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I drove a 1974 Chevy Nova in high school. It was burgundy with a black vinyl top; it had a 350 V-8 motor, and boy could that car go. One day I took it into my auto mechanic's class to tweak the engine timing – it didn't need it, but that's what high school boys did.
I set down the timing gun and took a moment to quiz Mr. Corbet, my auto mechanics teacher: "So, all GM products have teeth on one side of the key, and it goes in the ignition with the teeth down." He concurred, and I continued, "All Chrysler products have teeth on one side, which point up when you put the key in the ignition." Again, he agreed. "Do you know why Ford products have teeth on both sides of the key?"
"I spect that's just the way it is," he replied, then to assure I wasn't wasting valuable shop time, "Do you have a point to make?"
"Yeah, a Ford has teeth on both sides of the key because people who drive Fords aren't smart enough to know which way the key goes in." I laughed and waited for his response.
Mr. Corbet was all about Chevrolet. He laughed for a moment, then scowled, "Mr. Palen, if you don't have anything better to do, you can sweep the classroom and the shop."
I pointed to my Chevy, "I was just adjusting the timing on my car - but did you like the joke?"
"Then get to it, Palen. This is Vocational Auto Mechanic's class, not Comedy 101. But if you'd like to transfer, I can arrange it." I walked back to my Nova, feeling pretty smitten with myself. Even briefly, I made him laugh.
There were other acronyms for Fords: Fix Or Repair Daily, and Found On the Road Dead. Ironically, not long after high school, Ford products became my brand of choice – and still are today. But, speaking of found on the road, lately, I've been noticing more things along the roadways that cause me to wonder.
For example, on highway 53 heading into Superior, I saw five orange life jackets together in the ditch on the side of the road. I imagined someone heading for the north shore had a flat tire, set them aside while getting out the jack and spare tire, and then drove off without them. They would undoubtedly be frustrated when they arrived at their favorite lake to go fishing – and lost their life jackets.
I followed a utility service truck out of Two Harbors. The driver had groceries in the open space between the tool cabinets on each side. A twelve-pack of Pepsi was bouncing on top of his tools; I was worried that it would bounce out. I wanted to get alongside him to let the driver know, but we were in a construction zone on Highway 61 with single-lane traffic.
The blue cardboard carton took one final bounce, jumped over his short tailgate, and burst open on the new asphalt. Cans of soda skipped and scattered about the road. Pop, pop, fsh, fsh, pop. Five or six cans exploded as I crushed them with my tires. "Man, he's going to be bummed when he gets home, and his Pepsi is missing."
A large cushion with a vintage floral pattern was lying in the ditch on I-35 not far from Duluth. It must have blown out of someone's vehicle while moving their couch. I hoped it wasn't from an heirloom they'd inherited from grandma.
I saw a half-dozen eight-foot, 2X6' boards scattered on the right shoulder; with today's lumber prices, that's quite a loss. A few miles farther, a small red tabletop grill with a busted bag of black charcoal briquettes littered the shoulder. I always feel bad for people when I see things they've lost on the road – I genuinely feel their frustration and loss.
A couple of months ago, I found a classic 1977 Kawasaki KZ650 for sale in Wisconsin. It was love at first sight in very good, original condition; bright metallic blue with red and gold pin-stripping, bright white lettering on the gas tank and side covers, and shiny chrome tailpipes and fender. It was identical to the motorcycle I bought new when I was in high school. The seller and I agreed on a price. We loaded it into my van, and I took the motorcycle home.
The first time I took the bike out, I planned to ride to Grand Marais, Minnesota, and maybe to Grand Portage and the Canadian border. Right after turning north on Highway 61, I passed a group of southbound Harleys. They all gave me the two-fingers down sign as they passed, meaning be safe, keep both wheels on the ground - a friendly greeting between bikers. It felt good to share it again.
Riding this 650 was as big a thrill now as ever. With the wind was blowing through my hair, I was on a natural high, as high as one can be. I stopped at Buck's Hardware in Grand Marais to buy a pair of gloves. I walked out with my gloves, excited and ready to keep riding toward Canada. When I looked out to admire my beautiful machine, my heart sank. I felt like someone punched me in the gut when I noticed I had lost my right-side cover.
Literally feeling sick, I empathized with the people who lost their life jackets, a grill, or several boards. The person who lost the floral couch cushion can't just go to the store and buy a matching replacement. The same was true for my forty-four-year-old Kawasaki side cover. Feeling deflated, I decided to go home.
On the way home, I watched for my cover. Over the next several days, I walked or rode my bicycle, searching in vain; the cover fell off somewhere along a fifty-mile stretch of highway. Finally, I surrendered, "It would take a search party combing these ditches to find it." That gave me an idea.
I contacted the state of Minnesota to see if the Adopt-a-Highway groups might come across it while picking up litter from the highway. Hopefully, they would find it before a DOT mower came along and chopped the side cover to smithereens.
Several days later, I talked to the guy mowing for the state and asked if he'd keep an eye out for it. Certainly, sitting high up in his tractor cab, he would see my side cover. I even posted on several social media sites, offering a reward to anyone who found it.
The truth is, I was searching for a needle in a haystack, and it wasn't looking very promising. I knew it was lost forever and began looking online for a replacement. I couldn't help but think of all the strange things I saw on the side of the road while walking; I was disgusted by the amount of garbage people throw out their windows, but that's a whole story in itself.
Speaking of things on the side of the road, I was heading north to Duluth a couple of weeks ago. It was dusk when smoke began billowing out from around my engine. "What the heck?" I immediately thought the engine was overheating, but my engine temperature gauge was showing normal. So I pulled off the road, turned on my flashers, and popped the hood.
The smell was pungent but not like antifreeze or smoke from a fire. I dipped my fingers into the liquid on the ground. "Transmission fluid under the radiator? Oh, this is not good." I called Triple-A for a tow truck. Fortunately, my membership includes RV towing as I was pulling a Scamp at the time. Not knowing my exact location, I told the operator I was just a few miles north of Hinckley, Minnesota, northbound. After a brief hold, they told me it would be thirty-five minutes for the wrecker to arrive.
Not far ahead, a green mile marker sign reflected the headlights of passing cars. I walked until I could read the sign, then called Triple-A again. I gave the operator my service order number and told her I was at mile marker 186. She thanked me for the location update, "We haven't found anyone to tow your vehicle yet."
"What do you mean?" I was concerned, "The last operator I spoke with said the wrecker would be here in thirty-five minutes." The operator said that towing service declined the job; they didn't want to pull the camper; they would call me as soon as they found someone that would. Great. Hurry up and wait.
I started laughing, "Found On the Road Dead," I said aloud, "and this isn't even a Ford; it's a Dodge." About then, red and blue flashing lights were reflecting brightly in my side mirror. This is not something you want to see if you've been speeding, but man, was I happy to see them when I was stranded.
Trooper Sarah asked me what was going on. "I think I blew the transmission," I told her.
"Do you have a wrecker coming?" I explained the situation. "Let me see what I can do for you," she said, "Can I see your driver's license please?" She took my license and went back to her patrol car. I knew what she was doing.
Even though I hadn't done anything illegal, an officer will always report the vehicle plate number to the dispatcher. They'll also check to ensure no warrants for my arrest exist. Of course, some people get offended by this – but I'm thankful they do it; it's a big part of keeping the public safe.
The officer returned to my window about ten minutes later. "Keith's towing is on the way from Hinckley; it will be about thirty minutes," she said, "I would stay here with you, but I have to respond to another call." She handed me my license, told me to be safe, and rushed off with all her lights on.
The wrecker arrived. While the driver was e was working, I noticed headlights setting back away on the shoulder behind us. "That's the state trooper." He said, "She's got her lights on to mark us for oncoming traffic." He loaded my truck onto the roll-back, then connected the Scamp, and away we went back to Hinckley, where the driver dropped me off at the Days Inn motel.
"You can call in the morning if you'd like our service shop department to look at your transmission," the driver said. I took his card, thanked him, and went into the motel with my iPad, charging cord, and cell phone. I didn't plan on an overnight stay and had nothing else with me.
My room was clean and comfortable. A handwritten note from housekeeping welcomed me and thanked me for staying. "I would rather be staying here for better reasons," I said and went to sleep.
In the morning I called the repair shop. The mechanic had to order a new radiator, and it wouldn't be in until the next day. Dang. It would be three hours before my wife would arrive to get me. It was a fiasco, but in the end, everything worked out.
Two weeks later, we were in our van headed for Colorado. While driving through heavy rains on I-35 south, the motor started running roughly, and the check engine light came on. Great! I stopped at a gas station near Hinckley of all places, checked the oil and coolant levels. Both were good, and the engine resumed running smoothly, so we continued on.
I hoped we would make it to the twin cities; if not, I would call for another tow. I chuckled, thinking, "Found On the Road Dead – and this time it is my Ford." Finally, we made it to an auto parts store, letting me use their code reader.
"You're showing a recurring misfire on cylinder number five. You need a new coil pack," the parts guy said. It was after five; I asked him if he knew anyone who could change it for me. "Change it yourself. It's not hard," he said. He handed me the part and loaned me a wrench.
I raised the hood and thought back to my high school auto mechanic's class. I could imagine Mr. Corbet saying, "Change it yourself, Palen. It's not difficult." Then he leaned in to observe my work. First, I removed the old coil, but the new part had a different size connector. The clerk said it should be the right part, but they didn't have another one in stock, but a store a few miles away did. So I reinstalled the old coil and drove to the other store, where I installed the correct part.
Mr. Corbet said, "Very nice, now start the engine." So I did, and it ran smoothly as could be. "I told you, you could do it." We were on the road again, just a few hours late.
About seventy miles before Ridgeway State Park in Colorado, signs indicated Highway 550 would be closed ahead for construction until 6:30 the following morning. So we pulled off to sleep in the camper rather than taking a long detour through the mountains after dark. In the morning, we were greeted by a spectacular sunrise over Blue Mesa Reservoir. We arrived at the campground, set up the Scamp, then drove into Montrose for supplies.
On the way to Montrose, my Ford van started to overheat. "You've got to be kidding me?" I recalled the acronym "Fix Or Repair Daily." We called several repair shops, each told me it would be anywhere from ten to thirty days before they could look at the van.
The man at Elk Creek Automotive said I could come by, and they would at least look at it to see what the problem was. We made it to the shop; the water pump was leaking. This was not something I would fix in an auto parts store parking lot with a borrowed wrench. The mechanics were able to put a temporary fix on it to drive back to the campground. The owner said they could order the part and squeeze me in on Monday morning to help us out. I was beyond grateful.
First a radiator, then a coil pack, and now a water pump. If bad things come in threes, I should be good to go for a while, auto repair-wise. Despite the car troubles, I was feeling pretty good.
When leaving home for Colorado, I told Melissa I needed to pick something up by the turn-off at Little Marais before we go. About an hour earlier, my phone rang. I didn't recognize the number but decided to answer the call. "This is Jason with M-DOT," I wondered; who do I know from the DOT, and why are they calling me?
"You stopped me a couple of weeks ago and told me about the cycle part you'd lost. This morning I came across your card and wondered if you ever found it?" I told him I had not.
"I was mowing along 61 today, getting ready to make my turn around, when I saw something blue laying way down in the tall grass. I found your side cover. I stopped just before it went through the mower." I was shocked! I had already given up on the idea of it being found.
"I can't believe it! You found the needle in a haystack." I anxiously told Jason I would come to get it before we left town. I tried not to get my hopes too high, and I didn't tell Melissa, "What if it's not my side cover? I'm sure other bikers have lost them too."
When Jason opened his toolbox, my eyes lit up. He took out a bright metallic blue side cover with red and gold pin-stripping and bright white letters, KZ650. I asked if I could give him something for finding it, "No sir, I'm just glad to help you get it back."
I thanked him again. Grinning from ear to ear, and carried my side cover back to the van.
I hope the other people can recover items they'd lost along the road. Especially the one who lost the vintage floral pattern cushion. Like my side cover, they won't find a replacement at the store – but maybe someone like Jason will come across it and go out of their way to help get it back to them.