Sunday, October 07, 2007
Fuck Wyoming, or, How I Came To Portland

Sit down, children, and I shall tell you a story. Yes, it'll be pretty long -- and stop whining; if you think you're going to be bored reading it, just think how bored I'm going to be writing it. My apologies, in advance, to those of you who've already heard some of this. Now, are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.

So, let's start a bit before my actual departure, in the lead-up to the trip. I have a car, as you know, that's a bit old -- it's a '99 Ford Taurus with 150k miles, and it has a dodgy (but apparently completely correct) transmission, and it has suffered from a minor tendency to run hot, but no other major problems. Still, because it was older, and because I was going to be driving it a long, long way while towing a small trailer (which, incidentally, was theoretically well within the weight guidelines specified by both Uhaul and Ford, even fully loaded, which it wasn't), my mother and I thought it would be wise to have her looked over by a qualified mechanic before I undertook the journey. Upon collecting her at the garage post-checkup, the mechanic gave her the thumbs-up. Except that the next day I noticed that she was still making a squealing noise that she'd been making before we took her in and had the belts checked. So just prior to leaving, I took her back to the garage with a little sniffy impatience, and the mechanic replaced the alternator and some other small bits, and said, "okay, now she's really ready for the trip."

I should point out that I got this car from my mother, and I don't think either she nor I have ever really trusted it. She's had a lot of difficulty with trying to get the transmission repaired (which they can't do, I guess, since there's nothing technically wrong with it -- it's just a shit-tastic design flaw that makes it jerk and slip in first gear, and there's nothing Ford can do about that however much they charge us) but since my old Lumina was on its last wheels, I figured I'd be safer in the Taurus for a trip of this magnitude.

Anyway, the point is, upon starting off down our long gravel driveway in Mississippi, I believed we had taken all reasonable measures to ensure that I didn't end up stuck on the side of the road, soaked in hot antifreeze, waiting for a tow truck. (Note: that's what English majors refer to as "foreshadowing.")

I made it across Arkansas with no problems at all. It was a slow kind of drive -- I made most of the trip doing a stately 60 mph -- but everything was going smoothly and I was beginning to relax into it when I crossed into Oklahoma. I was slightly concerned about my timing since I'd agreed to meet Nelson (who goes by several names in the comments of this blog -- I'm sure you know whom I'm speaking of) and didn't want to leave him waiting any longer than necessary. I've known Nelson for a number of years now through various online fora and knew he was a good sort, so in spite of my mother's dire threats against his wellbeing should anything unpleasant happen, I was happy to drop by Tulsa on my way across the state for a quick hang-out session. The problem was, the car had begun to get hot -- I mean, really hot -- and I'd already had to stop once to let her cool down.

The weird thing is -- I know I can't verify this after the fact, but you'll just have to believe me, or not, I don't care -- in the days before I left Memphis I'd been waking up several times a night with the creeping anxieties. One night in particular I'd woken with a strong image in my mind of sitting on the side of the road with white smoke billowing out from under my hood. But I have images like that pretty frequently (mostly of car collisions, which started after my car accident back in '01), and I've learned to ignore them.

But this time, that was exactly what was happening. I was in a rest stop, the sweet chemical smell of boiling coolant filling the car, watching white smoke leak from under the hood of the Taurus. At that point, I started to really get anxious about the trip and how successful it was actually going to be. After 30 minutes or so, I got out, checked the coolant level, saw that it was miserably low (after I'd already topped it up that morning), and carefully refilled the reservoir. Then, cursing and begging the car under my breath, I set off again. I made it as far as the Muskogee turnpike.

I admit in advance that I could've handled all of this better, but you have to realize: 1) I don't know much about cars, though I know enough to not get myself badly hurt; 2) I was too far from home to get back, and beyond direct help, alone on the interstate with all my worldly possessions; and 3) I really, really didn't want this to be happening. I tried to keep myself calm there on the shoulder of the Muskogee turnpike, tried to relax and give the engine time to recover, and tried not to freak out. What I actually did, after another 20 minutes of cooling time, was to pull on a work glove (for protection, see), and start slowly releasing the cap on the coolant reservoir. That shit had been boiling, so there was a lot of pressure built up, and I knew I had to be very, very careful. So I gave it a slow turn, and then waited until the hissing steam stopped, then turned again, and waited again, and then thinking I was pretty close to having it open, I turned a bit farther than I should have.

I've only told a couple of other people this next bit, because it's sort of embarrassing. Basically, what happened next was that the cap shot ten feet straight up in the air with a loud bang, and the next thing I knew the sky was raining near-boiling antifreeze down upon me. I yelped and jumped away (too late if anything really bad had happened -- I know I was lucky), but I was already soaked in the shit. It was in my hair, it was all over my clothes. I even have a small mark on my right arm where a particularly soggy part of my sleeve held it against my skin a little too long and scorched me. When I was sure I'd escaped mostly unharmed, I took a look at the car and saw the huge pool of green antifreeze on the ground under the car.

And that's when I called AAA. And then I called my mom. And then I tried to call a couple of other people, and then I changed my shirt and sat and waited for the tow truck.

This all happened around 3:30 on a Thursday afternoon. By the time the tow truck showed up and got me hooked up, it was almost 4:15 and we were still 20 miles from Muskogee. On the way into town the tow truck driver was calling around, trying to find a garage that would take me so late in the day. The first two said no; the third one said okay. So I ended up at Scott's Repair on Main Street in Muskogee, Oklahoma. After a quick look, they told me it would either be bad, or really, really bad -- in either case, they wouldn't know for sure until the next morning, so I should get a room in town. They gave me a lift to the Royal Inn, I checked in for two nights, and then, in my room, I quietly freaked out.

The weird thing is, I actually felt worse about Nelson than I did about my car. I knew he was probably still waiting, wondering why I hadn't shown up, and I didn't have any way to contact him directly to let him know. I'd also foolishly left my cell phone charger in the car, so I was reluctant to use it too much lest I not be able to use it at all. I showered, washed all the antifreeze out of my hair, changed clothes again, and went for dinner at the Pawnee Restaurant next door. The food there was exactly the like food in your junior-high cafeteria, except the portions were bigger -- frozen, formed patties of chicken fried steak, instant gravy, instant mashed potatoes, canned veggies, frozen pie. I knew that if I peeked back into the kitchen, I'd see nothing but lowest-grade Sysco products in the back. That is to say, it was absolutely terrible, but it was dirt cheap, and I wasn't really tasting it anyway so it didn't matter. The rest of the evening passed by way of phone calls and poor TV reception, though I did finally manage to connect with Nelson and apologize for standing him up.

The next morning I got word from the garage that I had avoided the automotive worst-case scenario -- the fix would be expensive (and endless gratitude to my mother for picking up the tab so I could be on my way), but it the car was repairable, and I could get it back that afternoon. Nelson actually drove all the way down from Tulsa to visit with me, and feeling much relieved, I went out to explore the wonders of Muskogee with him for the day. Whatever he tells you about what happened is a vicious lie -- we went to a little native American museum, we looked at roses, and we ate burgers. He turned out to be a lovely guy, and I'm genuinely thankful to him for coming all that way to hang out and help me keep my mind off of things. I've rarely seen someone I didn't actually know first-hand go to such lengths to be a friend to me. So thanks for that, Nelson.

When the lady from the garage came to pick me up that evening, I found out how fortunate I actually was. Among other things, the repair to my car had required a specific part (don't ask me what it was, I'm not sure), and it was a part that the garage would never normally have had available. Nor, they said, would any garage in Muskogee normally have had one -- it just wasn't the kind of part a shop keeps around. However, some months previously a woman had brought the same model of car into the garage for work that happened to require exactly this part, and then decided that she'd rather have a new car instead, and had simply handed over the title as payment for the work they'd already done. The garage then bought the part anyway, intending to fix the car and sell it. Except then a man came and bought the car, but wanted to make the repair himself, leaving the garage with only the part and no car to put it on, and that was the only reason they had that part sitting on their shelf that day. It sort of beggars belief, doesn't it? If that chain of events hadn't unfolded just that way months previously, and if I'd broken down anywhere else along the way, and if I'd been taken in by one of the other garages the day before, there was a very real chance that I'd have been stranded in Muskogee into the next week, waiting for a part to arrive. As it was, the scary-looking but very sweet-natured mechanic at the garage worked his ass off all day long to get my car working again, and I was almost miraculously back on the road as of Saturday morning. Before he let me go, the mechanic told me that if he'd been the one to check my car before that trip, it would never have left the garage in the state it was in -- he said that the entire cooling system was a mess, and there were too many obvious signs that all was not well. So there's a lesson in there somewhere about the damage a lazy mechanic can inflict.

I drove for sixteen hours that day, and managed to make it from Muskogee to Boulder, CO by 11 PM. Kansas was blissfully uneventful, although my iPod died that evening (you know all that music and listening material y'all suggested before the trip? I barely got to listen to any of it, and the whole rest of the trip was made in solemn silence.) My friend Randy gave me refuge that night, and we spent Sunday wandering around Boulder. It was a much-needed break from what had become a very stressful trip. We walked around Boulder, had a good lunch, then hiked to the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain (I was absolutely pathetic, stopping every fifty feet to gasp for breath in the oxygen-thin atmosphere), and then had dinner at a game restaurant where I had a nice bit of wild boar. So again, thanks to Randy for taking me in and giving me a chance to take a break for a day.

The next day, Monday, was the worst of the whole trip. Nothing went wrong as such; but every single mile was a struggle, and I made pitiful little progress over a long, difficult day. I made it from Colorado to Wyoming with no problem, and made it as far as Cheyenne before things turned ugly. But heading west towards Laramie, I was suddenly confronted with what turned out to be 60+ miles of straight incline up the side of the continental divide; and that was further complicated by a cold front coming in over the Rockies, blowing down my side of the mountain at 70 mph. So there I was, in a crappy, overheating-prone car, dragging a trailer up one side of the Rockies into a headwind that could've qualified as a class I hurricane. It was, shall we say, a rough day. Since I was now hyper-vigilant and wary of overheating again, whenever my engine temperature began to creep up towards the red, I would pull over and wait 15 or 20 minutes for her to cool back down. The problem was, under the circumstances, she could only go 5-6 miles at a time, usually at 30-35 mph, before she'd start to heat up again. So it was ten minutes forward, followed by twenty minutes stopped on the side of the road, then ten more minutes forward, and another twenty stopped, and ten forward, twenty stopped, all the way from Cheyenne to Laramie and beyond. I drove about 170 miles in twelve hours -- if you're keeping score, that's an average of a little under 15 mph. In Rawlins, WY, I gave up for the night and got a room, genuinely wondering if I was going to make it to Portland at all.

And while we're on the subject, I want to say a few things about Wyoming. Before making this trip, I was happy to see how many new states I'd be passing through, and I was strangely happy about going through Wyoming -- I actually chose the northern route across the Rockies rather than the Colorado route, in part because I wanted to work in one more new state. Having now done that, let me say this: I've seen Wyoming now, and I don't ever need to see it again. It is a vast, vile, empty shithole. As I drove, I was reminded that one of the more noxious Republicans was from Wyoming, but I couldn't quite remember who. I kept thinking that perhaps it was John McCain, but I knew he was from Arizona. Then I remembered: Dick Cheney is a product of Wyoming, and that explains a lot. Wyoming is exactly like Dick Cheney's hollow, dead heart -- it's an endless wasteland devoid of warmth or joy, filled only with brown scrub, howling wind, and pursed-lipped, prune-faced women. New Jersey used to be my most hated state; now it's Wyoming. When I die and go to hell, I know it will look exactly like Wyoming.

Clear on that? Good.

The next day, things turned better -- just past Rawlins there was a sign marking the continental divide, and from there everything became much more downhill. Having made it across the last of that barren fucking steppe, Utah was like divine salvation -- I can see why the Mormons got so excited about the place when they got there. The drive from Evanston, WY to Ogden was absolutely magnificent, easily one of the best drives I've ever taken. It was shockingly beautiful -- obscenely beautiful, like nature flashing her tits at you -- and so smooth and downhill that over the entire 80 miles I only burned off an eighth of a tank of gas. I made it to Twin Falls, ID that night, back on track (if two days late.)

And the final day went mostly smoothly, up past Boise and into Oregon, a bit hilly but not enough so to cause any problems. The trip over the Blue Mountains was alternately amazing and a bit boring, and then I finally hit the Columbia River. That's an amazing stretch of highway, even if it wasn't exactly what I expected -- it was much bigger, much more dramatic than I'd imagined. It was all steep mountain on one side and wide river on the other, and the farther west I traveled the more the landscape was overtaken by fir trees. The last bit was a little hairy -- the sun had gone down and it had begun to rain in earnest, and the light from my headlamps seemed to be sucked into oblivion by the damp darkness. I spent the last hour of the trip fighting through the pull and spray of semi trucks, trying to keep my car between the lines on the highway, feeling my way down the road towards the muddy glow of Portland.

And then, rather suddenly, I was here. I'll tell you all about Portland another day, though you may have some waiting to do. Tomorrow my darling Smithers arrives in town, and after a few days wandering around Portland together, I'll be in San Francisco with him until the 15th. How amazingly sweet of him to take me along, eh? And what amazing friends I've got! So many people went so enormously out of their way to help me cover the 2, 435 miles from my mother's driveway in Mississippi to Portland, and I'm hugely grateful to all of them for their help and support. Suffice to say for the moment that I think this was exactly the right thing to do, and after my initial few days in town, I think Portland, at last, might become something a bit like "home." It's been a little strange at moments, but I'm ecstatically happy to be here and I love everything I see.

Anyway, more on that later. The lessons you should take away from the story are these: 1) bad mechanics can fuck your shit up; 2) friends can undo a lot of the damange; and 3) Fuck Wyoming.
2:57 PM ::
Amy :: permalink