13 October 2010

Trial by Tire

It was a perfectly normal day when it started out. Well, no, it wasn’t, but I was trying to make it feel like a perfectly normal day of perfectly normal and boring driving. It was boring for a while. After the brief hailstorm and wonderful cool down, thanks to the angels, I hit the road again sans air conditioning, smiling and happy to be with my kitties and happy to be sucking up less gas in the truck.

I rode on for miles and miles up and down long stretches of highway all morning, thankful for the boring nature of it all. I was completely perplexed when out of the blue a tattooed Harley rider and his equal tattooed female companion pulled up beside me and started gesticulating wildly to roll down my window. Once I did, they yelled and gestured that the tire on my car was in the process of blowing out. Wide-eyed I thanked them, slowed down quickly, and pulled off the road as far as I could on the rather narrow concrete shoulder. After I waited for the light traffic to clear, I hopped out of the truck to survey the damage and was startled to find that not only had the tire blown to hell and back again, and I was nearly down to the rim on that wheel, but the loose flaps of rubber had battered that rear panel, chipping paint down to primer and beyond. The trim piece had also been knocked loose and was dragging on the ground. All this destruction and I never heard or felt a thing. Not once did the truck even hiccup with all that wild activity going on back there. If it hadn’t been for the helpful Harley riders, I probably would have gotten down to metal and sparks on that wheel before I noticed it. As it was, I was perilously close to that point.

While I know how to change a tire, I was concerned about several things. First of all, my back was still trashed so I didn’t know how much strength at the moment I had for torquing the crow bar to loosen the lug nuts. Second, I was only a couple of feet away from the highway traffic out in the middle of Wyoming. While that meant not very heavy traffic, it also meant that people were driving 70-90 mph. Ahem. You might remember the blog in Slices of My Life: So Far, where I mentioned my attempts on one cross-country road trip where I’d tried to see how my little Honda Civic handled at speeds approaching 100 mph while passing boringly through this state. I was in no mood to become road kill and leave my sweet orphaned kitties sitting in a truck cab in the middle of nowhere. Third, I wasn’t sure the jack would hold the car steady when it was on an incline attached to a dolly that was suspending the front tires off the ground.

So instead of doing what I normally do, which would be to get to work at solving the problem manually, I did what most sane people do when they’re in a fix on the side of the road. I called 911. I got back in the truck cab, dialed the emergency number, and tried to explain to the dispatcher where exactly in Wyoming I was located. I knew what town I’d just passed and what town was coming up, but that left a pretty good stretch of road for them to scour. They went to work on the problem and we hung up.

Then I called my mother. When she answered the phone, I said those magical words that no mother wants to hear. “Now I don’t want to alarm you but…” Of course you know she went into an immediate adrenaline rush. I told her what was going on and assured her that everything would be all right. I felt perfectly calm about the whole ordeal and did for most of that ridiculous day. While I was still talking to her, the highway patrol called me, so I quickly hung up to take their call. Since they couldn’t figure out exactly where I was, the patrolman asked me if I was comfortable with getting out of the vehicle and waving at passing motorists. I affirmed that I was cool with that, and I was, particularly because the angels had been cool with me and had already turned the heat down on the entire state of Wyoming. So I jumped out and did my distressed motorist dance routine on the side of the road.

I’m so not one for theatrics, and I was feeling utterly calm, so I had to wonder if I was at all projecting any sort of damsel in distress persona. I was pretty sure I wasn’t and probably appeared more like a calm, cool driver who suddenly felt the urge to do a few jumping jacks on the side of the road to restore circulation from all that sitting. Whatever the case, a van pulled up behind me and came to a stop. That in itself was perplexing, given that I was standing on the shoulder well in front of the truck to lessen the chance of someone veering into the lane and creaming the crazy lady doing jumping jacks on the side of the road.

A middle-aged man and woman got out of the truck and asked me if I was all right. They told me that they’d seen the blowout from across the highway and had gotten off at the next exit to backtrack up to my position to offer help. Well, God bless their pea-picking souls (spoken with my best down home country folk accent), the Good Samaritans had arrived! The woman actually had a friend who worked on the police force in that county. She called her friend and gave her mile marker info and asked her to call the Wyoming Highway Patrol with that message.

Hurray! I had been found at last. Or at least my co-ordinants had been more closely determined. The couple offered to change my tire for me, but I declined since it meant exposing them to the highway traffic and the other factors that made me think that this was not a normal flat tire situation. I didn’t want anyone to be harmed in the changing of my tire, so I thanked them profusely and after a few more minutes of chit-chat, they continued on their journey, no doubt with a warm glow in their hearts. They certainly should have a warm glow since they probably had cut down considerably the amount of time it would take before the highway patrol arrived. Bless the Good Samaritans wherever they are. May the angels in charge of weather adjust the outdoor thermostat for them on any day of their choosing.

While I was standing there talking to my Good Samaritans, a burly FedEx truck driver had been walking down the hill from where he had finally managed to stop his freakishly large triple trailer load when he saw me waving at him from the side of the highway. In my distressed motorist routine, I had focused my efforts on truckers because they knew the highway better than anyone, they had CBs, and they knew to check for minor details like mile markers when there was a distressed motorist practicing cheerleading skills on the shoulder of the road. We had a brief discussion amongst all of us and ascertained that I should be rescued soon by the knights in white Crown Victorias.

I had to chuckle at the incredibly nice FedEx trucker because he laughed and said, “You see how long it took me to stop that rig. Makes you wonder why people think they can cut us off on the highway and expect us to be able to stop quickly.” I had to agree with him because the rig I was pulling, while not all that heavy and certainly not very long, took a noticeably long time to stop. When I had moved to Washington in 1993, I had driven a very loaded down 27-foot moving truck from Asheville, North Carolina to Seattle. It had taken a stupidly long time to stop that heavy truck, so I knew well what he was talking about and marveled that he had stopped at all. I thanked him enthusiastically too and assured him that all would be well soon, now that the troopers were heading my way.

Before this trip, I had already had a healthy respect for truck drivers. I’ve spent a lot of time on the road over the decades, and I always do my best to give them plenty of room to drive those big rigs of theirs. Because of the size of the combination of vehicles I was driving, I had to use the trucker parking lots so I could always be sure that I could pull through since backing up was such a nightmare. I know my truck looked like a toy compared to theirs, but I felt a comradery with them anyway because I was seeing the road through their eyes again after fifteen years of driving only the small Honda Civic I was now towing.

After I bid all my lovely helpers a fond farewell, I climbed back up into the truck to check on my sweet felines, who were slumbering as though sitting on the side of the road in a broken-done rig was nothing to break stride for, much less interrupt a perfectly good catnap in a comfortably cool truck. I called my mother again and found out that she’d talked to my insurance agent as I had asked and had determined that I did have emergency roadside service through them. I thought this was true, but I’d never had reason to use it. Then I went back to waiting for the Crown Victoria to appear in my side mirror.

It took a while, but said Crown Vic, bearing a decidedly young highway patrolman, pulled up behind me. I got out and greeted him. He asked me for my drivers license, so I produced that while he took down my information and did a routine check on me, no doubt to make sure I wasn’t a fugitive from the law who’d had the bad luck of having a flat tire on their towed car in B.F.E., Wyoming. I retrieved my license after he’d determined that I was relatively harmless, and we chatted about the safety issues of changing a flat tire on the side of the road when it was attached to a dolly and only two feet away from the speedway. We chatted about a lot of things actually. I was beginning to learn that people in Wyoming are very friendly and like to talk.

I told the officer that my insurance company would pay for towing or emergency roadside service, so he called the local emergency roadside service fellow while I cleared out the back end of my car. It was loaded down with emergency preparedness gear. I’d lived in Western Washington long enough to know that you never know when an earthquake or winter storm or some other unforeseen cataclysmic event might strike, so it was best to be prepared for all occasions. I’d had several occasions to use that gear for non-cataclysmic events, so I left it in the hatchback year around. Once the gear was out of the back end of the car, I extracted the car jack, crow bar kit, and ridiculously tiny donut tire.

The trooper surveyed the tire-changing tools with a skeptical expression. He agreed that changing the tire out here was not a good idea, so we chatted a while longer until we ran out of things to say, and he decided that he really should get back to catching bad guys or something. So he drove off again while I awaited the tow truck by myself. I went back to the relative safety of the cab to wait some more.

When the emergency guy arrived, he took one look at the tire-changing gear and said, “Yeah, no problem. I’ll just change the tire for you here. You don’t need a tow.” He’d positioned his big tow truck so you have to move over a little bit away from the shoulder so you wouldn’t hit the truck. That accorded him a slightly improved margin of safety, although he remarked when one driver got too close for comfort that while he liked his truck, he didn’t mind if the careless driver bought him a new one. Without the relative safety of the truck he might have been the one getting hit. At any rate, he finished the job in short order, and I gave him my credit card information so he could run the card when he got back. Then he told me where there was a place at the next exit where I could get a new tire. He even followed me there to make sure I made it. I was glad that he did because the little donut tire was going flat by the time I got there. It had to be aired up again by the people who put two new tires on the back end of my car because the other tire also had dry rot, which was what had caused the first one to blow.

I knew the tires were old but I’d checked them before I left and they still had a lot of tread left on them. It’s true that I hadn’t driven much in the two years since Waldenbooks in Seattle had closed. That’s where I’d been working last when I’d had a significant commute. With the loss of that job, my driving time decreased hugely so my car had spent a good deal of time in the garage simply sitting there looking pretty. I suspect they were right about the dry rot.

When I pulled up to the service area, I was instructed to circle around back. I was told that I would have to unhitch the car so they could pull it into the garage for repair. Yippee! The very thing I had not wanted to do. I had to unhitch the car, drive it down off the dolly, and then hitch it up again when they were done. You can imagine the sardonic smile on my face.

After much fiddling and racking my brain to remember everything Lindsay had showed me at the truck rental place when we’d hitched up, I finally figured it out. I had been, you may recall, completely wiped out and on the verge of heat exhaustion at the time. So I asked the angels for help with this nonsense and somehow managed to do it right. I backed the car down and pulled it carefully around to the car bay. The fellows took it from there while I checked on my kitties to make sure they were okay. It still was not too warm out so I cracked both of the windows and left them in the truck under the shade of the building while I went inside the store to talk tires with the gal at the counter.

In the process of ordering tires, I had to give my zip code so I gave them the one for my mother’s house in Winter Park, Florida. The woman looked at me incredulously and asked if that was Winter Park. Startled that this woman in Wyoming knew about Winter Park, I confirmed her suspicions, thus beginning a reunion of two women who were roughly the same age and had grown up within a couple miles of each other and whose mothers still lived in the same community. Go figure. We hadn’t gone to the same high school because of the zoning lines, but she knew about my school and I knew about hers. It was one of those moments when you are slapped in the face with the reality of how few degrees of separation there are between most of us.

I was puzzled as to how she’d ended up in Wyoming of all places, but then again, I’d wound up in the Seattle area, so there you go. While I’m pretty certain that there is a secret worm hole between Seattle and Orlando, I have yet to discover its exact location. Somehow the two cities end up connected in so many ways that they could be sister cities. Believe me, if I ever find that worm hole, I’ll be set. Then I’d be able to pop back and forth between my original home town and my chosen home town.

At any rate, this woman had found a very friendly place to live. The weather in Wyoming must be about as antithetical to the weather in Winter Park as you can possible get south of the North Pole, but I couldn’t argue with how nice the folks were in Wyoming. You definitely got the feeling that these people had your back. Unless of course you were Matthew Shepard and gay. Then, I suppose, all bets were off. However I will say that the community where he lived was completely shocked by that tragedy, so perhaps the young men responsible for Matthew’s murder were not at all representative of the culture as a whole.

The Wyoming state legislature certainly sprang to life immediately afterwards trying to pass a hate crimes law. While it was a long time coming, the federal law based on the original Matthew Shepard Act was finally passed after President Obama came into office. The two perpetrators of that hideous murder, for a time, had been incarcerated at the state penitentiary in Rawlins, Wyoming, just east of the place where I got two new tires put on my car after breaking down on the side of the road. Talk about your degrees of separation. That was fewer degrees of separation than there had been on that blown tire.

Peace to you and your family, Matthew.

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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