The Snowball

Artist's Conception

Diaries

We hadn't meant to have a car at all. The ones we did have, the cute little blue Miata and the capable black 4-Runner, we sold, looking forward to the days in our retirement when we wouldn't need our own wheels, when everything under the sun would be within walking distance, including limitless recreation.

But that vision was taking shape only slowly, and we came to realize that we were going to have to provide some of our own transportation. If we got a car, we could take a couple of kayaks with us to Mexico, and that little cafe table too. We could keep our bicycles. We wouldn't have to worry about getting everything into four duffel bags. We started shopping.

We didn't know which car, or which kayaks. We went to REI, where the nice young lady assured us that any car could be made to carry boats on top -- just go to the Thule website, plug in the make and model and consider the options. She had predictions about which kayaks we'd want too.

Snowball on the first day of her I hit the Web to look at cars. We wanted one that would hold a fair amount of stuff and have enough ground clearance to get us safely to lunch at the Picazón. I looked at fuel economy in SUVs. Of course! We could buy a hybrid!

Not only was the Ford Escape a clear winner at saving gas, but there was an article talking about a fleet of them operating as taxicabs in Mexico City! The promo picture showed it in white with matte black trim -- perfectly matching the ghostly beauty of one of the kayaks we were thinking of buying. The idea of Snowball was born.

We bought her in June, in time to be able to shop for kayaks prior to Alex's last day of work at the end of September. We left her on the dealer's lot for weeks, not needing to pay for parking in downtown Seattle, and then housed her downstairs at the Harbor Steps for a month or two while we gathered accessories. By the time we left town she had about 400 miles on her. We had filled her tank once, not because she needed it, but for practice, so we'd know where the nozzle went when the time came.

Driving a hybrid was tons of fun, especially in golf-cart mode around the parking garage. The tachometer needle moves up and down at unexpected intervals and suddenly drops to zero without warning or much other indication. There's a function that estimates miles per gallon, slowly climbing from the high twenties (after I learned how to turn off the climate control system that the salesman had left on for me) to the low-to-mid thirties.

You can, indeed, turn just about any car into a kayak carrier, but some are more convenient than others. Sport utility vehicles have that nice rugged look, but they tend to be tall, as well as narrow at the top; and manufacturers who leave room for sunroofs may fit their cars with short little luggage racks that don't give much directional stability to their burdens. We gradually figured out how to mount two 22" wide kayaks flat and side-by-side, but it involves cheating a little bit. The outer Thule racks are clamped not to the cross-bars per se, but to the stanchions that attach the cross-bars to the rails. The manufacturers would have fits if they could see this. It's a good idea to glance at the lash-up from time to time along the road.

At Santa Rosalia Also, Ford does not anticipate that you will want to tie things to the bumpers, there being none. This problem is "solved" by hooking the Thule tie-downs to bits of metal near the radiator in the front, and to the aftermarket trailer hitch (it not being a factory option on the thrifty front-wheel-drive model) in the back. Unfortunately, these fore-and-aft tiedown ropes do not converge, but instead run roughly parallel, thus doing absolutely nothing to prevevent the boats from launching themselves in a sudden stop; but they are a nice contrasting blue color.

It may be that somebody is operating a fleet of hybrids in Mexico, but that does not seem to imply that anyone is selling them, or that the dealers or anyone else would know what to do with one if it stopped whirring. But on the other hand, for us rentistas, the car is just sort of a tourist in Mexico and is welcome to leave and re-enter the country now and then. It may be that she'll be making the trip to San Diego for her first oil change, at 10,000 miles.

Even before we left town I started eyeing cars that were longer, lower and roomier as the ads used to say. Volvo station wagons began to look good. We had been offered one, but perseverated. Sadly for Snowball, except for having the primary qualification, unobtrusiveness, she is in many ways perfectly unsuited for her mission. You might say that her name reflects her prospects as much as her complexion.

We set out from Seattle on a day that promised rain. We were late for having not just to load our kayaks, but to figure out how to cover them. We didn't make it to Federal Way before pulling over to reef on our feeble little tie-downs. We had expected to take a leisurely drive down the coast but decided instead to dash along the interstate in hopes of arriving before disaster overtook us. We made it as far as Castle Rock the first night, and that's where the foggy picture was taken.

As the miles passed we began to relax. The kayaks tossed and turned a bit but did not waken. The engine did suddenly die -- but that was good news. Gas mileage fell toward 30 after we climbed out of Ashland, Oregon, following our night at the wonderful Oak Hill Bed and Breakfast; but after we reached Mexico with its lower speed limits and stop-and-go driving it has climbed back above 33.

Though we bought the one that happened to be available, we got pretty much the car we would have chosen, that is, a very basic one. The seats aren't heated, or leather, or anything ostentatious, though the driver's can be made to tilt using a little electric switch. She lacks GPS but is Bluetooth-enabled, and thus could be turned into a giant rolling speakerphone if we so desired. She's built to hold nearly a hundred cubic feet of stuff aft of her front seats, and nearly a thousand pounds altogether, and is fairly handsome, crisp-looking at the rear, slab-sided but slightly eager, with a vaguely Nick Park face, like a baby Hummer at nap-time.

Now Snowball spends quiet days parked on a dirt road south of Loreto, making it to town once or twice a week to have her windscreen squeegeed. Soon I will rustle up her instruction manual and find the part about changing the miles on her computer display to kilometers, simplifying navigation. Then, in what many hereabouts would consider a miracle, I will push another button, instantly teaching her Spanish.

Update Jan. 24, 2010: It actually rained in Loreto this last week. I had feared that Snowball might be dust-caked, but what little dirt there was on the windshield brushed right off (except for the strip along each wiper, which needed some scraping first). As we were pulling out onto the highway, I hit the button for the windshield washer for the very first time. Wiping occurred, including the extra, delayed "courtesy" wipe -- but no washer fluid appeard! I should have plenty of time before the next precipitation event to find out whether the resevoir is empty or the nozzles are plugged or what. A little sticker near the end of the blade on the passenger side, by the way, proclaims that Snowball was made in Missouri.

January 31, 2010: We've gotten pretty efficient about our weekday shopping trips. Some of the stops want to be made last so that the frozen food doesn't languish too long, and that often means a first trip down Benito Juarez for the Que Buena Frutería, tortillas, water and a longer pause at Dalí, and then the post office, then back up Salvatierra to the Pescador for the bulk of our purchases. For any of those stops before that last one, we may be able to leave the car in its "on" position and hope to skip the engine's "warmup" run as we drive away.

February 6, 2010: I remembered to bring the owner's manual into the house to study, and thus was prepared to change Snowball's settings for her next journey. In a way the effect was less pleasing than I expected. Her mileage had climbed back up to 33.7, but that's now reported as "6 L POR 100 KILOMETROS," losing two decimal places. But intstead of "PARKING BRAKE ENGAGED" she now says "FRENO ESTACIONAMIENTO. . ." although in a somewhat abbreviated form.

The windshield washer mystery has been solved, at least in part. Again with the help of the manual I located the reservoir for the fluid and it was completely dry. There was never a trace of a leak back in Snowball's asphalt days, so I'm assuming it was never filled. The only fluid I've seen for sale since appears to be some non-streaking kind that the manufacturer warns against, so for the time being I'm hoping there's no rain while we're driving -- actually, a pretty safe bet.

By the way, I filled the gas tank again, this being the second time since we got here in November. It didn't really need it yet -- the gauge still showed over a quarter of a tank -- but we've got company coming and decided that we would be ready for any travel that might be necessary.

February 15, 2010: Curiosity got the better of me and I switched our "units" back to non-metric while driving home from the airport. Our 6 L per 100 Km is now 34.2 mpg. I think I'll leave it this way until we need to read inter-city driving distances again. Maybe we'll go to La Paz some day.

Snowball is still performing well, but there are a few things about her design that I consider to be big drawbacks. My biggest complaint is with the location of her emergency brake, a pedal beside the driver's door. Putting it between the seats might interfere with the cupholders, but it would make it useful when starting on hills and, maybe more important, put it within reach of the passenger.

There's another way in which Snowball is too much a driver's car: there's no keyhole on the passenger side. On my old 4-Runner, if you turned the key in the door twice it would unlock all the doors; on the Ford, you'd have to open the driver's door and do it from the inside, or use the unlock button on the key.

March 8, 2010: Snowball now claims 34.6 mpg, on a steady regimen of 10K of highway travel followed by routine shopping.

One should not let routine induce complacency. A couple of weeks ago I pulled up outside the post office, lept from the car without turning it off (visits are typically short -- we've only received mail on one occasion) and glanced back to notice that Snowball was following me, though at a demure pace. I struck an heroic, Superman-like pose at the right front fender while Alex felt for the brake with her left foot, fortunately missing the accellerator in the process. Even a "smart" car needs direction sometimes, and the transmission should not be neglected.

Our parking spot

April 8, 2010: Mileage has climbed ever upward. We reached 35.0 while returning from town last week, 35.1 on the little road to Juncalito, and now 35.2 on our way back from shopping. Maybe it's true that the Escape adjusts to driving habits.

April 23, 2010: We filled up the tank again after we took our guests Chirs and Carol back to the airport. And why not -- it had been 490 miles since our last trip to the Pemex. We had all gone for our very first trip to San Javier and had a nice lunch and a pleasant look at the mission. Before we left, mileage had been hovering around 35.5, but on the way uphill it dropped to 35.3 at one point. Not a bad lifetime average, but it kept climbing, up to 36, after we were back in town for a while. Snowball seems to be enjoying the slightly warmer weather.

May 1, 2010: We needed some things we couldn't find in Loreto so we made a trip to La Paz, about 225 miles distant. While resetting the trip meter I reset the gas mileage indication as well. Because we were on a stretch of highway that was mostly downhill, with a 60 Km speed limit, the guage briefly indicated over 80 miles to the gallon. But out on the flats it didn't drop as rapidly as I expected. I reset it again on a slightly hilly segment where the limit was 80 Km, and for the rest of the trip it showed mileage in the mid 40s. On the trip back we filled up again in Ciudad Constitution -- our fourth fill-up in six months.

The Ford dealer in La Paz is on the main road and on our way out of town we pulled over and Alex went in and talked to the service manager, who told her that they would be able to do all the maintenance on our car. This means that Snowball may not have to leave Mexico for a long time. Our next obstacle will be learning to keep her registered.

June 22, 2010: Re-registration of the car in Washington State, our last known address, went off without a hitch -- this year. We were able to pay online and have the new tabs sent to our friend Gail, who mailed them to us. They showed up in our Loreto mailbox less than three weeks later, in plenty of time. Next year Washington will expect an emissions test, but should accept our affidavit stating that the car is not being driven within the state. Mexico will not allow the car to be registered here,

October 6, 2010: It was pretty easy renewing our car insurance too, through Baja Bound, a company that understands the needs of snowbirds in general and Snowball in particular. Since the car was not in the U.S. at the time of the purchase of the policy, the transaction couldn't just be done on the Web, requiring a phone call instead, but even that was entirely pleasant. Insurance isn't a luxury in Mexico -- without it, any injury accident may be followed by a trip to jail, at least until they're satisfied that you're not at fault.

October 10, 2010: We were gone for a while, and had to decide where Snowball would stay. Could have left her on the street and given the keys to our trusted property management guys, but chose Loretostorage.com instead.Saved some cabfare and knew she'd be well looked-after.

Flying back into town I was wishing that I hadn't declined the offer of a wash job as part of the bargain. At the time we left her she hadn't been scrubbed since leaving Seattle, and a genuine tropical storm had passed through in our absence. I needn't have worried, though. In anticipation of our return Antonio had reconnected her battery, brought her over to the office and given her a thorough detailing.

March 7, 2011: The last few weeks have been eventful. First, wanting to get organized for renewing our tabs, I began looking for the affidavit stating that the car is not being driven within Washington. What I found was even better! There is an exemption from testing, at least for now, not just for over-50mpg hybrids, but for all cars that meet 2009 California emissions standards. Typing in Snowball's serial number produced an offer to renew on the spot, so I went ahead and hit the button, though the plates don't expire until June.

Next, we organized a trip to La Paz and a visit to the Ford dealer there, I got the 10,000 mile service done though we only had about 5,200, not knowing when we'd be back (and knowing full well how much dust had accumulated on our exterior, and in the little rear air filter). Maybe one of these days I will try the windshield washer again.

Finally, even as I write, the street in front of our house is being paved, after years of being a faux stream bed and/or construction depot. With this change, and fewer reasons to drive into town, life had gotten easier for all of us, but especially our car.

Our parking spot

November 24, 2011: We are spending more time in the Northwest each year, and sometimes traveling abroad besides. This summer and fall we were gone for four months, and balked at paying for storage. So I left the car under a tree over by the golf course and hoped for the best. Actually, I did more than that. The tree had some thorns on it and I pruned some of the branches so they wouldn't chafe so much; and of course I disconnected the battery as instructed, and left keys, a wrench and directions in case anyone needed to move her.

The tree may have provided shade, but apparently mostly debris. I think some birds must have nested above. When I got around to rescuing her Snowball looked like she had been at the bottom of a lake instead of under a tree. She started up without hesitation, as though nothing had happened. I spent some time restoring a mostly white complexion and cleaned off the windows well enough to navigate, and we made our first trip into town.

Only a few weeks later we stopped in at the bank to pay the fees for our visas and there were some guys washing cars in the parking lot. For sixty pesos I got a thorough job. I gave them a little more, knowing that they had to remove several globs of resin that had resisted me. We bought her another tank of gas to celebrate, renewed her insurance online, and can report that, even without the prescribed re-education she is back up to 42 mph.

There is one further event to report. On one of the early trips into town the tire pressure light came on. We stopped in at the local Firestone dealer and got some air and the indication has not reoccurred. I suppose this makes only twice that the tires have been checked since we bought the car, so you could still call this trouble-free operation.

January 17, 2012: Well, the tire pressure indicator light came on again last week, and since the Firestone place is right across the street from Dalí, where we had gone to shop, I started to ask about the prospect of repair. But on a hunch we drove the car back to the house and I checked the pressure on each of the tires, using the Silca pump we keep for the bicycles. Sure enough, they all looked okay. The indicator lamp still comes on, but I've noticed that there's also a message saying that it's not working right.

We're very likely to be spending the summer in Seattle again, and if that's true we'll have a chance to get this item fixed.

April 2, 2012: Indeed, Snowball has returned to Seattle, a drive of about 2,000 miles. We took longer than we might have because we stopped to look at potential dwelling places in San Diego, Dana Point, San Luis Obispo and Santa Cruz. Much of the California coast was new to one or another of us, but there were also some familiar sights. We crossed the border at Tecate, which gave us a look at a fresh and very pleasant stretch of Baja California.

Our last night on the road we spent in Eugene, where we'd lived two summers ago but without the car. By that time I had collected considerable data on fuel consumption and concluded that Snowball's computer was overestimating economy by a couple of miles per gallon (actual being in the mid-30's). This is still not bad, but it means that the best we get in Loreto is around 40.

June 12, 2012: We're done looking at real estate for a while. After two months at the Archstone Elliott Bay, we've moved into a tiny condo at the Mosler Lofts, on Third Avenue in what is being called Belltown these days. Snowball's favorite parking space at the Archstone was No. 133, and she's been able to keep the same number here, but this time with an indisputable exclusive claim. The space is much larger and it is near the bottom of the garage; but we figure that's a good thing, because we would want our efficient vehicle to be the one making the trip up and down. In future years we expect to leave her in Mexico -- that lavish parking space may get rented out.

November 16, 2013: A fairly routine year for Snowball, with a couple of trips to the beach to launch kayaks or into the brush to rescue cyclists, and one migration up and down I-5. Most of the excitement occured in Seattle, where there was a case of hangar-rash acquired in the PCC parking garage, quickly fixed by Maaco, and a trip to her "home" Ford dealer for routine service.

Just beyond the freeway off-ramp at Bellevue the tire-pressure warning light came on. Our service manager had this checked out and said there was nothing wrong with the tire, just normal loss over time. On the other hand, they wanted to replace the battery and I let them although it was only four years old. We live in a climate that doesn't require much low-temperature cranking; but the engine does need to start reliably, since it's off much of the time in traffic. I left reasonably happy.

On my way back to Seattle, though, around the north end of Lake Washington, the "Check Engine" light came on and stayed on. I was troubled by this, because I have witnessed a couple of episodes in the past where garages have decided to drum up work for themselves by loosening parts or replacing them with older ones. I called up the shop and arranged to return the next day.

They rooted around a bit, while I watched, and decided that the indication had to do with the exhaust gas recirculation valve. Undoing the wires, adding some magic substance from a tube, and connecting them again made the light stop. This connection is hard to reach from the top of the engine, and not one I would have expected to be disturbed by the work I had asked for. But clearly concidences can occur. How else to explain the tire pressure light?

They were also surprised to note that some sort of software needed to be updated. What I was surprised to find is, though I had carefully explained that our initial visit was because the car lives in a dusty environment, they had not replaced, and obviously had not even checked, the little air filter that's devoted to the system that cools the high-voltage battery. It was full of leaves and twigs when I brought the car back. They put in a new one for free. (They had replaced the engine air filter on the first trip.)

We're now back in Loreto, traveling to town more frequently than in the past for immigration matters and eating out. For our time here and the last part of the highway trip, our mileage reads 39.8. Earlier calculations suggest that this is probably high by a couple of m.p.h. And of miles generally, after a bit more than four years, Snowball has about 17,000.

Time to re-tire. January 13, 2014: Last week I loaded a kayak atop the car, ready for a trip toward Isla Danzante with our friends; but as I finished with the rigging I noticed that Snowball's right front tire was beginning to disintegrate. The resemblance to the tire carcasses you see on the side of the road (which I have since learned to call "road gators") was striking. I imagined for a while that I would take my chances off-road with the others, since I was sure they wouldn't abandon me. But in the end I decided not to complicate the trip with a foreseeable emergency.

Instead I drove into town in the morning, stopped by the bank for extra cash, and headed for the Michelin sign on the main street just before the highway. For twenty-seven hundred pesos (they forgave the last eighteen rather than make change) I got a new tire like the old one but with more tread and much more sidewall. They suggested that the problem was due at least in part to sun exposure. I think that a greater factor may be the substance that's used to paint the curbs white, which we get a lot of on that side. I've resolved to wash the stuff off now and then just in case. It can't hurt the appearance either. I asked if I didn't need two new tires, so that the front ones would be the same size, but they didn't seem to think so.

Back at Loreto Bay, I parked in the new communal lot near the hotel. Besides setting a good example, it is a more convenient place to handle the kayak.

July 25, 2014: We are in Seattle again after another pleasant drive north. This time is different, though, because we have sold our house in Loreto, and don't have any firm plans to drive back. It may be that Snowball has totally survived her Mexican adventure. With the bus line nearby, she spends most of her time in our secure garage -- a well-earned rest.

August 25, 2014: Ford issued a recall notice for Escapes including the 2009 model, saying that the power steering could fail suddenly, so I took Snowball in for an office visit. We decided to go to Bill Pierre Motors this time, in Lake City, if only to shorten our journey. Besides the work on the steering, they suggested an oil change, and I agreed. Snowball may have made her last trip to Bellevue too. Her old dealership seems to have changed hands, and with the toll on the Route 520 bridge, travel to the Eastside is not so carefree as when our story began five years ago.

February 9, 2015: Our journeys these days are pretty short -- a few blocks to the supermarket when there's too much to schlep or when it's unconscionably wet. Under these conditions the high-voltage battery doesn't have a chance to get much of a charge, or to power the car for any distance. Our mileage at a recent fill-up was only 27.9 m.p.g. (an indicated 28.7) for three hundred miles. The good news is, it took us a couple of months to go that far.

August 5, 2016: For the third year in a row I took Snowball to the Washington coast for the annual surf weekend organized by the North West Outdoor Center, a drive of a few hours each way including a ride on a Washington State Ferry. On the way out I filled up the tank in Port Angeles, and for the trip from there to Hobuck Beach and back to Seattle the computer showed mileage of well over 40 miles per gallon.

Snowball on the Makah Indian Reservation

We had gone a couple years without an oil change, so I made a stop at Jiffy-Lube (the one up by Roosevelt High School, since the nearest one, on 4th, was busy). Service was quick and inexpensive but produced two surprises. They were pleased with themselves for inflating my tires to 33 pounds per square inch, which they insisted was the figure on the door post. It's not; maybe they had a similar model in mind. At any rate, after getting home I used our bicycle pump to bring the pressure up to 35. This does not seem trivial, as it apparently affects mileage somewhat.

I told them that the washer fluid probably needed replacing, and they said they would; but the washer didn't seem to work the first time I tried it. But I tried it again, and after a while, fluid squirted out. It may be that the problem all along was just that the system isn't used often enough to keep itself primed. If that turns out to be the case, I apologize to all whom we've secretly blamed in the past.

There have been big changes in our kayaking world since Snowball first set out for Mexico. The boat in the picture isn't the original Snowflake, and cartopping, even single-handed, has become much more routine than it was in our early days. History and lots more pictures are available on our kayak blog, SEA CREATURES.

November 5, 2016: Actually, our oil change last summer brought up one more issue. One of the five LED bulbs in the high-level brake light was not working. They offered to fix this for me, but I was in a hurry and figured I could do it cheaper myself.

By Halloween I had gotten a replacement bulb and decided to set to work. The brake light assembly consists of two long, narrow boxes, a small one into which the five bulbs are set, and then the one with the red lens that is mounted above the rear door. What had happened was that one of the bulbs slipped from its socket and was rattling loose inside the red part. I managed to wiggle the bulb back out, through the little hole that it's meant to be just big enough for it to poke through; but not, in fact, before losing two other bulbs the same way. The original bulb still worked, so now I have two spares, since that's how they seem to be sold.

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