Smell the Laundromat: Two-month Roadtrip in a 1923 Model T

Their rig: the Ford hot rod that caught my eye (Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, California)

My wife Julia and I were driving around the campground looking for a place to park our tiny gypsy wagon trailer. We drove by a black hot rod Ford parked in a camp site, and I thought, “I’d like to meet those people.”

Our rig: our Subaru Crosstreck towing our home-built gypsy vardo wagon

How We Got Here

Julia and I were on a road trip with our little red vardo gypsy wagon. Earlier that day, we’d driven through the clear-cut mountains of southern Oregon so long we wondered where all the famous old-growth forest had gone. Many hills were covered in stumps, slash piles, and dead grass. We walked out into a tract of timber that was being logged, and Julia climbed onto the stump of a tree that had just been cut down. It was wider than our camper.

Where we pulled off the road to look at a timber harvest
Julia climbing off what had been, until recently, a large tree
Before: standing on the edge of a timber harvest. The timber companies are careful to leave a strip of trees along the highway when they cut a forest so you can’t see the giant opening from the road.
Timber harvest. A piece of heavy machinery is stacking branches into a pile
After: the clearcut across the road from where Julia and I witnessed the timber harvest. Most of the land in the background has been clearcut and replanted, which is why the trees are all young and the same age. The clearcut felt hot and dry because all the trees were gone. The grass growing back in place of the trees made the land look more like a flammable prairie than a forest. Note the smokey air.

We drove along the highway in a gloomy state, wondering if all the privately owned tracts of coastal timber in southern Oregon and northern California had been reduced to grassland and stumps.

The road ran into what looked like a tunnel made of trees that opened to the sky. We were finally back into the timber. We stopped for the night in Jebediah Smith campground in Jebediah Smith Redwoods Park.

A tunnel made of trees

Like a Blue Whale Standing on Its Tail

We drove to a campsite we liked, got out of the car and I looked up the trunk of the closest redwood. It was so tall I had to lean backward like a kid to take it all in. It towered over me like a great blue whale standing on its tail. All I could do was grin like a simpleton. This is what the land once looked like, before the ancient redwoods fell to the saw and the sun baked the soil to powder.

Grinning like a simpleton: how the land used to look like before it was clearcut
Bark like a mammoth

It was too early to cook supper, so I hopped on a log lying on the forest floor. The log was big around as a barrel and I walked along the top of it. I stepped off the log, right into the campsite with the black hot rod parked in it.

Walking the log
The Model T roadster the moment I saw it as I stepped off the log

Road Tripping in a Model T Roadster

I looked around the campsite and saw a man and a woman sitting at a picnic table. The only thing else in their campsite was the black convertible, a tent and a tiny trailer.

Julia and I introduced ourselves. They looked to be in their seventies. She wore her hair swept across her forehead, and he had skin cancer on the back of his hands. They smiled movie star smiles when they told us their names and radiated the last beams of what looked like a long life in the Promised Land of Sunshine and Eternal Youth. Sunshine and Eternal Youth. That’s what I used to think of California until this trip. I was happy to see some of the old spirit still alive after all the wreckage we’d seen in northern California and southern Oregon.

Our new camping neighbors

I introduced myself and asked them where they were from and where they were heading. “We live outside LA,” she said. “We’re on a two-month road trip.”

I looked at the hot rod and asked the man, “you made the trip in this?”

He smiled and said, “yes.”

Hot Rod Specs

I asked the man about the hot rod. “It’s a 1923 T Model roadster,” he said. “The engine’s out of a 1938 Ford, and the gas tank is out of a 1948 Ford. I’ve owned it for twenty years.”

The 1938, 4-cylinder Model T engine. The original engine displaced 2.9 liters and produced 20 hp. It’s safe to say this one produces a whole lot more.
Fuel line coming out of the gas tank.

I had a closer look at the Model T. It looked more like a toy than a car you’d drive hundreds of miles from LA to northern California. It didn’t have airbags, a roll bar, collision avoidance, cruise control or even a roof. The cab was so narrow it looked like if two people were riding in it, they’d have to put their arms around each other. People in the 1920s were much skinnier than today, even if they were the same height. We’ve become an overfed people, and our cars reflect it.

An original Model T Ford weighed as little as 1,200 pounds. That’s the weight of a large horse. The Subaru Croostrek we’re driving weighs 3,200 pounds. America’s best-selling vehicle for the last 40 years, the Ford F-150 pickup, when fully optioned, can weigh close to 6,000 pounds. In a span of ninety years, we’ve gone from riding in cars that weighed as much as Trigger to cars that weigh as much as a small elephant.

I asked the man how fast he drove. “We drive fifty-five,” he said. “The engine likes to run at about 2,800 rpms. That lets us get about twenty-one miles per gallon.”

The average new car sold today gets 26 miles per gallon.

Hot Rod Trailer

The gas tank.

The gas tank took up most of the back of the Model T, and I asked the man where he stored their gear. “I built a little trailer we haul our stuff in,” he said and pointed at a small trailer parked under a redwood. It was not much larger than a garden cart.

A matching trailer. It looks vintage, but it’s not.

“I made it out of a Harbor Freight trailer kit,” he said. “The original trailer was four feet wide. I cut it down to size and shortened it. Then, after I put it together, I built a box to sit on top of it to keep our stuff in.”

That made me smile more than I was already grinning. I built my little red gypsy wagon camper on a similar bolt-together trailer frame.

“When I built the trailer,” he said, “we were just going to use it for weekend trips. Now that we’re out for a few weeks at a time, I wish I’d left it longer.”

He pointed at a steel rack leaning against a redwood tree. “I built that rack to give us some extra room. We put it on top of the trailer, and it gives us enough room to carry what we need.”

Sniff the Air

I asked the couple what they knew of the wildfires in California everyone was telling us about.

“We drove through one that stretched for twenty miles coming up here,” she said. “I know that because I noted the odometer when we first drove into it.”

I asked the woman what she liked best about touring in the Model T.

“It’s using all your senses,” she said. “You’re driving along in the open air because there’s no roof. You’re going slower than the other cars, so you see things other people miss. But what I like best is the smell.” She sniffed the air and said, “I can smell a laundromat in the air before I ever get there.”

I asked the woman where they were headed next. “We like it here so much we’re staying a few more days,” she said. “Then we’ll head up the coast a few more days and head home.”

That made me feel good. After hearing so many people tell us they wanted to leave California, it was good to hear someone who still wanted to live there.

Heading Out

The next morning, the couple in the Model T roadster dropped by our campsite. We chatted, and then they puttered off. Julia and I packed up the gypsy wagon, got back on the highway and headed off into the tunnel of redwoods.

They swung by our camp, and I checked out their rig
She had her arms around his shoulders, and that’s the last I saw of them.

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