I found the GTO on a lot in Dallas, Oregon in September 2007. It had 3,500 miles on it. Outside the family, only two other people have driven it since I brought it home. One was Taylor Marks, who was also the first I trusted behind the wheel. I’ve mentioned it before that I let Taylor borrow the Goat for his senior prom, which was a testament to how much I trusted him.
After he was killed in Iraq, we escorted him to Willamette National in the GTO, then stood in the summer sunlight as he was laid to rest. At his memorial, I vowed to carry forward with Taylor’s sense of adventure.
Since 2010, I’ve driven the GTO from coast to coast, through thirty-eight states since I got home from Afghanistan. Other trips took us to Colorado, California, Texas, Florida, etc. In 2017, the car was in Seattle and the Pentagon parking lot inside of ninety days.
Over the years, this car has taken me Shilo, Vicksburg, Antietam, Fort Necessity and dozens of historic sites in between. I camped beside the Goat at Oshkosh in 2017, spending a week at that aviation mecca. I’ve parked it on the hill overlooking Burnside’s Bridge and on the shoulder of the road where Frank Hamer ambushed Bonnie & Clyde. We’ve been to the Continental Divide in New Mexico and Colorado, to deserts in the Southwest and rolled Route 66 while listening to the Joad’s crucible on the same highway with Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.
Each time I bust out Song of the Open Road, strap in and head out, I have a destination, but no set schedule. We wander off the highways and explore, experience and adventure. I’ve met thousands of Americans over the past ten years through these travels, chatting with them at bars, diners, events, etc. I’m convinced we’re not nearly as divided as our media says we are.
I’ve seen profound kindness, warmth and have been welcomed wherever I’ve ventured. As the V-8 chews up the miles, I feel Taylor’s spirit on my shoulder. I can almost see him, goofy grin and all, strapped into the passenger seat, watching the country roll by with me. Soft spoken words, gentle sense of humor. He was a kid with tremendous potential and a bright future denied to him by the Iranians and their Iraqi pawns.
This trip to Texas and back took me from the snow of the Oregon Cascades to the Nevada desert, to a Texas college baseball game, to dinners with my agent, his family and retired intelligence & counter-terrorism officers, to a dying California desert lake and the mountains of the Apache Pass. I drank whiskey in Tombstone, photographed Boot Hill at Sunrise, then sat on the beach of my childhood as the waves lashed the remains of the SS Palo Alto, the WW1-era cement ship beached a hundred years ago at Rio Del Mar.
This trip saw one of the most poignant and heartbreaking moments on the road for me. I was somewhere outside of El Paso one night, racing east through empty terrain. A police SUV suddenly cut right in front of me, lights ablaze. I slowed down, thinking the cops wanted me to pull over. Instead, the SUV swung sharply to the shoulder and came to a sudden stop, dust billowing in its wake. As I drove past, I saw a little boy of perhaps six or seven, calf-length pants, tattered t-shirt, no shoes, standing trapped in the police cruiser’s headlights, a look of confused terror stamped on his face.
We were miles from the nearest town. But only a couple of miles from the border. I ran into a checkpoint ten minutes later, and the Border Patrol officer I talked to said such heartbreaking scenes were all too common. They wander without food or water, through the West Texas desert utterly alone.
That is a moment I’ll never forget.
An hour short of home yesterday, the odometer passed the 190,000 mark. I have friends with muscle cars as old as the GTO that have husbanded them away in their garages. They are pristine with only a few thousand miles. I respect that, but this car was meant to see the county with me.
These days, the paint’s chipped and scratched. The left fender has a ding from some careless person banging into it in the Bay Area years ago. The seats are fading and the stitching is giving out, and the new car smell is long, long gone. We’re on its seventh or eighth set of tires, which usually costs about a grand to replace them all, the radiator’s been replaced, the belts and a/c unit too. But the engine’s strong and throaty, the transmission still in good shape. Yet, at 190,000 miles, I have to face reality here: the Goat’s cannonball runs are done for awhile.
After Renee gets through with school, the engine will be rebuilt, a new transmission will be installed. Paint and interior will be done last. This is the car I’ll drive for the rest of my life.
For now, it is light duty, and as I rolled into town yesterday, I couldn’t help but to shed a few tears. Those 190,000 miles have led me to some of my life’s best moments with the best people I’ve ever met.