A snowy mountaintop near Flagstaff, Arizona, my rusty old Ford Escort, eighty-something, model year and mileage: that mountain would eat my muffler.
Way back in the twentieth century, before the Internet was something for MIT students, before cell phones could even flip, when tax forms were retrieved at post offices and libraries and snail-mailed to the IRS, long ago in the nineteen-nineties, when current contestants on American Idol were just being born and Friends wasn’t on the air, broadcast air, yet, it was a great adventure to travel America’s Interstate system; built primarily during the Eisenhower administration in case of attack by the USSR. It was true freedom. No one could reach you unless you wanted them to; truck stops were your home as you moved across the great North American Continent in rugged individualism, sort of, we did have credit cards and pay phones.
This was my great escape to Southern California. From the Northeast, crossing through Ontario, Canada, passports weren’t needed then, through the snow to the great planes, to the glorious red ridges of New Mexico that left me breathless, the grand feeling of wonder and awe at my forebears who came across the Atlantic to America, the harsh yet beautiful landscape reshaping our souls. As I came closer to the City of Angeles, Jerusalem and Mecca of my dreams, America for Americans: the great Los Angeles – I lost my muffler on a stretch of I-40, mimicking the old Route 66, that left me thinking about the Donner party and being eaten by cannibals hold-up in a deserted hotel that seemed out of a Stephen King novel on the side of the road.
The muffler had neither the decency nor the grace to just fall off the car. No, it had to be welded like bolts in a battleship on one end, and rusted through on the other, throwing sparks off the pavement in the glistening, pink twilight glinting through the majestic Ponderosa Pine trees and casting a melancholy mauve off the new, just fallen snow. I had to pull over before I actually blew the car up with the electric spray threatening the gas tank. Hiking to a nearby hotel to call for the Auto Club, the hotel being the only seeming business around for miles, the air became biting cold, the kind that can break off toes and finger if you’re not careful – and it’s hopeless to stop your nose from running and it just ends up freezing into baby icicles.
Then I saw it: “Closed for the Season.”
Desolate and abandoned, the strange nineteen-forties era hotel didn’t even have the effervescence to seem haunted.
I went back to the car and fought to get the rotted muffler off that car. It was me – or the muffler – and it wasn’t going to be me.