When most folks talk about travel it tends to revolve around the destination. People willingly sit aboard tubes of jet propelled aluminum for hours on end, just to look at some buildings that are different from the ones at home. People spend thousands of dollars to wake up with their body clocks still set to night when the sun in front of them is rising, to eat foods they saw once on Pinterest, and to check-in on social media in order to craft an online persona that’s more cosmopolitan than their suburban hometown would suggest.
To each their own. My aspirations are a little different.
There’s this romantic story you see over and again in the car community, where someone travels far from home to buy a car, often sight unseen, and has an amazing drive home. It’s something that’s difficult to explain to most people, even some car people, but the experience of having that new car high, combined with a mind clearing road trip on the way home is something I’ve been pursuing for a while. You’re teased by them on some of Bring a Trailer‘s Success Stories, and my friend with the Subaru Impreza WRX STi has also done it on occasion.
I was having a hell of a time finding a replacement for my Honda S2000. After the truncated relationship with my FB RX-7, the itch for a fun car became all-consuming. My desktop at work had four Craigslist tabs open for every one work related tab, my outbox was filled with canned “when are you available to show the car” messages that went unread, and my significant other had finally perfected the ‘uh-huh’ response for the continuous “what about this one” questions I’d batter her with every night. Whereas I normally have the next car lined up when I sell the old one, this time I had spent weeks without my own car.
Things were getting desperate.
Fed up with the seeming lack of variety in the sale sections of SF Bay, Sacramento, and Fresno, I began looking further south. A friend would offer to check out a car, but then get busy. A seller would promise to send me more photos, then the ad would vanish. And occasionally I would converse with a prince from overseas who needed to offload their aggressively priced car, listed with stock photos, and who was willing to ship the car as long as I paid with a money order to a specific account but would refuse a phone conversation.
Which is how, one evening, I found myself on my way to the Amtrak station in Jack London Square to board a bus for eight and a half hours. The ad I found was over thirty days old, which is typically a red flag. For what I thought was a desirable car, its continued listing and the fact that the price had dropped several times over the last few weeks meant something had to be wrong with it.
Something I decided to give a pass on, whatever it was, once I texted back and forth with the seller. Age of the post beside, the odometer reading wasn’t insane, the photos presented it well, and the owner answered all my maintenance questions in a satisfactory manner. With a price and meeting time agreed on, I snatched some last minute tickets for the five hundred mile trip, tossed a change of clothes and some snacks in a backpack, and ran out the door.
It wasn’t until I was in my seat on the first leg of the trip before the ‘what the hell am I doing’ thoughts fired up. These busses always look nicer from the outside, the expectation being that they should be nicer than the Transbay busses I was taking to work in San Francisco every morning. But in comparison, those commute busses are downright cozy. Ten seconds in, I take stock of my knees jammed against the seat in front of me, my seat that won’t recline correctly, and air conditioning on blast even though it was 50*F outside. I stare out the window for the first half hour before throwing my jacket over my head, trading relative warmth for darkness in an attempt to catch some crappy Zs.
Eight and a half hours later I’m standing on the platform at an Amtrak station in Central California. I could go inside the station, but for one reason or another they’ve elected to leave the heat off. Sitting on a poorly padded surface with your spine being compressed from the combo of rutted roads and an oddly reclined seat is an ineffective replacement for sleep. But on the platform, the slight breeze seemed to halve the temperature, alleviating any fears of falling asleep standing up as my yawning, tear-traced eyes froze open.
After boarding the slightly warmer than death, slightly more comfortable than a car crash train, the next six hour leg of the trip is a blur. In between lapses of consciousness, the view outside is fast-paced and nondescript. It may as well have been Hayward, or Sacramento, or any other California city. It occurs to me that much of the neighborhoods that border train tracks are either walled off from the noise, or are entirely industrial. Soon, I give up on sleeping or spotting landmarks, and plug in my earbuds to zone out to Farah and Co. ramble about the more interesting side of automotive journalism on The Smoking Tire podcast.
Five hours of sound walls and an hour of beautiful coastline sees the train head back into what still looks like industrial Hayward on the approach to the Old Town Transit stop in San Diego. In my typical misunderstanding of Southern Californian travel, its only at my arrival to San Diego do I realize the seller’s (oh right, there’s a car related to all this) address is twenty minutes away. With travel fatigue reaching its peak, I refuse to walk to the other end of the transit center to the taxi line, and download Uber for the first time.
My first Uber ride is largely uneventful, not counting watching the driver circle the transit center several times looking for the lot entrance, the extreme body odor that had soaked into the entirety of his late model Prius, or his need to regale me with tales of crazy nights in the Gaslamp District and other areas where ‘the honeys be poppin’. One of his stories took a darker turn; family events forced some life changes that put a stop to the fun. I gave him an out, cracking a joke that we all have to grow up and let the new kids get on with having fun. Thankfully he took it. He laughed, I laughed, the gal in the next car over laughed, and I finally had an example of why I prefer the awkward silence of a cab ride. As my Uber dropped me off, I spotted my prize. Thirteen and a bit hours of bus, train, and Uber had finally delivered me to the pot of gold at the end of the crappiest rainbow to arc my mind’s sky.
Which to no surprise, turned out to be a pot of crap. At this point, I should know better. Actually I do know better, but I took a chance in the hope that good vibes and positive thoughts would win out over my expert-level skepticism and judge before I budge approach to Craigslist Surfing. At twenty paces away I noticed the rear window trim, tinged with overspray and sticking up from the bodywork like a middle finger saluting my arrival.
At ten paces, the front spoiler that looked to be missing from the photos was actually painted body-color, the result of a hasty respray where some trim was half masked off and the whole car had likely been shot by an under-appreciated minor. At five paces it became obvious the less than stellar ad photos, and the additional ones I’d requested, had intentionally missed the body areas that had been hit after the paint job. At two paces, I bent down and looked around the lower edges of the car. A crushed frame rail here, a bent lower radiator support there, and more overspray on the brand new AC condenser had me considering hitting up that Uber driver for a second round of story time on the way back to the train station. But coming all that way, it seemed due diligence to take the car for a spin.
It drove as well as it looked. If you shifted into second gear any higher than 2000RPM the trans would grind, to which the owner instructed me that I was “shifting too high”. There was an incessant knocking from the front suspension, the throttle cable stuck, and I’ve stepped on Peeps that were firmer than the brake pedal in this car.
The seller spent most of our time stating how great a deal the car was, especially since he just put new Enkei wheels on it. Nevermind that the driver-side front suspension seemed ready to fall off, the throttle cable stuck the idle at 1500RPM, there was crash damage he ‘hadn’t noticed before’, and the receipt for the timing belt service was actually for a timing belt inspection. At his insistence, we recounted our phone conversations, and went through our text conversation line by line only to conclude there wasn’t a single thing he had said that properly represented the car, save for the new wheels. Several examples of ‘mis-stated’ answers later, he shrugged.
After his final, arm-crossed refusal to budge on the asking price, I turned on heel, tossed my bag over my shoulder, and walked toward the sun.
With a full wallet but empty hands, I paused at a local park to consider my situation.
Is this the dumbest thing I’ve ever done for a car?
Did it count since I didn’t buy it? I’m still not sure if that means no or if it multiplies the dumb. Hours and hours of transit only to roll my eyes and walk away from yet another car I should have ignored in the first place.
I probably sat in that park for a good half hour. I redid the math in my head, quadruple checking that I couldn’t get some value out of the pile I’d just passed on. I started brainstorming on how to get home, five hundred miles from where I sat. Plane tickets are pricey on short notice, the train less so but more miserable. And another bus was out of the question.
So I pulled up the local Craigslist on my phone.
Oh hey, maybe this 325is will make it home…