Tools

A few months ago, I found myself with a sudden longing to get a little truck. I know: it was a surprise to me too.

I haven’t had a motor vehicle to call my own since 2016 when I got rid of a Mustang that was kicked down to me after a brief midlife crisis my father had, by selling it to a dissolute character I found on Craigslist. What’s more, I was pretty evangelical about the blessings of a car-free life. I lived in a city and didn’t need one; my bicycle was plenty. Then I traveled hobo-style for two years, and for that time shoe leather, my thumb, and freight trains got me everywhere I wanted to go. And when I moved up to northern Wisconsin, though the distances were longer—five miles from my bedroom to the nearest town—I found I rarely felt compelled to move anything besides my own person and the occasional load of groceries from place to place, and I could accomplish all that by bike and bus, even in dead of winter.

(I waited long enough after getting rid of the Mustang, in fact, that before ever considering owning another car, I had managed to hear the end of its story. One day I got a letter from a junkyard in Alabama, asking if I owned the below-named vehicle. I called them up and confirmed with the friendly, down-home woman who answered that yes, I had once had a green Mustang, but I had sold it years ago and I’d eventually even filed an official notice saying so. She explained that it was white now, and had been languishing in their lot since getting confiscated during an armed robbery a month prior. It had South Carolina plates, but South Carolina didn’t know any legal owner, and referred her to West Virginia—where it had also never been registered legally. West Virginia told her to check Minnesota, where it turned out I was the last one to legitimately hold a title on the car. I could even have it back, if I cared to pay $6,700 in garaging fees. Tempting though this sounded, she and I agreed that it was probably better if I let them scrap it.)

Partly this new longing for a pickup was because I had just inflamed my imagination with a wonderful book called The Hand-Sculpted House, which is about building with cob. Cob (unrelated to the kind corn comes on, deriving from a Welsh word for “lump”) is a building material not much in use anymore, but which formerly made up a sizeable number of the houses in the British Isles, as well as places further flung, like Yemen. It’s a mixture of sand, clay to hold it together, and straw to give the whole deal tensile strength. Houses built of it have been standing in England for five hundred years. You can build a house out of cob for a few percent of what it costs to make a stud-frame house, and it’s a process much friendlier to beginner mistakes. The house you get is more energy-efficient and the material begs to be made not into rigid boxes but into nice curvy shapes conducive to a hippie-dippie vibe that I, despite an occasional disdain for the hippies and their failures, still have to admit I’m drawn to. The pictures in the center of the book made me seize paper and start dreaming up floor plans for a house Misty and I could live in.

One shortcoming of cob that The Hand-Sculpted House mentions is that it does poorly in places where the weather gets seriously cold. Its great thermal mass is extraordinarily good at maintaining heat at a steady level, day and night, over the course of a week or so, but this amounts more to averaging heat nicely than to particularly retaining it. And the winters up here, where it hits –20° pretty reliably a few nights each year, certainly qualify as seriously cold, cold enough to cause problems with cob houses as described in the book. But the authors also mentioned that people were currently at work on solving that very problem, and twenty years had passed since the book was published, so I allowed my hopes to fly, tempered with the knowledge that I was riding high on an initial wave of excitement, and also that what I hoped to do may not in fact be possible.

But, I reasoned, if I ever wanted to build with cob—or if I ever wanted to build a house of any sort, which I certainly did—I would need a truck. Something to haul sand and clay and big heavy door lintel beams and all those things that excited me when I imagined them.

And come to think of it, I realized, I was starting to get tired of having such limited effectiveness in the world. With my bike I could get myself from place to place, and I could carry around lightweight things, like ideas and words and friendships. And a life spent moving nothing heavier than those could certainly be interesting and worth living. But I was starting to yearn to change the world not just in the realm of ideas but physically too. I’d been reading Wendell Berry and I’d just planted one of my first real gardens. I wanted to get my hands dirty. I wanted to stop being exclusively a gadabout and flâneur, and open up the possibility of becoming a homesteader.

An earlier version of myself may have judged a truck to be an unacceptable capitulation to the dominant system. I may have proclaimed confidently that I would never settle for anything that emitted any more CO2 than a horse. The current me is still somewhat conflicted on that point, but has, it appears, come down on the side of wanting a truck. I will still be pleased, though, if in a decade or two it turns out my main methods of transportation are bicycle and horse-and-buggy.

It’s just that it takes effort to swim against the current. Right now, the world around me is set up for cars. The roads teem with other cars; on Highway 13, part of my only practical route to most places I need to go, it’s certainly legal to drive a horse, but the speed limit of 55 mph and the tight curves mean the buggy would probably become kindling within a month, and possibly the driver with it. Nor are there hostlers or hitching posts handy in these towns anymore. The bike is more practical around here than a horse, but even a serious heavy-duty bike trailer brings its functionality only to a remote shouting distance from a truck or even a buggy. For one, a bike turns sixty miles into a day rather than an hour, and the distance to good jobs and good foods is harder to close these days than it was before cars showed up, small family farms began disintegrating, and the railroads all pulled up their tracks. And for another, biking is mostly solitary, since the kind of people dedicated enough to go long distances on bike like I do are few (though by no means absent): going somewhere with someone else would usually end up with the other person riding a car anyway. Though I may be able to get a tandem into our lives one of these days.

I entertain a vague hope that eventually I can learn to do enough good for the biosphere with a truck that I partially offset, or even outweigh, how much I use it. That may be wishful thinking, since gasoline really is a powerful force for environmental havoc. If it turns out I really like building with cob, a little truck may be just what I need to start up a business building cob houses for people all around here, and then the BTUs that people don’t pump into the McMansions they would otherwise build may make the truck carbon-negative. But more likely, I’m resigning myself to being a part of the destruction of the planet on what I hope is a temporary basis—long enough for me and Misty to build ourselves a house, get situated in it, and become self-sustaining enough from the land that most of our transportation needs can again be met on foot, bike, or even hoof. It’s an adjustment phase, while we dial back the clock.

And fittingly, the truck that I found is nearly as old as my little brother, a ’98 Ford Ranger, old enough to have voted for Jill Stein in 2016. It’s small and durable, and has only 135,000 miles, likely to last years longer with good treatment. We got it from a guy who painted my former landlady’s mom’s house once. He sold it to us for a sweetheart price and threw in an extra set of wheels and a toolbox full of goodies. When we don’t just call it “the truck”, we call it Blondie.

This truck represents the first time I’ve really decided to be an automobile owner, and I’ve noticed an interesting contrast between now and the past couple cars I’ve ended up owning out of happenstance. It’s just this: with Blondie, I actually care about maintenance. Up until the last couple months, I had an almost gut aversion to doing anything under the hood of a car. I could fill the gas, add oil, and, in a pinch, put on a spare tire. But beyond that, I filed car knowledge under “stuff car people care about”. I wasn’t a car person, and accordingly I ignored it. There may have been1 a touch of smugness underlying that disregard: “I wouldn’t know that—I don’t deal with those terrible machines.” The same kind of smugness an evangelical vegan has about not knowing how to cook meat.

This past week, I changed the leaf springs in Blondie. The guy who sold it to us warned us that those would need to be changed. “It’s super easy,” he said, “you just get the new one and slip it in there.” I nodded but thought to myself, “Easy, sure. You are so full of shit.” But after putting it off for a month, I finally got around to having some new springs cut, at a place over in Duluth, and then without dragging my heels any worse, I set about putting them on a couple days later. The guys at Duluth Superior Spring assured me it was really simple to put on the new spring. “You just cut through those bolts, and slide it in, and hammer down that bracket, and bolt it all back together.” I could already tell it was going to be a nightmare.

But I borrowed a floor jack from our landlord, and got out my hacksaw and hammer and the rest, and got to it. And, well, it was awful. One of the wheels wouldn’t come off at the beginning with anything short of a lot of really hard kicking. I had eight bolts to saw through, and not one of them was in a place that gave me enough elbow room to comfortably saw. The hacksaw and the electric saw both jammed up consistently every thirty seconds or less. The first bolt on either side more or less exploded apart when I got it cut through, which was pretty disconcerting. Until I understood which way all the forces were balanced, I proceeded at arm’s length and with my eyes squinted, convinced that at any moment the tension in the leaf springs would recoil and send bolt fragments everywhere. I got exhausted from sawing, exhausted differently from maneuvering heavy chunks of metal, and covered in grease up to my elbows. The car was up on blocks for three days and two nights, and for half that time I remained convinced that I’d either damage the truck beyond repair or get in way beyond my depth and have to find some car whiz to bail me out.

But I got it done. And when I did, I felt a sense of real accomplishment. I have a tool, and I know how to maintain it. And that makes me feel in control.

The other cars I’ve had have been something like adversaries: I work with them for as long as they see fit to keep working, but at any whim of theirs they could break down, and leave me with no choice but to pay hundreds of dollars or abandon the notion of having a car. I treated them with suspicion and mostly dealt with their problems by ignoring them, indeed ignoring the whole car. (I barely used either of them. Misty knew me for most of a year before finding out I had the Mustang, because I had lent it long-term to a friend. The other, a Civic, I had barely any relation to aside from being on the title; Misty was the one who used it.) With Blondie, though, I’m taking a different tack. I’m treating this useful thing with respect, keeping it clean, keeping it in good order. I changed the oil the other day, and the air filter too. I’m learning how it works so that if it breaks down I’m not at the mercy of gearheads—I can actually do something.

In return, I’ve been able to accomplish some cool stuff. I’ve moved house for me and Misty. I’ve hauled some firewood. (Admittedly, I’ve hauled only about a ninth of what we have out front of our house right now, the rest of it having come in the trucks of people we know who actually have chainsaws. But on the other hand, Blondie did bring the pallets that the wood is all stacked on.) I’ve carried a canoe to a wild rice lake and gone ricing. And hopefully sometime soon I’ll even be able to build a new house with Blondie’s help.

The essential thing is to own the tool, not be owned by it. A truck I understand and can work on is a truck I own. A truck that does things I can’t predict and can’t fix is a truck that owns me.

In a strange way, it’s even liberating to make mistakes. When I “changed the oil”, it turned out that the nice big plug marked drain was in fact the drain for the transmission fluid, and the reason the truck soon started making a hideous moan was that I’d drained the transmission dry believing it was the oil. We ran the transmission like that for over 200 miles before finally figuring out my terrible mistake. But had you asked me beforehand what the consequences of running a transmission without oil in it might be, I would have guessed, “catastrophic bricking of the engine followed by a tow to the scrap yard.” As it happens, the truck perked right back up after I added fluid back in, and seems barely the worse for wear (although in fact I may have taken thousands of miles off its lifetime). And now I know better. There’s more than one drain on a car. The more I learn, even the hard way, the better off I am.

Does that mean I’m going to become a car geek? Not likely. I might not even make it to the top half of people I know, in terms of car knowledge. However carefully maintained, any car is inherently going to spew greenhouse gases,2 and that knowledge will always temper any enthusiasm I have for things automotive. But what’s important, here, is that I’m the one in control, because I won’t give up my power. I can change a leaf spring: nothing can stop me.

  1. There was. 

  2. Yes, even a Tesla: it just spews them from the power plant instead. 

File under: homesteading, technology


Ann Troxel

Ann Troxel

History

So cool! I love Blondie already. Your brother would be proud you figured out you drained the wrong fluid even though he may laugh a little about it. I sure hope we can all come.see you in December and /or January. I for sure will. Love you. Mom

Reply Reply
Dave

Dave

History

So you put engine oil in the transmission? You’re probably going to have some ‘problems’ soon. A used transmission is cheap since it’s such an old truck. You can learn to go ‘junking ‘ now. I always really enjoyed junkyards. Every junked car is a story and junkyards are kind of like free museums. You might consult a transmission shop and flush the fluid, which could help. Another tip from one cheap car owner to another is that manual transmissions are cheaper and easier to maintain.

Reply

Chuck

History

No, I drained all the oil out of the transmission, and put a bunch of new engine oil in the engine without draining it, thinking I already had. When I figured it out, I filled the transmission with the right transmission fluid, found the engine drain and drained that, and refilled the engine with engine oil.

One of these years I may end up looking for a new transmission. At that point I’m sure I’ll have to find someone’s advice on how to tell whether a transmission is any good if the truck it’s in is dead! As for installing it, though, I imagine it’ll be way cheaper to pay a shop that has the equipment to drop the transmission and put in the new one, rather than try and maneuver a few hundred pounds of steel from a prone position.

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Kartwheel

History

Ah the transmission fluid . Possibly life shortening? If it’s any consolation I once drove Grandma (whose short lived presence in your life apparently didn’t make the cut for car companions… tisk) from my parents house in the suburbs to downtown Chicago with the emergency break on the whole time… shrug Hope she forgave me.

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