Always Look on the Bright Side of Life

Here’s a true story of some very bad luck, which ultimately became a positive memory….

Los Angeles, Tuesday, June 28, 1994 – I arrive at my girlfriend Erin’s house bright and early. We’ve only been dating for 3 months, and we’re about to begin our first vacation together — 3 fun-filled days in Las Vegas. We toss our bags into the Chevy Nova, and we’re on the road by 7:15am.

As we begin the 300-mile drive, Erin tells me about a dream she had the previous night… a vision of our car breaking down in the middle of the desert with the two of us stranded on the side of the road waiting for help to arrive. Hmmmm… Let’s hope it’s just a dream because we’re in the middle of an intense heat wave.

8:36am – About 80 miles into our journey, I see something in the road ahead. It looks like a small branch. No time to swerve. Thump… our car runs over it, and I see whatever it was shattering to splinters in the rear view mirror. No harm… on with the drive. Just a few minutes later though, one of our rear tires blows out. I quickly pull over to the side of the road and inspect the damage. The tire is completely destroyed, with pieces of rubber strewn along the highway behind us like a trail of breadcrumbs.

Just as I’m tightening on the spare, a highway patrolman pulls up to see if we need help. He kindly directs us to a nearby Walmart where we can get a new tire. We thank him for his help, and we’re back on the road with a brand new tire at 9:50am. I tell Erin, “Well, it looks like your dream came true after all, but at least it only delayed us about an hour.”

“That’s weird,” she said. “In my dream we broke down in the middle of the desert, but here there are grass and trees. Oh well. On to Vegas.”

We make a quick stop in Barstow for breakfast. Then at 12:30pm, about an hour from Vegas, our car suddenly jolts, and we hear the sound of grinding metal. Even though we’re going downhill at the moment, the car is quickly slowing down. I pull over and manage to coast right up next to a call box. Fortunately we’re still in California because there are no call boxes past the Nevada state line, and neither of us own a cell phone at this time.

We gaze around the Martian landscape… not a manmade structure in sight. I ask Erin, “Is this what you saw in your dream?” She nods.

I open the car door, and whoosh… a rush of eyeball-seering heat invades our air conditioned space, as if we just opened the door to an oven to pull out a batch of fresh-baked cookies. It’s over 110 degrees outside.

We use the call box to call for a tow truck. They estimate they can get a tow truck to us in 45 minutes.

But the 45 minutes come and go, with no tow truck in sight. We call back for a status update, and are told it should be there soon, but there are a lot of breakdowns this time of year due to the heat, so there could be some delays.

After 90 minutes, the tow truck finally arrives. I say to Erin, “With this kind of heat, I wonder if the tow trucks themselves ever break down.”

Apparently Erin’s psychic abilities infected me as well. The tow truck promptly breaks down as soon as it gets to us. Of course we feel much better when the driver exclaims, “Wow, this has never happened to me before!”

As the driver starts pushing his truck down the road trying to get it to start, we go back to the phone and call for another tow truck. “45 minutes,” we’re told.

90 minutes later… tow truck #2 appears on the horizon. Now we’ve been stuck on the side of the road for 3 hours. It’s 3:30, and the temperature has risen to a blazing 120 degrees. At least it’s a dry heat.

Tow truck #2 zips right past us and goes to help tow truck #1. Do we need to call for a third?

Fortunately, tow truck #2 successfully gets the first truck started, and tow truck #1 returns to collect us, towing us 26-miles back to Baker, California, … population 885, home of the Mad Greek, Bun Boy, and the world’s tallest thermometer. At 4:15pm, we’re deposited at one of Baker’s two auto shops. And due to the intense heat, we’re not alone.

A wiry old mechanic comes out to greet us. His skin is so leathery he looks like walking stick of beef jerky.

We wander into a nearby restaurant for some cold drinks while he checks out the car. Ah, air conditioning.

At 5:30pm, the mechanic informs that one of the heavy bolts holding our car’s engine in place actually cracked from the intense heat, so the engine literally hit the ground and bounced back up again while we were cruising at 65 mph. He gives us an estimate for the repairs, but he’s not sure if he can have it ready by the end of the day.

Erin and I figure we’d better look for a place to sleep just in case, even though it means going back out into the heat again. As we limp our wilting bodies down the road, we come upon the Wills Fargo Motel, with a big “no vacancy” sign in the window. I figure we’d better go in and check if they have a room anyway, since we probably don’t have many other options. Much to our dismay, the desk clerk informs us that a new Pat Morita movie called Time Masters is being shot in town, and all available motel rooms have been taken by the film crew.

However, she tells us she just had a room become available because apparently two members of the film crew were feeling a bit amorous and decided to start sharing a room. We didn’t realize Baker could have that effect on people, especially when the big thermometer reads 118.

Erin and I weren’t sure yet if we’d need the room, but it was only $40 a night, so I went ahead and booked it. When we checked back with the mechanic, we learned the car wouldn’t be ready until the next day, so after a nice climate-controlled dinner at Bun Boy restaurant, we checked into our room.

The next day we loitered in nearby restaurants while playing card games. We couldn’t even fathom how the mechanic could work under a hot car in this kind of heat. Supposedly the human body is about 70% water, but I think his was down around 30%.

At 2:45pm, the car was repaired, and we made a run for Vegas, finally arriving at 4:00.

After checking into our hotel room, Erin and I each took a long bath to wash away the dust of Baker…. OK, so it was together — apparently we were also infected by some of that Baker friskiness. 🙂

Despite the fact that it took us 33 hours to make the 5-hour drive, Erin and I ended up having a fantastic time together on that trip. Erin says it was that trip that made her fall in love with me because no matter what happened, I was able to keep my cool and made the best of what we had to deal with, even seeing the humor in it. It was only much later that she told me what a big impact that had on her. And today of course we’re husband and wife.

So perhaps breaking down in the desert in 120-degree heat isn’t such a bad thing after all. It’s amazing how life’s little adversities can eventually become treasured memories. But now whenever Erin dreams we’re going to break down in the desert, we stay home. 🙂