Before cell phones were commonplace, before cell phone towers dotted the country like stars dot the sky, car problems were trickier to negotiate.
Nowadays, if you have car issues, you whip out your trusty phone, call AAA or whatever service you pay for towing and flat tires, and within hours you’re on your way again.
Not that many years ago, it wasn’t that simple.
Driving North with two of my young daughters we crossed the Reservation, enjoying the strange and changing scenery, when the Honda van we were in started hesitating. That particular stretch of road was only two lanes, with a narrow shoulder. I pushed down the panicky feeling and watched for a pullout area, which was usually only the size of a car and just inches from the roaring traffic.
As the van sputtered and lurched forward, I put on my emergency flashers, hoping there’d be time for the cars behind me to slow down before plowing into our backside. Fortunately, the next pullout we chugged up to was actually one of those spots built to accommodate sales of Native American trinkets, jewelry and fry bread. There were no people, and no cars, just us, the wind, and an occasional scuttle of clouds overhead.
I popped the hood and looked inside. I checked out the parts I knew about. Oil levels. Coolant levels. Loose belts. Battery terminals. We had plenty of gas since I’d filled up in Flagstaff. All appeared as it should.
Maybe the car just needed a bit of rest. We got out the snacks, had some water, explored the nearby sagebrush and torn up barbed wire fencing. Half an hour later, we all climbed back into the van and I started it back up. Everything sounded fine. So off we went. Ten minutes later, the chugging and spluttering began again only worse. Again I looked for a pullout.
This time we rolled into a large pullout with a Semi truck and trailer parked. I felt lucky thinking I could simply ask the trucker for help. Or at the very least, he could put out a call on his CB radio and send a tow truck. But as far as my knocking could tell, there was no one in there. More than likely, the trucker had crawled into the sleeping nook and was catching some Zz’s.
My next option was a quarter-mile hike to what looked like a tiny settlement, a small church, some kind of housing structures, a dirt path between them. And best of all, a thick wire hanging from the church to one of the buildings, indicating electricity or phone service. What I found was a solitary, ancient grandmotherly figure inside the open doorway of one of the huts who didn’t speak English. I did my best sign language for indicating the need for a telephone and she did her best to let me know I was up a creek without a paddle.
I hiked back to the van. We had plenty of water and food in our ice chest. So the heat wouldn’t be a problem. But what to do?
The girls were coloring on some paper they’d brought for getting through the boredom of the long drive. I decided to make a sign. “Please call AAA” it said in large block letters. Then I taped it, using their stickers, to the back of the van. Forty five minutes later a couple of women in a red convertible stopped to get our story, check on our status and offer to call a tow truck for us when they got to Flagstaff.
Hours later a tow truck lumbered into the pullout where we sat bored beyond all reason. It was nearing evening and I was relieved to not have to spend the night on the side of the road.
The driver filled out some paperwork and then proceeded to hook our van up with a thick chain. Then he lowered the back-end of his truck at an angle and was ready to pull it up on the bed of the truck, which would then level out. He looked at the three of us and said, “you’ll have to ride in the van, I don’t have room in my truck up front.”
My heart nearly stopped. Surely that wasn’t safe. Or legal.
“Are you sure? I could hold one of the girls on my lap,” I replied, desperation in my voice.
“We do it this way all the time,” was his only reply. Conversation over.
Next thing we knew we found ourselves perched high atop the back of a tow truck, a stellar view of the sunset, the reddening cliffs and the heart stopping path ahead. A winding road barely clinging to the side of the cliffs.
As we proceeded up the cliff, the tow truck sputtered, the driver down shifted, the gears made a horrific grinding sound, and I was sure we would plummet in a fiery mass down to the bottom.
It was all too terribly reminiscent of another cliff side drive I had endured.
All the way up the mountain the gears ground and roared and argued with the driver. I told the girls to pray. I prayed like I’d never prayed in my life. Being stranded overnight on the side of the road seemed like a better alternative at that point.
After the longest ride I’d ever endured in a vehicle, we finally, miraculously made it to the closest town for hundreds of miles. The driver dropped us off at one of dozens of motels, our suitcases dragging pitifully behind us. He dropped the van off in the parking lot at the back. I was on my own to find a mechanic the next morning.
Oddly, the mechanic could find nothing wrong. We drove it around town, out on the open highway and back to the motel and it behaved perfectly.
“Probably some bad gas you got in Flagstaff,” he concluded. He was kind enough not to charge me for his time or his opinion.
For the rest of the drive to and from our destination, the van performed as if nothing had ever been wrong. Perhaps the precarious ride up the side of the mountain had scared it into submission.
Nowadays, the Reservation has some of the best cell phone reception in the western United States if I should need my trusty cell phone. But I’d rather not have to use it to call a tow truck.