From the time I was sixteen, I have been driving very used cars. My first was a Nissan Pulsar. I often told people, "The great thing about this car is that when something breaks, the broken part usually falls off on the road, so I don't have to worry about it." My next car was a hand-me-down; my older brother had thoroughly abused it by the time I was able to take it for a spin. My third vehicle was one that I was proud of, though it still had the wear of age.
I saw an ad for a used Jeep in the newspaper. Yeah, that’s right: it was still the best way to find used cars. An older guy was selling a cherry red Cherokee, and the moment I saw it, I knew it was for me. He wanted four thousand dollars for this beauty. I thought four G’s was a pretty good price for a twenty-year-old vehicle. It was the first car I could take a girl on a date in and not feel like a total junkyard baboon.
The main thing I was excited about was—and I cannot stress this enough—the back seat laid down. That was important to me because I loved camping. I adored the idea of having solo wilderness adventures. I’d arrive like the rugged mountain man I am, throw my sleeping bag in the back of the Jeep, and slumber to the melodic sounds of the chilly forest night.
I handed over the dough, and the red adventure wagon was mine. That left me strapped for cash, but I was determined to take my Jeep on its maiden voyage before the summer was in full swing. I marked out six days that I could get away, which was not easy considering my schedule at the church. I had $114 to make the entire round trip. It would be a Ramen noodle kind of journey, but I knew how to live on meager rations. I had a solid plan with a handful of stops.
It had been a while since I visited my friends in Cameron, Texas. I decided to make this one of my destinations. I didn’t account for the fact that these friends had jobs and lived in the middle of nowhere. They owned about a dozen noisy dogs. Without much of a plan, I took off for their ranch. I arrived as the rain started. It rained the entire time I was there. I was stuck in a house with a bunch of pent up dogs for days while their owners were away at work. I didn't need much more motivation than that to move on. Indeed, that was not yet the manly adventure for which I had been searching. From there, I headed northeast.
The Davy Crocket National Forest is an excellent place to camp, as long as you like humidity so thick you can fill your water bottle with it, mosquitoes so big that their bite should constitute a blood transfusion, and nighttime temperatures that dip down into the low 100s. I had imagined the fantastic adventure I’d have there. Within an hour of my arrival, I wished it was raining again.
It was so hot I couldn't stand to make a fire. The chill of the cold hot dog weenie was my only comfort. One other family was occupying a campsite, and they had a climate-controlled trailer. The low hum of their air conditioner unit was the only sound I could hear as I paced around the stifling forest. As the sun beamed its dappled light through the tall pines, I expected the afternoon to give way to cooler evening temperatures. Unfortunately, the blanket of sappy pine needles overhead worked with the humidity to keep the evening temperature at the same convection scorch.
The gnawing boredom was equally excruciating. Why had I wanted this to be a solo trip? If I had had someone with me, I could have at least shared my discontent with another human. Only the trees could hear my frustrated grumbles here. I walked around the loop of trails a half dozen times, sweat dripping down and soaking my clothes. Never had I seen a campground without a body of water. I expected a lake, a river, a stream, or even a water fountain. Even in the toilets, there was no running water. The attraction of this campsite was that it had pines, pines, and more pines. I had seen pine trees all my life and was in no need of more.
As the evening turned to night, I took contemplative comfort in the fact that I would soon stretch out in the luxurious back of my new Jeep Cherokee. I lay down the seat and stretched a t-shirt over the open window to keep out bugs but release the heat in the car. I chucked my sleeping bag in the back and crawled in. I was horrified at what I found.
No, it wasn’t a rattlesnake or a black widow. I found that the back of the Jeep was not long enough for me to lie down. In my excitement to buy this adventure wagon, I had not measured its back compartment. What I had assumed would be a comfortable bed was a cramped, too-short, claustrophobia-inducing coffin. I had made a point never to use profanity, but this was a time that some could have come in handy. The best I could do was to spread out in a diagonal arrangement. The back door left a divot in my skull and a crick in my neck as my feet jammed uncomfortably between the bucket seats, though it was soon apparent that I had a bigger problem.
The only bedding I had with me was an expensive, thick, cold-weather sleeping bag from my Boy Scout days. The tag boasted that you could stay warm in temperatures as low as zero degrees. That had been an essential feature on the hiking trips that took us, ranging over the chilly Ozark mountains. On a scorching night in the back of an already hot Jeep, simply laying on top of the bag could spontaneously ignite my epidermis.
As I lay there fuming in more ways than one, I began to ask myself, “What in the world am I doing out here?” I couldn’t afford to run the car’s air conditioner all night. I’d probably wake up to an empty tank and have to spend the rest of my life in these blazing woods. I was mad at everything. However, I tried my best to sleep through the night, but at midnight, I couldn’t take it any longer.
In the middle of the night, I made an executive decision. I did a quick mental calculation as I cranked the car. The next stop on my road trip was supposed to be a few hours drive. I didn’t want to arrive too early, knowing that the person I was going to visit wouldn’t be up until a reasonable hour. So I determined that if I drove about fifteen miles an hour, I could turn a two-hour trip into a six-hour odyssey. That would allow me to arrive at an appropriate morning hour.
The heat must have baked my brain because even as I say this, I realize that it's a stupid idea. Stupid or not, though, that's what I did. I crawled through a middle swath of South Texas at a snail's pace through the wee hours of the morning. I wasn't too afraid of falling asleep since no one had ever died from a 15-mile-an-hour impact, as far as I knew. A scene from an old Chris Farley movie was on repeat in my mind. It's the one where he gets stopped for driving seven miles an hour. After making a two-hour drive in a little over six hours, I pulled into the town where I had been heading.
The most memorable visit of that trip was the one I paid my brother in Nacogdoches. He had moved there to go to the big state school in our area. We were still in that awkward phase that all brothers must go through. The friendship of childhood had been mandatory, but now we were figuring out how adult brothers of college-age transition into a voluntary relationship. I thought the trip would be a good step toward bridging the gap from boyhood to being adult friends.
I was tired of driving as I pulled onto his street. I had never seen his place before and I was a little intimidated. The brownish exterior bore the marks of an underwhelming maintenance crew and what little grass remained on the balding lawn showed signs of neglect. That was the kind of affordable living that dots the real estate surrounding any large university. The relative squalor of college life was not something I had yet grown accustomed to. I pulled to a stop in front of his apartment and started trepidatious toward his door.
“Hey, want a beer?” he said as the door swung wide. I declined, having not ever tasted the stuff. I was quite determined not to try a mind-altering chemical for the first time in an unfamiliar place. His roommates were milling about. Everyone seemed to have a beer can glued to their hand. Like automatic weapon cartridges, they shot, discarded, and reloaded with impressive regularity.
At least the place had an air conditioner, which was an improvement on the Jeep coffin. I was going to sleep on the couch that evening. As the day turned to night, we flew by my usual bedtime at an alarming speed. These vampires lived a more nocturnal life than I did. At some point in the evening, my brother’s roommate spilled a full can of beer on the couch, or I suppose I should say, on my bed. Suddenly the back of my Jeep didn’t seem so bad.
As I sank lower and lower into the Coors-scented couch, trying to claim more cushioned real estate, the guys talked about their party lifestyle. I had known that my brother was living a different kind of life than the one I had chosen, but this was the first time I had come face to face with the gritty reality. The stories they shared were an irreverent homage to college living. I felt troubled by the discussion as I drifted off.
On the next morning, I rose and was ready to get on the road. I was supposed to make it to College Station to visit another friend there. I was up before the party animals and was going to slip out quietly. I walked out of the front doorway. I was relieved to be leaving but I was shocked at what I saw. I stared at the parking lot for a long moment. Had I been drinking after all? Confused and upset, I marched back into the apartment.
“Hey,” I said, as I banged on my brother's bedroom door, “My car is gone!”
"What do you mean?" a voice said from behind me. Despite his late night, he was up at this relatively early hour making coffee. He had an impressive tolerance for absorbing vast amounts of nighttime alcohol and then rising early for his morning work schedule.
“I parked in front of your apartment last night. Now my Jeep is gone. Have you guys had any cars stolen from here? If someone has stolen my car…” He interrupted.
“It got towed,” he said as he casually gulped the coffee he had just made. “You have to have a parking pass. They’re strict about towing.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked though I suspected it was because he had been pretty busy getting inebriated the night before. I tried to keep myself calm.
“Well, there used to be a ‘you will get towed’ sign. My buddy got drunk and ran over it the other day.” I thought I noted a slight smile on that one. I wasn’t really in the mood.
"So, where's my car now?" I said, wanting the entire episode to be over.
“I don’t know. I guess you could ask at the office. They would know where the impound is.” At his words, I walked out the door and began heading for the office. Before I got across the unkempt lawn, I realized something. I turned once more and stuck my head in the door.
“Do you have work today?” I said.
“Yep, I’m about to leave.”
“Ok. I’m going to need a ride— somewhere,” I said as I shut the door a little too hard. Our adult friendship was getting off to a great start.
It cost me $150 to get my Jeep out of the impound. That meant I had to make a trip to the ATM. Adding to my $114, I had to use my ATM card as credit and intentionally overdrew my account to cover the cost. I knew I was going to get a penalty for it, but at this point, I didn’t want any more “help” from my brother, I just wanted to go home.
Though the entire experience was a pitiful one, there was one aspect that echoed around in my head as I drove back north. In fact over the following years, I wrestled with this dubious doubt. I knew my brother had become a believer at a young age. I was there when it happened. I remembered the moment in that bunk bed when Dad shared the gospel. Now, he was deliberately living an ungodly lifestyle. What did that mean? There was a preacher I knew who would say things like, "If you're really saved, you can't deliberately live in sin." Was it possible that my brother was not really saved? The notion put a knot in my stomach and left me with all kinds of jagged uncomfortable emotions. By that definition, and I wasn’t sure if it was right, my brother was going to Hell.