Archives for May 1988

So You Want To Drive There?

An original, true story

Copyright (C) 1998, by Ashley Guberman


So here’s the scenario: I was living in Broomfield, Colorado, just south of Boulder. I had an interview in Yosemite, California, a friend in Arcadia, Washington I had not seen in 4 years, and an Advanced First Aid course back in Boulder in one week. The simple solution seemed to be to make a major road trip out of the deal.

The smartest thing I did was realize that I was going to be putting a lot of miles on a car in a short period of time, and so I decided to get a rental. It was a Geo Prism… past tense. I said it was the smartest thing I did. That’s not necessarily true for the rental company.

Anyway, it all started out simply enough. Innocently enough. My intentions were good, really they were.

I left Denver some time in the afternoon with a full tank of gas, and started heading West. After the first ¼ tank of gas, I had gone 100 miles. By ½ tank, 200 miles. And by ¾ tank, 300 miles. So far so good. Basic math indicated that I should be able to go close to 400 miles on a single tank.

Problem number 1: Non-linear gas gauge.

At about 330 miles, some time around 2:00AM, somewhere on Interstate 70, the car ran out of gas. I had not seen anybody on the highway for quite some time, though I was sure that I was still ON the highway, because there are these signs that keep telling me "Welcome to highway 70 – the loneliest highway in America."

After about 10 minutes, I see another car coming my way and wave at it in the dark. As it passes, he waves back, leaving me behind in the dust. This happens a few more times, until about an hour later, somebody actually stops, and to my good fortune, they have extra gas. So we are going to put it into the gas tank, except that we run into

Problem number 2: Locked gas cap.

You would have thought that the rental agency would give the key, but that would be too simple. We looked all over the dash for a button or something that releases the cap from the inside, but couldn’t find it. Only after looking in the glove-box for the owners manual did I find that the lever is under the drivers seat, hidden from view. So he give me about 3 gallons of gas, I thank him profusely, and intend to go to the next station in town (wherever that may be).

So I’d gone another 50 miles so far, and still had yet to come to a single exit that says anything about gas. I can actually envision running out of gas a second time, just trying to find a gas station. Then, I finally find an exit with a gas station, but it’s closed. Not one to push fate at this point in time, I decide that now would be a good time to go to sleep in the back and fill up in the morning when they open.

So then next day, I wake up in the morning, fill the tank with gas, and keep heading west. I figured on taking just about 2½ days to get there, and there’s just no way around the fact that that is a lot of driving. Eventually, I come to this mountain range in Nevada, and I’m trying to make sure I’m still going the right way to get to Yosemite.

Now, the sensible thing to do when driving in the mountains, and uncertain of directions, would be to pull off the road and check a map. I, however, did not want to loose time, and was looking at my map as I drove, which led to

Problem number 3: the impermeability of guard rails.

Since it was a steep, uphill, winding mountain road, it did not take much time to get off course. A glance at the map was more than enough for me, and when I looked back up, I saw one of those tall, shiny, reflective posts almost right in front of me. Now, these posts are made of plastic, for the sole reason that people like me have a tendency to run into them now and then, and the highway patrol would just assume that they bounce back up and do minimal damage to your car.

Except that I didn’t know that at the time, and swerved violently to the left to avoid hitting this thing, and instead headed off towards the edge of the mountain. Granted, it was not a wise move, but I lived to tell about it. Unfortunately, the guard rail between the edge of the road and the cliff, as well as part of my hood and front bumper did not.

Now, there is this brief section of time that I was only able to piece together logically, because I can not remember it for the life of me. I swerved to avoid that flimsy plastic thingy, headed to the left, and the next thing I remember is this truck barreling down the road, blaring it’s horn like no tomorrow as I watched it coming directly towards my passenger window. I can honestly say that not a single thought entered my mind at that point – I was too busy watching the truck, wondering why it was making all that noise, and wondering why it was that there was no road in front of my car anymore, there instead being this serene view into the valley below.

Fortunately for me, the truck swerved behind me, and headed down the hill. About that time, I realized that something was definitely wrong, and knew that I had damn well better do something about it. I tried to start the engine, but it didn’t even turn over. Apparently, my foot had been firmly on the brake this whole time, and the car was still in gear. Shifting back to park first, I was able to start the car, only to listen to a God-awful noise as I let it roll down the hill enough to get it completely off the road to a safer spot.

That’s when I got out of the car, looked around, pieced together that I must have blacked out momentarily, and that I’d just done more damage to this vehicle than the rental agency was going to let slip by unnoticed. The hood was bent in on the drivers side, the fender was hanging off, rubbing against the wheel, and there was something rubbing against the radiator fan making all that noise. Meanwhile, that plastic road-marker was just fine.

I just sat there a while, really lucky to be alive, I guess, then ripped the bumper the rest of the way off so as not to drag it, and also ripped off that plastic part of the grill that was somehow making all that noise against the radiator fan. I thought for a moment about maybe reporting the accident, except for two things. First, nobody else was hurt, and second, I left a near solid skid mark for close to 50 feet going up hill from one side of the road to the other. I didn’t know my physics real well, but even I knew that a skid mark like that meant I was going at least a little bit faster than I should have been.

On the bright side, I now had plenty of time to consult that map more carefully, and as far as I could tell, I was still going the right way. The car still ran, and I kept driving until I made it to Yosemite later that night in time for dinner. My interview lasted all the next day, was really not all that eventful, and for whatever reasons, I didn’t get the job.

But after the interview, I still had the next leg of my journey, which was to head north into Washington state. Now I suppose that anyone who’s even remotely familiar with California knows that it’s very long going up and down, and had I taken the time to actually measure just how far it was to the most Northwesterly part of Washington, I would have turned around and gone back to Colorado right there.

So chalk that one up to an experiential lesson in geography. I wanted to see an old friend whom I had a terrible crush on four years ago, and she was expecting me. Well, when I got there, the one thing that was clear is that people can change a lot in four years. For example, this woman who was a camp-counselor with me, and who used to be the heart-throb of so many other teen-aged boys, now appeared quite butch, with tattoos and more hair on her legs than most gorillas. We were still friends, but it was clear that in those years, we had grown apart.

Anyway, the next morning, I headed back out on the road again, this time headed back East to attend my first aid course. For the most part, things were uneventful, until I came back to that part of Utah where I had run out of gas on the way out. Determined not to repeat that mistake again, I wanted to fill up before I entered the desert section. It was some time close to 11:30PM when I was going to pull into a gas station.

It was a 3-lane road, with the center lane for turning… except that for some reason that part eluded me. I was making a left turn from the right hand lane, when this car behind me decided to pass in the turning lane on my left, after I had begun my turn. This, of course, led to

Problem number 4: A major crash.

I never saw it coming until it was too late. Lucky for me, the other driver hit my car just behind the driver’s door, where there was more support. I had my seat belt on, but still banged my head against the side window. Neither of the driver-side doors would open any more, and I either had to get out on the other side, or climb out the window. Since there was the hood of the other car on my left, I opted to get out on the passenger side that time instead.

The other car had a husband and wife, and we were all pretty badly shaken up, but none of us were hurt. The driver’s husband went to the phone and called the police, who were there in a very short while. It didn’t help me much that the officer already knew the couple on a first name basis, and that I was from out of state in a rental. Sure I made a turn from the wrong lane, but they also tried to pass in the turning lane, so we were both in error. However, I was the one who got the ticket.

The whole ordeal took quite some time, and their car had to be towed. Mine still ran, but made a funny noise because part of the right rear quarter panel was rubbing the wheel. I pulled into the gas station because even after all this ordeal, I still needed fuel, only to discover that the gas station had closed just 10 minutes ago. However, the woman inside told me there was another one open just 5 miles down the road.

So I’m driving exactly 35 miles an hour down this road, keeping my eyes out for the gas station, when there’s another car behind me with its lights blaring in my mirror. It was tailing me so close, I figured it had to be another cop car. Sure enough, not more than 2 miles from the accident, his flashing lights went on and he pulled me over.

He comes to the window and says "How are you this evening?"

To which I respond "Honestly, officer, not very well."

"Do you know how fast you were going?"

"Yes officer. I was doing exactly 35 miles an hour because I’m afraid to take this thing any faster than that right now."

"Well, you were actually doing 45 miles an hour, and this is a 25 zone." And with that, he takes a gradual look around the car, then continues with "You were the one just in that accident a while back, weren’t you?"


"Miss, I’m usually not one to take pity on people, but if ever there was a soul more deserving of it than you, I have yet to meet her. Now get out of here, be careful, and remember that your speedometer may have been damaged too."

And with that, I was on my way, humbled, humiliated, haggard and happy. I found that other gas station and attempted to get some gas, only to find that the gas cap would not open. The damage on the drivers side had bent the metal just enough that pulling the release lever would no longer open the cap anymore. That meant that either it was going to take a long time to fill up, or I had to find some way around this problem. Now, the attendant had already seen that I exited my vehicle by climbing out the window, and noticed that I seemed to be taking a long time before actually getting any gas. So it should have been of no surprise to him what I did next.

This next part takes a little creative visualization. While standing outside the car, facing the drivers side door, I stood on my left foot, with my right hand holding onto the hood. Then with my left hand, I reach through the drivers window to the release lever, and pull it while simultaneously kicking just in front of the gas cap with my right foot. So I’m essentially all spread out like a game of twister, except that I’m the only one playing, and I’m making these grunting noises because I have to kick pretty hard to get the cap open, but it does work.

So then I’m back on the road again, headed East for Colorado. I drive through most of the night, stopping at one point to sleep for a while, then keep on going. Eventually, I come to the salt flats in Utah. When I came out this way on my way out, it had been dark, so I never saw them. Now, looking off in the distance, it looked like just off in the horizon was an ocean.

I took one of the side gravel roads to go see the salt flats up close, but it always looked just off in the horizon. The gravel road just sort of petered out, and I kept driving on the sand for another few miles before I stopped to look around. I got out of the car, and just felt the sand in my fingers. It was yellow and white on top, but just an inch below the surface it was dark gray, cool, and moist. It was not much as far as a tourist attraction goes, but I wanted to see it, and now I was ready to go. Except that looking at my car revealed

Problem number 5: Quicksand.

Ok, it wasn’t really quicksand. But my car had unquestionably sunk into the sand considerably further than it should have. In fact, the front wheels were completely buried, and the only thing keeping the car from going any further was that the engine was acting like a giant snow-shoe on the surface are of the ground.

I tried to back out, but of course my wheels just spun like in snow. I got out, found a couple rocks the size of grapefruits, and put them under my wheels, thinking that maybe that would help get me out. Well, those rocks just went SHLOOP, and disappeared beneath the wheels. I tried a few more, and each one just got sucked under to who knows where.

At that point, I just had to laugh at the pure absurdity of the entire situation. Here I was, sitting on the side of the Salt Flats, my car was missing a front fender from hitting a guard rail, there was major damage on the driver side, I had to get in and out via the window, I was maybe 8 miles off the side of the loneliest highway in America, and now my car was sinking into the ground. There were a few lizards running around, and buzzards circling above just waiting for me to crack. But it was all just so stupid that I had to laugh. I had definitely managed to get myself into yet another pickle, and the only one to get me out was going to be me.

By now, I figured that just one or two stones was not going to do it. I was going to need a lot of them. So for about the next two hours, I made repeated trips all over the place to gather stones, putting them into my shirt, which I had turned into a make-shift basket. I built a cobble-stone road one shirt full at a time, one tire-width wide behind each of my tires for about 8 feet. Maybe it didn’t need to be that long, but I was taking no chances.

The vultures had grown in numbers, and the lizards were wondering what the hell I was doing. But I started the car, then oh so gingerly gave it gas in reverse. I made a little progress, but was still riding quite low to the ground. By the end of my miniature runway, my car was again on the surface of the sand, but I knew full well that if I dared to slow down, my car would sink right back down into that muck and I’d have to do it all over again. I had no idea how far this soil condition persisted, so I drove the entire 8 miles back to highway 70 in reverse at about 25 miles an hour before I dared to stop and breath.

And then I was back on the road again. Soon, I had entered Colorado, and knew that this was the home stretch. That’s when I started thinking about what I was going to tell the rental agency when I brought back this hunk of metal that once looked like a perfectly good automobile. Try as I might, there was really no story good enough to cover all the damage I had inflicted on this poor Geo Prism. None.

I initially figured I’d just say nothing. Like, maybe they won’t notice if I just pull up nonchalantly, climb out the window gracefully, and pull my bag from the trunk. Maybe if I at least filled the tank before returning it, they wouldn’t find out what it took to open the gas tank until after I was gone. And maybe, just maybe, if I closed the trunk back quickly enough, they wouldn’t notice the bumper and part of the grill that was in there. The truth is that I had no idea what I was going to say when I pulled onto the rental lot, but I knew it was going to be unique, whatever it was.

I don’t know just what I was expecting them to say, but it was certainly not "Whooooo Weeee! What on EARTH have you done to that car?"

So then, with a completely straight face, I climb out of the window as these two folks watch me, I look them straight in the eye, and tell them "ummmm… I had a little door ding."

Now, granted, not even Arnold Schwartzenager could not have given me such a door ding, but at this point, I was just so glad to be back home, that I no longer cared.

Thank God for insurance.