I've been to the edge of the middle of nowhere
By James Robert Watson, PhD
My trip isn't quite over. About three and a half hours from home, something on the dash caught my eye. I looked down to notice that the temperature gauge had jumped to 'very hot', Angelina Jolie hot. I looked up - an exit ramp was just ahead. I took it, unsure of what was going on, but I didn't want to be on the Interstate with a hot car. I slowed onto a dirt road coming up to the service road from the south. It was a beautiful day. The sky was bright blue, there were only a few wispy white clouds in the sky, and one could see for miles over dry farmland. I stopped admiring the scenery and walked to the front of the car and popped open the hood. There was a bit of steam, so I let the engine cool. Meanwhile, I called the Dodge Roadside Assistance number that was stored conveniently in my phone. It was Sunday and I was in, well, I wasn't sure where I was. Somewhere in the Texas Panhandle. I had left Amarillo about an hour earlier and was not yet at the Oklahoma border. I don't know what the middle of nowhere looks like, nor have I been to the boondocks or Bumfuck Egypt, but I do now know what the plains of northwest Texas look like. Flat fields of some khaki-colored crop.
The Dodge national service operator was no help since she couldn't find me on a map and couldn't find a Dodge dealer open on Sunday. About then, coming up the dirt road, in front of a plume of road dust, was a pickup truck, the Official National Vehicle of these here parts. The driver stopped at my car. He really had very little choice since I stood in the middle of the road and blocked his path. He was just what you would imagine a seasoned Texas plains farmer to look like. Yep, just like that. He was an absolute Google of information. He knew exactly where we were, what towns were nearby, where the closest Dodge dealer was, hotels. You search for it - he knew. I now had the name, Fenton Motors, of my best repair option. But it was 28 miles away. Due north, up Texas Highway 71, to the town of Pampa. By this time, the car engine had cooled off and it started right up. We agreed that I might be able to drive on for 30 minutes or so, stop, let the engine cool, and move another 30 miles. That would get me home by early evening. Since we couldn't reach anyone by phone (Sunday afternoon in nowhere Egypt), that seemed like my best option.
He drove on and I stayed on the service road to the next entrance ramp. But, just as I was about to enter I-40, the temp needle jumped to Angelina again. I stopped right there. This plan wasn't going to work. This time, there was a scary grinding sound coming from somewhere in front of me. I looked back to see if, maybe, the farmer was still close by, but the dust trail confirmed that he was on his way and out of sight. I called Fenton Motors in Pampa, Texas to listen to the recording on the far end of the telephone line. The voice stated that if you needed a tow, to call Delaney Brothers. Brilliant move for a car dealer out here. Have a special Sunday and evening recording that guides people in need. I called the number the voice recited on the recording. But, it was still Sunday. It rang a couple of times, and then, a human voice. Not a recording, a person. It was Harley. He took my location and said he'd be there in about 30 minutes.
30 minutes is not long, even on the plains of west Texas. I had just spent a two full days driving back to Oklahoma from Los Angeles. I had gone out there to visit a friend, an actor who you may have seen on Geico commercials, who just got married. I took my dog, which meant having to drive. But that's okay, I like road trips and this one would take me over parts of old Route 66, Albuquerque in time to see the sky filled with hot-air balloons. In LA, I spent a day at Disneyland, 54 years after my first visit there in 1956. Then I moved to a hotel on the beach in Venice so we could walk the boardwalk along the ocean. Other highlights were an evening with my friend and his wife and a tour of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. The trip home was more 66 exploration and an evening at the Grand Canyon. Then on to Tucumcari, New Mexico for dinner at Denny's and a night's sleep at Motel 6 (they have a liberal pet policy). The next morning was sunny and I was filled with anticipation to get home that afternoon. But, the trip would not be over quite so soon. I was now walking with Manhattan along an entrance ramp.
A family in a white pickup came down the ramp to ask if I needed help. They turned around in the grass between the ramp and the freeway and went back up the shoulder of the ramp. I thanked them and made a mental note of the kindness of these strangers who went out of their way to make sure I was okay. I opened up the back of the Dodge Nitro, a type of SUV, and let my dog, Manhattan, out so she could walk around a bit. She was being very patient and accommodating during these stops in our trip. She probably sensed the tension in my voice and actions. Harley soon arrived and winched the Dodge up onto the ramp bed of his rather large tow truck. I hoisted Manhattan up into the bed of the truck and climbed up myself. We towed the car on to Pampa, 28 miles north of I-40, but it felt like much longer - we shared little, Harley and I. While I love to travel to other cultures and parts of the country and the world, Harley had probably never left this part of Texas. But, he was a good guy. He mentioned that he normally didn't work on Sundays, but happened to be in the office to pick up something when the phone rang. He took my call. If he hadn't, I am not sure what my plan would have been? Hitchhike (with a dog) to Pampa or Amarillo? But, he did tale my call. And I was very glad to be riding up in the cab of that truck, looking out over the fields of the panhandle. I did learn about new hay baling techniques. Harley called his girlfriend and asked her to call a motel and make a reservation for me for the night. There was only one motel in Pampa that accepted pets. She did. He took me to that hotel and waited patiently while Manhattan and I climbed down and I checked in. I settled into the room and took Manhattan for a walk.
Woody Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, to Nora Belle and Charles Edward Guthrie. His parents named him after Woodrow Wilson, soon to be elected President of the United States. When Woody was 18, he joined his father in Pampa where Woody sporadically went to high school, learned to play the guitar, and got married. I might never have learned all that if my car hadn't broken down. I walked a couple of blocks to a CVS (Convenience, Value, Service) for dog food and then to McDonald's for a lunch salad. After a brief motel rest, we took several walks. I was uncomfortable. How serious would the car repair be? How long would it take? What if they had to order parts from another dealer, in another city? I made some contingency plans. I could stay at the motel for another night. I could rent a car and go home in order to be able to teach class on Tuesday.
After a Taco Bell dinner and some mindless television - my thoughts were too focused on what might happen the next day, I tried to get some sleep. I wasn't too successful. I woke up early and got some breakfast from the motel's breakfast buffet in the lobby. The dealer opened at 8:00 am. I waited until 8:10 before calling. The service rep was very nice and had already taken my car from the fenced in lot to the shop for diagnosis. she said she'd call me as soon as they figured out what was wrong with the car. I thanked her and waited, staring at the phone every few minutes. Where would I be tomorrow?
She called back - it was just a broken water pump and they have one in stock. The car should be ready by early afternoon. Hallelujah. I'll be on my way home.
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