One of the last times I drove Bailey, our 1977 Jeep pickup, I headed up Buckhorn Road to scout for oak firewood. I hadn’t gone two miles when I noticed wisps of smoke emanating from beneath the hood. I pulled over and popped the latch to find a squirrel’s nest, made up mostly of stripped juniper bark, blazing away atop the engine block.
Nowadays, I hesitate even to look. Bailey’s been parked just off the driveway since the beginning of the Great Recession. I know there are squirrels living in there, probably mice and rabbits, too. Lately, on my walks down to the mailbox, I’ve seen greasy bits of chewed wiring lying beneath the undercarriage. Bailey hasn’t moved since 2009.
We didn’t need three cars. We especially didn’t need to pay the insurance and registration on three cars, and the utility of a four-wheel-drive pickup with an eight-foot bed, so essential in our first decades in the mountains, had waned.
We bought Bailey new. (The name is a mystery, even to Ellen and me. It might have come from the Elton John song “The ballad of Danny Bailey,” from the album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Or maybe not. He was just Bailey.) To say we bought him is not quite correct. My mother’s second and third husband (they married, divorced, remarried and divorced again) actually bought Bailey for us. We’d just moved to Telluride. We were living in a tipi, building a cabin in the high country, and Ben wanted to help us out. He was a mercurial homebuilder in California, on a roll (he also suffered broke times) and proffered the gift just after baby Cloe was born.
Bailey came from an American Motors Jeep dealership on Norwood’s sleepy main street. He was a deep-ocean blue. Four-on-the-floor (really a three speed with compound low) with both high and low four-wheel-drive gearboxes. You had to get out and turn the hubs to engage the 4WD. That was part of the fun.
Bailey played an integral role in building that cabin, as I made weekly, sometimes more frequent, trips to the hardware store in Telluride or the rough-sawn lumber place in Dolores (stopping now and then on the way back to fish the kaleidoscope sandbars of the Dolores River). Down and up the brutal, rocky track, Bailey hauled the reclaimed factory windows and the Home Comfort cookstove from antiques places in Delta.
When we moved to Ridgway early in the winter of 1980-81, we piled all of our worldly belongings into the back of Bailey and trundled over Dallas Divide. Our friend Bill Ellzey made a black-and-white photograph for us of Bailey parked in front of the house on South Cora, which he titled “The Clampetts come to Ridgway.”
We heated that leaky old house with another woodstove, and for the next 19 years, Bailey’s most critical job was the fall wood gathering. I built plywood sides, bolted to posts that fit the holes in Bailey’s sidewalls. He’d hold nearly a full cord of aspen or spruce that way, not so much with denser woods like oak and piñon.
We needed six-plus cords to get through a winter, so Bailey and I made upwards of 10 trips into the forest every October, usually up Owl Creek Pass, to knock down standing-dead timber, buck it up, load the rounds, drive home (swaying under the load), back up to the alley fence, hurl the rounds over. Repeat.
It was a ritual, I see now, that sustained us all, but which also wore me out, as it wore Bailey out. So when we built the new house on Buckhorn Road, we built it with gas-fired in-floor heat. On special occasions, we burn some hardwoods in the fireplace, but the woodpile, small as it is, barely needs replenishing every other year now.
Bailey’s last significant job was to haul rock from scree fields on the Uncompahgre Plateau for the retaining walls around our hillside home. By then (2000-2002) Bailey’s steel springs were about shot; a thousand pounds of rock really had his wagon saggin’. He was like an old horse ready to be turned out to pasture.
For years I’d envisioned his final resting place up at the cabin rusting into a meadow of wildflowers. My dad’s family cabin in the mountains east of San Diego featured an old milk truck sunk up to its axles, no rubber left, no glass, just a rusty steering wheel for little Peter to grip and dream.
I pictured Bailey serving the same purpose for my grandchildren. But, alas, Bailey may not make it back up to 11,400 feet again. And, alas and alack, there’s a homeowners’ association up there now, with bylaws and covenants specifically prohibiting “junk,” including junk vehicles.
We could donate him to public radio, but I’m not sure they’d take him. Cloe tried to donate her much younger Volvo to the station in New Hampshire where she went to med school, and they turned their noses up at it. Cloe’s husband Adam has said he might want to take on a Bailey restoration project some day. But they’re in Oregon raising little kids. Their garage is filled with bicycles.
So, for now Bailey sits, a yard ornament, a rodent condo, his deep blue paling and adding ever more iron red, settling slowly into the earth from which he came.