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Gordon Usticke

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A Desert Adventure

Labor Day Weekend 2001

My desert adventure was not the "Lawrence of Arabia" kind but still was meaningful to me. It was a time when I needed to confront a difficult circumstance while alone.

Once again I was making my trek across country from our home in Athens, New York to Scottsdale, Arizona while pulling, with my newly acquired class B motor home, a large trailer filled with household items. I had made the twenty-six hundred mile trip eight times in the past two years. The route was familiar to me. I was traveling alone with the exception of my two Maltese dogs, Lovee and Minnie.

I left Athens early Wednesday morning. The first two days were uneventful. The second night I stayed with my daughter Betty Jo in Sedalia, Missouri. The traffic was quite heavy as this was Labor Day weekend. At the end of the third day on the road, I ate at the Cherokee restaurant at Concord, Oklahoma. After eating I returned to my van in the restaurant parking lot for a little shuteye. That was 8 PM. About 11 PM I was awakened by a horrendous noise. Two tractor trailers, one refrigerated, had parked on either side of my conversion van with their engines roaring.

Even though it was late at night I decided I would drive on and look for a better place to park knowing full well that a good place would be hard to find. Those of you have traveled Interstate 40 across the country know that the western edge of Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle to Amarillo and beyond is one of the more desolate parts of our country. Towns are small and widely spaced, houses are not found at all along the Interstate and there are no services late at night.

About midnight, while driving West, the needle of the temperature gauge in the van suddenly swung to the danger level. The van had suffered a catastrophic loss of engine coolant. Luckily shortly ahead was an exit ramp, which I swung the van and its trailer onto and stopped. It seemed so quiet with van and engine stopped. The sky was dark but clear. The occasional roar of the large trucks on the Interstate was the only noise. I was alone. I was calm. It seemed comfortable, in a strange way, to be nowhere and on a holiday weekend. I was surprised with my comfort level having always feared being stranded on the open road.

Well, the family motto, Semper Paratus, was not for naught. I pulled out my cell phone, called AAA and a tow truck came to me in about an hour. A cheerful Oklahoman tow truck driver disconnected the trailer, pulled the van onto the flatbed and reconnected the trailer to his truck and pulled me 35 miles east to the place he felt might be open this weekend. I was deposited at the vacant service station about 4 AM.

The station opened at 6 AM; the mechanics came at 8 AM and the motor home was fixed and I was on the road by noon. Felt tired but wanted to get going to make up for lost time. About 15 miles West of where I was stopped, I noticed that the Air Conditioning fan was not working. Not good as the temperature outside was well over 100 degrees. Then I noticed that my cruise control had stopped working. I pulled off looking for a mechanic but everything was closed. So I decided to press on to Amarillo about 100 miles West.

After about 30 miles, I began to notice a smell of burning rubber. I first thought it was from outside. Then it intensified. I stopped on the shoulder barely six inches from the inside lane where the trucks were flying by me at 75 MPH, causing the van to shudder from the suction they created. Waiting for a pause in the passing traffic, I got out to check under the hood.

Flames leaped out at me from under the hood. I had visions of my dogs, my van, my possessions, my densely filled trailer all going up in the resulting fire. Moving quickly I went to the back of the van, grabbed the two dogs; put leashes on them; grabbed a heavy bag and rushed down an embankment. I put the heavy bag on the leashes to keep the dogs safe from the road traffic and went back to the van to remove what I could. I literally began throwing possessions (laptop computer, briefcase etc.) down the embankment. I noticed a truck driver running to the van with a fire extinguisher. It worked, he put out the engine fire before it hit the gasoline line. His name was Bill. He stayed till he was sure the fire wasn't going to reignite. He said that he thought the vehicle would be totaled due to the extensive fire damage. Oh well there goes eleven thousand dollars. But that was only money, we were all safe so far.

Using my cell phone (handy gadgets!), I then called AAA again. Then I called 911 as I was so close to a heavily trafficked road. In about an half an hour, a trooper showed up and asked if I was OK. I said, "Yes." He said, "Fine" and drove off. So I figured if he wasn't worried about my position by the side of the road neither would I. I pulled out a lawn chair from the motor home, brought the dogs back up from the embankment and the three of us relaxed in what shade we could find by the vehicle while the trucks thundered by. I felt pretty calm and wonder what else was going to come down.

In two hours the tow truck came. The same drill. Disconnect the trailer, pull the van onto the flatbed, hook up the trailer to the truck and off we went for a 60 mile tow to Amarillo. He dropped me, the dogs and the trailer at the Big Texan Motel in Amarillo and continued on to take the van to a garage. It was subsequently confirmed that the vehicle was totaled.

I attempted to find a vehicle to rent that could pull a trailer. But this was Labor Day weekend and everything was closed. On Sunday I located a U-Haul dealer and he had a large truck that I could rent for nine hundred dollars. On Monday I got the truck hooked up to my trailer and took off for Scottsdale, seven hundred and twenty mile away. The rest of the trip was uneventful. However, I was shocked to be paying $1.80 a gallon for gas for a truck that got 7 MPG.

Arriving home on Tuesday with a much lighter wallet, I felt good. I don't think I'll ever again be worried about what could happen on a trip. Because when the worse happened, I felt nothing but calmness. Lovee and Minnie did very well too, I'm proud of them.

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