A Bronco Kind of Love
Nell took me everywhere. Well maybe not to the stars, but to Hollywood, Branson, and even all the way down the wide Missouri. By Bill Vaughn

DURING MY THIRTIETH YEAR I gave up mescaline, promiscuous sex, and ultra-left politics in exchange for something less dangerous: horses. One reason for this move was a marriage proposal from one of my girlfriends. Because Kitty had been raised in a Montana ranch family obsessed with performance horses I knew that in order to keep her I’d have to learn to ride competitively.

After the wedding our first major purchase together was a bay mare. A little later we traded in Kitty’s old horse trailer for a better one, and went shopping for a new truck to pull it with. It was in the third show room that I met what would become the other love of my life. It was a gleaming white 1982 Ford Bronco with heavy-duty shocks and transmission, four-wheel drive, power steering and a rear seat that folded down to create a small apartment under a removable shell. I was smitten, and it had nothing to do with that new truck smell.

Every one of my cars had broken my heart, from the enormous green 1948 Chrysler whose engine exploded in my high school parking lot, humiliating me in front of jeering teens, to the 1970 candy orange Volvo whose undercarriage turned cancerous with rust concealed by her dishonest former owner. But once behind the wheel of the Bronco, which at the time, in these innocent pre-Hummer days, was bigger and shinier than most everything else on the road, I became confident, almost optimistic. I joined a softball team. I played golf. I took tennis lessons. And with Kitty’s coaching, my riding skills improved so much I could gallop at full speed without shrieking like a girl on a rollercoaster.

Meanwhile, we’d acquired a couple of new horses and had moved into a rented house on a thousand-acre ranch only a few minutes from the center of town. By now we were riding every day and competing in arenas a couple times a month. The Bronco ferried us and our horses to these events without giving us a single moment of anxiety, and we paid her back with regular trips to the dealer for service.

We called her Nell. When I think back now over a quarter of a century of memories it occurs to me that Nell is at the core of all the best ones.

or example, one day most of my softball team piled into Nell and we drove to the state capital to catch a minor league baseball game. When the concession stand ran out of beer in the fourth inning someone threw a sneaker onto the infield. Then suddenly there was a cloud of shoes in the air that littered the diamond. The umps ordered the game suspended until the drunks came down from the bleachers to retrieve their footwear. The next morning Kitty presented me something she’d found behind the rear seat—a pair of black pumps that reeked of alcohol.

Next, Nell took us to the state prison to play a double-header against a pretty good team of murderers. First we had a spam-and-Jell-O lunch in the prison cafeteria (eaten without forks or knives), then we took the field, winning the first game and losing the second, which ended in a flurry when their adamant Blackfeet catcher made an unassisted double play at home, tagging out two of our runners one after the other.
One winter Kitty and I drove Nell to southern California just for fun, where we saw Jon Voigt eating pasta at a table on the street, Telly Savalas laughing into a pay phone in supermarket parking lot, and Charley Pride pumping gas into a baby blue Cadillac. Home again, we decided to pull our trailer with a used truck we took in lieu of payment for our work as book designers, liberating Nell from a job that had become increasingly hard on her heart.

On a shimmery day I decided to golf the Lewis and Clark Trail from Montana to St. Charles, Missouri. I loaded my clubs into Nell, kissed Kitty goodbye and spent the rest of the summer hitting golf balls in soy bean fields, from levees, and even on the occasional golf course. At night I found secluded places to park, and slept in the back. In Missouri one afternoon I drove into a vast cornfield that had just been stripped of every stalk, put Nell into compound, and climbed onto her roof as she ambled across the field like an old saddle horse. After my ultimate shot into the Missouri at the place where Jefferson’s explorers began and ended their trip I turned around for home.

However, I got sidetracked and ended up staying a week in Branson with a group of retirees from San Diego. But that's another story.

I was heading north outside Kansas City when I heard on the radio that that a jury had found O. J. Simpson not guilty. Other drivers started honking at me or making rude gestures or both. During the trial a lot of white Ford Bronco owners had made pilgrimages to L.A. to sell their trucks in a market that was paying two or three times blue book price for a ride Simpson had made famous with his slow-motion police chase around the freeways of L.A. We couldn’t understand it. Sure, these drivers got some extra coin from those crazy Californians, but now what were they going to drive? After all, the Ford Bronco was the best truck on the road. It was as if they’d decided to sell their kids.

Nell and I would take some other memorable trips. One of these was a odyssey around the Northern Plains to a half-dozen eerie places Indians regard as sacred, like the ancient cliff art at Wyoming’s remote Dinwoody Canyon. On another epic voyage I set out to search for cheap real estate. We’d bought a house and ten acres of forest on a big Montana river, but once you own a little bit of land you immediately want a whole lot more. Although most Montana spreads far too pricey for us, I’d heard that North Dakota was losing population and you could buy hunks of land there really cheap. This turned out to be the case. I found 110 acres in a wooded wash outside Minot selling for $70,000. And I found a $6,000 church for us to live in that we could move there. That night I parked out of sight on this land, and bedded down with Nell. The next morning, giddy with excitement, I stepped outside. And was immediately covered head to toe with mosquitoes and vicious little flies. Puckered with bites, I drove home immediately at very high speed.

The years passed. We were recently reminded by our thirty-year-old nephew that when he was five years old we’d promised to give him Nell instead of trading her in. But we never traded her in. Even when she was on death’s door. After I made the mistake of having Nell serviced at one of those quicky-lube places her engine threw a rod. I discovered that the oil pan cap was missing, and kicked myself for not checking to make sure it had been correctly replaced. We had no hesitation about what to do, and in a week Nell was back on the road with a new engine. There would be yet another engine, after number two wore out, plus a new transmission, new clutches, a complete new drive train, many new tires and several brake jobs. We also replaced the rear window a couple of times, which is raised or lowered with electric arms and is, as all Bronco owners know, the Achilles heel of this otherwise world-class athlete.

Three years ago we had to admit that it was finally time for Nell to give up the open road. She had traveled almost 300,000 miles, a dozen times around the world. Her brakes were shot, her engine compression low, and she was burning oil. We unscrewed her license plates and hung them in the shop. But that didn’t mean Nell was retired.

It was her new job to take me from the house along a narrow track walled by trees and surrounded by water so I could cut down dead pine and birch and fill her up with firewood. Then, when we got back to the house, she'd beak up these rounds with a jerry-rigged device I had concocted by fitting Nell's trailor hitch with the head of an awl. First I positioned the round against a stone wall, then I backed into the wood hard to split it.

This spring I headed out as usual under a canopy of blossoming hawthorns to a muddy swamp that always floods with June snowmelt. As she had before, Nell entered the muck with her trademark bravura and bulled through to the other side. I spent the morning working, and when we returned with a full load Nell’s tired old springs were groaning. Plowing back into the quagmire she suddenly shuddered and ground to a halt. I put her in reverse, shifted into compound, and tried to rock her back onto dry land. But her tires simply spun and dug in deeper. This had never happened before. Nell had never gotten stuck. I called Kitty on my cell phone and asked if she’d saddle one of the horses and bring a rope. We’d have to get Nell out of this fix because in a week the slough would be six feet deep with water.

I knew it was maudlin, but I patted her dashboard and told her everything would be okay. I didn’t believe it. Maybe the horse could pull us out. But probably not.

There was one more thing I could try. I straightened the wheel, put the transmission into two-wheel drive to take power away front the front tires, and lightly touched the accelerator. Nell hesitated, belching oily smoke. And then she calmly rolled back into my life. 


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