Desert Driving: Mesas and Mistakes

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I’m back at home, finally! Next week, we’ll get back to the Italy trip reports, but today I thought I had better finish up the road trip I started writing about last week while it was happening. Because it got a lot weirder from there. When I last posted, we were holed up for the night in Barstow, California. Barstow to Flagstaff was the one leg of the trip that I was most concerned about… and it turns out that I had good reason to be.

When I’m on a long road trip by myself, I usually get up and leave my hotel between 4:30 and 6:00am, and get the whole day’s drive finished by early afternoon. I couldn’t do that this time, because C was with me and he needed to do as much of the driving as possible in order to get used to the road. C, being a much more normal driver than I am, can’t really wake up enough to get safely behind the wheel until at least 8:00, so we have been waking up in the 8-9 range and leaving for the day around 10:30 in the morning.

Which was what we did this time. But it turned out we really should have done it my way. Because, by the time we reached our first rest stop, in Needles (right on the border between California and Arizona), the temperature was already 107 and climbing.

And C, who had been driving for the past hour, had noticed something alarming. “How high is the hot/cool indicator on the oil supposed to go?” he asked me, shortly before we arrived in town. I couldn’t answer that — I’m no mechanic. But I could ask for advice. Since I was in the passenger seat, I texted my husband and checked. He said it sounded like it was running a little hotter than it should be, and that we might need a quart or two of oil, which we could pick up in Needles.

So we stopped in Needles for oil… and gas, because Needles was the last significant sized town before reaching the end of the day in Flagstaff. The last thing I wanted to do was to run out of gas in the middle of nowhere.

When we opened the hood, we realized that neither C nor I even knew where the oil went in a pickup truck engine. I thought the mechanics who’d already examined Frank had shown C over the whole thing, and C thought I had that magical parent knowledge that means you know pretty much everything that comes up urgently around your family. He poked around a bit and found a dipstick, but it was nowhere near anything that looked like it held oil (or any other fluid), and it was too long to seem right for oil. What’s more, we couldn’t get it to slide back into its slot.

I know, I know. You’re laughing at us. Enjoy the fun, it’s okay. Just remember that neither one of us had ever actually learned the basics of vehicle maintenance — I’ve been driving for 25 years, but I never actually looked under the hood of anything I drove.

We stood there helplessly, looking at the stick we couldn’t get to go back into its slot. Finally, I went into the little store attached to the gas station, to try and recruit help. If we couldn’t get the stick back, we certainly weren’t going to be able to do anything else correctly… like check the oil.

The two folks behind the counter were as helpless as we were. Neither one of them knew a thing about changing oil. But a passing truck driver, who had finished his purchase and was on the way back to his truck, said, “I can spare a few minutes if you want.”

I gratefully led him back to our truck. He started laughing when he saw us with the dipstick, and said, “Okay, to start with, that isn’t the oil stick in the first place. That’s for checking your transmission fluid. You don’t need to do that?”

We told him that as far as we knew, we did not, so he put it properly back into its place and moved around to the other side of the engine completely. He pulled out a shorter stick that we hadn’t even seen, and showed us where our oil was located. Then he checked it for us… and it was right where it belonged, not high or low. He showed us on the stick where it would be, and where it was — smack in the middle of the range.

He told us that he was pretty sure our truck was just running hot because of the weather, and asked about how our coolant was doing. That had been looking okay, so he recommended just letting the truck have a rest there in Needles for a bit, to cool down. We agreed to do this, and thanked him profusely.

As an afterthought, he told us that we might want to take the back way to Flagstaff, as he was about to do. It was easier to get around that way, he said, but gave no specifics. We thanked him again, but privately decided we’d go straight over I-40 as we’d originally planned. It looked a lot simpler, and we’d already had our fill of complicated stuff for the day.

The truck driver got back into his cab and drove off to the north. We went into the shop and bought ice cream. Then we sat at the outdoor tables, consuming our treats and watching the people who kept looking at us funny. C said they were probably wondering why on earth we chose to eat outdoors in nearly 110 degree weather.

I checked in with my husband G again, just before we set out. He told me a couple of useful things. First, he’d discovered that it was all going to be getting better from here — by the first small town down the road after Needles, the temperature would already be down below 100, and by the time we reached Flagstaff that afternoon it would be below 90.

Second, he told us casually, “Oh, and don’t take I-40. It goes straight over the mountain; the northern route goes around, so it’s much less of a hard pull on the truck’s engine.”

C and I looked at each other. It appeared that we would be taking the route that truck driver had recommended after all.

So we got back on the road and headed into the desert again. The rest had pulled the oil temperature down to only a tick more than halfway… still enough to make us nervous, but not enough to be a problem so long as it got no worse. We’d been told that it would be easier on the engine if we left the air conditioner off, so we drove with the windows down as we went around by way of Bullhead to Kingman — the stop by which we’d been promised we’d see temperatures below three digits.

The air was so hot outside that even highway winds whipping it into the cab as we drove didn’t cool it down much. But we got by without the a/c as far as Kingman, where we rested the engine again. The oil temperature hadn’t gone up again; we simply weren’t taking chances. So we sat in the shade of a gas station overhang, far enough out from the pumps that nobody would need the space we were in, and agreed that we could probably try the air conditioning again once we got back on the road, so long as we cut it out again if the oil gauge began climbing.

We needn’t have worried. The only thing the truck complained about were the long, steep hills — this might be the less steep of the two ways to Flagstaff, but that wasn’t saying much!! Needless was located at 500 feet above sea level, while Flagstaff was at 7,000 feet. We spent a lot of time listening to Frank whine about the climbs, but he made it up every one in the end. Four wheel drive is a blessing.

We got to Flagstaff by late afternoon and found a Doubletree hotel. I had a Hilton points membership, so we were glad to find something in one of their chains. The bathtub, alas, was child-sized, and I didn’t even attempt it. But there was a really good Chinese restaurant in town named Hot Wok (entirely too appropriate for the day we had had), so we ordered from that; had a good dinner and went to bed.

We got on the road the next morning for what, if all went well, would be our last day together. That night, we were due to roll into Albuquerque and spend the night with my friend A. From there, C would go on the next morning by himself to do the last 3.5 hours to Alamosa, CO while I grabbed a flight back to Seattle.

For an hour or so, everything went fine. We were supposed to stop in Winslow to see the famous Route 66 markers, and get a couple of pictures G had wanted since he’d driven though there, 27 years ago. I pulled off the highway, hit the brakes… and found they didn’t respond. I barely avoided rear-ending the truck in front of me as we reached the end of the off ramp. Finally, as I stamped on the pedal as hard as I could, it slowed down far enough, and the truck halted — just in time.

Shaken, I told C what was going on. We agreed that we’d try to find a mechanic here in Winslow to take a look at the brakes. It was possible, I was careful to point out, that I had simply underestimated the force that was necessary to stop a moving pickup that was this heavily loaded. But I couldn’t be sure.

So we looked up Winslow mechanics. There were only a few — it wasn’t at all a big town — but one got especially good reviews, so we went there. The lady at the desk told us they were booked out clear through the end of the week… but the mechanic, who was back there too, lifted his head. “I don’t have time to fix ’em if there’s something wrong. But I can check them out for you and let you know if they’re okay.” We accepted with relief, and hoped we wouldn’t need to find somebody to repair the brakes.

And we didn’t! About ten minutes later, he came out saying, “The pads are down to about 15%, so they’ll need replacement pretty soon once you get them home. But they’re fine for now.”

C agreed to get his brake pads replaced ASAP on arrival in Alamosa, and we rejoiced that we wouldn’t need to find another mechanic and then stay in Winslow for the night. Nothing against Winslow; it was a cute little town. But we were eager to get on to the end of our trip.

We stopped at the Route 66 signs, and took a lot of pictures for G, as well picking up a branded pocket knife for C at a souvenir shop. He has a pretty unusual name, so he was delighted to find one with his name on it for a change. Then we hit the road again, with C behind the wheel — a final road test to see if he could handle the distance, before I sent him off by himself the next day.

He did great. Even with road work making some of it a difficult drive — and the endless distraction of the gorgeous mesas — he did two and a half hours with only one brief break. That was at the Petrified Forest, which I had seen in a David Attenborough video. I was strongly tempted to go in and look around, but we couldn’t if we intended to make Albuquerque that night. So I just looked at what I could from the entrance where we paused for a few minutes, and then we got back on the road.

By the time we reached Gallup, which was in the middle of Navajo territory, C was ready to give the wheel back to me. So we stopped at a shop that had been heavily advertised as having authentic Navajo handicrafts, and went in to look around. I would take the wheel when we came back out.

The place did have some beautiful crafts. Turquoise and silver jewelry; pottery that I would have tried to bring home with me if I hadn’t been still smarting under the disappointment of having broken something I’d bought in Italy on the way home from that trip (you’ll get that story in a few weeks), and some beautiful shawl/throw blankets, one of which I did bring home with me, and it’s on my bed right now. I bought my blanket and a couple of books. C got a blanket too, and then we climbed back into Frank and tried to make our way back to the highway.

A Navajo blanket with stripes and diamonds

Not as easy as it looked!! The road you had to take briefly in order to reach I-40 (which we’d been back on, ever since Flagstaff) was the famous Route 66, which had been paralleling us as we drove. It was filled with fast-moving traffic, much of it trucks, and I was trying to make a left turn onto it. After several minutes — some of which I spent dangerously exposed, with my nose too far forward — I backed up a little (directly into the afternoon sun) and then decided to turn right instead of left. I would find a place to turn around later.

After a few minutes of looking around, unhelpfully led through the wilds of Gallup by Google Maps, for a place to change direction, C began to notice that someone was following us. I hadn’t even seen that there had been a truck behind me when I backed up a few feet, and neither C nor I thought we’d hit it. There was certainly zero feeling of contact or anything. But the truck kept going where we went, so we finally realized they were actually pursuing us, and stopped to see what they wanted.

The driver immediately began yelling at us, and pointing to a large dent in his fender. I was genuinely surprised — I couldn’t imagine having hit anything hard enough to cause that without even feeling the contact. But neither C nor I had noticed the truck before it began to follow us, so we couldn’t tell if it had had the dent already or not. We decided the best thing to do was to accept responsibility. I apologized profusely, both for the accident and for not having stopped earlier — we explained that we hadn’t even realized they were following us, instead of simply going the same way, until right before we stopped — and C got out his insurance information.

The driver of the other truck started to talk into his phone, to what appeared to be the police. We stayed calm. We had all our documentation, and police don’t usually get involved in civil accident cases except to make sure that everybody is willing to give out insurance info, which we were entirely ready to do.

Meanwhile, the woman with him had been examining the dent in his fender. She popped it with her foot, and it snapped back almost all the way into normal shape. She got the attention of the driver and showed it to him, at which point he grumpily told the police not to bother, and waved us away. We continued to offer to exchange insurance information, but he didn’t want it. Our own truck was 100% fine… not even a paint scratch.

Eventually, they got back into their truck and drove away. So did we. I’m still not sure whether we genuinely did hit him somehow, and he gave up on being mad at us when he saw that it was fine; or if he was trying to run some sort of a scam on us, which was spoiled by the combination of our clearly not minding the threat of police intervention, and his partner’s “fixing” the dent. I just don’t know.

But we got on the road again and tried to pry our nerves off the ceiling… we were not as calm as we had appeared! The spectacular scenery helped a lot. We began watching the beautiful mesas as we drove, and C even got a picture for me of a stunning rainbow, only a half hour short of Albuquerque.

Finally we arrived. My old friend A was waiting for us outside and I got the first hug from him in more than a decade. We went inside and were fed an excellent lentil soup that made me beg for the recipe. A and I pulled up Orbitz and booked me a flight home for the next afternoon on Alaska Airlines, and he talked C through the route to Alamosa for the next day. I fell asleep early, not quite believing it was over.

But it was. I saw off C early the next morning, and then hung out with A for the rest of the day until he drove me to the airport. The Albuquerque airport is on the small side, and it’s very well run. It has a lovely little exhibit with models of all the different kinds of planes that have been thorough their airport, and I stopped for a few minutes to look at that. Their wheelchair arrived promptly, and it was a real, full-width wheelchair… not the 2/3-sized things that most airports use (even in the corridors — I’m not talking about the special ones they have to use in the aisles of the planes). They left it with me at my gate, and the gate agent called ahead to Seattle to make sure I had one waiting for me on arrival. I discovered that like Alaska Airlines; they’ve got better seats than most airlines in economy (it’s the same type as the kind in first class, just smaller) and their staff knows what they’re doing.

By the time I landed in Seattle, there was indeed a wheelchair waiting for me. There was also word from C that he had made it safely to Alamosa, and from G that he was awaiting me in the pickup lot.

So endeth my first long road trip in more than fifteen years. It was a lot of fun, even with the various mishaps over the last couple of days… the Monterey Bay Aquarium was fantastic, and I got to see two old friends as well as spending plenty of time with C before he moved away and we’ll only get to see him on visits. He seems very happy with the commune he’s living with, and I’m excited for him.

Next week: back to Italy! We move on to Florence, and the Renaissance art world. Stay tuned!

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