Or just big brass balls?
I learned to drive in a 1968 Jeepster Commando, just like the one above. Right down to the color. I loved that Jeep. I still have dreams about it every now and then. But this is only tangentially a story about a Jeep. It’s actually a story about faith. And confidence. The brass balls and fearlessness (and okay, stupidity) of a youthful Dick Millet.
I think I might have been seventeen. Certainly not yet eighteen. Either way, I had only had my drivers license for a year or so. This Jeep was my chariot. It was old and rusted out in the wheel wells. Most of the floor inside had been replaced with pop-riveted road signs. But it was a reliable ride. And at seventeen I had freedom.
Under the hood was a Buick Dauntless 225 cubic inch V6 engine. A three-speed manual transmission. And knobby tires that howled at road speeds. I learned most of what I know about working on cars from this old beast. I installed a cassette deck in the dash and felt like I had the world by the short hairs. Asia and Phil Collins blaring out the windows as I drove all over the southern Adirondacks in search of the kind of adventures only a kid with a fresh drivers license could find.
Anyway, the real story takes place on a warm summer evening in 1980 or 1981. My dad had a hunting camp deep in the mountains, at the base of the Big Range. It was a ten-mile drive on logging roads to reach the camp. I set out late one afternoon to visit my uncles at camp. I never made it.
About nine miles in, just before dark, I drove across the wooden bridge over Shingle Brook and flipped on the lights. Nothing happened. None of the lights worked. No high beams, no low beams, no running lights. I didn’t have a flashlight or even a lighter. I made a quick decision to get the hell out before I had to walk. So I turned around.
For the first mile or so I could see fairly well as dusk marched along. But by the time I got to the beginning of the “cliffs” it was pitch black outside. The cliffs weren’t really sheer rock but rather just a steep dropoff on the right side of the road. The gorge was maybe a hundred feet deep and a mile long with beaver ponds in the stream at the bottom.
The sky was completely overcast. I could see a ribbon of white clouds through the treetops where the dirt road sliced through the forest. And that’s what I used to navigate my way along. Hugging the driver’s side of the hill and peering up at the sky. Creeping along at maybe five miles an hour and at one point driving up and over a boulder at least a foot and a half above the road surface. It was a white-knuckle experience all the way out. But not once did it ever cross my mind that I might actually slip off the side and roll over down the hill. I likely wouldn’t have survived the fall.
When I reached the pavement, I was still three miles from home. Because the road was much wider and there would likely be traffic at some point I didn’t feel safe trying to follow the much wider line of clouds in the sky. So I started pushing every button I could make the lights work. The hazard lights came on! I drove the rest of the way berating myself for not even trying them until I was almost home.
I think back on these kinds of things. Adventure. Even mortal danger at times. This was life! It’s what brings one the visceral experience of being alive. The unknown, the unplanned, the unexpected. We’ve made life so sanitized in the Western world that we fail to appreciate what a gift it is to live. I wonder what the hell I’m so scared of now. What’s the worst that can happen? Death? Been there, watched it happen in real time. We all have a one-way ticket to that destination anyway.
Don’t let the fear of anything keep you from doing something big with your life. You only get this one chance. Security is all smoke and mirrors. You’re gonna die anyway.
Thank you for reading.