The Shuttle Vehicle Wall of Shame

Hi I’m Gary! I’m old and don’t take hills too well … You can only get in me via the passenger door … Please put a bit of oil in me before you drive me … I’ve got a nasty little leak.

This handwritten note had caught my eye, posted on a corkboard inside a paddling shop in Vernal, Utah. Presumably authored by a shuttle customer and told from the point of view of her possibly sentient vehicle.

From the counter, owner Melanie noticed my fascination. “That’s our wall of shame,” she said with a laugh. So preoccupied with the first note, I’d barely registered there were ten similar letters from different customers about their vehicles. Each had the cheerfulness of a birthday greeting, the thoroughness of a conspiracy theory, and the demands of a ransom note.

‘Lots ‘o directions but don’t worry. She’s good!!” read one acutely self-aware document—on the beginning of its second full page. “Allow to warm up, belts slow… Don’t “PUNCH” IT… 2nd gear weak… Good tires, bad back shocks… High beams good (ALWAYS) –> lights suck at night!!… Oh! Check engine light “ON” (no worry)… Door ajar light “ON” (no worry)… Take it Rice & Cheesy and she’ll treat you kindly… CHEERS!”

I’d stopped by River Runners Transport in Vernal to thank them for once again successfully shuttling my truck—this time for a solo trip through Deso. This 83-mile trip is a southwestern classic along the John Wesley Powell route. With Class II+ rapids, great scenery, abundant wildlife, and countless side-hikes to ruins and petroglyphs, Desolation and Gray Canyons are like a natural amusement park for paddlers.

But the shuttle, specifically the 35 miles on unpaved Sand Wash Road, has developed a somewhat notorious reputation. The issue is knife-like shards of slate, known for puncturing tires. After reading a few descriptions, I’d half expected a basin full of paranormal ice picks. Instead, I’d driven the manageable road entirely in two-wheel drive—granted, driving it slowly, keeping a close eye out for sharp rocks, and enjoying the benefit of thick-tread off-road tires. Sand Wash Road was certainly nothing to take lightly. But, as I kept reviewing the cork-board Wall of Shame in the RRT shop, I wondered if the reputation might have as much to do with the vehicles as the road.

The next letter was typed in Times New Roman and organized in outline form, including four main points and sixteen subpoints for opening the rear hatch to retrieve the spare tire.

“Put palm on outside of handle … While grabbing the latch inside with fingers (don’t pull yet), push hard with palm… Do not do this wimpy… If the latch does not feel connected or you have disengaged the latch from the inner mechanisms: Go to driver door and repeat unlocking and locking the car with door open … Grab the ‘magic stick’ left on the passenger floor (piece of firewood) … hit softly the area where the word ‘4Runner’ is … Do this for 100 or so times, don’t quit and try to open the back too early, you’ll just end up repeating this process…”

Several notes presented one recurring dilemma while demonstrating a great deal of empathy toward their victims—err, I mean drivers.

“My condolences to you for having to drive this vehicle … the AC won’t work — hopefully it’s not too hot and between the vent blower and windows you can survive the drive.”

One note even offered a makeshift solution: “Spray bottle under passenger seat.”

Another tried to sweeten a homemade remedy with simple bribery. “Hopefully my driver has long legs, as my seat is locked in the back position. There’s a cushion to use behind your back, if necessary … The good thing about purple heart plates is the cops won’t pull you over. You can have a beer as you drive. Just kidding!”

Yes, kidding.

A few notes offered partial defenses of the vehicles worthy of a high school debate trophy. “Yes, it looks like a P.O.S … and in many ways it is; creaky, loud, and a weird electrical problem that drains the battery after too many days sitting. On the other hand, hidden beneath the exterior is a ’96 Dodge 1500 with a heavy rear end, a performance chip, and a KNN air filter — too bad the stereo sucks.”

Another common ailment was engine overheating. “If temp is above 80 degrees” — aka May through September in Utah — “wait at least 10 min with car open to cool (open all 5 doors to air) (open hood too).”

And one letter, in all caps on cardboard, did it’s best to shout instruct the poor shuttle driver in the intricacies of double-clutching. “DANGER DEAR DRIVER… CLUTCH MUST BE PRESSED TWICE IN CONJUNCTION WITH A SMALL TAP ON GAS PEDAL WITH A SLOW SHIFT TOWARDS THE END INTO 3RD… DO NOT EVER (DOWNSHIFT) INTO 3RD, TRANSMISSION COULD BE RUINED… THANK YOU MUCHO!”

While I was reading, Melanie came over to the corkboard to reminisce. “You should see the mold in some of the coolers people want me to pack.”

We saved that topic for another day, but as we chuckled about the notes, I got a sinking feeling. My own truck — a 1999 with nearly 200,000 miles on it — has a left-side speaker that only works when I smack the dashboard. Half the time, the passenger door locks itself when the exterior handle is pulled—a Darwinian-evolved “automatic” lock I’ve been meaning to fix for a year. I recall a period, not long after buying the truck used, when it would only start by pressing the Clutch Start Cancel button. It took me three months to replace the switch. During that time, out of fear of further electrical problems, I’d pop-restart the engine while coasting down the road.

I’d never considered that while we’re on the river yucking it up, for-hire shuttle drivers spend every day with the most difficult aspect of boaters—our vehicles. (Not our personalities–close second.)

To the credit of these fine paddlers, nearly ever note referenced a tip for the driver’s troubles. And one author astutely signed their letter, with love, “Dirtbags & Classy Broads.”

A group among whom—especially along the Powell Route—I’m always in good company.

Read more by Mike Bezemek, who writes and photographs the series Regular Paddler, Remarkable Waters  and Weekend Expeditions for C&K. He is author of Paddling the John Wesley Powell Route and Paddling the Ozarks for Falcon Guides and Twit Lit Classics® for Skyhorse Publishing, a book series which reimagines classic works of adventure literature as tweets for a 21st century audience. Learn more at mikebezemek.com.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!