Dad and I are headed to the hills, he in his GMC Sierra pickup, me in mine. Dust kicks up from the rear tires, blowing up into the blue sky toward the high desert mesas. The slot canyons and sandstone cliffs are minutes from our family’s ranch, a rugged playground where my father and I have always escaped to bond and horse around, usually with a rifle or a shotgun pointed at the footwell, appropriate for plinking at rocks or clay pigeons.
The dirt road is rough, rutted, and utterly familiar. I grew up here in the Four Corners region of New Mexico, near the Colorado border, and it is home. Not where I’ve lived for the last twenty-two years, but the home I think of when I get lonesome. At 5000 feet, it is high desert, thirsty and sage-colored but also beautiful and open, tempting the eye to the horizon fifty miles away. The nearest town is Kirtland, which has a single stoplight. No wonder I didn’t learn to parallel park until my twenties.
This is truck country. Many of my happiest memories take place inside the same 1976 GMC Sierra my dad is driving today. We call it Brownie. I vividly recall sitting on the bench seat between him and my mom, straddling the gearstick, feeling loved and safe — and always on an adventure. Decades later, we’re on another.
Today I’m aboard a brand-new, glinting red, 2014 GMC Sierra 1500 SLT crew cab. It has big, comfy bucket seats; a six-speed automatic; satellite radio; and a quiet, 5.3-liter Ecotec3 V-8. It’s everything a modern truck is supposed to be — a supercapable workhorse that can tow a house and is as comfortable as a Cadillac.
Ahead, bouncing as if on jack-in-the-box springs (which, as a three-quarter-ton heavy-duty truck, it might as well be), is Brownie. Two doors, four-speed manual (including a granny gear), a dead cassette player, and a 350-cubic-inch V-8 that sounds like it gargles car jacks. My dad, John Couburn Harper, is at the wheel, and I can see his head joggling around through the rear window. A shiver goes down my neck. With his cowboy hat on, Dad’s profile looks uncannily like that of my granddad, John Harrington Harper, now twenty years dead, driving his 1960s GMC. (Sold off years ago, sadly.)
Trucks and family and generations. It’s a country song, all right, and I don’t even care for the genre. I live in New York City, a very different America from New Mexico. But I’ve come home, as prodigal sons do, and this time I’ve brought along my own son.
Max is a mere eight months old. He has a big tousled head of hair and oversize blue eyes, and until today he had never met his granddad. My wife Miranda, Max, and I traveled all night, from Manhattan to Albuquerque to Kirtland, driving the final 200 miles in the new GMC. We blew through the dark desert under a swarm of startle-bright stars and arrived as the sun did. I trundled Max upstairs to my father’s bedroom and held him aloft like the Lion King — cheesy, but it felt right. My dad rubbed his sleep-stained eyes and gawped. So did Max, taking in the six-foot-three form of my dad, a former pro football player. Holy God, but do things come round.
Dad is sixty-seven, I’m forty, and it was a surprise to suddenly have a Harper boy to carry on the name — the only son of an only son of an only son. To arrive in a GMC, the fourth generation to carry around a Harper boy, was a nice bit of symmetry. (My dad’s current ride? A 2004 Sierra.) Not a sexy brand, but a stalwart one. I wish my granddad was here to see it. Luckily my grandmother, Florence Harper, Max’s great-grandmother, is. She’s ninety-six.
Brownie’s temperamental,” says Dad. “I better drive it.”
I stare at him, incredulous. “You do realize I drive million-dollar Bugattis for a living, right?”
He bites down on an unlit cigarillo. “I don’t want you messing around and breaking Brownie. You drive your fancy new truck.”
You think things change. You grow up, take on responsibilities, have a kid of your own. Your father will trust you not to break stuff. But things don’t really change, and
Brownie was my first vehicle, passed down when I needed to get to high school. I never bothered to lock it, and, despite $1.25 gas, it gargled away my savings. To this day, I love that damn truck. (It’s not actually brown. More of a burnt red. My dad’s color-blind. Some of the rust color is the real stuff these days, though.)
We go off into the hills to see how the $50,340 Sierra compares. It, too, is a new generation, rethought and revitalized and very civilized, sharing much of its DNA with the Chevrolet Silverado. I can’t even hear the direct-injected, cylinder-deactivating engine despite its 355 hp and 383 lb-ft of torque. Before long we’re in soft dirt. Dad gets out to lock Brownie’s hubs; I wave smugly. The 2014 has a two-speed transfer case and an auto-locking rear differential. Leather, too, and heated seats (definitely not needed today).
I’m feeling less confident when he heads into the badlands. The narrow track snakes between alkali-white hills and jagged sand sculptures creased with flash-flood washouts. Pop was always one for taking the road never traveled, a trait — or peccadillo — I’ve inherited. We’ve crisscrossed the San Juan Mountains’ 13,000-foot off-road passes in Brownie (the brakes once gave out on a steep descent), and we forded the Dolores River every summer weekend. (Nearly got washed away several times.) My fancy-pants Sierra, meanwhile, has a $430 off-road suspension package but is wider and longer, with citified running boards that scrape on boulders. On a particularly steep grade I’m forced to demur. The folks at GMC wouldn’t appreciate me returning a banged-up truck.
Brownie has earned its Purple Heart over thirty-seven years of service. Its dents have dents. It has suffered thusly: My mom, Kathie, rippled its side with her Mazda. It rolled off a short cliff, landing in a sandy wash, when my dad didn’t set the parking brake (the engine didn’t even quit). Another time it nearly rolled off a very tall cliff to its certain demise but instead plowed through a pile of stacked coal near the edge and slowed down just enough for Dad, running in cowboy boots, to catch up, throw himself through the passenger’s door, and jam on the brake mere feet from the precipice. Seeing as we lived on a hill, you’d think he would have remembered to set that e-brake.
I added my own marks to its crinkled hide, doing things teenagers do and earning a head-shake from my father each time. (Like he could talk!) It has sat in the elements for decades and still starts without the slightest complaint. Except for spark plugs, belts, fluids, and tires, it has not had a cent put into it.
I feel a twinge of regret. Max won’t grow up next to me on a bench seat — not because we don’t own a pickup truck (we do, a beater Nissan), but because of rear car-seat regulations. No surfing in the bed, either, I suppose. Sad to say, but the four-door 2014 Sierra clearly makes more sense with its airbags, great brakes, and $845 driver-alert system. Mileage is middling (16/22 mpg city/highway), but the suspension floats over bumps. It drives like a car.
Conversely, we’re fifteen miles into the hills, and Dad is looking worse for the wear. “Let me drive Brownie home,” I beseech. He relents.
Home is the Harper ranch/farm, a once-sizable hunk of land with the San Juan River dribbling through, giving just enough water to sustain fields of alfalfa and scraggly cattle. The holdings are now reduced to a cherished two-story, century-old redbrick house and tired outbuildings. My granddad, known as J. H., was born in the master bedroom in 1914 and died in the kitchen at age seventy-eight. The local Navajos dubbed him “Son of Man with Many Cattle,” and he ran several hundred head in these same hills. His GMC was dark green, an automatic, and the first vehicle I ever drove, at age seven, creeping behind with supplies as he mended barbed-wire fences.
The Harper house will pass out of the family one day and be gone — another reason it is doubly important to bring my boy home so his bare feet can touch the ground.
Brownie’s steering is solid and precise. The gauges have gone milky white, cataracts covering glass; the dash is sun blistered. I hit a bump and am catapulted into the metal ceiling. Clang! I see stars. Oh, those heavy-duty springs. Granddad refused to ride in it.
We reach Highway 64 and I speed to
65 mph before smelling something acrid from the increasingly cranky-sounding engine. Arriving at the house, I quietly turn Brownie off, sure any problems will pass.
The next afternoon, a Sunday, we have a family party. Close relatives from Albuquerque arrive, as does Sean, my best friend from grade school. A Harper cousin brings his horse. Grandmother holds court, Max on her lap, a smile creasing her face. My father has become a too-proud granddad. At the end, we all clamber into Brownie’s bed and take a group photo.
Max won’t remember this day; I’ll never forget it. Any visit like this is too short, supposed to make up for all the lost days. Just enough time to miss one another all over again. It’s even harder when my grandmother asks when we’re bringing Max back. “We’re a long way away,” I whisper. Then she plays her old piano and all of us menfolk secretly sniffle.
As we clean up afterward, my father starts Brownie to return it to its customary spot. I’m holding Max, who’s smiling goofily at his granddad. Dad gets out. “Son, you forgot to take it out of four-wheel drive. On the highway. Could have torn it all to hell.” Shakes his head slowly, then smiles, eyes crinkling, satisfied that all is exactly the way it should be.