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This is the third installment of the Rust Bucket story arch from master storyteller SeaKnight on, where all good Land Cruiser things happen on the internet.

Chapter Three: The Turtle

By mid-April of 2005, I’ve already had custody of Uncle Meldon’s 40 for several weeks, ample time to drive around town and even venture into the Texas Hill Country for a couple of short road tests. With the Zinger girls only a fond memory, windshield frame holes securely plugged, and all mechanical systems checked out, there’s not much else to do but begin the adventure. I’ve driven the truck enough to know that traveling anywhere north of 62 mph is scary, and anything more than 5 hours of vibration per day will destroy my spine, so that dictates my travel plan. l’ll shoot for a max of 300 leisurely miles a day, 3,600 miles to Seattle, with a generous fudge factor built in to allow extra days for the unexpected. Because therein lies the adventure–the unexpected. Right?

The bucket seats are original. There’s no discernible padding left and I can’t even see any upholstery material. The entire seating surfaces are covered with old sticky duck tape, every square inch. I stop by Wal-Mart and buy the cheapest generic seat covers I can find, and an inch thick foam seat cushion that’s intended for a kitchen chair. You know, the kind with red and white checkered fabric and a cute little ruffle around the border. I hide the cushion under the cheapo driver’s side seat cover and call it good.

Tucker and Mark Mellon-Werch insist that a going away Happy Hour is critical to the success of my mission. They twist my arm and I resist mightily, but they win and we hit Billy’s for a few two dollar pints. They ask if the 40 has a name. She does not, but even though it’s not my truck, I figure I can give her a temporary name. She looks rugged and indestructible, all armored up with quarter inch steel diamond plate, so before leaving the watering hole I dub her “The Turtle.” The next day is D-Day, departure day. I’ve purchased AAA 100 mile towing just in case, but I still don’t want to stray too far from civilization in a 30 year old truck. I do however want to avoid interstate highways, at least until I’m clear of Texas.

Uncle Meldon is footing the bill for basic travel expenses, but I’ve assured him that I’m a cheap-ass traveler and his biggest expense will be gas. I intend to camp out whenever possible, and mooch an occasional bed and shower along the way from various Cruiserhead friends. When it’s necessary to pay for lodging, I’ll stay at small town Mom and Pop motels. There’s dozens of them along my route and they’re usually quaint, clean, and cheap. It’ll be a challenge to see how little I can spend. My parents live in Oklahoma City, so I decide to suck it up and drive all the way there on the first day. A free bed and Mom’s home cooked meals fits the plan. If I’d opted for IH-35, AKA the death trap, the drive would only be 400 miles, but I hate interstates. The back route to OKC is 450 miles. This is a no brainer; putting in 50 extra miles in the country are worth it to me.

And so I bid my wife farewell, and I’m gone.

Leaving Austin, I drive US 183 northwesterly to Lampasas, then head north on US 281. Though 281 is a US highway, much of it is an old 2 lane road, well maintained but not heavily traveled. Once you’ve fought your way out of the Austin metro area, there’s nothing but farm and ranch country and wide open spaces all the way to Oklahoma, punctuated by several small towns and some good greasy spoon diners.

Somewhere between Lampasas and Hico, allegedly the final home of “the real” Billy the Kid, there’s a rancher who raises Longhorn steers. I usually see a few of them grazing along the fence line that borders the highway, and I thought it would be cool to take a photo of The Turtle parked next to an old barb wire fence, with Longhorns in the background. The only problem was that I couldn’t remember exactly where they’d be, so I was chuggin’ along at 50 or so, scanning the landscape for Longhorns, when I see a big dualie ranch truck in the southbound lane suddenly veer onto the shoulder spraying gravel everywhere, then lurch back onto the road and blast past me. Whatever was in the road was on a rise several hundred yards ahead, but from the distance I couldn’t see it. I assumed it was probably a dead deer, a common sight along that stretch, so I slowed down even more thinking that I didn’t want to sacrifice Uncle Meldon’s truck to a road kill after only 100 miles on the highway.

Another couple of hundred yards, and… What The Hell? There’s a big ole turtle smack in the middle of the highway, just parked there like he owns the road, craning his neck, looking around and taking in the scenery. I pull off the road to observe. I used to catch little box turtles as a kid and keep them as pets, so I have a soft spot for these ancient creatures. I’ve heard they can live to 100 years and this is a big specimen, probably an old codger that doesn’t know where he is or how to get off the road.

I’m sure that I’m imagining this because turtles don’t have facial expressions, not that I know of anyway, but this one looks confused and helpless. About this time another pickup roars by, this time straddling the turtle. He still hasn’t budged from his spot. What I have to do now is clear. After all, I’m driving The Turtle, and here’s a helpless turtle in the middle of the road. If this isn’t a sign, then there’s no such thing as a sign. I get out and pick up the old guy and place him on the passenger side floor pan. By now he’s hiding inside his shell, which is probably a good thing. I don’t want him so scared that he takes a dump in my ride.

I drive a few miles until I spot an unpaved road that leads into a wooded area. I stop, walk about 20 feet beyond the tree line, and place my traveling pardner on the ground by a rock that looks like his twin. Maybe he’ll mistake it for a relative and stay put for a while. I make a U-turn, retrace my steps back to 281, and continue northward. I never saw the Longhorns, but hopefully I gave a little extra time to an addled old turtle.

As I drive away, I’m thinking this is karmic, and before this trip is done, lord knows I’m probably gonna need a little help. Little did I know.