The Tale of Sam

The Tale of Sam

posted in: Journal | 6

When I began visualizing how this trip would actually play out, I always assumed I would be hunting for a used Subaru Outback. I figured that the quintessential outdoor adventure car would serve my purposes wonderfully. This winter, our longtime mechanic, Jeff Dunn recommended that I look into the Honda Element. In his opinion, their form factor, reliability, and feature set were perfectly suited to my needs. Following his advice, I began hunting for an Element of my own. I stumbled across the Element Owner’s Club and was astounded by what people had done to their Elements. That community of Element-enthusiasts had converted their Elements into campers, work vehicles, tiny houses… you name it. The best thing was is that they had shared their designs and ideas publicly so that all Element-owners could benefit from their experimentation. After spending a day or two scrolling through forum after forum, I knew the Honda Element was the right car for me.

The Element, however, presents certain problems. In production from 2003-2011, it has since become a sought after specialty car. With only a limited number of Elements out there, it is increasingly difficult to find one in good condition. I spent hours and hours on Craigslist, Autotrader, and a myriad of other car websites trying to find one that would work for me. I was somewhat disheartened by what I was finding though. In the end, it was my mom who solved the riddle. When she was helping out with a controlled prairie burn, she bumped into someone who had an Element in beautiful condition. She knew I was looking for one, so she struck up a conversation. The owner mentioned that there was a man in Middleton, WI who specialized in finding Elements for people. That was the first time I had heard of “Element Mike”. Unsure whether or not this mystical Element-hunter truly existed, I immediately followed up with him and sent him an email. From that day forward, my search for a capable and affordable Honda Element was securely in his hands. Mike “Element Mike” Wenkman of Mike Wenkman Motorcars has worked in the auto industry for years, but discovered the Honda Element within the last five years and fell in love. Since then, he has dedicated his professional skills to finding Elements for people who want them. He was exactly the person I was looking for.

In our initial conversations, we talked specifics: mileage, transmission, color, drive train, condition, model year, styling, and price. With those details locked away, he spread his net far and wide. Within a month, he had found the perfect car: a 2008 Atomic Blue, AWD Honda Element EX with 142,000 miles on it. I was beside myself. The stars had aligned. I was going to be spending the next 10 months in what had become my dream car. He found the car hiding somewhere in North Carolina, returned it to Madison for a tune up, then my parents did the test drive. They both fell in love with the car, realizing that it really was the perfect vehicle for my big trip. We sealed the deal and when I returned home for my sister’s wedding in June, they picked me up at the airport in my beautiful, new Honda Element.

After the wedding, the car was in for a serious test drive. Since I had left all of my stuff down in North Carolina, my mom and I decided to use the Element for an extended road trip: Madison to St. Louis to Nashville to Asheville to New Bern. The Element handled wonderfully, despite its subpar gas mileage. On the way back, it pulled a U-Haul without an issue. So far so good. Ever since then, I have been modifying the car to suit my particular needs for this trip. The box system (which I promise will get a more detailed write up soon), privacy curtains and panels, Yakima rack and box installation, trailer hitch installation, bluetooth compatibility, etc. It has transformed from a capable mid-sized SUV that can seat four into an adventure mobile ready for a 10-month test drive.

As soon as I met the car, I knew it needed a worthy name. As some of you can probably guess, my first thought was to name it after some totally awesome, blue superhero. Dr. Hank “Beast” McCoy, Eddie “Venom” Brock, Dr. Manhattan, Sonic the Hedgehog, Bobby “Iceman” Drake etc. Then my mind wandered to the Smurfs. None of them felt right. I abandoned my search for a blue synonymous character and let the issue rest until further inspiration provided me with direction. Finally, a few days ago I decided. I would simply name the Element: “Sam”. The inspiration comes from my childhood, when I read and obsessed over the book (and later the film adaptation) titled My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. In this young-adult fiction, a boy named Sam escapes his inner city New York home and ventures into the Catskill mountains. There he hollows out a tree stump, tames a falcon, and lives a simple, self-sufficient life in the forest. It spoke to me as a child and speaks to me even more now. His inspiring story of minimalism, wilderness, and adventure reminds me of my own upcoming journey. After settling on “Sam”, I then realized that anyone who is embarking on a long, perilous quest needs a “Sam”, because we all know Frodo wouldn’t have gotten very far without Sam. Hopefully, my “Sam” will prove just as hardy, supportive, and helpful as Samwise Gamgee…

Over the next few weeks, I will be introducing you more fully to Sam (which is why you only get a sneak peek now) and his many features, the alterations my mom and I have made, and how we have set him up for this adventure. He will definitely feature heavily in this blog the Element is my most essential piece of gear on this trip.

6 Responses

  1. rss
    | Reply

    where are the plans for the cube system? not just the 3d, please

    • jcronon
      | Reply

      I’ll be putting them up soon!

  2. Dexter
    | Reply

    I have a 2003 with 140K miles on it, and love it. Haven’t named it, but perhaps i should. I ask my independent mechanic every time I get a repair bill if it’s time to get a new vehicle. He responds, “No! No! They don’t make them anymore.” I hear valve clatter that he hasn’t been able to get rid of, but he says it’s not a matter for concern. Most of the time i have the seats out and use it as a panel truck. The original design concept from Honda, as i recall, was a vehicle for the California surfer crowd. I thnik they missed their target. Most of the folks I see driving them are close to my age, early 70’s.

  3. Kevin S
    | Reply

    Where can I find out more about your cargo area modifications. Great article in NYT!

  4. Susan Fey
    | Reply

    I picture Sam grinning. He’s a lucky fellow.

  5. Mary Kelly
    | Reply

    “Sam” is perfect.

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