The ceiling cloth on my pickup, a 2005 GMC Sierra, is pinned up by thumbtacks. I keep a small case of them in the dash to deal with any new sags, a game of whac-a-mole that began some years ago and has since become a matter of routine maintenance. I’d like to say that the silver studs add a touch of refinement, reminiscent of the nailhead trim you might find on a Victorian armchair. But that’s being generous. My truck is no antique. It’s just old.
Several of the black buttons on the dash have worn to pure white, the lights behind them dimmed or gone completely. The front axle creaks during low-speed turns. At 70 miles an hour, the truck vibrates so hard that everything in the rearview goes blurry. When a colleague recently hitched a ride with me, she said it sounded like the Babadook was haunting the dashboard. (I’ve since replaced the AC blower motor myself, thanks.)
What else? The DVD player hasn’t worked since 2008. The antilock brakes went out three or four years ago. The tailgate handle is busted—again. I’ve fixed it at least three times over the years. (Though it’s not really broken if you know the trick.)
The paint—what General Motors calls “fine silver birch”—is flaking off here and there: hail damage; scratches from mesquite thorns and happy-to-see-you ranch dogs; an ugly scrape from a parking garage bollard I raked during my sophomore year of college. The rear window on the passenger side won’t roll down. The front leather seats have cracked and lost some stuffing. They’re hidden now by pleather covers, which my mom gave me (out of embarrassment, I’m guessing). The seat warmers still work. Only problem is, they work whenever they feel like it. They’ll occasionally click on unprompted—often when a warm posterior is the last thing you want, like when you’re in the Chihuahuan Desert in July.
It wasn’t always this way. My pickup was once an official truck of the San Antonio Rodeo, a luxury vehicle that came fully loaded with a custom color-matched grill guard, a diamond-plated bumper, and an interior that boasted just about every bell and whistle on the market. Gleaming under the arena lights, the truck made a lap in front of thousands of rodeo fans, tires kicking up red dirt like a saddle bronc feeling her oats.
Two years later, after its initial owner had put 30,300 miles on it, that pickup was mine. I drove it off the lot of a used-car dealership on Valentine’s Day 2007, and we’ve been on the road together ever since. My truck and I have weathered blizzards, sandstorms, floods, I-35, and four presidencies. We have (sadly, unintentionally) taken the lives of a couple of deer, a turkey vulture, and an armadillo. And on at least two occasions, the two of us have very nearly been sent to that big garage in the sky.
Yet here we are. At last check, the odometer read 266,195. That’s enough miles to land you on the moon or to make about seventy trips along the perimeter of Texas. Our most recent visit to the repair shop wasn’t a cheery affair. The mechanic handed back the multipoint inspection scrawled in ink. He said the brakes needed to be replaced ($1,478), the tires showed signs of sun rot ($1,120), the engine could use a new serpentine belt ($139), and the engine was leaking from “basically everywhere.” I suppose with unlimited money and the right mechanical skills, a truck can technically last forever. But after you’ve replaced the motor, the seats, the dash, the windshield, the panels, it becomes a bit like the ship of Theseus. Is it really the same truck?
Lately, I’ve begun to look, every now and then, at used pickups online. But every time I start browsing, I can’t help but think, “Yeah, but besides the wobble and the wacky thermostat and that weird whirring noise when I press the throttle, there’s nothing really wrong with my GMC.”
Part of me knows that our travels are nearing their end. Still, I’m having a hard time letting go.
In my hometown, a truck isn’t just some item to check off in a bro-country song. I grew up in Andrews, 35 miles north of Odessa, in the Permian Basin oil patch. Unless you owned an oil company or sold insurance, most families were like mine: blue collar. To West Texans, a pickup is a tool, a part of life, as elemental to the landscape as lobster boats bobbing off the New England coast. And like any steadfast seafaring vessel, a good truck should be taken care of, even cherished.
There have been several such pickups in my life. I can’t recall a time when I didn’t know my maternal grandfather’s gold Chevy Silverado. Granddad bought it new in 1988, the year I was born. When I was a toddler, my parents and I lived at Granddad’s house, and the two of us grew close. He taught me how to swing a bat, wield a slingshot, bait a hook, tend a garden, and live with grace, toward myself and others.
Some of my earliest memories are tethered to his truck: dust rising from the bench seat as I snacked on Ritz crackers slathered with peanut butter. We’d putter around town, to the duck pond or the lumberyard or to the Chevrolet dealership, where he worked for years. Granddad was retired by then, but he still liked to stop by and chat. He’d prop me on the counter, and I’d sneak off to grab fistfuls of stale popcorn from the machine. Once or twice a year, we’d head to our camping spot on the Pecos River, fishing rods and a tackle box rattling in the bed underneath a camper shell he never took off. For my eighth birthday, seven friends, my two younger brothers, and I all piled into the bed with our sleeping bags, and Granddad drove us out to the country for a campout.
Then there was the summer of 1999, one of the best of my boyhood. That was the year Andrews chased the state championship in baseball. Granddad is locally famous for being a Mustangs superfan; he attends nearly every high school sports game played in Andrews, and most afternoons you’ll find him up at the school watching practice and mentoring the kids. That season, he and I traveled to every playoff game, no matter how far the drive. Riding shotgun, I peppered him with questions. Why did his thumbnail have that ridge down the middle? (Because as a boy, he’d cut it on a plow; it had grown that way ever since.) What was that tattoo on his forearm? (A memento of the battleship he’d served on in the Pacific.) What did he think was the most surprising thing about getting old? (“That I’m still alive.”) When the Mustangs beat the Calallen Wildcats for the state title, Granddad made sure I got a ball autographed by the team. I held it all the way home.
My granddad drove that gold long bed around Andrews for thirty years. Because he’s such a beloved figure in town—it can take him fifteen minutes to leave the sandwich shop because he’s got to stop and shake hands—his truck became a celebrity by extension. At some point in the nineties, he had “Praise the Lord!”—his spiritual credo, which he also uses to greet strangers and old friends—printed in vinyl to stick on the back window of his camper. It was still there three years ago when, at age 95, Granddad handed down the truck to one of my young cousins.
Papa Carl’s is another good truck. My paternal step-grandfather still owns his old beat-up diesel Dodge Ram 2500. He calls it Brownie because, well, it’s brown. For as long as I can remember, there’s always been alfalfa on the floorboards and grease stains on the seats. The back seat and bed serve as a mobile toolshed, housing an assortment of wrenches, baling wire, snips, irrigation pipe, pipe fittings, screwdrivers, sockets, tractor parts—the detritus of a farmer.
Farming, especially in West Texas, isn’t a leisurely pursuit. It takes a lot of sweat, well water, time, and tolerance for heartache for a person to return to the soil year after year knowing that nature might deal you a losing hand. Papa Carl doesn’t have to work the land. He earned a good living working at a natural gas plant for Texaco, and he’s always been smart with money. He doesn’t need to wake up in the middle of the night to move his irrigation system or spend hours baking on a tractor seat, but he often does. Once, I asked him why. He thought for a moment. “I like to watch things grow.”
I’ve never known Papa’s hands to be free of calluses. So, a couple of years after he retired from Texaco, I wasn’t surprised when he told me he was going back to work at a natural gas plant. He was nearly seventy then, still built like a German tank despite a frequent intake of my granny’s chicken-fry and sweet tea, a home-brewed concoction so full of sugar that as a kid I confused it with root beer. (For her part, Granny could manage chores in Brownie just as handily as Papa, but she typically drove a Mercury Grand Marquis, always with a carpet mat covering the dash, a needlepoint Kleenex box nestled above the glove compartment.)
When he pulled up at the plant, the old-timer must have been a curiosity to the greenhorns he now worked alongside. Here was a guy who had plenty of money in the bank yet chose to come to work because he liked it. The enigma deepened. Because while Papa’s quick to laugh, his temper can run short, especially when you fail to grasp the mechanics of whatever it is he’s trying to explain. But that gruff exterior melted away every day during their lunch break, when he’d walk out among the mesquites to feed a family of cottontails and a one-legged roadrunner. He was so patient and gentle that those wild critters would sometimes eat out of the palm of his hand.
Just recently, Papa gave retirement another shot. He’s doing his best to fill the void with golf and farming. He’s also upgraded to a new half-ton GMC Sierra for road trips. But he still drives Brownie whenever it’s time to get his hands dirty.
My dad never had a vehicle of his own when I was growing up. That was a luxury he felt he couldn’t afford. But as the city’s fire marshal and building inspector, he was allowed to take home his work truck. There were several of those over the years. The first I remember was a nondescript company-white Ford F-150, a hand-me-down with no AC, no heater, no radio. But no matter. Dad always kept the inside organized, pristine—something I’ve tried to replicate, with varying success.
I’d often tag along while he made the rounds to the water treatment plant, the fire station, and the sewage plant. (I remember thinking the brown churning sludge was strangely beautiful.) I loved riding in Dad’s truck. I’d run my fingers over the saddle-blanket seat covers. The rough fibers reminded me of horsehair. Then there was the sound of the scanner—the city, police, EMS, and volunteer firefighters talking in a coded language all their own.
In the bed, Dad kept an assortment of gear and tools to put out a fire or help treat victims of a car accident—shovels, traffic cones, a post-hole digger. Once, while driving around town, we happened upon a grass fire, the flames licking the side of an elderly woman’s home. Without saying a word, Dad pulled over, and together we snuffed out the blaze with shovels and a garden hose.
Stuffed somewhere inside the cab was a curly orange wig, a red nose, and a firefighter’s helmet with “Jazzbo” printed on the side—Jazzbo being my dad’s clown alter ego, named after his favorite horse growing up. That was how he kept gymnasiums full of kids entertained while giving his annual fire safety presentations at the local elementary schools. When Dad visited my school, I was proud that I knew the man behind the red nose.
My dad moved up through the ranks over the years, and in 1999 the city gave him his first new truck to drive. That one came with AC and a radio. He’s now the director of public works in Andrews, overseeing the various departments he used to work for. A couple of years ago, he bought a good-looking 2019 Chevy Silverado High Country. Finally, a truck of his own.
As I got older, trucks became a ticket to worlds beyond Andrews. I got my first taste of this the summer before high school. Some older friends were headed to Warped Tour, a rock festival that made a stop in Las Cruces, New Mexico. For some reason, my dad let me join them. The cab was already overcrowded with pubescent wannabe punks, so, being the youngest and the latecomer, I rode all five hours in the bed of the truck. The ride was scorching during the day, freezing at night, and windy as hell. It was, in other words, heaven.
In West Texas, where the nearest grocery store might be half an hour away, a vehicle isn’t a luxury—it’s a necessity. Most of the kids I grew up with, rich or poor, began driving right after they turned sixteen. Several started even earlier. Some earned their hardship license, a special permit that allows a fifteen-year-old to drive. A few outlaws got behind the wheel and prayed they wouldn’t get pulled over. The high school was an open campus, which meant that every weekday at lunch, Andrews was flooded with teens in Mustangs and pickups prowling for burritos. To join their ranks in your own ride was a big deal.
At fifteen, I dreamed of getting my own truck, so I went to work as an electrician. I started as an “attic rat,” squeezing my scrawny body through oven-hot attics to run copper wiring for new houses. At sixteen, with my parents’ help, I bought a 2001 silver GMC Sierra—a single cab with a stubby side-step bed. For two years, I happily drove the little pickup.
Andrews had no movie theater, museums, coffee shop, or mall—not even a Walmart. Lacking hangouts, teenagers cruised. On Friday and Saturday nights, we would drag Main Street, from the north Town & Country (a gas station chain later bought by Stripes) to the south Town & Country, making a quick detour through the Sonic parking lot along the way. Or we’d drive the Butane Route, an asphalt loop that circled the town, sipping Coors Lights and smoking Marlboro 27s while we listened to the Lone Star Saloon on the radio. On a good night, we might run into enough friends to get a party going.
After a round of cooler-hopping or a stop at a local family’s goat barn to filch a few beers, we’d head to an agreed-upon pump jack on the outskirts of town. My friend Sam would pull up in his black Chevy, as would Rusty in his gold long bed, Lendon in his grimy Ford Ranger, and me in my tiny GMC. Surrounded by mesquite and with a clear view of any suspicious headlights coming down the lease road, we’d park in a circle and tune our stereos to the same station. If the girls had managed to sneak out past curfew, we’d stay up late two-stepping in the caliche dust to George Strait.
On one of those nights, an unfamiliar vehicle turned down the lease road and headed straight toward us. Thinking it might be a deputy, Sam grabbed the beer cooler, while another friend, D.C., grabbed a flashlight, and together they sprinted off into the pasture. I stayed behind with my middle brother, Brighton. It proved to be a false alarm, just a couple of kids looking for a makeout spot. We hollered at Sam and D.C., but by then they were too far out in the field to hear us. We could see only a small bobbing light heading deeper into the patch. Suddenly, the light was pointing straight up. Turns out they’d sprinted right into a barbed wire fence. Sam had hell the next morning at church trying to explain what had happened to his face.
Over Christmas break my senior year, I had my wisdom teeth removed. That day is a pain-med blur, but I vividly recall waking up the following day to my dad sitting at the foot of my bed. He was slouched and downcast.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“Last night, your brother took your truck for a joyride and crashed.”
“Is he okay?”
“Yeah, he’s all right.”
“Good. ’Cause I’m gonna kill him.”
Brighton had driven through a barbed wire fence and hit a utility pole. Not wanting to get the cops involved, my dad had gone to the scene with a flatbed and, in a miraculous feat of redneck ingenuity, managed to get the totaled truck on the trailer and hauled away before anyone drove by and reported the wreck. (He also made sure the fence was intact so that any wandering cattle weren’t able to escape onto the highway.) We were all under strict orders not to say a word about any of this—for fear that Brighton, and possibly Dad, would end up in jail or slapped with a fine we couldn’t afford. When school restarted in January, I was truckless, and when my classmates asked about it, I muttered something about the engine quitting on me.
But that tragedy had opened a door.
My mom, feeling sorry for me, scoured the internet for a deal and hit the jackpot. On February 14, 2007, my parents and I drove five hours to the Boerne Chrysler Superstore, a used car dealership just north of San Antonio. The day was cold and dreary, but as we pulled into the lot, the world brightened. There, glimmering and magnificent, was the reason for our journey: a silver 2005 GMC Sierra 1500 SLT.
I was smitten. To my mind, the beauty before me rivaled anything found in nature or the Louvre. And it was way out of my league.
The dealer explained that the truck had been a trophy won by a team roper. The cowboy had rodeoed in it for a time but had decided to upgrade to something with more towing capacity to haul his trailer and horses. And now it could be ours for just $19,688.
A fair price, but more than I’d ever be able to afford. My parents took pity on me. I had just been accepted to Texas State University and had earned a full ride. They knew I wouldn’t be asking for financial help with college, so they offered to help me go there in style. I forked over a small down payment, about 1,300 bucks, and my dad signed off on the paperwork. It was Valentine’s Day, but as I climbed behind the wheel for the first time, it felt like Christmas.
My friends back home were impressed, maybe even a little jealous. It was the first truck many of us had ever sat in that had heated seats. When we’d make excursions to Midland or Odessa, my truck was now the vehicle of choice. During baseball season, I was proud to park it just beyond the outfield fence, where we’d sit in the bed and watch the games. I wanted all of Andrews to see it.
The summer after I graduated, I spent a lot of time just driving around, retracing the roads I knew so well. I’d head east out of town toward Granny and Papa’s house, past the big wooden sign that welcomes visitors: “Andrews Loves God, Country, and Supports Free Enterprise.” Or north, past pump jacks and red Herefords moving against sun-yellowed grass, till I hit Shafter Lake, a saltwater pond too brackish to swim in but pretty at sunset. Sitting on the tailgate, the wind offering some relief from the heat, I’d watch the sun reflect across the water until it dipped behind sand dunes studded with shin oak and tumbleweeds.
All that open space left plenty of room for my mind to wander. I felt connected to West Texas and loved the people in it. But I was hungry to know something beyond the flat plains, the stink of oil. I had a vague notion of the person I hoped to be. I wanted adventure, to explore the cobblestone streets of Europe and the cool waters of the Hill Country. I was pretty sure I wanted to be a writer. To become that person, I was certain I had to leave.
The first good friend I made at Texas State was my freshman roommate, Corey Cooper. With his blond hair and beard, he looked as if he’d just stepped off a Viking longship, save for the jeans and T-shirt he always wore. We were both from tiny places on the map, though his stomping grounds weren’t quite as arid as mine. He’d grown up paddling on Lake Whitney, about an hour north of Waco. If water was his first love, engines were his second. Corey was a gearhead, and we bonded, in part, over my pickup. He was always eager to help me tinker with it—even if he had to explain the rear differential for the fifth time.
I had never met anyone under the age of forty who appreciated classic rock as much as he did. He played me Led Zeppelin and Steely Dan deep cuts, while I did my best to expose him to Texas songwriters like Adam Carroll and Townes Van Zandt. I fancied myself a bit of a poet and had started writing tunes and playing them at Songwriters Circle at Cheatham Street Warehouse, a San Marcos honky-tonk. I was restless and ambitious, eager to make my mark on the world. Corey, on the other hand, radiated zen, like a teenage Texan version of the Dude, from The Big Lebowski. He showed me how to slow down, to not worry so much about where I was going and to appreciate where I was.
We took several road trips together, always in my GMC. The first was a spring break camping trip with our two suitemates to the Grand Canyon. None of us bothered to check the weather before we left. Arizona was the desert, we figured. I packed a swimsuit. When we got to our campsite near the canyon rim, there was snow on the ground. By the third night, we’d abandoned our tents to sleep in the truck.
Another spring break, we camped on Mustang Island, the first time I’d ever driven on a beach. We parked facing the ocean and used my truck bed as a makeshift kitchen and living room. By that time, I had been adopted by a dog, a pretty blond mutt named Loretta. The three of us spent the days kayaking in the surf and running in the sand.
When we were old enough to drink in bars, we devoted ourselves to better understanding that world as well. We were regular fixtures at the Restless Wind, often haunting the jukebox and pool tables, where Corey proved to be a pretty good shot. Our education was not without growing pains, like the night at Cheatham Street when I overindulged and a buddy made me down a bag of Cheetos to sober up. I was smart enough to let him drive my truck home, especially since I got sick along the way. That part of the evening slipped my memory until the next day, when I met my parents in Brady for Easter lunch. My mom asked about the orange stuff sprayed down the passenger side of my truck. No clue, I told her.
Corey was also an ideal fishing partner, and we’d occasionally load up our rods and gear and drive out to a lonely stretch of river. Neither of us was the sporting-fisherman type—good conversation and minimal effort were top priorities. I’d worm our hooks, but Corey rarely managed to cast his line more than three or four feet from the bank. Sooner or later, Loretta would jump in after our bobbers, scaring away what little hope we had of catching anything. Despite our worst efforts, I once managed to reel in a whopper—a perch smaller than my hand. As Granddad always said, “The catching was bad, but the fishing was great.”
The summer of 2008, I went to Garner State Park with a group of friends to float the Frio River. We’d made a similar trip the previous year, a typical boozy college outing. I figured this time wouldn’t be any different. I certainly didn’t expect it to be life-changing. But that trip was when I met Lauren.
She’d accompanied another friend in our group. The first time I saw her, she was standing in a pair of short shorts beneath a blazing Texas sun. Her dark curly hair was loosely tamed into a ponytail. She had brown eyes and a smattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks, features that would later inspire reams of terrible poetry I’d write for her.
We got to know each other floating in our tubes beneath tall cypress trees. Lauren had grown up in Spring, a north Houston suburb. She was twenty (I was nineteen) and a student at Sam Houston. We liked a lot of the same music. Later, back at the house where we all met up, I uncased my Alvarez guitar and played her a couple of songs I’d written, silly takedowns of frat boys and too-tan girls. Luckily for me, they made her laugh—I doubt my sleeveless pearl-snap and baggy jeans were doing me any favors. That night, we sat on my tailgate. I’m not sure why, but at some point we swapped shoes. She wore my rough-out leather boots, and I donned her pink fuzzy slippers. We stared up at the sky, trying to impress each other with our knowledge of the constellations. When I leaned in to kiss her, she turned me down; she said her boyfriend wouldn’t approve.
A few months later, Lauren transferred to Texas State and moved to San Marcos—sans boyfriend. I’d never really dated anyone seriously, but when we got together, it felt different. We stayed up late talking about our dreams, often while navigating darkened backroads outside of town. We had a passionate, if tumultuous, on-and-off romance that lasted until I left for grad school in Ireland two years later. For most of my time abroad, we didn’t speak. When I came home, I found work as a roughneck in West Texas. She was tending bar in San Marcos. Both of my brothers also lived there, so I made regular trips to visit them—and to see Lauren. We started spending a lot of time together. One night we were at a house party, and a couple of dogs escaped the backyard. The two of us went looking for them in my truck. Someone else found the pups, but Lauren and I didn’t go back inside. We lingered in the cab, talking. I finally got up the nerve to try and kiss her. This time, she didn’t turn me down.
For months, this was our weekly routine: I’d put in my sixty-odd hours on the rig, and, come quitting time on Friday, I’d slip out of my greasers, scrub off as much oil and grime as I could, then head east in my truck to San Marcos. I’d usually arrive around 2 a.m., closing time. Lauren would still have an hour or two of cleaning bar before she could clock out, so I’d park the pickup out front, climb into the back seat, and nap until she finished. We’d spend the next day together till her shift started Saturday night. I’d be back on the rig Monday morning. I clocked a lot of miles making that trip. But if there’s one lesson to pass on from this, it’s that love is worth driving for.
I quit the oil patch after a year and moved in with Lauren. The truck was still mine, technically, but I was no longer the sole owner. Lauren has driven it a fair share since then. (And, as I learned while writing this, she’s notched some roadkill of her own: she hit a vulture too. “That turkey vulture hit me!” she swore.) Like any family, the three of us have shared highs and lows.
The lowest was Christmas 2014. We had just made the long trip to Andrews when Lauren’s phone rang. Her dad had suffered a heart attack. We turned the truck around and sped eight hours to Houston. A week and a quadruple bypass later, her dad was out of the hospital, and we were back on the road to Andrews. Along the way, an ice storm hit. And then the heater in my truck gave up on us. By the time we got to San Angelo, the roads were frozen over. We decided to stop for the night. Before we started again the next morning, we layered up with just about every article of clothing we had. But as soon as we left the hotel, my truck started sliding down the street like a hockey puck. I managed to get it stopped in front of an auto store and went inside to buy snow chains. We strapped them on and started crawling toward my parents’.
At first, it was kind of funny, but it wasn’t long before our feet and hands started to go numb, then to sting. “Baby, this is the coldest I’ve ever been in my life,” Lauren said through chattering teeth.
She sat wrapped in a tight ball, trying to will some feeling back into her limbs. Concerned my feet were going to get frostbit, she made me stop in Big Spring to buy thermal pouches to throw in my socks. That helped, but not much. The drive from San Angelo normally takes three hours. It took seven that day. When we finally got to Andrews, it took several more to get warm.
Having made it through that, I figured Lauren and I could survive almost anything. And we have.
I don’t use my truck for work in the same way that my dad and Papa Carl used theirs. Still, my job has taken me all across the state. My pickup hasn’t always performed admirably on these trips. I blew three tires in three days while traveling from Amarillo to El Paso to San Angelo. A few years back, my windshield cracked in half while I was reporting in the Permian Basin.
By then, my pickup was well on its way to becoming a geezer, though not yet old enough to be a classic. Most of my friends had long since wrecked or sold their high school rides. But even with the occasional mechanical failure, the cost of repairs is less than a monthly car payment. Besides, I had become even more loyal to the pickup after a couple of close calls.
Once, I was driving from Odessa to Andrews on U.S. Highway 385. It was raining. A trailer in front of me jackknifed. Several huge electrical transformers bucked off the bed and skidded across the road, leaving a trail of heavy oil on the asphalt. As I swerved to avoid the transformers, my truck began to slide. When I hit the rumble strip, the tires suddenly gained traction. We lurched sideways into the bar ditch. I felt the truck start to tip, and then we were airborne.
My pickup landed with a rough thud on the passenger side ten yards from the road. An embankment of wet red dirt had stopped us from rolling over completely. I unbuckled my seat belt. I had started to climb out through the window when a black Saturn Ion hit the same patch of oil and careered off the highway directly toward me. Time slowed, and I had a moment to consider the fact that I had survived the rollover just to get creamed by this little sedan. But at the last second, a scraggly mesquite stopped the car a few feet away.
Several more vehicles veered off the road before a sheriff’s deputy was able to divert traffic around the oil slick. I called Dad and tried to steady my voice so he wouldn’t worry. While I waited for him to pick me up, I noticed a white cross in the bar ditch. I walked over and read the name: Brad Newbrough, a high school friend who had been killed in a head-on collision less than a year before. Not too far away, there was another cross on that same road for Charlie Valles, who died a few weeks shy of our graduation ceremony, and one for Kristen Corbin, yet another classmate we lost not long after. I stared at my truck, still lying on its side. Rain fell through the driver’s side window and into the cab. I knew I had been lucky.
My dad has worked a lot of fires and wrecks, so he doesn’t shake easily, but I could tell he was unnerved when he pulled up. “Yep, that was a close one,” he said quietly. Eventually, the tow truck arrived and, using chains, yanked my pickup back on four wheels. Then it was hauled away.
I soon grew tired of chasing lawyers to get the company at fault to cough up some cash, and I didn’t have the money for a new ride. Plus, I missed my GMC. About a month after the wreck, my dad and I went up to the junkyard where my truck had been towed. The entire passenger side was crumpled (another costly repair I’d later make) and the frame seemed to sag a bit, but when I turned the key, the engine fired right up, and we drove it off the lot as if nothing had happened.
For years I had resisted naming my truck. But sometime after the rollover, I began to call it Old Ironsides, a nod to the Navy’s oldest still-seaworthy ship, an eighteenth-century frigate. At first, Lauren rolled her eyes at the name. But now she too refers to Old Ironsides with a touch of reverence—though she also worries that someday soon it’ll break down and leave me stranded, perhaps on some Big Bend backcountry trail.
I like to pretend my pickup will outlast us all, but she’s right. Problem is, I’m just not ready to give it up. “There is a notion that you get only one great horse in a lifetime,” the novelist Thomas McGuane wrote in his lyrical essay collection Some Horses. I suppose my worry is that the same might hold true for trucks.
In October I found myself steering Old Ironsides to Lake Whitney to pay my final respects to Corey Cooper. We hadn’t kept in close touch after college, but we’d reconnected in May, when I asked him for advice about buying my first motorcycle. I’d wanted one ever since he’d pulled up to our dorm on his Triumph Sprint ST. As always, he took the time to explain things to me. And now he was gone. He was working around the house one day when he lost the use of his legs. He called 911 but coded shortly afterward. A pulmonary embolism was the likeliest culprit.
As I headed north from San Marcos, memories crowded the cab. Days we whiled away fishing at Canyon Lake. Nights at the Restless Wind. A Saturday spent drinking Lone Star at Luckenbach. The sand on Mustang Island. That blasted trip to the Grand Canyon. I could almost feel Corey in the passenger seat. I think he would have been proud that I was still driving the same truck we worked on together over a decade ago.
The service was held on a bluff overlooking the lake. Corey’s family took turns speaking. To keep the tears from spilling over, I tried to focus on the sun glinting off the water. I imagined Corey out there exploring in his blue kayak. His brother said Corey had been living well. That he had found the love of his life. That he had big plans for yet another motorcycle, another engine project. That he had been happy. He had been at peace. I knew Corey well enough to believe him. Then Led Zeppelin played over the speakers. We drank Shiner Bock and ate barbecue. We toasted his memory with Jameson. It was the kind of day Corey would have loved.
Afterward, I took the backroads home. I wanted to go slow, to savor the trip. I wanted it to last.
This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “This Old Truck.” Subscribe today.