down the big inline six’s throat. It sounded good. Strong. But I still eyed my exits. Planned for the inevitable malfunction. Figured how far I could get off the road before coming to a stop. None of it looked good.
When we made the summit, I could hardly believe it. The truck was together. We weren’t on the side of the interstate in the middle of a snowstorm. We weren’t out of the woods, but we could see the path.
“I need you to pull over,” Kevan said. “I don’t feel well.”
We were two miles from the closest exit, working our way up another small swell in the land.
“Can you wait?”
I made for the mercifully wide shoulder. Lit up the hazards. Kevan bailed before we could come to a stop.
We’d pulled out of Grand Junction at 6:00 a.m., and he’d skipped breakfast to make our departure. An empty stomach, the swaying trailer, and the winding mountain passes had stoked his carsickness. When he got back in the cab, he was pale and haggard.
“I need to just rent a car and drive myself,” he said.
We were all tired. Ragged from the stress of the past three days—the worries and spiteful possibilities of the calamity at the river. I was tense from pulling the truck and threadbare from spending the night obsessing over the ocean of unknowns in the 1,600 miles between Grand Junction and Knoxville. His words hit me like a slap in the face.
I’d just risked our truck. Our home. Our wild and ranging dream for this year, to pull his dead rig across the Rockies. We still had another, more menacing pass ahead of us.
“If you’re going to rent a fucking car, you’re going to get a truck to pull this piece of shit back to Knoxville yourself,” I said. The words came out before I could stop them.
He asked Amanda to find a U-Haul capable of towing the Tacoma, and we pulled back onto I-70, rolling towards the 12,000-foot summit at Eisenhower Pass. Again, we slowed. Again, I dropped to fourth. Again, we held steady at 45 mph, and the Dodge lugged us all to the very top of the mountain, the big 5.9-liter Cummins wailing ahead of us the entire way.
Neither Beth nor Amanda could find a suitable rental to tow the Tacoma. Memorial Day Weekend had cleaned out all of the usual suspects. Still, when we hit the outskirts of Denver and saw the first U-Haul sign, Kevan asked us to stop. I geared down and made the exit. Jousted with traffic and worked our way toward the orange and white sign.
Kevan jumped out and walked in. I was furious. Busied myself with popping the hood and pulling fuses, trying to discern why the trailer lights weren’t working. Someone in the truck’s sordid past had hastily installed a shitty trailer brake controller, and had succeeded in popping every last fuse associated with lighting in the process. I was dropping in the last new replacement when Kevan walked up.
“They don’t have anything,” he said. “I feel like I’ve completely ruined your trip. Just unhook the Tacoma and leave us here. We’ll figure it out.”
We’d spent the last two days planning the return route. Reserving campgrounds along the interstate. Calculating miles. Planning hours around kiddo’s road tolerance. Intentionally or not, Kevan was upending every last bit of it. It drove me insane.
“Man, stop complicating this. We’ve solved this problem. All I need you to do is sit your ass in that passenger seat, don’t vomit in my fucking truck, and I’ll get us all to Knoxville. Can you do that?”
He didn’t look at me. Just nodded.
“I can do that.”
We didn’t say a word the rest of the day. Just soaked up miles. Drove headlong into a deep and powerful thunderstorm on the plains of Colorado, the rain falling like fists on the road. Watched traffic hydroplane and pirouette into the median. Made our way to the swaying grasses of Kansas at last, the setting sun pouring through the anvil clouds and lighting the green grains of spring gold with dusk.
It’d been so long since we’d seen so much life. Birds and grasses. Trees with their new leaves turned to the sun. All of it more beautiful than I could stand.
We slept to the sound of thunderstorms twisting around us, drowning out the drone of the interstate. And in the morning, we set off again, beating the sun to the road. Feasted on fast food for breakfast. We set no records, just made slow and steady progress. Hit Kansas City by lunch. Dropped off the interstate and made our way to a Chick-Fil-A for a necessary morale boost.
I ate quick and walked across the parking lot to a Wal-Mart for a drop hitch, in the hope of getting the trailer’s tongue down a bit. Of getting the weight forward to calm the constant swaying. When I returned, Kevan was holding the U-Haul rental agreement in one hand, his phone in the other, reading off the contract number. When I asked what was going on, he pointed to one of the trailer tires. Its sidewall had a massive swell in it—a big, puffy goose egg the size of a squash. He walked me around the other side while he talked with U-Hual support. Another tire was in the process of shedding its tread.
Three of the four tires were from 2012, and had spent the majority of their lives baking in the Utah sun. They were cracked and dry rotted, and our abuse hadn’t done them any favors. We were a little less than halfway to Knoxville. Kevan hung up the phone. Someone would be there in an hour to replace them.
We waited. Went in and ordered frozen coffees out of guilt for taking up 20 parking spaces during the lunch rush. After almost two hours, our service truck arrived, our hero a tattooed, chain smoking mechanic with an untucked work shirt and exactly zero desire to be working on a holiday weekend.
“I brought three tires, but I can’t do anything about the one that’s just dry rotted,” he said. “It has to have some sort of visual defect.”
We’d already added two hours to an eight-hour day. I didn’t want to repeat this process all over again tomorrow when that third tire inevitably let loose somewhere between here and Knoxville.
“How about you take a look at that other side, and I’ll see if I can find a visual defect,” I said.
He raised an eyebrow, lit his third cigarette, and walked to the other side of the truck. I buried my knife in the sidewall of the last questionable tire.
He shook his head, but replaced all three anyhow. When he was done, I helped load up the old wheels and tires and slid him $20.
“Beer’s on us tonight,” I said. “You pulled our asses out of a fire.”
He was on the phone with U-Haul corporate as we pulled out of the parking lot.
“Yeah, that third tire wound up having a hole in the sidewall…”
That was it. We rolled to St. Louis. Slept on the Missouri side of the Mississippi. East again at last. We resisted the urge to just keep hauling. Woke up the next morning and repeated the process. Managed to get one day of drama-free driving in.
Even when we made Knoxville, when we drove across the familiar asphalt of East Tennessee, I expected the truck to lay down at any moment. To give up on us after getting us so far. It didn’t. It just ignored our idiocy and kept doing what it was engineered to do. Haul. Forever.
We pulled into the last truck stop before Kevan and Amanda’s house and rolled across the scales out of morbid curiosity. A deep desire for irrational bragging rights.
The Tacoma and trailer weighed in at 7,100 pounds. The Dodge, the camper, all of us, and half a tank of fuel sat at 11,680. This miracle truck. This fierce machine had lugged 18,780 pounds the 1,600 miles from Grand Junction to Knoxville. Up and over the grueling Rockies. Did it without complaint. With 306,000 miles on the odometer. With 13 years of hard labor at its back.
I bought this truck the day before my daughter was born. A hammered thing, used up and abandoned by a long line of previous owners. Drove it home with 281,000 miles staring at me from the gauge cluster, thinking I’d lost my mind. I could not have known then how irrevocably the thing would change our lives. How it would become our only home. How far it would take us, or how faithfully it would serve us when we needed it most.
Driving under the blue summer sky of the home we’d left behind, I have never in my life been more proud of a machine. Felt so grateful. Loved a thing made of metal so.