Down East 2013 ©
At age eighteen I’d wanted a Toyota Land Cruiser for longer than I could remember, and when I found one in Uncle Henry’s, Maine’s legendary swap-and-sell magazine, I jumped at it.
The Land Cruiser’s alternator wasn’t connected, the brakes needed work, and the muffler-less exhaust system was downright illegal, but I ignored everything except for the man-eating, thirty-eight-inch tires.
My friend Patrick had driven me to Whitefield one chilly fall afternoon to pick the thing up, with the intent of driving back roads home, where a local mechanic would rectify its numerous automotive deficits.
The Toyota harbored other plans.
Appealing to my adolescence, the beast had a transplanted 350-cubic-inch Chevy V-8 under its tiny hood, making the truck dangerously unstable and completely under-engineered to handle the raw power.
Patrick took two steps astern at the thunder that emanated from the exhaust pipes, which blasted swirls of red and yellow leaves around his ankles. No stranger to calamity-on-wheels, he retreated to his car as I eased out the clutch, lurching toward open road.
The truck’s first act of rebellion came when Patrick signaled to turn onto a narrow country road. I downshifted for the corner, but when I turned the wheel, nothing happened. I turned some more, and at the last second the oversized tires launched the truck to the right, narrowly avoiding a large culvert.
I realigned the truck with the road and accelerated hard up a small hill, cresting it weightlessly with a throaty roar. Patrick’s taillights appeared, and I took my foot off the gas, which was when I realized that the throttle was stuck wide open. I was now attempting to control a profoundly overpowered, unroadworthy vehicle that was loosely attached to the pavement by four erratic tires, and I realized that I was gaining on Patrick’s Subaru so fast it looked like he was backing up toward me.
I stood on the brake pedal with both feet, but again the truck revolted. (The dealer had told me that the brakes only half-worked, and in my optimism I’d assumed that either the front or the rear system needed to be fixed. If only.) The instant my panicked feet touched the pedal the Land Cruiser veered to the left, and it became clear that only the brakes on that side worked.
Without diminishing the Land Cruiser’s velocity, the ensuing hard-left turn saw us careen around Patrick’s car in time to avoid collision, and I hauled the wheel to the right, swerving back into our lane, now in front of Patrick.
The truck, flexing its muscles with its speedometer sailing past seventy-five miles per hour, was easily leaving Patrick behind, and I was in a bind. If I turned the key off, the truck wouldn’t start again. If I stopped with the throttle stuck wide open, I was afraid that the engine would explode by the time I opened the hood to twiddle the throttle linkage. If I didn’t stop, I would eventually leave the road, probably going into low-earth orbit as a result. And the vehicle needed to end up in Camden.
Finally, encouraged by the discovery that I could effect a minor decrease in speed if I counter-steered sharply to the right while simultaneously applying the brakes, I decided to see how far I could survive and sped on with youthful hubris. Patrick would tell me later that my exhaust was shooting flames as I rearranged gears in a bid to keep the rig on the road.
This . . . this was what defined manhood, I thought, convincing myself that rocketing along country roads in gathering autumnal darkness with no headlights in an unstable off-road vehicle with a modified power plant stuck on “go” was some sort of masculine initiation.
Hurtling down a long hill with the speedometer happily pegged, the massive engine missed a couple of strokes before it sputtered and died. Gauges on the dashboard glowed red, and the world went quiet except for the humming of the big tires and the ringing in my ears. I bottomed out in the valley and slowly rolled to a stop.
The truck had run out of gas.
The mechanic’s estimate to make the thing legal was far beyond my meager budget, and I sold the engine and body separately at a loss of $1,400. Divided by the twenty-three miles I’d driven, that worked out to about sixty-one dollars per mile, not counting the towing fee.