That's Something You Don't See Every Day, Chauncey

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Gone Walkabout, Day Seven: In Which Things Finally Go Catastrophically Wrong

Posted by kozemp on December 16, 2009

I do not, as a rule, have recurring dreams.

I do, however, have one recurring nightmare of a sort. It’s not the same exact nightmare every time, but it’s always variations on the same theme: I am aimlessly driving my car around either Philadelphia or Los Angeles (the Valley, specifically, up and down Sepulveda and Laurel Canyon from Vanowen to Ventura) until I get on a very convoluted highway system. The dream culminates with me driving up onto a very high and inexplicably very thin on-ramp which I inevitably drive off of, waking up as the car plummets to the ground.

In a classic case of not seeing the forest for the trees, the fact that my only recurring nightmare involves driving is something I should have considered before deciding to go on a week-long road trip.

So come Tuesday morning, even though I had been on the road for six days, my leg was killing me, auxiliary power was gone, shields were down, there were hull breaches all through engineering and Reliant was coming about to fire again, despite all that I woke up in my hotel in Cleveland and got showered and dress with alarming speed (for me, at least) because I only had one thought in my head:


I knew that once I got into the car, in about 6 hours plus stops for food and gas I would finally be home. From when the phone rang with my wake-up call to me turning the key in my ignition was 21 minutes. I was not fucking around; I got showered and dressed, packed up everything I had, checked out, and got out of there.

Of course, even for the smartest of us, working at that sort of speed you are bound to make mistakes. And to my credit I only made one, which in a purely quantitative sense is pretty good.

I was so obsessed with getting on the road and finally getting home that at no point in the morning did I bother to look at my gas gauge.

Okay, excuse making time:

– Every other car I’ve owned has had a big nasty red light on the dashboard to warn you when you are low on gas. My current car, for all its nice features, does not; in the little status window that shows you your mileage and the temperature and whatnot it will occasionally say “low fuel” and make a slight pinging noise one cannot possibly hear over the sound of a very loud car stereo.

– It was dark out when I left and I have poor night vision.

– It was dark out AND raining a little bit, and Cleveland’s interstate system is only slightly less complex than Chicago’s, and for that matter navigating any sort of highway interchange is tough in the dark and in the rain.

– I have pre-existing issues about driving at night in the rain that cause my brain to short-circuit.

– Once out of Cleveland I was listening to “Live in New York City” and kept constantly checking between my iPod and the GPS to see if “Youngstown” would be playing when I was actually driving through Youngstown.

– The song “Youngstown” DID come up while I was driving through the actual city, and that was a really cool coincidence that occupied my mind for the better part of 20 minutes.

However, all that was chased out of my brain at a miracle moment when the iPod was quiet between tracks and my car chose that instant to make the “low fuel” noise.

I looked down and saw the little notice on the dashboard and thought, “well, okay, I’m getting something like 31 miles per here, the noise means I’ve got just under two gallons, I’ll make it to the next exit just fine. Hell, I could make it to the next exit in the middle of nowhere just fine.”

Perhaps six minutes later, as I gunned the pedal up an incline to pass a truck, I heard that telltale pop in my engine, and watched as my tachometer and speedometer both started to drop precipitously.

I started shouting in my car. “No! NO! FUCKING NO! Come on, don’t… NO! Oh, for fucking… NO! NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

In desperation I muttered the last invocation I thought might still have some power: “come on, baby, hold together.”

As I tried to wrestle my car onto the shoulder I flashed back to my freshman year of high school and my English class with Mr. Lane when we read Antigone: the first time in my life I ever heard the word “hubris.”

It was at this point that the only remaining sliver of luck I had came through and the last sputters of juice my car had managed to actually get me into the driveway of a highway maintenance depot. My car finally stopped moving on its own power just as I had completed the hard right turn into the depot. There was a truck sitting there waiting to leave, and the driver rolled down his window.

“You okay?” he shouted.

“Yeah, looks like I ran out of gas,” I shouted back.

“The guys inside can call Triple-A, you’ll be all right!” he shouted before driving away.

I pushed my car a little further into the depot when one of the guys who worked there came out and walked over to my car. “You ran out of gas?” he asked. The guy in the truck must have radioed inside.

“Yeah,” I said. I got out of the car. “I guess I just wasn’t paying attention to the gauge. I was so obsessed with getting home.”

He gave me a sympathetic look. “How long you been on the road?”

It took me a couple seconds to actually remember. “A week.”

“Well, we called the wrecker, he’s on his way.” He jerked his thumb back at the huge garage. “Why don’t you come and wait inside?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Let me just get my phone.”

He went back inside, and maybe four seconds after I fished my phone off the front seat of my car and closed the door the light drizzle that had been going all morning switched to a full-on downpour. I was instantly soaked.

I looked up at the sky, looked down at the ground, and muttered, “fucking Sophocles.”

Before heading inside I reached back into my car and grabbed the other object on the front seat – my towel.

As I walked into the depot garage I was trying to dry my hair, and the guy said, “do you always drive around with a towel?”

Now ordinarily this would be a moment where I would explode with mock fury at someone who did not understand the importance of knowing where your towel is. But I was cold and wet and bone tired from a week on the road and, most importantly, not on my way home.

I stopped drying my hair for the briefest of moments and simply said, “absolutely.”

He seemed to accept that.

At one point I asked him, “how far is it to the next exit where I can get gas?”

He said, “there’s a Pilot at the next exit, four miles from here.”

“FOUR miles?” I said. I did some quick calculations in my head. “Christ, the low fuel thing must have gone off right when I left the hotel.”

“You said you were coming from Cleveland?” the guy asked. “That car, yeah, that seems about right.”

I thought, “I REALLY need to get home.”

Eventually the wrecker showed up – real nice guy, I’m going to send him and the depot boys Christmas cards – and I was back underway after only about a 40 minute layover. I pulled off at the next exit and followed the signs for the Pilot Center. Pilot Centers are a lot of fun. In addition to gas and food (a McDonald’s, in this case) they have the always-wacky Pilot Shop, which is a weird combination of a 7-11, a Pep Boys, and a Nordstrom Returns Center. There’s the usual soda fountain and coffee stuff, snack food and whatnot, and then there is a rudimentary collection of clothing like gloves and hats and jackets that are absurdly overpriced, and then there are racks and racks of auto parts.

This Pilot Center, though, had one distinct problem. It was apparently right on the boundary of a different township or city or whatever the crap they have in Ohio, and just before the driveway was one of those “you are entering” signs that read:


I was being forced to gas up my car in a town called Liverpool.

I thought, “is there no end to the indignities I am forced to suffer?”

After getting the filthy Scouse gas I was finally back on the road, only an hour behind schedule. This wasn’t too bad. I would still be home at about 4 o’clock. I’d also been doing so much highway driving that my car was up to a whopping 31.4MPG: I wouldn’t have to get gas again, this tank would take me all the way home.

But something was wrong.

Once I got out of the western Pennsylvania hill country I was finding that I was having trouble staying focused on the road. It couldn’t have been sleepiness, I thought, I’d had ten hours sleep the night previous, and an unscheduled hourlong break that very morning. No, I suspected that the horrific stretch I drove on Sunday in Iowa and northern Illinois had permanently disabled some critical system needed to keep me fully alert while on the road (any of the biological persuasion are welcome to speculate). I was maybe 300 miles from home at this point. I couldn’t bear the thought of stopping for another, longer break. Even if I were going to break the “never drive cross-country at night” rule – which I probably could have done for the last 50 miles or so of the trip, I certainly knew how to get myself home from Downingtown – I could not bring myself to rest for more than a few minutes. I was so close. I couldn’t stop.

Problem was, in my current state it was more likely I was going to stop by driving into something. Drastic measures needed to be taken. I saw a sign that a rest stop was three miles away, and with a sinking, sickening feeling, I knew what I had to do.

I pulled into the rest stop, walked into the convenience store, and bought a Sugar-Free Red Bull.

Now, understand something: Sugar-Free Red Bull is the most disgusting thing you can drink. It is, by any reasonable measure, the single-worst-tasting substance in the known universe. Red Bull on its own is pretty gross, but when you take the sugar out of it the level of foulness transcends anything most human beings can imagine. It’s not just that it doesn’t taste good – it is one of the few things you can legally consume that actively tastes BAD, that attacks your taste buds and violently makes you regret ingesting it.

If you are wondering, you take the sugar out because once you do so the stimulant high you get from the caffeine and other nasty shit in it is not later mediated by a sugar crash. Sugar-Free Red Bull is for when you absolutely cannot fuck around with staying awake and don’t care how bad it tastes to do it.

And you really can’t care about how bad it tastes because, trust me, you’ll never taste anything worse in your life. The first time I took it was when I was driving home from Somers Point in the wee hours of the morning and it was recommended to me, “just open it and pound the whole thing at once. If you don’t finish off the can the first swig you won’t be able to go back and finish the rest.” This is absolutely true. The four previous times I have had to consume Sugar-Free Red Bull I have downed the entire can in one gulp, which does not mediate the violent unpleasantness of drinking it any, but does at least mean that you only have to endure it once.

I sat there in my car, staring at the can, desperately trying to think of some other way to solve my problem, but I was too far out and had too many hours to go. Another cup of Starbucks swill wouldn’t do it.

This was the only way.

I opened the can, took a deep breath and pounded the whole thing. Once it was empty I crushed the can in my left hand like a drunken frat boy and started pounding the dashboard of my car with my right, screaming, “AAAAAGGGGGHHHHH FUCKING FUCK FUCK AAAAAAGGGGHHHHH!’

You really cannot comprehend how bad this shit tastes. It is an assault on your sense of taste, and taste loses badly. Once it was down I had to wash my mouth out with a bottle of water, spitting out the open door of the car just to get the taste out. I will say this about it, though: it works. Sweet zombie Jesus does it work. Ten minutes later I was on the road when it kicked in and it is like the back of your head getting hit by a car carrier. One second you are a normal, somewhat tired person and then the next second BANG! you are the most awake person in the world.

The other downside, besides the taste, is that the next four hours are something of a blur. I drove, certainly, and I have vague snippets of memory of the time – loudly and vocally debating with myself whether to take the Schuylkill or the Turnpike to the Boulevard is the clearest, followed closely by singing along to every note of the Original Broadway Cast album of Avenue Q – but not a whole lot else.

But finally, at 3:39PM and after 2,685.8 miles, I pulled up at home and remembered: this is the best part.

I have said numerous times that while I am someone who loves traveling I hate being other places. And that’s true; I really, REALLY don’t travel well. But I do it anway for two reasons. One is that I crave new information like teenage girls crave bad vampire movies, and going places I’ve never been is a simple and easy way to get some.

The other is that feeling from getting home, that indescribable feeling – believe me, I’ve been sitting here trying to describe it and I am officially giving up on the process – and if a week of bizarre crap across half this amazing country and back is what it takes to get it, well, that’s what it takes.



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