A dull rub from the car’s right rear end as we sped through the California desert, like a stiff wire brush rubbing against a hard chunk of metal. Suddenly, the scraping stopped, bringing a moment of reluctant relief. Until I glanced out the rear-view mirror and saw a shredded tire dancing crazily down the highway behind.
“Oh my God,” I said out loud, “that can’t be ours!” And so began an adventure I had hoped to avoid.
In fact, I’d had a premonition of this disaster the day before. We’d been pushing the other way, making the 142-mile trek from our Joshua Tree home to the border town of Blythe, when the engine suddenly quit. Bucking slightly, the car slowly ground to a halt as I guided it gently into the freeway’s far right lane. Then turned off the key and took a deep breath before turning it back on. The old car started right up and off we went, never heeding the cosmic warning we’d just received.
“Damn,” I thought now, trying desperately to maintain control of a tireless 2009 Mazda, “karma’s a bitch!”
Here’s the thing: California is a car culture. A land where people live in, swear by, and worship their means of transportation. A place where, without wheels, you’re hardly a real person at all, certainly not one worthy of leaving his house.
I knew this, of course, when I forsook it all and moved to the Philippines. What I never counted on was the culture stalking me with vengeance, punishing me for even thinking I could escape.
I’d gotten the first inkling of that during a visit four years ago after carelessly crashing into a parked car and leaving its astonished driver doorless. “Wow, Dad,” my daughter said, “Americans worry about all the bad things that can happen to them in Third World countries, but for you it’s just the opposite; bad things happen when you visit the US.”
Welcome to my daunting expat life.
But now I feared becoming an ex-human too. Desperately, I sought a haven toward which to guide my badly limping Mazda. And then, like a gift from heaven, the proverbial mists parted and there loomed the entrance to—Wiley’s Well Rest Area? Beggars can’t be choosers, I thought, thumping my way in.
There are varying degrees of tire tragedies. The most basic, of course, happens when the pressure in your tire drops too low. You simply stop, get a pump from the trunk or a friend, and blow that little sucker up. Then there’s a higher-level mishap in which the tire is ripped open and beyond repair, requiring a somewhat more intrusive response. On this day, though, my calamity was of the highest order: the tire was entirely gone, leaving me literally driving on a metal rim.
Wait, did I say day? That’s not entirely true, it was actually night. The night of July 4th when almost every American in America—including virtually all car repair shop owners—is out watching fireworks instead of minding the store.
Have I mentioned bad karma?
Holding my breath, I gingerly guided the limping vehicle into a suitable parking space. What now? By God’s grace, we were covered for emergency road service. And so, after a great deal of hand-wringing angst over several missed text messages and phone calls in an area almost devoid of cell signals, I made contact and, voila! Forty-five minutes later, my savior arrived.
Grunting behind a huge tire wrench, he removed the severely damaged rubber remains, replacing them with a dinky little spare. “Ok,” he said, eyes flashing alarm, “don’t drive on this too far; only 50 miles-per-hour for 50 miles tops!”
I still had 125 miles to go. And so I began, warily hoping to outlast the spartan spare. It’s difficult to describe the fear and uncertainty of traversing an expansively deserted desert dark enough to hide all roads ahead. Every bump felt like a bolt of lightning from hell. Suffice to say that, finally pulling into my driveway hours later, I felt like kissing the ground.
So what have I learned from this karmic misadventure? Mainly that my home state and I are no longer friends. Here’s a radical idea: maybe I’ll just stop driving in California altogether. Who cares if people think I’ve lost my mind after being brainwashed by Filipino aliens?
David Haldane’s latest book, “A Tooth in My Popsicle,” is available on Amazon and Lazada. An award-winning journalist, author, and broadcaster, Haldane is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where this column appears weekly in the Gold Star Daily.