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When a $600 Toyota becomes an escape capsule from a hostile life, it’s worth more than any supercar.

1989 Toyota Camry 1989 Toyota Camry

In 1989, Toyota produced 255,252 Camrys, its strongest year of sales since the model’s introduction in 1983. One of the quarter-million sold that year would be the millionth Camry to hit the road.

Another of those 255,252 was the Camry that saved my life.

Thank God For The Japanese Bubble Economy

My savior was a second-generation V20 Camry. Introduced in 1987, the V20 represented the pinnacle of Toyota’s engineering dominance, a fruit of the Japanese bubble economy. It was an important vehicle for the company, the first Toyota assembled in America, sent on a two-fold mission to dodge Reagan-era import tariffs and claw back market share from Honda’s Ohio-built Accord. 

As a result, Toyota balled out on the V20 Camry, spending hundreds of millions on its development. The final product reflected it. It was the first Camry offered with a V-6 — largely to woo displacement-hungry Americans. Reviewers praised the car’s robust powertrain, compliant ride, and placid cabin. 

Even the base model Camry — like mine, with its crank windows and unpainted bumpers — got a well-reviewed 2.0-liter twin-cam 16-valve four-cylinder with electronic fuel injection. It was praised for being powerful (115 HP) and smooth compared to its contemporaries. I couldn’t tell if this praise held up well, because when I bought my Camry, it barely ran. 

The One Shot At Rebuilding My Life

The fact my Camry was still running at all, however, felt like a testament to the engineering hours spent on it. The odometer of my Camry read around 167,000 miles — fewer than 5,000 miles a year, practically gently used — but a glance at the car told the story of a very hard life. 

Decades of road salt exposure had left gaping rust holes in both front fenders, and the paint had faded off every horizontal panel from the relentless high-desert summer sun. Neither rear door opened from the inside, and the stereo was dead. A crack stretched across the windshield from end to end. Every surface on and in the car was caked in fine dirt, as though it had been driven daily on a Safari Rally stage.

The twin-cam inline-four started with minimal protest and idled with the occasional backfire, but acceleration was fraught, as the mill bogged terribly under load. I barely made it up the hill to my house on the drive home. When my Camry finally got up to speed, it didn’t perform much better. The exhaust was cut before the muffler and the engine droned painfully at highway speeds. The four-speed automatic transmission kicked so hard on 1-2 upshifts, the bucking left a seat-belt bruise on me during my test drive. Both front axles clicked like cicadas under hard turning. All four shocks were blown or close to it. At least one of the front brakes was clearly down to the wear indicators. It rode on nearly bald studded winter tires; the backup all-seasons in the trunk were date-coded as ‘09s.

The air-conditioning, however, still worked.

The front window read “$600.00 OBO” in soap letters and I paid cash in full. That was probably overpriced, but I didn’t care. It was the first (semi-) drivable car I’d owned in nearly a year, and my one shot at rebuilding my life. I treasured it.

How To Demolish Your Life (Step-By-Step)

This was at one point unimaginable for me. I had once been traditionally successful, with a job at NASA, a classic Toyota Supra parked at a house in the suburbs, and a stable heterosexual relationship. A quintessential picture of American success.

Then the pandemic hit, and I realized I wasn’t happy. I hit reset on my life. I sold the Supra, I quit the NASA job, I became an auto writer, I transitioned my gender, I lived in a van for a while, and I moved — repeatedly and frequently — west into the mountains in search of what I wanted. I whittled my life down further and further with every interstate move, until I boxed up nothing but bare essentials and a cat carrier each time. 

This winnowing continued for several years, and while I did build a new career and discover what I wanted from life, it was exhausting work. I enjoyed the frenetic pace, right up until I didn’t. At last, I was burned out from my job and strung out from living as a trans woman in ever-worsening social and political climates. The opportunity to move presented itself once more. It seemed like the best chance I would have to regroup, find my footing, and settle down.

One more move, and I found myself in Salmon, Idaho. 

Salmon, Idaho, Pop. 3,112

Salmon, Idaho is the largest town in Lemhi County, with 3,112 residents and two traffic lights. It takes two hours from the center of town to meet the nearest interstate on-ramp, and the most famous business in town sells bespoke cowboy hats.

In short, Salmon is not the ‘burbs. It is a deeply religious frontier town nestled into the mountains, one that somehow managed to survive the modern era. It is quiet, it is conservative, and it is desperately remote.

I was alone in Salmon most of the time, as my partner — whose house I lived in — was a pilot who spent weeks away from home. A prolonged freelancing dry stint left me with barely enough money for groceries; physical labor in town was minimal, seasonal, and proved difficult to get. The Idaho legislature proposed several anti-trans bills that would make my life much more challenging to live. The loneliness and boredom wore on me. 

I lasted eight months before I finally snapped, out of options and slowly going insane. Salmon was killing me. I had to get out.

Camry vs. Entropy

My main aim for the 35-year-old Toyota was to diminish the ravages of time. I had a gravel driveway and a 100-piece Craftsman tool kit at my disposal, so I started with what felt manageable. I began with new tires, a safety necessity. Plugs, wires, fluids, and a new distributor came next. I fixed some of the engine’s idling problems; the final component that actually allowed it to stop bogging was a new air filter. The original one was essentially caked solid with dirt. After I replaced that, the Camry finally pulled away from stop lights without sputtering.

Next up were the front brakes. As far as I could tell from the condition of the bolts holding the calipers on the hub (and the rotors themselves), no one had ever replaced the rotors. Getting them off after literal decades turned a two-hour project into a twelve-hour one, as every bolt put up a fight. I finally vanquished the brakes, re-greased the CV axles, and ran Seafoam through the gas tank.

I decided to brave a longer trip, to gauge whether the Camry could make it out of Salmon. The test drive was terrifying, because any direction I headed from home, I’d rapidly run out of cell signal and safe shoulders. It was two-lane canyon highways in every direction. If the car died, I’d need a friendly passerby, and friendly passersby can be hard to find when you’re a trans woman in rural Idaho.

I drove for about an hour, and my fears never materialized. I made it back home without a hitch. The Camry had defeated entropy. For now.

Pioneers Of The West

As the weeks passed, I braved day trips to ghost towns further and further away, as I assembled a plan to leave Idaho. I’d landed a few writing contracts and sold a run of art prints. The work left me with enough cash to survive on my own for a while. I aimed to escape even further West, one last time, to Seattle. I had more friends there than anywhere else on Earth. I’d feel safer there as a trans woman than anywhere else in America. It was my last best chance.

I planned to pack the Camry full of my belongings and crash on couches in Seattle until I found a place to live. By this point, I’d put a couple hundred miles on the Toyota in test runs, but the drive to Seattle was another class of journey entirely, a 614-mile gauntlet through winding mountain two-lanes before braving some of America’s most-mountainous Interstate. I was fairly confident in the Camry, but wasn’t quite certain I trusted it with my life. 

Unfortunately, I had no choice but trust. The later into the fall I waited, the more likely I’d face blizzards in the mountain passes. 

Three months after I first bought it, I set out for Seattle with a statuette of my favorite Greek goddess taped to its dashboard, a single earbud blasting The Mountain Goats, and everything of value I owned crammed in the car’s trunk and backseats. 

Seattle or bust.

Welcome To Idaho For The Last Time

The drive to Seattle from Salmon has a weird quirk to it. First, you set out north and drive through Lost Trail Pass — the mountainous border between Montana and Idaho — and enter Montana. After many more miles of two-lane canyon carving, you end up in Missoula, MT, where you hop on I-90 West. From there, you drive until you hit Idaho’s panhandle, and once again, you drive past a sign that says Welcome to Idaho, 200 miles into your exodus from Idaho.

I stopped for a photo. This would be the last time I entered this state for a very, very long time. Just down the road, I sighed and passed a sign reading Welcome to Washington.

I had steeled myself for battle with the Camry over those 614 miles, but the trip was actually quite boring. I started at about nine in the morning and I hit Seattle at sunset, stopping three times for gas on the way. 

Twelve hours after I left Salmon, I arrived in Seattle, slumped over the Camry’s wheel, and cried. 

The Best Worst Car A Girl Could Ask For

The Camry never ran properly again. The next day I went to visit a friend, and the Toyota made it three miles before re-developing its sputtering problem. I barely limped the Camry back to where I was staying. I dug into the engine, and only made the problem worse — the Camry never started for me again. I tried a new throttle position sensor, fresh filters, ran over every inch of the miles of vacuum hoses. Nothing worked. 

Weeks passed as the car sat. I moved into an apartment on a good bus line in the heart of Seattle. Unwilling to dump more money into the Camry, a car I now barely needed, I gave it to a friend in need. My life continued its upswing, first with more lucrative freelance work, then with the permanent job at this site. 

The Camry was less lucky. Last I heard, after a fresh air-flow meter fixed the sputtering, the car blew a brake line and radiator, then developed serious ECU problems. It is going to a junkyard, because it is beyond saving.

The Camry was, to be frank, the worst car I hope to ever own. I’ve turned enough of its seized rusty bolts to last 100 lifetimes. I will never wipe bits of shredded yellow foam from those decaying seats off of my skirt again. 

I will miss it dearly anyway. 

It is my belief the best cars ever built have a clarity of purpose: they have a single goal in mind, and accomplish it well. One of the 255,252 Camrys built in 1989 had a single purpose, and it was to save my life. It did it quite well. For that, I will always be grateful.

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