The plan seemed simple enough: I’d jump in the truck, zip across town to pick up the trailer from storage and then head for Diamond Valley Lake, the recently opened boating/fishing haven in sunny Southern California. But before I began this assignment, the truck and I would head north for a couple days to my buddy Tom’s surprise 40th birthday party. So much for making plans. The feeling of anticipation, of impending adventure I get when I turn the key, secure the seat belt and make the all-important CD choice as I set out on a journey is one of my favorite feelings. Considering the way things turned out that morning, I’d like to tell you that I had a premonition of trouble ahead. But this is not the case. I felt nothing more than the usual road-generated excitement.
The bluesy wailings of B.B. King’s early work accompanied my truck and me up Interstate 5. The truck and I — and sometimes the trailer — had experienced much in our almost three years together, from a hail storm in Kansas to a snowstorm in Big Bear, California, from Joshua Tree National Park’s bizarre desert landscape to the barren expanse of various Wal-Mart parking lots. We’d explored Memphis’ history-saturated streets and the dirt roads that skirt the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We’d spent nights at beachside campsites, ushered toward sleep by the Pacific’s lullaby, and we’d listened in the foothills as coyotes vocalized at the moon. We had, in fact, been through thick and thin. Mostly thin. You see, the truck and I have had a volatile relationship, one based mostly on possibility, rather than reality. She has disappointed. She has let me down. She has left me stranded.
I became more versed than I would like in the signs that water pumps and fuel pumps and flywheels and radiators aren’t functioning as they should. I was on a first-name basis with AAA’s tow-truck drivers. I had my mechanic on speed dial. The Beast got me in decent physical shape, however, since I became particularly adept at walking long distances. Now you don’t have to be a reader of detective fiction to know this story will not end happily ever-after. No, she betrayed me
one last time, just as I pulled off U.S. Highway 101 in Salinas. This was lucky, since it meant I didn’t need a tow; that Tom’s party was a surprise party, which meant I couldn’t call for assistance and which then mandated that I walk more than seven miles, was not so lucky. The party, by the way, was lovely. The truck, much less so. The mechanic, who shall remain nameless but not blameless, informed me that the rings were shot and a rebuilt engine was my best option. Have I mentioned that the truck had no air conditioning and no heater? Did I let you in on the fact that the transmission was beginning to slip?
I wrestled with the decision — should I cut my losses and begin the process of finding another vehicle that would allow me to tow the trailer, throw a boat or two on top, stow all my gear and, should the need arise, sleep in the back? Or should I invest $2,000 in a truck not worth that much, only to end up with a vehicle whose love/hate dichotomy I was familiar with? I went with the latter, because … well …. I made the wrong decision. Not that I could have known it at the time. How could I know that weeks later — after the mechanic told me that I should rent a car and pick up the truck because he’d installed the rebuilt engine — that the truck would not run with that one, either? Seven more hours of
labor on his part (and a very interesting night in a cheap motel on mine) proved that Number Eight was getting no spark.
Oh, the engine’s compression was fine, he said, so he’d done his job. This problem had nothing to do with his work, he assured me. I informed him that I had brought in a truck that was not running; he’d charged me two grand, then returned a truck that was not running. Besides speculating silently that I was in the wrong line of work, I may have mentioned the Better Business Bureau and the Bureau of Consumer Affairs. He admitted no wrongdoing, but he cancelled the credit-card transaction, then purchased my truck for a song. I almost felt sorry for him. My buddy, Tom, and his eldest son, Andrew, picked me up in a big, beautiful SUV. We tried to rent a car to get me home. No dice. Not past 1 pm on a Saturday. Not in Salinas, anyway. The train? A possibility, but I had just missed it. Go Greyhound? Not if I didn’t catch the bus that had already left, I wouldn’t …. Tom, a man not shy with his right foot, didn’t need much coaxing.
We lit out down the 101 as though in a western, a posse in hot pursuit, kicking up dust in our wake. Despite Tom’s deft driving, I felt like Limp-Along Cassidy. We may catch our quarry, I thought, but I was a man without a steed. We made it to the bus in time. With each mile I rode in it, the fondness for my troublesome truck faded. By the time I reached Paso Robles, all I could remember was the heartache. Just south of Santa Barbara, a fellow passenger, a 5-year-old boy named Mario, tugged on my sleeve, smiled broadly and told me he was on his way to Disneyland. Suddenly that bus felt like the happiest place on Earth. After a good night’s sleep, I started shopping for another truck.