From Assateague, we found our way to Washington and enjoyed a terrific, prolonged stay with our close, close friends Mark and Montse and their daughter, Elena.
Mark also happens to have been my co-conspirator in one of the most poorly planned and prepared for road trips I have ever been on, back in the Cretaceous Era, predating GPS, cell phones, and common sense.
The two of us, the ink barely dry on our diplomas in 1993, found ourselves graduating without really having a good idea of what to do. I had considered continuing on in academia, as I had enjoyed my studies tremendously, but the good people at the Rhodes committee decided against awarding me a scholarship and the only place I applied to in order to continue my work at a graduate level had the audacity to not accept me.
Adrift, and well behind my classmates when it came to seeking gainful employment, I frantically cast about and applied for jobs at everything from advertising agencies to consulting firms to investment banks in New York. After all, I had to pay for my education somehow, and bankers seemed to have lots of money.
Nobody seemed inclined to hire a Canadian liberal arts major with a specialty in literature and cultural anthropology. Every one of the large investment banks I applied to seemed to be compelled to invite me in for an interview, if only to spend the entire interview process asking me a series of questions that revealed their incredulity that a guy with my academic background would actually apply to be an investment banker in the first place.
Of course, the tectonic forces of irony worked their magic to close the gap between myself and these financial institutions, and I got a single job offer, from a management consulting firm that specialized solely in working for (wait for it) investment banks.
With my offer in hand in late May, and a September start date, I realized I had no grand plans for the summer.
This looming vacuum presented both a problem and an opportunity, and I joined forces with the one person I knew full well would be equally as disorganized about his future as I was, and equally as adventure-prone: Mark.
I got all my stuff home to Toronto from New Jersey, leaving Mark with my address (of course, he lived in Houston but no matter) and told him to “pick me up” so we could go on a road trip “somewhere”.
And he showed up, materializing in my driveway in a game-looking mid-80s Ford Bronco with Texas plates, fascinating my neighbors and provoking some concern with my parents (“So, what exactly are you two going to do again?”).
The point was, we didn’t know what we were going to do. We didn’t have much money, but we also didn’t really have anything to do for months, so we figured we’d drive around and see as much of America as we could. It had certainly worked for Kerouac.
While convalescing at my parent’s house and idly reviewing road atlases, a friend of mine came up with some extra Van Halen concert tickets for us, and at one point, as we all rocked our faces off to Cabo Wabo, Mark turned to me and said “Hey – let’s go to Cabo” and we did, leaving the next morning.
We had thrown ourselves wholly and completely at the mercy of the fates as only young men can do, and we had adventure upon adventure. We survived by the skin of our teeth, without the benefit of the constant contact and information afforded by this current era of cell phones and ubiquitous internet connectivity, working from paper and showing up on doorsteps and hoping our friends would be home (indeed, hoping they were the right doorsteps in the first place).
We got into trouble but never danger, at least for the most part.
All kinds of things went wrong, which almost always led to something going right.
We wandered around the beach at Charleston late one afternoon because we were broke and had nowhere to stay. The two lifeguards on duty took pity on us and dragged us out for a night on the town.
The Bronco’s alternator decided to throw in the towel in the middle of the Painted Desert, at dusk, and we coasted to the shoulder of the road as the stereo emitted the last, drawn-out words of our favorite books on tape series (the adventures of detective Travis McGee), and we wondered what the hell we were going to do.
So, we sat on the tailgate and Mark pulled out his guitar and we sang and I fixed us bourbon, lime and warm Coke cocktails and we chased them with cold cans of Pabst we had squirreled away in the cooler, and we were elated when a State Trooper pulled over in the darkness.
We walked over to his car to greet him and explain our plight, and he stood there, staring, shining his flashlight at us and then the bar I had set up in the back of the truck and asked us what the hell we were doing.
The Navajo Nation is, of course, dry, and here we were having happy hour in the middle of its prohibition.
Mark, a diplomat by nature, sized up the cop and told him that it would probably make sense for him to confiscate the remaining ice cold beer we had with us, and take us to the next town where we could call a mechanic, and then leave us outside a local motel as “punishment” so we could think about how foolish we’d been. And the cop did.
But the trip to Cabo, which I think about often, and which Mark and I reminisced about yet again over his dinner table, has one standout event, a story that demonstrates both how incredibly foolish we were, and how incredibly lucky.
We made it down the Baja peninsula and spent ourselves in every way in Cabo. It was our final stop on the trip, and there we ran through the last of our money and the last of our time.
We woke up one last morning to soak away our hangovers in the ocean, and we loaded the truck with supplies for the long trip back to Houston (which, because we were young, comprised a couple cases of beer, some tequila, a bottle of bourbon and various tobacco products).
We decided to travel up the west coast of the peninsula, along the Sea of Cortez, to take a ferry from La Paz to the mainland. From there, we’d cross Mexico and head north into Texas and then on to Houston where we’d shower, I’d fly to New York and start my new job, and he’d head down to Chile to start his.
It made sense, right up until our arrival at the ferry port which was completely deserted in an incredibly eerie way – giant parking lots empty, office buildings empty and locked, fences padlocked, but in a way that was recent, as though en masse, the entire infrastructure of this ferry port and been abandoned overnight.
Which, as it turns out, it was.
We finally located a security guard, who explained that there was a hurricane headed up the Sea of Cortez and all shipping traffic had been held in ports on the mainland, including the ferry. We were advised to leave the area immediately in the event the weather made landfall – the facility itself had been ordered closed by the local authorities.
All right then. We at least had most of a tank of gas and figured we would continue to work our way up the west side of the peninsula, along a highway that our road map clearly indicated would take us to the border crossing at Mexicali, with multiple towns along the way where we could refuel.
It would cost us a lot of time, but with the two of us driving more or less nonstop we’d ultimately still be OK to make our flights.
So we pointed El Bronco north in the afternoon, and started driving on a lovely, recently-paved highway. As the sun set over the spine of mountains to our west, the pavement disappeared and was replaced with well-graded gravel, which surprised us and certainly the Mexican cartographer who had a two lane, paved highway indicated for the next 200 miles.
Then, toward midnight, one of the lanes disappeared, and we were on gravel singletrack, which also began to snake and weave its way up through the mountains and then drop back down to the black waters of the Sea of Cortez.
At maybe one in the morning, I was driving, and suddenly the steering got incredibly sloppy. An inspection by the flickering of a Zippo revealed that the right front tire had been torn open by a rock, so we replaced it with one of our two spares. It was the first time during our entire fifteen thousand mile trip that we had a flat.
Mark took over, and ten minutes later he pulled to the side of the road.
The desert had claimed another tire, and as we were changing it in the pitch black night (the sky had clouded over, and the total absence of star or moonlight reminded us that there was a hurricane on the way) we took a good, wordless look at each other.
The road was a disaster, the map was clearly totally incorrect in its identification of road conditions (hell, of roads) and so the gas station at the town that should be right around the goddamn corner might not be there at all. We had less than half a tank. We had not seen a single person, a car or hacienda or shack or light in the distance, since we left the security guard at the ferry port.
And we had exactly no spare tires at this point, in an environment that was consuming them at a rate of one every ten minutes.
We did the sensible thing, which was to sit on the tailgate and play the guitar and have a good mouthful of bourbon each, while digesting the basic truth of just how screwed we really were.
We rolled the shredded tire into the back of the truck, and kept driving north.
The road, at one point, simply stopped being a road. We had the Bronco in 4WD low, and were basically navigating the thing from one problem to another, our only confirmation that we were going remotely the right direction was our view of the Sea of Cortez on the right.
We tried to avoid rocks to save the tires, but that’s kind of like saying while we were scuba diving we tried to avoid the water to keep our hair dry.
We inched forward, Mark at the wheel, me glued to the utterly useless map and both of us watching the gas gage dip from a third to a quarter to an eighth. Every now and then I would run out to scout the way forward.
The sun rose, to reveal that the mountains we had been traversing were an extraordinary chocolate brown hue, and that whatever storm clouds had obscured the moon and stars had moved on, sparing us from having our problems compounded by a hurricane.
So, from a meteorological point of view, the two of us were fine.
However, we were in the middle of a desert, we had no food and no water, no spare tires, no way to communicate with anyone, were about to have no gas, and nobody knew where we were. Including us.
Which is to say, we had a real, unsolvable problem, and despite the inherent optimism of youth, we knew it, absolutely knew it deep in our exhausted, dehydrated bones.
We opened a couple of warm sunrise beers at the top of a crest. The miserable little light at the bottom of the gas gage blinked on as the Bronco labored up a hill, signaling doom within the next ten miles or so.
As the oblique light brought the desert slowly back to life and we sipped our lukewarm cans of Tecate, we saw a silver band weaving through the hilltop ahead of us.
“Is that a road?”
Mark had a thoughtful sip.
“It’s not not a road.”
We finished the beers and jumped back in the truck. We had ten, maybe fifteen good miles and then we were walking, but the maybe road in front of us was ripe with promise, and possible salvation.
As Mark eased the truck over the crest we saw a little gravel road suddenly begin, in front of us, and he went to put the truck back into two wheel drive to maximize our potential mileage. Of course, the transmission, overwhelmed by the trail it had just been asked to traverse, refused to comply, and we were stuck in four wheel low.
No matter, we were on a road and the sun had risen and we were driving up a mountain through a pass. As we crested the pass, we looked down and, at the very limits of our vision, saw a smallish harbor with what were certainly homes dotting the hillside above.
The Bronco was stuttering at this point, running on fumes but we were headed downhill and Mark only brushed the brakes as we pitched into corners to conserve as much momentum as possible.
Closer now, we could actually see the magical green and white PEMEX awning in what was more or less the center of the village, and we whooped and hollered and screamed with joy. We were saved.
The truck gasped its way through town, and Mark maintained the PEMEX station in his sights and I looked out my window at the smallish houses that dotted the road, all of which were shuttered tight with closed doors, in some cases padlocked.
The engine gave out but Mark shifted seamlessly into neutral and we glided to a halt beside the Pemex pump and leapt out of the truck.
We stood there, looking at the pump, which was padlocked shut. We looked at the cashier’s booth, which was padlocked shut and had plywood nailed over the windows. We looked around us, and slowly absorbed that every damn house we looked at, rising in neat little rows away from the harbor, was boarded shut.
The fishing boats in the harbor were not in the harbor, having all been pulled up well past the high tide line and overturned, engines gone, winterized in a place that had never known winter.
I finally said it.
“Jesus, Mark. We’re in a ghost town”.
We thought about that until a loud pop had us both spin on our heels at the same time, startled, to locate its source. It was the truck, more precisely, the front passenger tire of the truck, which finally decided to burst and deflate at that very point.
The front of the Bronco sank slowly to the ground, the poor girl having finally thrown in the towel, and with her broken transmission, devoid of gas, kneeled to the ground on a dusty rim and made clear her intention to go no further.
We grabbed a couple warm beers, and, largely because there was nothing else for us to do, reconnoitered the town. It was a smallish place with a dusty grid of roads radiating from a horseshoe bay, maybe fifty or so homes, all of which were sealed shut and had been for some unknown amount of time, but clearly not just overnight in response to a possible hurricane.
We didn’t know what to do.
We talked it over, we were at the point that we were going to have to break into one of the houses to hopefully get some water, maybe food, and then try to figure out a way to get the PEMEX pump to operate, assuming there was even any gas in the reservoir. We didn’t know how we would fix the tires or inflate them. We started eyeing the boats.
Unnervingly, a pack of dogs began to express interest in us, and its membership grew as we wandered through town.
We had an axe in the truck, and after we stood and eyed the pack of smaller but hungry looking dogs, and with the reality of how miserable our situation was setting in, we agreed to go back to the Bronco to get it, frequently glancing over our shoulders to make sure the pack wasn’t getting too close.
Which, of course, it was.
Mark and I rounded a corner and began to hustle back to the Bronco, willing to die any way other than being mauled by a pack of wild dogs, the morning sun fully in our eyes, and as we began to run we heard a voice.
“Hey! Hey dudes! You OK?”
Standing behind us was a shaggy-haired apparition, a gringo, tanned and quite tall and completely alone and speaking deeply inflected English betraying a southern Californian lineage.
“Hey man… I’m Yay. I mean, Jay. You guys look a little lost.”
Mark and I stared at him, and then each other, and then back at him.
“I would say you’re right about that, Jay. I’m Mark. This is Robbie. We’re lost, we’re out of gas, our transmission is broken, and we have three flat tires. What are the chances you have a phone?”
This, to be clear, is a true story.
As it turns out, Jay didn’t have a phone.
However, he was the advance mechanic for a team racing the Baja 500 and, on the outskirts of town, in an old cinderblock warehouse, had a fully equipped garage complete with air tools, a lift, a complete inventory of spare parts and fluids (and hundreds of gallons of gasoline) and happened to be a wizard at repairing flats, as he mended all three of our tires (and even rebalanced the spares on their rims).
He fixed the transmission.
He ducked out for a couple hours at one point as he was also the only guy in the region with a pilots’ license, and a plane, and after he took a short wave radio call he dashed out to locate a fisherman in distress before returning to us to continue to sort out the transmission.
He served us water, with ice cubes.
Mark and I, crushed by fatigue, did everything we could to make sense of this absurdly good luck.
Where we had literally been facing death in the Baja moments ago, we were now on a sofa, catching up with our new best friend and mechanic in one, Jay, who to top everything off was busy bleeding our brakes because he didn’t like the feel from the pedal.
And, after hours of work, he lowered the truck off of his lift and put away his tools.
We didn’t really know what to say.
“Um, what do we owe you?”
Jay would take no money from us (luckily, as we had none) but let it slip that he’d noticed the bourbon in the back seat.
We left him with sixty ounces of Jim Beam and 18 warm cans of Tecate, or roughly forty dollars in hooch.
In return, we got a full tank of gas, fresh brake lines, a repaired transmission, and three repaired and balanced tires, along with all the water we could drink.
Oh, and our lives.
I still have Jay’s card somewhere.
It was and remains (other than convincing Val to marry me) the single most extraordinary patch of good luck I have ever enjoyed.