Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Post Xterra Life



Returning from 24 Hours of Moab
Spanish Fork Canyon (2004)
I bought my 2000 Nissan Xterra in February of 2001 when the Southern Idaho landscape was starting to dry out and occasional warm winds were intermixed with the frigid gales blowing across the Snake River Plane. While true spring was still maybe a month out, I knew that soon the mountain bike trails in the South Hills would be ready to ride. Now equipped with four wheel drive, I was anticipating those rides requiring rugged travel on remote dirt roads that had, up to that point, challenged my Ford Escort station wagon.

So while it was technically winter when I bought it, spring was on its way -- so maybe it's fitting, 200,000 miles later, that on a Monday in fall, with shorter days and freezing temperatures on the horizon, I said goodbye to something I've possessed since age 24. Yes, it's just a material possessions, but even for something as superficial as a truck, I hope you'll allow me the catharsis of writing about my loss as I start the 2018-19 ski season without my green buddy. For 14 of the 18 years I owned it, that truck was my most consistent skiing, camping and mountain biking companion, but now, with mechanical problems rendering it almost un-driveable, I decided that it was time to let it go.

The First Road Trip

Shortly after I purchased it from a small used car lot on Blue Lakes Boulevard (with some generous help from my parents, for which I'm grateful), I left work early one afternoon and took it on it's first road trip to Salt Lake City. I was finally going to see what skiing Alta was all about. I went alone; it was just me and that truck. I didn't know anyone in Salt Lake, had no idea where I was staying, but I had to check out Alta. I can't thing of a better first road trip for that vehicle then to end up under the shadow of Mt. Superior, a peak we would become very familiar with over the years.

On the way back, I detoured through City of Rocks, where, for a kid who had never really driven an ATV before, let alone gone "4 wheeling", I looked for any chance to see what my new truck could do on the empty forest service roads. One chocolaty lagoon-like puddle was deeper than I expected and drenched my windshield with an opaque curtain of mud. I'm sure I let out some kind of childish expression of amusement -- maybe it was "Yippee", maybe "Whooo", maybe, "Well that was superlative!"-- I'm not sure. 
Ripping skins at Alta (2008)

That bravado was tempered somewhat later in the week week when a fingernails-on-chalkboard sound coming from the rear of the vehicle prompted a trip to the mechanic. It turns out I had just spun a bunch of gravel into the wheels during that weekend excursion through City of Rocks and the grinding coming from my wheels was easily fixed with a high pressure wash. But before learning that my truck just needed a wheel-well enema, I was overcome with the fear that my recently purchased low-mileage truck, bought from a place called "Practical Used Cars" (cut to the chase and just call yourself, "We Don't Sell Lemons") might already need major repairs. Now, at that time, I was middle-management at a television station in market 189 out of 211, so Twin Falls's low cost of living aside, any disposable income I had was going to lift tickets at Sun Valley and paying off my mountain bike. I wasn't really making enough to absorb major auto repairs. So when I heard that noise, I kind of regretted that mud-run in the foothills. As always, I blame marketing!
Visiting The Wave (2006)


Marketing Victim

If you don't remember Nissan's marketing blitz when they unveiled this rig in late 1999, let me refresh your memory. All the current auto commercial tropes of "seeking adventure" and "the freedom to explore" currently aimed at millennials were, in many ways, birthed by the Xterra at the turn of the century. (Damn, it sounds simultaneously cool and weird to use the phrase "turn of the century" as a legitimate reference point in my life.) Using a soundtrack of Stevie Ray Vaughn, Lenny Kravitz and Stereophonics, Xterra commercials had Gen X'ers dropping cliffs in kayaks, skiing powder filled slopes straight to their awaiting truck, repairing "owies and booboos" on the Xterra's tailgate with a First Aid kit that was nested in the door and, the ultimate in "distract you with bells and whistles", an interior bike rack*. So, if you watch the video I linked above, you could forgive me for being a little brainwashed into thinking that the truck was invincible.

*[I'd like to point out that the interior bike rack probably looked great on some product manager's desk, and probably gave the Nissan marketing goons an erection while planning their X Games inspired ad campaign, but it seems really impractical now. I would love to hear from a true mountain biker that ever used it. Seems a little bit like ironing blue jeans to me.]
The dragon jersey and mango FSR actually predate the Xterra, AND I STILL HAVE BOTH!
Cache Creek Trails near Jackson (2007) pc Randy Likness

The Partnership

Now, when I had that embarrassing realization that: a) off-roading is rough on a vehicle, even if it does have four wheel drive and b) I'm not mechanically savvy enough to repair any problems myself, I convinced myself to never again purposely test the limits of the Xterra. That was where I made a deal with my new truck: I would take that "professional driver on closed course" shit seriously and not make it do anything unnecessary, and the Xterra would be a reasonably reliable vehicle. And the Xterra kept up its end of the bargain, but that's not to say it wasn't challenged from time to time.

The Sierras were much milder on the way back.
Donner Pass 2001
For example, still within in the first six months of ownership, the four wheel drive came up huge during a much longer, April road trip to San Francisco. I had made the trip once before, but not in the Xterra… and and thank god I had it. The blizzards started the first night of the drive outside of Elko. Visibility over some of the passes was shockingly bad. I think it was after either Golconda Summit or Emigrant Pass where I exhaled, exhausted and relieved, after finally descending out of the teeth of the storm. I was no longer searching for highway lines and reflectors to guide me through the swirling specs of snow dancing in my headlights. And while that white knuckle evening through eastern Nevada seemed bad, it was just the warm up for the next day's adventure over Donner Pass. By driving over during the day, the handicap of darkness was removed, but it was replaced with the hazard of traffic. As I crawled through the snow covered highway over the Sierras in what is still probably the worst storm I've ever driven in, I realized the signs outside of Reno mandating four wheel drive and chains aren't just a scare tactic for crappy California drivers. Most of that drive was spent in a cautious yo-yo behind a semi. I was close enough to use his taillights as a guide through the white mess, but far enough back to not eat shit if the thing went sideways. And while the trauma and stress of that drive have made some memories fuzzy, I'm sure, by the time I reached the safety of Auburn on the west slope of the Sierras, where the first palm trees and In 'n Out Burgers start signalling the drop in elevation, I patted the Xterra's Dashboard and said, "thank you".

That vehicle has been a part of my life longer than most of my current friends -- including my wife. Yet what I realized, when saying goodbye to it 2 weeks ago, is that it's hard to divide good memories with the truck from good memories with others in my life. Many adventures were directly tied to that truck: early mornings ripping skins at the trailhead, drinking post ride beers on the tailgate and ending abusive backpacking trips with the rewarding sight of its green chassis. It got you you to the trailhead and waited patiently to welcome you back.

During the first summer after Lex and I started dating, we spent over a week driving all over Idaho -- from the Payette River near McCall to Scout Mountain south of Pocatello. We were still learning things about each other: like she learned I'm very anal about how I pack the Xterra with gear, and I learned she had no problem shaving her armpits with a coffee mug and razor along highway 75 south of Stanley. Up to that trip, I had spent years exploring the wilderness of Idaho and rarely had anyone else to talk to but the Xterra, so I hope that explains my emotions in this blog as I say goodbye.

Canyonlands (2008) pc Randy Likness

The Long Goodbye

When Lexi and I bought our Subaru in late 2014, I knew the day would come when the Xterra would need to be put out to pasture. But in the spring of 2015, we bought a new house with a two car garage and a car port in the backyard, seemingly a sign that it wasn't yet time to let go. So while the Outback replaced the Xterra as our primary adventure vehicle, we still got some good use out of the Xterra. My dad would use it when he visited, and on one memorable Saturday morning, it helped Lexi and me tow two tons of dirt from our backyard fence install to the dump. Lexi probably prefers other Xterra memories to that one (which involved over an hour's worth of shoveling topsoil into the seagull infested hills of the Salt Lake County solid waste depository), but I like to think that the Xterra was pretty happy it could still play a role in our life. That dump trip and the subsequent hauling of  stone to our backyard in 2017 were unfortunately the last times I got any utilitarian use out of the Xterra. Taking it to The Maze section of Canyonlands, a romantic "last hurrah" I had for its farewell, unfortunately never materialized.

Either a bad alternator or a poor battery harness meant
I often had to jump the Xterra with the Outback.
When I pulled it out of the car port a couple months ago, it was to asses what my options were for unloading it. I needed to get the safety and registration updated, which meant it needed to be driven to my mechanic. So after jumping the battery with my Outback (an image that still seems incongruous to me, the plucky little Subaru having to bring the once mighty Xterra back to life), I took it for a drive to try and get a full charge in the battery.

The engine was erratic, coughing up a syncopated spasm of roars while trying to maintain life. I gave it gas, as much as I could while still being safe in my residential neighborhood, but even with the gas floored, I struggled to get it over 35. The needle on the RPM gauge bounced violently. It wasn't right.

It sat dormant a little longer, but the next time I went to drive it, I couldn't get it into reverse without it dying... and the battery wouldn't hold a charge. I know nothing about cars, so I speculated on it's demise: maybe it was the transmission, maybe the engine, and maybe a bad alternator. The cost of any of those items exceeded my idea of "reasonable repair costs" for a vehicle I didn't need anymore. So, eventually, I called up KUER to have them tow it away for free. I never even got the official last mileage. I know my dad topped it over 200,000 on a trip about a year ago, but the battery was stone dead and I didn't feel like jumping it just to see the odometer. And maybe the other reason I didn't want to jump it is because hearing that engine roar, even feebly, one last time, would be heartbreaking.
When you have an Xterra, no need to ask, "Which skis should I bring?
How much beer should I buy?" BRING IT ALL! Sun Valley (2008)

Wearing a shirt I got from 24 Hours of Moab in '04
Think I have a problem letting go?
When I bought it, the salesman told me the previous owner was a fishing guide that needed something bigger and more powerful. I paid $21,900 for it, minus $3,800 for my '95 Escort. It was the first vehicle I ever chose myself (my dad picked out the Escort for me as a reliable vehicle for college, which it was) and in 26 years of driving, it was one of only three vehicles I've owned. So a few Sunday's before it was towed off, I drank beer on the tailgate: a Barrel Aged Rye by Payette, to celebrate its life. I thought an Idaho beer, sharing the name of a river that was all too familiar to that truck, seemed like the most fitting beverage I had. There was just enough light left on that cloudy day for me to sit in the shelter of the trunk and stare up at Broad's Fork Twin Peaks, framed under the canopy of the rear hatch. I always say that I spent my life following my skis -- they're what led me out west and why I moved from Twin Falls to Salt Lake, but whenever I traveled, explored, skied, rode, hiked, rafted and even stood up for a friends wedding in the remote north of Minnesota, I got there because of my Xterra.
One last look at the mountains from my driveway.

I would love to think that someone at the reclamation yard where they dragged it on November 12th might have the talent and resources to bring it back to life and take it on more adventures, but if not, that's OK. I hope though, in that case, the Xterra at least enjoyed that last look up at the Wasatch with me.

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