Sunday, February 15, 2009

FAST FORWARDING TO THE GOOD PART

There's a lot to write about concerning my Pacific Northwest winter trip. My previous post detailed the first day or so, and while I intend to continue in chronological order, there was a pretty major incident that needs to be addressed now.

This was so wild, I doubt I'll remember everything. But I'll try. Here goes...

I left Donnelly, Idaho, around 10 a.m. Sooner than later, I'll write about my stay there because it was beautifully awesome. Around 12:30, I rolled (back) into Boise, where I checked my email and bank account. There were pressing issues (ie, work and insufficient funds) and I decided to forgo my Friday night in this college town to get back home a day early.

My plan was to stay in Vegas, because, well, it's Vegas. Mapquest said it was 10 hours and I was up for the challenge. I've done that amount many times before and figured it wouldn't be all that tough. Besides, with Sin City as the destination, it's not that hard to press on when all you want to do is pull over.

Other than Boise, Idaho's a bunch of nothing. Literally. I drove for what felt like forever because there's absolutely nothing to look at. My directions took me through some small towns that were straight outta Mayberry, but other than that, it was pretty damn dull.

Crossing into Nevada felt good. Besides seeing the few ricky dink casinos and abandoned buildings of a town called Jackpot, I knew I was getting closer to California. For some reason, on any trip I take, I feel good when I hit Oregon, Nevada or Arizona because I know home isn't that far away. Plus, I am super paranoid about driving outside of the state. Once in Cali, my license plate doesn't say "tourist."

I'm starting to ramble, so here's the Cliff Notes version of the next five hours. I was driving a two-lane road. It snowed most of the time. I stopped at a Chevron because I had to piss real bad. I walked in and there was a cowboy with a grey ZZ Top beard sitting next to a guy wearing a turban. Neither looked at me or said a word, although I gave them the loner's hello, also known as the head nod.

It was raining hard, snowing off and on. My windshield wipers had begun to freeze, so I stopped at a gas station in Ely (it rhymes with "freely), Nevada, to wipe them off. But it was so cold I didn't have much success. Being the dumbass Californian that I am, I wasn't wearing winter clothes. Just my winos, regular socks, Dickies and a faded, stretched out black long underwear top from the Gap.

After leaving this gas station, I saw a sign that said I could get to Vegas by going straight or taking a right. My Mapquest directions said to stay on the 93 South (which in this case was staying straight), so that's what I did.

Staying straight meant continuing down a two-lane road, but now I was headed down a mountain with all sorts of twists and turns. After about five minutes of distance between my car and Ely, I noticed I was totally alone. No cars, no homes, no birds...nothing. The snow began falling even harder and the visibility out of my car shrank to nearly zero. Right where my eyes should have been looking out was a massive streak that was not being cleaned thanks to the frozen wipers. Needless to say, driving was becoming increasingly difficult.

I slowed my speed to adjust to the conditions. Looking at the spedometer, I noticed I was going 55 and decided to ease off the gas to get down around 45. Better safe than sorry. New speed and everything was fine for about twenty minutes. Howard Stern was on the radio helping guide me out of this nightmarish drive.

I hit a left-leaning turn that took me away from the side of the mountain and toward the mountain itself. Halfway through the turn, my car wasn't right. It felt like the time I played broomball and couldn't stop on the ice with my sneakers. During broomball, skidding out meant falling to my knees. This time, I wasn't so lucky.

As a native Angeleno, it was hard for me to remember whether or not I am supposed to brake or not brake when driving in snowy/icy/rainy weather. Now I know: Don't brake. I pulled the steering wheel right, but my Corolla kept going left. In the blink of an eye, I went headfirst into a four-foot pile of snow at 50 miles an hour.

Having never been in a crash before, I didn't know what to do. So naturally, I tried to drive my way out. That was a bad idea. I got lots of exhaust, but not much movement. I shut off the radio and searched for my cell phone in hopes of cashing in one of those 100-mile tows promised from AAA. "Searching for service" said the phone. Panic had now kicked in in full effect.

Both hands on the wheel, I had no clue what to do. Five minues passed before I saw the headlights of another vehicle approaching. I jumped into the driver's seat, threw open the door and flailed my arms. Where I come from, we don't stop for people in need, but this wasn't California. A guy pulled up in his mini-van with two kids in the back. I pleaded for help, but he said he didn't have any chains. I told him about not having cell phone service and he gave me a look that suggested he already knew that. His solution was to call the highway patrol once he got into an area where his phone would work. That area was ten miles away. He asked how much gas I had and luckily, I was full. He told me to stay in the car with the heater on. So I did.

But there was no way I was waiting for the highway patrol. If this guy wasn't calling for ten miles (mind you, he's driving uphill in the snow, so his drive could have taken a while), there was no guarantee that a cop could have been to my car in a quick manner. With desperation now engulfing me, I hailed each passing vehicle.

The first was a family that asked if I was ok. I said I was. Then they kept driving. I sat for about five minutes when a car being tailed by a monster truck passed. Neither stopped.

I like to think of myself as a smooth brother, but I was way out of my element. I began to shake, partially from the near 25-degree weather and partially from the fact that I was fucked.

Time has this funny way of moving in super slow motion and a rapid-fire pace when the shit hits the fan. It could have been five minutes, it could have been twenty. All I know is it felt like a motherfucking eternity before another vehicle was within eyesight.

A car stopped coming down the mountain. For some reason, it was parked about fifty yards from where I was. A figure emerged from the darkness and I started hearing the song from Deliverance. I thought I was going to get killed and no one would ever know what happened to me.

But I was wrong. It was a teenager. Two, in fact. They asked if I was ok and I told them I was. A minute later a man of at least 70 pulled up and offered help. Kind of.
"There's a shovel and chains in the back if you pull 'em out," he said. Before I could get to his truck, one of the teenagers jumped in and got to work. I explained to everyone that I was from LA and was completely useless when it came to all things snow. No one seemed to mind.

The kid was scooping out snow like there was a million dollars hidden somewhere underneath, looking for a spot to hook the old man's chain to. Just then another guy in -- what do you think -- a truck rolled up. He was rocking a cowboy hat, a scarf, thick moustache and even thicker Western accent. Right away he introduced himself to everyone there. The thing that got me was, he used his first and last name. Then so did everyone else. He took one look at the other teenager and said hi as if he knew the kid. That's because he did. Something about him knowing the kid's parents. This was fucking Mayberry.

I had been in the snow for too long wearing improper clothing. I didn't want to seem ungrateful, but I had to get back in the car to warm myself. I watched as these four men dug snow and hooked the chain. Once the chain was on, I got out so I wouldn't seem like a jerk. They asked where I was headed and I said Vegas. They suggested heading back to Ely and taking the other route because it was quicker. I was very shaken at this point and wanted the entire thing to be over. I asked if they thought that was a good idea and they all said it was. Each assured me the weather would be better on the other road and I told them I'd think about it. First, we had to get my car out of the snow.

Before I hopped back in the car, I shook everyone's hand. No way was I taking off my gloves because it was freakin' freezing. But one by one, each dude pulled off his. I probably offended them, but I didn't care. Staying warm was far more important.

The old man got in his truck and gassed it. Like a dentist with a wisdom tooth, my car popped out in a herky jerky motion. I rolled down my window, thanked everyone for all their efforts, flipped a U and followed the cowboy back to Ely. On the way back, not only did it stop snowing, but two plow trucks came marching down the hill. I had a good mind to follow them, but I had already battled this road and lost. I wasn't in the mood for round two.

I thank you if you are still reading what is turning out to be my longest post ever, but there's more.

I pulled into a gas station with a Mexican food joint called Taco Time and a Subway inside. A burrito always hits the spot, so I got one to calm my nerves. Inside there were three people eating -- two men and a woman. I got the impression that they were brothers and sister. Don't ask why, but that's what it felt like. Each had skin more leathery than the next. One guy -- the loudest one -- had long greying greasy slicked back hair and he was dropping f bombs like nothing. I ordered a veggie burrito and somewhere between me walking in and my ordering, the dude goes into a full-voiced rant about wanting to fight the other guy. A minute earlier, these three wastoids were laughing about the sort of shit that only spaced out freaks could laugh at and the next, they're literally physically fighting. And here I am, sitting about four feet away, hoping they don't turn their backwoods rage toward me.

As far as burritos go, this one at Taco Time was by far the worst I'd ever had. My rice was crunchy. CRUNCHY! The lettuce tasted like it was a week old and the guac smelled like the gloves I use to wash dishes. But the food served its purpose as I got some clarity: I was going to stay the night in this town, even though it was only 7:30-ish.

I got in the car and called my girlfriend. Not sure why, but I did. I explained what happened and told her I was alright. Then, through my foggy driver's side window, came a knock. I freaked the fuck out because there was no reason for anyone to do that. I opened the door, and BOOM, there's the cowboy. I told my girlfriend I had to go and promised to be safe. Minutes later, that turned out to be a lie.

Cowboy tells me that he stopped at the store after seeing me pull into the station. He explains that he's headed down the other highway and that I should follow him. At this stage, I'm not so sure, so I ask him if that's such a good idea considering I just crashed my car because I can't drive in this mess. He tells me I've got one summit to go, which will be no longer than thirty miles. He swears up and down that the weather will be different. Like an idiot, I believe him.

Before we leave, he tells me to stay close behind and watch his lights. He lived somewhere down this road and knew exactly where he was headed. All I had to do was follow. Unlike my previous venture, this highway was comprised of a slow-moving caravan of about ten cars.

Three minutes in and I knew this was a mistake. The snow is kicking my ass and I've got zero visibility thanks to the windshield wipers, which have to be on but really, they were only clearing a tiny section of the bottom of my windshield. To compensate, I hunched over and drove with two hands on the wheel like my 90-year-old grandma. The defrost was on full blast, but I'm still not sure how effective that was.

Pitch black. I want to pull over, but it's so dark I can't tell where that would be safe. The headlights of cars behind me meant I couldn't stop. I was stuck with no way out. For assurance, I kept telling myself that my cowbowy friend would get me through this. Him, and Scott Ferrall.

Ten minutes in and cowboy decided to pass a slow-moving mini-van. PASS! This is like the single most dangerous moment of my entire 29 years of existence and this guy is passing on the left with no regard for oncoming traffic that no one can see until it's too late.

The cowboy was gone, so I opted to throw on my brights for more visibility. All that did was show me the snow, not the road. A second later, I turned them back off.

The road was horrendous, worse than the one I crashed on. It had not been plowed in possibly hours, which meant I was riding my chain-less tires on nothing but snow.

Only once in my life have I prayed. It was about 10 years ago. I had a girlfriend who thought she was pregnant. One night in bed, I talked to the big man upstairs. Yadda yadda yadda...ten years later and I don't have a kid. So I'm one-for-one in this whole praying thing. Batting a thousand. With the cowboy gone, I almost prayed again, but choose not to because -- let's face it -- there's no God. Praying wasn't going to help and it would have been the second (or possibly third) stupidest thing I'd done this evening and my stupid quota was filled for the night.

I don't know how long it was, but the caravan had to make a left turn. My tires skidded and I nearly ran into a big rig on the other side of the road. Once I got back into the proper lane, to my right was an area where a few truckers had pulled over to sleep. Here is where I learned a valuable lesson that I will share with anyone reading this: If truckers -- professional drivers -- aren't willing to carry on in apocalyptic-esque weather, neither should I. Or you.

Twenty minutes after we made the left, the mini-van with the bikes on top decided it didn't want to be first in the caravan anymore, so it pulled over, leaving me with no one to follow. One time, when I was about 12 years old, this car pulled up to me and my friends and pointed a gun at us. It could have been fake, but it was scary as shit nonetheless. This moment was more frightening than that.

This road was like an ice skating rink and each time a car passed in the opposite direction, a large splash of snow, water and dirt covered my windshield, meaning what little visibility I had was gone for about five seconds. Maybe I was being dramatic, but I honestly thought I was going to die and cursed myself for not getting a room in Ely. I've been burned badly many times in Nevada, but those usually had to do with drinking a bunch and handing over way too much cash to some stripper who was milking me for her baby's diaper money. I would have given anything to be in that position.

A more verbose writer would be able to depict the mess I was in. But I am a simple man. All I can say is, I was scared and wanted out of the situation in any way that wasn't death. Then, like a lake in the middle of a desert, there were lights to my left. Whatever it was, that's where I was stopping with the intent of sleeping in my car. The closer I got, I saw the lights were a gas station and a motel. In literally the middle of nowhere, a ray of sunshine beaming through the darkest, most overcast day of all time.

The finish line was near. I slowed my car from the 25 miles an hour I was driving in hopes of making the left turn into the parking lot. But without chains, that wasn't happening. I missed the turn and panicked. Not stoppping was the equivalent of driving the rest of the three-plus hours to Vegas and there was no fucking way I was doing that. So I did what made perfect sense at the time: I hooked a left into a football field - sized patch of snow just off to the right of the driveway. I wasn't thinking this at the time, but once I got stuck it became clear what sort of mistake I made. There was a separate entrance for the gas station about ten yards ahead that I could have made, but I had to intentionally drive into a patch of snow.

I got stuck and gunned it hoping to move to the driveway. No dice. For the second time in about an hour, my car was immobile thanks to snow. This time was intentional, but I was still very concerned.

At least I'm off the road, I told myself.

I threw on my gloves and beanie and hoofed it about 200 yards to the motel's entrance. Walking through three feet of snow for that much distance made my feet go numb within a matter of seconds. Still, I pressed forward. Behind the counter was a woman of about 70 years old wearing a grey shirt with a USA flag on it. Before I could finish asking for help with my car, she said, "Oh. Are you the guy who just drove into the snow? I watched you do that and wondered what you were doing?" If I wasn't so shaken by the night's events, the usual piss and vinegar that spews from my mouth would have had a great comeback, but tonight was not the night for vitriol conversation.

The woman was much more concerned with small talk regarding where I lived in California and how she spent thirty years of her life there than she was with my car being three feet away from cars on the road. I kept veering the conversation back to my vehicle, but she wouldn't budge. I gave up hope and figured my car was fucked, but I wasn't, so not all was lost.

Finally she called over to the gas station to inquire about whether or not they could help. They couldn't. Then she told me how she thinks the gas station shouldn't have women working at night, totally unaware of the hypocrisy spewing from her peabrain. She dug through the phone book, but each tow driver she saw listed came with a "nope, he ain't gonna help you." I asked about AAA and got no answer.

A man entered asking about room rates. I thought he was crazy. Shit, this place could have been $500 a night and I was going to pony up. She told him it was $56 and he headed out the door. I ran after him and asked if he'd help me. His face said no, but his mouth said yes. Good enough for me. Like a smart person, he changed his shoes and put on three coats. While he was doing this, I went back inside to fill out paperwork.

He came to get me and we walked to my car. He asked where I was coming from and I told him Ely. He and his family (wife and four young kids) were going in that direction and he wanted to know what it was like. In no uncertain terms, I told him that was not a bright idea and basically begged him to stay. But all he could talk about was how he'd done that drive before and it couldn't have been that bad. I took a mental note not to pick up a morning paper for fear of the headline "Man Who Wouldn't Fork Over $50 for a Motel Room Kills Family."

I swear I'm not making any of this up, but as we're getting to my car, the cowboy pulls up in his truck. Somehow he saw my idiotic manuever and decided to help me for the third time that night. I got behind the wheel and hit reverse while the two men pushed. Nada. We tried again. Still, nada. Just like before, another truck pulled up and a man got out. He didn't have a shovel, but did have a large stick that he used to scoop out the snow from under my tires. With three men, we tried again. These guys picked up my car from the hood and got me out of the snow, but not before the cowboy fell face first, which in hindsight, is really making me laugh. At the time, it wasn't so funny. My car moved, but I wasn't out of the snow yet, so we gave it another shot. I had to wait until I saw no headlights on either side of the road because I wasn't taking any chance. This time the men got me out with relative ease and the cowboy stayed upright.

Slowly I flipped a U and rolled into the parking lot, but not before I rolled down my window and thanked the three men. I told the cowboy I would never forget him and I meant it. Still do. I don't remember his name and I would bet everything I own that he doesn't have the Internet, but if he ever reads this, I owe you big time my friend. The best I can do for him is to pay it forward, which I will do in some capacity.

I went back inside to finish the paperwork. I couldn't see my face, but I know I had a major grin that suggested a weight of epic proportions had been lifted. I was alive. My car was in one piece. And I was out of the snow.

It was a pain in the ass getting my stuff out from the trunk and my feet were beyond numb, but it didn't matter. I set the car alarm and it went crazy, turning itself off after I locked it. It did this three times and I gave up. There was nothing of any value in the car and anyone who wanted to steal my ride had to endure what I had just gotten out of. Had someone decided to do such a thing, I would have wished them luck.

I undressed and left major chunks of snow in the room. For a second I tried cleaning it, but I was too tired to care. I washed my hands and face and tried to get online because moments like those don't happen often and I was in the right frame of mind to create something really special. But there was no Internet access and I took that as a sign that I needed to go to sleep.

I watched Jeopardy on the Game Show Network for five minutes, flipped off the TV and went to bed.

The sun was shining when I woke up. I went to drop off my key, but the front desk was locked and there were no employees. So I left it on the door handle. I thought the sun would mean a clean ride to Vegas. Wrong again.

The roads had not been plowed and I still could not see out of my windshield. Passing cars meant less visibility. But I could see outside the side windows and pulled over at a few rest stops to break off the ice from the wipers and to pour drinking water on my windshield before wiping it with tissue.

It took forever to get to Vegas and I almost gave way to the fact that I might never get out of wherever the hell I was. I drove slow and had the closest thing to a nervous breakdown that I've ever encountered. About an hour outside of Vegas, the weather cleared up. Sun was shining and there was no snow or rain. Of course, there was construction in North Vegas that caused a major delay. But I didn't care.

I stopped for a few hours in Vegas and hit Ronald's Doughnuts, this little mom and pop shop that makes vegan donuts. It was Valentine's Day and I needed a gift for my girlfriend. I knew these, along with my being home, would hit the spot.

My brakes are now acting strange, my car is filthy and my alignment, which I just fixed on Christmas Day, is off. That seems like a small price to pay for not dying.

These were shot from my motel room the morning after all this happened. I should have taken more pictures when the situation was actually going down, but when your life is an inch away from being taken from you, for some reason acting like a goddamn tourist doesn't cross your mind. From these, you'll get the point.

2 comments:

Steve said...

Man! That's an awesome story. There's nothing like a road trip.

Bongo Bob said...

I just happened across your blog by googling the words "Dean Singleton asshole", and came upon this fascinating tale. Great blog, man.