This is a story about a “chase” in the desert that went from fun to GREAT SCOTT. It all turned out okay, but it was a rough road getting there.
I suppose that the adventure of April 14, 2016, begins three months earlier, in January, 2016. On the Sunday of Martin Luther King holiday weekend, my Xterra broke down halfway from my mom’s place in Palm Desert to my home in Westlake Village. The vehicle was towed to a shop in San Bernardino, where a busted timing belt was replaced. Sometimes a broken timing belt means big-time engine damage, but I got lucky, and the 2002 Xterra’s engine worked just fine afterwards. These timing belts need to be replaced every 100,000 miles, which I did faithfully when the odometer hit 100,000. But I was lax and stupid when 200,000 miles came around, about two or three years ago. I didn’t bother to replace the timing belt. My odometer this past January read about 210,000 miles…but there were actually about 260,000 miles on the Xterra. The speedometer and odometer did not work for most of a two-year period several years ago. I figure that I put close to 50,000 miles on the SUV that were not added to the odometer reading. Anyway, it is not particularly surprising that the timing belt broke when it did. If I had been responsible and prompt a few years ago, then it is doubtful that this day in April would have transpired the way it did, and much consternation and gnashing of teeth would have been avoided.
With the new timing belt in place, the vehicle’s engine had a new “sound” to it. It was kind of a mild “whirring” sound. It sounded kind of neat, nothing to be concerned about, I figured. The Xterra was functioning just fine, as it always has (except for that one time in January on the freeway in San Bernardino). Now fast-forward to late March, and I am in the wide-open spaces of the Carrizo Plain, about two hours northwest of Thousand Oaks and Westlake Village. My buddy, a mechanic in a former life, is riding with me and he notices the sound from the engine. It doesn’t sound as “neat” as it did right after the timing belt was replaced. It is more of a soft “grindy” sound now. Less “whirry” and more “grindy.” He guesses that it may be a belt and bearing problem of some sort. With the hood up, he “listens” to the air conditioner compressor as the car is running, and he does not like what he hears.
The Xterra makes it home and I take it into another “Name Withheld Tire Pros” (NWTP) affiliate in Westlake Village (WLV). I let them know that the NWTP affiliate in San Bernardino replaced my timing belt in January and I immediately heard that new sound, and that my mechanic buddy thought I should get it checked out. The WLV NWTP manager (Robert) reports that I require a new air compressor and air-conditioner servicing. He says that the compressor is shot due to old age and 260,000 miles. But, this particular NWTP shop in WLV is basically a tires-only place and it does not do engine work. Robert suggests that I try another nearby repair place, in Thousand Oaks. He provides the phone number to reach the manager, “Gil.”
At this point I am somewhat relieved that the problem does not appear to be related to the timing belt, as it costs a lot to replace those things and if it breaks, then there might be serious engine damage. I decide to call Gil to see if he can work on the vehicle that day as I will need it the next day to get to work, and I wanted to be done with the problem. I tell Gil the story, he says to come on by, and he orders a replacement compressor. Well, it is NOT the compressor, Gil says an hour or two later. It is the timing belt. It is on and it is on WAY too tightly, and it is causing major stress in the tensioner, a spinny thing with ball bearings, I think, that is adjusted to make sure that the timing belt is not too loose and not too tight. Gil’s place replaces the timing belt that NWTP in San Bernardino installed. And, says Gil, I am lucky that the car did not break down somewhere and that no engine damage occurred. He was also astounded that NWTP in San Bernardino did not replace the fan belt and other belts in the engine in January, as they were cracking. It was not looking like a rip-roaring top-notch timing-belt replacement job was accomplished in San Bernardino.
I paid Gil about 600 dollars that I should not have had to relinquish, but the NWTP manager in San Bernardino and the NWTP warranty center seem to be willing to stand behind their work and to cover this additional expense. We will see, as the wheels of company bureaucracy churn. My Xterra was running fine again. It seemed that that whirring sound was gone for the most part, but it DID make a soft appearance when the car was at highway speeds and bouncing up and down a bit. It was minor and was nothing to be concerned with, I figured!
My friend, Jennifer, was visiting for a couple of days in mid-April and was eager to explore some California desert areas. She is from Massachusetts and New Hampshire, so desert areas are a bit of a novelty for her. I elected to take her up towards some of my favorite places around Trona and the Panamint Valley. And — good timing — a coolish trough was moving into the state and we might get some wind and dust and wave cloud development. Let the fun begin!
As we started away from home a little after sunrise, the whirry/grindy engine sound was apparent again. It wasn’t too loud or annoying or disconcerting. But, it was there. Dang, should I stop by Gil’s place and have him take a listen before we head out into the empty expanses?
Of course I should!
But I did think about it for 12 seconds. I should get some credit for that, right?
Jennifer and I reached Trona and later the Panamint Valley with some not-entirely-uninteresting wave cloud formations above. It was early afternoon, and it was windy in some spots with a little blowing sand here and there, but this was no major system or dust storm. I decided to visit Ballarat ghost town and to drive up into Pleasant Canyon. The road up into Pleasant Canyon is a rather rough and steep one, but no problem for my 2WD Xterra, at least to a point about halfway up. Eventually the road becomes a little too difficult, and it makes little sense to press your luck with the traction, etc. We hiked a little and took some photographs along the running stream, and then it was time to head back down to Ballarat. My plan was to head back south a little and to be at the Trona Pinnacles for sunset photography. It was about 4 p.m. now.
As we made our way down the slope and out of the narrow canyon, the Xterra’s engine quit on me. All power was lost as we were coasting down the rough road at 5 to 10 mph. The engine was not overheating at all. It started again and I hit the gas, and NO power whatsoever. The engine stopped running again, and I had to use the emergency brakes as the power brakes were out-to-lunch, too. Hmmm. It looked like I had picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue, as the saying goes. We were lucky that the car was heading downhill, and not uphill. I could probably coast into Ballarat. We were lucky that we weren’t well up into Pleasant Canyon when the engine failed. Jennifer and I might be walking back to Ballarat! There was no one else coming up and down this road today. We were lucky that it wasn’t 100 degrees or hotter out. It was a pleasant 80 degrees.
But, it wasn’t all wine and roses for us. The vehicle made it the last mile or so into Ballarat by coasting and emergency-braking. Ballarat is not a REAL ghost town, as a lone person makes it his home for most of the year. But it is isolated and the services are limited! “Rocky” operates a tiny store here, selling mostly sodas and water and maps and knickknacks. Rocky is pushing 70 years of age, it seems, and he is hunched over, But he is able to get around okay. Jennifer and I tell him our sad situation. There is no cell phone service here. There is no land-line telephone service here. There is no gas station or tow truck. There are no accommodations for the traveler, unless you count shade and bottled water and a map of Death Valley. We need to call AAA for tow-truck service. So, we need to get at least halfway to Trona, about 40 minutes away, in order to call for help to come get the Xterra out of here. The nearest tow truck company is in Ridgecrest, west of Trona, and about an hour distant. I figured that we would be stuck in Ridgecrest this Thursday night, and the vehicle could be serviced the next day, Friday. I would need the vehicle to get to work on Saturday. Thank goodness that I had this extra day in-between to get the Xterra fixed…but was it the stupid timing-belt issue again? UGH — I could see dollar bills flying out of my pockets. Not literally, of course. Dollar bills don’t fly. But they do “waft.” They were wafting out.
Rocky was practically looking for his car keys right after he learned of our plight! He was going to give us a ride to Cellphoneserviceland! What a nice guy! Then another couple in a battered Isuzu SUV said that maybe they could help us out. Wow — we hit the jackpot of nice folks here in Ballarat, population 1. Anthony and his wife were fixin’ to take a drive up nearby Surprise Canyon, the next one north of Pleasant Canyon. But now they were willing to give us a lift. We thanked Rocky for the offer, and Jennifer and I transferred our camera bags and suitcases to the battered Isuzu. Its back end was filled with recyclable bottles and an ice chest and rags and other junk, er, I mean equipment. The doors would not open from the inside, and there were numerous other issues which were readily apparent, but we all fit inside and all of our stuff fit and we were ready to roll. All we had to do was get to Trona. We could call AAA from there…maybe stay at the one motel there…whatever. “Just get me to Trona,” as the song goes. I think it was a Robert Goulet or Weird Al tune.
Anthony was about 55 years old and wore an old white tank top which was white in a spot or two. He and his wife were very nice. I wish I could recall her name — maybe Jennifer remembers. Ballarat is not on the main highway through the Panamint Valley. It is on “the other side” of the dry lake, so we have to motor some 3.5 miles or so along the unpaved road to get to the pavement. Anthony is tooling along at about 45-50 mph, and the road is washboarded in places. Hmmm, it looks like we will make good time, but it seems that the “careening off the road” chances are awfully high right now. “Careening” was not part of the plan today. “If you want to careen, then kindly advise me in advance.” If those aren’t some of the lyrics to “Just Get Me To Trona,” then somebody dropped the ball. Figuratively.
To reach Trona from Ballarat, one’s motor vehicle must be able to function during the “uphill” parts. I was going to write “one’s vehicle must muster enough muscle to move uphill,” but that sounds contrived. As the Isuzu began the ascent up the windy slope to the pass between the Panamint and Searles basins, Anthony was suddenly doing all sorts of contortions and movements. Mutterings were uttered as the vehicle slowed and the lower gears were uitilized and the RPMs increased two-fold, three-fold, uh, too-many fold. We came to a stop in the right lane. “It’ll be all right,” says the wife whose name Jennifer is supposed to remember. “This happens all the time.” The scent of boiling radiator fluid wafted into our respective noses, literally. We were on the wrong side of the pass, in Panamint Valley, in a motor vehicle with an inoperable motor, with no cell phone service. The plans for this day just keep on dis-planning themselves.
Anthony tried starting the vehicle again and again and again. The starter worked, but the engine would not kick in. It was a manual transmission, so we tried push-starting the Isuzu. No luck. Back and forth we pushed it, in the wind, in the dust, in the pleasant 75F temperatures. No luck. We pushed it out of the roadway. Anthony went to work on the engine like his life depended on it, poking at wires and tubes and hoses and other engine stuff. He learned how to fix the engine online, he said. He had done it before. This would be a simple fix.
Four hours later…WAIT A MINUTE! There are other tidbits to share during this four-hour period. How DARE I jump ahead for the sake of brevity.
We were not going to die out here, but we might become slightly dessicated. There was ample water in the vehicle and there were passing vehicles with operational motors every 10 or 15 minutes. It wasn’t like the middle of the Sahara Desert. Anthony just had to get the Isuzu started and we would shortly be in Cellphoneserviceland USA. And then I could retrieve my Xterra and see the money waft away. Anthony fiddled, figuratively, with the wires and had the wife try to start it. Nothing. Over and over again. Consternation ensued. Someone came along and stopped to see if we needed assistance. We said we thought we could get it going again, maybe it just needed to cool down or something. You are going the wrong direction for us, anyway. Thanks for stopping. Buh bye.
I decided to take some inventory of my belongings. Jennifer and I had transferred all of our bags from the Xterra to the Isuzu at Ballarat. My two camera bags and my little bag of clothes were accounted for, but the camcorder bag was not. What the heck? I thought for sure that I had gotten all of the valuables out of the Xterra. I had taken the two camera bags out, walked them over to the Isuzu, about 20 yards away, and put them on the ground for the Isuzu couple to put in the car. Didn’t I do the same with the camcorder bag? Is the camcorder bag still sitting on the ground by the store at Ballarat? I can’t believe this!!
The back of the Isuzu was a mishmash of junk, as noted above. I looked under everything, and no camcorder bag. My other two camera bags were in the back seat, safe and sound. There were no other hiding places for the camcorder bag. I was really getting a sick feeling. In the bag was a new 4K camcorder that I was going to use this spring during the chase season. If that camcorder is gone forever, then I am going to have to envisage a good sum of money flying or wafting out of my pockets, right behind the money flying or wafting out for the vehicle issues and towing expenses and possible car rental expenses and tips for the desert helpers and the Zingers at the convenience store later for dinner. Where will it all end? Why is this day being so not good now?
I leaned over the engine again in my turmoil. My mind was going over and over and over again with what could have possibly happened to the camcorder. I didn’t care about the Xterra much. It is 14 years old and ready to be replaced. But, geez Louise. These nice desert helpers who got us almost halfway to Trona could not have possibly hidden it somewhere. Jennifer had her two bags. The camcorder bag had to be on the ground back in Ballarat, or inside of the Xterra. I prayed that it was in the Xterra.
Anthony was looking at a broken water hose now. I poured water in the radiator, liter after liter, and it never filled up. He found the leaky hose and was wondering how we should fix it. The wind was blowing dust around and the sun was setting. Anthony was under the vehicle half the time, trying to figure stuff out. The white spots on his white shirt were getting really dirty.
An elderly couple drove up in a large, old SUV and stopped. I told them the story, and the lady driver said that her husband was a mechanic. He got out and came over to look. He was about 90 years old. Anthony explained what he was doing, and the old guy just nodded. We were trying to get the repaired hose attached again. The couple were headed to Ballarat, with ice cream and cake, for Rocky’s birthday. Today was Rocky’s birthday — YAY! April 14! And these fine folks were really willing to help us out. While the old guy watched the engine and Anthony and I watched the old guy, the old gal took Jennifer towards Trona to find a cell phone signal. Finally —- things were going in the right direction again. The old gal said to keep an eye on the old guy as he had some dementia. Okay.
While the two gals were gone, we got the water hose attached, and now we were fixing wires to the fuel pump because there wasn’t any fuel getting to the carburetor. Anthony poured a big jug of fuel into the gas tank just in case. The fuel gage said 1/4, but who can trust those things? Some wires were badly frayed, and the old guy was preparing new wires as replacements. I think it is a good thing that this vehicle did not start a trip up Surprise Canyon. Another vehicle stopped. Several young guys were headed to Ballarat, and they wondered if we required help. Of course we do! But it seemed like we had everything under control. We had sent two ladies towards Trona for help, but thank you very much for stopping! And by the way, if you see a black camcorder bag on the ground at Ballarat, please give it to Rocky for safe keeping! Yes, I really did say that to them. They seemed like fine, upstanding folk of strong moral character.
It was dark now, and Jennifer and the old SUV returned, about 90 minutes after departure. Jennifer had finally gotten through to AAA after trying each of three cell phones several times. “I had a strong signal, but just could not get through for the longest time,” Jennifer said. Jennifer told the operator that we needed a tow from Ballarat. She didn’t have her AAA card on her, but she had mine in her hand. The AAA lady found Jennifer’s AAA info and used that. “What kind of vehicle needed towing?” the AAA lady asked. “An Xterra,” said Jennifer. What’s wrong with the vehicle? It won’t go anywhere now. Where is it? It is in Ballarat. What are the cross streets? I don’t know. What are the latitude and longitude? I don’t know. Where are you? I don’t know. What county? I don’t know — it is in Ballarat. I can’t find Ballarat. Well, it’s a place. Or used to be a place. Look in the Panamint Valley.
So that is how that went between Jennifer and the AAA lady, somewhere between Trona and the Isuzu’s possible last resting place. Eventually the AAA lady determined the location of Ballarat, and she called the towing company in Ridgecrest to come rescue us and the Xterra. He would be there in about an hour.
Jennifer related that the drive with the old lady was somewhat of an experience, as she was on the wrong side of the road for extended periods. Well, the way this day was going, there was no reason to expect that the unexpected was suddenly going to cease.
The only way the tow truck guy was going to get to Ballarat was via Trona. We would see him as he passed by. Jennifer and I put our bags in the old folks’ old SUV, and the old folks would take us to Ballarat. In the meantime, we were still working on the Isuzu. I was holding a flashlight on the engine so Anthony could mess with the wires to the fuel pump. The old guy looked on. Honestly, I had little hope that this Isuzu would be running anytime soon.
Another vehicle drove up and stopped. It was Rocky! Birthday-boy Rocky! He had learned from the young guys of strong moral character that a vehicle had broken down, and he thought it might be his old friends who were overdue. Rocky broke open a case of water for everyone, and we had our fill of water. He got some tools out and a flashlight and went right to work, hunched over the engine without even hunching much. The old folks told him that his birthday ice cream was melting, but these things happen. No biggie. There is a broken-down Isuzu to tend to. I nervously asked Rocky if he had noticed a black camcorder bag near the store at Ballarat. “No, sorry,” he said. DRAT.
I kept looking up the road along the hill for the tow truck as I held the flashlight on the engine. Finally it arrived, and I made sure the driver stopped. I asked him if he was headed to Ballarat to get an Xterra. “Yep!” “Well, that’s my vehicle,” I said. Jennifer rode with the tow truck driver, and I hustled into the old folks’ SUV. The tow truck would follow us to Ballarat. We would be back through here again in an hour or so to see if the Isuzu folks still needed help.
I was in the back seat, with a little dog behind me, with a ton of luggage and junk and other possible non-junk stuff. Somewhere in here was some melting ice cream. It was about 15 minutes to the dirt road to Ballarat, which goes across the dry lake. The driving by the old lady was decent, with zero head-on collisions. We got onto the 3.5-mile stretch on the unpaved portion, and the lady was going about 12 mph. Ugh — this is going to take all day! I mean all night! She was talking about how she lived up in Surprise Canyon for quite a while, she provided Rocky’s life history, she told me about living in Noble and Norman in Oklahoma, and talked about the old guy’s time in Vietnam, where he was shot several times, had to jump from a cliff into some water to escape certain death, stuff like that. And, Jennifer had told her that I chased tornadoes, so she wanted to talk about that. Everybody from Oklahoma has a tornado tale to tell, right?!
She had plenty of time to share stories, as she kept braking. She would get up to 12 mph, and the brake down to 5 mph. Over and over and over again. Anthony was doing about 50 mph on this road earlier in the day, and now I was getting a warm and fuzzy feeling when she got it up to 11 mph. It was a good dirt road, but she hated it because it was so bumpy. We kept going down to 5 mph. I could not take it anymore, but I had to. What were Jeremy, the tow truck driver, and Jennifer thinking? Would we ever get to Ballarat at this pace?
We made it. I got out and looked around for the camcorder bag, but it was not there. It was not inside of the Xterra. I felt sick inside. We looked inside of the store, and around the store, and in another vehicle that was parked nearby. Nope. Sick.
Jeremy pulled the Xterra onto the flatbed and we were ready to roll. We tried to tip the old folks with some cash, but they refused. They said to “pay it back” by helping someone else. They are really super people! We went about 12 mph on the dirt road, back to the pavement of the main highway. It was close to 10 p.m. I had a decision to make. We could take the Xterra to Ridgecrest, where we would stay overnight and have the car looked at tomorrow. Or, we could use all or most of the “free” 200 miles of towing that is allowed on Jennifer’s premium AAA plan! I lived pretty close to 200 miles from Ballarat, so maybe we should consider that. It takes me close to 3 hours to drive from home to Trona, so figure 180 miles for that, and then another 35 miles from there to Ballarat, so it was close. If we went over the 200 miles, then it was 8 dollars per mile. Jennifer liked the idea of going back home, and I liked the idea of getting the Xterra back at Gil’s repair shop in Thousand Oaks. If my timing belt was the problem again, then that was the best place for it, I figured. Okay, let’s do it! Keep on trucking to T.O!
We passed the spot where the Isuzu had broken down —- it was empty! Cool! But I wish we could have stopped and thanked those folks again. I was thinking that one of the vehicles that we had passed about five minutes prior, going the other direction, might be Rocky’s, and it probably was. Do you believe in miracles?
A major part of the original plan on this day was to find a TV screen during the evening, perhaps in Ridgecrest, to watch the Kings and Sharks first playoff game. That plan had fallen apart faster than Anthony’s engine parts. Once we neared Trona, I was getting a cell signal again, finally. I checked the score, and the Sharks were ahead by one goal, with just two minutes to play. DARN again! I was able to listen to the last two minutes on iHeart radio, and the Kings had numerous chances to tie, but could not. The Kings lost. This day was just not going my way.
Jeremy shared a lot of details about his wife and kids, his divorce, his gambling winnings, his towing career, his kids’ problems, his custody battles with the Indians because his wife is from the tribe at Lone Pine so his kids are half Native American and the kids have to remain on the reservation because of the law made in the 1800s but it doesn’t really apply in this case yadda yadda yadda. This was a very sad life experience. We stopped in Mojave briefly, and continued to Lancaster and the San Fernando Valley. I was keeping close tabs on the mileage. The estimates on the iphone and by the tow truck company were about 210 miles from Ballarat to Thousand Oaks. Well, if I had to pay 80 bucks, that was not bad at all. It would cost that much for motel rooms in Ridgecrest.
We passed a bad accident scene on the 14 Freeway in Lancaster. It looked like it was a fatal accident. That quickly put my bad day into perspective. Nothing could be as bad as that, and here I am fretting over a camcorder and a repair job and maybe 80 bucks.
The clocked passed 1 a.m. and we still had an hour to go. I was thinking about the camcorder bag still — how in the SAM HILL did I misplace it? It was bugging me tremendously, and I was so perturbed at myself. I was also thinking, well, we will be home soon, there will be no night at Ridgecrest, Jennifer can get her rental car later today, and it IS a new day now. Maybe all of the bad stuff is behind us, and maybe the new day, Friday, will be a lot better. I need a good day to make up for Thursday! And then a hint of a good thought crossed my mind. Since I could not conceive of how I could possibly have allowed my camcorder bag to go missing or be left behind somewhere, I thought, hmmm…could it possibly be at home still? I had it by the door early on Thursday, ready to go out to the car with the other bags. Could I have really been so distracted by something that I left it there? Hmmm….
As we neared Thousand Oaks and Gil’s repair shop, it was looking good on the mileage. About 20 miles out, I told Jeremy and Jennifer that it would be close to 200 miles. We exited the freeway at 199 miles, and drove the next one-half mile to Gil’s place. Wow — 199.5 miles from Ballarat to Gil’s repair shop in Thousand Oaks! We barely got under the 200-mile cutoff, and we owed NOTHING extra! Thank you Jennifer and AAA! I have the regular coverage which allows seven free miles, I think. I would have been a lot poorer and I would have been in Trona or Ridgecrest if Jennifer had not been along.
We parked the Xterra on the street across from Gil’s, and I left a spare car key in their drop box. I wrote on the note to make the Xterra run again! Jeremy gave us a lift back to my condo, less than two miles away, and we thanked him profusely. He would not and could not accept tips. It was after 2 a.m., and he would be back to Ridgecrest with the sky getting bright.
I opened up the garage, and there was no camcorder bag sitting on the floor of the garage. SHOOT! I opened the garage door to the kitchen, and there it was. On the breakfast table, right there. Two feet from the door. Bill Reid had left his camcorder bag at home. It is celebration time for Mr. Stupid Head! I was elated.
I checked the mail, and there was an early birthday card for me from a dear friend from the other side of the planet. Wow, how nice! This day is the BEST! It can not possibly be any better!
I called Gil late in the morning to ask about the Xterra. “Bill, your distributor bolt had come loose and the timing was off 180 degrees. We got it back on good and it is running fine. That will be 94 dollars. I will come on by now to pick you up so you can drive your Xterra away.”
Oh, my God. This is the best Friday ever!