Cars Of A Lifetime: 1979 Jeep Cherokee – So Proud To Live

While we were living in Dallas, OR, I was pretending to be an auto mechanic. A friend of an acquaintance offered to trade me a 1979 Jeep Cherokee if I could fix the rear wheel bearing on his old Chevy van. In short, I ended up with an old orange Jeep and a grease stained shirt. Was the Jeep worth it? Just barely. Anyway, the stained shirt was just a down payment on all the trouble that it got us into.

This Cherokee was liveried in “reservation chic” orange with a white Indian design stripe. It was, or more accurately, it had been a Levi’s edition, meaning it once had denim upholstery, of which not much was left. The remaining tatters were what might be considered fashionable now. One interesting thing about it was that it was a four door. Jeep used the Cherokee moniker to denote a stripped Wagoneer for a time in the 70’s; confusing huh?

It was missing the tail gate window, the tires were bald, and it leaked myriad fluids from its AMC 360 engine. But it did run! I didn’t really need the Jeep but I did end up driving it around as it was my only operational 4×4 for a time. During the time we owned it we were operating a big newspaper motor route encompassing several small towns and the areas between. And of course the day came when the VW bus would not start and the Jeep would. I ended up driving and Michelle was doing the running in town. The battery on the Jeep was weak and it would not reliably start it. So I had to leave it idling.

I did mention the fluid leaks right? The power steering leaked steadily on the exhaust pipe creating a smell not unlike imitation popcorn butter. At first it was merely unpalatable, but soon it became quite noxious. I struggled to maintain consciousness and even ended up swapping jobs with Michelle several times. After that morning, I can no longer bear the thought of popcorn at the theater; it is forever ruined for me by the orange Jeep.

But the Jeep came through in some surprising ways in some surprising situations ( I suppose you have come to expect those of me by now).

It was Christmas Eve 2000, and we had a dirty hippie named Jack living with us whom I had met at the coffee shop (I have a tendency to hang around at coffee shops and pick up strays), and my good friend Peter was with us for the weekend. It occurred to us that we should visit a certain rare book store located in a town some miles away. So since it was starting to snow outside we took the Jeep. I put my son Ace who was about two years old in the front seat since the fumes from the back were pretty bad.

None of us were to familiar with the town but we made it there to find that the bookshop was not nearly as interesting as we had imagined. We had a coffee and decided to start back as Peter needed to be at a friend’s who lived in the middle of nowhere for Christmas eve dinner that night. However none of us were sure exactly which way to go. I decided that it would be best to just start driving South on the biggest road. As you might have guessed, that decision was not altogether a sound one. The road started getting smaller and Peter and Jack started questioning my decisions ( I should mention here that Peter hated dirty hippies even more than myself and that Jack was none to fond of Peter, in short they were complete opposites). I assured them that we would eventually end up on highway 18 if we just continued South and that there was nothing to worry about.

The sun was setting and the road was now climbing steadily. Snow started to fall in larger and more frequent bouts. Soon the road was covered in a thin layer of white. Peter expressed his concern about our bald tires and I assured him that they still had a very small amount of tread left. Jack insisted we pull over and let him breath. The missing back window was admitting snow and fumes now in an unremitting stream of misery. I kept on and assured him that soon we would reach a good place to stop. In reality I was getting a bit concerned about things, and was hoping that the crest of each new hill would show a highway on the other side.

The snow was starting to get deeper and the hills were starting to get steeper and taller. The sun at last set and our headlights cut through continuous snow fall, rare hear in Western Oregon. I finally did let the passengers breathe and shake the snow out of their collars. We got together and conferred while my son cried in the front seat. We all agreed that we had gone too far to turn back and that the highway must be close. Peter was getting pretty angry about not making it to Christmas eve at his friend’s house. And we all had reservations about getting stuck in the snow in the middle of nowhere at night. We had no shovel; for that matter we didn’t even have a spare tire, but we carried on.

We drove for what seemed like an hour through ever deeper snow almost getting stuck at least once. Finally the grades started trending downwards. We rounded a long bend and through the snow and darkness we made out the name of a town on a sign. It was a tiny town we were familiar with but it was on the wrong side of the highway! And it was about fifty miles from where we had started. We were all dumbfounded as to how we could have crossed the highway. But from that town we knew where to go. We ended up backtracking a bit to get to the highway which just happened to go right by Peter’s friends house and he arrived right on time to the minute. Peter told that story until he died last year and Jack still remembers it quite vividly.

Now it might happen that the Jeep (with my help) was nearly the death of Peter and Ace but it was also their salvation once as well. The summer after our fateful Christmas Eve excursion, Peter and I took Ace with us scouting the woods in preparation for hunting season. We parked the Jeep at the top of a big hill and walked down a closed logging road. The road wound around the base of the hill and looked as if it might be open to the main logging road on the other end. So after about a mile of hiking I suggested that I scale the hill back to the Jeep and see if I could drive around and pick up Peter and Ace.

I hiked up some nasty fresh clear cut and after coming out behind some people’s target practice made it in one piece to the Jeep. I drove down to the main logging road and to where I thought our road came into it. But it was gated off. So I drove back up the hill and found a Cat trail that went down towards the road we had hiked on. But after parking and hiking back down in 90 degree sun they were no longer there. So I hiked back up to the Jeep and honked the horn. No response came.

I figured that Peter was probably going to try and walk to the main road so I drove back up the hill towards the gate. But as I came out of the clear cut I heard the unmistakable sound of a tire rapidly loosing air. Remember those bald tires? And I still had no spare. I did have a plug kit though. So I drove very slowly forward until the hole was on the ground side, since it had no tread, the ground stopped it from leaking. I got the plug kit out but now I could not get to the hole. The tire was pretty low and I could not afford to lose anymore air. So after some thought I placed a log under the tire and put the Jeep in neutral. I got everything ready and kicked the log forwards until the hole was visible. It was a big hole that a branch stub had ripped in the thin old tire. It gushed air and I frantically pushed in plug after plug. On the last one in my kit (no lie!) it finally stopped leaking.

So I continued up the hill with about fifteen pounds of pressure in that tire. At the top of the hill I stopped and fired my pistol into the ground three time, waited and then did it again ( a code for emergency signaling agreed on by us some years ago ). I heard a return of two shots from Peter’s little twenty two caliber pistol, and then again.

Using the direction of the sound of the pistol shots with the compass, I was able to take a rough bearing. It put them about half way down the road at the base of the big hill. So I drove back down the hill, found another rough Cat trail and followed it until it got to rough to drive. I got out of the Jeep and could see the road from the crest of a fresh rough clear cut. I blew on my signal whistle three times. And immediately my signal was returned. Peter and Ace walked around a bend in the road towards me. When I finally got down the clear cut I found Ace in tears and Peter looking like he was about to faint. “Took you long enough” he said! I explained the delay and asked him why he had moved. He said he was trying to find water. I asked why since he seemed to still have a full canteen and he said he was conserving water. I made them drink lots of water and explained the foolishness of conserving it, especially in Western Oregon! Peter never lived that one down and I still have a big choker hook I found in that clear cut.

( Peter )

The Jeep is of course gone now but it went to a good home. Being that it had a Rambler motor it had a tendency to suddenly be low on oil for no obvious reason. This caused Michelle to begin using the sound of the lifters running dry as a sign to add oil to it. Eventually that treatment led to a constant smokey exhaust. Michelle drove it to Silverton when we moved. On our way I had a little fun ramming the back of it with the winch bumper on my Travelall. Apparently someone saw this and called the police. Michelle got pulled over by the sheriffs somewhere after I passed her. She told me she denied all knowledge of the event to him. So he gave her a ticket for the smokey exhaust.

On the farm we used the Jeep to drive out in the field and prop twenty-two targets against. So the back was riddled with holes. Surprisingly one day a kid showed up asking about the Jeep. He said he noticed it and wanted to know if I would be willing to trade it for something. Sure, if it’s good I said. In reality I would have traded it for belly button lint! But even after I showed him all of it’s deficiencies the kid still wanted it. So I ended up with one less target stand and a perfectly usable Honda 90 ATC. I don’t know what the kid did with the Jeep and I really don’t care. I did plenty with the ATC and traded it partly for a car we will talk about in a future article. All in all, the Jeep always worked, if regrettably, and it always got us there, if miserably. So I guess I can’t knock it, much.