Northern California to Southern California. Wobbling down the I-5.
A three-day turnaround and we’re back at the motel in Buttonwillow again. When the servers at a Denny’s 300 miles from home recognize you, you know you’ve done this trip a few too many times. My horse ought to know the way home by now.
Unfortunately, the ol’ pony developed a little blacksmithing problem the second day down the trail. Now, it isn’t as if we don’t take care of our trusty steed. With the amount of driving we’ve been doing, we take it in to the local dealer for maintenance nearly every month. The last time around, we were assured that the tires still have a good five thousand miles on them.
Perhaps the traction control system indicator light should have been a clue. You know, the one that looks like little skid marks. Finding nothing wrong, our local Ford dealer reset the indicator lamp. Then it came on again and was reset again. But like the cat who came back the very next day or some sort of electronic jack-in-the-box, it’s just a matter of time before the light comes on again. As maddeningly frustrating as this situation is, we’ve learned to live with it. But when, while whizzing down the back side of the Grapevine at 70 mph, the TPMS light came on to join its comrade in arms, we knew we were in trouble.
“What the heck is TPMS?” my wife asked, “tire pressure means shit?” Pretty much, my dear, pretty much.
In the name of full disclosure, let me say that I know exactly zero about cars or their internal workings. I drive it, I take it in for maintenance, and when it breaks down, I get it repaired. And I pay for it every month. That’s about it. I wouldn’t know the difference between the guts of a car and the guts of a pig. You get the picture. As far as I’m concerned, TP is toilet paper and MS is either a manuscript or multiple sclerosis. Our owner’s manual, however, insists that these initials stand for something called a “tire pressure management system.” Whatever that is.
We took the next exit and pulled into a service station/espresso shop in Castaic. My wife aired up the tires (the guy at the station was a good egg who turned on the air pump without making us deposit endless quarters) and we prepared to hit the road. As we were about to pull out of the lot, she asked me to get out and check the front passenger side tire.
“Ssssssssss!” Uh-oh. That is not a good sound, not at all. Not only did the tire appear as low as it was before it was aired up, the telltale noise indicated that it had sprung a leak, and not a slow one either. Time to pull into a spot out of the way and call Triple A.
The idea was that we’d use our AAA roadside service and someone would come out to loosen the lugs, remove the tire and put on the spare. I provided the exact address and cross streets of our location; the helpful call center lady informed me that someone would be along within the next 40 minutes. Should we keep you updated by text or by phone? Text, please.
Outdoor temperature: 109 degrees. We had plenty of gas, so we kept the engine running and blasted the A/C. We hadn’t eaten breakfast or lunch and we were getting hungry. 10 minutes. 20 minutes. Half an hour. Do they have to use up the entire forty minutes? After waiting 38 minutes, I receive a call (not a text). The tire guy is just a mile away giving someone a jump. He should be there within ten minutes. We rolled our eyes. Ten minutes later: No tire guy. 15 minutes. 20 minutes. Oh, here he comes.
“Do we have a regular sized spare or just one of those little donuts?” I asked my wife. “The donut,” she reassured me. Unless we’re talking about maple bars and Boston crème, I knew we were in trouble. Tire Guy confirmed my worst fears.
“Where you headed?” he asked. “Indio.”
“Well, this tire will take you about 100 to 200 miles, but you can’t do more than 50 to 55 miles per hour.”
At that rate, it would take us more than four hours to get to our hotel. Oh well, we can get the tire replaced in the morning. Our priority: Food.
As we lunched in Santa Clarita, we realized that this was not going to work. Hobbling along in the slow lane while tractor trailers whizz past us doing seventy? We knew we’d have to get the tire replaced right where we were. Anyone around who would like to sell and install a tire on a Sunday afternoon? A few calls and we found a local Firestone dealer who could do it if we got over there in the next hour.
The tire shop recommended replacing all four tires. We were planning on doing this a few thousand miles down the road anyway, so we asked the young man to write us a quote. We gulped when we saw the numbers. They had the right model tires on hand, but with installation and alignment, the total was just shy of a thousand dollars. Can you say “unanticipated, unavoidable expense?”
After an hour and a half of sitting in the waiting room watching the Back to the Future movies, we were finally on our way. Now, we typically stay at the cheapest motel available in a convenient location. But this time, we decided to treat ourselves to one night in a suite at a more upscale hotel that we had visited on business several years ago. We had planned to arrive well before dinner so that we could enjoy the facilities for several hours. Instead, we hit town at 10 pm and went to sleep immediately.
Well, not exactly immediately. The living room and the kitchen of the suite were lovely, but for some odd reason, the carpet in the bedroom was damp. And what was that trickling of water that kept waking us up? It seemed to emanate from the air conditioning unit. Condensation maybe? Next thing we knew, the carpet was positively sopping, and it stank. But still we couldn’t see any water, only hear it. We called the front desk and they offered to have us change rooms. By now it was midnight, we had already unpacked, and I had to work in the morning. So we politely declined.
After my wife dropped me off at work, she returned to the hotel and had a little chat with the manager. We ought to have at least a few dollars taken off of our bill, she suggested. To our pleasant surprise, the hotel completely comped the room. Now that’s what I call class. You know we’ll be back.
A day of work out of town was followed by the last leg of our trip, the drive across the desert. As I hit the freeway, the gathering clouds began to look positively menacing. Half an hour down the road, the billowing fluffies turned black and the first spattering of drops began. What scared the heck out of me was that, not too far in the distance, the dark clouds seemed to be pulled straight down to the earth in the shape of the infamous funnel. By now, it was pouring and I had the wipers working overtime. Thirty more miles to go. Could I outrun a tornado? Not a chance. Dear Lord, please grant us traveling mercies and get me the hell out of here before our SUV gets blown into a cactus.
Donna pointed out that I was overreacting. The cloud wasn’t moving, so it couldn’t be a twister.
I am happy to say that we arrived home in one piece, if a bit lighter in the wallet. Even better, we don’t have to make this trip again for another three weeks. By then, I know, I’ll be itching to hit the road again.