It’s a 1979 Old Green Dodge that I bought from my neighbor, John, about seven years ago for $1,000, and the requirement that I pick it up in Portland loaded with his essential junk and drive it to Alaska.
I wanted a beater -- a warrior truck -- that I could take hunting or fishing and leave at the trailhead for days, not worrying if some Neanderthal vandalized it. I wanted a truck I could take up the Klutina River Road, a vehicle that felt no inhibition about running over stumps, mud puddles, and other assorted flora and fauna. This truck certainly fulfilled these requirements. It’s a sore to look at, has dubious reliability, and is in need of therapy. It survived a troubled and abused history in Portland where it was used for hauling greasy transmissions and engines at a taxi shop, its owners refusing to take it out on the road because it would have failed every emissions or safety test thrown its way.
This green truck is an EPA nightmare, or straight out of a Grade B country and western song. If you fill it full of gas, it spills a quart or more on the ground; it burns oil at such a rate that it undergoes a constant transfusion so there is no reason to change the oil. She also came with front tires that were bigger than those in the rear, which meant that if you hit a bump or made a turn, the front wheels would grind hard against the wheel wells, sending out a death grunt. To start this “cold blooded” beast requires no fewer than 20 pumps on the gas pedal, or the gas pedal arm, because the plastic gas pedal is long gone. But when she fires up, she purrs like a lion, awake and ready to pounce on the road, unless it cuts out when I push too far on the gas. On any trip over 100 miles, I bring along a milk carton full of supplies: one gallon of oil, automatic transmission fluid, and brake fluid. I also carry a steady supply of tools that practically fill up one side of the extended cab.
John is the Mother Teresa of old trucks. He sees life where others see scrap, and his commitment to old Dodges, particularly Power Wagons, could be considered noble or troubling depending on your perspective. I like to think that we saved this old truck from a certain death in the city where it would have rusted away in some junkyard. For the past seven years I have owned this old Dodge, and she has packed out numerous caribou, moose and king salmon, which is how it was christened the “Meat Wagon.” It has been at the center of many great adventures in my life. It hauled out my first Copper Basin moose, my son’s first caribou, and his first moose. It hauled out more than 300 salmon from assorted dipnetting adventures, and we used the stout rack on it to display the catch from an amazing day of king fishing with John and Mike Lawrence. We filleted the fish right on the hood.
When the old Dodge is not on the road, I use it for a staging area. I have dried clothes, meat bags, and waders on its black rack, and cleaned my guns on the hood, thoughtlessly spilling solvent on it. I tuck my smelly filet gloves underneath the wiper blades where they air and dry. This is a good life for the Green Dodge, and I honestly feel it displays pride in being my indispensable vehicle. The only time I abused it was when the tailgate got stuck right before I headed to the mountains on a hunting trip. Not being one for subtlety, or the finer arts of mechanical repair, I took a sledge hammer to bust out the tailgate. Now it doesn’t have one.
Most of the time it is a compliant truck, but we have an uneasy, edgy relationship. I worry about its reliability, and I think the truck worries I will send it down the road for scrap metal. My suspicion about the Meat Wagon’s faithfulness plays in John’s favor. Every time I go on an adventure, I need to bring him along as trusty mechanic in case troubles strikes.
For the most part, this old Dodge delivers me home when it counts. True it can be temperamental, but I think it appreciates its liberation from its former Portland slavery. It stranded me only twice: once when a fuel pump went out, and once when the alternator went kaput, but these were fixed in a matter of hours. Other than that, there have been just a few minor mishaps like last year when the wiper motor died during a rain storm and I had to drive with my eyes directly over the wheel, peering through the window as if I were exiting a coma, or when the heat went out during a September drive to go moose hunting, and we had to roll down the windows to keep them from frosting up; or when the lights flickered then died and I had to push the speed limit in the last fading light to get home – transforming an otherwise ordinary trip into sheer terror. This was the only time I cussed at the vehicle, calling it a Chevy, and in a darker moment yet – a Ford. I’ll admit, I lost it, and I feel remorse to this day. I was not born with the mechanic’s gene, and so The Green Dodge provides me with a chance to redeem a degree of mechanical competence.
When you look under the hood, there are only about four moving parts, and you can crawl inside – Okie style -- with the greatest of ease. I have tuned her up, replaced the belts, starter motor, and automatic transmission cooler, along with a few other parts. I feel like I understand at least 20 percent of what it takes to make this baby run, and that gives me a little solace on longer trips.
Sometimes I think about selling the Meat Wagon, but the nostalgic bond is just too great. When I see it covered with snow in my yard, it looks homely like a fermented green pig in a blanket, and I wonder how many more summers this old truck can survive before everything seizes up. How many more times can this old truck endure the humiliation of getting passed by some guy in a shiny $45,000 Dodge with a double cab, and a Hemi under the hood, complete with heated seats, iPod plug in, and a $1,500 a month payment? Perhaps I should just park it in the woods, or sell it cheap to someone in McCarthy where it will find other companions in convalescence, or let the mechanical buzzards scavenge parts, but I get a sense the Meat Wagon still wants to stay in the game. Its value is greater than the sum of its parts.
Embedded in this vehicle are some of my most precious memories; the front carpet contains so much spilled coffee, and fire extinguisher residue from when Wesley and John horsed around, and there are blood stains in the bed from game that has been transported, and dents from my sledgehammer. I remember sleeping in the cab during a rainy night in Cordova, and then there was the time it carried a group of students across the Million Dollar Bridge when Child’s Glacier calved and the students whooped in delight. I bet the old beast thought the students were cheering for it. A new owner would invariably not appreciate this truck’s rich, dignified history. I’ll admit it seems a little ungracious to even consider selling the Meat Wagon. In some ways, it has become part of the family. Our two lives are intertwined; the Meat Wagon has become an eerie reflection of who I am -- and to sell it -- would be akin to selling myself.