14 October 2010

Blowing Off Steam

I’m happy to report that the last two days of my cross-country trip were extremely easy when compared to all the other days of the trip. Without any of the impediments of the first five days, I made really good time. Yes, there were sections of highway where there were slowdowns because of road construction. One of the things I noticed on this trip is that when you are out west in Nowheresville, they may close an entire lane of traffic on the interstate, but they don’t bother to lower the speed limit or not much anyway. Sometimes I had to follow a queue through a construction zone for miles on end, but we were all barreling along at 65 or 70 mph, even me and all the bigger trucks out there. Plus I never saw anyone hitting their brake lights. Oddly enough there were no mishaps through all that, and yet once you got farther east they made you slow down to 40 mph, even in places where there was no more traffic than there had been out west and no construction workers in sight. I find this intriguing and am still puzzling over it. 

Once I was not being blown or sprayed off the road, I found Nebraska to be downright pretty. The day before when they were hosing down my windshield and blasting me off the road with high winds, I hadn’t had the opportunity to notice how pleasant the scenery was. Silly me not noticing something like that. I guess I was simply too preoccupied with getting my cats and myself out of there alive. Go figure.

I had a most pleasant and boring fifth day of travel and stopped in Columbia, Missouri for the night. I decided to tackle St. Louis early in the day. I felt a little trepidation as I neared this metropolis, having a history of mishaps and travel delays there, whether I was in a car, truck, or airplane. So I slathered on an extra layer of angelic protection and proceeded with caution. I was using the air conditioner only periodically still. After one time when I’d turned it off and started up an incline while driving through the middle of St. Louis, I noticed smoke coming out the air conditioning vents. While I’ve seen that phenomenon before, I wasn’t entirely sure that it was only condensation from the air conditioning that had just been switched off again after a long period of running it.

This was, after all, the St. Louis where I’d had to stop and get the air conditioning fixed on the Ryder truck I was driving out to Seattle from Asheville because it had broken down and I’d been sweltering all afternoon in a hot truck. The same St. Louis where we’d stopped at an Olive Garden for dinner and a waitress had dumped an entire glass of iced tea onto my chest and lap. Much to her surprise, I looked up at her horrified expression and said ever so calmly, “Thank you. That’s the nicest thing anyone has done to me all day.” Boy, was she shocked. But it was the truth. I’d been freaking hot all day, and after being doused with a big old glass of iced tea, I felt considerably cooler. Soaked through to the skin perhaps, but cooler. Then after dinner we’d gone back to get the repaired truck, but as we made our way around the city trying to find a place to stay, our vehicles got separated and we had no idea where the other vehicle was. The car lights we’d been following turned out not to be our friend’s van after all.

This was in 1993, before the days of everyone and his brother having a cell phone. After a futile attempt to relocate the other vehicle, we stopped the truck, and my partner at that time called the police to report our whereabouts and to check to see if our other party had done the same thing. The driver of the other vehicle, who had my partner’s children with her, was my lifetime best friend, Jan, who is quite likely to surface again in other stories, particularly now that I’m back in Florida, and staying with her for the time being.

We had gotten separated briefly in Louisville (maybe the connection here is Louis!) where we’d had to circle the city twice until we caught up with each other. We decided then that if we got separated again, we should simply stop and call the police to report our positions. So we were delighted though not surprised to learn that she had already called the police to report her whereabouts. They gave us the phone number of where she was. She’d stopped at a hotel and booked a room because the little girl had gotten stressed out when she’d gotten separated from her mother. She ended up hurling out the window (though not totally out the window), and was very upset.

Once everyone involved had gotten to talk to everyone else, we decided to stay where we were since it was late and wait until daybreak when it would be easier to locate each other. Next morning we met up at my friend’s hotel and resumed our journey. Other than the brief separation in Louisville, the St. Louis fiasco was the only truly difficult thing that happened on that trip, so you can imagine that I didn’t have fond memories of that city. Then in later years when I had gotten stranded overnight at the St. Louis airport on a flight from Orlando to Seattle, my distrust of St. Louis had deepened. Either on that flight or another one, the St. Louis airport lost our luggage on the way home, which is why I never check all my luggage. I carry on a backpack with a complete change of clothing. Just in case.

From a driving standpoint, St. Louis is a bit of a logistical nightmare. It is called the “Gateway to the West,” but really it’s more like the gateway to disaster. Multiple interstates converge there and trying to puzzle out how to get from where you are to where you want to be can take some time and concentration, something you have very little of if you are driving and trying to navigate all at the same time. God help you if you reach St. Louis at rush hour.

I had stopped the night before not too far west of St. Louis so I could avoid that unpleasantness. It was still early in the day when I started approaching the big city of scary interchanges with only my cats to help me navigate. Before I got too close, my sweetheart called my cell phone from England while as I was driving on a new bypass that I must say was a sound improvement over the way things used to be. I had memorized the route the night before because I knew what I’d be facing when I reach this city and former bane of my existence. So I talked as long as I could and was about to say that I needed to hang up because I had to focus on the road when the phone suddenly went dead. I didn’t know what had happened at the time, but it couldn’t have happened at a better moment because I needed to concentrate on making it through St. Louis without mishap. I think that may have been the angel protection working. They were saying to me, “I know you want to talk to her, but you really need to pay attention right now.” So they cut us off without warning. Okay then. I stuck the phone back in my pocket and paid close attention.

Now that you know where I was coming from in regards to this city, you’ll understand why the next scenario caused me some consternation. As I started through the heart of St. Louis I noticed smoke coming out of the vents on the dashboard. Not one to underestimate the power of St. Louis to cause hiccups in my travel plans, particularly on a trip that had already proven to be a bit of a nightmare, as soon as I could I pulled into a gas station where I’d be able to turn truck and car around easily and dug out the phone number for the truck rental place.

The guy who answered the phone was puzzled but suggested that since the radiator wasn’t overheating, I should drive on and call him back if anything else happened. Ahem. I stifled the urge to ponder what else could happen because I simply didn’t want to find out. I hung up thinking that had been a pretty unproductive phone call. However, I drove on and figured out that it was only steam blowing out because of the condensation that had built up from running the air conditioner. I noticed that it did that only when I turned off the air just before going uphill, which is something I’d taken to doing for the purpose of conserving gasoline, though why it had chosen St. Louis to exhibit the whole blowing off steam routine for the very first time was a puzzle. I think if it had started doing it anywhere except St. Louis, I would have simply watched it and figured it out without having to make a panicky call to the service people, but I wasn’t about to take any chances. I was in St. Louis after all.

Beth Mitchum is the author of five novels, one collection of poetry, and one music CD. Her works are available at Amazon.com through the following link: http://tinyurl.com/bethmitchumbooks

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