I came to a sharp fork in the deeply rutted road of my life this fall. I had to decide if I would continue to limp around on Saturdays in my beloved but inefficient ’87 pickup, or sell it off to some poor soul in more need of it than I.
My eight-cylinder American-made truck has a relatively small engine in it, the most petite offered in its day. Still, you can feel the engine torque the body of the truck when you turn it on. Perhaps that’s why is gets only about a dozen miles to the gallon, and that’s at 50 mph with a strong tail wind. If I’m towing anything, or have a heavy load in the truck’s bed, the miles per gallon figure crashes into the single digits. In short, my fine truck is not what you’d call fuel efficient.
But a rural geologist needs a truck. It’s part of the image, isn’t it?
Still, lately I’ve been strongly tempted to sell the thing off. The truck costs money in gas and oil. It requires funds to insure. New studded snow tires add to the fun. The truck is old enough it breaks down, including in the middle of the road, leading to towing bills and major charges from my mechanic. (I suspect my pickup pays his mortgage, but perhaps it only seems that way to me.)
There’s always the dream of a new, more fuel efficient truck. There are models that actually shut down some of their cylinders on the highway when they are not needed, helping to boost mpg figures. Or I could switch to a smaller truck entirely, making efficiency gains hand over fist. And, of course, the new truck could be a glaring yellow with red flames painted down the sides. What could be better?
But perhaps we Americans have learned something in this recession. Maybe rather than allowing myself to be seduced by an expensive new truck I’d seldom use, I’m better off sticking with what I’ve got. My ride isn’t swank. The cab is smelly, a mix of the aroma of wet-dog, decaying cushions, and deep-seated mold. The engine runs a touch rough sometimes. I burn just a bit of oil. And I don’t get great gas mileage. But I don’t put many miles on the truck. And I can operate and fix my truck for far less than the price of the annual interest of a top-of-the-line new truck, even one without flames painted on the sides.
It may be corny to say it. But most of us citizens of this fine republic have had to reexamine at least some of our financial priorities in recent years. I know it’s felt that way to me.
I could, in truth, live without a truck at all. But it’s convenient to have one for taking loads of yard waste to the dump, for lending to young and strong folks moving from one home to another, for towing utility trailers, and for taking a load of household goods (where does all the stuff come from?) to the annual church rummage sale.
So I’m going to keep my old truck. It’s not always convenient to use, because it does break down. On the other hand, I can think of it as an adventure every time I drive, something no new truck offers an owner. Maybe that’s the kind of out-of-the-box thinking we need to hang onto during this long crawl upward out of the deep recession into which we fell.
Here’s my last thought, one meant to remind us of the season and to help us through our financial challenges.
Modern trucks are a marvel of engineering and even basic science. And it’s a fundamental truth that, more broadly speaking, there is still a powerhouse of science and engineering research in this large and diverse country. Everything from modern medicine to electronics to agricultural engineering to research in genetics is rapidly gaining ground. Perhaps with our renewed personal values about what’s really important, and our bedrock national advantages in sciences and engineering, the U.S. will see progress in the coming years in many important respects.
May it be so.
Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. Follow her on the web at rockdoc.wsu.edu and on Twitter @RockDocWSU. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Natural and Resources Sciences at Washington State University.