I told this story the other day and then immediately thought, "Man... that's a good one for the blog."
As I wrote about in my converted school bus story, my friends and I used to have a school bus. We went on a lot of fantastic trips in it, but those stories will have to be for another day.
Our very last trip took us to Las Vegas. It wasn't meant to be our last trip, of course. It was just a short little jaunt to Vegas. Of the six passengers on the bus, half were part owners of the bus and half were just friends.
Since high school I haven't been on a road trip that wasn't non stop. We pick our first destination and drive 24 hours a day until we get there. We go in four hour shifts, so the more people we have the longer we get in between drives. (An aside - I used to think that girls were slackers on road trips, but my last road trip was with two girls and they both did their fair share, even during the dreaded sunrise shift).
Without any major events we cruised from Austin, Texas all the way past Deming, NM. I'm not sure if I've mentioned it here before or not, but Deming, New Mexico is the WORST place in the world. Half of the time that I've driven through there (and it's been a lot of times), something majorly bad has happened.
A sampling of these bad events?
Well... A transmission died. A tire blowout. Another tire blowout. Yet another tire blowout on the bus (on a sunday with a "dangerous" tire that cost us $500). A bird hitting my side view mirror and knocking it off. Engine overheating.
I know there are more things, but I can't think of them at the moment.
Anyway, we made it through Deming, which was a sigh of relief. I'm not a superstitious person (at all.), but some combination of environmental forces causes Deming to be a hellhole for cars.
And it's not like Deming is a big place. It's tiny. One - maybe two - exits.
Crap. I just wrote all that because I thought we broke down right near Deming. We didn't, though. I just checked google maps.
The bus had air brakes. The bus maintains an air reservoir which is used to hold the breaks away from the wheel. When you put your foot on the brake pedal some air is let out and the brake drums hit the wheels and slow you down. The problem is that it takes time to build up that air reservoir so you don't want to use the brakes too much.
This is one of the reasons that truckers engine break.
We were getting excited because we were almost there. The bus goes 55, so trips took a little longer than normal road trips. We had almost 24 hours in the bank and only had one hour left before we could bask in the glory of buffets and poker.
As I coasted down the hill sparingly applying my brakes I realized something - my air reservoir wasn't being replenished. The bus had a small gauge that showed how much air we had left and it was almost in the red zone.
I remembered the warnings from the shady gentleman who sold us the bus.
"Don't EVER run out of air. If you do the brakes will suddenly fully engage and you won't be able to move the bus until you build up your air reservoir again."
I pulled over to the side and explained the situation.
Matt, the only road tripper with any sort of mechanical experience, took a look under the hood.
It APPEARED that we lost the belt to the air compressor, but we weren't sure. We didn't know if it had one to begin with and we didn't know if the black hunk of metal we were looking at was even the air compressor.
BUS BROKE. NEED RIDE.
That's what our sign said. It was written on the back of a piece of posterboard that said "Club Autobus" on the other side. When we were in Miami we tried to make a moving club in the bus. The police didn't appreciate us blasting Dr. Dre and crip walking on the roof and only one couple came into the bus.
We elected Matt and Austin to be our hitchhikers. In case those warnings from our parents were true and hitchhikers really did get murdered, those two would be the most likely to defend themselves.
Remember... this is before I became the chiseled rock hard likeness of a Greek god that Crossfit has made me.
Soon enough a sketchy hippie with a giant bowie knife in his sun visor picked them up. They didn't notice the knife until they were inside.
As they rode off we turned the bus back on so that we could play poker under its lights.
Hours later it started getting dark. Infrequent phone calls informed us that they were going from shop to shop trying to find the right belt.
They finally got some belts and headed back.
What we didn't think about was that it's a LOT easier to hitchhike in the middle of the day next to a broken school bus than it is at night on the side of a road.
To make up time they started running towards the bus, which probably doesn't built much credibility either.
Our bus battery started getting low and at idle it wasn't charging fast enough, so we turned off the bus.
I got impatient and decided to use the bus to our advantage. I took the hitchhiking sign and went outside, thinking that it would be easier for me to get a ride to go pick them up.
A van pulled up.
"Do you need a ride?"
"Yes... some friend went to get parts and they're running back. Is there any way you'd be willing to help me and pick them up?"
"Well... ok. We have a dog in here. If you try anything he'll bite your face off."
"I'm not going to try anything."
"Ok. He's really nice anyway. He's never bitten anyone."
I got in the van and we headed towards Vegas. We all scanned the shoulders of the road but didn't see them anywhere. We reached a waypoint that I knew they'd already passed and then we headed back. I thanked the family and got dropped back off at the bus.
The guys had made it back to the bus but couldn't call me because of poor reception.
A man named Felicio Gutierrez and his 15 year old son had picked Austin and Matt up and had brought them back. Even better, the man was under the hood trying to fix the problem.
But, as I learned, our problem had spread. The bus wouldn't start at all.
While Matt and the Felicio worked under the hood we chatted with his son.
I don't remember the details of the conversation, but I do remember one fascinating line from the kid.
"You should my dad when he's running from the police with his lights off."
I still wonder about that.
Felicio finally gave up.
"I'm sorry. I don't know what's wrong."
"That's ok. Thanks for your help."
We had no idea what to do. He could probably tell.
"I'll tell you what. Tomorrow is my day off. I will come at 7am with my mechanic friend and a spare battery and we'll fix it."
He left and we went to sleep. It was cold and hard to sleep through the trucks whizzing by the un-illuminated bus. I volunteered to sleep in the back and be the first to die if a truck hit us. I'm so brave!
We woke up at 6am and made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, the official breakfast, lunch, and dinner of the trip.
Seven o'clock rolled by and there was no sign of him.
We had never really thought about what we'd do in a situation like this. We were stranded on the side of the road with no electricity, very little water and food, and no transportation.
I called him around eight thirty.
"You didn't think I forgot about you, did you?"
"I'm almost there. I had to get some tools."
True to his word, Felicio and his mechanic friend had brought a large battery and trays full of tools. We lucked out and just happened to meet THE NICEST MAN IN THE WORLD, which is what we STILL refer to him as to this day.
Unfortunately our problems were worse than we thought. They fiddled with the engine until the afternoon but still couldn't fix the bus.
"You're going to have to get a new starter. I have to go but I will come back tomorrow morning. I will take everyone in to Vegas. Most of you can have fun and one or two of you can come with me to get the parts."
Talk about going above and beyond. I offered him $100 for all of his help, but he refused the money.
We amused ourselves for an hour or two by throwing rocks and climbing the hills. Then we got bored.
"Let's hitchhike again and hang out in Vegas," I suggested, "We can still have a fun trip while we fix the bus."
The group was divided 50/50. Half wanted to stay with the bus and wait until the morning. The other half wanted to go to Vegas.
Just then a minivan pulled in front of the bus. I ran out to it.
Seated inside was an elderly couple. The driver, a grandmotherly type, did all the talking.
"Do you boys need some help?"
"Well... can you fit six of us in there?"
"We can try."
I ran back to tell my friends the good news. With a (seemingly) safe ride at our disposal I won over more of my friends and we all agreed to go. In a flurry we went through the bus and each stuffed a change of clothes into our cargo pants pockets. A few of us brought our laptops and phones.
We barely fit into the minivan which was already burdened with an ungodly amount of suitcases.
After about twenty minutes we reached the security checkpoint of the Hoover dam. This wasn't too long after 9-11, so everyone was even more paranoid than they are today.
Most vehicles were allowed to pass, but ours was pulled over for further screening. Was our chauffer a secret drug dealer? WAS SHE ONE OF THOSE HITCHHIKER MURDERERS?
The police officer asked her to step outside of the vehicle. He escorted her to the rear corner of the van, just outside the popped window that I was sitting next to.
I could hear every word.
"Ma'am, who are those men in your car?"
"Oh, they're hitchhikers. Their bus broke."
"Are they making you uncomfortable?"
"Are they forcing you to drive somewhere against your will?"
"No. They're going to Vegas and so are we."
With a sense of urgency the officer said, "Look Ma'am, if you are in a bad situation and you need my help, then I need you to indicate that now."
Finally he let her go and she told us the story as we continued.
As the drive went on her driving got worse. She didn't feel confined to one lane. Lane changes were abrupt. She told us about her job as an airplane test pilot and how good at it she was - even though she was BLIND IN ON EYE!
We hid our concern from her but all exchanged glances.
Then all of a sudden the front passenger door sprang open. The quiet old man sitting on it reached for his seatbelt, which he released with a push. His attention turned to the open door and he started edging towards it.
Our driver shrieked and pulled him back inside. Confused, he closed the door.
We now exchanged VERY alarmed glances.
"He has Alzhiemers. He has no idea where he is, so he's trying to escape."
Finally we reached the Hoover Dam.
"Do you boys want to stop and take a look?"
"No, that's fine. We don't want to interrupt your trip at all."
"Oh no! You MUST see it. We'll stop for half an hour."
Half an hour? I've been to the Hoover dam before and it really is neat but there is NOTHING you can do there for half an hour unless you're going on a tour.
"We wouldn't want to trouble you. Let's just keep going."
She pulled over and said, "Ok. Let's meet back here in 30 minutes."
After two outbursts of weirdness on the ride there, none of us were ready to leave our bags in the car while we wandered.
So we literally stood outside of the van doing NOTHING for half an hour. Thirty minutes later, on the dot, she was ready to leave.
We finally pulled into Vegas.
"Where are you boys staying?" she asked.
"Oh, we don't know yet. A hotel on the strip."
"My son lives here. You could stay with him."
At this point things were getting so weird that we were all nervous. We just wanted to get out of the car.
"I'm going to pull over to call him."
She pulled into a totally empty parking lot of an office park. After a few minutes we managed to convince her that we really didn't need to stay with her son. She pulled out and dropped us off in front of the MGM.
The next few days were spent with THE NICEST MAN EVER doing everything he possibly could to help us. We visited his friends to see if they had cheap parts for us. He shuttled us back and forth from the bus and casinos, making sure that people not involved with the bus were entertained.
He once, very begrudgingly, let us buy him lunch at Pollo Loco. He wouldn't accept any money.
He was SO NICE, in fact, that I started trying to think about how I could be a nicer person (obviously that didn't work...). We were all inspired.
After three days, though, things weren't looking good. Despite buying a $600 starter, we couldn't fix the bus.
Our options were to either abandon the bus or to sink money into it to have it towed into town. It would cost hundreds to have it diagnosed, and who knows how much more to get it fixed. We didn't have much money.
The three owners wanted to get it fixed. The passengers didn't, but all agreed to let us make the decision. We sat in our hotel room debating it.
"Guys, we've gotten some amazing trips out of the bus," started Austin, "I, for one, never thought she'd last this long. Next year we're all going our own ways so we'll only be able to do one trip every summer, maybe. I don't want to, but I think we should probably let her go."
That cinched the bus' fate. The next morning we rented a car and stuffed it with the most valuable (sentimentally and monetarily) bits of the bus.
For three months we had slaved away every day and made the bus ours. Every piece of wood in it was put in by Austin, Terry, or me. We had long discussions over the colors, the layout, and the materials. We poured money into it making it the ultimate road trip vehicle.
Many people didn't think we'd do it, or if we did that it would break down. We'd been to Key West and Vancouver in it and had amazing memories in it.
Austin took the license plates off as mementos.
For the last time we got off the bus and headed for the rental car. I couldn't remember crying since a friend killed himself a few years prior, but I was fighting back tears. By the time we were in the car I pressed my face against the glass so that people couldn't see me crying. We went over a hill and the last glimpse of the bus disappeared.
We didn't call Felicio. If we called him he would have come down to try to help some more, but we had already imposed on him too much.
Two days later Felicio called.
"I am so happy that you fixed the bus! I drove by on the way to work today and saw that it was gone."
I hated to give him the bad news.
"I wish you called me. I would have towed it myself and fixed it. You could have come back later to get it from me."
I told him that we could never ask him to do that. But then I had an idea.
My friends listened to my plan and unanimously agreed.
We mailed a check to the impound lot with instructions to give the bus to Felicio. He picked it up and thanked us over the phone. He told us that he towed it with no problems and that we could have it back when it was fixed.
"No. It's yours now. You've already done so much for us and we'll just be happy knowing that someone who likes it is using it."
He thanked us more and told us about how he was going to take his family on trips to Mexico in it. He invited us on the trips and said that if we ever wanted to borrow it we could.
We never called him or heard from him again, but I love to imagine that he still has the bus and that he and his family really enjoy it.