We were driving towards California to stay in Yosemite for a few days before I had to take Danny to the airport in San Francisco. We had just pulled into a gas station to fuel up so that we wouldn’t have to stop anywhere in Las Vegas. Partly because fueling up with a trailer can be difficult but mostly because we just wanted to get the fuck out of Nevada. As I was turning into the fuel pump, I heard two quick, deep popping noises. “What was that?” I panicked. “Did someone hit me?” I checked all of my mirrors – no sign of anyone hitting the trailer. “Huh, I must have just run over a bump or something. That was weird.” Danny stopped inside to get a sandwich as well as cheeto puffs for me. I typically try to stay away from gas station snacks but with the dread of Las Vegas looming before us, I decided cheeto puffs were in order.
We heaved ourselves back into Jones, my trusty ol’ truck, and rumbled back towards the highway. I remember watching my speedometer hit 60MPH, a cheeto halfway in my mouth, and thinking, “We’re just chugging along, aren’t we?” Then we felt it. The truck jolted dramatically, the trailer swayed to and fro. I could feel the weight of the Airstream give us whiplash on the hitch. Everything was happening so fast; it must have been a matter of milliseconds. Then we heard it. The screaming of shearing metal on concrete: Danny’s side of the truck was going down. Then we saw it: my right front tire flying away from us, rolling across the ditch and onto another road. I managed to pull the truck and trailer over, inches from the speeding semi trucks. “Are you okay?!” I asked Danny. He was as wide eyed as I was, “Yeah, are you? What happened? I think that’s our tire,” we both looked over to it; unmistakably it was ours.
Danny opened his door, it creaked loudly, warning us. “I’m going to go get our tire, stay here” he said. I watched him dart down the ditch and carefully crawl under a rusty barbwire fence, grasping the massive wheel. It was still full of air and the entire rim was inside of it. Nothing was making sense. I crawled out of his side of the truck, the passenger side door groaning as I hopped out of the cab onto the hot tar. I looked down. “Holy shit.” The truck was sitting on the bare rotor. Looking past it were long gouges where the truck had hit the highway and slid, eventually coming to rest on the edge of the shoulder. Danny rolled the big wheel up next to me, panting. “The rim’s completely destroyed, it looks like it exploded” and that it had. He handed me some lug nuts that had flown out; the threads were fractured.
“Well, now what? Do you have a spare?” At that time, we didn’t know how serious the problem was, other than how it had immediately presented itself. I had called several towing and emergency repair companies and several either hung up on me, or took a deposit over the phone and then hung up. It had been about three hours by that point and we concluded that no one was coming.
I laughed, “Yeah, I have a spare, AND I know how to change my tire.” Less than two weeks prior, a construction nail had punctured my tire as I was on my way to work. Thankfully the tire deflated just as I was pulling out of my boss’ gate. She and her husband came out and helped me change my spare; I remember joking how ‘encouraging’ it was to have that happen just days before my plan to cross the country by myself.
I cranked my spare down and began to laugh. Huge trucks and cars whipped by us, making the truck and trailer shake. I had lifted the tongue of the trailer off the ball to take some weight off but by doing that, it left the trailer far more susceptible to being blown around by the semis roaring past us. “What? Why are you laughing?” Danny asked, concern painted all over his face. I looked at him, as he held a bottle of water out to me. “Look at us! A PhD student and a rider stranded on the side of the road trying to change a tire in the middle of fucking Nevada, the one state we made a pact to drive all the way through!” I couldn’t stop giggling and he began to chuckle as well.
“Fuck,” I hissed, “the tire is stuck on the cable and I can’t get it off.” Danny tried to reach his arm through to the tire and I pushed him back. “You have to be careful, the exhaust is hot and you will burn yourself if you accidentally touch it.” The temperature was rising outside and we had to keep the truck running for the two dogs. I scooted under the truck on my back, tucking my knees to my chest and propping my feet up on the tire, inches away from the exhaust pipe. A slew of expletives flew from my mouth as I tried to push the tire up off the cable and it slid around. “I feel like I’m doing some sort of fucked up survival bikram yoga under my car.” Danny howled with laughter, “What the hell is even happening right now?”
“Wait!” he exclaimed. “What?” I muttered, still tucked underneath the tire, pieces of tar and concrete pushing into my skin. “FULCRUM! We can use fulcrum!” I peeked at him around the exhaust pipe. “What in the hell are you talking about?” But the grin on his face excited me and I watched him leap up and rummage through the truck bed for some blocks of wood and one of our walking sticks. Our walking sticks, which he had sourced from fallen limbs on Mount Sopris in Colorado days earlier. He crouched down again, this time ready with two blocks of wood. “Okay, so you’re going to put this block of wood under the tire here,” pointing to the side closest to the bumper, “then we have to get one block under here”, pointing to the opposite side. “Then once it’s up on the blocks you can leverage it up off the cable with the stick.” He kissed my forehead and handed me the bottle of water as we grinned at each other. I thought, in that moment, there wasn’t anyone else I’d rather be stranded on the side of the insufferably hot desert highway with.
We propped the first block underneath the tire and just as it started to slip off, Danny prodded the second one up with the walking stick. I scooted under the truck again and the tire slipped off the cable. We grabbed it and drug it out. It was covered in grit and sand but still in good shape. Danny drug it over to the passenger side of the car as I gave the dogs some water. We stood back and looked at the truck; I held my jack in my hand. Suddenly, as I crouched down to peer at the axle, I realized one big problem: the axle was too low to the ground to get the jack underneath. I relayed the issue to Danny. “Well, fuck” I whispered, a pit of dread clenched my stomach as he reached out and gave me a hug. We were approaching hour number five and the unrelenting desert sun beat down on us. Not a single person had pulled over to help.
“Michelle, look!” Danny exclaimed, a lilt in his voice. A tow truck driver had pulled in front of us, and I felt the clench in my stomach get tighter as I realized that the truck was even smaller than mine – no way would it ever be able to tow my truck anywhere. The driver popped out of the cab and sidled up next to us. In that moment, I realized how vulnerable I felt. He smiled, silver capped teeth shining at us. “I figured I’d be the only person to come out here and help you guys. I can help you put your tire back on but it’s going to cost you seven hundred bucks.” It began to dawn on me that I really was at the mercy of whatever vulture decided to prey on us. “Yeah, it took me like an hour to get here and it’s not worth it to me to come out here for any less than seven hundred.” He laughed again and Danny squeezed my shoulders. “Well, if you could just lift up the truck so we could put the tire on, that’d. be great. We’d really appreciate it.” He nodded and backed his truck up to mine, sliding the fork underneath my front end, raising it up.
Motherfucker, I thought. “Danny, look,” I tugged on his sleeve, pointing towards the rotor. “Shit,” he whispered. The rotor was completely sheared flat. The tow truck driver popped out of his cab. “Oh man, you can’t put a spare tire on that. I mean, you could but it would grind the hell out of your wheel and make a whole bunch of noises.” He bent down, putting his fingers in the holes where the lug nuts were. “Sorry guys, I can’t put a tire on this because the threads are completely worn away where the lugs were.” He stepped away, easing back from us. I noticed him peering at me, sizing me up, and then at Danny. “It’s still going to be seven hundred bucks though, you know, for my time. My boss is still fighting it out with your insurance company.” Autovantage, who I had called and paid a fee to, had tried and failed to send out company after company to help us. I knew that surely they weren’t going to pay that and neither was I. “Well, is there ANYTHING you can do to help us? Can’t you leave us with a jack or something to get the rotor up off the ground so it’s not doing more damage to the axle?” “Well, you could put the old rim and tire underneath the frame…” Danny grabbed our failed tire and rim and shoved it under the frame as the guy stood and continued to stare at me. “Well, sorry guys”, he shrugged his shoulders and flashed a grin. “Thanks man,” Danny said. I could hear the worry in his voice and Brooks whimpering behind us.
We crawled back into the cab of the truck, sharing trail mix and water. I apologized to Danny, feeling the weight of exhaustion on my body. We had just starting seeing each other less than three months prior. Towards the end of April I decided to take a break from my career, as I had experienced so much heartbreak in the horse industry that I caught myself planning to end my life. I had felt so trapped, used, abused, and broken that all I could think about was working to save enough money to pay for my retired horse’s retirement board through the summer before giving her and my two dogs to my best friend before killing myself. As I had shared my plans with my best friend, she suggested just packing everything up and hitting the road. “No one deserves happiness more than you. You need to leave the industry for a little while before you hate horses forever. You’re too good at what you do and care so much about producing horses that it would be a damn shame if this is what killed you.” We made plans that day on how I would quit my job, what I would say to my boss, where I would go, and ultimately, what I would say to Danny.
I thought the conversation would be short, simple. I ran through the words in my head: “Hey I’m quitting my job and I’m going to go do all the things I’ve always wanted to do but never have been able and never would be able to do if I was still working a horse job. I’m not giving up on myself or my career but something needs to change because I’m so miserable that I want to die. You’ve been great and I have appreciated the time I’ve been able to spend with you.” I thought he’d say something nice back, say goodbye, and we’d part ways.
When I told Danny I was quitting my job and taking off towards Utah, he paused for a moment, then said, “I wonder if my tickets to Prague are refundable, hold on.” He hung up then called back a couple of minutes later. “So I canceled my plane tickets to Prague, do you think you could pick me up in Denver if I fly out there and I could spend some time with you on the road?”
So here we were, stranded on the side of the highway, after hiking Angels Landing in Zion National Park just the day before. For a moment, I wished he wasn’t there because then it would just be me, my rig, and my dogs that I felt responsible for. He looked at me, eyes wide. “Don’t be sorry!” he kissed my forehead and pulled me into a hug as best as he could amidst the Gatorade bottles and trail mix bags. “This is all part of the adventure! Can you imagine the story this’ll be? Way better than hiking Yosemite, that’s for sure.” We both laughed, thinking of our original plans to cross Nevada in a day and be camped in California that, night, ready to hike Yosemite in the morning. “Fuck Vegas,” we had agreed.
Hours passed by and the sun started to set. Still no one would come out. We had called 911 and highway patrol and they had assured us, hours ago, that someone named Ewing Brothers Towing would be coming out to get us. I had tried to tell them that we needed a huge flat bed or a huge tow truck but they simply hung up on me. Then Danny took the phone and told them we were running out of water and we had dogs and they told him again, that they had sent someone an hour ago. It was pitch black outside and I voiced to Danny that I was worried about someone running off the road and hitting us. It was Vegas after all. He tried to reassure me but I could see the worry crossing his face too. I turned the truck off to give it a break and cracked all the windows. We began to exchange stories of times in our life where ‘shit hit the fan but I got through it’ so to speak. He called his mom to tell her that we were okay and this is where we were but he was sure we were going to be okay.
We had been stranded for almost ten hours when the huge Ewing Brothers Tow Truck rolled up in front of us. It wasn’t a flat bed and my stomach sank. A guy strode out of the truck, rubbing his face. I stuck my hand out, “Michelle Miller”. He gripped my hand tightly and looked at me, “Junior” and cracked a small smile. I tiredly repeated the same story I had told to countless people that day, expecting him to laugh at me and leave. He looked at the truck, then back at us: “If you hadn’t been pulling that Airstream, without the weight on your back end, your truck would have flipped over and you would have died, for sure.” Danny looked at Nimbus, my airstream, then back at me. “Funny how a trailer named after a magical broom in Harry Potter ended up saving our lives,” he nudged me.
“See here,” Junior crouched down, pointing at the rotor, “this happened because whoever rotated your tires last, didn’t torque your lugs all the way.” “Now, the highway patrol just told me that you needed your tire put back on, but that’s not going to be possible.” I held my breath, waiting for him to throw his hands up and say “Sorry, suckers, later!” He whistled. “So I guess we’re going to have to figure out a way to rig this big old truck up and pull the whole thing down the highway. Do you know where you’re going to take the trailer?”
All the RV parks had closed for the night and at that point, I thought he could just drop us off at a Flying J somewhere and we’d have another tow truck come get us in the morning. I really had no other choice. A mix of overwhelming exhaustion, adrenaline, and fear was roiling inside of me. My eyebrows were nearly knitting themselves together in worry; how was I going to land on my feet on this one?
Junior began to lift up the front end of the truck, sliding different jacks underneath it to see what could hold up the one ton. Danny danced around and I looked at him quizzically – was he so tired that he was dancing to keep himself awake? At this point, I couldn’t judge anyone. He looked like he was tap dancing and I let out a quiet laugh. He looked at me, flailing his hands, half laughing: “Why are there so many fucking roaches here?!” Then I noticed them: crawling all over his feet and mine, covering my spare tire and toolbox on the ground. I looked at the “40 miles to Las Vegas sign” on my right, hearing the roaches ping off of it. “Because we’re in hell,” I mused.
Junior lodged a piece of wood underneath the axle, which braced the axle over the fork of the tow truck. “Let’s try this one,” he said as he lowed the truck’s full weight onto the piece of wood. I looked on in horror, feeling faint, as the block immediately started to smoke and shoot out splinters, before splitting into pieces. “Nope, well, that one’s not going to work. Let’s see if I have a bigger piece of wood.” “Oh my god, I think I’m going to be sick,” I clapped a hand over my mouth, turning my back to the scene. “Don’t worry, it’s going to be fine, this guy has been in this business for thirty years and he seems pretty optimistic, surely he can figure something out!” Danny looked at me, trying to inspire some sort of faith. “The entire weight of my one ton truck, with my dogs inside, and 4,800 pound trailer is going to be resting on a tiny piece of wood. Are you out of your mind?” I asked him, knowing the question was hollow because again, we had no other choice.
For the first time in a long time, I felt helpless. I couldn’t wrap my body around the things and beings that I loved; I couldn’t make assurances to their wellbeing. As Junior fiddled around with chains and straps, trying to find some way to jerryrig my truck to his, I kept pleading to the both of them to take the Airstream somewhere safe with the dogs and Danny and leave me with the truck. I wanted all the things that I was responsible for, that I needed to protect, to be safe somewhere tucked away. Safe from being hit on the highway, safe from theft, with water, behind a locked gate. Anywhere but here would do. I felt exposed and completely, absolutely useless.
Junior slid another block of wood under the axle and let the truck down. It held. The dogs jumped around in the truck, barking and whining. “Okay!” Junior said, clapping his hands together, “now we’ve gotta wire it up.” The three of us sat back and looked at the trailer, attached to the truck, now rigged to the giant tow truck. A giant, human-machine, centipede. What the actual fuck is my life right now. I felt like I was tapping out, completely nauseous as Danny and Junior flitted excitedly around the trailer. Junior was struggling to rig up the safety lights on the back of the airstream when I remembered the box of bungees I had in the truck. I brought them out and asked him if I could try something. He stepped back and I opened the trunk in the bumper of Nimbus, settling the lights inside. I hooked the bunges to the lights, to the license plate, then to the bumper. “Perfect!” Junior exclaimed and I felt a bit of hope. He and Danny used Danny’s walking stick to flip the light extension cable up over the trailing, running the length from back to front, then over Jones, then finally to the big tow truck. Junior called his boss and told him what was going on. He explained our situation, telling him how pretty much up shit creek we were. We had no place to go and rigging up the truck had been a pain in the ass, let alone, no one else could do it. He asked if he could park the entire rig in their secure junkyard, allowing us to sleep in the airstream for the night. To my surprise, he got the owner to agree despite the obvious liabilities – something he clearly didn’t have to do; a kindness that he stuck his neck out there for us.
We were about to crawl into the rig and I felt a lump in my throat, terrified that the block of wood would fail and the whole thing would go crashing down. Especially since my two dogs were in the cab of the truck. Junior was tying my steering wheel when Danny pulled me aside and whispered, “You should say a spell, since you know, Nimbus did save our lives.” I looked at him, a small smile spreading over my face, echoing his. I walked up to Jones, my beloved truck, patted the hood: “Expecto patronum”, repeating the same thing to Nimbus, rubbing the ‘Airstream’ emblem by my front door.
Fifteen miles per hour, all the way down the highway. I clenched Danny’s hand as we talked to Junior, who turned out to be one of the coolest, most interesting people I’ve ever met. We talked about his life before being a tow truck driver, dogs, engines, stories of being on the job. He apologized, “I wish they had told me you guys had been stranded for 11 hours, I would have been out there sooner.” We waved his apology away, “Thank you for coming out and figuring out how to tow us in, you saved our lives.”
It was 1am as he pulled us into the junkyard, rows and rows of mangled cars from DUI’s, etc, met our weary eyes. “You guys will be safe here, there is security and they’ll close the gate behind me after I leave. I’ll see you in the morning. Sleep well.” We thanked him again profusely and he smiled, shaking our hands before he left. We took the dogs out of the truck, walked them, before climbing up into Nimbus. Surprisingly, there was no damage inside the blessed trailer. I turned on my water pump and hot water heater. We took a shower, marveling and laughing about the day and the fact that we were still able to take a shower in the comfort of home, whilst parked in a junkyard in Vegas. We brushed our teeth, put on our pajamas, crawled into bed, and snuggled the dogs until we fell asleep.