Once more on the road after repairs to The Truck in Indiana (following the 1982 Mid-Ohio Formula Atlantic race), my brother Gord and I drove and drove, nonstop. At this point I had less than fifty dollars in cash, a maxed-out credit card, a gas card, and about 2,500 miles to go (reminiscent of a Blues Brothers movie). Oh, and no spare tire. The sooner we could get home, the less money we’d need to spend on food, so we crossed our fingers and just drove.
Late that night we pulled into a rest area in Wyoming. It was Monday night and we hadn’t really slept (unless you count what we did on the side of the highway) since Sunday morning just before the race. We were plumb tuckered out, so we popped open The Tent-Trailer and crawled in for a good nap. A couple of hours later I woke up and stepped out of our home to prepare to drive again, only to find the cut tire had gone flat. Now what? That feeling of helplessness ratcheted up another notch.
Deciding that either ignoring the problem or sleeping on it was best, I crawled back into The Tent-Trailer.
“The cut rear tire is flat,” I told Gord. “Go back to sleep. We’ll deal with it in the morning.” He rolled to the side and pulled the pillow over his head. I was beginning to really hate The Truck. And this trip. And having mono. And not having any money. Despite the lack of conversation, I’m pretty sure Gord agreed.
In the morning, we checked our maps and determined that we were officially in “the middle of nowhere.” I’m pretty sure that was actually printed on the map. The mapmakers needed something to print on that part—they couldn’t just leave that big an area blank. The nearest dot on the map, Table Rock, was a good thirty miles away.
“It’s time you learned how to hitchhike by yourself,” I told Gord gruffly. “I’ll stay here in the rest area and keep an eye on everything, while you go and get someone to help us. And don’t spend a dime.”
“No,” Gord grunted. I could tell he was somewhere between worried and afraid, but at that point I didn’t care.
“Yeah, sure, leave it all up to me. Big help you are! Maybe I’ll come back for you, maybe I won’t. Bye.”
After standing on the side of the highway for nearly half an hour, watching the big rigs, the odd family on vacation, and buses go by, all sorts of forlorn thoughts began swirling through my head. Loneliness and fear started creeping into my exhausted mind—What am I doing all this for?—followed by terrible guilt—I was going to send my little brother to get help—what was I thinking?!
This fear was something much different than the type that flashes through my body in the middle of a 140-mph turn on a racetrack. Fear on the track comes from an instinct of self-preservation, and it never lasts more than half a second at most. This side-of-the-highway apprehension was more insidious, coming from not knowing what to do and being out of my comfort zone.
I’m overwhelmed, frustrated, tired, scared…and I just want this trip to be over. I hate The Truck. I hate this trip. And I hate feeling like this.
Three months earlier, with a small sponsorship in hand, I knew this season was my breakout year. I’d show the world what I could do behind the wheel of a race car. Major race teams would be bidding for my services, I’d win world championships, and I’d be traveling in first class the rest of my life. Instead, I’m now hunched over on the side of a lonely highway in the middle of nowhere, my motivation in worse shape than the tires on that stupid truck.
My self-pitying reverie was broken when an old yellow school bus pulled over to the side of the road just past me. As it slowly rolled past, I noticed that all its windows were painted over and thick graffiti coated its sides. A piece of plywood that served as the door opened and a strange-looking fellow stuck his head out and yelled, “Wanna ride?” Strange-looking partly because I can’t quite make out what was on his head, and partly because of the tie-dye T-shirt he’s wearing. Despite these promising signs, I ran up to the door.
As I begin to step up into the bus, I stop. It reeks. What is that smell?
I glance at the back of the bus and notice there are no seats. It’s one big open area with two Doberman dogs and another long-haired freak lying in a sleeping bag. The guy who had offered the ride is sitting behind the wheel. He smiles and drawls, “Dude, go back and lay down.” What’s on his head is apparently his hair, but it’s some bad combination of Bob Marley dreadlocks and a punk rocker’s spikes. These guys were right out of the 1960s scene from Forrest Gump, and they were on their way to San Francisco.
I’m not sure where they’d been for the past couple of decades, but there was no way I was going any further into that bus and lying down amongst the dog turds. I sat down on the steps next to the plywood door, and we took off. My next stop was Table Rock, despite my dude-friend’s suggestion that I join them on their trip to San Fran. Like, peace, man.
Table Rock in Wyoming consisted of a mobile home and a combined gas station and restaurant. At least that’s all I could find.
After giving my hippie friends a peace sign, I leaped out of the bus, practically sprinting past two gas pumps and into the gas station office. Looking around, it brought back memories of my dad’s Chevron from twenty years earlier, only this would have been old-looking even back then. It had that beautiful smell that gas stations and auto repair shops have: like walking into a bakery, only this had the even-better-then-baking-bread musty odor of oil and gasoline. Looking around, breathing deeply, I felt I could stand a little straighter, almost like I was at home.
No one was there. I peered into the shop and noticed someone leaning over with his head under the hood of a car. “Excuse me,” I politely asked.
If Hollywood had cast this scene, they would have picked someone like Jack Palance to play the part of the old man who responded without stopping his work on the car—only they would have had to dirty him up a lot. And make him much scruffier—like have him skip showering for a month. His rough face looked as though it had been baked by the sun for far too many years, or by layers of gas and oil hydrocarbons.
“Yeah, what can I do for you?” the old man rasped, reaching into his shirt pocket for a pack of cigarettes.
I told him what my problem was while he power-smoked, flicking the butt into a nearby bucket.
“Scotty!” he yelled. “My son will look after you. He can drive you out there and bring the tire back to fix it.”
I figured it was really best not to mention the fact that I had no money until after the work was done.
Scotty drove me back the thirty miles to the rest area in his pickup truck, jacked up our truck (I forgot to mention that our jack had broken that morning when we used it), took the wheel off, loaded it into his truck, drove us back thirty miles to the gas station, repaired the flat, drove back to the rest area, installed the wheel, and had us follow him back to the gas station again. That was 120 miles of driving. Add in the cost of his time and the tire repair, and I’m getting nearly sick to my stomach thinking about whether I could pay with my gas card.
Maybe, just maybe, the old man might be a little like my dad was, somebody who gave more than he might get…I could only hope.
Back in Table Rock at the gas station, the old man emerged from under the hood of the car and lit another cigarette. He started writing up a receipt. Then he just looked at me and said, “That’ll be fifteen dollars.”
I wasn’t sure what to say, so I gave him fifteen dollars in cash and we drove away—quickly, before he recalculated the bill. Wow.
See you here next week for the last part of this story.
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