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Above: My newly-remastered video about my wonderful Toyota pickup truck (7:12)
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I was saddened last week to read that 1990s country music singer, Joe Diffie, had recently passed away from the coronavirus.  Joe and I had a long history together – although he never knew it. 

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Above:  Joe Diffie, the Pickup Man.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, while my friends were doing sensible things like getting married, having kids and buying houses, I spent a lot of time doing something far less practical:  traveling around North America in my Toyota pickup truck (and often while listening to country music).  I didn’t typically listen to country music when I was at home, preferring pop or jazz.  But when I hopped in my truck and took off for weeks or months on those idyllic roadtrips across America, I usually dialed my radio to the nearest country music station – or, in later years, popped in a MP3 disc of country tunes.  There’s just something about roadtrips and country music, I guess.

One of my favorite songs in the 1990s, while I was pursuing this irresponsibly enjoyable lifestyle, was Joe Diffie’s hit, “Pickup Man.”  The song is about a man’s love affair with his truck and it deeply resonated with me, considering how much I loved my 1985 Toyota pickup.  I was at a football game in Portland in 1994 talking to some friends about country music and said, “I like that new song about the truck on fire, rolling down a hill.  What’s it called?”  One of my friends replied, “Pickup Man.”  “Yeah, that’s it,” I said, “'Pickup Man' by Joe Diffie!”

My Toyota Truck

Let me shift into reverse, so to speak, and back up to tell you about my truck, because it was such an important part of my life for so many years.  I bought my 1985 Toyota longbed pickup truck  in Portland on a crisp, sunny afternoon in November of 1984 for $6,250.  I had walked around the dealership's lot and set my eye on a light yellow, bare-bones truck with no upgrades because, being a poor college student back then, I couldn’t afford anything more.  It had a 5-speed stick shift (automatic transmission cost an extra $400) and had neither a radio, antennae, nor rear bumper.  It was totally stripped down.

But over the next few years, as I could afford it, I slowly upgraded and customized my truck.  I added a canopy shell the next month, which allowed me to sleep in the back, something I'd do over 600 times in the coming years.  Then I built a wooden bumper (probably not too effective in an accident but it sure looked nice), replacing it with a gray steel bumper 10 years later, and finally upgrading to a shiny steel bumper in 1999.  I never told anyone this, but secretly I always wanted a shiny bumper! 

I made the same gradual upgrades to my stereo system. installing a basic radio/cassette player in 1985, then upgrading to an MP3 disc player by the late 1990s with a 150-watt amp that I bolted behind the bench seat.  And, oh the speakers!  They kept spreading around my cab and gradually crept into the bed, until by 1997 I had installed 11 speakers altogether:  six in the cab, four in the bed, and a massive subwoofer that I parked on the passenger-side floor which really thumped.  The side mirrors vibrated every time I cranked up Randy Travis singing “Forever and Ever, Amen.”  With that humongous sub sitting on the floor next to me as I drove down the highway, I couldn’t give anyone a ride – but gosh, the stereo sure sounded great!  

But I wasn’t done.  I installed white shag carpeting (left over from my sister's living room) on the cab floor shortly after I bought my truck, then glued burnt-orange carpeting (left over from my sister's basement) into the bed in the back.  That task took me over a week, given all the precise cutting required.  I decided to install carpeting in the bed after I had taken a winter trip with my buddy Jake, spending the night parked in a Rest Area off Interstate 90 in South Dakota and sleeping in the back of his Datsun pickup with bare metal walls.  It dropped down to 25 below zero that frosty night and, even though I was bundled up in a heavy sleeping bag, I was jolted awake every time I rolled against the cold steel siding.  After that unforgettable experience, I made a vow that, if and when I ever bought a truck, I’d put carpeting in the back.  I also added a strongbox, which I built out of thick plywood and bolted to the bed and padlocked, to store my camera and other possessions.

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Above:  May 1985:  Installing the first of many speakers (and check out my new wooden bumper!)

My truck ran great and never gave me a single problem during the 26 years I owned it.  I did all of the maintenance work on it myself except for a transmission and clutch overhaul in 2001 and a few other things.  It sounds funny, I suppose, but I felt so possessive about my pickup that I never let anyone else drive it.  Oh, I take that back:  I taught two of my nieces, Heather and Sarah, how to drive a stick shift using my truck.  But other than those two miles, I drove the other 256,166. 

My truck was never in an accident and I never got a ticket, though it was vandalized once.  That was in Austin, Texas in 2001, a story that I described here.  And it was broken into only once, in Maine -- but fortunately, I was sleeping in the back at the time and scared off the perp (though not as much as he scared me).

My truck, to me, meant freedom and independence – and to some degree, a continuation of my happy childhood, because I’d grown up in a family that loved to travel.  My Dad was a professor and had the summers off, so every July, he packed all of us kids and my Mom into our station wagon and we’d go traveling for weeks or months, driving and camping our way across America.  I inherited that roadtripping bug more than my four siblings, for some reason, and spent much of my 20s traveling across the country in my little Toyota truck (at an impressive 31 mpg).  I attended grad school in Wisconsin during the winters, worked as a ranger and firefighter in the Colorado Rockies during the summers, moved to Florida one year and worked on a newspaper – and in between, I spent almost every dollar I earned driving my truck around the country, exploring America by myself and having a blast. 

Not being able to afford motels, I usually stayed in campgrounds during my roadtrips.  I preferred camping, anyway.  But when a campground was even too much for my spartan budget, I quietly parked in a motel parking lot for the evening.  I'd catch eight hours of sleep in the back of my truck with the curtains drawn, then would take off early the next morning and head down the road to explore more of America with my stereo blasting away.  I joked with my friends about having stayed at EconoLodges, whose motto was “Spend a Night, Not a Fortune”  because, camping in their parking lots across the country, that’s exactly what I’d done.  Seeing America (and Canada, too) on my own terms and at my own pace, those were happy years!

Into my 30s

By the time I reached age 30, in 1989, my life had diverged from the path chosen by most of my friends.  Most of them had gotten married and many were raising children and paying mortgages by then:  living sensible and practical lives, you could say.  I, on the other hand, had experiences and memories of my travels.  I certainly had no regrets about the path I’d chosen, but now it was time to move on.

I was living in a rented room in a house in Eugene, Oregon on my thirtieth birthday, working at a low-wage office job with few prospects for a government agency.  I looked at my bleak checkbook that evening and realized that I had a grand total of $2,240 to my name.  That’s when I decided to put my traveling life behind me and get more serious about life.  I moved to Portland a few months later and embarked on a long and frustrating job search during a deep recession.  Nearly a year later, I finally landed a job:  I became a “gopher” for the tiny Portland office of a large engineering company called PB.  I spent 10 years there working my way up and eventually becoming the lead computer mapping specialist for that 9,000-employee firm. 

I suppose you could say that I’d become a “professional” during the 1990s, working in my cube every day in a high-rise office overlooking downtown Portland.  But my desire to travel never waned and I hit the road as often as my job allowed.  Then, in 1995, after four years at PB, I decided to take a major break – much to the office manager’s displeasure, to put it mildly.  I still remember red-faced Bob shouting at me, “This is a business!” after I had requested a six-month leave (he was, obviously, not a Pickup Man).  I hit the road that April and took an epic 15,000-mile roadtrip around America, covering all corners of the country, before returning to my Portland job in the fall.

Six years later, in March of 2001, I had worked at PB-Portland for exactly 10 years.  And what better way to celebrate my 10-year anniversary, I figured, than to quit my job and go traveling – and this time for 18 months.  Part 1 of my world adventure was a six-month roadtrip around North America in my Toyota pickup to research my family’s history, followed by travels in the south Pacific, New Zealand and Australia, and then back again around the U.S. in my truck (all of which I described on my first travel website, www.DelsJourney.com.)

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Above:  After my last drive in my truck, in December 2010.  I gave my truck away later that morning.

A few months after I returned from my world adventure, in the summer of 2002, my Dad, who was living in Bellingham, Washington, was diagnosed with cancer and I delayed my return to PB-Portland so I could help take care of him.  We spent a memorable fall together and shortly before he passed away, he offered me his spiffy, new Honda van.  My old Toyota pickup truck was pretty worn out by then.  But I couldn’t bring myself to part with it, either, so I garaged it for a few months while I drove my Dad's van – a few months which turned into eight years.  Finally, I gave my truck to one of my sister’s young friends who desperately needed transportation but couldn’t afford to buy a vehicle.  On a gray, drizzly morning in December of 2010, I watched Kasey drive my beloved Toyota truck away and I never saw it again.

I bought a new Toyota 4WD Tacoma pickup in 2016, which I've described in this website.  I like my new Tacoma, but I sure miss my 1985 longbed pickup and often wish I still had it.  I had driven my '85 Toyota truck through every state in the Lower 48 (and eight Canadian provinces, as well).  It had been a wonderful chapter of my life.

Planning My Roadtrips

My official title at PB-Portland had been “Transportation Planner,” which I thought was appropriate because, before I started working there, I’d spent a lot of time planning my numerous roadtrips across America.  Well, they were partly planned and partly serendipitous.  But my trip planning usually followed a similar pattern. 

The first step was to decide on a theme for my upcoming trip.  Instead of randomly driving around America, many of my road trips had a (rough) theme or destination.  Sometimes it was “National Parks of the Southwest" and other times it was “Eastern Canada.”  In 1993, the 150-year anniversary of the opening of the historic Oregon trail, I followed the trail across the west.  And in 1998, after I’d finished reading a biography of Meriwether Lewis called “Undaunted Courage,” my theme was “The Lewis & Clark Trail” – similar to the Oregon Trail but father north.  I started in St. Louis that May and followed their trail all the way out west, reaching Portland eight days later, while stopping at every historic pullout and museum along the way, of course.  I often deviated from my path, visiting a viewpoint here or a historic battlefield there, but my rough theme set the tone for that trip.

The second step in my trip planning process was to play a game of “connect the dots,” with the dots being my friends and relatives who were scattered around the country.  I asked myself questions like, “How am I going to get from Troy in San Diego to the Candolis in Austin, and then up to Mark in Minneapolis?”  Then I pulled out my trusty Rand McNally road atlas with its frayed pages (an atlas that I’d carefully marked up over the years with my previous travels, with every route highlighted in a different pen color or pattern) to see which highways in America I hadn’t traveled on yet.  Like my Dad, I never liked to take the same route twice.  That gave me the rough outline for my upcoming journey. 

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Above:  A 5-speed stick shift, an inverter plugged in the cigarette lighter to power my laptop, and a massive subwoofer on the floor.  Sorry, no room for passengers!

The final step was refining my route after I'd hit the road.  Each night, usually at a campground, I’d pull out my AAA TourBooks (this was long before the Internet) and by the light of my candle-lantern, I’d read about the possible sights and stops during my travels the next day.  “Hmm… the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville sounds pretty interesting,” I’d say to myself, or “Hey, the world’s smallest post office is in Ochopee.  I gotta stop there tomorrow on my way to the Everglades.”  The next morning, I’d start up my pickup truck, pull out of the campground, and set off for another day of discovery.

Shooting My Way Across America

I love photography, and that (plus my love of history) was a big reason why I took all those roadtrips.  I bought my first camera, a Canon AE-1, when I was in college in 1980 and two weeks later I left on my first photo/roadtrip:  a spring break trek around the southwestern U.S. with my then-girlfriend, Katy.  I always shot slides, never prints.  In fact, by the time I switched to digital photography in 2001, I’d taken over 25,000 slides.  Unlike today with digital cameras and cell phone selfies, you had to be selective about what you shot, because film cost money:  25 cents for each slide, which was a lot of money in those days, especially for an impoverished college student like myself.

Most travelers like to take pictures of their spouse, children or companions during their journeys – at the entrance of Disneyland, say, or on the edge of the Grand Canyon.  But I’m a solitary creature by nature and preference and I never got married, so most of my trips have been solo.  Instead of taking pictures of my wonderful traveling companions during my roadtrips, therefore, I took pictures of my wonderful truck:  perched beneath the snowy Grand Tetons in Wyoming, sitting gracefully on a dry lakebed in the Oregon desert, or perhaps overlooking the rocky coast of Maine.  You photograph what you love, and for me that was my truck.

Of course, I also photographed the friends and relatives I visited, but usually with them posed next to my truck.  This invariably happened just before I departed.  “Hey, let me take a picture of you,” I’d often say, then I’d gently coax them over to my beloved pickup.  “Stand over here by my truck.”

My Truck Video

And so now, instead of having pictures of a spouse or children at various sites around the country, like my parents did from their many summer roadtrips, I have hundreds of pictures of my Toyota truck, all around the U.S.  I also have dozens of pictures of my friends and relatives perched next to my truck.

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Above:  My pickup roadtrips (1984-2002).  I never liked to take the same route twice.  A larger, clickable version is below.

While my Toyota pickup was sitting in my sister’s garage in Bellingham back in 2007, I decided to memorialize it by creating a short video of my numerous roadtrips around America.  I created a video montage of 80 slides, each picture featuring my truck, and also included pictures of my friends or relatives next to my truck.  

I decided not to narrate my video.  Instead I kept it simple, using just the photos and some appropriate music.  I used Joe Diffie’s song “Pickup Man,” of course, because I thought it was the best truck song ever written.  But the song was only three minutes long, so I searched online and found another truck tune to add to my video, called, “My Old Pickup Truck” by Doc Bates.  I’d never heard of either the song or the singer, but the words and melody fit perfectly.  I posted the five-minute video, with both songs, on YouTube in 2007 hoping that others would enjoy it.

I hadn’t given my truck video much thought in recent years, and especially during the winter of 2020, when I was preoccupied with the coronavirus outbreak that was spreading across the globe.  On the afternoon of March 29, I was reading CNN’s website, as I’d done often since the outbreak, and a headline grabbed my attention:  Joe Diffie had just died of coronavirus.  Of course, I was stunned and saddened.  After reading the story, I looked up my YouTube truck video and watched it for the first time in years, wanting to hear Joe’s voice again.  I noticed that my video had accumulated over 50,000 views (with a 99% “Like” ratio).  I never met Joe or saw him at a concert, but I thought he would’ve been happy to know that.

With its themes of freedom and independence, Joe Diffie’s song “Pickup Man” resonated deeply with me, something that’s hard for me to explain to many of my friends (“Del, it’s just a truck!” they’d say).  I wanted to do something to pay tribute to Joe, so I decided to remaster and repost my 2007 truck video,  and I spent several days last week after his death working on it.  My original video had been in standard definition (i.e., 4:3 ratio), so I converted it to HD by resizing each photo to 1920 x 1080 pixels, then, using Photoshop, I tweaked each picture to improve the quality and added locational labels.  I also added several more photos to my video, extending it from the year 2000 to 2002.  Finally, I inserted a one-minute montage of short video clips that I had shot during my 1995 trip around North America, to give the video a “live” feel.  My new-and-improved video was a bit over 7 minutes long, two minutes longer than the original, and I’ve posted it at the top of this page.

I hope you like my new video, a tribute from one Pickup Man to another.  I don’t know if Joe Diffie ever saw my 2007 truck video, but I like to think that he did.

 

My Toyota Truck:  1984 - 2002

 

 
 
 
 

 

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