Once upon a time there was an ugly truck.
He was a lonely soul, a poor mess of rust and twisted metal, left to idle all alone. While certainly a sad state of affairs, it hadn't always been this way for him. In his youth as a rental truck, he'd helped families move every which way. Later, he became a work truck, the lifeblood of an independent carpenter. As fulfilling as his past had been, it had also left its fair share of chips and dents and scrapes and scratches, which he wore like badges of honor.
In his present life (though one could hardly call it "living"*), home was a used-car dealership along the side of a small expressway in Fremont, California. With his mangled bumpers, duct-taped roof, graffiti'd paneling, and rusted roll-up doors, he was hidden far away at the back, but not far enough to mute the mocking jeers of the newer trucks at the front. With their lower mileage, more recent model years, gleaming, uncracked paint jobs, and complete lack of leaks, they were much more appealing and were quickly swept off to their new exciting lives. After a while, the ugly truck had lost all hope that he would ever have a purpose in life again, and he resigned himself to decay in silence.
Then one day, a boy appeared at the dealership, nervous and apprehensive. He looked lost and out of place as he ambled around the parking lot, passing diffident, fleeting glances at each of the trucks. Eventually his ambling brought him to the back of the lot, where the ugly truck had been half-halfheartedly watching, not wanting to get raise his dejected spirits for nothing. But it wasn't for nothing! The boy looked hopefully at the ugly truck, his eyes full of future plans. As they drove around the dealership for the first time, the ugly truck knew that things were going to be alright.
[...or the beginning, depending on how you want to look at it]
Poorly shoehorned children's stories aside, the truck has been an important part of my life ever since that fateful day, nearly two years ago. Neither of us has metamorphosed into a beautiful swan by any stretch of the imagination, but I'd like to think that we're both improving as time goes on, with each passing project. Not that improving was particularly hard, I mean, look how low the bar was set:
Our sorry protagonist, the ugly truckling.
I only dredge up the truck's roots to highlight how far it's come. I'd previously alluded to some of the work I wanted to have done, and I'm happy to report I just got it back from the shop, shiny and freshly improved.
When I first talked to the body shop, I asked them for quotes on a whole gamut of repairs and improvements, ranging from replacing and resealing the entire floor to swapping out the roll-up backdoor for some swing doors. Independently, I researched how much these repairs should cost, and kept a spreadsheet of the maximum price I was willing to pay for each individual unit of truck work. The quote I got back was more than twice the cost of the entire truck, and then some ($21,600!). While the raw magnitude of the price tag was initially shocking to me, it actually wasn't outrageous given the laundry list of improvements I had asked for. I simply said no to each thing that was out of my budget and quickly crossed them off my wishlist. For the remaining, in-budget items, I gave them the proverbial green light. In the end, I ended up having the top radius and corner caps replaced, getting a new driver's side fender, and getting an inner door installed.
No More Leaks
Shiny new top radius and smooth, uninterrupted fiberglass.
By far the biggest problem I had with the truck was the leaks. Not "leaks" in the White House sense of the word, I don't think I have any truck secrets to hide. Rather, "leaks" as in, if I did nothing about it, I would wake up in a dank truck swamp after a rainy night. The increasingly obnoxious and unsightly hacks I had put in place to mitigate the issue weren't going to work forever, it was just a plain ole fact that I needed something more permanent. So I had the cracked, scratched, and dented fixings around the perimeter of the truck-top replaced, figuring that the damage there was causing the leaks. I also had all-new clearance lights installed in the front and back, for good measure.
The good news is that the truck-top was indeed the problem. The bad news is that there is still the slightest of leaks. Like, a multi-hour downpour last week only resulted in a few drops. I'm still on the fence as to whether or not I want to bring it back in and have it looked at, or if I should just throw marine sealant at it until it gives up.
Shiny New Headlight
Driver's side headlight, good as new.
I swear, that is an actual, real-life picture of my truck, though I hardly recognize it myself. The fender is all new, as is the headlight and the header panel assembly that everything slots into. You may (or may not) remember that it was damaged early on by some unexplained phenomenon.
Something I realized way after the fact: the headlight may have actually been dislodged earlier than I noticed, maybe even before I bought the truck. My tentative hypothesis is that it just got worse and more noticeable over time, the more I drove it. This is pretty believable because I'm extremely unobservant. And looking at some of my old, grainy, potato-quality photos I could find of the truck, it looks like the headlight may have already been knocked out of its mount. In any case, it's a 1,000% improvement: shiny, new, correctly attached, and forbidden from coming into contact with anything ever again.
Super Stealth Mode
My new gateway to and from Narnia.
This was probably the least practical piece of work I had done, but also my favorite. Ever since I first got the truck, I've always had to think very carefully about where I park it. I only had one entrance/exit, and it was a giant, gaping square void at the back of the truck. If I parked facing a busy area, it meant my comings and goings were laid bare for all to see, which is awkward when I need to grab something from The Box™ in the middle of the day when I'm out and/or about.
But "awkwardness" and "social stigma" aren't things I've historically been concerned about. Arguably more importantly, my singular door meant that I couldn't lock the back gate while I was in the truck, so anyone could come in…while I was sleeping (and at my most vulnerable). This was never actually an issue, except for one time, when my friends "broke in" at midnight on my birthday with beer and cheesecake. And if being force-fed Smirnoff in a hazy half-slumber is the worst thing to come out of my willy-nilly approach to security, I think I'm doing alright.
Cheesecake and beer aside, I eventually wised up and implemented a simple, somewhat secure solution, suggested to me by a few readers. The solution was this: Once the door is in a mostly-down position, clamp vice grips over each of the roll-up door tracks. This way, the rollers will get caught on the vice grips if someone attempted to open it. With enough force, someone could probably still open the door, but they'd make a real racket in the process. It might not be a coincidence that I started doing this right after some strange happenings in my neck of the
But vice grips and surprise cheesecake are both things of the past, because one of the new truck improvements was an interior door leading from the driver's compartment into my pleasantly prismic pigsty. When I told the body shop I wanted an interior door installed, I was expecting a simple sliding door or something on a hinge. What I got was way more interesting, and hilariously over-engineered. As I understand it, they had this really nice roll-up door sitting around not doing anything, and they were like, "Yeah sure, that'll do". So they measured and cut and welded and eventually this functional Franken-door came into being. They didn't charge me for the door (which they said was worth $2,000+), so I certainly wasn't complaining.
I've been using the door for a few weeks now, and I have to say that I'm thoroughly enjoying it. It's taken some getting used to though; it must weigh nearly 50 pounds and doesn't have a conventional garage door torsion spring, so it's kind of unwieldy to work with. I've figured out an awkward little dance to close the door behind me when I get out in the morning, but there's still definitely room for improvement. The big benefits are that I can keep the back gate locked shut all the time, park in whatever orientation I damn well want, and come and go whenever I damn well please. Very liberating indeed.
What's the Damage?
Moving on, it's clear I had a good chunk of work done. And as it turns out, people and labor and truck parts and stuff don't come cheap. In total, the repairs cost me a healthy ~$3,800.
Brandon, that's an obscene amount of money! And in my humble opinion, you're an idiot.
It's definitely not a small sum of money, but hear me out: I know that I plan on selling the truck eventually, even if I don't know when. Since it's already fairly old (2006) and I don't drive it a lot, it's not going to depreciate much further, as long as I keep it in decent shape. Letting the wood rot from the leaks, or the headlight fall out completely wouldn't exactly be "keeping it in decent shape". Plus, since I plan on selling it as a super-secret-stealth-hardcore-camper-truck-type-thing, improvements like the interior door make a lot of sense. So the benefit is two-fold: I get to take advantage of all the improvements now, and they make the truck more valuable in the long run. But even if the repairs and improvements didn't add any value to the truck whatsoever, $3,800 isn't that expensive when you phrase it as "two months rent".
And another question, where did you stay when the repairs were being done? Did you just roam the streets?
First question: Alaska!
Second question: No.
Both images were carefully selected to highlight how philosophical and mysterious I am.
In total, the truck spent like a week and a half in the body shop. Luckily, this happened to somewhat coincide with a trip my friends and I were taking to Alaska. So I drove the truck to the body shop, caught a ride 10 minutes to the airport, and off I went. When I got back from Alaska, I spent a few days at my non-truck-homed girlfriend's place.
Why the Ugly Truck?
Reading over the allegory of the Ugly Truckling, there's a question that naturally leaps to mind: why didn't I pick a more reasonable vehicle, like an RV, or even just one of the newer, nicer trucks?
I've touched on some of this in the past, but I didn't want an RV because I was worried that would be too comfortable and I would forget why I was even doing this in the first place: because the world outside my four walls is infinitely more interesting, and that's where I want to spend my time. I didn't pick a newer, shinier truck because I liked (and still like) the idea of a fixer-upper. I wanted to be able to rip apart the interior without worrying I was doing damage, and attempt little repairs on my own. Thus far, I think it's been a pretty solid learning opportunity.
I certainly had a few ulterior motives too. Older trucks are naturally cheaper, and like I mentioned above, they also leave less room to depreciate. Less logically, a silly anecdote from my childhood might explain why I gravitated to the Ugly Truckling:
When I was little, I spent a lot of time at my grandmother's house. She had this set of ceramic-handled silverware, and from looking at them, you could tell they'd been around since The War. Which war it was, nobody knew for sure. But anyway, a bunch of the spoons had chips in their ceramic handles, and I was always careful to avoid those ones. One day, my grandmother caught me carefully picking my spoon and asked me what I was doing. When I explained that some of the spoons were broken, this is what she said to me:
"Broken spoons need love too."
And it's stuck with me ever since.
*Partly because it was a sad excuse for an existence, and partly because trucks are inanimate objects and don't "live" in the way that humans and other animate organisms do.