Thursday, October 25, 2012

Ragweed Rock: Requiem for a Truck Tire

BOOM! whacka-whacka-whacka  (I wanna take you highhh-er♪♪)

WHAT the…?? 

Bollocks, a blown tire!

My turnpike trance was gone in a flash. Both hands gripped the steering wheel.  I took my  foot off the gas pedal and let the Ford U-Haul truck coast gradually to near-standstill, then nudged it off the highway.

During catastrophic tire failure like this, especially at high speed, you have to resist the temptation to hit the brakes.  That could throw you out of control and even flip your vehicle. Instead, you just coast, steering cautiously to compensate for yaw.

For the past year and a half, Leah and I have been moving – one U-Haul load at a time – from west Texas to southern California. The trip follows Interstate 10 all the way to the California route 210 exit at Redlands. Typically, after the first day’s drive we overnight in Phoenix, then arrive at our destination late the following afternoon. It’s a journey of about nine hundred miles.

Interstate 10 runs from Jacksonville, Florida, to Santa Monica, California. The other major coast-to-coast freeway, Interstate 80, stretches from New Jersey to San Francisco.

Before the interstate system came along, most coast-to-coast road trips, including the six I made during college in the 1960s, followed legendary two-lane Route 66. Departing Virginia, I’d pick up the 66 in St. Louis and take it as far as Los Angeles, traveling through the Painted Desert, the Petrified Forrest, by Meteor Crater in Arizona, and finally across the Mojave Desert into California.

After awhile, I began to notice construction of Interstate 40, the four-lane freeway that eventually replaced the 66.

Route 66 has a storied history. Established in 1926, the road was a major thoroughfare westward during the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s. In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck describes it as "the mother road.”  In 1940, McDonald’s opened its first hamburger shop on a stretch of the 66 in San Bernardino, California. The U-Drop Inn is a famous art deco-styled motel, recently restored, on what used to be part of 66 in Shamrock, Texas.

The roadside attraction I recall best, though, is the Whiting Bros. chain of gasoline stations.  About forty of these stations, some with restaurants and motels, were scattered along the 66 as far west as Barstow, California. Whenever the next one would be a ways off,  you’d see a sign reading something like “Fifty miles to the next Whiting Bros.”  This was important because back then there was nothing else out there. Even so, my red 1967 Volkswagen beetle, which got about thirty miles to the gallon and had a reserve fuel supply, allowed me to push the limits a bit.

The VW also had an air-cooled engine that did well in the heat. Crossing the Mojave, you’d see car radiators, lots of them, in the shade of a prickly pear, spluttering like a riled-up tea kettle.

But the Volkswagen was no Chevy corvette. It’s measly 53-horsepower produced a top speed of about 80 miles per hour, which could make passing an eighteen-wheeler a bit dicey. Where Route 66 crossed the Mojave west of Needles, California, the road was virtually a straightaway, and trucks would pick up speed there to make up for lost time. In order get around a big rig, I’d have to push the pedal to the metal and eke my way past, sometimes running abreast of the truck for a mile or more, trusting to fate that the oncoming traffic was only a mirage.

Upon completion of the interstate system in 1985, Route 66 was officially decommissioned. As work had progressed on I-40, bypassed sections of 66  were demoted to state or local use or fell into desuetude. Here and there, you can still see abandoned stretches of the old road, overgrown with weeds and littered with relics – rusted vehicles, placards for products no longer made, derelict remnants of  the Whiting Bros. gasoline empire.

Derelict Whiting Bros. gasoline station, Route 66
Defunct though it be, Route 66 remains enshrined in popular culture. Remember Nat King Cole’s “Get Your Kicks on Route 66?” On the site of the original McDonald’s in San Bernardino now stands a Route 66 museum. The TV series, Route 66, with Martin Milner and George Maharis made an icon of the Chevy Corvette. The U-Drop Inn figured in the popular 2006 Disney-Pixar film, Cars.  Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix is presently home to one of several Route 66 Roadhouse restaurants (aside from the name, they appear to have little in common) scattered around the Midwest and Southwest. The list goes on and on.
Route 66 Roadhouse restaurant, Sky Harbor 
International Airport, Phoenix

On the morning of our big blowout near Buckeye, Arizona, just west of Phoenix, traffic along the I-10 was moderate. Random passenger cars weaved amongst loose clusters of slower moving eighteen-wheelers, the familiar warp and weft of interstate travel. The outside temperature was about 84 degrees Fahrenheit, cool by Arizona standards.

The situation for a blowout might have been worse.

After the bone-jolting whacka-whacka-whacka died away and the U-Haul came to a stop, I squeezed  through the driver’s door and carefully picked my way aft between vehicle and roadway as though negotiating a narrow ledge. The traffic noise was deafening, and sudden bursts of air from vehicles speeding past hindered progress.

Except for some dry rot of the sidewalls, all four rear tires appeared to be OK.  Returning with less effort along the passenger’s side, I checked the U-Haul’s other end.

Blown out Goodrich truck tire resembling Dante’s 10th circle.    
The right front tire had virtually exploded, causing tread separation and noticeable damage to the wheel well and fender. The tire itself had been reduced to a vision of hell. Sprouting from what had been the tread was a shock of belting wire that looked like tangled tares of carbide tungsten, demonic ragweed or dogbane flourishing on basalt – Satan’s own cereal crop. It reminded me a bit of the Shatani (shaytan means devil in Arabic) lava flow in Kenya’s Tsavo West that we’d crossed one day in a Land Rover, escorted by guards armed to the teeth against Tanzanian renegades.

Lava flow or no, itinerancy can make you feel vulnerable, especially if you’re toting a strong box.  So for this trip I‘d decided to bring a Colt .45 ACP semi-automatic Combat Commander (shorter barrel than the Model 1911 government version).

“A good thing, too,” I muttered to myself ruefully, feeling more than a little agitated and nervously fingering the .45’s thumb safety inside my green canvas and leather Orvis shoulder bag.  Leah had packed up all her jewelry for this run, not to mention the dining room silver, and now here we were stranded, a couple of Berbers alone on the Silk Road with a lame camel and no caravansary.

For a handgun, you see, is not just a weapon, its a talisman. Its apotropaic magic forefends every mischief, mere ownership averts all peril. Its good luck nonpareil and a safeguard to liberty.

That’s why guns are so popular and for sale at Wal-Mart.

But it seems they’re no good for tires.

In the event, nothing much happened on I-10 that morning. In addition to no hockey-masked heistmeisters swooping down in souped-up dune buggies,  other things conspired to make the whole business seem trivial.

First, U-Haul International, Inc. happens to be headquartered in Phoenix, so rescue by the mother ship was less than an hour away. Next, U-Haul trucks have an emergency "1-800" number emblazoned on the passenger’s-side visor that you can’t miss no matter how flustered you get, and it connects you to a helpful emergency centre.

Lastly, besides the Colt .45, I’d brought  aboard a 3G-caliber iPhone 4S with an app for Google Maps, so alerting U-Haul’s roadside response team (one guy) to our location was simple.

These days help on the highway is just a cell tower away – and I had five bars. Itinerancy no longer exits. Wherever you may be, you’re always “@” your cell phone. Its almost like staying at home.

The repair technician showed up apace, changed out the demolished front tire, and pronounced us good to go. We arrived on the west coast tired, a few hours late, and shaken but not stirred.

After all, it was only a blowout – even if for a second it did take us higher.

I'm indebted to Wikipedia for background material

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