Total Vehicular Destruction in Two Acts
Act One. The Blowout
It’s after dark, I’m driving, and the caffeine jitters are kicking in. My wife Julia and I are heading across the desert in our Subaru Crosstrek, towing our tiny red gypsy wagon. We’re outside Idaho Falls, pushing through the night to get to Hailey, 130 miles away.
I see a dark lump on the road and, “Bump, bang!” something black and sharp passes under both passenger-side tires. Julia says, “oh no, what was that?” Five seconds later, she says, “do you think we got lucky?”
I say, “yeah, I think so,” and the flat tire light on the dash comes on. I hit the emergency flashers, limp up the road and pull into a trailer park. We have a flat tire.
Juan and the Mariachi Brothers
I pull up in front of two migrant workers sitting in lawn chairs in front of a mobile home. They’re listening to mariachi music and look subdued like they’d have a lot more fun on a Thursday night if they had a six-pack of beer. They don’t have beer, and I think of them as the Mariachi Brothers because of the music. The flashing hazards light up the little covered wagon we’re towing like a fevered prairie schooner dream. I get out of the car, point at our rig, and tell the Mariachi Brothers, “we have a flat tire.”
They stare at the little red wagon that’s crash-landed into their lives, and the heftier one points at the mobile home next door and says, “Juan.” A heavy Hispanic man steps out of the trailer the man is pointing at and says, “can I help you?” I introduce myself, tell him I have a flat, and he says, “I’m Juan. Do you have a jack?”
The four of us, Juan, the Mariachi Brothers, and I, walk toward the car. The ass-end of the passenger side is sagging down like a full diaper. Definitely a flat tire.
The Shit Gringos Travel With
I jack up the wheel with the flat on it, and Julia pops the hatchback trunk. The Mariachi Brothers help her unload all the crap we’ve got crammed in the back of the car. The wood footlocker with the goat painted on it that we keep our food in. The plastic cooler that holds our food and wine. A mouse nest a mouse built on top of the spare tire. I think, “these guys must think we have even less than they do.”
I set the rinky-dink spare tire on the rim, Juan tightens the lug nuts, and the flat tire is replaced in ten minutes. The Mariachi Brother’s and Juan’s eyes are wide open like they’re thinking, “this gringo man and his woman are crazy, and now we might get mice in our trailers.”
Julia and I throw the flat tire and all our shit back in the car, and of all the emotions we feel, gratitude is the one we feel most. Here we are, driving through the desert on a Thursday night. We get a blowout, and in ten minutes, three guys whose lives would have never overlapped ours have helped us change out a flat tire and get us back on the road.
We shake everyone’s hand, and I say, “thank you,” and give Juan, who seems to be the trailer park headman, a box of red wine and twenty dollars. It’s a clunky gift, but he’s thrilled, and the Mariachi Brother’s eyes fly wide open like their boring Thursday night in the trailer park just got a whole lot better.
You Can’t Just Buy One Tire For a Subaru
We spent the night in a paved-over campground in Idaho Falls. All the private campgrounds we camped in are paved over. The state campgrounds are the only ones that leave any trees, grass or dirt.
The next morning, we buy four new tires at Walmart for 750 dollars. It turns out you can’t just replace one tire on a Subaru because it messes with the traction control. Who cares. Buying four new tires is better than having a blowout, running off the highway into the desert, and totaling your car.
Act Two: Totaling Your Car
It’s four days later. We drive through Cave Junction, California. It’s a dying town full of homeless people. We roll down the main drag taking in the depressing sights. Flashing “Open” signs in the windows of closed businesses. A homeless woman with long white hair pushing a wheelchair piled high with clothes across the road. Feet poking out from under an old Toyota, twisting and jerking, willing the life back into the truck.
We stop in a red and yellow diner for a burrito, and a man with brown knubs for teeth says, “I used to catch salmon in the river, but they don’t come no more.” He points at his knee. “Not enough water. The river’s drying up.” I asked him when he noticed things really got dry, and he says, “three years ago.”
We fuel up in Susanville on gas that costs almost the same as minimum wage in some states, and Julia reserves us a room at the Peppermill Resort Spa Casino in Reno, 90 miles away. The room costs $110 per night, which is the same as 17 gallons of California gas.
Susanville is the least depressing town we’ve seen all day long. It has a Super 8 motel with a blue roof that caters to men that drive big white work trucks. The Super 8seems fancy after all the nights spent in our little red wagon trailer. We’ve been on the road for 13 days and have only stayed in one bed and breakfast. The rest we’ve spent with friends or in campgrounds
All’s Not Well
We head out of Susanville toward Reno across a big-ass open stretch of desert. It gets dark. I’m so proud of how far our little car and homemade gypsy wagon trailer have come. The trailer lights I zip-tied to our homemade trailer make tiny orange circles in the otherwise black side mirrors. All is well in Julia’s and my world, but all is not well in the West.
We have driven through miles of parched desert on this trip, as well as irrigation pivots in front of dried-out lakes and burned-up forests. Southern Oregon is in a 22-year-long drought. Many people we’re talking with want to get out of California and Oregon.
We spoke with an ex-river raft guide named Mark from Chico, California, whose house burned up in a wildfire. He said one of the rivers he used to raft on is now, “just six inches of dust.” (Read the whole interview here.) We talked with a trim woman in her early seventies who could be a model for AARP. Her son was living in a car and suicidal. She said, “I took him for a walk, but the favorite place I used to walk burned up in a wildfire, so it was depressing.” The woman lived in a car but wasn’t suicidal.
We have driven by big trees with skinned trunks and white crosses at their base. The sap still flows on the freshest wounds.
Outside Susanville, I drive by a yellow sign that says, “Deer Next 6 Miles”. The night is so dark and the highway so black I tell Julia, “I’m going to drop down to 55 miles per hour in case there’s a deer in the road.”
The new $750-dollar tires we bought in Idaho hum on the desert highway, and we talk about how lucky we are after all the charred land and homeless people we’ve seen in southern Oregon and northern California.
A buck streaks out of the night from right to left, running hard, head low, legs churning. Instinct kicks in, and I hear my dad say, “never swerve to miss a deer.” I look straight ahead, both hands on the wheel, and twist the wheel three degrees toward the road shoulder. That’s always worked, and “Bang!” we slam into the deer.
The hood flies up, smashes the windshield, and all I can see is white. “Poof!” airbags explode, the cabin fills with smoke, and we swerve off the road across the desert. I can’t see a damn thing except for a wall of white because the car hood has flopped across the windshield.
The front of the car drops out from under us, and I feel like I’m riding blindfolded on a roller coaster. Dry grass swishes under the car, and we’re mowing down things I can’t see, and all I can think is, “hands straight. Don’t swerve.”
Something heavy rear-ends us, and Julia shouts, “oh no, we’re getting rear-ended!” My next thought is, “don’t slam on the brakes and jackknife the trailer.”
The car takes a mighty stomach-lurching plunge, and the tires rushing through the grass get quieter. I can’t see anything because the hood is over the windshield. “Bang” we slam into something, and it’s over.
A deflated airbag lies limp in my lap, and the air inside the car smells like it will kill us if the crash hasn’t. I can’t see out the windshield because the hood is still covering it.
I hit the flashers, open the door, and bail into the night. The radiator is spewing sweet green steam into the night air, and I see the thing we plowed into is a fence post. It’s sticking up in front of the caved-in radiator like a new wood hood ornament. We’ve taken down thirty feet of fence, and the nose of the car is buried in the sand.
Julia crawls out of the passenger side, rips her shirt on the barbed wire fence, and staggers into a cow pasture next to a pizza joint. Our tiny homemade gypsy trailer is still attached to the hitch. That was what we felt bumping into us as we went on our wild ride.
Two cars pull over to make sure we’re okay. The driver of one of them works in a body shop and says our car looks totaled. I call 911, and a few minutes later, a California Highway Patrolman rolls up with his blue lights flashing. He shines a giant flashlight down on us from the road to make sure we’re not drunks, tweakers, fugitives, or crackheads.
Little White Crosses
The little red wagon we’re towing puts him at ease, and he tells us we’re lucky to have run off the road on this particular stretch of highway. The shoulder is grassy and wide with no giant ponderosa pines to smash into. There are already enough little crosses in front of trees that we don’t want to add two new ones.
The trooper looks at the hood folded over the smashed windshield and says, “I almost never see that. The hood latch is an integral part of the car and holds down the hood so tight you’d have to rip off the front of the car for the hood to fly up over your windshield.”
I give the trooper my information. He says the car looks totaled and calls a tow truck. That’s the second person who tells us our car is beyond repair in five minutes.
How a Deer Skids
The trooper says, “I need to make sure you hit a deer and not a cow or bear,” and we walk back up the highway toward where I crashed into the buck.
We walk up the side of the highway, and he straightens all the metal road markers I mowed down with the car. He says, “it’s over there,” and shines his flashlight on a dead seven-point mule deer lying on the side of the road. The rump is white, its eyes are open, and there’s not a drop of blood on the fur.
The trooper shines his flashlight on a dull streak that extends from a headlight lying on the highway to the dead deer. “That’s where the deer slid up the road after you hit it,” he says. “Their coats are greasy, and they leave a mark like that when they slide along the pavement.”
The buck weighs 150 pounds, and I say, “that’s a pretty good-sized deer.” I’m from North Carolina, and that’s a good deer for us. The trooper says, “it’s about average for around here. Maybe a little on the small side.” He leaves the deer lying on the side of the road. It’s barely across the white line.
Off the Road
The tow truck shows up, and two guys winch the car onto a flatbed. They hook the trailer to the back of the tow rig and give Julia and me a ride back to Susanville in their tow truck.
The driver tells us how much he enjoys his job, despite the stupid people who get their cars stuck way out in the desert but can’t tell the wrecker their location.
We get to the towing yard, and he says, “you’re lucky. I see wrecks not as bad as yours where people are dead. Ninety percent of drivers that swerve to miss a deer swerve into oncoming traffic.”
The car is unloaded, and Julia and I inspect our trashed Subaru under the glow of a sodium vapor light. The front of the car, including the bumper and air dam, is ripped off. The windshield is smashed like a spiderweb, and the inside of the car reeks toxic as an army navy store. Three ripped airbags hang limply from the steering wheel, over the brake pedal and above the glovebox. Our Subaru has taken good care of us, though, and for that, we are grateful.
Drink the Wine
Julia cancels the reservation she made at the Peppermill Resort Spa Casino in Reno, and we check into the Super 8 motel in Susanville. The motel’s walls are blue, and I imagine the horrors we’ve escaped: rolling the car, crashing into a tree, smashing into a semi, and waking up in separate hospitals, maybe as a widow, maybe as a widower.
We find a bottle of wine in the wrecked car. I don’t have a corkscrew or glasses, so I push the cork into the bottle, and we drink the whole bottle of wine out of plastic cups.
Julia and I have never been more grateful for having each other and our health, even if we have totaled a car with four brand-new tires and a full tank of gas on the other side of America from where we live. The little red wagon escaped unscathed.
Love the one you’re with, and count your blessings. If you’re not with someone, love yourself and count your blessings. Everything can change in a snap out of nowhere.