The Search For the Sunrader


Recently I found myself on a road trip to the northwest in search of a mini Toyota RV.  It all started with a salvaged Toyota Dolphin that I found on craiglist for sale for only $1500.  For that cheap I thought I could take a train to Oregon from California so I decided to give the man a call.

A raspy smoker’s voice answered and told me his dad ripped the roof off when he hit a tree, but the engine runs great.  I could fix the roof with fiberglass the way you’d fix a surfboard or a boat.  I decided against it when I found a 1979 Sunrader with 60,000 miles for sale in Montana.

With two bags of supplies, my girlfriend and I hitched a ride with a western friend who retired in Montana.   From Ventura we headed east to highway 15 which travels north to the Canadian border.

“The highway 15 is an old packers route.”  He spoke through a thick white mustache.  “It was used by the Native Americans for the fur trade then by white man.”

I looked out the window to a cluster of boulders that looked like I good place to sleep, even before motel 6’s.  “I bet there are a lot of lost artifacts off this highway.”  I replied.

“Oh yeah, arrowheads, maybe an old pistol.  The grounds always eroding bringing up new things to the surface.”

The city fell behind to dirt and cactus as far as the eye can see.  Our friend, Jeff, commented on amount of cars and how a lot of people were probably on their way to Vegas to celebrate the New Year.

At a boom town the perfect distance from L.A. where everyone has to stop who’d held out until the meter was close to empty,  we got stopped by a pack of asian tourists who’d broken down.  “Do you need help pushing the car?”  I called from the window.

“We are fine.  The tow truck will be here in fifteen minutes.”  One replied in broken English.

A good old boy in a lowered truck and primered paint job decided he wasn’t going to wait that long and got out to push them whether they liked it or not.    We rolled the car off the main street and clogged the driveway of a fast food restaurant parking lot, and wished them luck.

Smog engulfed the city of Vegas that the clear desert air beyond that much more refreshing.  “You can see the lights of Vegas from space.”

“Quite an electric bill.”

We refueled again at the border of Nevada and Arizona.  A hotel that spanned six city blocks with a foot bridge over the main strip.  The palm trees and landscaping desiccated in he desert terrain as the hotel sat empty.  “Somebody had some big plans.”  I said about the hotel wasting away.  Another sign of the times.  Some businesses flourish while others decay.  The secret seems to have to do with low overhead and the owner/s of this hotel obviously bit off more than they could chew.

 Jeff asked if I wanted to take the wheel for a while.  I said “Sure.”  Later Alexa said she could tell I was tense taking over that monstrous truck.  The off-road tires seemed to go in whatever direction they wanted over highway.  Every over-correction was matched by an over-correction as I bounced between the lane lines heading straight for the windy gorge at the Utah state line.  The sky turned red that matched the mountains that lay ahead.  Suddenly the massive piece of machinery in my grips began to make sense like riding a bike.  I eased back to the fastlane and brought up the rpm’s into the sunset.

It had been quite a while since I’d had fast food other than the taqueria’s in California that I don’t really consider fast food.  It’s debatable.  We stopped in Fillmore, Utah that happens to be the same name as one the cities in Ventura County where I reside.  We stretched and let the dogs run for a while over the snow covered ground.  The valley was surrounded by low mountains that reminded of I place in Mexico where I slept on the side of the road waiting for a gas station to open, but that’s a whole other story.

The burger was disgustingly delicious and I knew I’d feel like crap afterwards.  I watched as a couple of siblings trashed their table as their parents sat by watching.  Finally one of them poured their vanilla shake all over the table that ran into lap of one of the parents.

“Hey what’d you do that for?”  The dad hollered.

I wanted to say, “…To see how far you’d let them go with thrashing their table” but sat by and watched instead.  He called over a middle aged lady that worked at the restaurant.

“We’ve got a huge mess over here.”  he said as if disappointed by the tragedy.

I could see the frustration well up in the lady’s face as she forced a smile through clenched teeth.   “You know what mom always said about spilt milk…It’s not that hard to clean up.”  She replied.

My mom never said that.  One day that lady is going to snap and take a lot of people out.  Mark my words.

Jeff elected to drive through Salt Lake City even though we were dead tired.   He pointed out the Mormon tabernacle from the freeway as we passed.  It was the biggest city we’d been through since Los Angeles.  I’m not one that falls asleep in the car and for the first time since we hit the road I dozed off.  The lights of Salt Lake City seemed to never end.  We made it about thirty miles past the city to a town called Ogden were we booked two rooms at a Best Western Motel.

The morning revealed mountain peaks covered with snow in all directions.  Jeff slept in from the drive the night before.  We only had about nine hours to Butte but I didn’t want to get back into the truck.  My mind rejected the road as I constantly readjusted in my seat.  We stopped a few times for gas and once for sandwiches in Idaho where I called Jim who put me in touch with his friend who was supposed to sell me the vehicle.

“Well I’ve got a dinner party at five tonight.  Will you be here before then?”

The clock read 1:34 and from the look of the map we had a four hour ride left.

“We should be there before five.”  I knew it would be close.

Near Blackfoot there were orange closure signs that merged the fast lane into an off-ramp.  The 15 went north and the road off the highway went east and west so we went east.  I got enough service on my internet phone to show a road called The Old 15 highway that parallels the freeway that we somehow didn’t see.  We went left two miles from the highway then went left again towards the 15.  The on-ramp was closed.  A sign read The Old Highway15 so we turned onto the gravel road that followed the freeway.  I pictured making it to Butte in time for Jim’s friend to tell us that he was at the dinner party and that he’d meet me in the morning.  It was obvious that we were low on this man’s priority list whether we drove two days to get there or not.

We passed a long stretch of wheat farms to our right with the 15 highway to our left.  The grains are bright green that time of year.  Springtime must be an amazing canvas of yellows, oranges and reds.  There was a large rusted water tower and many barns most of which had fading paint from the years of service.  Everything felt real compared to the superficialty of Southern California, where paint is used to make things look old, in the midwest things actually are old and rustic.   Silicone in Idaho seal things mostly, not boob jobs.  Not all of Southern California is like this however.  I looked back to Alexa fast asleep in the back seat.

I took over at the wheel as Jeff fell asleep in the car for the first time.  Near Beaverhead, Montana I called Jim’s friend and left a message on his answering machine.  At three o’ clock I called him again and left him another message.  At three fifteen I called Jim and left a message on his machine.  I didn’t tell Alexa but just before we left on the trip I read online that neither the bus or train allowed dogs.  How would they know if my dog was in a box and didn’t make a sound?  Sound had always been a problem for Chihuahuas and Terriers that happen to be both the breeds of my dog.  Maybe I could sedate her somehow.  I thought.

“Are we in Montana yet.”  Alexa called from the back.

“I’m not sure.  I didn’t see a sign.

“Yep, we’re in Montana.”  Jeff replied.

In Dillon Montana I called Jim again who didn’t answer.  My palms were starting to sweat.  I told Jeff that neither of the guys were answering.  “Do you have an address?  He asked.

“Not yet.”

We were all quiet.  “That son of a bitch.”  He replied as we thought about the possibility of being stood up at this point.  Then my phone rang.  It was Jim.  “You know my friend had some kind of dinner party or something, so I called one of my neighbors who should be meet you guys at my house.”  This time I got the address.

We passed the Victorian style houses through the center of Butte and the historic brick building covered in a light sheet of snow.  I saw the Sunrader in the front yard of Jim’s house and said to myself, “This is why I came all the way from California.”  All it had to do was start to give me just the chance that I could take it back to California and I’d purchase it.

I pumped the throttle sending gas through the carburetor while on the phone with Jim who instructed me how to start a 1979 vehicle.   A little more gas and it started right up and stayed on.  I knew I’d have to learn the vehicle.  Jeff pointed out the minimal wear to the floorboards and pedals, “That’s how you know this RV only has sixty thousand miles.”  I pulled onto the highway and punched it.  The little four cylinder hummed as we maxed out at sixty miles per hour.  A trade off for an RV that gets twenty five miles per gallon.  I Knew right then that all the morons back home spinning their wheels in a hurry to get nowhere would be furious about my new purchase.

Jeff and I popped the hood for a look.   The engine wasn’t too clean the way people steam clean a leaky engine to hide the problem.  The dirt was just enough to let me know that there were no leaks and it was in good running order.  I handed Jim’s neighbor a thick stack of cash and she gave me the pink slip.  The deal was done and we were on our way to Jeff’s cabin in Libby Montana to stay for a few days.

Jeff called and said, “A friend of mine named Russ Nasset is playing music tonight at the Old Post Pub in Missoula Montana.  It’s a pretty cool place, you know, moose heads on the wall and everything.”  We told him we’d meet him there.

Jeff was just leaving the hotel when we got to the pub.   Montana has incredible micro-brewed beers.  We started out with a pitcher of Big Sky Brewing Companies Moose Drool.  When Jeff showed, Russ took a break and took a seat at our table to visit his friend.  I didn’t expect the quality of rootsy country music or the following that came to see Russ play.  “You know Russ here put two kids through college just playing live music throughout Montana.”

He is an incredible musician that puts on a great show to say the least.  Alexa and I were completely blown away.  It was refreshing to know that someone could make a living out of playing good music without selling out to record labels.  We were sitting with a real country folk musician.

A couple other pitchers mysteriously evaporated.  The waitress left a note on a napkin that said it made her happy to know that there are good people in the world like us.  I was completely flattered and drew her a picture of the sea with the boat I work on back home.  she was happy to know that there are still good people in this world.  At two a.m. we ate biscuits and gravy at an all night café down the street.

The morning light revealed the amazing valley that Jeff calls home.  We drove to Jeff’s neighbors house for a New Year’s pot luck with homemade cheese cake and berry pies and fire work show that rivals any other non professional show packing that much gunpowder other than one put on by Dave Richards on Pierpont Beach during fourth of July.  The only difference was in Montana people actually backed away from the fireworks compared to Dave who lit them out of his ass. back home on the fourth of July.

We picked up some supplies at the Amish store before hitting the road.  Alexa bought me a jar of hot pepper jelly.  I wish I would’ve picked up five more jars.  Leaving Libby wasn’t easy, especially knowing that our direction would change towards home.

We said our goodbyes and left in the morning on our way to my aunt and uncle’s ranch in Baker City, Oregon on the border of Idaho.  Instead of leaving on the 15 we decided to take more of a blue highway route on the 395.

We arrived in Baker that night and they set us up in the guesthouse.  Again we awoke to amazing views in the morning on my family’s cattle ranch.  My cousin came down from his house on the property and we hopped on four wheelers to drive over the hills of the property.  It is fourteen miles around the fence line of the property and from there is all BLM land.  They can’t see any neighbors with a set of binoculars.

Usually their riding snow mobiles at this time of year, but due to the extremely dry year we were going to ride the four wheelers.  Uncle Wade used a tractor to drop a flat of hay for the cattle as their border collie kept the cattle from stampeding around the tractor for the food.

They took us to the barn to show us the snowmobiles that they wait all summer to use.  Wade has always had a need for speed.  In their old place in Southern Oregon he kayaked through a pass in the Rogue river known as the widow maker.  The year before a neighbor challenged him to a snowmobile race where he topped ninety miles per hour.  When he came inside after the race my aunt asked him what happened to his face that turned out to be extremely frost bitten.

My cousin showed me the bones of a fallen deer and told me about hunting them with a bow and arrow.  Again it was hard to leave but Alexa and I needed to get home to get back to work.

That night we made it past Reno, NV and stayed off the road in some place near Carson City.  That morning she took over driving while Kaya and I watched the desert through the windows out of the bunk above the cab.  Near Yosemite I took over the wheel.  Around Tahoe we stopped at a river for a break and found that the back window had blown out but was still inside the RV.  We made it back to her dad’s house in Ojai California late that night.  We put on the music that we’d picked up on the road and danced across the living room before falling asleep.  HJ

2 thoughts on “The Search For the Sunrader

  1. I have a 1981 17’4″ Sunrader that I got in Orange County last year (2011). I had to replace the rear axle with a six lug
    one ton full floating duelly. Did your 1979 Sunrader from Montana have the one ton replacement or do you still have the 1/2 ton single duelly 5 lug rear end?

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