Lanes Lane

Lanes Lane BW

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.”

Another pause.

“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.

“Hop in.”

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.


0 thoughts on “Lanes Lane

  1. […] spent about six days drafting and refining a little anecdote from my past, Lanes Lane. I enjoyed writing this, largely because it gave me the opportunity to work on my prose while not […]

  2. Very well written, Phillip, and I spent some time at Twenty Nine Palms — pretty awful place… : )

    BTW, I loved the opening, and reading that made me realize that — if I can be honest — I think you’re more than ready to tackled and complete a novel. And honestly, I think you’re over studying it with all the books you’re reading.

    It seems like you’ve mentioned that you get started on something and it fizzles out. That used to happen to me a lot, so if you haven’t already read part of this book I’ll link to below, I say read part of it and then make a pact with yourself to go all out on a novel. No more short stories. No more beautiful blog entries like this. No more practice. Just write the novel and make sure you finish it.

    Anyway, the book I’m referring to is here: The Marshall Plan for novel writing — It has a lot of good stuff about structure and outlining — something I hate and only use as much as absolutely necessary.

    But, I think we’re wired a lot a like when it comes to writing, and my gut — and what I’ve read of yours — tells me you don’t need to be studying writing, character, and other parts of it all. I think you figure out your structure shortcomings/tendencies, and then goes balls out on a novel of your liking.

    If I’m totally honest, I think an author can study too much, and then things seem more complicated and difficult. In truth, it’s not hard. It’s just storytelling, and then polishing that up with writing skills. Now, hitting a grand slam obviously takes decades of work, but I think you’d get more enjoyment and reward back from getting a novel done and seeing some sales. That’s my honest thoughts. You know I love you. Hope none of my hastily written message is taken wrong, and the good thing about being so late in reading this is that probably very few of your regular readers will see it and rip me an new one.


    1. Wow. Stan, thanks first and foremost for taking the time to read this. As I typed it up, I asked myself, “I wonder if Stan was ever stationed out at Twentynine Palms?” 🙂

      Secondly, I really appreciate your vote of confidence in me. Believe it or not, I’m making good progress on my current novel attempt. I think my problem in the past has been jumping in to the writing too soon. It may be the way my brain works.. I dunno… But I find that if I don’t have a good plan upfront, I get lost in all those words I’m typing up. I feel like my novel turns into a house of cards and any move I make can bring the whole thing down. And then I dread the fact that even if I finish it, I’ll probably have to rewrite the whole thing from scratch because I think of a better way to tell the story.

      I’m trying a different tack this time around… really spending time and effort to plan my characters, setting, and plot up front. Working out all of those ‘better ways’ up front. And I mean LOTS of time. I’ve tried to do that before, but after a couple of weeks, I get anxious and start writing. Then the wiring in my brain revolts and I burn out when I realize the mountain of work I have ahead of myself to make that mess coherent. I finally came to a realization of sorts. Why the hell am I trying to write this or that scene when I don’t even understand how it fits in the whole story? I learned that before I can play chess, I need know how the board is set up… I need to know what each piece does and doesn’t do… I need to understand my opponent. I need to pick metaphors that probably make more sense than chess. 😉

      But hopefully you get my point!

      You’re definitely spot on in your last paragraph. Reading too much about the craft can lead to overthinking things and cause another form of paralysis. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t my own worst enemy there. I spent almost a year telling myself, “I’m not ready yet. I haven’t read all of these books on writing. I’m just wasting my time otherwise.” I like to think I’ve learned better, but time will tell.

      So my new process is to work on the big picture of my novel and improve my actual writing techniques with the blog/short stories, simultaneously. I’ve really been enjoying it so far, because I get that enjoyment of writing that you talk about. But I also am not fretting so much over the novel anymore. I’ve already spent days working on my characters and realizing, “Holy shit! This is so much better than my initial idea and completely changes the way I was going to write that scene.”

      Anyway, I’ve rambled for long enough… but as always, my friend, I appreciate your faith in me and you willingness to help a budding writer. If anyone wants to rip you a new one, they’ll have to get through me first!

      1. Oh, so glad to hear you ARE working on a novel! And I like your plan. And I’m sooo glad you agree about not over-complicating it. Most writers get defensive when I say that, and it’s difficult to defend, so I usually don’t bother… : )

        So, can you say what the gist of your novel is about?

  3. @Stan – Oh yeah, no worries. I find that if I get defensive about something, either I don’t believe it so much myself or I think I know better than the person calling me out. Both are dangerous ways of thinking!

    About the novel, well, I was debating whether to post about it, but it’s in such an infant state right now. It may change quite a bit when I’m finished. I’ll say that it’s set in the late 1800s in the Sierra Nevadas and involves some outlaws trying to get to Mexico. There’s a supernatural element I’m throwing in as well, centered around Japanese folklore. Pretty wacky, I know… but if I can pull it off, I think it will make it a good story.

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