Sometimes, It Don't Come Easy
July 1, 2002
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After the tree hit us in Los Angeles, forcing us to leave the trailer there for reconstructive surgery, we thought the incident would satisfy whatever dues we might owe for these last six trouble-free years. But climbing a hill east of Oklahoma City the following Monday there came a loud hard bang from under the hood. That was it; no grinding or screaming, no warning lights or buzzers. The precious bodily fluids were all holding stable, and her only symptom was a loss of interest in pulling. Two downshifts to eighth gear and she still had trouble with it, and you knew that Truck 249588 was suffering from a pulmonary calamity.
Pulled over for a look. She idled just fine, no funny noises, no loose parts laying around under there; problem had to be inside the turbocharger. What had been a free-spinning marvel turning 60,000 rpm on a thin film of oil and drawing a tornado of oxygen into the manifold was now no doubt just a windpipe obstruction of twisted blades and shattered bearings. We eased our way into Shawnee, Oklahoma, and called the roadside assist people. At 2:00 AM a fleet sister arrived from Tulsa, hoisted on the underslung beam of a big four-axle diesel wrecker; we switched and I now had neither the tractor nor the trailer I started with.
The sister was named 230096. She was two years older and in the morning light you could see she'd lived a hard life in Oklahoma, showing scratches and bruises, and she was low on energy; she whined and rattled and she had no CB hookup. But she could pull a trailer down the road and at a time like that you're just thankful, and we were in Virginia by Thursday noon.
We did the show at the fabulous Wolftrap Pavilion outside of D.C. and the next morning headed for St. Paul for a couple days' break before the drive to the Starlight Theater in Kansas City. The lack of a CB radio cost me $75 when a few miles into Ohio on Interstate 70 a hired extortionist caught us roaring down the road at 66 miles an hour, a threat to order and decency. He spent 25 minutes going over the truck and log book to see if there was anything besides speeding to be squeezed out, wrote me up for a couple of non-existent deficiencies ("right and left high beams nonfunctional" -- they worked, but he couldn't tell in the sunshine) and turned me loose. His pants were very neatly pressed.
Then at home Tuesday I made a painful wrong move working on the riding mower and by Wednesday the back was spasmed so bad I couldn't get across a room. We have friends who are pharmaceutical hobbyists and they had exactly the right stuff, heavy-duty leftovers from their own adventures. Drove down Thursday and by Friday the pathetic shuffle had improved to a painful limp, and on Saturday I ended up on stage, thanking the unknown saint who invented codeine. I'd been offered a chance to sing a tune and got a lot of help from the Hopefuls and the Memphis Horns, and what fun that was. Our trailer arrived looking good from L.A. and Miss 249588 drove up from Tulsa, and we reunited and went back to Minnesota on Sunday.
But each leg of the trip had brought a different kind of trouble. (I heard later how one of our people had stood up in an airplane restroom and their cell phone flew into the blue commode liquid
and they dived in up to the elbow, grabbed it and sported a blue forearm for a day; called the company and asked if the phone could be repaired and they said No but why would you want to anyway?) On our way to Kettering, Ohio, on Wednesday there was a swarm of bees in the parking lot at the Petro in Illinois; guys were on the CB hollering about it. I pulled in and was surprised to not get stung. Inside a driver said his wife had called on the cell phone and said there was a bad crash north of Madison on I-90, 2 semis, 4 cars and 2 motorcycles, just an hour and a half earlier; we came through there then and it must have happened right behind us. You hate to hear that stuff, but I began to feel a shift in fortune.
Things went fine at the Fraze Pavilion in Kansas City - hot, but no problems, and the drive up to Tanglewood the same; stopped at Bethlehem PA just for the stark abandoned grandeur of those giant empty blast furnaces, and stopped in Nyack NY by the graceful Tappen Zee bridge; spent three days in a darkened motel room there, catching up on some writing.
Left Tanglewood right after the show Saturday and got to Erie. Next morning hit Ohio, where the scale was CLOSED and a driver said that stands for Can't Leave Ohio Soon Enough Dammit. You might think it'd be easy to drive 62 miles an hour -- which is as much slack as the armed bandits allow -- but it's not, even on cruise control. Cars are constantly passing you at 75 mph and you tire of being this obstruction, this slug on the road, this nuisance. Anyone would. Driving 62 on an unobstructed straight 4-lane is an unnatural act. I made it for an hour and then got passed by a Heartland Express truck who seemed to know what he was doing and I gave up and joined in. Tracked him for the next hundred miles, doing 70 and slowing to 60 at every cop car and he had them all spotted, and then we approached an innocent-looking highway maintenance building and got nearly up to it when a shark slid out from behind it; my man hit the brakes, I hit the brakes, the cop pulled in behind us. We rode along at 56 for two miles and I'm thinking this is getting to be an expensive trip and then he came around me and grabbed old Heartland Express. And then the same thing happened in Indiana, this time tracking a tanker; cop does a flip in the middle and nails the guy in front of me. My, how an old man's luck can change.
Chicago was bad but could have been worse; we missed a 13-mile backup on Interstate 80 there by taking the Skyway and by nightfall were west of Milwaukee on I-94 (quit taking I-90 because of all the toll booths). It was a nice summer evening and the ditches were alive with fireflies; a pair hit the windshield and glowed bright neon green for ten miles. Stopped for the night at Johnson City. The Pine Cone restaurant at the truckstop there features their pastries and it is Wisconsin, where size counts as much as taste: the chocolate eclairs there are the size and shape of cowpies. They sell cream puffs that look like Cumulus clouds. If you unwound one of the caramel rolls it'd stretch the length of the counter; everyone would get two feet of it, if they could just pick it up.
My system has developed an immunity to those temptations. The Atkins diet allows unrestricted access to steak and butter and that's enough culinary pleasure right there, and out of all the steaks consumed on this, the Driver's Steak-A-Day Tour, there was a clear winner, head and shoulders above even the specialty steak houses: in Texas, not surprisingly, the Bone-in New York Strip at the Iron Skillet in the Petro truckstop in Amarillo. Thick, rare, sweet and rich as truffles, nothing else was close, and why everyone likes to whine about Texas is beyond me because they can cook down there and they can play blues. I have found many places where they can't do either one, so I like Texas.
Cruised home Monday through the green hills and over the full rivers, and thinking back on the six weeks I recall a bleak and aging truckstop in the barren California desert, hardly a living shrub anywhere, and a truck sitting there in the blazing heat, the engine on a loud fast idle, and two small tough birds flying in and out picking at the radiator grill for bugs. Probably the only available organic matter for miles. They were like the birds that clean crocodiles' teeth, except in harsher surroundings.
Forty miles east there was a wrecked car on its side in the median, two fire trucks and two patrol cars sitting by in the heat, three people hovering around it in great distress and a helicopter coming in; it later passed overhead, eastbound into Blythe. And in Tennessee the hulk of a semi tractor sat on the shoulder, burned to a vague and whitened suggestion of a truck, the roof and hood gone, not a shard of glass or track of rubber left, the road streaked and blackened from a fire hot like a cutting torch.
The bee at the start of the trip could have been a harbinger of trouble ahead. Ten thousand and more miles later it was capped by a pair of courting fireflies dying together as two bright green streaks glowing brightly on the windshield; an entire continent passed beneath the two events.
And the encounter with the surly coyote in Griffith Park at two in the morning probably meant that there are a lot of coyotes around these days.