Finding Your Path

If I were asked to name my favorite car that I’ve owned over the years, I’d probably first default to the Z. A 1971 Datsun 240Z bought in Hawaii while in the navy and sold some seven years later. I virtually rebuilt the car, including an engine rebuild, a transmission overhaul and a new paint job that I sprayed myself in my garage (big mistake). Numerous performance upgrades too, as well as exterior improvements (front air dam, rear spoiler, rear window louvers). It was truly ‘my’ car and I shouldn’t have sold it when I did. At the time (1985), I was living in Charlotte, NC with plans to take a new job in Southern California and I had recently bought another car – a new Audi GT Coupe. Transporting two vehicles across the country seemed unreasonable so the Z had to go. A local radio talk show guy bought it – said he wanted it for his teenage daughter. Given the car’s performance characteristics, I told him that was a bad idea but he bought it anyway. I wonder how long the car survived.

But was the Z really my favorite car? True, I had a lot of history in the short time I owned it, and as mentioned, I spent a lot of time working on it. Moreover, an early model 240Z was simply a great car. But is seven years enough time for the Z to retain its top spot? Or is there another vehicle that really is my favorite?

In all, including those jointly owned with my wife, I’ve had fifteen cars and trucks.

  • 1967 Chevy Chevelle with a 283 V-8.
  • 1972 Chevy Vega GT Kammback
  • 1971 Datsun 240Z
  • 1985 Audi Coupe GT with a 5 cylinder engine
  • 1985 Nissan Sentra wagon
  • 1989 Toyota SR5 pickup
  • 1992 Audi 90
  • 1967 Dodge Coronet R/T with a 440 magnum engine, a beast
  • 1967 Chrysler 300 convertible with a 440 engine, a battleship-sized car
  • 1972 Datsun 510 2 door, a little hot rod
  • 1996 Honda Civic
  • 1998 Nissan Pathfinder 4WD
  • 2004 Acura TSX
  • 2008 Toyota Corolla
  • 2014 Subaru BRZ

Looking at the list, a few stand out. Besides the 240Z, the TSX was a great car; the R/T was my only foray into the ’60s muscle car scene; the 510 was a blast; the Toyota pickup was solid, as is the Corolla. With maybe the exception of the Audi 90 (big disappointment), all were great cars. My first – the Chevelle – took me and my buddies to a lot of ball games in San Francisco and Oakland while in the navy. I went to see Willie Mays and Reggie Jackson in that car! The Audi Coupe was my first new car and I don’t regret buying it even if it prompted me to sell the Z. The BRZ – which we call Blue – is my current ‘fun’ car. A joint design between Toyota and Subaru, the BRZ is a joy to drive, although it does get put into hibernation during winter here in Bend. Blue don’t do snow and ice.

Have I left one out? Sure have. The vehicle I’ve had the longest and which has taken us so many places we otherwise couldn’t go:

The Pathfinder

A new 1998 Nissan Pathfinder, 4WD with manual transmission and low range transfer case. At the time, Nancy was in Atlanta starting her new career while I finished up my job at the San Onofre nuclear plant, having also recently completed a degree in geology, which stoked my desire to explore the desert. Nancy liked the desert too and we wanted a vehicle that would take us off-road into the Mojave but would also travel the highways without too much pain. After all, we’d be traveling cross-country from Atlanta to get to our preferred stomping grounds. So dedicated off-road vehicles were out and because we had a limited budget, high-end vehicles like the Range Rover were not an option. In 1998 – as now, surprisingly – there were few choices if you wanted an affordable, reliable, capable 4WD vehicle that would also behave itself on asphalt. Pretty much just the Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota’s 4Runner in 1998. Maybe also the Mitsubishi Montero and Isuzu Trooper. Jeep Wrangler’s were (are) more capable but suffer(ed) from reliability problems and are too small. Other American models, such as the Dodge Durango, I also considered unreliable.

Searching for the right one took some time, mainly because a manual transmission was a must and those were fairly scarce. Being in Orange County helped as there are a lot of car dealerships, so I eventually found the maroon beauty you see in the photo. Bought new, it now has over 230,000 miles on it and has traversed the country several times, including a round-the-nation run in its first year: California-Atlanta-New York-Montana-Utah-California. 230,000 is actually not that many miles for a now twenty three year old vehicle, which reflects its long history as our ‘road trip’ car. Over the years, it has sat in the driveway many times for months on end, waiting to be called into action.

I’ll point out right now that the 1998 version of the Pathfinder bears no resemblance to the bloated pigs Nissan is foisting off on the market today. I would not consider buying a new Pathfinder today. Back in 1998, the Pathfinder was very capable: pretty good ground clearance, an excellent transmission and relatively little extra weight (still heavy though). It was built to go off-road. Moreover, because Nissan makes quality vehicles – it is very, very reliable. Really, the only problem that left us on the side of the road was a failed distributor in the first year (warranty fix). The alternator went out after ten years but gave us enough warning to drive a hundred miles to a dealer. Other than that, routine stuff only.

On the negative side, the Pathfinder does have a few faults. First and foremost is abysmal gas mileage. On a good day with a tailwind, it’ll get 17 mpg, usually less. You can buy a Corvette that does better than that. Mind you, you’d think after two decades manufacturers would be able to improve on that. Nope – the likely replacement – a new Toyota 4Runner similarly equipped does little better. The Pathfinder doesn’t have a huge, powerful engine that might excuse its gas hog nature. In fact, it’s a relatively small 3.3 liter V6 with not a lot of horsepower. That would be the second fault – it struggles to get over mountains when loaded. And when I say struggles, I mean you’re sometimes driving in the slow lane with the 18 wheelers. Fair amount of torque but not horsepower. It’s adequate though. Finally, as is the case with all similar vehicles, the Pathfinder gets squirrely at speed when there’s wind. In fact, I really don’t like driving it over 65 mph even without wind. So high speed runs across Montana or Texas are out.

Over the years, Nancy and I have teamed up well off-roading in the Pathfinder. Both of us know how to handle the vehicle and on treacherous paths, we have a good system of one person getting out and guiding while the other drives. We’ve both taken the vehicle deep off-road alone as well and Nancy has spent some time camping with it (I don’t prefer camping due to a bad back). Although Death Valley NP is where we’ve most off-roaded, the Pathfinder has found itself on rocks and dirt in many states. Canada too, on a Sierra Club outing. It’s safe to say that the Pathfinder has shown us ‘the path’, the places where we like to go. Places where lesser vehicles can’t go. Places where other people aren’t around. I can’t even begin to catalog all the trips but here’s a few (OK, quite a few) photos of the Pathfinder in the wild:

Death Valley National Park

While Death Valley is the Pathfinder’s ‘home away from home’, it’s quite happy in other locales as well.

White Mountains, California

Various Places

Georgia

The Pathfinder mainly served as our ticket to western adventures, often sitting idle in between road trips while we lived in Georgia. But it did get out a bit. Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos of our Southeastern adventures, which included some forays deep into ‘Deliverance’ territory. The North Georgia mountains aren’t the equal of what you find out west but there’s adventures to be had. I just didn’t take any photos which showed the Pathfinder. Nor do I have any of the most excellent trip we took to Maine and New Brunswick as part of a Sierra Club outing, although if you’re looking for puffin photos, I’ve got ’em!

Oregon

With our move to Oregon, the Pathfinder gets a lot more work, even if Death Valley is a whole lot closer now. Central Oregon in particular is an outdoor paradise with the high Cascade Range virtually in our backyard and the high desert just outside town to the east. And we’ve yet to explore but a fraction within a day’s drive. The Pathfinder is truly at home here.

Changes

Over the years, we’ve not modified the Pathfinder in terms of mechanical or performance-related things. No suspension lifts, rock shields or engine improvements. The wheels are still OEM. We have done a few things to improve the carrying capacity and fuel range. Specifically, the SURCO roof rack has been the biggest addition. While adequate, the Pathfinder’s interior space is not huge – it’s not a big SUV. So a roof rack was essential. We originally tried to get away with a big roof-top storage bag but that wasn’t great. Later on, a specially sized gas container carrier was mounted, one I made myself. That added 7.5 gallons of fuel. As it was made out of wood, it didn’t last long but I knew that when I built it. The last trip to Death Valley involved just the three containers without the carrier – we just strapped them to the roof rack securely. Along with fuel and various big items like camp tables, the roof rack holds the second spare wheel we bought several years ago. Having the ability to suffer two flat tires without becoming stranded really adds to your confidence going out on some of the more remote, challenging roads.

We also bought a side canopy that attaches to the roof rack – great for Mojave desert trips. And after moving to Oregon, we bought a couple pair of kayak carriers, which require removing the roof rack. You can see all these additions and iterations in the various photos but here’s a few showing the roof rack install and the gas carrier.

Moving On

We’re now seriously considering retiring the old girl. Sure, the Pathfinder is still in good shape – lots of body dings but no real mechanical issues – but 230,000 miles is a lot a ‘roads less traveled’ given where we like to travel. Getting stranded deep in Death Valley National Park’s back country is not optimal, especially given our more limited capability of hiking out. We’ve also been considering a trailer and that 3.3 liter engine just won’t hack the load, I think. Mind you, it’s been three years since we sort of decided to get a newer vehicle and still there’s the Pathfinder parked out back. The pandemic has something to do with that.

Puffins

I promised puffin pictures. The first one is an Icelandic puffin while the remaining two photos are from New Brunswick. Given how puffins operate, that Iceland puffin could well be from the same family as the Canadian ones.

Note: All images are mine but many have been greatly enhanced by @nancyfloydartist.

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