I survived hitchhiking across the desert in the LeMons Hell on Wheels Rally
The last time I found myself in Death Valley was Christmas Eve, 1997, when I managed to pour molten wax on my face in the middle of the night and sealed my left eye shut. I spent the next miserable two hours standing before the polished stainless steel “mirror” of a campground bathroom with a headlamp and a Leatherman tool’s various implements painfully picking it all off, along with many, many eyelashes. Turns out it was the perfect precursor for my stint in the Hell on Wheels Rally nearly 20 years later.
Monterey Car Week needs another event like it needs another hole in its head. You know, if it had holes in its head. Or a head. Because there are already about 13,527 events on the Peninsula that week. But then, those idiots from LeMons — you know, the 24 Hours of LeMons guys, the Concours d’LeMons guys — come along and throw a new fixture into the already-way-too-long mix: Hell on Wheels.
Among the foolishly adventurous types around Hagerty HQ, there was much giddiness upon receiving the official announcement last spring. A rally for crap cars? From Monterey to Nevada to Death Valley and back? Sign me up, I said, because I am an adventurous fool.
I didn’t actually want to drive, however. I wanted to ride along. I wanted the hitchhiking, backseat passenger experience, because I am extra dumb. And masochistic.
Still, I emailed organizer Steve McDaniel to pitch my romantic idea as the hitchhiking embedded journalist, and he was sold — with the understanding that if no one offered me a ride out of the parking lot in Pacific Grove on day one, I was basically screwed. And if I failed to get a ride out of any subsequent legs, I was comprehensively screwed. How much is an Uber from Las Vegas to Monterey, again?
I’m a smooth talker, I thought. I’d be fine. But really, I’m the farthest thing from a smooth talker. I suck at sales and hate asking people for things, so I knew there’d be a lot of bumbling and nervousness and “So, um, uh, how big’s your back seat,” the connotations of which are clear to me.
At check-in the night before the rally started, I disqualified a bunch of cars from the beginning. The ’02 Hyundai with the rear mounted Honda generator and window air conditioning unit, for example. You pack that stuff in your tiny trunk and your back seat fills up fast. And the two guys from Texas in the ’96 Sentra, who’d be sleeping in the car, had every tool imaginable with them, filling both trunk and back seat. The duo from Kamloops, B.C., in the shortened, roofless Ford Festiva were also out, much as I wanted to cram myself into that awesome little rig and ride into eternity.
Enter the Cougar Patrol, a ’79 Mercury piloted by Jim, Jacob and Nadeem, a trio of Reno software engineers who rolled into check-in with the eBay-sourced light bar ablaze, the siren hooting, and “Please disperse!” coming from the PA system. Those dudes were legit and, as luck would have it, had space enough for me and my duffel, so my first order of business was handled: I’d at least make it off the Monterey Peninsula.
Each day of the five-day rally had a primary checkpoint, and there was also a heavy scavenger hunt component, with each team assigned a mascot of some sort — plush toys, plastic animals, an Estwing rock hammer. Teams earned points by snapping photos with the mascot in front of these checkpoints, which sometimes included mountain pass signs but mostly consisted of kitschy roadside attractions. Stop the car, snap the pic, upload it to the LeMons Rally Facebook page, proceed.
The Cougar Patrol — whose car they named Brandi (sadly, this font doesn’t allow me to dot the “i” with a little heart, but that’s the correct spelling) — carried a tiny purple Pegasus, which they also named Brandi with a hearted “i”, and all day long we meandered from place to place earning points. We hit the giant rodeo hats in Salinas. We hit the Hilmar Cheese factory, which required us to pick up a pound of cheese; we chose a tub of curds called “Squeaky Cheese.” We hit the Folsom Prison gift shop, which is split just about 50/50 between prison stuff and Johnny Cash stuff. Then we headed east on Highway 50 for the big climb up the Sierras to Echo Summit, our primary checkpoint.
Fear of the car’s tired, loud, side-piped 351 V-8 overheating meant the team had outfitted Brandi with an auxiliary cooling unit, namely a dashtop button connected to a jug of water with a pump that sprayed the radiator through a garden irrigation system. At one stop in the 97-degree heat of the eastern Sierras, the team turned the jets on themselves. Auxiliary cooling for everyone!
The crappiest mod to a car loaded with crap mods — not even counting the exceedingly terrible parking lot tint job at an O’Reilly in Turlock — was invariably the nitrous kit. It too had its own awkwardly mounted dashtop button. The $500 system on a $700 car may seem excessive (it is) and mostly useless (it was), but the team assured me they’d cut no wires or tubing, so they could remove the whole shebang and walk away before pushing the car off a cliff, abandoning it in the desert to disintegrate or simply setting it ablaze.
Sadly, they’d do none of those things. By day two’s start in 102-degree Fallon, Nev., real fears of dying in the car, en route across the barren state, forced them to quit and head back to Reno. They were the rally’s first, but not last, casualty.
It was time to start begging again. That’s when I approached Jim and David with my awkward, bumbling pitch. The 55-year-old twins from southern Arizona took pity on me in their tattered 1959 Edsel Ranger, though Jim cautioned me they weren’t doing day two’s “Sensible Grownup Route” from Fallon to Vegas. No, they were taking the alternate “Ridiculous Idiot Route” across Nevada on Highway 50 — The Loneliest Road in America — to Ely, then down to Vegas, 500-plus miles to gain maximum points crossing eight passes in the wilds of the Basin and Range topography that defines so much of the state. How could I protest?
Where the Cougar had been a raucous dumpster fire of a car, the Edsel was a surprisingly wonderful way to cross the desert. Despite its pulled-from-a-field looks, it was a 61,000-mile car with a 292-cid Y-block V-8 that ran perfectly at a cool 180 degrees. The brothers referred to it as a “cream puff.” It was not without its Frankenstein element, however. Jim prepped it by replacing parts with others lying around his property.
That meant a three-speed overdrive transmission from a 1955 Ford, the fuel tank and sending unit from an old Chevy, a Cadillac’s 8-track player and a horn fabricated from a doorbell and a block of 2×4, among others. During the course of our day together, I came to understand that these two natural tinkerers (they are both engineers by trade) can design and build just about anything. In his spare time, David makes wristwatches from old cathode tubes, while Jim builds altered wheelbase drag cars that happen to appear on the cover of the September ’16 issue of Hot Rod.
For long stretches, the road is unbending and flat, and Jim holds the Edsel at an even 70 though the speedometer, which pivots from the bottom of the gauge, bounces like a metronome between 60 and 80. Back and forth, back and forth.
We pass the miles listening to an assortment of 8-tracks David bought in a lot of 2,000 off eBay — a collection called Super Rock, the jingle-jangle of Martin Denny, ABBA’s Voulez Vous. “If you’re going to ride in a bad car,” he says, “you should listen to bad music.” To get each to play, he has to reach under the dash and spin the player’s heavy flywheel with his fingers, because “old motors tend to get stuck.” There is a trick to everything on this car.
To our great delight, crossing the Nevada desert isn’t nearly as hot as yesterday’s trip up to Sacramento, with temps hanging in the high 80s until we are into Ely for lunch and a transmission flush thanks to a finicky overdrive. In fact, the only real discomfort in our windows-down ride are the many instances when particles from the brittle 57-year-old fabric interior find their way into our eyes. There’s also the fact that as the water boy, tasked with fetching warm bottles for the brothers from the warm cooler beside me in the warm back seat, I must also stare into the face of their own one-pound block of Hilmar cheese (they chose pepper jack), now actively melting within its packaging into a new and scarier shape each time I peek inside. Still, it’s a small price to pay for a free ride.
The brothers get maximum points for the day shooting Spiro Agnew, their plastic hippopotamus, at passes named Hickson and Pinto and Pancake, Little Antelope and Robinson, and they finish day two at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas in 3rd place overall.
In the bar that night, I find my next mark, and this time it’s easy. I am getting this. “Sloan,” I say. “If I buy you a whiskey can I ride in your car tomorrow?” Sloan’s rolling solo on the rally, and like that, I’ve secured shotgun — a front seat of my own! — in a black ’91 Mercedes-Benz 190e with a broken a/c unit, no reverse and a Firebird’s screaming chicken decal on the hood. “You can’t adjust the seats, either,” he adds. I won’t complain; I’ve got a ride to Bakersfield for day three.
I never wanted this to be easy. I’m a mooch and don’t deserve it. There are a handful of rental cars on this thing, and Adam and Donnie in the Chrysler 300 have already let me know I’m welcome anytime, though I’d have to climb in through a back window because they’ve wrapped much of the car, including the rear doors, with blue painter’s tape. “We were supposed to get a two-door, but they were out of them,” Adam told me before the rally kicked off. “So we decided to make our own.” But the 300 is a last resort, my fallback car, the Harvard to my University of Phoenix. I’ll gladly (stupidly?) suffer through Death Valley in a black Mercedes with broken a/c.
Turns out, yeah, it’s a really stupid idea. So stupid, because Death Valley in August is hot. Like, absurdly hot. Fry-an-egg-on on the asphalt hot. Molten-wax-in-your-eye hot. In the route book, they’ve named the stage “The Incredibly Bad Idea.” And it is. It is a bad idea to drive a crap car through this place right now. Not nearly as bad, however, as it is to ride an underpowered motorcycle, as Jeff in full leathers (and a Luigi outfit) on his 200cc Yamaha dual sport discovers. He is the lone motorcyclist on the rally, and by the end of the day, the guys in the Team Premature Combustion 1978 Mercedes 240D will find him on his back beneath a tree and convince him to abandon the stage and join them before he dies. One of their own rides the bike out to Bakersfield.
As for Sloan and me, we watch his twin thermometers as the outside and inside temps climb and keep climbing and keep on climbing some more, all the way to 118 and 126 degrees respectively, with 10% humidity, by the time we reach the checkpoint at Natural Bridge. “I don’t think the display is capable of showing negative humidity,” he says.
Natural Bridge includes a half-mile hike. I let Sloan handle that one while I snap photos of other fools making their way up the long, soft, deeply washboarded rocky road that delivers us to the base of the peaks framing this terrible, beautiful place. Beyond them, the bleached plain and distant reddish mountains conjure up a Martian landscape or, closer to home, the remotest parts of Mongolia.
Sloan and I are both semi-intelligent people, so we are not without plenty of water. Gallons and gallons, in fact, and some of it is even cold. We are, however, without paper maps. Remember those? In a place with negative cellular coverage to match its humidity, we two imbeciles make a wrong turn coming off the slope, completely miss the day’s primary checkpoint at Badwater Basin (282 feet below sea level, if you’re scoring at home), and just keep driving. And driving. And driving. None of the viewpoints off the Highway 178 match what we’re looking for in the route book, but that doesn’t stop us. His car on this road is fantastic, with its compliant suspension and excellent 2.6-liter straight-six. It just eats the turns like no ’59 Edsel ever could, and so we keep going. “I mean, this has to be the right way, right?” He said it or I said it or we both said it in our heat-stroke haze, but we were both way too uncomfortable to care after a certain point. We would drive until it took us someplace, any place and we didn’t care where that was.
Turns out it was the tiny town of Shoshone, just outside the park’s southern end. We pull up to the gas station and there is the sparkle green VW Beetle with Levi at the wheel. Instantly we are reassured. “You guys lost?” he says.
“I don’t think so,” I say, because I am reassured.
“Yeah you are,” he says. He shows us his map, which is paper, because we are still without cell coverage. Levi is not lost. He is leaving the route to go visit his dad in Barstow and came this way because he knew what he was doing. Sloan and I are defeated; it will be a 90-minute drive back from whence we came if we want to rejoin the stage. We agree that sounds terrible, give up on the day, and instead make haste for that night’s hotel in Bakersfield, via Baker, via Barstow, via the lovely landscape and sad, failed places dotting it along I-15 and Highway 58.
Every parcel we pass is a graveyard of some kind. A long-dead Stuckey’s. A dozen faded USPS mail jeeps. Three clustered single-wides, brittle and windowless and slumped as they sit. U.S. army surplus steel drums by the hundred turned into a front yard fence. Every other house boarded or burned out or tagged with graffiti. Who ever thought it was a good idea to set up shop out here? Who ever hoped to thrive?
At the check-in dinner that night, James walks into the restaurant carrying the massive grille from his 2001 Dodge Ram diesel. He then regales us with the story of a hood flung against his windshield at 60 mph. Because he’s alive and standing before us holding that grille in the middle of Goose Loonies Tavern, we think it’s much funnier than he does. He’s still shaking from the experience. His windshield, too, is a bit shattered and he’ll spend half the next morning replacing it. But at least he’s here. We soon learn that a few cars got stuck in Death Valley on the road to Trona Pinnacles (+10–35 points for reenacting Star Trek V scene were Kirk meets God). The Texas boys in the Sentra buried it to the frame and wouldn’t get towed out until midnight, while the team in the gold Jag faired worse; group strife and near fisticuffs ended their rally.
Before Hell on Wheels even started, which I can barely remember through the heat mirage of the last few days, Alan in the 1964 Humber Super Snipe had offered me a spot. I take him up on it for day four. Like the Edsel twins, unlike Sloan, Alan is in it to win it and seeking maximum points from the stage. Before leaving his home in L.A., however, his friends doubted he’d even make the start. Even Alan himself was unsure. That’s life in a $380 Super Snipe, I suppose — one of two he purchased from eBay after they’d been hauled off a llama farm in Rancho Cucamonga.
In the early morning hours of the hotel parking lot, Alan starts it with a hand crank inserted through the lower grille, something he doesn’t need to do but does anyway for maximum effect. I’d give him bonus points if I were judging.
Though he rebuilt the engine himself, with parts sourced from the other Humber plus the tiny, shrinking network of worldwide Humber owners, it sounds like a tumbler full of gravel, with maybe one or two bigger rocks thrown in too. And it goes that way, too — not because of Alan’s craftsmanship but likely because of Humber’s, or simply the incalculable forces of the universe converging on this silly little English orphan. Fully prepped and caged for use in LeMons racing, the Super Snipe is absolutely the slowest race car on planet earth, its 3-liter hemi straight-six making just enough power to take it all the way up to 74 mph. It’s also a great reminder of just how awkward it is to use a racecar as a regular car, and getting in and out will nearly break me by the end of the day.
Our route takes us into Kern County’s vast oilfields, where the air smells like a Jiffy Lube only more competent, and giant bobbing derricks outnumber wildlife by a factor of 10. Further on, we make our way toward the junction of highways 46 and 41, that fast, 30-degree coming together where 61 years ago James Dean destroyed himself and his little silver Porsche all at once. We stay on 41 and take it southwest, up and over and down and around the low grassy hills that make up so much of rural California. The road is empty and incredible, with all the positive camber turns you could ever dream of. Shame to waste it in a car not nearly as sporting as its name might suggest. Alan’s enjoying his fight against the sloppy, heavy steering and the searching BorgWarner two-speed, but even he recognizes the missed opportunity. “I’d love to do this in a decent car,” he yells.
At a checkpoint at the Mission San Antonio de Padua, smack dab in the middle of Fort Hunter Liggett, I catch my first glimpse of “Moon Unit,” the 1989 Ford Aerostar that has topped the leaderboard since day one. Zane and Erica, who flew in from Georgia the day before the rally began and then bought the thing off Craigslist in San Jose for $360, explain the funnels and tubing attached to each A-pillar, because of course I asked. And of course it all makes sense, LeMons-wise: The right side rigging runs down and underneath the van to the overheating transmission; the left side runs to the front of the radiator and its corresponding overheating engine. Zane drives, Erica fills each funnel with water sourced from two giant Rubbermaid bins behind the front seats. It is this level of engineering that earned the team enough discretionary bonus points to give them their lead.
And it’s this kind of engineering — similar to the Cougar Patrol’s irrigation system — that helps define so much of the Hell on Wheels Rally. David and Sean, the father-son team from Monterey, are driving a ’51 Willys with a turbocharged Volvo four, along with all the makeshift fabrication and drivetrain solutions required to make it all go. Brett and Billy in the ’96 Sentra did a midnight brake job in a Fernley, Nev., Wal-Mart’s parking lot. Ed and Alan, who came to hate each other in the ’96 Jaguar XJ12, put a portable home a/c unit where the passenger seat used to be, plus a massive inverter to power it. But the gist is the same: How can we turn this piece of crap into something even worse while not committing inadvertent suicide in the process?
By early afternoon, Alan, the Humber and I are fixtures in the 101’s slow lane for a dull freeway jaunt north along the Salinas River through the lower half of the most fertile valley in the world. We pass mile after mile of green and purple cabbage on the verge of harvest, romaine fields busy with farm hands laying irrigation piping, as well as row after row on another cycle and only now just sprouting with brilliant green leaves wholly unidentifiable at 65 mph. We will eat them soon enough.
Santa Cruz is our final destination and indeed the rally’s official terminus. But we know the last 40 miles of the leg will be the slowest, because at Salinas we’ll cut over to the coast, to Highway 1, and by the time we get there, it’s 5:30. On a Friday. During Monterey Car Week. The route notes specify +5 bonus points for each rental RV you get stuck behind, but we have no such luck. Just an endless parade of uninteresting cars.
That night, rally master McDaniel awaits us all beneath the Sky Glider on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. He wears the grin of a man who knows he’s onto something. Or maybe he’s just pleased that no one died. Regardless, we all know he’s onto something, too, and he assures us there are more rallies to come. The east coast in February, he hints.
The final checkpoint had been the egg “vending machine” at nearby Glaum Ranch, and as each team arrives and sets its flat of 18 farm fresh eggs on the table for the last points, we all start to ask the same ridiculous question: What the hell are we going to do with 600 eggs?
In the morning, I’ll hitch my last ride — in an ’88 Volvo 240 painted with white house paint and foam rollers — to a lot alongside Laguna Grande Park and the Concours d’LeMons, where the rally cars will easily outshine (outdull?) any of the trailer queens brought there for mere display. McDaniel stands atop the Moon Unit Aerostar to present trophies. “In true LeMons fashion,” he proclaims, “they’re made of busted-ass car parts.”
Sure enough, the Aerostar with its NASA livery and janky, high-maintenance dual cooling system went the distance and claimed the top prize. But it turns out I chose wisely in my mooching these last several days. Jim and David in the Edsel take the trophy for 3rd place, which Jim displays proudly on the hood, right beside a FOR SALE sign ($250,000). And Alan in the Humber — the only 24 Hour of LeMons race car in the event — takes home his own hardware — the Puppy with No Name trophy. He is thrilled.
It’s hard to imagine a better, more awful way to spend Monterey Car Week than bumming rides in garbage cars through 1,500 miles of utter desolation, desperation and dehydration in the western desert. And I can’t even call the people who subjected themselves and their rides to such punishment a special breed or a tough bunch or any other qualifier that somehow elevates their status. Nope, it turns out they’re just car people like the rest of us. They just happened to be up to one incredibly stupid, monumentally fun challenge.
Sure, McDaniel was happy no one died and ecstatic we all had the great time he hoped we would. Me? I was perfectly content to hop between some interesting old cars and learn their fascinating stories firsthand. I also gave myself 10 points for not pouring hot wax in my eye again.