Ablutions (əˈblo͞oSHənz) – the act of cleansing oneself or a sacred object as in a religious rite; Middle English; from Latin ablutio(n-), from abluere, from ab- ‘away’ + luere ‘wash.’ The original use was as a term in alchemy meaning ‘purification by using liquids,’ hence ‘purification of the body or objects by washing’ (mid 16th century).
– Merriam-Webster Dictionary
For eleven months of the year no one would call my old Ford F-150 pickup clean and tidy. The cab resembles my room from college days, and the box is full of wood chips, pieces of barbed wire, a few metal fence posts, various rusty tools, pieces of rope, a few empty beer cans, and whole lot of dog hair. The window glass is smeared and spotted, and the body’s exterior is an advertisement for a television program about a cross-country, four-wheel-drive race through some muddy jungle in South America.
But come September, usually a week before the annual trip to South Dakota to hunt prairie chickens and sharptail grouse, my psyche is seized by a cleaning mania that is clearly a primitive spiritual rite of some sort, a cleansing of the soul and the mind – symbolized by the act of washing the pickup – in preparation for the sacred days of bird hunting. Or maybe I just don’t want my hunting companions to know how badly I mistreat my truck in the off season.
After cleaning and prepping all my hunting gear and trimming and brushing the dogs, the obsession to restore the pickup to factory-new appearance takes hold and the long-practiced ritual begins. I back the truck from the garage, hook up the power washer and shopvac, find the buckets, sponges, scrub brushes, terrycloth rags, Turtle Wax polish, Armor All vinyl cleaner, and Windex, and have at it.
The project takes five or six hours; a year’s worth of accumulated dirt and grime has to be removed, after all. I start with the engine compartment on the premise that once the worst and dirtiest work is completed, the rest will seem easier. This job was a snap back in the days when I had a ’72 Chevy with a leaky straight-six engine because I used some stuff called, if I remember correctly, Engine Brite, a foam cleaner that I sprayed all over the engine block, valve covers, carburetor, air-cleaner, shift linkage and everything else under the hood until it looked like a lemon meringue pie. In less than ten minutes the industrial-strength solvent had dissolved all the cruddy, caked-on grease and oil, and a blast from a high-pressure water nozzle stripped off every trace of grime and sent it on its way down the storm sewer.
I shudder now to think how many cases of cancer in my hometown could be linked to the gallons of carcinogens I flushed into the groundwater, but in those more innocent days we never thought that cleaning products could be harmful. No responsible manufacturer would poison customers, right? Well, we learned a lot about corporate profit vs. ethical behavior in the intervening years.
These days a power washer with a bit of detergent in the spray does the trick, although it takes longer and does not get the engine quite as bright. Lots of components under the hood (there are about three times as many in my current pickup truck, compared to that basic model, standard cab, short-box Chevy forty-five years ago) are now made of composite materials, which I think means plastic. Armor All does a pretty good job of restoring those.
After engine cleaning I’m covered with specks of grease and bug parts, so the interior of the cab can be attacked with impunity. I empty the glove box, door bins, seat-back pockets and all other storage areas before I start; there’s usually enough accumulated junk in there to fill a five-gallon bucket, and the only things worth keeping are the flashlight, road maps, and the tire pressure gauge. I have learned from bad experience to not use the power washer to clean the dashboard; it disrupts electrical functions. But for cleaning floor mats, the hard-to-reach places under the seats, and the storage space behind the seats, the power washer is the ticket, if I have the foresight to bring a half dozen old towels to mop the cab dry before letting it air out. The dashboard and instrument panel I clean with a soapy cloth, followed by an Armor All wipe-down
The box is five minutes’ work with the power washer. I’m always surprised by the Big Muddy flow that gushes out over the tailgate. Where does all this dirt come from? A working truck is not a tidy thing.
The exterior is just drudgery. Spray it, scrub it with sponge and soapy water, spray it again, wipe it down, then apply Turtle Wax. I’ve learned to wax only about 10 square feet of surface at a time; once the thin coating of wax hardens, wiping it off is a full upper body workout. Especially when standing on a four-step ladder. But the results are amazing. The old truck really does look almost new.
Ablutions completed, my October bird hunting trips to the short grass prairies of the Dakotas each year are virtuous and righteous journeys in a consecrated pickup. Or so it seemed to me in years past. For a decade I took false pride in my clean and shiny truck when I noticed the curious, not to say envious, glances from people along the way. My ’72 Chevy in particular was obviously regarded as the epitome of bird hunters’ rigs: bright red, short box, step bumper, wide tires, white topper, equipment boxes, dog crates, canoe rack, big mirrors, gun rack, front-bumper-mount spare tire – all gleaming in the autumn morning sunshine.
My ethereal reverie was brought crashing to the ground one day while I filled the tank with gasoline at a truck stop. An admirer approached me and complimented my truck.
“You’ve really got her restored nice and all polished up,” he said.
“Thanks,” I replied with all the modesty I could muster.
“You on the way to a classic car show?” he asked.
Classic car? My hunting truck? Hey, it’s not that old! Or maybe it is. Nineteen years; does that qualify as an antique?
My current pickup (my last truck in all probability) is much younger. Just turned 10. Looks new after today’s September ablutions, though. Factory new, almost. And barely 100,000 miles.
We’re old, but we’re shined up and ready, me and the Ford F-150. It’s going to be a good season.
More stories about life in the North Country, hunting, bird dogs, and bird guns are published in my two collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot and Old Coots Never Forget, and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com.