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Tennessee or Bust - Part 3

Posted by Admin on June 23, 2015 at 9:25 PM



The day began to heat up as we moved out into the arid open spaces of the California desert. We stopped to gas up and recharge our “air conditioner.” I’m just trying to be funny about the air conditioner. Auto air conditioners were not standard equipment in those days. We had to invent our own method of cooling off. What we did was go in the bathroom at each service station we stopped at, take off our tee shirts and soak them in the sink. Without wringing the water out we’d put the shirts back on, run jump in the car and sizz off with the vent windows turned in on us. That was good for no more than five or ten miles of semi-relief before the hot desert air sucked the shirts dry. The only problem with our makeshift “air conditioner” was that it blew hot air.

It was definitely hot. The few cars we met on that lonely stretch of highway seemed to float three feet above the pavement, riding the shimmering heat waves. They connected to the highway again as they drew closer. About every five minutes Jackie would pop his favorite question: “Are we there yet?”

“Good grief, Jackie! This is the Mo-havvie Desert! Just take a look around…does this look like Tennessee to you, huh?” The first flush of excitement and adventure was definitely beginning to wear off.

We labored up a long incline crossing the San Gabriel mountains, the motor straining to pull the weight of us and our stuff. We almost made it to the top when the gas vaporized again. We pulled over on the shoulder of the road and got out. The world suddenly became very quiet. I had never been anywhere as quiet as it was out there, far from city or farm. Far from people. I doubted if even animals could live in that heat. I sure didn’t see any.

I imagined I could hear sand settling. When I listened closely the silence was more like a faint whisper, or a long sigh drifting across the desert. The view was endless. League upon league of grey sand, rock and cactus. We had somehow managed to have a stallout smack in the middle of a vast, empty land, with nothing in sight to encourage the heart as far as help was concerned. There was absolutely no traffic in sight either way. We could see probably twenty miles of our back trail, but not a speck appeared. A body could have laid down right there in the middle of that blacktop highway and taken a nap…only they would have found themselves fried to death when they woke up! Wasn’t much danger of being run over though.

When we had gotten out of the car the radiator was hissing, so Mick went to loosen the cap to let off some pressure. The cap was blistering hot when he touched it, so he raised his foot to kick it loose. The sole of that shoe was all that saved him from a blistering steam job. When he kicked it loose, the radiator cap blew off and a geyser of boiling water sprayed against the bottom of Mick’s shoe. He was smart enough to keep his big foot in place against the spout, deflecting the steam until the geyser died down. When it stopped, there wasn’t even a gurgle left in the radiator. Every single drop of water must have boiled out or evaporated.

That took care of one idea that I had been toying with. I had read somewhere that if you got stranded on the desert without water you could drink radiator water in a life-or-death emergency. And this was shaping up to look like a sure enough emergency.

Not that I figured we would actually have to depend on the radiator water to drink. We had a jug of ice water for that, in a big gallon thermos. We had set it out on the fender, figuring to pour some of it into the radiator when it cooled down enough. While we waited I walked out on the desert a ways to have a look around and stretch my legs a bit.

“Boys,” I said, “this here is some real desert! Just look at all that sand, and all them cactuses…”

I was interrupted by a dull “thunk” behind me, and I turned. Leon was standing beside the fender of the car, wiping his mouth with the tail of his shirt. He was looking down at the thermos jug, lying there at his feet, cap off, spilling the last of its precious contents in the thirsty sand.

“Leon!” I screamed, “that’s the last of our water, you ninny!” Suddenly the emergency aspect of our situation took center stage. Forget adding enough water in the radiator to get us going again. Forget my boy scout idea about drinking radiator water. My mouth was already dry as cotton. I began having visions of bones in the sand…

“Well, shoot,” Leon drawled, “I was just gettin’ myself a drink, and the blame jug slipped. Ain’t no big deal anyway. We’ll just stop and fill the dang jug at the next fillin’ station.”

“Leon….” I was trying hard to hold my temper. “Leon, do you see any fillin’ stations out there?” I swung my arm in a wide arc, taking in the empty landscape. “Do you see anything out there? We ain’t seen a sign of a car since we stopped. And here we are in the middle of the Mo-havvie Desert with a dry radiator, a dry water jug, and unless there is something close over on the other side of that hill, this here junk heap ain’t agonna make it to no fillin’ station!”

I had to remind myself that you don’t just arbitrarily kick the slats out of kids littler than you , even if they are your idiot cousin.

The buzzard that landed on a big rock beside the road didn’t make me feel any better about our situation either.


We decided to try pushing the car to the top of the hill and coast as far as possible down the other side. Maybe we’d see a place to get some water before we had to start the engine again. But when we stopped to rest at the top of the hill, things didn’t look too encouraging. As far as the eye could see there were only dancing heat waves. No service station. No house. No human. No car. Even the highway seemed to just disappear into a blue haze. Up the creek didn’t seem to be the appropriate phrase for that desert, but the sentiment was the same.

We estimated the downgrade to be about five miles long, so that was hopeful. Maybe we would find something somewhere in all that haze down in the valley. We put the car in neutral, pushed it off and jumped in. The coasting was fine while it lasted, but it didn’t last long, and we didn’t see so much as a ditch with water in it. Finally I had to turn on the ignition and throw her in second gear. The motor caught and I eased the little coupe along the floor of the valley, watching the heat gage climb. We rolled past some barns that had been hidden from view by the haze, but there was no sign of a house, or any life. We didn’t see anything that looked like cattle watering tubs or even a bucket. Nothing.

By this time the motor had gotten about as hot as it could get. The heat needle had probably made three revolutions and the motor was making a sound like shaking a washtub full of gravel. Then we topped out on a little rise and suddenly found ourselves at the junction of Route 66. We had made it to Barstow. There at the intersection, like a beautiful mirage, was a wonderful little service station. I breathed a sigh of relief and pulled in to the pump. We had everything filled to capacity with gas, oil and above all, water. We also filled ourselves to capacity with soft drinks. We could hear our stomachs sloshing as we walked back the car and got in.


Details of the next leg of our journey are foggy in my memory. I don’t, for instance, remember eating anything on the entire trip, but undoubtedly we did, or Mick would have died. We drove through the night. When my eyes began to cross, Mick took the wheel and I slept, sitting up in the passenger seat. We crossed Arizona that night. The next morning I was driving somewhere in New Mexico, trying to convince myself that the motor didn’t sound any worse than it did when we left Barstow. I traded with Mick again and slept while he drove. Leon and Jackie could sleep anytime they wanted to, which was most of the time. We began to feel like some kind of crop – grown to the car.


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