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When Kate Cook was 15 years old and beginning to search for her first car, her father, Eric, imposed only one requirement: Whatever Kate chose, it had to be four-wheel drive.

At the time, Kate’s family lived near Lake Arrowhead, a resort town tucked into the San Bernardino Mountains high above the surrounding deserts of Southern California. Known since its earliest days as a popular summer getaway for well-to-do Hollywood and Los Angeles business types, Lake Arrowhead and its surrounding hamlets—at least, once away from the immediate lake shore—have long offered an affordable change of pace for those seeking to escape the frenetic pace of city life. And unlike L.A., Lake Arrowhead experiences winter, complete with snow and ice. Eric was determined that whatever car his daughter chose, it had better get her home safely after she navigated those twisty mountain roads.

Even before her dad set his conditions, Kate had her heart set on a Jeepster Commando. She had seen them around the mountain and loved their shape. But how to find one that had not been completely disfigured? Aftermarket modifications tend to find their way to old Jeeps. After much searching, Kate and Eric located a 1966 Jeepster in the nearby desert town of Barstow, California, Upon bringing it home and digging into it more deeply, however, they discovered that they were the proud new owners of a rolling time bomb. Thus did Kate’s education in auto mechanics (and in some respects, adult life) begin.

Aaron McKenzie

Eric, who spent his career as a mechanic in the Air Force, taught Kate how to sift through every inch of the Jeepster as they diagnosed and remedied its many maladies. At the time they started to rebuild the engine, however, Kate did not even know how to change a tire or check the oil. She’d have to learn.

In the midst of this process, Eric and Kate’s mom, Cynthia, both fell ill with serious and debilitating health problems. Now unable to physically work on the Jeepster himself, Eric nevertheless came out to the garage with Kate everyday and, through his words, talked her through the process of reviving the 4×4. Both Kate and Eric are inveterate to-do list makers, which Kate—only half-jokingly—suggests is their way of trying to impose order on a chaotic world. Whatever its psychological roots, the systematic approach is certainly a habit which helped keep her focused and clear-headed through her parents’ illnesses.

“There was no timeframe for when my parents would get to be feeling better, or even if they ever would,” says Kate. “But with auto mechanics, there are steps and then you’re done, so with those lists I could check things off and that gave me a sense of stability.”

With the Jeepster on the road and her parents’ health improving, Kate eventually found her way to art school in Texas, where the vehicle once again shaped the course of her life.

Aaron McKenzie

“Around town I kept seeing this old-school Jeep, and then one day I saw this blond girl driving it,” says Kate’s husband, Morgan. “I thought, ‘Wow, I need to meet her!’”

Now in their fourth year of marriage, Kate’s and Morgan’s life together now frequently revolves around adventures in their Jeepster. Most of the time, owing to the old rig’s quirks, those adventures do not go as planned. That’s perfectly fine with Morgan and Kate.

“Most of the time we try to get to certain destinations but if we don’t, that’s okay,” says Morgan. “The trip is the trip, not the destination.”

Aaron McKenzie

Not surprisingly, this Jeepster is more than just four tires and a pile of metal for Kate, who now makes her living as an automotive artist and pinstriper. The Jeepster and the structure it brought it to her life taught her perseverance, helped get her through her parents’ illnesses, and ultimately led her to her husband. Little wonder, then, that Kate has no intentions of parting with this Jeep.

“I would never sell this Jeep,” says Kate. “If I ever couldn’t drive it, I would just park it out front and plant flowers in it. It’s just a time capsule for me and for my own family. It’s so sentimental to me.”

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