Saturday, April 30, 2011

Terror on a Country Road

The True Story of My Solo Road Trip 

I read in Arizona Highways magazine about a little scenic drive. The writer said it included an adorable and remote bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

I decided to take a road trip to check it out.

Never trust a travel magazine.

First, the writer gave the wrong name for the road, so as I was driving down a deserted country lane, I had no idea where I was.

Second, he exaggerated--or fabricated--the "scenic beauty" of the place. It was simply northern Arizona high desert, something I'd seen my share of after months of living outside Flagstaff.

My search for the nonexistent scenic beauty led me to a place where, as my grandfather used to say, "Jesus left his sandals." I was on a dirt road, a deserted dirt road, with no signs of civilization.

It reminded me of Flannery O'Connor's description: "They turned onto the dirt road and the car raced roughly along in a swirl of pink dust. The dirt road was hilly and there were sudden washes in it and sharp curves on dangerous embankments. All at once they would be on a hill, looking down over the blue tops of trees for miles around, then the next minute, they would be in a red depression with the dust-coated trees looking down on them."

That describes the road that I was on.

And walking down this road was a grubby and scary-looking guy in filthy overalls. Hatless, grey-haired, and bearded, he looked like a homeless Kenny Rogers. As I approached he scowled at me, then waved his arm to flag me down for a ride.

I might have stopped to help him if I'd seen that his car was broken down, but I hadn't. There was a small ten-spot tent-camping campground nearby, and I think that's where he may have come from.

Either that, or he'd escaped from the Yuma prison.

Because I hadn't seen a broken-down car, and because he had a menacing look, I just shook my head sadly and drove past him.

He gave me the finger as I swooshed by in a cloud of red dust.

He was still visible in the rearview mirror--he was shaking his fist at me and yelling--when then the car trouble began.

My SUV began shaking as it moved along on the dirt road. Its movement was vaguely like that of a car with a flat tire.

I pulled over.

Okay, "pulled over" isn't really the right term. This was a narrow dirt road with no place to pull over. Alongside ran a very muddy little foot-wide run-off ditch. So I stopped in the middle of the road.

I grabbed my cell phone to call for help. It had a very weak signal, and its battery was dying fast.

I thought about my options and realized that worse than having a weak cell signal was having no weapon to ward off the Kenny Rogers look-alike, not even a cannister of tear gas. And this was a state where people tend to be armed. Did this Kenny Rogers clone carry a gun?

I looked around for him. I couldn't see him, but I knew he was out there somewhere.


And angry that I hadn't given him a ride.

Without getting out of the car to look at the tires, I called Triple A. The call was breaking up badly, but I managed to communicate with the dispatcher. And then:

"What is your location?"

I had way to describe where I was. The road wasn't labeled the way the magazine had said it would be, and I hadn't kept track of how far I was from the main road. I guessed about ten miles down the dirt road? The call began to break up again, and then it dropped. As I tried to call back, the battery died.

I looked around again to see if Kenny Rogers was lurking nearby. I didn't see him, but that could just mean he was hiding.

I sat there, trying not to tremble, and hoping another car would come along. But I hadn't seen one since I'd left the main road.

Then the rain began.

It had obviously rained earlier, because parts of the road were very muddy.

Arizona has these things called "washes." A wash is a water path that may look totally dry one minute, but then a storm, even in another part of the area, may suddenly cause the wash to flood, and I mean FLOOD, as in "flash flood," with enough force to sweep a car along with it.

This is what happens in Into the Wild. The protagonist pulls off onto the side of a road, and his car is suddenly swept up and carried away by a raging river.

I saw lightning in the distance.

This did not bode well.

I still hadn't gotten out of the car to check the tire, and now I had two reasons not to: Kenny and the storm.

I sat watching the rain pound the windshield,Which was the worse danger--grubby and angry Kenny Rogers, who was about to appear any minute at the crest of the hill behind me, or the potential flash flood from the thunderstorm?

I cursed myself for neglecting the rules of off-road driving:

"WARNING: Back-road travel can be hazardous, so beware of weather and road conditions. Carry plenty of water. Don't travel alone, and let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return."

I was alone.

No one knew where I was.

But to my credit, I had a huge bottle of water.

I thought to myself dismally that one out of three wasn't bad.

But the description in Arizona Highways magazine hadn't made this sound like an off-roading experience: "By dirt road standards, this is a freeway, easily navigated by passenger cars."

Now, fearful of the rain and the potential "wash," I decide to fire up the engine and keep driving as far as I could go on the flat tire, or whatever it was. I turned around first time I had a chance and "raced roughly" to the main road.

I passed the little campground and there was Kenny, loitering in the rain under a scraggly tree at the entrance. He recognized me, scooped up a handful of mud, and flung it at my car.

But as I flew past him, I noticed that as I drove, the problem with the car seemed to subside.

Could a flat tire reinflate itself?

Once I found the paved road, the car drove even better still, in spite of the storm.

I passed an old-fashioned service station--the kind that's not just a gas station with blonde teenaged cashiers. This was the kind that has a garage and a man on the premises who knows about cars.

He explained that muddy tires were probably to blame. He said the mud gets not just on the outside, but up inside the rim. He attacked my wheels with a high-powered water hose and sent me on my way.

I never did see the scenic beauty or the charming bed-and-breakfast place.

But I made it back alive.

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