The Song Remains The Same

It’s another beautiful South Florida afternoon and once again I find myself staring cluelessly at the undercarriage of my Xterra. I’m quickly reminded of how little mechanical knowledge I actually have.

Some time in 2012 I hatched the idea to take a road trip, but not just any road trip. This was going to be a grand tour of the western United States. Dozens of national parks. Tens of thousands of miles. It was going to be epic. I had ridden from Chicago to Yellowstone the year before with my uncle and cousin, so between that and my lack of direction after years of messing around in college I found my motivation. By late fall it was officially a plan, but one thing that was not part of the plan was my 2004 Pontiac Vibe. I wanted a truck.

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Pictured: Not Part of the Plan

Four wheel drive. Three pedals. These were my requirements. The problem with that, unfortunately, was that I had to look at vehicles nearly my age in order to fit my price range. I should say it wasn’t a problem for me, but my parents made it clear that they preferred that I get something that wasn’t closing in on antique status. Since I had been living at home rent free for a while I felt it was the least I could do.

Newer trucks and SUVs with those boxes ticked were hard enough to come by within the budget. I searched and searched, but never pulled the trigger on anything. I don’t even remember what I was looking for. I know Rangers were on the short list. Jeeps were too expensive. Eventually I began to search “manual 4x4” just to see what came up. The Xterra wasn’t even on my radar, but when I came across the 2004 with less than 50,000 miles, four wheel drive and a five speed gearbox, I had to check it out.

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In February of 2013, I drove it home. The only thing immediately wrong with it was the headliner, which was sagging in multiple places. Other than that it looked brand new. During the next eight months I would put over 30,000 miles on the truck through twenty-two states and two Canadian provinces. I started with a test trip to the keys, and in May I headed west.

Test run in Long Key State Park, FL
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Savannah, GA
Above the clouds after my first night camping. Cheaha State Park, AL
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Big Bend National Park, TX

Other than needing the AC compressor replaced about a week into the trip, it ran without a hitch.

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Southeast UT
Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
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Sunset overlooking Grand Junction, CO

I ended up sleeping in the back of the truck nearly every night of the trip. When I had visitors we slept in something else, but most of the time I was by myself and it worked perfectly. I would drive around until I was done for the day, and as soon as I found a place to park I crawled into the back and went to bed. There was no setup or tear down; it really couldn’t have been much easier.

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Somewhere in WY, I think
North entrance to Yellowstone National Park, MT
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Once I got home I paid it off and it was relegated to daily driver status. Another attempt at school began. Work returned to the fold. Gone were the days of mountain adventures and a new era of monotonous driving was ushered in.

It’s served well as a beach truck and an occasional road tripper, but with the routine came neglect. Things were put off or ignored completely. That came back to bite me in the ass while driving home one night during a sudden downpour on I-95. Thanks to two bald rear tires and too much speed for the rain, I hydroplaned and did a 180 into the median wall. At first the damage didn’t seem so bad, but the little scrape on the rear fender was the least of my worries. A bent axle, bent axle housing, bent wheel, and two broken rear springs later and it was out of commission. It could’ve been a lot worse, but it still wasn’t great.

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Better days. Sunset near Great Sand Dunes National Park, CO

After a few months of finding more issues the deeper we dug, it was finally road worthy again. I didn’t figure out that the motor mount was screwed up until months later while changing my oil. By then it was leaking coolant and I still hadn’t replaced the driver’s side valve cover gasket that had also been leaking. Since the engine was tilted, the intake hose didn’t want to stay attached to the filter box and it was creating a vacuum leak. The scheduled timing belt change was fast approaching and I was faced with a choice: dump some money into it and let it live, or bail and move on.

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So I thought about it. I shopped around for something different. I even went to test drive a Focus ST, but before I even got to the dealership, deep down I knew it wasn’t going to matter. I kept thinking about making payments for the next four, five, six years and how long that really is. How much I’d changed in the last four, five, six years. I thought about the ease with which I could leave and go wherever I wanted with the Xterra and how that would be limited with just about anything else. I also thought about spending all of that saved money on a car instead of funding the next adventure, and my mind was made up.

Grand Teton National Park, WY
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Four new tires, a new motor mount, a new valve cover gasket, a new cooling system, a new timing belt and I’m out a couple grand. But this calls for a celebration. A return to the glory days. A trip up the Blue Ridge, which I hadn’t been on since I was a kid.

Driving through the outskirts of Hurricane Matthew at 5000 ft. Blue Ridge Parkway, NC
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Sunset in Shenandoah National Park, VA

Two weeks seems pitiful by comparison, but it was a taste of what I had been missing. A welcome departure from the daily grind, and it was gone as quickly as it materialized.

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Blue Ridge Parkway, VA
Blue Ridge Parkway, NC
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When I got back I changed the spark plugs and wires (except #6, which is impossible to get to and I regret not having them do it when it was in the shop and disassembled), changed the oil and filter, and got a new air filter. I was hoping the plugs would fix the pinging I’d noticed under load on the highway, and they seem to have done the job. But my gas mileage has since dropped fifteen to twenty percent, a vacuum leak recently appeared and disappeared within a day, it still leaks who-knows-what from who-knows-where, and I’m starting to wonder if it’s burning oil too. I think we’ve established that the rear main seal is one of the leaks, but considering how widespread the grime is I’m sure there’s at least one or two more.

I’m planning to take my next adventure this summer, but it’s getting down to crunch time. May will be here before I know it. Once again I find myself wondering if it’s worth continuing to fix what I have. I can think up plenty of reasons to switch to something like a Sprinter, but the nostalgia factor and daily practicality of the X are hard to deny. I’m just not sure if it’s time to let go.

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