Back in the days of prairie schooners and hostile savages
a trip of one hundred and twenty miles was a serious undertaking
full of adversities and vexations. Some of these setbacks
reached their climax as an undertaking of a different
sort –one involving a rough pine box. But those
years are now just collections of sepia toned
images on museum walls. With modern motorways come AAA,
emergency patrols and friendly natives. What can possibly
happen in one hundred and twenty miles?
After nearly twenty years in the San Felipe area, the
trip to Mexicali is a ritual I had performed countless
times, so many times the required body motions were as
automatic as a sneeze. The only difference this time was
going to be the vehicle. I needed something with a lot
of room. I didn’t trust my old truck to make the
journey without its usual complaints of lumbago and arthritis
so I borrowed a van from a friend. My friend said the
vehicle had not been used in some time but she had dutifully
started it every weeks or so. She knew it ran. And it
had given her no problems up to the point it had been
parked, which was after her husband’s death a few
My purpose for the trip was twofold. I would drop a
friend and his wife at a doctor’s office for his
physiotherapy session. And then I would pick up several
rolls of chain link fence to adorn my lot in the ejido.
I was told by the owner of the van it had a tendency
to drain the battery over night. To remedy this, she had
a battery bypass installed, which needed a key. Consequently
two keys were necessary to start the van, which was not
unreasonable. I have rings totaling about 60 keys. They're
for trailers, a camper, a workshop, a number of lockups,
storage containers and god knows what else. This part
of Mexico is fertile pasture for padlocks. They hang everywhere,
like clusters of grapes, and might even be the reason
the peninsula is shaped like a lock pick.
Arrangements were made to pick up the physiotherapy couple
and the journey began early the next morning. The first
sign of a problem, however, was when I arrived to pick
up the van and couldn't unlock the driver's door. The
push latch wouldn’t unclench, even with the lock
release popped up on the inside. I pounded around the
handle and depressed the button several times before it
snapped out and the door finally relented.
The second numbing harbinger was at the gas station when
the gauge needle showed a puritanical tendency and couldn’t
be made to press up against the letter ‘F’,
even after a fifty dollar bribe.
My friend who required the physiotherapy session had
suffered a massive stroke a few months before that left
him paralyzed on his left side. After much difficulty
and the infinitely patient assistance of his wife, he
regained some use of his legs, enough to shamble his way
across brief distances. In all other departments, he was
disenfranchised. His left arm hung limply at his side,
he could not speak intelligibly and his face stubbornly
preserved its collapsed nature. With half his tongue a
strange and lifeless burl in his mouth, he had a habit
of drooling without being aware of it. And because it
was August in San Felipe, there was a great need to keep
hydrated with almost constant applications of water, which
amplified the drooling problem remarkably. The man’s
good wife was like an expert poker player, on constant
vigil for his ‘tell’ and ready with a small
towel to remind him of its public occurrence. He, in turn,
treated the repeated polishing of his mouth as a one year
old in a highchair would, with a sour face and an abrupt
turn of the head.
When we were well on the road out of town, I turned on
the air conditioner, which I had been informed only partially
worked. This was not a lie. It threw out a few columns
of moderately refrigerated air. Even still, the overall
effect was infinitely more preferable to the hundred or
more degrees we were expecting for the afternoon trip
back. But after a half hour, I began to suspect that my
particular column of air had lost most of its come-hither
quality. I had previously noticed my friend fumbling with
his A/C vent with his good hand. So I reached out and
touched my side of the system. It was blowing a tepid
stream at my shoulder. The damn thing had stopped working.
I turned it off. It was going to be an uncomfortable trip.
While the van harrumphed down the highway,
I tried to orchestrate a configuration of opened and partially
closed windows that best brought about medicinal freshets
of air without actually blinding us with storms of whipping
hair. And that was when we discovered another hindrance.
The passenger window didn’t respond to the control
console. A small motor hidden deep in the door whirred
like a fondled kitten, but the window remained a passive
sheet of aquarium glass. My friend’s wife reached
from behind and tried the button on his door handle. No
By additionally opening a few of the manual windows and
air vents, we finally hit upon the best balance between
noise and moving air. I suspected very little of the latter
and more than enough of the former reached my friend,
who was now reaching for his bottled water with greater
next drama occurred just past La Ventana. I felt a vibration
pass up through the steering column and then the normal
road noise suddenly changed pitch. The wheel became a
lifeless weight in my hands and I knew we had suffered
a blow out. There was a dirt road approaching and I wrestled
the van over and shut off the engine. I also turned off
the battery key, just to be safe.
When I got out I saw two healthy tires, so I went around
to the other side of the van and my mouth fell open. The
front right tire was completely gone. Where it should
have been there was a Tim Burton Christmas wreathe made
from black licorice strings.
The spare tire was under a carapace of metal hanging
from the rear door of the van. The tools were inside under
a bench. When I saw the jack I groaned. It was a little
hydraulic cone the size of my foot and looked like it
couldn’t pry open an eyelid. I had to scour the
area for flat rocks to wedge the thing off the ground
enough so it could touch the frame without playing out
its reach. Then I noticed the lug nuts wore ornamental
plastic caps which were too large for the business end
of the tire iron. Removing them was like pulling doorknobs
off bus station bathrooms.
When the spare tire was mounted and the nuts cranked
tight, I lowered the van, using the triple-jointed insect
leg lever supplied with the jack. The thing had a trick
knee and constantly buckled. But when the tire finally
touched the ground and the van continued to sag, the tire
put up next to no resistance. It slowly spread out as
the weight heaped on it with each reverse turn of the
clumsy lever. Finally I pulled the jack free of the vehicle.
The spare tire looked like a Hollywood ad for collagen,
morose and preposterously pouty. I found a gauge in the
glove box and checked the pressure. Ten pounds.
We put everything back in the van but when I tried to
get in, the door wouldn’t open. Even the inside
handle couldn’t open it. So I had to climb over
my disabled friend to get to the driver’s seat.
And that was the way it had to be for the rest of trip.
A painfully ginger and slow crawl to La Vantana brought
us to a rather vacant reception at the snack counter.
We were informed there was no air pump available. Our
schedule was now a horse with a broken leg. But then someone
announced he had a 12 volt pump he would let us use. He
handed us a small cardboard box which we reverently carried
to the van.
The pump looked like a tie clip on life support. We attached
it to the valve stem and plugged the cord into the cigarette
lighter. The thing sounded like an electric can opener
with a deviated septum. I judged the piston was the size
of pellet gun ammunition so it was going to be a long
After several snacks and gallons of water, we were on
our way again. Without a spare tire. Of course if we had
not been constrained to a tight schedule, we probably
could have circled the planet three times without suffering
any calamities. But because we were driving without a
spare tire while trying to keep to a schedule, Murphy,
Barrett, Peter and a dozen other principles joined forces
with bouncing balls, crumbling cookies, some unlikable
apples and a singing fat lady to persecute the other front
tire. They took this hobby to a fatal level on the outskirts
of Mexicali. The other front tire disintegrated in exactly
the same way its brother had.
The schedule was now on a morpheme
drip. I walked across the highway to a drive-thru snack
venue to borrow a phone for a taxi. By the time I returned,
my friends had flagged down a cab. I told them I would
stay and repair the tire. They gave me an address and
phone number and left to be fashionably late for their
appointment. I went back to the snack stand to cancel
the taxi and get directions to a tire shop. There was
one a mile up the road.
It was about a hundred degrees by then and I hoisted
the spaghetti tire onto my shoulder and began stumbling
along the shoulder of the highway, a wavering haze of
commercial buildings belly dancing in my peripheral vision.
My shirt was on rinse cycle when I finally arrived at
a taller. It was a busy day for the patrón.
There were five people ahead of me. While the clang and
huff of steel and pneumatics echoed in the work bay, I
surveyed the rows of available used tires. I found a pair
in good condition, of the right size and price. A workman
finally got to my tire and had it replaced in ten minutes.
I told him I would buy the other tire but needed some
time to get back to the van and return with the second
casualty. The patrón called out to another worker
to temporarily replace him while he helped me load the
spare into the back of his car and drove me back to the
van. He used a floor jack from the trunk of his car to
change the blown tire and I followed him back to his shop
to have the second tire replaced and installed.
Now I had two good front tires and the original spare
was back in its carapace, ready for another emergency.
I reasoned my friends were finished with their appointment
by now; it had been over an hour. I crawled to the driver’s
seat from the passenger side and turned the battery bypass
key. A small spark jumped from it behind the dash. But
the van started so I unfolded the paper with the address
then promptly drove past the road I should have turned
up. Instead, I went almost to the border before deciding
to turn around.
I stopped at a gas station to buy a map. Apparently a
map of Mexicali is as rare as a Davy Crockett lunchbox
in Afghanistan. At my fourth failed attempt in as many
locations, I asked a clerk for directions. He gave me
the impression he didn’t know, but he offered directions
anyway, which served to get me utterly lost. I asked someone
else, and received good directions except they were 180
degrees off and for a while I was driving away from my
destination. I asked a guard in a parking lot to direct
me to Wal-Mart (I remembered being told the medical building
was near Wal-Wart).
Mexicali is a town writhing with traffic. Painted lines
on streets are treated as suggestions. Speed bumps are
strong suggestions. Traffic lights are three colors that
shade into each other without distinct transitions. Car
horns are used to accompany whatever song is playing on
the radio. And motorcyclists drive like bank robbers making
a get-away. In short, Mexicali is a Jurassic bedlam where
a small mammal feels trapped beside shadows of giant,
gnashing reptiles. The ability to panic stop in an instant
is indispensable. But the first time I had to do it in
the van, when someone to my right decided to turn left
across my lane, the vehicle pulled so hard to the side
that I found myself facing oncoming traffic. So on top
of everything else, there was a brake problem.
I drove past Wal-Mart, looking for the street address
of the medical building. That’s when I realized
the numbers on the buildings didn’t seem to have
any pattern. I threw up my arms and turned up a street.
I needed to find a phone booth. The street was incredibly
narrow. It would require very thin pall bearers to carry
a coffin up it. After threading through several of these
pinched alleys I found a place to turn around and made
my way back to Wal-Mart. They didn’t have a map
of Mexicali either.
I tried to use the pay phone outside the store but the
coin slot had been vandalized. Only the card well was
available. So I stood in line to buy a Calling Card. The
smallest denominator was five dollars, so that’s
what it cost me to make a local call to the physiotherapist’s
office. My friend’s wife told me to stay put and
they would come to Wal-Mart.
When they arrived we decided to have some lunch before
collecting the rolls of chain link. When we finally went
out to the van, I turned the battery bypass key then the
ignition key. Nothing. I twisted the ignition key on and
off several times. Then I smelled something burning. Suddenly
a blanket of white smoke rolled out from the left dash.
I reached under and snapped my hand back when I felt something
I turned the battery key off but the smoke kept pouring
out. So I ducked my head under the dash and saw a wire
glowing red. Without thinking, I yanked it free. And I
pulled the other wire off too, just to be sure.
We opened the doors to clear out the smoke, all except
the driver’s, of course. I flipped up the hood to
study the problem. There was some kind of relay bolted
to the firewall above the battery. I followed the wires
from the bypass key and cut them from the relay and battery.
I tried to rewire it, but the still wouldn’t start.
I stared at the relay for almost ten minutes then took
out my steel utility knife and wedged it between a terminal
and one of the relay connectors. Reaching through the
open driver’s window, I turned the ignition key.
The van started immediately. I pulled my knife, put it
back in its case and lowered the hood.
“No more,” I told my friend’s wife.
“We’re going back.”
She was happy to agree and I saw my friend nodding slowly
in his seat.
I had brought a few tapes for the van's cassette player
and now plugged one in. A little music would help soften
the edges of our ragged trip. The player accepted the
tape, remained silent and refused to eject it. Why were
we not surprised?
We stopped to buy more water. The afternoon sun was glaring
through the passenger side and without air conditioning,
the van was becoming a kiln. My friend drank water furiously
and I saw sweat pouring from his forehead. With his good
hand, he used a facecloth to wipe his mouth and face.
After about fifty miles I pulled over and reached over
him. With the button held down and the motor whirring,
I flattened my hand against the glass and pressed downward.
The window slowly opened. When it was half-lowered, I
climbed back behind the wheel. When we were back at highway
speed, I glanced over and saw the look of relief on my
friend’s face, his head angled toward the breeze
that sang through his open window.
The last indignity, a final parting barb from the van
before we reached San Felipe, was at the military checkpoint
near the Ensenada turnoff. In all the trips to and from
Mexicali over the years, I have never been inconvenienced
driving toward San Felipe. The guards have always flagged
me through. But this time they wanted to search the vehicle.
They motioned for the rear door to be opened, which meant
turning off the van to give them the key. I dreaded not
being able to start the engine again. So I tried to explain
through open windows as I crawled to the back and began
folding up the collapsible bunk to expose the rear door
handle. I managed to get it open. They politely poked
and prodded a few things then flagged us on. We secured
everything and buckled up, but when I put the van into
gear the engine died.
I climbed over my friend, who by now must have felt like
a Magic Mountain ride, and lifted the hood. The guard
looked amused as I pulled out my utility knife and wedged
it in the ‘G’ spot. He even held the hood
up as I climbed back over my friend and squirmed into
the driver’s seat. The van started and the guard
was kind enough to pull the makeshift shunt free, close
the hood and hand me the knife while I pampered the accelerator
pedal so the engine wouldn’t stall. And we were
on our way again.
It had been a very long day and the arches of San Felipe
never looked so good. At least once in a lifetime, one
should view them from the trenches of a demon van.