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The Wreck of the Westy: My Volkswagen goes head-to-head with an elk 

My VW "Westy," killed by an elk. That poor old busted VW "Westy" in the photo was a lovely old thing. It was built in

click to enlarge My VW "Westy," killed by an elk. : My VW "Westy," killed by an elk.
  • My VW "Westy," killed by an elk. : My VW "Westy," killed by an elk.
My VW "Westy," killed by an elk. That poor old busted VW "Westy" in the photo was a lovely old thing. It was built in 1984 by some pretty smart German engineers, it has a newly rebuilt engine in it, and only a little over 140,000 miles on the odometer, and now, according to Farmer's Insurance, it's dead after meeting up with a yearling elk.

After driving hundreds of thousands of (mostly) wildlife accident-free miles around Central Oregon for over 50 years, my luck changed. I killed a yearling elk, and here's the way it came about:

A week ago, my wife, Sue, and I were down at Lava Beds National Monument helping out in the first annual Butterfly Count. We finished the compilation about 7 p.m., and after a great chicken barbecue, decided to head for home - a four hours drive from Lava Beds. That meant that two-thirds of the trip would take place in crepuscular conditions, then darkness.

Perhaps the wreck wouldn't have happened if I had done what I always did when I was flying for a living and paid attention to the Federal Air Regulation that states, "The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft." What that means is that the pilot (driver) shall make him or herself aware of all conditions that will affect that flight (trip). Had I done that, perhaps that yearling elk would still be alive, and so would my Westy.

Most wrecks don't happen at the moment of impact, they occur because of earlier circumstances beyond our control. The three elk crossing Hwy 97, between Gilchrist and La Pine, started out much earlier in the day on their way to somewhere when I met them at about 11 p.m. The truck travellling in the opposite direction ruined my night vision, and I didn't see the elk in time. Had I taken into consideration those factors, perhaps I would have stayed the night at Lava Beds. But then, "If I hadda's" can go on and on.

Perhaps there's some kind of math that played a part in the collision between the elk and my Westy: The number of vehicles on the road, times the number of elk, times the speed of the Westy, divided by the width of the road, squared by the vigilance of the driver, divided by the response time of elk and driver, equaled the possibility of some kind of an event taking place at 11 p.m. - or something like that.

Rolling north out of Crescent in the darkness, I said to Sue, "I wonder what the chances are of meeting a deer or elk on the road tonight." Sue was groggy and said something, but with my hearing the way it is, and with the sweet sound of that newly overhauled, smooth-running VW engine in the back, I didn't hear her response.

I got a good scald on that sweet little engine when I overhauled it. Tony, at Tony's Heads in Bend, did a beautiful job on the valves after he checked the heads for cracks and polished the crankshaft. I put in four new jugs with new pistons and rings, all new bearings and seals and new spark plugs, along with a new oxygen sensor to make sure I got it right. Sue held the engine down while I torqued the two halves of the case, main bearing, and rods and heads. But even then, I was afraid to start it for fear I made a mistake.

Even though I had taken the engine to my good friend and Volvo/VW guru, Tom Denal, to help me get the timing right, and followed the genuine VW factory manual instructions to the "T" all through the reassembly, I was still afraid to start it.

Then Sue came out to the shop one day, saw the rebuilt engine in place and asked, "How does it run?" When I told her my fears she said, "Oh, come on, Jim; you're a good mechanic, and Tom helped you get it back into time; start it!" So I did, and it started right up with no adverse noises, so I took the Westy to the Old Volks home for Scott to do the final valve adjustment. The engine only had around 10,000 miles on it when the elk and I got together.

One of the spots of sunshine in this tale is the German engineering that saved our bacon; the front end of the Westy is built like a tank, plus, the windshield held that yearling elk out of my wife's lap after coming into contact with us at about 45 miles an hour.

Another "blessing" is that of the three elk, two of them turned back, and only one came into contact with us. The ODOT and Hooker Creek employees who stopped to see if they could help gave great comfort. Then there's our AAA Membership that takes care of problems on the road. When I called them on my cell phone, they got Dave of Crescent Towing out of bed and he cheerfully hauled us home on his flatbed truck and it didn't cost me a cent.

So, what could I have done to avoid this wreck? Probably not much in the final analysis; we just took the wrong road at the wrong time, and in the wrong place when that poor elk decided to take the road it did.


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