When I bought my Jeep Grand Cherokee in September 2003, I told all my friends I’d planned to drive it until I drove it into the ground. I just didn’t expect to be at the wheel when that happened.
It was only the second new car I’d bought in my life. I knew I was starting a new job working for the Florida Trail Association, so although I was a little nervous about taking on a car payment, I also knew I needed reliable transportation for the daily commute and my ongoing rambles around Florida.
I hadn’t planned to buy another Jeep. The used one I owned I gave up on after putting 30,000 miles on it. As I was returning home from giving a talk at Bill Jackson’s, it decided it wasn’t going to go any faster than second gear. It had less than 70,000 miles on it. The transmission repair cost was outrageous for a car I’d owned for less than two years. And this was the second SUV in a row that gave me grief.
Still, somehow, I found myself talked into another Jeep. Fortunately, being the only owner, I knew how to baby it. And I did.
I was in the thick of researching “Hiker’s Guide to the Sunshine State” at the time, and just finishing up “The Florida Trail: The Official Hiking Guide.” Four years before, when I started writing hiking guides, it was time to give up the only other new car I’d owned, a 1991 Caprice wagon. It had a growing list of issues I didn’t want to fix, and it didn’t have enough clearance for the forest roads I was driving down. After I almost got stuck deep in the Apalachicola National Forest, I gave in to selling it to my brother. It was 11 years old, with almost 200,000 miles.
I expected this new Jeep to go farther. And it did. It outlasted a relationship, and my job at FTA. It saw me through researching 14 books, as I drove from one end of Florida to the other, over and over again. When I car camped, it was my emergency shelter when the rains got bad.
I felt a certain responsibility with a vehicle that could carry four more hikers and their gear. So each Big O from 2003 on, I’d volunteer to be one of the drivers doing key swaps. Usually every day of the hike. It became a regular part of the Big O Hike, year after year. I remember squeezing at least eight hikers inside once, with two or three in the back deck.
I met John in 2011 on the Big O Hike. Learning he was a car guy, like my Dad, I didn’t mind him driving my Jeep to a trailhead to walk back towards me with the keys. That evening, he asked me if I could drive a stick shift. “Why?” I asked. “Because I have a Miata you can use if you need to,” he said. He was flabbergasted that I had so many miles on my Jeep back then.
Still, it kept going. Sure, I poured a lot of repairs into it over the years, but none were those outrageous ones (like a new transmission) that start you thinking about replacement. Once it was paid off, it became easier to justify a few repairs a year versus a new car payment.
I rarely let anyone else behind the wheel, except at the Big O Hike. And I rarely took it out of state. In 12 years, it left Florida less than a dozen times, mainly to go to conferences and for a couple of trips with my parents. I took Mom and Dad on a road trip up to Tennessee, and after Dad passed, a month-long trip with Mom to visit gardens throughout the Southeast. Less than a tenth of its miles were put on beyond Florida’s borders.
So I was eager to see that quarter-million mile mark coming up. After John and I became a couple, I drove it less and less, since his Honda Accord got double the gas mileage. We’d use it to visit my family, since they live down rough dirt roads in the country. We’d use it for trail research when we knew we were going off pavement. And I still brought it down to the Big O, following Primrose, as a shuttle vehicle.
About two months ago, I made plans to drive to Okeechobee to meet my friend Phyllis and do some hiking for a new book. The odometer had been creeping closer and closer to that magic number on each trip to see Mom. But on our last trip to North Florida, there’d been a little problem. We stopped for lunch on the way to Kanapaha Gardens, and I smelled something burning. Oil.
After lunch, we looked under the Jeep and saw a small puddle. Nothing to worry too much about, so we finished our garden visit, dropped Mom off, and went home. A few days later, we took it to the shop, knowing I was headed to Okeechobee. Our mechanic put it up on the rack and noted where there was a small leak, but again, nothing serious. He did an oil change, and I drove home.
Every time I drive to Okeechobee, I follow the route of the Florida Trail. I was fortunate, back in 2000, to hike the trail through Deseret Ranch while it was still a footpath. It’s been a roadwalk since 2001, when the ranchers kicked the trail off their land. It’s still a scenic drive, but a tough roadwalk. Watching the miles tick past as I headed south, I knew I’d hit the quarter-million mark somewhere along the Florida Trail in Deseret.
And indeed, right at the corner of Nova Road and Deer Park Road, my trusty Jeep turned over 250,000 miles on the odometer. I pulled off and jumped out of the car to take a picture of the location for my Mom, happy I was on the Florida Trail when it happened.
The Kenansville Store is a regular stop for me on these trips, so that was the next time I stopped the engine. When I stepped out of the Jeep, I saw smoke billowing out from under the undercarriage. I called John, but the call went to voicemail. “I think I have a problem here.”
I kept driving. I noticed more smoke billowing when I had to stop for the traffic light at Yeehaw Junction. It was oil burning, no mistake about it. It was also getting hard to see out the back window. Not for the smoke, but it was filthy. I ran the wipers, and it got worse. I pulled off again in Fort Drum, only to discover the window – and the rear of the Jeep – were covered in oil. It took a lot of paper towels to clean it enough so I could see through the window.
Since Okeechobee was much closer than home, I decided to keep going, especially as the engine gauges weren’t showing a drop in oil pressure or a rise in engine temperature. John called back and reminded me of a mechanic we knew there. Just in case. As I stopped at each traffic light in Okeechobee, the smoke got worse and worse.
I met Phyllis at Uncle Larry’s for lunch and told her the story. “You’ll have to drive the next few days,” I said. After an afternoon hike and the opportunity for the Jeep to cool down from the drive, I checked the oil, and looked underneath it. It was leaking far more than it did the week before, hence the smoke. John suggested getting some stop leak and topping the oil back up, which I did.
For my ride home, I’d planned to have a passenger. Denali, who’d just finished a southbound thru-hike of the Florida Trail, was meeting us in Okeechobee and dropping a rental car off so I could help her get to the FTA Annual Conference, where she could catch a ride back home to Niceville. When she showed up, I explained the situation with my Jeep. “I’m going to try to make it to Titusville,” I said. She was game.
By the time we reached the outskirts of Fort Drum, it was billowing smoke again. We stopped at a little gas station and bought all of the 10W40 they had. I topped off the oil with it. In Kenansville, we did the same thing, discovering that although the Kenansville Country Store didn’t sell oil, their hardware store next door did. Despite the heat and the smoke, I drove with the windows down so as not to tax the engine farther with the air conditioner.
Denali had hiked the Western Corridor on her southbound thru, so she was pretty happy to see what the eastern side of the Florida Trail looked like. I pointed out trailheads and the route of the roadwalk, which she said that her son, Chris, hiked after dark. “He’s from Alaska,” she said. “He’s used to being in the dark.”
At Christmas, I did one last top-off on the oil for the last ten miles across the St. Johns River floodplain. John was there to meet me when I pulled up at the house. “I think this is it,” I said. We transferred our things to the Honda, and took Denali with us as we headed north.
My Jeep sat for two months. The prognosis was the rear main seal had blown. It’s a cheap part, but you have to take most of the car apart to put it in, and the labor costs more than this Jeep is worth. I had dozens of little things wrong with the Jeep that I could ignore – a CD player that didn’t work, a window that would fall out of its track, a door panel coming off – but this problem affected my driving. And just before we got married, John’s Dad gifted us with his decade-old Honda Accord that had less than 100,000 miles on it. So I had a fallback.
It took that two months to decide what to do. A friend has a son who desperately needs a daily driver, and he’s willing to put the sweat equity in to get my Jeep running again and fix all its little problems so he can help out his son. Hitting that quarter-million mile mark was a big milestone for me. When I started it up yesterday to pull it out in front of the house for our friend to take it home, so much flooded back: friends and family who traveled with me in it who aren’t here anymore, the seven addresses it followed me to, the countless trailheads where I’d parked it, the adventures we’d had.
It was time to let go. But not without a few tears and a restless night.