HCS (IV, v): Astro Versus The Ice

Ryan’s truck wasn’t that bad, but you get the point

We woke late and got to it. Ryan had some errands to run, so I dodged to a chalet-style South Lake Tahoe coffee shop and got to it. The day passed uneventfully, except at 3:00 when it began to snow hard. Thick, fat flakes like an unworldly humid mist. High snow. I continued working on the section for a few more hours. By 5:30 I’d left and called Ryan from a payphone at Tahoe Tom’s gas station— he was up near Tahoe City, red-lining on gas and without any money. Furthermore, he left his sleeping bags and clothes in my van. And here came the blizzard.

We discussed the options, and decided that Ryan should try to drive to South Lake Tahoe so I can get him gas. The Tacoma was much better equipped for the drive on precipitous, icy 89 than Astro. I loved Astro to death, but the stark reality was that Astro was absolutely awful in the snow. After a number of New Hampshire/Vermont winters, I could say with confidence that she was not a vehicle meant to go anywhere cold.

I drove carefully west on 50 to the edge of town where it meets the 89 loop, and waited at a Swiss Mart gas station. I bought a Cup O’ Noodles, and used a fistful of coffee stirrers to eat it (no forks.) I walked Helicopter for fifteen minutes or so, and then called Ryan from a payphone again. He answered chattering.


Where are you man, are you on the road?

“No, I tried to make it up but my truck started puttering. I’m at the Sugar Pine campground we were at last week trying to keep my hands warm with the hot water faucet.”

Fucking brilliant. I returned to the gas station; the friendly attendant was standing outside the store and staring at Astro.

“You have no chains on this vehicle?”

I shrugged.

“Very bad. Very dangerous. You must purchase chains from me.”

And while I hated the idea of it, of course I needed to purchase chains from him to go save my friend from hypothermia. My new friend didn’t have the right size chains for my tires, but suggested I traveled down the street to his friend’s gas station. As I thanked him and got in the van, he yelled,

“Hey! Do you have any sort of interest in Adult Entertainment DVDs?”

I drove down the street shaking my head, purchased chains from the gas station down the street for a painful 65 dollars, and spend 20 minutes trying to install them myself in the parking lot of a Chinese restaurant. I might have done it right, I might not have; I’d never installed chains before that moment. But the reality of my necessary drive, combined with visions of plummeting off of one of the hairpin turns in those first five miles of that terrifying road, convinced me to make an additional investment for help. I took off my shoddy tire chain job, drove back to Swiss Mart, and asked my porn peddling friend for help.

“You pay cash?” I looked over his shoulder. Thirty dollars for chain installation. Ridiculous. But I considered this a life or death situation…so, whatever. Sure, I’d pay cash. The attendant spent 10 minutes putting on the chains, stopping periodically to attend to customers. And just like that, good to go. One of the chains kept slapping up against my broken running board, but it was mostly fine.

“OK you pay me now?”

I started to pull out my wallet before he shoved his hands in front of my face.

“You see my hands? So cold! You pay me 50 dollars for this.”

I stared at him quizzically. Um, I’m going to pay you 30 dollars because that’s how much it costs.

“Yes but that will not make me happy. 50 dollars will make me very happy. Ok sir. 50 dollars. My hands are so cold.”

You could have worn gloves. This is a service you provide, it’s not a barter market.

“Yes sir, yes sir. 50 dollars.”

I ended up giving him 40 dollars and even that extra 10 dollars bothered me. Total investment for rescue mission, including gas can and gas=$120. I shook it off and turned onto the road.

The drive over that mountain was one of the top five most terrifying drives of my life, ranking up with June 2005: falling asleep at the wheel on I-91 North in Vermont and coming to driving straight toward a tree, as well as January 2006: driving 50 miles on red with Lydia Smith through the empty salt flats of Utah on I-80. Three different times I lost control of the van, and once had that horrific winter driver moment where to keep control, I had to straighten the wheels and hope for friction to catch, even though that meant straightening toward a non-guardrailed 400 foot drop 20 meters in front of me. It took me 90 minutes to drive 30 miles, and it was terrifying and slow, but I did finally make it to Sugar Pine. Ryan was still in the bathroom running his hands under the hot water faucet.

We filled up Ryan’s truck for the drive into Tahoe City, then I got him a full tank. We bought an apple and a bagel at Albertson’s, and then decided after all of that to call Jane’s friend. He was happy to let us crash for the night, so we drove up to Squaw Valley. To be completely honest, it was really nice to have a bed, but Rob and his roommate didn’t want Helicopter inside. At many points in the night I awoke and worried about my puppy, considering just going outside to tough it out.

It was this night, I think, that I started to get a little chagrined about this whole carpentry in Tahoe plan. Although not many days had passed, the winter had presented itself in all of its brutality. The thought of working outside in this seemed even worse…I decided that if I didn’t find a place soon, or a part-time job, I might leave Ryan and Tahoe behind. I could just start skirting down I-5 to some place warmer where sleeping in the van is more comfortable. I could get showers in at truck stops, and even eventually find a cheap desert motel with monthly rates. And then, finally then, I could settle down with Helicopter lying across my feet, and write this story. Maybe things would change though. Who knew.

Monday broke the bank.

Ryan had left earlier that morning for a roof job, while I left a little later to head to the Tahoe City Post Office. Sure enough, the phone got there and after settling into a coffee shop with internet, I got the service transferred. I wrote for the rest of the day, and at about 4 o’clock met back up with Ryan at the post office. From there we rode in the truck out of the valley into Reno to get supplies. I needed a new taillight (yes, Officer Colorado, I did not forget about that,) more dog food, and some wool socks. We actually didn’t start off headed toward the big W, but for the life of us we could not find a single thrift store that actually sold clothes. Maybe that’s the way it is in Nevada casino towns, or maybe we were too close to the casinos— regardless, it was all “JEWELRY! GOLD! ELECTRONICS!” on every try. So Wal-Mart it was.

We loaded up and headed back up the Interstate to catch the road toward Truckee. Then it started to snow. Not even lightly at first; all of the sudden we were surrounded by a snowflake fog of white and grey. Ryan slowed the Tundra and we continued on. There was a California Highway Patrol checkpoint, and Ryan affirmed that he had four-wheel drive (he didn’t) and they waved us on. Two wheel drive, and to boot no chains and we were red lighting on gas. So we twisted slowly through the icy hills surrounding the lake, stopped for gas in Truckee, and finally arrived back at the post office. We switched Heli back into the van and took out the tools to switch the bulb on my taillight. No dice— it was the fuse, I guess. I should have guessed, I thought, given the fact that the sound cuts in and out on the tiny television, and the clock radio resets every time I turn on the van. I put my hands on my hips and turn.

“Let me see your bow saw.”

I kneel next to the running board below the sliding door and began sawing off the broken part; it had been cracked and twisted a way it shouldn’t be for months, and my new chains had been annoyingly smacking it. Once I detatch the broken section of plastic, we head into a McDonald’s and buy Dollar Menu sandwiches. We didn’t talk much looking out in the snow for awhile, but I suddenly remembered that Monday Night Football was on and I thought we could catch the 4th quarter. We had a beer at a sparsely populated bar across from the Post Office, and as we drank a woman sitting near us commented she was surprised we weren’t down at Mama Sake’s in Squaw Valley where all the young people go.

We almost immediately finished our beers and headed back out into the blizzard. The snow began to let up as we headed down 89 toward Squaw, so I felt comfortable going a little faster and also making a phone call— between the two, if I heard a snapping noise below my car it was only peripherally. We continue on, stop and ask for directions a few times, and then finally find the road that heads into the bars and shops of Squaw Valley. I could barely make out the lights of a neon valley ahead of the truck, about half a mile. It was then that Ryan pulled over to the side of the road to ask me a question, and got stuck in 18 inches of snow trying to pull back on.

We dug, we put boards under the tires. Nothing. We even tow chained the truck to Astro; shockingly, the rear wheel conversion van was not able to pull the truck out of the ditch. I thought I might have a chance with the chains, and it was then when I knelt down to check the fitting that I saw I’d lost a chain. Within 24 hours of buying it. Fucking perfect.

We left the truck and drove down toward Mama Sake’s to try to find someone to help us with a chain. The place was deserted, and the only people around were a few cars doing donuts in the parking lot.

We are about to give up and call California Highway Patrol when I ask Ryan to let me try it. Rock and roll, rock and roll, rock and roll, and then with a miraculous jolt forward the Tundra caught the asphalt. Thrilled with our success, we stop by a 7-11 to get soup and figure out where we are going to park and sleep for the night (I had already decided we were not going back to Rob’s, out of politeness and also for Helicopter.) Ryan remembered a church behind the Albertson’s in Tahoe City, so we head back that way, begin up a steep hill, and circle along the crest of the road.

As a side note, there is some literal paradox to our situation. We were trying to brainstorm a place to sleep where the plow trucks wouldn’t mess with us. Such a place, of course, would not in theory be plowed. And likely immobilize both of our vehicles. It’s not that we didn’t realize this truth I think. It was rather that we were running out of options and hoping for the best.

We see the church, which is set below the hillside road by way of a steep driveway into a parking lot. It looks a bit open for my taste, but Ryan’s logic was that we couldn’t possibly get a ticket in a church parking lot. I shrugged, and began turning the van toward the driveway.

Suddenly the van begins to slide sideways, not toward the driveway, but down an incline toward the edge of a 30 foot drop. I pump the brakes, nothing doing, still sliding. I pull the emergency as hard as I can. The van begins to slow, and then comes to a halt about two feet from the drop. Ryan jumps out of his car and runs over. I open the window with as little movement as possible and yell to him not to touch the van. He stops.

“Dude, you are about to fall off that cliff.”

“I know.” I paused and thought for a second, not moving. I need to go in reverse, but everything is icy. And I lost a chain, so I really only have one solid torque point. Which wheel did I still have? Fuck, I am going to crash my van. Why couldn’t I stop thinking of that emergency public broadcast on repeat on the AM stations. Where they tell you if you break down to put on hazards and pull off the road but “have an escape route from your vehicle prepared in the case of an out of control vehicle careening into yours.” Helicopter, please stay perfectly still, I am not saying that out loud because then you won’t. Ah, this is bad.

We talked through the options and after some discussion a plan of action. Ryan carefully walked around to the side of the van closest to the cliff, inched alongside until he was backed up on a tree growing at the edge. He then put his hands on the van and prepped himself to push the nose toward the road. I held my breath and put the van in reverse. Thank God I have rear wheel drive, thank you Astro, thank you, I thought. Slowly the machine retreated from the precipice, 2 feet, then 3 feet…then the wheels started spinning and the van began sliding toward the cliff again. I threw it into first and tried to turn the momentum toward the road, pulling the wheel left. Ryan’s eyes got wide and he shuffled to the side of the tree to avoid getting pinned. I braked, then emergency braked, then braked again and the van stopped. We’d made maybe a foot of progress, and the angle was slightly better.

I took a moment with my eyes closed. Ryan yelling that he’d almost been impaled. This situation. My self-confidence. Clear everything out. I opened the passenger window.

“Alright, make sure to get out of the way if this doesn’t work.”

“I don’t know where you think I’m supposed to go.”

“Not off the cliff. Just push the van toward the road as hard as you can when I start driving forward. You don’t have to be down there for the reverse part.” Ryan walked carefully back around the van and I eased the van into reverse again. I regained my same three feet before the wheels spun again. But the angle looked better. Ryan repositioned.

“Ready?” He nodded. Am I ready? Fuck it.

I shifted into 1st and Astro lurched a bit. Slowly I eased my foot off the brake and complementarily eased the accelerator down. The front tires catch something but the back end of the van begins swinging counterclockwise. Catch, catch, catch god damn it. 10 degrees, 20 degrees, 30 degrees. Then miraculously the van begins moving forward, a little bit, then a bit more, easy on the accelerator, on and on and suddenly so close to the roadway, and then the behemoth launches forward and we are back in the world of friction.

Ryan walked up to the van and leaned over.

“That was bad.”

We descended that hill away from the church and decided to roll the dice in the Albertson’s parking lot. It wasn’t a public road, so we figured if anyone gave us trouble it would be a private security guard and not the police. We parked away from the entrance, listened to old music tourney match-ups on the iPod, and talked. I smoked cigarettes as we chatted about the upcoming job, the fact that he had to get up at 6:45, the lateness of the night, our misfortune at winter driving. Then a police car’s lights flashed in the road and a sheriff walked up to my door and asked what we were doing.

We explained we were looking for work and just trying to find a place to sleep in our cars tonight, but had been having trouble because of the snow and ice. He nodded and ran our IDs. I smoked a cigarette and stared at the snow on the ground.

“I hate Tahoe, Ryan.”

“No you don’t.”

I looked at him from beneath suspect eyebrows. The police officer returned and said we were OK, he just wanted to make sure we weren’t fugitives, but that we couldn’t sleep in the Albertson’s parking lot.

“Hey if you guys are looking for work you should go to North Star, they’re hiring right now, free dorm style housing for employees, pretty sweet.”

I nodded and thanked him. We left the truck at Albertson’s and headed to another 7-11, where I went in and bought nachos and two tall boys. The cashier rang it up and (I kid you not) it totaled with tax $6.66.

“Oh, oh, very bad, very bad, unlucky numbers. You are having a not ok night, no?”

I forced a smile, and forged back out into the 25 degree weather. I got in and handed Ryan a beer. He popped it and took a sip, and I popped mine and did the same.

“Where now?” I placed the can in the cupholder.

“Let’s just find a place that’s already been plowed. It’s after 2 AM. They have too many roads to plow, I think it’s our best bet.” So we drove down the road, and eventually spotted a very much plowed Tahoe City Fire Department. We parked at the edge of the lot and I threw the car into park. The heater was on and Ryan had already leaned the passenger seat back. I lit a cigarette and held it out the crack of air in the barely open window.

“Ryan, I think I’m leaving Tahoe tomorrow. I could do this if not for the lack of parking without getting fucked with by snow plows and the cold. The homelessness and joblessness are easy to deal with.” He nodded and turned away. I grabbed the blankets from the back and handed him one. Soon after that cigarette and beer I fell asleep.

A fireman knocked on my window 3 and a half hours later and I groggily moved my car to 7-11 for coffee. I then drove down to Albertson’s to buy an apple at 6:15 am, the only one in the store while the employees restocked produce and vegetables. I walked Heli around in the back of the store, then came back to sit in the driver’s seat and think hard.

Ryan woke up eventually, and said what time is it.

“6:30. I’m heading to Carson City.”

“For a new taillight?”

“No.” I shook my head and tapped the steering wheel. “No, I’m going south.”

We talked for a bit. In the middle of this conversation, his phone rings and it is HONO all but offering him a job in New Orleans running a Tool Bank.

“That’s pretty awesome.”

“Yeah, it might be good.” He paused. “So you are really leaving? Come on man, we can make it work.”

“Nah, man. Last night was terrible. I’m not supposed to be here. I’m gonna head to a border town, find a monthly rate motel, just settle in and finish this damn book. Bisbee, El Paso, Laredo, I dunno— I’ll figure it out.”

Ryan looked out the window and nodded.

“Well, if your mind is made up then that’s what it is. I gotta get going to the job.”

I got out of the car and gave him a hug, then got back into Astro. 7:00 AM in Tahoe City on a Tuesday. Fucking Tahoe. I threw the van into reverse and backed out of the Albertson’s

About g-mo

The day I was born, Michael Jackson's Thriller album was at the top of the Billboard 200. I've been trying my best to live up to that expectation ever since.
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