It was not yet dawn on that late June day in 1984 when we pulled back on I-40 and would soon be leaving Kansas. We were driving a Dodge rental truck full of my junk and pulling a ‘73 VW bus that contained more of my junk. After having lived in Topeka for two years, I was happily heading back to the Pacific Northwest, specifically Portland, Oregon. My friend Dan, who lived in Washington had eventually grown tired of my whining and agreed to help me move, and so far, he’d begun to regret the decision. The trip had begun with a couple of small problems. First we got a late start after some confounding issues with a hitch, and second, I had managed to lose the truck keys before we even ended the first day of travel. Although we’d eventually figured out the hitch and I had found the keys, Dan was less than thrilled to be involved in this adventure. But, with the start of a new day, he had decided to keep his misgivings to himself.
It had rained during the night, but the clouds had moved on east and the world looked fresh and green as we crossed into Colorado. Surprisingly, the landscape did not change and this part of the state looked just as flat as Kansas. Dorothy would have felt very much at home. The lush verdant of the early morning prairie soon lost its appeal as the hot sun of June dulled the sheen of the early day.
However, after a few hours of driving west the horizon began to change dramatically. The mountains slowly became visible; and after the monotonous plains the rugged, sharp landscape in front of us presented an exciting image. We would soon be up in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
But first, we had to get through Denver.
Fortunately it was mid-day as we joined the traffic of the Mile High City, but we we became a little nervous as the highway kept adding lanes while cars and trucks around us kept going faster. Several drivers came up behind the truck and flashed their bright lights with impatience as we tried to steer our way through the city.
I was tempted to speed up, but the bus tended to fishtail if our speed climbed above fifty miles per hour. While I gripped the steering wheel harder, Dan looked at the now-ragged map, trying to keep us on I-70. The Interstate route was not easy to follow as the green signs frequently had destinations of cities and parks without noting what highway we were on. Dan cursed freely as we got herded off onto an exit that led us into an industrial area by large semis that had drivers who obviously had anger problems. A small, slow truck pulling a VW bus did not belong on their streets.
Eventually with Dan alternately wildly pointing at a street that looked like it might lead back to the Interstate, grabbing at the dashboard in terror or cursing at the trucks surrounding us we somehow found our way back to I-70 going west toward the Eisenhower Tunnel and up into the mountains.
It was steep going, but, on the map it looked like the quickest way through the Rockies rather than going the longer route up through Boulder and on through Wyoming. But the grade turned out to be too much for the truck.
We had only gone maybe twenty miles out of Denver, driving with less frantic traffic than earlier, going our top speed of 50 mph uphill when the truck’s engine started acting peculiar. It would be running smoothly and then do something like a hiccup and burp. Then it would continue to run normal for a mile. Then the hiccups turned into something more ominous, a long tortuous gagging sound, like a person might make just before vomiting.
Dan was also making noises, hissing and grumbling each time the motor faltered. He pointed at several possible exits off the Interstate, but I was too slow to turn off. He was ready to yank the steering wheel away from me, but I explained in a loud voice that I was turning into a rest area that I’d spotted. In a louder voice he pointed out that it was not a rest area where we were going, it was just a viewpoint where travelers could look at the majesty of the Rocky Mountains (as well as the smog above Denver).
He was right. It was just a small parking area off the highway where tourists could get out, stretch, take a few photos and then leave. There was no phone booth or even a toilet. Other than a couple of men standing next to their cars, one a beat up old Ford, the other a new BMW sedan. We were alone. The two guys were obviously concluding a drug deal, furtively exchanging cash for a small, clear, plastic bag containing something that looked like salt or baking soda.
By this time our truck’s engine had stopped running. My efforts to start it were futile as I cranked the starter. We could smell gas and agreed the engine was likely flooded but disagreed how to fix the problem. Dan wanted to wait a few minutes and try the starter again. My idea was to place a screw driver into the throat of the carburetor, holding the vanes open, allowing the gasoline fumes to disperse.
The truck’s motor was basically under the cab, and access to it was a metal cover between the seats. After releasing a few clamps and lifting the cover the engine was immediately visible. Dan was dubious and decided that he would watch the procedure from outside the truck, not trusting my ability as a mechanic. He stood with the passenger door open and muttered as I removed the cover off the engine.
It all looked familiar to me as I removed the air filter from the top of the carburetor and handed to Dan. He took the piece and stood back a little further. Not having a screwdriver I rummaged around in the glove box and found an old ballpoint and asked Dan to hold in the throat of the carb while I turned the engine.
After he flatly refused to help me with this simple task I found a piece of wire that I wound around the pen and shoved it into place. Then I turned the key of the ignition.
A large poof followed by a flame that thankfully extinguished itself as the engine roared to life. I admitted to Dan that I was not expecting the small explosion, but, I pointed out, the truck was now running.
Dan was not as impressed, and in fact it took a lot of apologies and convincing to get him back into the truck even after the air filter and motor cover were safely back in place. Still, it seemed prudent to have the truck looked at by a mechanic before continuing on up over the mountains. Something that fixes itself will eventually break itself.
We carefully chugged up the Interstate until we found an interchange where we could turn around. As we started back down toward Denver, we looked for a place that had a pay phone (cell phones were still only in the comics as Dick Tracy’s “two-way wrist radio.”) At the same time we saw a green sign that indicated that a restaurant and facilities were just ahead.
The engine started sputtering again as we pulled into the parking lot of a trendy little place in the woods where tourists and locals gathered with a bar connected to a restaurant. I found the rental papers with an emergency number and went inside where I found a telephone booth just inside the entrance. I dialed the number listed on the papers while Dan headed toward the bar.
The person that answered the phone was very friendly and said that the company valued my business and that an agent would be on the line shortly. I waited for several minutes while listening to jarring, loud music from an oldies station. Eventually somebody interrupted the noise with a raspy voice that was intermittent with static.
“Buzz, buzz -lo, this is buzz buzz, how can I help you?”
I tried to gather my thoughts and then babbled on about my predicament for several minutes. A few long seconds went by and the only thing I could hear was another conversation that seemed to be in a foreign language.
I asked if there was anyone there. The answer was now so loud that I had to hold the phone away from my ear. The voice wanted to know where I was calling from. I had no idea, but I explained that I was not far from Denver.
The voice loudly asked what state I was in.
I longed to join Dan in the bar where I could see him wiping foam off his mustache.
After the voice and I shouted back and forth for five minutes, the voice told me to call back in twenty minutes while someone would look for a repair facility close to where we were.
I took the opportunity to go to the bar and explain to Dan what the situation was, and all in all, he took it well. I realized that he’d had more than one beer and was probably on his fourth while he chatted happily with his new friends who were from California and Illinois.
It was necessary to call back twice, but after almost an hour, someone (a woman with an English accent) gave me the address of a repair place with whom the rental company had a contract. The garage was in the middle of Denver, but, she explained, I could go back to the rental agency in Topeka and return the truck for another, if I wished.
After a nightmare of a drive in the early rush hour with the motor threatening to stall at any time, we eventually found the shop just before they closed for the day. The guy at the desk looked as if he bathed in grease and chain smoked Camels as he guessed at what might be causing the problem with the truck. He suspected that the carburetor was sticky and that they should have it fixed by ten the next morning.
There was nothing to be done but to disconnect the bus from the truck while wondering if we could ever figure out to get the complicated hitch back on again. It had taken hours to do the hook up in Kansas and the frustration had almost caused me to break into tears. But with a lot of cursing, sweat and bruised knuckles, we’d eventually found the solution. Hopefully the miracle would repeat itself in the morning.
We found a motel that didn’t look terribly diseased and checked in. The young Vietnamese woman at the desk accepted my credit card without a word and handed us a key. She pointed to the stairway and said, “Your room on floor two.” And as we turned away she added, “No smoke.”
Of course, when we opened the door to the room, it smelled like the place had been occupied for weeks by someone who had a four-pack-a-day habit. I went back to the desk and asked if there was another room. The woman looked at me for a moment and frowned.
“No, no. All full up. Very nice room.”
Later, after returning from the nearby Taco Bell and watching Bonanza in black and white, we noticed that the room was getting quite chilly. There did not seem to be a thermostat or heat control any where. But the room was steadily getting colder. So, I picked up the telephone and called the desk, wondering if the heat could be turned on.
“Oh no. Only air conditioner,” was the answer.
Our evening was completed by finding the shower temperature was barely tepid and the stool could not be flush except by reaching into the tank for a slimy piece of string and pulling the valve open.
Dan said that he would pick the next night’s accommodations.