Ghia does a real road trip - Frank Groffie's miscellany

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Outdoorsy stuff

 It's not an adventure if everything goes right.

By the spring of 2016, the '64 Karmann Ghia was ready for an extended roadtrip to somewhere. It had been a mess of parts while undergoing restoration since November 2013. It needed to prove itself roadworthy and earn a few admiring glances.

A few years earlier, it had been the subject of phone calls prefaced with such phrases as “Dad, I can’t get over the hill…” Its engine—removed—had dripped oil in a continuous line from the garage to the curb during its transfer to a local shop to receive a new flywheel. Its body had shed an abundance of sanded paint dust onto the floor of the garage. The entryway to the house, where a 1922 Singer sewing machine was used to sew its interior, had been littered with thread and scraps of fabric. The driveway was still specked with black waxy spots that had been dislodged from the power-washing of crud from the chassis and then later mashed into the concrete by the tires of newer cars.

Tricia had been quite the accommodating Ghia restorer’s spouse. She tolerated the Ghia’s ugly, bulky presence in the garage; she even helped clamp in the new piston rings while I tapped in the pistons, and rocked the engine in and up onto its mountings while I worked the floor jack.

The Ghia was ready to leave all the crud behind and finally provide its owners some fun. Tricia and I decided on a route through Monterey County (and bits of Santa Clara, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Cruz Counties), California. The route was essentially a loop down 101 and up 1 and included Big Sur. The geographic designation Big Sur is an Anglicized derivation of el país grande del sur or el sur grande, which were names that the Spaniard missionaries of the late 18th century gave to the area where the coast mountain range abruptly meets the Pacific Ocean. The area was essentially wilderness until the late 1930s, when California State Route 1 was completed.

About 10 miles from home, on Monterey Highway, we began hearing a "chirp, chirp ...". I decided it was the speedometer. It couldn't have been the speedometer cable, because I'd just switched in a new one in place of the former broken cable. Under the shade of a large tree, I unloaded practically all our equipment from beneath the front hood and reached behind the dashboard to disconnect the cable. With everything back in, we continued on but at "0 mph". Traffic would be my speed gauge.

The first stop was a winery in a small community that shall remain nameless. We parallel parked on a downtown street, and I discovered that I had never before locked the Ghia's doors using the key from the outside. Shazam! It worked―both doors.

"So, tell me about your wines," asked Tricia, while we were tasting the first white. "Well, they're pretty good," said the young gal doing the pouring. Tricia, the experienced taster and wine snob, wasn't getting the usual lengthy monologue sprinkled with terms like "buttery" and "pepper and plum notes". I was simply charmed. Near the end, Tricia was tasting two Chardonnays while deciding which to buy, and tried again: "How would you say these two Chardonnays are different?" "Hmm. Well, one is probably better than the other," was the response. That was a wine description I could understand. I thought a particular Syrah was delicious and voted for that one.

Our first night was to be at Fremont Peak State Park, where I had reserved a spot in what looked like a tucked-away part of the campground. A long winding road took us there. We didn't see another soul except for the ranger, who stopped at our spot and announced, "Those flies will go away around sundown," and grinned as if immensely pleased that someone was actually visiting his park. Al lay on the air bed and instintinctually snapped at the flies around her head. The water spigot was very nearby, but the pit toilet was a hike.

I put about 1½ gallons of water in our 2½-gallon collapsible jug and hung it on a nail in a pine tree. Right below, I mounted my homemade shower stall. Tricia insisted that every stop on this trip would have either (1) showers or (2) a body of water of some sort that she could inner-tube on. I was about to make good on promise #1. The shower worked well for me. Tricia seemed satisfied, too.

I convinced her to sleep under the stars for the first time in her life. Who needs to wrestle with a tent and poles when there are no mosquitoes, rain, or neighbors?

The next morning, we loaded up the Ghia. The starter only let out a dull click. I tried letting the car drift back and popping the clutch but soon ran out of slope. I disconnected the wiring from a second car battery that I'd placed in the engine compartment (a MacGyver scheme to run appliances off an inverter). That did the trick―evidently I'd wired it in backward for its recharge cycle―and off we went, but not after visions of walking miles to somewhere with cell phone service and summoning a tow truck had swirled through my mind.

After driving a few hundred feet, while climbing a steep hill out of the campground, the engine quit. I drifted the car backward to a flat stretch, got it to start, and tried another run at the hill, this time faster. It died again just short of the crest. We drifted back, pulled over, and looked at the engine. I suspected a clogged fuel filter and swapped in a new one. There was also a lot of oil in the air filter: we had parked (and driven) on a steep hill (photo below), and oil must have gotten sucked up the PCV hose. I cleaned that up, and after a 2-hour delay, we, a bit shaken by the prospect of being stranded, were on our way back to the highway.

Loading back up at Fremont Peak State Park, where we developed engine trouble

Our next destination was Mission San Antonio de Padua. This mission, built in 1771, is the only one in California that I know of that the modern world has completely passed by. It's still surrounded by fields and woods essentially as it was originally. It's my favorite for that reason. The three of us, Al included, entered the church. Al and I sat in a pew in the back and enjoyed the coolness (it was 104 ºF outside) and the silence (practically no one visits here). Tricia, Catholic girl, unbeknownst to us, was at the altar dabbing herself with holy water, making the sign of the cross, and praying for healing: she had a torn cartilage in her sternum that had been nagging her for weeks.*

We wanted to have lunch at the nearby Hacienda, but the red tape (security) was offputting: it is located within the army base complex of Fort Hunter Liggett. The Hacienda, designed by Julia Morgan, was a sprawling 1930s hangout of William Randolph Hearst and was where he entertained Hollywood film stars and other illuminati. My main claim to fame is that I lodged and dined there one night in 1997. The base, by the way, was also a filming location for much of We Were Soldiers (2002), starring Mel Gibson. Director Randall Wallace regarded the terrain as the perfect stand-in for the highlands of central Vietnam. What's not to like about this mashup?! You got old Hollywood, new Hollywood, a historic mission that's eerie in its isolation, and a few soldiers in a backwater army base, all improbably plunked in the middle of what's practically wilderness.

Farther down Route 101 were Mission San Miguel, which we also visited, and Paso Robles, where we ordered sandwiches and dined al fresco. I filled the Ghia's tank, which took an entire 8 gallons. I couldn't get the hood to latch after numerous tries (you need to raise the hood to access the gas cap). People at the station were wondering why I was lifting and pounding and lifting and pounding ... Finally, I realized I needed to turn an adjusting nut on the latch.

Next on the itinerary was Lake Nacimiento. Here, after a long walk down to the half-empty lake, Tricia could float on her inner tube. I preferred to just wallow in the murky water while shooing away floating mats of toxic-looking algae. Al was wise enough to just sit on the sand and dodge the tiny waves set up by the speed boats.

Lake Nacimiento: (l) Tricia and Al, (r) the Ghia and our giant tent ("I need to be able to stand up in case I get a leg cramp!"

We set up the tent because this campground was crowded. Packs of little kids ran back and forth between the Ghia and our tent until their 10 p.m. bedtime. Apparently, two large related families wished they had adjacent campsites but took what they could get.

South of Lake Nacimiento, we drove a series of winding, narrow country lanes, got slightly lost, and ended up, unplanned, at Whalebone Winery in the middle of nowhere. It being a Tuesday, we were the only visitors, but they were open and up to Napa Valley standards.

Best campsite ever!

Our favorite spot by far was a campsite in Los Padres National Forest. It shall remain nameless: I can't imagine there's any place like it for 50 miles in any direction. Twenty paces from our spot there was a remnant pool on a creek that we had to ourselves. Why Tricia didn't inner-tube on it, I don't remember. Driven by the 100 ºF heat and enticed by the clear water, I dodged a 7-inch rainbow trout, dove in, and wallowed about. I felt cool subterranean water flowing spring-like from the gravel below and feeding the pool. I captured the photo below from a few inches above the water. Dinner was typical: peeled prawns stirred into Rice-a-Roni, and green salad. We didn't set up the tent: no need. I watched a fox amble through our campsite late at night after Tricia and Al had gone to bed.

On our long drive up Route 1, we stopped for lunch at a spot with a view of the ocean in the little village of Lucia. We also stopped at one of my favorite swimming holes. This pool had been 6 feet deep, clear, and flowing on a previous visit in August 2015, in the depths of a multi-year drought, and we had it all to ourselves this particular day in August 2016 (photo below).

We made one mistake in timing that we won't make again: driving northbound in Monterey, we lost at least an hour in heavy afternoon commute traffic.

Just as traffic was speeding up, the car died again. I knew the drill well by now: unclamp the (homemade) rack from the bumper, lift the rear hood, and swap in a new fuel filter. Fortunately, I had bought two new ones in Paso Robles.

Pit stop in the redwoods

Afterward, back at home, I pulled the fuel tank and gave it a cleaning with muriatic acid. Enough dirt came out to require a filling permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. I discovered a pinhole leak after pouring in a couple gallons of gasoline. Unfortunately, rust had been about the only thing holding the metal together in one spot in the bottom. Welding only made the damage worse. The tank had already been patched by a previous owner anyway; so, I've since swapped in a new tank. Luckily, we hadn't been stranded on our trip by a fuel gauge rapidly swinging toward E.

Other things also went wrong. We had the windows down most of the time: Fumes were getting into the passenger cabin whenever the tank was full. The eventual diagnosis: a disintegrated gasket and boot on the fuel-level sending unit, which is mounted to the top of the tank.

Both window cranks fell off because I thought I could install their little connecting pins someday later (since done). "Honey, pass the window crank; I don't want to get carsick."

Our last night of camping, at Mt. Madonna, was eventful in that we finally built a campfire. Before embarking, to save space, I had stashed lump charcoal, which is twice as energy dense as firewood and surprisingly cheap, in various crannies under the front hood. It had ridden the entire way until then. In contrast to the searing heat in the interior valleys, Mt. Madonna was fogged in, a common occurrence.

I counted myself a lucky man: got my wife, my dog, and my Ghia, making memories and roughing it in God's country.

Nailing It Someday

Someday, we [I] will

  • Not stay at Fremont Peak or Lake Nacimiento

  • Shorten the route by driving to the coast on Nacimiento-Ferguson Road instead of Hwy 46

  • Reserve a campsite (a year ahead) at one of the popular parks on the coast, say Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

  • Camp at an additional spot in the national forest

  • Spend an afternoon at a beach

  • Not get stuck in Monterey commute traffic

  • Have a working speedometer, a new clean fuel tank with a nonleaky sending unit, and window cranks that don't fall off

* I revise a web page occasionally. This note was once titled Nailing It Next Year and began "Next year, we will ..." There was, however, no redo in 2017, and there never will be. Tricia's chest pain turned out to be breast cancer. She had a Stage 3 case in 2007, and the disease was in remission for 9 years. It had returned, aggressively, to her sternum and liver, based on a PET scan she had not long after this trip, in late 2016. She then underwent three series of chemo treatments. She started going downhill rapidly in April 2017, and my wife of 24 years and mother of my children passed away on June 26, 2017. I could write endlessly about this. I'll say no more except this:

Make memories with your loved ones while you can.

Copyright 2015. All rights reserved.
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