John, the gruff, buzz-cut guy behind the counter, looked up from his vintage computer screen and said, “It’s gonna be a while.” Our hearts sank. “We’re still lookin’ for that part. The nearest dealer is in Pasadena. We could order it from them, but we wouldn’t get it until tomorrow noon.”
We slumped lower on the cold vinyl. We had left the coast early on Martin Luther King Monday hoping to blast straight home on the freeway: east across the Mojave to Colorado in one day. Both Ellen and Cecily needed to be back at work on Tuesday.
I stared for the umpteenth time at a hyper-real poster on the wall. Marilyn Monroe is sitting in a jet-black hot-rod convertible, while Elvis leans petulantly against the driver’s-side door. They’ve been pulled over by the CHP on a hot desert night on Route 66.
Route 66 used to be the way west, Chicago to L.A., Chuck Berry’s two-lane ribbon of dreams. That was before the interstates were built as a Cold War military/civilian-evacuation system. Fanatics still drive the old road, reverently, like pilgrims, but for getting here to there, it has been relegated to the shadows alongside the superhighways.
Loveland’s Auto Shop is on old Route 66 in a metal building on a nondescript strip of burger joints and furniture stores. In the summer I’m sure it’s plenty hot. This morning in the high desert, gutter-water froze solid as Southern California shivered through a record cold snap.
Burning rubber was our problem. Two hours out from Dad’s house, we decided we all needed to recycle our pre-dawn coffees. On the off-ramp, slowing down, I could see smoke curling from the engine compartment. Before we’d gone two blocks to the first gas station our ravaged serpentine belt jumped completely off its pulleys; with a clunk the power steering went out, and I had to wrestle us into a parking space.
Swell. Here we were on a national holiday, 700 miles from home, in a town of pickups and Ford Foci, where finding Saab parts on the best of days would likely end in a sob story.
Ironically, on the drive out, on Interstate 40 at Holbrook, I’d told the story of an earlier breakdown. I was alone, drifting south from Canyon de Chelly in the 1969 VW bus. As the sun set and the light faded, I noticed my headlights were not very bright. In fact, they grew dimmer as the miles passed until the pool of light on the highway ahead shrank to a muddy puddle.
Something was wrong with the generator. The lights were sucking the battery down, both dying together. When I could, I drove with the lights off, switching them on again when other cars approached. I snuck into Holbrook via old Route 66, not daring to risk a foray on the interstate. I slept in the parking lot next to a darkened diner. In the morning, a Sunday, the waitress took pity on me and rang up the man who ran the garage across the street. He agreed to come down, and together we pushed the bus into his shop.
For the next couple of hours I watched in awe as he took the generator out and apart. He didn’t have the right size wire brushes to replace the worn ones. So, he built some from scratch, gnarled hands searching through piles of metal on a buried workbench. I don’t remember what the bill was exactly; it was insanely modest and came with a well-wishing grin that was missing a couple of incisors.
This newest breakdown started off with several bits of good luck. First, that we had left the freeway when we did, before the belt came all the way off. Then, while I was inside the convenience store poring semi-hopelessly through the Yellow Pages, our first angel arrived. His name was Dale. He was an off-duty UPS driver. “Thanks so much for stopping,” I said, hopping into Dale’s truck. “Hey,” he answered, and I noticed a couple of bottom teeth gone, “I saw your hood up. I’ve been there.”
Dale drove me down to Loveland’s: “I don’t want you to get ripped off. Some places will rip you off, especially on a holiday.” Then, when John said he’d take a look, Dale took me back to the girls, cut the shredded belt out with his pocket knife, and offered to follow us the few blocks to Loveland’s. In fact, he used his truck to protect our back as I struggled with the intersection’s corners.
Then Dale was gone and a young employee of John’s, with a watch cap and a Cantinflas grin, was diving under the hood. The good news: they had a belt that would fit. The bad news: the reason ours had self-destructed was an idler pulley whose bearings had melded together in a single, unspinning mass.
Could they find a new idler pulley? And would it fit the Saab’s metric bolt? These were the unsmiling questions John asked, rhetorically, when he did speak.
We sought warmth and breakfast burritos a couple of doors away at Tom’s Diner. “Come back in an hour,” John intoned glumly as we left. “We should know by then if we’re going to be able to fix it.” We took a sunny corner booth and thawed out the possibility of spending the night. Not what we had hoped. Even if we got back on the road, we might not make it that night. Our fate was in someone else’s hands. But what could you do?
Back in the waiting room, we eased into the cold Caddy seats. Eventually, John came through the back door and spoke in the same emotionless deadpan as before. But the words said: “He’s out driving it now. Make sure it works.”
They had not, in fact, been able to locate a pulley with the right size hole. For that, we would have had to wait for Pasadena. But they had rustled up a pulley and a bushing to take up the extra space, and fabricated a solution.
Like a surgeon who knew all along it would work out, like the Angel of Holbrook 400 miles east and 35 years back in time, John smiled his first smile and said, “You’re on your way.”