The Adventures of Billy Possum


“By the Time I Get to Phoenix She’ll be Rising”*

By Bill J. Castenholz

Copyright 2007, Castenholz and Sons

* With apologies to Glen Campbell and to my wife, who was up at the crack of dawn with us.


“Oh, yea! I have hundreds of old cars and lots of parts for old cars.” That’s about the way I remembered Bob telling me about his interest in old cars. Let me start at the beginning.

My wife and I have a son and his family and also a daughter and her family living in Alaska. On a recent trip we were invited to dinner in Homer at friends of my daughter and son-in-law. Bob, the father of our hostess was also there. He was from Arizona and he told me about all of the cars and parts he had. Needless to say, my interest was peaked. But, as you well know, all is not as it is cracked up to be. You learn to cautiously take some claims with a “grain of salt.”

But when my partner Mike and I decided we needed to take another trip in “Bomber,” we decided to go to Tempe where Bob lived. If Bob’s claims were exaggerated, at least we would have fun on the road with the ’29. So we phoned Bob, coordinated our dates and when the time came, off we went to Arizona.

It always seems a shame to have empty seats in the car so we put out the invitation “family wide” and Matthew and Harris quickly jumped at the chance to go with Grampa and Mike on a car trip. Matthew had gone on a recent trip and didn’t have first choice but it happened that all of the others were too far away or too involved in school and Matthew again was able to go. His schedule is more flexible because he is home-schooled. Harris is also home-schooled. And he had never been on one of Grampa’s and Mike’s adventures.

The day before the trip began, Mike and the boys came to our house and the final preparations for the trip were made. The fence was put on the running board, the brakes were adjusted, the oil changed, the car lubed and all fluids checked. The trip tool list was used to select all of the regular tools we take on our trips.

Mike had designed and made a device that fit between the front bumper supports and held a gallon of coolant and a gallon of fuel as well as several quarts of oil and one of transmission grease. We installed the device and put the fluid containers in it.

Mike’s cleaver invention holds a coolant and fuel container and bottles of oil and transmission grease.

We used the fuel once, just to avoid an inconvenient stop for gasoline.

Everything was ready early enough for all of us to watch a movie before retiring.

Wednesday, Day One

4 am sure seems to come early! The bags were placed on the running board, the boys piled into the back seat. The seat belts were fastened and with a kiss for my wife, out the driveway we went. The time was a few minutes after 5pm.

4:30 am: Mike loading the luggage on the running board fence.

There’s something about pointing Bomber down the road in the early morning that can’t be described in words. I think it comes from seeing a thousand parts strewn across the garage floor and benches, watching them being assembled into a machine, pressing on the starter and having the machine roar to life! I’m a mechanical engineer by training - took a degree from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. I have designed and built an engine from scratch. But to take a bunch of pieces of an engine and put them together and have them run - I have never gotten over the thrill. It isn’t magic. It just seems like magic!

Something unusual about this trip is the route. Within 5 minutes from our starting point we passed under the tunnel that transform the Pacific Coast Highway into Interstate 10. When we arrived in Phoenix we were still on Interstate 10. Usually we enjoy wandering about on country back roads when possible. This trip was on I-10 the whole way!

About 60 miles into the trip we passed the intersection of I-10 and the 57 freeway in Pomona. That’s where we had burned out a rod bearing in this very engine on our way to Indiana a few years ago. The sun had not come up but it was light out.

We continued on for a couple of hours more and then stopped for breakfast. There is a progression on our trips which goes from being home or near home to really being on a road trip. The first meal out is the beginning of the transformation. Waking up on the day after starting the trip is when it really sinks in “We’re dependent on this contraption to get us where we’re going. And to get us home again!”

Breakfast! The first meal on the road always seems to signify that we are really on our way.

After a good breakfast we again headed east. Soon the desert took over from the busy sprawl that seems to go one all the way from the Pacific Ocean to the outskirts of San Bernardino. There is still lots of civilization east of “San Berdu” but after passing Palm Springs (off to the south a bit from I-10) and some of the other desert oases such as Palm Desert and Indio, the desert unfolds in what seems like endless sand, distant hills, sage brush and a white-lined highway that goes off to the end of our vision.

Desert windmills like soldiers standing at attention. We are in the Palm Springs area here.

But there are interesting sights even in the desert. Windmills. They don’t look like windmills of the past. There isn’t much to remind a person of Holland or the North Atlantic Coast of Europe, but they perform exactly the same function as they did when Don Quixote was busy jousting with them - exchanging wind energy for another, more useful form of energy - electrical energy. And there is something stately in some of the modern windmills, standing like soldiers at attention.

Many hundreds of motorcyclists, in groups of perhaps 50 at a time, passed us.

And then there were the motorcycles. We passed a parking lot with what looked like hundreds and hundreds of men and women on motorcycles, preparing to begin their journey. It wasn’t long before we spotted a group of them coming up from behind us. About 50 or so bikers, very orderly and with clear hand signals, passed and then pulled back into the right lane ahead of us. Then a while later another 50 or so passed us. This went on for perhaps an hour or more. It turned out that a lot of motorcyclists were headed to Washington, D.C. to protest some sort of law.

As we drove on, I thought of an old Randy Travis song: “I’m a highway junkie, I need that ol’ white line.” Truly, “Bomber” was making all of us into highway junkies!

The “Bomber” blasted down the highway at a blazing . . .

. . . 45 miles per hour . . . hour after hour.

We knew that the cost of gasoline was going to be an issue. Typically in Los Angeles the prices were ranging around $3.39/gal. for the cheapest fuel we could find. But out on the desert we realized the prices could be much higher. We were attempting to avoid the out-of-the-way fuel stops. But we made a miscalculation that had a sting! Somewhere in the middle of nowhere is a little dot on the map called Desert Center. Aptly named, there wasn’t anything within miles but desert: desert to the north, desert to the south, desert to the west and desert to the east. Maybe “Nowhere” would have been a more appropriate name. Anyway, we needed gas. About a long city block from the highway was a gas station. We approached with intrepidation. Our worst fears were confirmed when we saw 429 on the sign by the gas pumps. There was no price for premium - apparently the proprietors realized that no one could afford premium! We carefully calculated how much gas would get us to Blythe. This was not a “Fill ’er up” stop.

Here is the origin of the expression: “Highway Robbery.” For a bit over 4 gal. we paid $20.00!

Reaching the California-Arizona border was a welcome sight. We had seen a sign with gas prices just over the border and we were able to reach Ehrenberg, Arizona, for our next fuel stop.

The Colorado River.

We crossed the Colorado River - not as small a river as we had expected. Los Angeles takes so much water from the Colorado that I was surprised that there was any water at all flowing.

Crossing state boundries is always exciting when we’re in “Bomber.”

We were greeted by the usual “Welcome” sign just past the river and shortly we were in Ehrenberg.

Our first treat in Arizona. This was $1.20 a gallon less than our last stop in California!!

Ehrenberg appeared to have a population of about a thousand people, perhaps 950 of them in their cars and trucks buying gasoline.

There were a few hills along the way.

A welcome change to the usually flat desert were a few hills. “Bomber” isn’t quite as adept on hills as Mike’s 1930 Chevy “Betsy.” But these grades were very long, low inclines that rarely caused us to drop below our usual cruising speed of 45 MPH.

You don’t expect much climbing in the South-West but after passing an altitude sign back in California that simply stated “SEA LEVEL” we knew we would have to climb at least a little bit.

Some of the hills were a bit steep. (Only one of the ‘Trip Photographers’ can explain this picture.)

And the gas prices kept dropping as we headed east. This certainly isn’t California!

We had passed into Arizona about 1:30 pm and after buying gas we steadily moved east.

The end of a very fine day on the road. The sunset over Phoenix.

“Bomber’s” engine hummed away and with not much more excitement (other than the ever-present ecstasy of hearing the engine continuing to run), we entered the greater-Phoenix area. Another fuel stop, a short trip to the nearest Denny’s and off to the Motel 6 finished our drive for the day.

“Ahh!” Motel 6 and the end of our drive for the day.

After dinner, Mike and the cousins watched shark movies while Grampa went to sleep. The dreams were not of sugerplums but of old Chevys, Fords and the like.

Thursday, Day Two

Thursday morning the boys met Bob at his house and Bob led the “Bomber” crew through the old part of Tempe and on to Bob’s car lot and warehouse.

In trying to come up with a word that described Bob’s cars and parts the word “Unbelievable” comes to mind.

There were cars . . .

and cars . . .

and more cars!

There were probably more than a hundred cars. Grampa noticed a 1912 GMC truck, a 1928 Chevrolet car and 1929 Chevrolet truck, a 1930’s Cord and lots and lots of cars in the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950's.

And there were engines too. This is a 1929 Chevy in a truck chassis.

A search of engines of the type that Grampa and Mike make parts for turned up 5 complete engines.

Here is another 1929 Chevy engine and tranny.

A late Chevy 4-cylinder engine and transmission.

From the very old to the not so old.

With a break for lunch, the boys again continued to peruse the vast array of cars and parts.

A very early phaeton of unknown vintage or make.

Need a fender. The back wall was covered with both front and rear fenders.

Would you buy a car from this fellow?

"If it gets any hotter here I could get a fortune for this here water."

The beautiful Arizona evening clouds made a great backdrop for “Bomber.”

It was near sunset when the boys returned to the motel to wash up and then go to dinner. Bedtime came early that evening as the wake-up call was set for 4 am!

Friday, Day Three

“What time is it?”

Another 4 am day began with a wake-up call from the Motel 6 office. The boys dragged out of bed and by 4:50 the car was loaded and warmed up. We left the motel and by 5 am we were on the freeway. Wow. The traffic at 5 am in Phoenix was like rush hour in Los Angeles! “Bomber” headed west through Tempe, Phoenix, Avondale and Goodyear and finally out of the Phoenix sprawl. The traffic coming into the Phoenix area was bumper to bumper for at least 30 or 40 miles! People move from Los Angeles to places like Phoenix to get away from the traffic. Hmmmm.

Starting on our way home.

Dawn on the desert is an especially beautiful time of day.

The desert sunrises are a beautiful sight.

And when the sun does come up it is often a spectacular moment, although our view of this morning’s sunrise was in the rear view mirror.

“What an exciting trip, Grampa!”

Back in California. The pain at the pump begins again.

Heading west, the “Bomber” just purred along and soon we were recognizing the places we had passed just the day before yesterday. We had calculated that, starting with a full tank of gas, we could make the whole trip with only 3 fuel stops. The first was near the Arizona-California border, the next would be west of Indio and the third would be in Santa Monica, so as to arrive home with an essentially full tank. Remember, the 1929 and 1930 Chevrolets each had only a 10 gallon tank.

The mileage we were getting kept surprising us. When the trip was finished we tallied up the miles traveled and total fuel consumed and found that we were averaging over 17.5 miles per gallon. Our previous best was about 16 MPG. We speculated that the heat improved the efficiency of the engine and gave us the better fuel consumption.

Home at last, thanks to an ample supply of cool water.

“Bomber” ran like a well tuned watch all of the way back to Pacific Palisades. Again, the drive planned for two days only took one. The boys arrived home about 5 pm. Mike ordered Pizza and the boys relaxed and talked about things like how to haul 5 complete engines home from Arizona.

Mike and Grampa had to admit that Bob hadn’t exaggerated!

We had covered about 890 miles in the two days on the road.