The Green Gopher

Growing up in the 70’s I learned and spent a lot of time camping, hiking, being outdoors and active.  Every spring summer and fall, my parents and I would load up the truck, and later the trailer and head out.  Typically preparations would start the week before departure, and the loading process would start on Thursday afternoon with my brother and I hauling all the gear into the yard, while my mom packed the vehicles.  Friday could not come soon enough and when it did, my dad would come home from work, change is clothes, wrangle up two kids, maybe a dog, adjust the mirrors, and exclaim “We’re off” as we drove out of the driveway in The Green Gopher.  For the most part, for my family nothing much has changed much from my dad.  It is however the details that matter.

In 1972, I was one year old and to celebrate my dad bought a new truck.  Details of the vehicle back then are scarce.  From my point of view, my dad previously owned a 1964 International Scout.  He drive this car for years all over the desert south west in the late 1960s.  When my dad married my mom, my mom made him sell the Scout because the breaks were horrible, and at least three times they failed completely.  It was a wise decision considering the stakes for the family at the time, but the loss of his beloved Scout was difficult and for decades despite its faults the Scout cast a long shadow in our family.

Returning to 1972, my dad decided to purchase his truck.  He chose a Sea Foam Green 1972 Ford F-100 pickup sporting a 302 inch V-8 sporting with a 3.2:1 gear ratio, two fuel tanks, and a four speed manual transmission which included a “Granny Gear”.  The extra costs of a four wheel drive were not an option for my dad at that time.  So, the truck became the “ultimate compromise”.  He opted for 2 wheel drive, but to offer improved traction he chose a four speed with granny gear.  The differential was geared up to offer improve gas mileage, but the little 200 HP V-8 could not pull a grade at any sort of highway speeds.  A camper shell, home built bed, pass-through rear window and the “green gopher” was complete for the initial incarnation.

The interior of the truck bed was built by my father and contained storage, and folding queen bed.  The low profile camper shell offered no room crouch, let alone stand up, the windows and top vent offered perfect locations to pull out tufts of hair from the person who was not wise to the danger.  During a trip, I can remember distinctly laying down in the cab between my mom and dad as he drove.  Later my brother and I would argue about who got to sit in front between my parents, but clearly the place to travel was in the bed of the truck.

By modern standards, this truck was under powered, poorly geared, suffered from both a lack of power and poor gas mileage, but still managed to take us everywhere my dad wanted to go.  As a family, we explored the Mojave and Sonoran Dessert without air conditioning (it would lower gas mileage and power), explored the high country of the High Sierra pulling the 395 in third gear at 45 miles per hour.  To this day, my dad, brother and I still need to get a running start whenever starting up a long grade.  No child safety seat was allowed to get near the truck and on long road trips my brother and I would just climb in back.  Yet despite all its short comings the green gopher always brought us home safe.

Almost every year, my family would be out in the back country and some jeep trail in the green gopher.   At some point we would get stuck and my dad, brother and I would help did out, push, or whatever.  The new benchmark within the family became, “if we got stuck, it was a good trip.”  Every time we got stuck, my dad would fall into a routine of profanity and stories of his old International Scout.  Every time, he would wonder out loud if he should have gotten the 4×4 package on the truck, but $500 was a lot in 1972.  Then he would determine that if he had a 4×4 we would be stuck with two axles rather than just one.  Despite this trend, every time we came to a 4×4 trail, it would not slow my dad down one bit

In the 80’s my dad decided to upgrade his truck.  A set of “overload springs” helped the suspension and later on duel exhaust and headers where supposed to open it up a little bit.  A fourteen foot travel trailer was added to the equation as my brother and I got bigger.  The trailer obviously added to the gross vehicle weight and my mother would leave no space unfilled.  We used to travel into the back country of Arizona and a week every fall of go on Hunting trips with my dad.  The truck made trips to Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Oregon.  In this day and age, a setup like this would be considered an “Expedition” vehicle, but back then it was just the truck.

Perhaps the oddest modification to the truck was my dad’s ill-fated attempt at water injection.   At some point by father learned of water injection in internal combustion engines.  The theory of water injection is that you inject some water into the intact manifold, and the process of which cools the manifold and increases the fuel / air mixture thereby increases engine power.   To this end, my dad placed a five gallon igloo water cooler behind the driver’s seat up on the bed in the camper shell.  He then snaked some IV tubing from the water cooler, behind his head, through the firewall and into the carburetor.   A siphon and flow control valve would allow him to control the flow of the water into the manifold.  I recall that for the entirety of the trip, he recorded mileage at each gas stop and maintained the water system.  This modification was only used once, so I image after all of the number crunching and calculations he determined that the extra effort.

One of my last trips with the truck, my friend and I borrowed the green gopher from to dad for a ski trip up to Mammoth Mountain, CA.  I drove the 300 miles to Mammoth, and parked the truck in the parking lot of the ski resort between a Porsche and Jeep Grand Cherokee.  The parking lot at Mammoth is 8900 feet, and after skiing all day, we return to the truck to head down to town and grab a beer.  After packing the truck with ski gear, we piled in and turned the ignition.  The engine cranked.  And cranked…. And cracked……. But it would just not catch.  Starved for air, the engine would just not fire up in the high altitude of the Eastern Sierra.  I checked everything out.  The engine was getting fuel, spark, etc…  After about 20 minutes, I got into the cab.  Jammed the accelerator to the floor and turned the key.  After a few seconds, the engine coughed, sputtered a bit, and then slowly each cylinder came online and the 302 roared to life.  As the engine cleared and fired up and began to billow out dark carbon laced exhaust out of each side and smothered the Porsche and Grand Cherokee.  As the engine ran, we pulled out of the parking lot to the applause of the other skiers who witnessed out struggle.

My dad sold the green gopher around 2000 and purchased a new F-250 diesel 4×4.  The old F-100 had served well past its time.  Since then, I have owned two 4x4s both of which have more power, and better low end, air conditioning, stereos.  However, despite this technological advances all of these newer vehicles will always compared to the “green gopher” and justifiably so.  The “green gopher” proved you don’t need to have the latest and greatest of anything to have fun in the back county; you just need to something reliable to bring you safely home and to know your limitations.

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