“Life’s battles don’t always go to the stronger or faster man. But sooner or later the man who wins is the man who thinks he can.” ~Vince Lombardi

9.18.03                                                                        10 mi. east of akela, nm

OKAY, I ADMIT IT. For the first time during The Greatest Year of My Life, I was feeling just a little bit worried.

An hour ago VanGo had suddenly lost power on I-10. Like an old war horse that had suddenly snapped an ankle, the old boy wheezed and sputtered off the interstate as the red oil light ominously lit up my dashboard. Once we’d somehow managed to roll into the only gas station/souvenir shop in Akela, NM, I jumped out of the car to discover a coat of oil covering the back bumper and the rear hatch that protected my engine from the elements.

Things weren’t looking good.

It was high noon. Hot as hell. And I was still almost 1500 miles from New Orleans, where I was supposed to pick up my friend Ruston at the airport tomorrow.

My first order of business was to call Dick, the mechanic back in Beaumont, CA who’d gladly taken $250 from me yesterday for a tune-up and carburetor repairs. His initial comment after he’d given VanGo the once over was: “You’ll be lucky to make it 100 miles in this car.”

He eventually ended up coming around — sort of — after he was able to successfully replace VanGo’s clogged carb jet, which had been responsible for all the sputtering and stalling at red lights I’d endured the last several days.

“You should be okay now,” Dick told me at the end of the day. Then he added a note of caution. “But this car is hard to get parts for. They don’t even make those carburetors you have on there anymore. Look, I respect what you’re doing. But you’ve got the wrong car to be doing it in.”

Even though the guy had 35 years of experience as a VW mechanic, I refused to buy into Dick’s pessimism. After all, I’d been across America and back 3 times already with VanGo. And what about all those Deadheads and Phish phreaks blissfully cruising around America in their VW buses? Where were they getting THEIR parts?

Somehow, when I pulled out of Dick’s foreign car garage yesterday at around 4 I was feeling pretty confident. VanGo seemed to be running better than ever.

Less that 24 hours later I was calling Dick from a fly-infested pay phone. Demanding to know why the hell my freshly-tuned up ride was now dripping with oil. Dick said it could be a few things: a faulty oil pressure switch, a part that could replaced for about $6 bucks; a defective or loose oil filter, another cheap-to-fix ailment; a blown oil cooler, a diagnosis that would require “dropping the engine,” a prospect that sounded expensive.

“Or it could be a blown piston,” Dick said.

“Which means what?” I asked, swatting away a pair of humping flies. “A new engine?”

“Yep,” Dick said without a whole lot of sympathy. “Hopefully it’s not that. But I can’t really tell you what it is without looking at the engine.”

I told Dick I was about 35 miles outside of Las Cruces, the best bet for finding a mechanic who worked on VW buses. Dick suggested I try to make it to Las Cruces, stopping every 3 or 4 miles to add more oil if need be.

So I took his advice.

I hadn’t gone more than 10 miles when I found myself in THIS predicament. Stranded on an empty stretch of 2-lane highway south of the interstate. I had followed Dick’s suggestion, only to discover that the knock coming from VanGo’s engine was becoming increasingly louder until the thing finally just quit. When I pulled the rear hatch open, faint clouds of smoke drifted from the engine.

I’m no mechanic. But this didn’t look good.

* * *

I decided to brave the scorching heat and try to ride the Huffy mountain bike P.’s brother-in-law had given me into Las Cruces. A few miles in I realized that making the 20-mile ride with no water and no signs of a thirst-quenching gas station/convenience store for as far as the eye could see was asking for a case of heat stroke. At the very least, I was bound to get 3rd degree burns on my exposed forehead.

Then I spotted a big white truck pulled over at the I-10 onramp. I noticed someone sleeping in the driver’s seat and decided to knock on the window. A fat guy with a walrus moustache woke up and timidly rolled down his window 6 inches.

“Sorry to wake you,” I apologized, “but my car just broke down back up the road and I need to get to Las Cruces to call a tow truck. Are you heading that way?”

“When I wake up I am,” the big man told me. He didn’t seem too happy about getting rousted from his nap.

“Really?” I answered eagerly. “Any chance you could give me a lift into town? After you wake up from your nap, of course. Would you be cool with that? I’m gonna start riding that way. But if you wouldn’t mind pulling over once you start heading that way and see me. Like I said, my car just died back there and I could use some good luck right now. Would that be cool?”

“Sure,” the big man said. Then he rolled up his window and went back to sleep. I was sure I’d never see him again.

I hadn’t ridden much farther than 4 or 5 miles when I heard a horn honking behind me. It was Big Man, pulling over in his pristine white rig. I quickly tossed my bike in the back of his truck and climbed into the air conditioned cab, happy as a trucker in a titty bar to be out of the heat.

He soon told me his name was Dave. That was almost all he said. He wasn’t one of those people who picks up a hitchhiker because he wants to talk. Dave picked me up because I had asked. And I only asked because the prospects of getting heat stroke while riding a crappy old Huffy mountain bike to Las Cruces wasn’t how I wanted to end this brutal day in New Mexico.

* * *

By the time Sal the Tow Truck Driver was dropping me and VanGo off at D&D Auto in Las Cruces, it was just after 5. I tried not to dwell on my dire circumstances: My car sounds like shit…I just spent $250 bucks to get it tuned up yesterday…If it’s something major, how the hell am I gonna pay to get it fixed?…It’s looking like I’m never gonna make to to Baton Rouge for the LSU/Georgia game tomorrow.

The guy at D&D Auto — another Dave — confirmed my worst suspicions. Upon hearing me start up VanGo he declared that I had definitely thrown a piston. The prognosis was not good. We don’t just need a little repair work done.

We need a new engine.

To make matters worse, Dave says he’s gonna have to call around to find one. The whole thing could take 2 to 3 weeks and end up costing me $1500 to $2000.

“You have a decision to make,” Dave told me. “Do you want to put that kind of money into a car that’s probably only worth $2000?”

Shit. This was not the prognosis I wanted to hear. Especially less than a week after getting some amazing news: 2 of my friends back in LA had agreed to underwrite my adventure for another year!

Once again, my timing sucked.

But this being The Greatest Year of My Life*, there was no room to wallow in self-pity. I told Dave to go ahead and look for a new engine. And at the urging of my friend Rob—one of my 2 generous benefactors back in LA—I promptly got me a shiny, almost-new rent-a-car.

By nightfall I was back on the road. Only now I was in an electric blue PT Cruiser. Blasting “Exile on Main Street” on the CD player. With the cruise control set at 80 mph as I rolled down Interstate 10. Back on track. On my way to Louisiana. Determined to get to Baton Rouge in time for the LSU/Georgia game Saturday.

Geaux Tigers!

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