In the Middle of Nowhere

I found myself behind the wheel somewhere east of Albuquerque during what turned out to be naptime for the other four members of the family on our long drive from the Grand Canyon to our home in East Texas.

There isn’t much east of Albuquerque. In fact, you are lucky to have cell reception. And forget data. There’s no checking Facebook or sending emails or anything that you are used to being able to do with your smart phone. (Most of that was discovered while not driving, btw. For the most part, I avoid my phone while driving.)

Radio stations are hard to come by as well. At one point, scanning through all the FM stations presented me with three different static-filled choices. And that’s it. No music.

I even got desperate enough to try the AM band and stumbled across some people talking about the plane that had disappeared just before we descended into the canyon. I stayed, hoping to get caught up, but they soon turned to politics and it became clear that the host and his two “experts” were cut from the same cloth and no meaningful examination of the issues from all sides would happen, so I returned to FM to try again for some music.

I finally hit pay dirt, when Lorde’s “Royals” came through. Yes! I thought. I’ll take top 40 pop. I was a bit surprised when The Beach Boys’ “Help Me Rhonda” played next. And then I couldn’t help but laugh when one of my favorite classic rock hits “Turn The Page” by Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band was next on the playlist. I guess when you are the only radio station around, you have to appeal to a wide variety of tastes.

At one point, I asked my Shazam app on my phone to identify a song for me. It churned and churned and churned and eventually responded with:

I’m sorry. I don’t know if you realize this, but you are in the middle of nowhere and I can’t contact the mother ship to get an answer for you. I’ve saved the recording on your device and you can try to send it again when you’ve returned to civilization. Thank you.

Or, something like that.

My husband had told me that he thought we’d have enough gas to get to Amarillo but thought I should keep an eye on it. Judging by the road signs, Tucumcari was going to be my best intermediate choice, should I decide we couldn’t make it. As I drove through Tucumcari, though, we still had four bars on the gas gauge and everyone was still asleep. There was another town big enough to be given distance on the signs so I figured I’d check again there.

San Jon, as it turns out, is more of a village than a town. As I approached the first exit, I looked down at our mileage and the two bars on the gas gauge. I wasn’t sure we could make the remaining 85 miles to Amarillo, even driving a Prius. When I looked up, however, the town was fading behind me. It only has one exit.

I decided to wake my husband to get his opinion and as I did so, the gas gauge dropped to one bar. The next exit claimed a town name that didn’t even show up on our Google Map and there was nothing but fields as far as the eye can see. Still, I took the exit and returned to the sprawling metropolis of San Jon.

San Jon offered two choices for gas: a Valero and an un-branded truck stop that claimed to offer fine Indian Cuisine (dots, not feathers, as Good Will Hunting would say). We chose the Valero and as I pulled into the parking lot, my husband exclaimed, “Is that a dead dog?!”

I looked over, and sure enough, there was a dead dog lying behind two parked trucks.

“Okaaaayyyy…” I said. “I think I’ll take this far pump, away from the dead dog.”

My husband got out to pump gas and I approached the building to use the bathroom. I steered wide of the dog but tried to look for signs of injury. I found none. How had it died? I thought. And why is no one doing anything about it? And how did those two trucks manage to park there without running over it? Or did it die there after they parked? How long have they been parked there?!

I walked into the station and looked around. I thought about asking someone about the dog but it all felt so surreal that I just went quietly to the bathroom. On my return, I resolved to watch the dog closely for signs of breathing. Maybe it wasn’t dead.

I stared at it through the glass doors and kept staring as I walked out of the building. The chest was not rising and falling. Common sense and analysis of the situation had told me that the only logical conclusion was that the dog was not, indeed, dead, so I kept walking toward it. I walked between the two trucks and when I was almost to the beds of the trucks, it slowly lifted a lazy eyelid. The skin sagged and showed the red flesh around the eye. The dog did not lift its head, nor twitch any muscle in its body. The only thing that moved was that one eyelid. The dog then dismissed me and closed its eye.

I exhaled the air I had been holding in my lungs and rushed to the car.

“The dog isn’t dead,” I told my husband. “But it’s still kind of creepy.”

When he returned from the building after buying snacks, he told me that an old man had walked out and the dog looked up before jumping to its feet. The man said, “Come on, old girl” and the dog jumped into the back of one of the trucks.

How small of a town do you have to be in for a dog to be able to just lay in the middle of the parking lot without getting run over? And exactly how old does the dog have to be to lay that still?

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Smells Like Candy

When I’m driving long distances, I usually like to have some sort of snack. It’s not because I’m hungry. And it’s not even that it does a particularly good job of keeping me awake. Mostly, it just gives me something to do. I find driving to be insanely boring.

As a result, when we stopped recently on a long road trip, I picked up a roll of SweetTarts, anticipating my turn at the wheel. SweetTarts and Junior Mints are some of my favorite choices because they taste really good yet don’t give me quite the calorie punch of the other gas station choices.

After we had been driving for awhile, as dark descended and the children were told to quiet down for sleep, I quietly asked my husband for them. He dug around at his feet and then passed them over to me.

A little voice immediately piped up in the back, “Daddy? What did you just give Mommy?”

“Something that she eats to help stay awake,” he responded.

I soon opened them and ate one. I placed the roll in the door handle, which was visible to Hal, who sits directly behind the driver.

“That’s candy, Daddy. Did you give Mommy candy?”

“Yes, I did, Hal. Now go to sleep.”

A few minutes of silence followed until he spoke up again. “But candy is bad for you. Why did you give her candy?”

“Because that’s what she wanted, Hal. When you are a grown-up, you get to make your own bad choices.”

The next day, we returned to the road for the final leg of our journey home. About halfway into my turn at the wheel, I quietly unwrapped the SweetTarts roll and ate one.

From the back, “What’s that smell?”

“I farted,” quipped my husband. “Does it smell sweet?”

“It smells like candy” was Hal’s rather suspicious reply.

“Do SweetTarts really smell that strong?” I whispered.

“He’s a four year old boy. He can probably smell candy from forever away.”

Almost-Perilous Road Trip

I recently took a road trip with a girlfriend. Technically, she’s the mother of one of Jane’s girlfriends. She’s still in my phone as “Alison’s mom, Sue” even though we know each other well enough that I no longer have trouble remembering her name.

The road trip was to a town about four hours away in another state so that we could see our daughters in a Robotics competition. We hit the road mid-afternoon in my little Prius. The conversation and laughter started as we pulled out of her driveway and never stopped. My mouth was dry. My throat even felt a little raw. I was having a blast.

There is something exciting about getting to know someone that you have interacted with just enough to anticipate that you will thoroughly enjoy the person’s company. We talked about our children, our family histories, sixth grade drama, parenting, siblings, love, marriage, divorce, religion, politics, the workplace, race relations, weight loss, and so much more.

The talking didn’t slow once we arrived. It just encountered more interruptions as we made phone calls, checked on the girls, and prepared for bed. We sat on our beds as if we were about to retire any minute. Sometime after midnight, we reluctantly turned off the lights and went to sleep.

The next day was long and exhausting. At the end of it, the girls didn’t want to ride home with us. They wanted to ride the bus. On the one hand, this meant we’d have to go pick them up since it’d take longer for the bus to make the trip than us. On the other hand, we’d get to continue our carefree conversation if the girls were not in the backseat. The girls rode the bus. We left town extremely tired, armed only with caffeine and conversation.

Eventually, we found ourselves on a stretch of highway that had no towns, a very long stretch of road, when the car beeped at me. We were nearly out of gas! It had not entered my muddled mind to fill up before making the return trip.

To compound the situation, my phone was so close to dead that it could not access the internet and Sue’s phone was not far behind. I slowed down and we started discussing our options if we didn’t make it to the next town. The options were bleak. Some fellow parents were making the drive too and I had their number but they were probably an hour ahead of us. We were well over two hours from home. The school bus full of children and very tired teachers was behind us. I couldn’t fathom asking them to bring us gas.

The car was starting to hesitate like it was going to die so Sue used her phone to find the nearest gas station. She found one 9.5 miles away but it involved getting off the highway we were on. We passed a sign that showed the next town was 16 miles away. Conveniently ignoring one of her earlier tales of OnStar leading her to a closed gas station, we opted to trust the phone app.

The new road was even more deserted than the last. The seriousness of our situation was starting to sink in. We were on an empty road in a car about to run out of gas with two nearly dead cell phones, heading to a gas station that might not exist or might not be open. And we had just left the road that the school bus would be traveling on.

“We can never tell the girls about this,” Sue said. “Just imagine how mad at them we’d be if they were 16 and did something this stupid.”

“At least they aren’t in the car with us.”

“Very true.” We laughed. The conversation died down as we traveled along holding our breaths.

The road went around a bend and we could see lights. Soon, a bar came into view. Sue laughed that at least we could get a drink while we waited for AAA to arrive. After passing by a couple more streets, we found the gas station.

These pumps were old. I mean, really, really, really old. Forget pay-at-the-pump. These still had those little metal number plates that flipped over as you pumped the gas. We had now dissolved into a fit of laughter.

She tumbled out of the car to go ask if we needed to prepay and I began to examine the pumps. I tried to lift the handle and it wouldn’t come up. Feeling around in the dark, I found a padlock! Now nervous about whether they actually had any gas, I checked the other unleaded handle. No padlock. Relief.

Nerve-wracking adventure concluded safely, we returned to the highway and our conversation and eventually made it safely home, full of fond memories of a fun and almost-perilous road trip.