As I was standing on the side of the road on Highway 46 at a spot I later learned was 10 miles west of Lost Hills, CA, I took a long look around. I’ve been in some remote places before – a section of the Great Wall of China two hours north of Beijing is pretty out there as is a stretch of Interstate 80 between the Nevada border and Salt Lake City – but this had them both beat. By a mile.
Seriously and literally, there was nothing as far as I could see in any direction but flat brown fields. Except of course for the cars and trucks going by in either direction bearing toward their destinations with the same certainty I had been feeling about 10 minutes earlier. Until, of course, the transmission in our 2005 Honda Odyssey decided it had had enough.
We were 3.5 hours into a loosely planned and highly anticipated summer vacation when circumstances dictated that our plans were going to loosen up just a bit more. At precisely 12:30 PM on that early June Saturday the entire Berry clan was on the side of the road wondering what was next.
I was not terribly surprised by that fact that it was a hot day. (105 I later learned.) It matched the situation perfectly and served the purpose of heightening the anxiety of our situation. Though our cell phones were functional and we had a bit of water and a few snacks I still had a profound feeling of dread that would only grow as the day wore on, our plans completely at the mercy of a cast of unknown characters whose own agendas hadn’t previously called for our presence either.
The problem with breaking down where we did is that there’s just nothing close by. Nothing. And on a Saturday this problem is magnified by the fact that much of what is “close by” (a mechanic, for example) is closed because the demand just isn’t there. All of this we learned from our AAA tow-truck driver, Cody, who arrived about an hour after we had broken down. (One of the many personal insights I had over the course of this 11 hour experience is that I live my life in a big, damn hurry. Watching Cody go about his labors to attach our car to his rig and get it smoothly, successfully and safely into place was an experience of such painful slowness I nearly came out of my skin. In this new landscape, my need to have it happen NOW was just not going to be met. And this was before we got to the mechanic!)
Cody proceeded to take us back from where we had already come (one of the highest ranking travel frustrations a person can experience, in my opinion [a nice corollary to my being in a big damn hurry, don’t you think?]) in search of a mechanic who could and would see to our difficulty, during which time I learned over to my wife and said: “you know, Deepak Chopra says that wherever you are is exactly where you are supposed to be. It is exactly what the universe has intended for you.” She smiled and I paused and then added: “I think Deepak Chopra is stupid.” But in my heart I knew he was right and as we motored on I could only wonder, why here? And, why now?
After going nearly 40 miles in the wrong direction on Highway 46 we found F&R Auto Repair in Wasco, CA, home of a large state prison and grower of 55% of all roses produced in the United States. I didn’t learn this fact from Felipe or Rafael but from a Google search I did about an hour ago. (I mention this only because the last, and I mean the last thing ANY person not from Wasco would associate with Wasco is roses. When Shakespeare wrote “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” he did so with the ignorance of never having visited Wasco!)
F&R Auto has seen guys like me before, especially when the temperature goes up. They are used to the urgency, the frustration, the pacing and the impatience. They are used to the beleaguered ignorance about how cars work and the time and effort it takes to fix them. Rafael let me know that Felipe is the “transmission guy” but that he wouldn’t be back for a “little while.” So, we went to lunch.
When we returned, Felipe was back but my car was in the same spot out on the street. When he finally got to it at about 6:00 PM, four hours after we arrived, Felipe confidently proclaimed that he was 95% sure that a transmission flush and other stuff I didn’t understand would take care of the problem and we’d be on our way that very day. The people rejoiced and were buoyed by the promise of getting on with the trip.
It didn’t work.
And, between them, the brothers F&R explained that a transmission repair/replacement would take at least one week and was, how shall I say it, not cheap.
At this point the feeling of being stuck was growing quickly, led by the reality that we were. The nearestrental car option was 30 minutes away in Bakersfield but getting there was another matter. Until Felipe offered to let us borrow his car to make the trip. We accepted his gracious offer with the resignation that our car was staying put and we were hitting the road, further in the wrong direction in pursuit of a vehicle with which we could salvage our vacation. And this is where we hit the low point.
Approaching the Avis and Budget rental car counters at the Bakersfield airport (Hertz had no more cars and National was closed. Saturday night, remember?) we waited as two parties in front of us returned keys to cars they had just occupied. When it was our turn to attempt to rent a car, however, we were told (in the most sickly sincere and sorry for your situation way possible) that THERE WERE NO MORE RENTAL CARS. If I thought we were stuck before, the feeling took on new heights as the pit in my stomach opened wider. My biggest regret in this whole experience is that I didn’t ask about the cars that had just been returned. I’m pretty sure the shock of the moment prevented rational thought but shouldn’t I have been able to count on the rental car guy to, I don’t know, see an opportunity to rent a car! Clearly, there are policies that prevent this sort of chaotic, rapid rental car turnaround and we were living proof of it. Damn.
The drive back to Wasco was really tough. The kids we’re holding it together well but I was starting to come a bit unhinged. With the benefit of perspective and hindsight of course we weren’t really stuck. In this world, a working cell phone and a credit card is just about all you need to get out of a jam. But, the feeling…the feeling of having no control, of being at the mercy of our circumstances rather than being able to dictate them, was deeply humbling and desolate. Again, the loss of control was just so brutal. Yes, this is exactly where we were supposed to be – perhaps only to feel this feeling – and I hated every second of that drive back to Wasco.
Somewhere along northbound Highway 99, coming out of the fog of my helplessness, it struck me that if Felipe was willing to loan us a car to drive to Bakersfield maybe he would rent us a car for the coming week. Maybe he would part with this big, beautiful bronze Suburban. Maybe this bruising, gas-guzzling beast was our way out of Wasco. He said “Sure. No problem.” And just like, we made a deal.
Driving away at 10:30 that evening, belatedly headed for our first planned destination, a few things dawned on me:
1. Felipe and I made our agreement on a handshake. It’s been an awfully long time since I’ve done that. Sure, he had my car and knew I was coming back but, still, it was both welcome and refreshing.
2. People want to be helpful and sometimes you just have to ask for what you need. Felipe and Rafael were not only helpful but they did so in the most humble, simple way possible. At one point Rafael said to me: “I still believe there are good people in the world.” I know he’s right.
3. My control needs are massive. The fact is, I had to get out of there and anything short of that would feel like failure. By asking for help I was able to get my family back on the road. I was able to win. There’s a part of me that’s really proud of that initiative and that competitiveness. There’s also a part of me wondering why I couldn’t accept the reality of an overnight in Wasco and a return to the Bakersfield airport; why I couldn’t roll with it a little easier, turn it into an adventure, and just BE where I was in a more thoughtful way.
I am a work in progress, this much I know. And, because I have many miles to go before I sleep I will strive to keep noticing, keep learning and keep evolving. And maybe, just maybe, the next time I’m in Wasco I actually will take some time to stop and smell the roses.