Saturday, December 26, 2009

Death of a Dune Buggy

Originally drafted in February 2007, posted here with an epilogue...

        My dune buggy died today. Cause of death: self immolation. Coming as it did at a time of personal transition (selling our home in Southern Baja, contemplating a new life further south in Central America, and with development threatening our hallowed East Cape surf breaks), the demise of my buggy marked, for me at least, the end of an era.

        Ironically, at the time of its death the buggy never looked or ran better. It had just come back from the mechanic for assorted spa treatments, and upon its return I devoted the better part of a week to stripping, prepping, priming and painting it a sparkly metal-flake teal; plus brand-new seat covers, surfboard tie-downs, plexi-glass windshield, floor mats, and more. Pieces of used windshield were zip-tied over the frame as side armor, and a whole used windshield hinged down in front like an engine hood, with a cut-out for Rudy (my god dog) who sat between passenger’s feet. Rudy loved going surfing more than anything in the world (he napped in the shade of the buggy while we paddled out).
        I’ve been a Baja rat for years—mostly mid-winter windsurf junkets after I’d shipped the last of my Holiday Season orders—but I didn’t learn to surf waves until moving there, after selling my outdoor gear manufacturing business in '96. My new home was the remote East Cape village of Cabo Pulmo—best known for its tropical coral reef, exceptional diving and fishing, and for the raw “nortes” that blow through every winter, transforming the waters over the reef into a whacky wavy playground for windsurfers. Come spring the winds died down, and some of my neighbors strapped boards onto buggies and headed South around the curve of the coast in search of waves. 
        One of these neighbors was surf legend Bing Copeland. At the time, I didn’t know he was a legend—I just knew him as the kindly gent with the silver-fox hair, beautiful collection of surfboards, and funny little green dune buggy. I got invited along and learned to surf in warm uncrowded waves among senior surfers of many decades experience who offered advice and encouragement. “These are the good old days,” Bing would comment as we drove home from my early surf excursions. Giddy with glide, I was hooked. At the tender age of 45, I became a surfer-for-life. I got a board. I needed a buggy.
     It came to me by a circuitous route. Freshly-obsessed, my radar was tuned to all things surf. I spotted a buggy in the parking lot at Sam’s Automotive in San Jose del Cabo and impulsively asked its owner if he wanted to sell. “Naw,” came the reply, “but I can help you put one together.” We agreed to meet a week later. After a trip to a mechanic’s yard, paint store, and tapiceria (upholsterer), I forked over a few hundred dollars as a down payment to my new friend, knowing little more about him than his name (Steve) and cell phone number. Weeks went by with nothing but excuses. Then he just disappeared. I inquired at the real estate office where he claimed to work, and they gave me the phone number of a tire and wheel shop in San Diego. When I finally tracked Steve down, he explained that he had found God, and He had told him to move back to the States to help raise his daughter. Steve admitted to having blown off my buggy project, but to make up for it, I could have his old one (if I paid off his Mexican mechanic, who was holding it in hock). The Lord works in mysterious ways.
        Straightaway, my new buggy earned the name “Flicka” for its rather obnoxious habit of flinging fresh cow flop into the air, spraying boards and passengers alike. A windshield helped a lot (the first of many improvements), and I learned to weave and dodge around fresh piles of doogie. I also learned to issue a little disclaimer to new passengers just in case; “If you get hosed, don’t take it personal, shit happens.”
        In addition to being a symbol of my new status as a surfer (at the time I had no idea what a kook I really was), the buggy was my passage into the world of motorsport. I’d never indulged the motor-thrill phase of male adolescence. An ardent environmentalist, I chose “purer” sports like backpacking and climbing, eschewing motorcycles and that ilk. Suddenly, I found myself in possession of a great big fire-breathing toy—an open-frame, four-seater sandrail with a high-performance VW engine and big fat sand tires. I had no idea how much fun I’d been missing! Getting to the beach was almost as exciting as riding waves. I drove the buggy too fast (apologies to my passengers during those early seasons), frequently winding up with cracks in the frame or other mechanical calamities.
        One of the most unforgettable incidents was driving home from the shop that very first day. As I readied to leave my mechanic pointed out the lack of a license plate. “No problema,” as he squatted beside an old refrigerator that served as a tool and parts cabinet, pulling out a long-expired California plate. (I later learned the trick of scanning and making color copies of the current year sticker and affixing it onto the license plate with double-stick tape; make a bunch, because they fade after a few weeks.) That first drive home was fun, if uneventful, until I turned into my driveway using the cutting brake, a lever that locks up one rear wheel and sets the buggy into a skidding turn. I executed the maneuver OK, but hadn't noticed the white van sitting in the shade of the tamarisk tree a few dozen meters away. A fat policeman got out, walked up, pointed to the skid mark, and told me, “Es grande problema” (mind you, the nearest pavement is 10km away).
        “How big a problema?” I asked, discretely positioning myself between the fat cop and my license plate. He pulled out a photocopy of the fine schedule and settled on one costing 300 Pesos.
        “No problema,” I told him, pulling out 300P.
        “No,” he said, “You have to come to the police station.”
        “No,” I replied, pushing the money at him, hoping to avoid further scrutiny of my license plate.
        Frowning as he took the money, he said, “Venga conmigo,” and I followed him to the police van. There was a rapid-fire exchange of Spanish between my fat cop and his two compadres who’d been snoozing in the van. “If you don’t come to the police station, we can’t give you a receipt,” they explained.
        “No problema, I don’t need a receipt.”
        More machinegun Spanish. “If we don’t give you a receipt, there’s a descuento,” whereupon they handed me back 100P. (I swear this really happened.)
        Another time driving home from the mechanic (again!) with my friend Kent, we stopped on our way out of town to pick up libation for our upcoming New Year’s Eve fiesta (my especialidad de la casa was margarita served out of a 5-gallon water dispensers; “con sal o sin sal?”). We stashed the cases of tequila in the overhead gear basket and headed out of San Jose del Cabo at dusk on a rough dirt track that cut to the coast. Suddenly, we were attacked by a Ninja warrior cow—black as the night, it dove off the bank as we motored by, forcing us to brake and swerve, narrowly missing us as it cleared the front wheels. Nearing home, we pulled over for a pit stop, and it started raining—cheap tequila! The boxes had overturned and the contents mostly broken, but our rapid forward momentum had sheltered us from the cloudburst. Fortunately, we still had a few days before the party to make another town run to replenish supplies.
        Once, on returning from a fun morning session at Distiladera, Brian reached up for his board, and it was gone! The shock cord hold-down-a-ma-jobbie had let loose at the cleat, and we never even noticed! We raced back to the break, scanning the road, waving down oncoming vehicles. Nothing. We returned home slowly, inspecting gullies and washouts; noting a remarkable quantity of old car parts, but no board (adding insult to injury, a rear wheel bearing had blown during our hurried return, and it screamed at us the whole time). We put the word out on the Baja telegraph: Lost: One 9’-0” Bing, clear finish, in grey board sock. Any local surfer would have known to return a Bing to Cabo Pulmo. But it never showed up. Someone—an AVA probably—had scored. (Rental vehicles in Baja have license plates with the prefix “AVA”, marking them as tourists; definitely not locals. Recently they’ve added AVBs to the fleet, but they’re still all AVAs to us; as in, “The surf was decent today, but there were lots of AVAs out.”)
        One of the most bizarre incidents occurred one solo morning. I was cruising along when something on the right caught my eye—something that looked like my front wheel! Glancing ahead, I saw the naked stub axel suspended off the ground, dipping and rising as though on an invisible tire. I braked and the wheel raced ahead! I eventually caught up as it spiraled to a stop in the middle of the road. I threw it into the buggy and backtracked by foot looking for bearings and stuff. I actually found most of the parts and returned to the buggy, only to find that the left rear tire had gone completely flat! I limped home on the flat-and-phantom diagonal tire pattern. (The physics of the freaky phantom wheel is easily explained: The sandrail design puts most of the vehicle weight—engine, transaxle, gas tank—aft behind the rear suspension. The fat rear tires do all the work of propulsion and braking, while the dinky little front wheels just spin; you can actually lift the front of the rig off the ground without much effort. If there’d been a heavy-weight in the passenger seat when the wheel abandoned ship, the outcome would’ve been a bit harsher!)
        There were plenty other incidents of barely limping home or ditching the buggy and hitching home to fetch truck and towbar. But after a time, Flicka and I settled into an easy equilibrium. The motor-thrill novelty wore off, and I drove with a lighter foot. Frame cracks and falling-off wheels became a thing of the past. My buggy was just the way I got to the beach, so I could do the thing I loved best. Even as I was prepping and painting the buggy this past week, I was filled with nostalgia. I was moving on, but Flicka needed and deserved this makeover, so I just did it. Ironically, it was the makeover that led to his demise: Among the “spa treatments” I’d ordered the previous week was a shut-off valve at the gas tank. With the tank situated above the engine, changing a gas filter inevitably meant spurting gasoline. “Couldn’t find a valve”, quipped mechanic Mike Quade when I picked up the buggy, “just pinch the hose shut with a Vise-Grips; that’s what we do.” So when I drained the tank to remove it for the paint job, Vise-Grips did the trick.
        Ready at last, Rudy (my god dog), Kent (Rudy’s real dad) and I headed out for an early morning surf. Paint was sparkly, upholstery fresh and comfy, new windshield crystal clear, engine running strong, boards securely snugged with new tie-downs; Flicka was having a proud day. Rudy yelped with excitement—his first buggy ride in weeks—as he jumped between Kent’s feet and poked his head out his hole, ears flapping in the breeze as we pulled out. 
        Just past Boca de Salado I asked Kent, “Do you smell gas?” “Naw,” he replied, “Just some of the new paint burning off.” Then the engine stuttered and stalled. We got out, only to witness a small fire erupt where gas dripped from the ruptured hose onto the hot engine—the Vise-Grips had damaged it! I threw my gallon jug of rinse water onto the flames, but they were unimpressed. The blaze grew stronger as the gas hose disintegrated, fed by the full tank of gas draining onto the hot engine. “Let’s get the boards off,” I said as the flames grew. The lovely metal-flake teal fumed and crinkled as flames crept up into the gear basket. An exploding can of Fix Flat shocked me into the realization that this was the end of the buggy! All the plastic stuff started to burn—beach chairs and umbrellas, jumper cable insulation and tow rope, surf rack pads and tie-downs, tires and upholstery, windshield and anti-cow-flop armor—producing thick billows of acrid black smoke, punctuated by loud "pops" as shock absorbers blew, the draining gas tank egging it all on, as we looked on in fascinated horror. Eventually the reinforced rubber gooseneck of the gas tank burned away, and it blew spectacularly, scorching the surrounding vegetation. All that was left was a smoldering black hulk, two guys, two boards, and a bewildered little dog sitting by the side of the road.
        In shock I hitched home to get my truck and a heavy chain, this time to drag the buggy off to what I assumed would be its final resting place. For years there’d been a rusted-out VW bus by the side of the road near Boca de Tule, not far from where the buggy had burned. A few years before, the derelict bus became an objet d'art when, overnight, someone had spray-painted it assorted shades of aqua and graffiti-scrawled on the side panel “Nasal Passage” (punk surf-speak for a tube ride). I thought Nasal would be a perfect companion for Flicka, sort of like old-folks-home cronies. I envisioned stopping by once in a while on the way back from surfing to tie on plastic flowers, in true Mexican fashion. But that was not to be. A few days after the buggy burned to a crisp, it disappeared. Somebody must’ve seen the salvage value and snatched it. Oh well! End of an era for me, but just maybe the beginning for someone else…

        Epilogue—Rise of the Phoenix:  We had recently sold our Baja home when Flicka burned; the deal clincher had been a buggy trip to a mysto secret surf spot. Scott, the buyer (and a surfer), was as bummed by the loss as much as I was. Then, several weeks after the sad affair, the toasted hulk was spotted on the junk pile of one of the ranchos on our beach route. Despite being burned, the frame, engine, and transaxle were probably still serviceable. I asked Scott if he might be interested in rebuilding the beast. Yes! The rancher was obliging, even hoisting the hulk into the air with his backhoe while I maneuvered the bed of my pickup underneath. The cost estimate and timeframe for the rebuild were off by orders of magnitude—not only did the transaxle need rebuilding, but the engine failed shortly after the first round of work was done—with nearly a year lapsing from when I first suggested the rebuild. By the time the buggy was back in business, Scott was pursuing business interests in Chile, leaving the buggy dry-docked in his new garage.
        I was back in Baja this past fall and emailed Scott in Chile, asking whether I might take the buggy for a spin, you know, for old time’s sake. And so it was, nearly three years later, that Rudy, Kent and I found ourselves on our way to the beach, completing the journey that had ended in flames. The buggy had been fully restored, and then stowed. We made it to the beach and back; played in smallish surf while Rudy enjoyed his customary nap in the shade of the buggy. But the ride felt unfamiliar—it had been painted candy-apple red (!), had no muffler (loud!), nor windshield, floor mats, or other of the fine-tuned accoutrements accumulated over years of use.  There really is no going back!

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