The two-lane highway stretched and dipped over the barren landscape, snaking every few miles. Creosote plants, shrubs of Mormon Tea, and the occasional dilapidated house were the only breaks in endless sand.
It was close to noon on a hot June day, 1997. Sunbeams were bouncing off the metallic-blue ’74 Plymouth Duster. Two white pinstripes raced down its sides and sickles of chrome spanned from the center bore of each wheel, giving the impression that they were ready to slice through any oncoming obstacle. One look and you knew the car was pure muscle.
Or so you thought.
Underneath the hood, the illusion was destroyed — an uninspiring six-cylinder sat in the place of a monster-sized Hemi. The little-engine-that-could was sufficient enough to carry 3,315 pounds of Detroit steel, but to expect anything resembling “high performance” was ludicrous.
Crawling past the engine, you would discover a lack of air conditioning. For some reason, the original owner decided it wasn’t a requirement. He must not have lived in the American Southwest.
Yeah, my baby was not all she could be. I planned to work over the summer with my dad, a retired mechanic, and remedy these issues. As long as she got me from point A to point B and the windows would roll down, I was okay.
Prior to this journey through the badlands, I had just wrapped up my freshman year at Arizona State University (ASU). Truth be told, the formal education part was minimal. The year I spent there wasn’t so much about unadulterated book-learning as it was putting in minimal effort to pass a few general education classes; just enough so I could enjoy my new found freedom as a “man” living on his own. Sadly, this minimal amount of work was more than I was truly prepared for and I wound up starting my official education over at a community college the following autumn.
My last week at ASU turned out to be a mix of celebration and trials. A friend of mine from back home, Billy, had flown out to partake in the final throes of free-living and provide some company for the six hour drive home. We tried to make the most of it, visiting several local landmarks and going to our favorite after-hours nightclub (we had to wait until they closed the bar).
The hard part was saying goodbye to friends I’d made throughout the year, knowing I’d lose touch with almost all of them and never see them again. That and packing up a dorm room that I finally organized as much as an 18-year-old male can organize. In the end, I had expected those things. What was not expected, was the sudden bad behavior of my muscle-car-that-wasn’t.
A decision to visit Scottsdale Fashion Square one last time led to the Duster stalling in the middle of a busy intersection. Billy, a couple of friends, and I pushed the car into the parking lot of a nearby Fuddruckers. I found a pay phone and rang up the Automobile Club (AAA).
They towed it in to a local auto shop and after some diagnostic work, I was told the battery had given up the ghost. I wasn’t too surprised. I hadn’t changed it since I purchased it a couple of years prior and by the looks of it, it may have even been the original.
I paid to have it replaced and all seemed well until two days later. The car refused to start in my dormitory parking lot. As annoyed as I was, at least I wasn’t pushing the damn thing off the street. A jump start was enough to get me on the road to a local Pep Boys, but at the first stoplight, the idle motor stalled.
After pushing it into yet another strip mall, I managed to have it towed to the Pep Boys. They kept it in the shop overnight and called the next day. They assured me the issue was most definitely, without a doubt, the alternator.
$300 poorer, but with a brand new alternator, the only concerns in my mind were the moths gathering in my checking account. The day of departure had arrived and I said my final goodbyes. Billy and I left early in the morning and could already feel the Phoenix sun beginning its work on the vinyl seats. A couple of hours later, we pulled into a Dairy Queen located in the small town of Parker, Arizona. With milkshakes in hand, we were able to pacify the heat. Life was good.
About an hour-and-a-half later, we approached the edge of Twentynine Palms, home to a large marine base and not much else. Suddenly, the car began to lose acceleration.
The side of this stretch of highway is no place to pull over unless you have a four-wheel drive vehicle. Filled with extremely soft sand, any normal car looking to escape its clutches would spin its wheels silly. Luckily, we were near one of the occasional dirt roads carved out for access to the backcountry.
A wooden sign with peeling white paint told us we had turned into Lanes Lane.
We managed to roll about ten feet onto the road before the Plymouth cut out completely. Billy and I stared at each other, trying to figure out our next move. All those times I could have spent with my dad, learning the ins and outs of cars, rushed into my mind. But I was a stupid kid who thought he had better things to do. That attitude left changing the oil as the greatest trick in my repertoire.
Neither of us had a cell phone. (Did I mention it was 1997 and we were both poor college students?) Hanging off the sides of Lanes Lane, there were a couple of those beat-up houses, but neither of us felt brave enough to approach them. It was hard to tell what was occupied and what was abandoned. We thought our best move was to look for an emergency call box. I assumed that all we needed to get home was another battery, so if a tow truck could bring one out, we’d probably be okay.
While Billy and I discussed who would take the two mile hike and who would watch the car, a small hatchback emerged from the far reaches of Lanes Lane. It pulled up slowly. As the car approached, I peered through the dusty windshield and saw a pair of tiny hands clutching the wheel, appearing ready to steer out of harm’s way.
The woman was short and slight. Her close cropped gray hair magnified her large-framed eyeglasses. She was wearing a tank top revealing freckled, leathery shoulders, a common sight among the desert dwellers who have an odd disdain for sunscreen.
She eyed us cautiously. I tried to put on a big smile and look as defeated as possible, though I’m sure it came out naturally. I kept some distance between myself and her car.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hi miss,” I replied. “My battery is dead and my friend and I are trying to get home from college.”
I had no intention of asking her for a ride. I just felt a need to explain our situation.
She looked over and evaluated our car. The rear window nearly obscured by folded blankets and overstuffed garbage bags.
After a moment of silence, she looked back at me. “You’re lucky it was me that came along,” she said. “Folks ’round here have guns.”
“I have a son in college right now. I’d hate to see him stranded like this.”
She finally smiled and motioned her head toward the passenger door.
Billy and I decided it was probably best if we both came along, so we took our chances, locked up the car, and joined our Good Samaritan.
I can’t remember her name or much of what she said on the twenty minute ride into town, but I vaguely recall it was mostly about her son. My own mind was occupied, hoping and praying a simple battery replacement was all we needed. If not, we’d have to call a family member to make the four hour round-trip drive to pick us up and then I’d have to come back at some point to grab the car from a repair shop, an establishment I was beginning to lose my faith in.
My thoughts also turned to the strange, yet helpful people I’d met in these desolate California deserts. Some of them simply preferred to lead a solitary life, but many were there because they were running from someone or something. It seemed the further they were from the center of town, the stranger people grew. I remember my dad used to barter cases of Pepsi with some guy for car parts (if only the alternator from Pep Boys had cost me a few liters of Mountain Dew).
But in all my interactions with them, my prejudices had been turned on their head. These are people that had probably been judged harshly for most of their life and yet they are among the kindest folks I’d ever met.
We soon arrived at an AutoZone. I grabbed a battery and we headed back to the Duster. The car was still in one piece when we arrived and the kind woman stayed with us until I swapped out the dud.
The moment of truth.
I turned the keys and the car started right up. We thanked the woman and she wished us a safe journey before heading back down Lanes Lane, toward the hills. I didn’t think about the fact that she never ended up doing whatever it was she drove out for in the first place.
A couple of hours later, we reached our destination with daylight to spare. The following day, my dad and I cracked open the hood to diagnose the problem together.
It was traced down to a faulty two-dollar cable.
Though my wallet was dealt a critical blow that week, over time, it turned out the adventure and memories were well worth the price of admission.