Our story so far: I flew to Ohio, collected my free 1994 Geo Prizm, headed west, and got a flat tire in Colorado.
It is a very alarming thing to not know where you are. I wasn’t “lost,” exactly; it’s not like I was on some unmarked hiking trail in Bolivia or something. I was on I-70, about 100 miles east of Denver. But that information wasn’t exact enough to be very useful. Those of us who live in populated areas forget sometimes that there are places in the United States where NO ONE LIVES. It always seems like such a waste to me: All this pristine, unused land, and not a single Wendy’s?
I was in such a place now, with a flat tire that wouldn’t come off its axle, and with the temperature hovering around zero, and without a clue what town, if any, I was near. My plans had been thrown into chaos, and so had my financial situation: I was going to need a tow truck, and my experience with tow trucks is that they do not operate free of charge. I was helpless and frustrated, my nerves frazzled from the perilous road conditions and the recalcitrant tire. The only option I could think of was to call 911 like a big baby and say, “I can’t change my tire, and I need help, and I don’t know where I am,” and then to start sobbing. So that’s exactly what I did.
The nice lady at 911 helped me figure out where I was: under the overpass at the Bovina exit, “Bovina” being not a town or hamlet or village but merely an exit, with no services or population of any kind. Of course, knowing that, you have to wonder why they even bothered naming it. “This here? Oh, that’s Bovina. Nobody lives there, and there’s no reason to stop. We just call it Bovina because it sounds pretty. That over there? Oh, that’s a cubic foot of water in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 1,500 miles from the nearest speck of land, 1,274 feet beneath the surface. We named it Marjorie.”
The 911 lady told me to stay in my car with the heat on — well, duh — and she’d send a tow truck as soon as one was free, but I should keep in mind it was a busy night, what with the icy roads and people’s tendency to slip off them into ditches. I’d gotten off lucky with just a flat tire, though it soon occurred to me that if I HAD gone into a ditch, at least I’d have become more of a priority with regard to sending a tow truck.
So I sat in my car for the next 90 minutes, pondering my fate, periodically getting out to try removing the tire again (no luck), and shivering. Finally lights appeared in my rearview mirror, courtesy of a state trooper who had pulled up. I told him I was waiting for a tow truck, and he delivered this news: He’d ordered all tow trucks off the roads for the night. The roads were too perilous, he said, and a tow truck driver had been killed in similar conditions a week earlier. Unfortunately, hearing this made me imagine a tow truck driver’s funeral: All the tow truck drivers have their pants at half-mast, and they use a winch chain to drag the coffin into the grave. And that makes me a bad person.
The trooper said he’d give me a ride into town (Limon, about 15 miles away) where I could stay at a motel for the night and deal with my car in the morning. He said this like it was a common thing that people do all the time, abandoning their cars on icy highways and booking motel rooms, as if cars and hotel-room money just grow on trees! “You don’t understand!” I wanted to blurt out. “I’m supposed to be in Ft. Collins tonight! I’m supposed to change the flat tire, proceed in the direction I was traveling, and experience no further delays or detours! I can’t stay at a HOTEL in LIMON, COLORADO, tonight! What, are you insane?!” But I didn’t blurt out that, or anything else. I sat in the back of his police car, numb and unbelieving and defeated.
We stopped about a mile down the freeway to pick up another stranded motorist, one whose car was in a ditch. He was from Saudi Arabia, in the U.S. to attend Colorado State University, and had been driving back to Ft. Collins when he slid off the road. Between him and me and our duffel bags, the backseat was stuffed full, so when the trooper pulled over a motorist a few miles further on, I said to the student, “If he arrests him, he’s going to have to sit in the trunk.” But no arrests were made. The motorist was merely cited for driving at a speed that was unsafe for the current freeway conditions. He was going 40 mph.
* * *
The trooper deposited me and the Saudi, whose name was Oskar, at Limon’s EconoLodge. The town has a population of just 2,000, yet it has a dozen motels and quite a few restaurants. It also has two automotive-repair shops and at least two tow companies. The town exists solely as a place for people to break down, in other words.
It was about 10 p.m. when I checked into a room for the sum of $62.80. I couldn’t help but wonder if the price when you call ahead and reserve a room casually is much lower than when you stumble in from a state trooper’s car and say, “I need a room or else I’ll have to sleep outside in the snow.” But I was in no position to haggle, obviously, and the trooper had already indicated EconoLodge was the cheapest place in town, aside from a non-chain establishment we had passed that he referred to as “a bit rough.” (How can a town of 2,000 people have a bad side of town?)
After going up to my room and recuperating for a few minutes, I headed across the street to the Denny’s. I was not the only patron in the restaurant who had been stranded in Limon by the treacherous road conditions, and I overheard some of their stories. I began to consider the possibility that Divine Intervention had flattened my tire and prevented me from changing it. If I had continued as planned, maybe I’d have slid off the road, or worse. There were, all things considered, worse things than being stuck in Limon, Colo., for a night.
At the moment, however, I couldn’t think of any. In movies and TV shows, big-city types often get marooned in tiny, backwards towns, and it’s always quaint and amusing. First they can’t believe how ridiculously small the town is, and how different it is from city life, but then they warm up to it. By the end of the movie (or the first episode, if it’s a TV show), they’ve come to love Mayberry or Springdale or Grover’s Corners or whatever, and they decide to stay there permanently.
But in real life, which is where I was located, the attitude of a person kept against his will in a small town is this: Get me the hell out of this small town. It was unfair of me to resent Limon for the road conditions, which surely were not Limon’s fault, but I wasn’t in a fair mood.
I slept fitfully, fitfully enough for me to notice that the word “fitfully” is only ever used to describe sleep. It’s a perfectly good adverb, meaning “occurring intermittently; not regular or steady,” but you never hear anyone say, “I went to class fitfully when I was in college, and that’s why I didn’t graduate” or “Anna Nicole Smith died as she lived: fitfully coherent and in the act of vomiting.” I made a mental note to say “fitfully” more often.
I arose at 8 a.m., eager to get my tire replaced and be on my way. I called the first tow company in the yellow pages, and the lady said it would probably be about an hour and a half before a driver was free; it was, of course, a busy morning, rescuing all the cars that had been abandoned the night before.
While I waited in the EconoLodge lobby, I observed a young mother, no more than 25, grappling with two young children, a runny-nosed boy of about 6, and a little girl around 4. The mom had a Britney Spears Southern accent, and she told me their U-Haul had broken down here last night while en route from Denver to Memphis, their homeland, where they were returning to escape the snow.
Mom went out to talk to her tow truck driver, and when she came back inside, the little girl said, “Mama, is that my daddy?”
“No!” she said. “Your daddy doesn’t drive a tow truck; he flies an airplane!”
“He has a hat like my daddy.”
“No, y’all, that is not your daddy!”
The girl asked at least four more times whether the tow truck driver was her daddy. I got the impression she was not particularly close to her father, if the only means she had of identifying him was by his hat.
And, again, I realized my situation could be worse. I could be driving cross-country in a U-Haul with two illegitimate children. I could be so estranged from my father that the only thing I knew about him was what kind of headwear he favored. I could be from Tennessee.
It was a beautiful, sunny morning, with crystal-blue skies and no wind, which was good, since it was only 15 degrees out. My tow truck arrived, driven by a young, clean-cut, friendly man named Doug. He was a credit to his profession, which as you know is sometimes represented by filthy, slovenly men who wear the same hats as Tennessee baby daddies. Not Doug, though. Doug could have been a Mormon missionary.
Coincidentally, Oskar had called Doug’s company, too, and Doug was going to handle both our cars at once. Oskar’s car only had to be dragged out of the snow bank into which he had lodged it, and wouldn’t require any actual towing, so we drove to that location first. On the way, we surveyed the damage caused by the previous night’s iciness. The freeway shoulders and medians were littered with cars, the way seedy apartments are covered with roach carcasses after a Raid fogger is deployed. Some of the cars were upside-down, which made us wince. Any story ending with “… and when it was over, the car was upside-down” is not a pleasant one.
Oskar’s car got winched out of the snow easily enough, and he was on his way. Doug and I went to my car next, still sitting where I’d left it under the Bovina overpass. Doug loaded it up and drove us back into Limon, to Witt Boys Napa Auto Parts. Doug knew all the guys who worked there; I assume they all went to high school together. They joked like old friends. “Hey, make sure he doesn’t try to charge you the night rate!” one of them said to me, and while my previous experience with tow truck drivers would have put me on the lookout for that kind of price inflation, Doug had been professional and trustworthy all morning. The fact that his buddy would make a joke like that right in front of the customer is proof enough that the idea was absurd to them both. (That, or Doug had been planning to gouge me, and now he couldn’t.)
After making sure the shop had what I needed, Doug deposited my free 1994 Geo Prizm — which was becoming less free all the time — and called in my credit card number for confirmation. The going rate for what he’d done would have been $110, but he knocked it down to an even $100. He wished me good luck, shook my hand, and headed out to drag some more stalled cars out of ditches.
The Witt boys and their compatriots, meanwhile, went to work on my car. I’d decided that since all four tires were bad, and since I still had 1,200 miles to cover before I was through, we might as well replace them all now. I watched the guys elevate my car, unscrew the lug nuts, and whack each tire from behind with a sledgehammer to pry the wheels loose. One of the guys told me this happens back East especially, because of the salt they use on the roads. It rusts the tires in place and you gotta whack ’em with a hammer to get ’em off. I was duly impressed.
About 45 minutes later, my four new tires were in place and one of the Witt boys rang me up at the register. Having noticed the family resemblance between him and some of the others, I said, “So are some of you guys brothers?”
“Yep, three of us, and my old man’s around here somewhere,” he said. (He actually referred to his dad as “my old man”!)
“What if one of you had grown up not liking cars?” I asked.
“I guess we didn’t have that problem,” he laughed. “And there weren’t any sisters.”
The four brand-new tires, mounted and everything, came to $204.70. Including the money I’d spent at Denny’s the night before and the McDonald’s I grabbed on my way out of town, I had pumped $386.65 into the local economy. There’s no reason to ever go to Limon on purpose, but if your car should break down on I-70 100 miles east of Denver, by all means, take advantage of the local hospitality.
* * *
As I resumed my route from the night before, now confidently riding on four good tires and with the sun gradually melting the ice, I called the family and friends I’d talked to the night before to let them know things were back on course. With this detour taken care of, everything should be smooth sailing from here on out.
Originally, my plan had been to drive from Ft. Collins to Boise today, a distance of 730 miles, or about 10 hours of driving. I’d have to tack on three hours to account for the fact that I was leaving from Limon, not Ft. Collins, but that was OK. Thirteen hours instead of 10. Of course, my plan had been to leave Ft. Collins at 10 a.m., not Limon at 1 p.m., so instead of getting to Boise at 8 p.m., I’d be getting there at 2 a.m. But still! It was doable.
I made it to Denver, hooked up with the I-25 north to Cheyenne, Wyo., then hit I-80 west. This took about four hours, and now it was late afternoon. Somewhere near the Wyoming state line, the wind began to pick up, blowing flurries of snow across the road. This wasn’t new snow, falling from the sky; it was a sunny, clear day. No, apparently it snowed once like five years ago in Wyoming, and now the wind just blows those same piles of snow back and forth across the highway. It became impossible to see more than a few feet ahead, and when the snow was blowing straight toward me, it produced the disconcerting effect of making it feel like I wasn’t moving at all, when in fact I was going 40 mph.
And then 30 mph. And then slower. Would this fiendish wind never cease? I had never driven across Wyoming before, but I assumed the wind would HAVE to stop blowing at some point. I mean, it’s a big state. It can’t be windy like this all the time. How would people get around?
After about an hour of this, I reached Laramie. Conditions had improved slightly, but not much, and now it was getting dark again. Would the roads ice up like they had in Colorado, or is that just a Colorado thing?
Up ahead was a sign: “Interstate 80 CLOSED.” They had gates stretched across the freeway. People were driving across the median to turn around and head back the other way.
The freeway — the only reasonable way to get across Wyoming and on to Boise — was closed.
TO BE CONTINUED…
How could I be under the Bovina overpass and not know it? Wouldn't there have been a sign or something? Yes, certainly -- a quarter-mile back, I reckon. And in zero-degree weather, I had no intention of walking a quarter-mile to look at a sign. You wouldn't either.
Can you imagine how mad you'd be if you got a ticket for going 40 on the freeway?! The trooper was right to do it, but I bet that driver was furious.
After the previous chapter of this story, some helpful readers, realizing the trip had already taken place and that advice was useless, instead offered advice on what I SHOULD have done: I should have stayed with some strangers in Kansas City instead of at a motel; I should have removed the lug nuts then driven a few feet to loosen the tire; I should have taken I-70 across Colorado and into Utah, and I should have done it in the summertime; and so forth. Tremendously helpful. (I did try driving on the de-lugged tire, as suggested by my dad when I called him, and it didn't work.)
Longtime readers may recall my previous encounter with a tow truck driver, detailed here. You can understand, therefore, why I was so relieved when Doug showed up, all honest and showered and everything.
Regarding the word "fitfully": A search on my own site reveals that I have used the word eight times, always in a review of a movie or play, and always as part of the phrase "fitfully amusing." That I should have used that phrase so many times is rather embarrassing. I'm a bad writer.