“You don’t have to be rich to travel well.”-Eugene Fodor
I don’t know anything about cars, but as I watch the little white needle fling itself into the temperature gauge’s red zone, it’s obvious that something terrible is happening. The air conditioning gave out about a mile back then all the lights in the dashboard flickered and shut off about a half-mile after that. I reach past the steering wheel and flick the gauge repeatedly, hoping that somehow that’s going to magically fix everything.
As smoke starts to pour through the air conditioning ducts I scream out, “no, no, no! This can’t be happening.”
I try to give the car a little gas, but it barely accelerates. I’m all but coasting now.
“I never should have bought this f@cking thing!”
It’s been one headache after another in the three days I’ve owned it. It died on me the morning after I bought it because Idan installed the car stereo wrong. He forgot to connect a wire, which left it sucking juice from the battery all night and completely dead when I went to start it. I had to wait four hours for a tow truck to come to my hotel and jump it, then I had to drive it to the nearest Pep Boys in Palm Springs to buy a new battery and then to a car stereo shop to have the stereo reinstalled properly.
Just because of that mishap I’m already out another two hundred and fifty bucks. And then there is the door handle incident. It snapped off in my hand yesterday and its jagged shards left a huge gash across the palm of my hand. Now anytime I have to open the door to let myself in I have to embarrassingly reach through the window to do so. As if all that wasn’t bad enough, Idan still hasn’t turned over the title to me like he promised he would. I guess there was some sort of glitch with the processing of it. So technically even though I’ve paid for the car, I don’t actually have any proof that I even own it.
Oddly enough whenever I call Idan about the title or all the problems I’ve been having, he’s nowhere to been found. I’ve driven the car less than ten miles in Palm Springs and even though it’s a used car and I knew what I was getting myself into, I’d still like some answers. Plus, I thought Idan and I were friends.
I reach for the blinker and flick it on. Thankfully that still works and I slide over into the right lane. Traffic on Interstate 10 is whizzing past me. The hair on the back of my neck stands up and I go into fight or flight mode. I’m officially scared. Not just for the car breaking down on the highway, but also to be going so slow. I’m now an immediate danger not just to myself, but also to other drivers.
I’m right in the middle of the San Gorgonio Pass. It’s a tiny two-lane stretch of the highway that cuts through the massive San Bernardino Mountains to the north and the slightly smaller San Jacinto Mountains to the south. There’s no shoulder to the road so I can’t pull over and I’m at the very top of the pass, which is well over 2,500 feet above the valley that’s down below.
This part of the pass has so many sharp twists and turns in it that a car could easy come flying around the bend behind me and have no idea that I’m creeping along so slowly before it’s too late.
I panic and push the gas pedal all the way down until it touches the floor mat but the car doesn’t notice and it fails to react at all.
Winding through the mountain pass on the bus to Palm Springs just last week was one of the most enjoyable things I’d ever done. It was beautiful and majestic, but now it feels like a death trap. This has literally got to be the worst place in the United States for any car to break down. I can’t imagine a worse scenario if I tried. If the car were to actually die in this very spot I don’t know what I’d do. There isn’t an exit in site and it feels like I’m never going to come out on the other side of this deserted canyon.
To add to the terror, there’s another heat advisory today because it’s well over 115 degrees. I’ve already sweat through my t-shirt and I didn’t think to pack any extra water because it was only supposed to be a two-hour trip to Los Angeles. On top of all that, I don’t even have a cell phone so calling for help is completely out of the question.
About a mile down the road the lights on the dashboard flicker and shoot back to life. I ease my foot down the throttle and eventually get the car moving close to 35 miles an hour. My forward momentum pushes the smoke from the engine up and over the front windshield and I pull my shirt up and over my nose and mouth as it pours through every open vent the car has to offer.
There’s just enough juice to get me up and over the last hump in the San Gorgonio Pass and to the state interchange which puts me onto Route 60. If I squint I can see what I think is an exit sign off in the distance and so I say a prayer as the inside of the car fills with thick smoke, “Dear God, if you get me to the exit ramp I’ll never ask you for anything again.”
While the car creeps towards the exit I wonder what will happen if the engine actually explodes.
I wasn’t into cars growing up and I couldn’t change a tire or the oil if you offered me all the money in the world. So I literally have no idea what to do or how dangerous this situation actually is.
I read, Gilman Springs Road off of the exit sign to myself, but it’s just my luck that there’s absolutely nothing there, not a single building along either side of the road. So even if I pulled over here there would still be absolutely no way to get help. I would just be stranded at an exit in the desert as opposed to stranded on the side of the road in the desert. So I decide to roll the dice and try and push onto the next exit because it looks as though I can see some buildings on the horizon. I stab at the gas pedal one more time and the car shoots forward on her last breathe as smoke billows out of the engine like a 1930’s steam engine train is pulling out of the station.
Thirty seconds later, all the gauges inside the car go dead. The speed odometer, temperature gauge, gas gauge and the one that measures RPM’s all fall to zero.
The pedals lock up too, but there’s just enough downward momentum from the backside of the pass that I’m able to get the car to stutter and sputter its way down into San Moreno Valley.
The car rolls to a complete and utter stop at the foot of the next exit ramp. I was able to just barely steer it off the road and into the dead grass that runs alongside the highway. With my heart pounding I rest my head on the steering wheel, thankful to still be alive, but having no clue where I am or what to do.
Sweat cascades down the sides of my face and lands on the floor mat beneath my feet as I think about my options.
Today was supposed to be special. Over the past 16 years my college buddy Jeff and I have been taking road trips across the country every summer in an effort to see a baseball game at every major league stadium. It was a mutual dream we shared back when we were roommates at Binghamton University and this weekend was supposed to be our last road trip together; we only have two stadiums left to get to.
I was on my way to scoop him up at Union Station in Los Angeles. He flew from the East Coast into San Francisco a few days ago then took the bus down to LA. We need to make it to the Dodgers game tonight, which starts at 7:05PM and then to Anaheim tomorrow afternoon for the Angels game. But if I can’t get there tonight then this whole thing is ruined and who knows when we’d both be able to make it back to California again.
A big reason why I’ve chosen to go on this seemingly never-ending road trip around the world is because of how much fun all those long baseball road trips with Jeff and my other buddies have been over the past 16 years. Going to all the stadiums across the country has been some of the most fun I’ve ever had in my life and it’s bittersweet that it’s finally coming to an end.
Every spring we’d pour over each team’s schedule together and then bust out the United Sates atlas that I kept in the glove box of my car so we could plan out how we were going to get to the stadiums of our choosing that summer. Then we’d scrape our money together in hopes of having just enough. I remember one year we even looked into donating plasma just because we heard we could get paid a pretty penny for it, which (at the time) sounded like a good way to get gas money.
I spent my 21st birthday in the right field stands at Fenway Park with Jeff and we went to the first New York Mets game played after the Sept 11th terrorist attack in Pittsburgh. When Barry Bonds was at the plate in the Fall 2001 with a chance to break the all-time home run record, I was outside the stadium with one leg dangling over McCovey Cove and Jeff was strategically positioned in the right field bleachers. We were both primed and ready to catch the million-dollar record-breaking homerun ball even if that meant I had to leap into the cove’s cold waters or he had to fight off someone in the stands for it. But unfortunately, Bonds grounded out in his final at bat that day and we went back to our hotel room without the million-dollar baseball and remained as broke as a joke. It didn’t matter. Whether you’re broke or rich there aren’t many things better than cramming into a car with your buddies and taking a long road trip to drink beers and see a ballgame in a city that you’ve never been to before.
We sung along to Jermaine Dupri’s classic hit “Welcome to Atlanta” when we cruised down 95 South and into Atlanta for a Braves game and sang sweet home Alabama anytime we drove across the south. We wore these absurd matching hats that were made out of balloons when we were in the SkyDome in Toronto and we both polished off the famous one-pound hot dog when we went to see the Rangers play in Texas.
All of the long car rides, wrong turns, dumb jokes and late nights along the way have stoked the flames of the wanderlust fire that’s always burned in me and I’d have to say that this sixteen-year mission with Jeff has been one of the biggest catalysts for the journey I’m currently on. Had we not rolled the dice and gone on all those road trips every summer since our college days, I’m not sure I’d even have thought of doing this, just for the simple fact that I wouldn’t have ever known that traveling, even when completely broke, could be so much fun.
Determined to not miss the game, I pick my head up off the steering wheel and survey my options. I see a sign for Moss Brothers Honda. It’s a car dealership about a mile away on the other side of the highway. Since the door handle is broken and no longer locks properly I decide that I can’t risk leaving my things in the car. I hitch my camera bag over my shoulders and then start wheeling my trusty duffel bag up the exit ramp.
Its absolutely baking out. It’s got to be the hottest day I’ve ever spent on earth. People that live out here call it a dry heat and then add, “so it’s not so bad.” I have no idea what they’re talking about and I curse the term dry heat until the air conditioning at Moss Brothers Honda engulfs me. It feels as though I’ve just entered paradise as I swing open the doors to their showroom. I run over to one of the vents and let the cool air shoot over my sweat soaked t-shirt until I’m chilled to the bone.
One of the Moss Brothers, a complete jerk by the way, only agrees to let me call a tow truck if I agree to bring the car there to get it fixed. After standing by the water cooler and drinking as much water as I possibly can, I hike right back to the car and sit on the side of the highway while I wait for the tow truck.
Forty minutes goes by before Len shows up. He’s a mountain of a man with a huge grease stain on his shirt and he tells me I’m crazy if I take the car to Moss Brothers Honda to get it fixed. He says they will charge me triple the price of a normal garage and that he knows a better spot that’s just a few blocks away. I watch in disbelief as he connects chains to the front of my car and pulls it up onto his flatbed truck and then I jump inside the truck with him. The whole thing feels like a dream, like I’ll wake up soon and be back in my bed at The Monkey Tree Hotel. I don’t think it’s fully hit me just yet that the car that I risked a small chunk of my precious savings for has only taken me a total of forty miles.
“I don’t know how I’m going to get the car fixed in time to get to LA. Maybe it’s just a small problem and I’ll be back on the road within the hour,” I tell him.
Len’s belly jiggles as he laughs, “Based on what you told me about the engine smoking it seems like a little more than a small problem, but hopefully you’re right.”
I check the time and it’s just past 4 o’clock, I have less than three hours before the first pitch at Dodger Stadium and I still haven’t been able to tell Jeff that my car died on the side of the highway.
He’ll probably be pulling into Union Station soon and be wondering where I am.
By 4:30, Yaseen, the owner of Moreno Valley Collision, walks into the waiting room of his shop. I feel like a patient at the hospital, hoping that the diagnosis isn’t too bad and that the fix will be quick. He’s from Amman, Jordan, which ironically was the stop I made before I reached Haifa, Israel. While his mechanics were looking under the hood we talked about his life there and then he showed me pictures of his kids who are visiting his family this summer.
But all that goes out the window as Yaseen says as matter of fact as anyone has ever said anything in the history of mankind, “The engine is dead.”
My head drops, “Are you sure?”
“It’s going to cost more to fix the engine than what the car’s worth.”
“How on earth am I going to get to LA now?”
Before Yaseen can answer I just start babbling to him like he’s a therapist. I tell him that this isn’t fair and that I’ve only driven the car about thirty total miles since I bought it. I then go right into my spiel about how I’m trying to make it around the world and that I’ve got to get to LA to pick up a friend before the Dodgers game starts.
Yaseen cuts me off, “Well you could sell it for parts. That’s really your only option right now. Maybe you can get a hundred bucks back.”
Yaseen gives me the password to his shop’s Wi-Fi and the number to the local salvage yard. With no other choice I dial the number and ask how much I can get for a 2000 Mazda Millenia as soon as someone picks up.
“Is it running?”
“No it’s dead.”
“Hundred bucks,” says the voice.
I let out a deep sigh and say, “deal.”
I explain where the car is and just as I’m about to hang up the voice on the other end tells me leave the title and keys on the dash. When I tell the voice that I still haven’t gotten the title from dealership that I bought it from, the voice says the deal’s off and quickly hangs up.
I look at Yaseen, and say, “I can’t believe this, but even the salvage yard won’t take it.”
His response is as unforgiving as any response I’ve ever gotten from anyone, “Well, you gotta get that car out of here if you don’t want us to fix it.”
I look at Yaseen and say, “How exactly do you want me to do that?”
He yells over to his mechanic Carols and tells him to push it out into the street. I plead for Yaseen to let me leave it in his shop overnight until I can figure out a plan, but he won’t budge.
“The car’s dead, you don’t have the money to get it fixed, you’re not from around here and you don’t have the title. You could walk off this lot and I’d never see you again, no way I’m keeping this car here overnight for you. An abandoned car fee is upwards of $500 in California and you’re not sticking me with that.”
I can’t drive it, I can’t sell it, I can’t scrap it and now I can’t even park it. There are literally no options.
I watch in confused disbelief as Carlos pushes the car out of the shop’s parking lot and out into the middle of the cul-de-sac that the shop shares with a few other stores. Just as he’s about to walk away I blurt out without thinking, “Hey Carlos, you want to buy it for parts?”
Carlos stops and looks up, sweat pouring off both our faces, “how much?”
“A hundred bucks.”
I’d abandon the car in the middle of the street right now if I could, but after Yaseen said there’s an abandon car fee I’m worried about what would happen to me. I don’t know if the car could be traced back to me or not and I’m afraid that if I just leave it there then I’ll have a massive fine to pay one day down the road.
Carlos circles the car. He actually kicks all four tires and then peaks in the driver’s side window and says, “looks like the stereo is new.”
“Yep, brand new,” I try to sell that one remaining nice feature of the car as best I can while thinking, please, please, please take this nightmare off my hands.
Carlos wipes a blue bandana across his forehead as he says, “I think I could rebuild the engine at home and sell the tires and stereo, I’ll give you fifty bucks for it.”
I jump at the deal, but he too wants the title. I make the most sincere promise I’ve ever made anyone in my life when I say, “you have my word, if you buy this car I’ll mail you the title the second I get it from the dealership.”
Carlos runs inside the shop and comes back out with a photocopy of his driver’s license and a contract he’s handwritten on a piece of notebook paper for me to sign.
And here’s the ultimate kicker, the second Carlos gives me the fifty bucks for the car I have to walk inside and pass it over to Yaseen because that’s how much it cost for the diagnostic checkup in which he told me the engine was dead.
Down and dispirited, I sit on a folding chair in the waiting room. I’m now out the two thousand I spent on the car and the three hundred it’s eaten up in repairs. I text Jeff and tell him about the whole ordeal. I go on to say that it looks like I won’t be able to make it to the game tonight and that our dream is dead, but that he should still go without me because he’s flown all the way across the country for it.
My shoulders slump forward and all I can think to do is to tell myself to think.
How can you get to LA?
It’s nearly five o’clock now and LA is known for many things, but one that’s high on its list is its notorious rush hour traffic. Even if I had a car and was to leave right now, surely I’d get stuck in traffic and Jeff and I wouldn’t make it to the game anyway. Plus I’m stuck at Yaseen’s shop and there are no bus or train stations within walking distance.
How can I get to LA?
I check the bus and train schedules to LA but I was right, nothing’s close enough to make it worthwhile. And even if I were to catch the next bus to LA nothing’s going to get me to Dodger Stadium by the first pitch because of all the stops it would have to make.
I think about getting a hotel for the night and feeling defeated I decide to look up how much the cheapest one in Moreno Valley will cost. There’s a room at the Regency Inn and Suites that’s within walking distance for sixty-five bucks.
I text Jeff and tell him that it looks like I’ll be spending the night here, but before I book the hotel I put my head in my hands and I tell myself, There’s got to be a way, there’s always a way, you’ve been here before. F@cking think!
The words, “We’ll Pick You Up,” shoot across my brain like lightening.
Yes, that’s it! Enterprise! That’s their slogan!
I must have heard it a thousand times as a kid because that’s the line that would always end their commercials. I never paid attention to it, but for some reason it’s popped in my head at this moment. After a quick search online and a phone call, Gerald’s waiting outside Yaseen’s shop for me in a red Mitsubishi Mirage. He’s 19 years old with bleached blue hair and he’s blasting Christian rock, but none of that matters. He’s here to take me to the Enterprise Rent-A-Car that’s on the other side of town because well, that’s what they do.
Eighty dollars later, I’m behind the wheel of a beautiful and fully loaded 2017 Nissan Altima. I’ve got the car for the next 24-hours and I text Jeff from Enterprise and tell him that we might have a shot of making it after all. The only hurdle now is the dreaded rush hour traffic that clogs almost all of greater Los Angeles’s major arteries.
I hop back on route 60 and head west, which funnels me onto Interstate 10. I’m weaving in and out of lanes like I’m Dale Earnhardt in his prime.
The car drives like a dream and I can’t believe that within two hours of my car dying on the side of the highway I’m back racing across California again, but in an entirely different car.
I keep waiting for a traffic jam, for the famous Los Angeles break lights to show themselves and slow me down, but they never come and within forty-five minutes I’m miraculously just outside LA.
The only time I actually have to break is when I slow down to turn into Union Station. And the only time I stop is to let Jeff in.
“After the day I’ve had I can’t believe I’m actually saying this you,” then I peal out and we scream, “Next stop, Dodger Stadium!”