Against All Oddities: Road-tripping 1600 miles … to a junkyard?
The title here may be misleading. This was not an ordinary road trip, nor an ordinary junkyard. Not to me, anyway.
Approximately 125 years ago, a community of Protestant Germans living in southeastern Ukraine for four generations saw unpredictability on the horizon. Germans hate unpredictability. Rather than gamble on the outcome of a pending revolution, many figured their prospects would be brighter if they traveled via boat and then wagon train to the homesteaded ranch lands of North Dakota. Cold, yes, but safe.
They built grass huts and businesses. They spawned people who spawned people who spawned my family. How better to celebrate than a 125th anniversary celebration of their settlement?
I’ve never actually lived in Wishek, North Dakota. Still this small German-speaking town of 851 people—100 miles from a stoplight in any direction—remains a large part of my cultural identity. So, I keep going back. Maybe twenty times so far. I think it’s the people that bring me back, the history, the traditions. Ask my family and they’ll assure you: I go back for a junkyard.
For the record, it’s not just a junkyard. It’s Martell’s Auto Salvage, a glorious yard managed over the years by four generations. One hundred acres, 3000 cars, open since 1935. So, when my aunt posted in our family group chat with an invitation to come for a four day quasi-centennial blast, I packed my tools.
In completely and utterly unrelated news, my uncle there claimed that he needed some help prepping cars for the parade. The deal was officially sealed.
As you may have read several times before, these sorts of long-distance trips typically involve my lady, our rescued Romanian street dog, and 1990s Hobby 600 Fiat camper van. With such an influx of visitors, accommodations would be scarce. Thinking about the roughly 3500 miles and two weeks ahead of us, I started a checklist. Tools and ratchet straps? Always there. Functioning and clean toilet? Check. Relatively fresh oil? You bet. An alternator that actually charges the battery? Hmph. You got me there.
Remember when I rode my bike to a Spanish junkyard to get a replacement alternator on our pan-Southern Europe trip? Well, I still haven’t installed it. I did, however, find a workaround: redlining the motor for about 3 seconds, thereby jostling the voltage regulator from its slumber to charge for the remainder of the drive cycle, albeit at maybe 10 Amps. That’s not enough to run the wipers and the lights but enough to drive from sunup to sundown.
Rather than unwrapping the carpet snippets protecting the grease- and sand-encased Iveco engine, I’d ultimately like to do a GM 1-wire swap. Maybe just not the day before the trip. Something a bit quicker and dirtier would be required: living with it. The previous owner, who had made many of his own customizations, added a second battery cable to bring the auxiliary battery in parallel. This would yield a twice-as-long battery drain time while off the grid or driving in extreme conditions of drizzle or dark. Those footsteps seemed worthy of retracing so I attached one end to the starter and the other to the battery. Job done!
Rewinding to a couple weeks ago, the fresh oil filter—which I managed to ID as being shared with a New Holland tractor—had spun itself off in the Blue Ridge mountains. Luckily this all occurred at our camp site, and I noticed the oily abstract art it had created in the gravel. Under the watchful eye of fellow campers, I reached beneath the greasy undertray and gave it as much of a snug as my oily fingertips would allow. (I had not checked its tightness a second time. This will become relevant later!) Packed with an arsenal of tools primarily for junkyard activities, we hit the road.
As usual, the Hobby’s turbodiesel lumbered uneventfully through the foothills and mountains along I-77, 81, 64, and 35 through North Carolina, both Virginias, and into Ohio. Following the usual plan of bumming free nights in the fields of wineries and parking lots of breweries, we crashed (with approval) at a vineyard not far from Gallipolis, Ohio. Just I was unpacking the grill, I noted an oily zig-zag across the gravel lot. Uh oh, the abstract art again. I grabbed a rag and cinched it down as hard as possible without spitting the o-ring out the side.
The following day brought us to a brewery at Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin. This put the North Dakota border within reach by noon and arrival in Wishek by 4:00 p.m.—just enough time for my uncle to show me his finished ’58 Impala restoration and head to the town of Venturia for a small, unrelated celebration. It may sound odd, but the festivities that kicked off in the dirt streets of this 20-person town began with the arrival of 70 local cowboys towing a wagon train from Eureka, South Dakota, just as the first settlers had done. So of course we had to be celebrate with them. No car work today!
The next morning came early, as I planned on a big day of wrenching, seeing family, and attending as many of the local car shows, tractor pulls, and concerts as possible. Knowing where my interests lie, my uncle had called ahead to Martell’s Salvage and let them know I might be coming by. It would be fine, I was told, to just slide under the gate and go peruse the 100 acres. As any caring and thoughtful husband would do, I invited my wife on a junkyard date starting promptly at 9 a.m. The bug spray would be my treat. We traversed the roughly one mile through town, into the cemetery, around the sloughs, down Highway 3, and under the big red gate and found ourselves in the scrap iron wonderland.
Years ago, I had spoken with the then-owner, Mike Sr., about a 1959 Vauxhall Victor in the yard. At the time, I asked that he please not crush it and maybe one day I’d be back for it. Was this the time I was back for it?
Maybe. My main aim was an external sun visor. Possibly for my Moskvich, possibly for my Studebaker Lark, but mainly as a patina-rich souvenir from a place where you can drive for hundreds of miles with the sun in your eyes, not a tree or building to block the view. I think I’d like a reminder of that on the side of my barn.
While cruising through the hulks of metal, a side-by-side trundled up to the second gate, which we’d just crawled under. Uh-oh. Perhaps the message hadn’t been fully passed along that I would be scaling all manner of passive security devices to visit the sweet lovely rustbuckets I’ve been pining over since I was five.
“Hey, it’s me, Matt. My uncle called up here and said I’d be coming by,” I yelled as I glided down the slick prairie grass. Ross—Mike Sr.’s grandson—had seen me on the security cameras and decided to suss me out. Indeed, I was the sketchy character my uncle warned him about, so he let us be.
I mentioned to Ross that I was looking for a visor. He pointed me in several different directions, each of which I explored, coming up only with some heavily hail-damaged and far-too-large examples. I should also admit that I wasn’t really looking that hard and was more focused on balancing my wife on my shoulders as I trudged my way through deep mud and fragrant sagebrush, targeting a row containing a pair of Morris Minors and an Opel Olympia.
That was fun, but my desire to see that Victor again ultimately became too much to bear. I left her on the hood of a buried ’48 Chevrolet and sprinted off into the distance. It all paid off, too—I found my long-lost Vauxhall at the bottom of the row, significantly more perforated than in my memory. I decided to let it stay there.
After hitching a ride home in the bed of my uncle’s F-150, I got a text from Ross. He had, fortunately, found an external sun visor meeting my very stringent requirements. For a fair price, he would pull it and drop it off at our camper. We agreed, and “It’s the space van parked in the vacant lot next to the hunting shack on 10th” was enough detail for him to get it to us safely.
The visor won’t fit on the van, of course. But as we soak in endless miles of uninterrupted horizon on our trip, I’ll just be glad to have it with me.