• I sold my truck, and then I got all emotional about it


    Three friendly Mexican men had just handed me a thick stack of $20s and $100s. My pink slip was sitting on the tailgate next to my beat-up repair manual, waiting only to be signed.

    I landed my pen on the signature line several times, but balked at the finality it represented. Finally, I signed it, and then shook the hands of three guys whom I had just met.

    They saddled up and drove their own vehicle back to Manteca. I told them I would meet the tow-truck driver outside when he arrived. When they were gone, I ran back to my apartment and removed a bottle of beer from my refrigerator, walked back to the non-functional 2000 Nissan Frontier, sat in the driver’s seat, and proceeded to get a bit sentimental.

    Here’s a memory that crossed my mind. It’s the first time I had ever driven that vehicle long-distance:


    I borrowed the truck from my parents for a spring-break road trip to southern California with a close friend in 2003. We filled the bed with surfboards, tents, sleeping bags, guitars and ice chests.

    We cut up L.A. and Orange Counties for several days, camping in Leo Carrillo and seeing a punk show in Anaheim. We changed our plans late one night and cut west to Long Beach, expecting to stay with some college friends, but they didn’t answer their phone.

    It was 3:00 a.m., so we drove through a Jack-in-the-Box and parked the truck at the beach, where we ate chicken strips on the sand and played guitar until we got a call back. When they finally called, they told us they were driving down from Monterey and would be there in the early morning. We parked the truck in a VONS parking lot and slept until they arrived.

    The entire next day we partied and played more music. When the evening arrived, someone turned on the TV, which we hadn’t watched for several days. As it turns out, just moments earlier, America had initiated a war in Iraq.

    But that story is peripheral, as it relates to my truck. Here’s my defining memory:

    Engine Transplant

    It was the summer of 2008 and my truck had just sputtered to an inexplicable stop in the Big 5 parking lot in West Davis. I had it towed to my mechanic friend in Winters, who dropped this bomb on me. He recommended, because the truck had nearly 200,000 miles on it, that I sell it for parts rather than invest my time and money into a machine that would certainly have future problems.

    I digested the news and become a little bit depressed.

    A few days later, at a pub in Winters, I came across an old friend from high school who told me I’d be crazy to unload it for practically nothing. He suggested we find a motor in a yard and give my truck the equivalent of a heart transplant. I had never turned a single wrench on that car (or anything else) in my life, and found the idea difficult to fathom. But as we talked (and drank pints) I got fired up about it.
    I had already been accepted to study for a year at Northwestern in Chicago, so I parked the truck at my parents’ house with plans of revisiting it when I finished my studies.

    After I graduated, I purchased a used engine online from a yard in Texas using a combination of unspent student loan money and my previous year’s tax refund. It arrived a week later on a pallet, mangled in severed tubes and wires and wrapped in shredded cellophane.

    My brother, my friend and I spent the next two months buried in the hood of that truck, drinking tall cans of Budweiser and hacking up our hands trying to put wrenches on inconveniently placed nuts and bolts.

    I wasn’t able to fully begin my post-college job search until the truck was done, which added pressure to the process. And I had already dumped a lot of money into the new motor, so I was committed to the extremely large project. Unplanned expenses popped up daily, and I had no choice but to meet them head-on. It was one of the most exciting, but stressful, things I had ever been a part of.

    When it came time to turn the key for the first time, the car fired right up. It was an unbelievable moment, and the culmination of a lot of invested emotion, and hard work.

    My main takeaway—and it’s a huge one—was this: Most of our fears in life have to do, almost entirely, with a very simple lack of knowing. A car engine is the scariest thing in the world when you see it as one large, complex chunk. But once you take a trip into the guts of a vehicle, you realize that it’s really just a collection of somewhat simple parts, bolted and plugged into one another to produce the desired effect.

    I say this with a disclaimer, though: I still know very little about cars. My brother and my friend made most of the major decisions during those two months. But the fact that I no longer know nothing is where the value lies. I’m no longer afraid to dive in, not only into cars, but to other challenges as well. That willingness and curiosity is highly valuable, and I learned that from my brother and my friend. It’s a quality I did not possess prior to that project.


    Once the truck finally passed Smog (another story for another day), I drove it down Highway 101 to Orange County for the first time. I played no music, because I wanted to hear any unplanned clanking or thumping under the hood. I kept one eye on the gauges at all times and paid attention to any foreign smells.

    The truck made it just fine, and I traversed California several more times over the next year-and-a-half. It even survived a hot drive to Arizona and a climb up to Yosemite.

    But then, without warning, it stalled in a Walgreens parking lot in Vacaville. And then more hiccups: The RPMs bounced up and down ever so slightly. It drove fine at first, but not as the engine reached normal temperature. The problem worsened each time I drove the truck, until finally it couldn’t leave the parking lot.

    It was an extremely defeating moment for me. The engine swap had been a massive learning experience, and one I wouldn’t trade for anything. But if you look at it on a pure dollars-and-cents level, was it really worth it?

    I reluctantly conceded that I couldn’t invest anymore money into it—especially at a time when my family only needed one car—so I snapped some photos and tossed it up on Craigslist.

    New Life in Mexico

    I sold it five days later to a Mexican mechanic who planned to get it running and then haul it down to his family back in the motherland, where the emissions laws are conveniently loose and maintenance costs conveniently low.

    It was hard for me to swallow, especially as I watched the vehicle roll away. But when I separate myself from that sentimental element, I know it was a choice that had to be made.

    And I’m lucky to have learned these lessons while in my 20s. They’ll undoubtedly come in handy down the road.

    That’s right, I just ended this thing with a pun.

    • A lesson learned and valuable insight too.

    • You would end it with that. Ha ha. I remember you guys buried in that truck on a couple of my visits into town. Way to separate from it though. All my vehicles were either smashed by me in some accident or sold while I was sleeping by the rents.

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