Road Romance No.73

Not exactly sure when I wrote this, but the episode itself took place in either 1973 or 1974. I anticipate that it will become apparent why this episode wasn’t exactly filmable.

Road Romance No.73

Even a 9th Century monk would recognise decreasing possibility from the sound of a car battery going flat. In the cold and stillness of a desert dawn, 45 miles out from Delta, Utah, there’s nothing else – just 318 cu ins of dead Detroit iron paired with my total anxiety. Not an uncommon feeling on the road. But I’m also in movies for a living (of sorts) and so, right on script cue, here comes the helpful local rancher. Only time he’s been by this spot all week he tells me. The first thing to do is learn the well known (round here) screwdriver in the automatic choke trick. The second is to say thank you as I head out. People who sleep in their clothes in their car don’t need to pack. A mile or so down the dirt track brings me back onto Federal 50. I’m heading eastbound.

Ahead, across Utah and the Western Slope, lies Loveland Pass. Over the Rockies in early winter, the highest, steepest haul on my journey from Los Angeles to Athens, Ohio. The Eisenhower Tunnel starts at 11,974ft. Over the Top, out there beyond Granite City and the Great Plains lies the first of three Road Dreams shows. People paying good money to watch my four screen film. Money I must have.

Twelve hours later, after crawling across Utah at a fevered 45mph, I’m up through Green River to just past Grand Junction. For a man who’se always been a car’s last owner, such a walking pace should not come as a surprise. 45,000 miles ago I paid $300 for this nag, a relative youngster then with 112,000 on the clock. To drop in its traces is this car’s fate.

But I’m over the Colorado line at least, on the first inclines of the Western Slope. Interstate 70 isn’t yet complete here. Miles of twisting, two lane blacktop lie ahead, seemingly with rusted out Ford PInto’s around every bend, all showing late running Michigan plates and towing oversize U-Haul trailers. The hour between dog and wolf comes and goes, the engine loses more and more power. A big buck freezes in the headlights, along with my heartbeat. A first set of accident flares slides by. The engine is making that continuous, desperate sucking sound (the same for man or machine) brought on by not having enough air to breathe. Suddenly, up ahead, a jumble of running lights, the visual confusion caused by trucks backed up on a blocked hiway. A single orange light illuminates the sign: Snow Chains Required – Inspection Station Ahead. Pulling off into the gas station at Vail I enter an urgent confusion, like an armored column in wartime retreat. Rumors of the approaching blizzard enemy fill the air. $23.50 snow chains are $40 – cash and no arguing. $4 more goes on gas to get me to Boulder. There perhaps Jim can lend me a make up $40 to get me to Ohio. For right now, that leaves $3.

The snow chains have no instructions. I watch others, learn that it’s necessary to hook a specific notch on the wire through a metal eyelet – on both the inside and outside of the wheel. But my station waggon is so overloaded with equipment, riding so low on the springs, that I can only get one arm at a time into place. Through all of this I’m lying in the snow, acutely aware that if I don’t make it over, if I’m beaten back at the crest, I can kiss those three shows – and the money – goodbye. Time after time I try to hook the eyelet onto the notch, my fingers numbed to an unfeeling clumsiness. Finally, by dint of some desperate blind flailing, I make a connection, roll the car foward to test the tension – and it’s too loose. Back out into the snow again. By now my clothes are sopping wet. My body begins to burn with manic fever. Quite irrationally the hook suddenly catches. The snow chains and myself are equally tense. It must be at least 9,000ft here – and getting real cold.

Heading out of Vail, past the empty inspection station, a vicious thumping starts up from the wheel arches. There’s still 35 miles to go to the summit, an interminable penitent’s progress that has me screaming at the swirling snow, begging to be Faust in Let’s Make a Deal. Storm atmospherics carry a comforting radio voice from California to Colorado, urging me to send a ‘tax deductible gift of love’ to Pasadena. No doubt a miracle to some and as I promise I WILL, I WILL – there, the tunnel entrance appears through the driving snow, a beckoning illusion of harbor lights. But, as with a one light town, the soothing orange glow only lasts for a moment before I’m expelled, like a model ship from the safety of its bottle, out onto the Front Slope. It’s snowing even harder. Only 80 more miles to Boulder means three more hours for me.

Crazy truckers come roaring up behind me at 60mph, running 40 ton rigs over snow on top of ice, squeezing by where the ploughs have banked up canyon walls of packed snow. The juddering from the wheel arch gets worse. Suddenly, a distinct lurch. Thump, thump, thump. One hundred yards and agonies of time ahead there’s a partially cleared space, enough to pull half off of the roadway. Out of the car – the snow blows so hard as to be almost blinding. But I know what’s happened. The offside snow chain is broken, the shredded tire so hot it’s steaming in the snow.

That means the spare, the one that cost $6.50 in Sacramento instead of the usual $13, because they didn’t charge me for the bald half. To get to it I have to empty my Nimitz sized station waggon. Four screens, 60lb projector boxes, the myriad bits and pieces that always accumulate on a trip, everything has to be dragged out into the snow, for all the world like a looted coach on Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. Every few minutes tractor-trailers come racing by. Those crazy bastards could never stop and I’m more on the road than off. If two of them should come down abreast there simply won’t be enough room.

I work frantically to operate my practical-joke jack, a ludicrous Detroit homage to Rube Goldberg which hooks onto the back fender and has to raise the rear of the car at least 3ft before the wheel springs are even affected. Arm strength simply isn’t enough – I have to throw my entire body weight on to the ratchet to force any movement, notch by notch. I’m sodden and sweating, my heart’s pounding, I’ve no strength left to raise the car any higher. I fall to my knees and pull the wheel off, in the process cutting my hand on the broken snow chain. Within moments it becomes slippery with blood, an unfeeling wooden stump sliding around on the wheel lugs as I struggle to line up the spare. It’s immediately apparent that the tire is oversize and so the lugs won’t align. The jack has to, HAS TO be raised several more notches. A screaming, demented figure hurls itself on to the ratchet, locked in a bizarre dance with a dangerous, dying two ton partner. The whole car is swaying on this spindly strip of metal with no lug seated wheel in place if it should collapse. Nothing for it but to pile the film screens underneath the brake drum as a last desperate, useless measure. Vaguely I note that my blood is staining the screens. By now it’s been 22 hours since leaving dawn in the desert, a seeming lifetime’s voyage to this lee shore off Vanishing Point, where the primal power of the mountains crowds in darker than the night. If swallowed up in that grim implacability a body would stay hidden until the Spring.

I don’t even remember arriving at Jim’s house. When I awoke later that afternoon he went to the bank for the $40 and then helped me to empty the car. We dragged everything out of the car to dry as best it could in the winter sun. For a few hours Stickney Street had its own beached freighter. With that done I sat on the porch glider, with its views of Longs Peak, sleepily nodding to Alysa’s stories of life in 5th Grade – though, like any traveller who reaches port through the storm I mainly gave myself over to the pleasures of my exhaustion. But very soon, a matter of hours even, I would have to get back on the road. The bookings in Ohio wouldn’t wait. And, having come through one storm, I now knew that when the next one came, as it surely must, this past escape would provide no protection. Every departure, every destination, requires a fresh start.

XHL drying out

2 Responses to “Road Romance No.73”

  1. Jonathan says:

    Horrific. It’s like an episode of the incredible hulk set in northern Canada. Too bad you couldn’t film it as well 😉

  2. Ralph says:

    Hi Elliott, your anecdote brought back similar memories for me, while trying to remove a broken exhaust pipe from under a 1969 ford galaxie in a raging snow storm in Nova Scotia, I was using a hacksaw to cut through some rusty bolts. The car was so low to the ground that I could only work with my arms extended under the car whilst lying on my back. I was frozen numb and when I crawled out to give my arms a rest half way through the bolt cutting process, I discovered that I had also been cutting through the first finger of my left hand and never felt it! I shudder to think what might have been the outcome had I not crawled out for a rest. Keep up the good work Elliott, I never tire of introducing like minded people to my copy of Road Dreams, and my recent copy of Retro road Trips, and at times when I need a little spiritual revival ,on goes the dvd player,and I get my “fix”
    Every good wish……Ralph

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