Yes, the road.

Yes, the road.
Eagle Nest, New Mexico. “People like to drive because driving is actually and symbolically an almost perfect mechanism for escape…there is probably no human being who does not have troubles, real or imagined, from which he at times feels the need to flee.” George R. Stewart.


My photo
Brooklin, Maine, United States
We own a 1975 GMC Sierra Grande 15 in Maine and a 1986 Chevrolet Custom Deluxe 10 in West Texas. Also a pair of 1997 Volvo 850 wagons. Average age in the fleet is 28 years--we're recycling. I've published 3 novels: THE LAW OF DREAMS (2006), THE O'BRIENS (2012), and CARRY ME (2016). Also 2 short story collections: NIGHT DRIVING(1987) and TRAVELLING LIGHT (2013). More of my literary life is at I was a Fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study for 2012-13. I'm an adjunct professor at Colorado College and in the MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte. In 2015-16 I was a Fellow at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. The Autoliterate office is in Car Talk Plaza in Harvard Square, 2 floors above Dewey Cheatem & Howe. SUBSCRIBE TO THE AUTOLITERATE DAILY EMAIL by hitting the button to the right.

Friday, December 30, 2011

West Texas Wide Tracks

I have been tracking a couple of Pontiac convertibles. The 1964 Bonneville is part of the Food Shark fleet, and on days when the Shark is serving, the B'ville can be found parked on Highland Avenue or El Paso Street. Hector Sanchez pulled some major dents and repainted the car this year at his shop at the west end of town.

Out towards Chinati this evening, I was glad to see a 1963 Catalina that I've had my eye on for a couple of years. Both these Pontiacs are survivors and seem to be mostly original. My favorite kind of ride. The Catalina has an issue with its top, which I hope gets resolved before the rains return to West Texas, if they ever do.

The interior is rough--but why oh why did Detroit stop making cars this cool?

I was passionate for Ponchos as a kid. My father had a 1959 wide-track Catalina,

and a 1962 Pontiac Laurentian.

 Pontiacs, and especially 1959 Catalina steering wheels, were somewhere near the source of my car obsession/fetish as a kid. (I've written about all that in an essay, "Love Cars", which you can find here.)

Most of the Pontiacs generated since @ 1975 were terminally dull, including some spectacularly ugly ones (remember the Aztek?). And now the "brand" is extinct. Though I guess no "brand" is ever beyond re-inflating, and I suppose Pontiac will be revived by GM at some point as a "brand" if not as a Division that once produced some wonderfully sleek chunks of automotive machinery.
40 years later this was someone's idea of a Pontiac.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Texas Dodge 200

We're in West Texas for the winter. Looking around town I've seen a bunch of trucks to admire. Old trucks tend to last out here, because it's so dry. And the Texas highways are smooth. I like what sunlight does to old trucks. It fades the paint, of course, buffs it down to a matte that I find appealing. And I like the layering of paint, primer, and surface rust. (Don't like the word patina, but there it is.) Winter light here in the high desert is a beautiful instrument, and the air is so clear that dusty old objects often own a kind of sharp self-possession that makes the act of looking a delight. So here it is: the male gaze, focused on aged machines rather than youthful females. I admire the blue in this Dodge 200, which I estimate to be a 1970 critter.

The line started with a 100. The 200 was the 3/4 ton pickup. I don't know much about these trucks but should you want to learn more, start here. Autoliterate found one 1966 Dodge (with 24000 original miles!) for sale in Canada back in 2004 for $4200  (Dodge trucks were sometimes badged as Fargo trucks in the great white North):

66_fargo.jpg (23843 bytes)

There is a 1962 Dodge Power Wagon (the 4wd version of these trucks) up at ebay with a buy-it-now price of $2495.  My sense is that Dodge trucks are valued quite a bit lower than Chevrolets and Fords of the same vintage.

Autoliterate admires plain-Jane trucks and there's nothing plainer than the "Sweptside Special" trucks Dodge dealers were offering to commercial and fleet buyers in the early 70s. Much prefer them to the garish, optioned-and-chromed "Dude" editions offered by the same dealers, same years.
                                      plainest of Janes
And back to that West Texas light:

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Notes from photographer Jarrod McCabe on the last leg of the epic Montana-to-Massachusetts road trip with his 1971 F-250.  All photographs are  ©2011 Jarrod McCabe
"We spent a full day in carbondale, illinois fueling up on biscuits and gravy and surprisingly good burritos and working on clementines custom flair.  meers, the blacksmith, was to do a copper repoussé on the gas cap for the main tank.

"I talked trucks with a machinist that meers knows and he'd noticed the differential was leaking a tiny bit.  nothing serious, but worth adding some thread seal tape to keep it from leaking when i got home.  he left for a while and came back with beers and some stainless steel screws and washers for my license plates as a parting gift.  folks sure do like clementine.  for a nightcap we took clementine down to the lake and lit off fireworks.  it was grand.

"We left carbondale in the early morning on the 22nd.  we had 21 hours of driving time ahead of us according to google maps.  plans to camp were soon reconsidered as the high of the road trip began to wear off.  east of topeka the roads felt a bit more like home, so we figured we might as well get there.  why not end the road trip with a bang and knock off the last chunk in one fell swoop?  i pulled the first 15 hours then handed her off to dom - he'd napped in the cab most of the day.  coca-cola's and hot dogs brought us all the way home after 25 hours of driving.  there was a bit of snow in the berkshires that turned to rain.  we sure did see it all weather wise.  

"It felt great to park clementine at home.  i took her out after a solid nap to try and find some VR1-30, a racing oil with high zinc and phosphorous content, that tobe, my mechanic in bozeman, said would suit her engine best.  the trip totaled up about 3,200 miles and she was due for an oil change.  it was an unsuccessful adventure given the proximity to christmas and most auto parts stores being closed.  

"Driving clementine around town was kind of nerve wracking at first.  i don't know why, but i was awfully paranoid of some wild massachusetts driver slamming into her sideways and putting some sad stake into the heart of my road trip.  it's a bit more congested here than kansas, colorado, wyoming, montana.  i think she likes it better on those back country roads.  so do i."---JM  

Re. zinc:  there are differing opinions on whether the zinc additive is needed for older engines. The current blend of SAE motor oil (SM, SN) that is available doesn't have it. You can buy the ZDDP additive online and add it to whatever oil you are using.

And Autoliterate shares JM's wariness of Massachusetts drivers. Every time we cross that Bay State line, the level of automotive aggressiveness and general road rage seems to amp up considerably. It was therefore odd to read a recent piece in the Portland Press Herald claiming that driving in Mass. is statistically safer than in Maine. This is apparently because the road net in Mass. is better than in Maine, which has a lot of crumbling back-country semi-highways. Hmmmm. Anyone driving in or around Boston, or on the Cape highway, may not agree.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Texas Toolbox

It is really a tackle box--see the fish head?-- but I use it to keep tools for work on the Custom Deluxe. Bought the box last year, for five bucks, at a junkyard on the east side of town.  I am slowly assembling a collection of Texas tools. I'm learning it doesn't pay to buy cheap tools: and when I was at Liberty Tool in Liberty, Maine a couple of weeks ago, I longed to gather a hoard of good quality second- or third-hand mechanic's tools...but shipping tools all the way to West Texas didn't seem to make much sense.

                                                           Shadow dancers, W. Texas

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Maine to Marfa

We're in West Texas. Finally. At seven-thirty in the morning, the sun is just up, the sky is pale blue edged with pink, and it's a chill high-desert 27 degrees out there. Yesterday by noon it was 60. A couple inches of snow are possible for the weekend: Marfa is only fifty miles from the Mexican border, but it's also 4500' above sea level and in the West it's usually altitude, not latitude, that matters when it comes to cold.
            A few weeks ago we abandoned our original plan to drive the 2700 miles from downeast Maine to far-West Texas in the fifteen-year-old Volvo, with the five-year-old aboard. We flew instead. It still felt like a long haul.
           We left Brooklin, Maine on Monday afternoon, and drove three hours to Freeport for a Christmastime dinner with BB's family. Spent the night in Freeport, and woke up at 3:45am.  Basha's generous papa drove us to the Portland Jetport (not airport, mind you: jetport) for a six a.m. flight to Chicago. The three of us were groggy. BB and HBB managed to sleep but PB could not: he is @ four inches too tall to comfortably crank his legs into the space allotted to an economy seat, let alone snooze in one, so spent the flight reading a book he'll be reviewing for the Washington Post: James Barret's The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City, the newest vol. in Penguin's History of American Life series.
           From Chicago we caught a flight to El Paso and arrived in Texas around noon Mountain Time. We had arranged for the community Trax bus to pick us at the airport and take us to Marfa, three hours to the southwest. The Trax is used by people in the Big Bend area--Van Horn, Marfa, Alpine, Presidio--to get to El Paso, for shopping trips and (mostly) doctor appointments. We spent two hours waiting outside a medical clinic for one lady so the last leg of the trip wasn't exactly speedy. But West Texas sunshine was having its usual positive effect, so even hanging about outside a medical clinic in the drear exurbs of sprawling EP was okay; at least for the first hour-and-a-half. Fellow passengers on the bus were three ladies from Van Horn, Texas ,and the French artist Wilfred Almendra, who is in Marfa with Field Work Marfa,  which is a joint project of three European schools: ESBA Nantes Métropole, HEAD-Genève, and Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam. 

                                                    l'equipe  Fieldwork Marfa  
Almendra is a sculptor interested in studying how humankind impacts the environment. “Marfa is like a lab for me,” he says in an interview in the Big Bend Sentinel, as translated by our Parisienne/ Texan friend Valerie Breuvart Culbertson, who is the project's Marfa liaison and project manager. “My interest may be to contrast places like the Sunbelt with the authenticity of a place like Marfa.”

                                          Marfa, The Horses AcrossThe Street
The bus dropped us off at our Marfa house around 730 pm Marfa (Central) Time, which made it an eighteen-and-a-half hour travel day. HBB dozed most of the last couple of hours, but kept waking up and demanding to know when he was going to see his Marfa copain, Victor.

                            Les gars avec leur poulets
PB immediately caught a ride on the bus over to Ricky Rojo's house to grab our Marfa wheels. Ricky has been babysitting the Custom Deluxe and rebuilding the transmission: the truck is in good shape, and we are contemplating a truck-trip to Austin sometime this winter.

                                                          Icy Morning, West Texas

But right now it feels great to settle in here. The three of us went out to lunch yesterday at the Food Shark, which we dream of when in Maine, and saw a bunch of our Marfa amigos. BB is setting up her winter studio at Wrong, Buck and Camp's gallery, downtown: she'll be fabricating and selling her gold and silver jewelry at Wrong this year.
P.S. PB's interview with Shelagh Rogers on her CBC Radio show The Next Chapter originally broadcast on CBC1  December 19 will air again at 4pm December 24th, on CBC1. Here's the podcast. PB did this interview at the early, Vancouver stages of a massive transcontinental head cold, which is why he sounds like he is talking from deep inside a snowdrift.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

F-250 Storms the Midwest

Notes and images from photographer Jarrod McCabe, on the road this stormy week in a 1971 Ford F-250, from Bozeman MT to Framingham MA:

                                                                               Colorado Shell
"we stayed with some friends in colorado and gave clementine a bit of a rest saturday.  she looked great against the backdrop of the rocky mountains in boulder.  we lit out of denver late sunday, gassed up, and made it to eastern kansas to set up camp.

we awoke at the rest stop just over the border to howling wind and grey skies.  clementine started up quick.  we checked her oil and transmission fluid, prepared ourselves for wet weather and got an early start.  we dodged tumbleweeds and headed east on i-70, hoping to cover some ground before we hit the storm.

we wanted to hit some back roads.  colby, kansas was our jumping off point after getting 300lbs of sand for the bed and sending some postcards.  the studded tires helped a lot in the early snow, but after lunch it was clear we'd need the chains.  for about 50 miles we were chained up on the rear end and crawled our way to salina, ks letting ambulances pass us by.  

the snow turned to rain then back to snow by morning.  it would be a few hours before we passed the storm.  about an hour out of salina i saw a small modern hatchback come careening over the 20 foot median straight toward us.  it kicked up frozen dirt and grass as the driver tried to regain control.  we watched the car slide behind clementine, maybe 20-30 feet, before it regained control.  

that, was way too close.twelve hours later we arrived here in carbondale, illinois.  we had some killer barbecue along the way and picked up some fireworks in missouri.  our friend here is a blacksmith and we're going to try and get clementine a little flair.  another day here and we're into the hard push home for christmas.  --JM

all photographs ©2011 Jarrod McCabe

                                                 Birds Before the Storm, Kansas
                                                                     Kansas Lunch Stop

                               Prepping Gear for the Blizzard, Kansas   

                                                 Chained Up And Heading East


Sunday, December 18, 2011

F-250 & the Badlands

Road notes, and some wonderful images, from photographer Jarrod McCabe who is on the American road this week, driving a 1971 Ford F-250 from Bozeman Montana to Framingham, Massachusetts. (Autoliterate found one 1971 F250 for sale today on ebay; looks okay from here. But it's long way from here.) All images © 2011 Jarrod McCabe

                                               Daybreak Ford, South Dakota

"we pulled into the badlands about 1:30am on saturday the 17th.
i tested the high beams again.  they can only run straight for maybe half an hour.  then something happens and they flicker on an off.  it was a bit worrisome the first time it happened.  but just click them off and run them normal and they're fine.  not sure what that's all about.  the high beam switch is a small round button on the floor that is clicked with your left foot. 

we woke up before sunrise to see the badlands in early morning light and take pictures.  it's funny how i can wear myself down when i'm on the road so much and not even think about it, but i knew i'd get a good nights sleep in boulder, our next stop.

i ran the tank way down on our way to boulder.  it was a good 70 mile stretch on 18 & 85 between Edgemont and Lusk, WY.  i just had to see how far down that needle went.  part of me wanted to run out of gas just for fun." -JM  

                                                  Badlands N.P., South Dakota
                                                              Electric Badlands                                                                        
                                                                  Daybreak, Badlands.
                                         Road at Daybreak, South Dakota
                                                                Interstate Antlers

Saturday, December 17, 2011

F-250 Road Trip

Autoliterate has been hearing from photographer Jarrod McCabe, on the road this week from Bozeman, Montana to Massachusetts with a new/old truck, just bought in Bozeman.
            Clementine is a 1971 Ford F250 Custom. She started the trip with 90k original miles; it's her first-ever venture out of Montana. Jarrod was in Wyoming yesterday and reports everything running fine, except for a problem with the main tank; likely a fuel line or filter clogged. The auxiliary tank is working fine.

Clementine in Yellowstone Day 1
Buffalo, Wyoming, Day 2
Route 16, Wyoming

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Bennington Vermont in the 1980s

Something moving and disturbing about these photographs of Bennington, Vermont in the mid 1980s, which are up on the Hemmings site. Bennington had been a factory town. As with a lot of New England towns, that was long gone by the 1980s. The photographs suggest a landscape that has lost its organizing principle, a community without much sense of purpose.

The LL Bean shoot & the Fairlane

Back in October we were involved in an LL Bean photo shoot over on Mount Desert Island. They were basically reconstructing a catalogue cover from the early 1960s, which had a station wagon of the era, canoe strapped on the roof, etc. I'd been recruited to be one of the characters in the scene--I think I was supposed to be "Gramps" though no one actually said that. Anyway, I was given a pipe as one of my props. The most interesting thing from my POV was this nice little Fairlane wagon that they had scouted and had come up from Massachusetts. I have a weird passion for station wagons , especially of that era and especially Fords.

     I'm not sure why, but if I could have any car in the world, I would probably want a 1960 Ford Country Squire. Black, with a red interior. Like this one:

But back to LL Bean. As is the way with photo shoots, nothing much happened for a very long time while we waited for the late afternoon magic hour light that all commercial photographers seems to prefer. BB spent some time in the base-camp RV, getting make-up to make her look like some stylized version of an early 1960s mom. I don't think the art direction on this shoot was very accurate; she ended up looking, not early- but mid- to late-1960s, in a very Jean Shrimpton-esque style. No one wore that shade of lipstick in 1962. But I like being married to a supermodel.  I also admired the make-up tech's toolbox. There is something very moving and aesthetically exciting about the way professionals in any field arrange their tools.

Sweater. Cap.  I looked like one of the old Irish sports I used to see at the Wonderland track in Boston, weekday afternoons, betting on the ponies.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

More Montreal

Visiting Montreal last week, we stayed with artist friends Rebecca Duclos & David Ross in St-Henri, in the southwestern part of the city. It was always a working-class neighbourhood and, for a long time, the poorest neighborhood in Canada. It is just down the hill from perhaps the richest neighbourhood, Westmount.  Herbert Brown Ames-- philanthropist,  shoe manufacturer,  city alderman, and Member of Parliament-- revealed southwestern Montreal's dire poverty, in 1897, in his pioneering  The City Below the Hill: a sociological study of a portion of the city of Montreal.  In many quality of life statistics, the district ranked below Calcutta.
           There are acres of old industrial buildings. Imperial Tobacco was the big employer in St-Henri, along with tanneries, and shoe mills. Now the  Métro (subway) stops here, which makes the district easily accessible for the rest of the city. The Atwater Market is a brilliant place to buy Quebec produce, and an startling variety of bread, meat, cheese. The Lachine Canal, which was a reeking industrial sewer, has been cleaned up. Many industrial buildings have been condominiumized or are in the process. This process, which has slowed down in the US as the property market has slumped, seems to be going strong in most of urban Canada.

       It is probably because I grew up there, but all forms of Montreal vernacular architecture have a powerful hold on me. A lot of  19th century Montreal resembles parts of Dublin, and other Irish and British provincial cities. And parts of Montreal look like nowhere else. The crazy winding staircases may not have been the best choice for the city's subarctic winter climate, but they were cheaper to build than indoor staircases, so hundreds of Montreal streets are lined with them.

At the massive St-Henri police station/ firehouse, looking up, I noticed these bas-relief scenes of cops and robbers and firemen:

Speaking of crime, my favorite Montreal blog, Coolopolis, has a post on the latest in the city's ongoing Mafia war.