The Curse of West Texas

Reposting this from a previous blog I had for the Road-Trip-That-Wasn’t of July 2014…


“People always break down here on Friday afternoons,” Luis tells me from behind the counter. “It’s slow here all week, and then right before we close on Friday, someone breaks down.”

“So this place is cursed,” I reply. It’s past five-o-clock and we should be on our way to Carlsbad Caverns but instead we are stranded at a Ford dealership in Dalhart, Texas, the fate of my car unknown.

*          *          *

Everything had been fine until early this afternoon. As we were headed to Liberal, Kansas, the home of Dorothy’s house from The Wizard of Oz, my “check transmission” light came on (of all the places to start having car trouble…). My car has a brand new transmission, so we attributed this little blip to the 106 degree weather, let the car cool down at Dorothy’s house for about an hour, and then kept driving. Everything would be fine. No need to panic.

In the Oklahoma panhandle, the transmission light came on again. And then the traction control light. And then my car failed to accelerate past 50 miles per hour and I had to turn my hazard lights on so that the truckers cruising past the back road speed limit of 75 wouldn’t slam into me. And when I rolled into the next cluster of civilization in Texhoma, the first building I saw, to my relief, was a Car Quest.

A soft-spoken man named George who looked to be around my age hooked his all-knowing machine up to my car to find the problem, but found nothing. He called a friend to ask how one checks the transmission fluid in a Five Hundred, and was told that he would have to put the car on a lift, with which Car Quest was not equipped. George apologized in his southern drawl and told me to see Wayne in the yellow garage around the corner. Wayne had a fancier machine; he could tell me what was wrong.

“There’s definitely something going on with the transmission,” we were told about ten minutes later. “There’s a Ford dealer 50 miles down the road in Dalhart. They should be able to take care of you.”

“Will my car make it 50 more miles?” I asked.

“Yeah.” Wayne hesitated. “Just take it easy.”

“Just out of curiosity, how fast is the AAA response time out here?” Kelsey chimed in.

“A week?” Wayne laughed. It only seemed like half a joke. So we got back in the car and put the hazard lights back on and slowly but surely made it in one piece to Dalhart.

*          *          *

Andrew, the man in charge of the garage, pokes his head into the waiting room. “I don’t want to say anything for sure without looking at it more thoroughly, but it looks like your transmission is gone.”

“Okay,” I reply, trying to calculate in my head how much of the road trip we can realistically accomplish at this point. “Is the garage open tomorrow?”

“Depends on if the technician feels like coming in.”

“So if he does come in, then he can look at my car tomorrow?”

“Actually, we’re booked solid. It’s gonna be more like two weeks.”

“Two weeks?” My jaw drops. Two weeks from now, we are supposed to be in Seattle, and then a week later we are scheduled to be home. What are we supposed to do in a town of 7,000 people in the Texas panhandle with no means of transportation for two weeks? Better yet, how will we afford to stay here when most of our plans consisted of staying with friends and relatives on the West Coast? Kelsey and I exchange panicked glances, and I try to explain our situation to Andrew as calmly as possible.

“I’ll try calling some other garages nearby and see if they can fit you in.”

“That would be great. Thank you.” I sink into the leather couch and try to process what is happening. We cannot afford, nor do we want, to stay here for the next fourteen days. But I cannot think of any alternative besides abandoning the car on the side of the road and flying back to Connecticut. And then I would have no car. So I call my dad, because I have absolutely no idea what to do and I just want to cry and yell and punch the wall. It is only day four of a twenty-five day road trip and already everything has gone wrong.

My dad gives me the phone number of a company that ships cars for people anywhere in the country, while Kelsey is on the other side of the waiting room gathering plane times and prices from Amarillo to New England. We can be in Providence in a little over twenty-four hours and then we’ll just have to make some phone calls to get the car shipped back. Not the ideal way to end vacation three weeks early, but it is a plan.

Andrew returns to the waiting room. He has called nearly every garage within a 100-mile radius. “It’s a four to six week wait everywhere else,” he tells me.

This information is difficult for me to comprehend. We are in a sparsely populated part of the country. Even if these other garages are seventy and ninety miles away, how are there so many people with broken down vehicles to constitute a four to six week waiting period? And with no public transportation and roughly fifteen to twenty miles of open land in between each town, how can people go a month without having the problem fixed? How is there no “We understand that this is an emergency and we’ll squeeze you in as soon as possible”? I may have lived my whole life in an area where everything is easily accessible, but still. I have never waited more than two days to have my car fixed. Four to six weeks is just unfathomable.

We are told that there is a man who gives people free rides from the garage in Dalhart to the airport in Amarillo, ninety miles away. He can take us there in the morning. Kelsey and I grab all our essentials from the car and decide to abandon the cooler and sleeping bags and tent for now. The car can stay at the dealer free of charge until a shipping company picks it up, Andrew says. So we throw our backpacks into the garage’s van and hitch a ride to the nearest motel down the street.

Kelsey’s parents call again to say that they have found us a cheaper deal on a rental car. We can have it for a week and return it to New Haven. Perfect. We can just stay in the area until I have someone to ship my car back and then we can actually try to see a couple more places on this road trip. We make a short list of potential pitstops on the way back, then walk to the steakhouse next door to get food. We are exhausted and irritated and hungry and not even a chicken fajita wrap and free ice cream can cheer me up at this point. There have been very few times in my life when I have felt completely helpless in a situation. This is one of those times.

We go for a walk around town after dinner. Dalhart appears to consist of one intersection, a handful of restaurants and hotels, a grocery store, a vet and at least a dozen buildings that look abandoned, thus confirming that this is not a place we want to be stranded in for two weeks or more. All I know at this point is that we are not seeing the West Coast anytime soon, my car is going to be stranded in Texas for an indefinite amount of time and we now need a new game plan for the road trip.

Yup, this place is definitely cursed.

89 Palmetto

I sit back in my seat as the southern landscape zooms by through the window: cattails and marshes against a bright orange sky. I stretch out my legs, tired and sore from walking all day, bruised knees from falling up stairs and blistered toes from not breaking in new shoes. I am not accustomed to all the legroom, at least three times more than the plane I initially took south and the car I then rode in for 11 hours after my delayed flight caused me to miss my connection in DC. There’s also wifi here; I kind of have it made. Why are more people not using this method of transportation?

There’s something mystically alluring about taking the train. It feels more intimate than other methods of cross-country travel. Earlier, on the platform in Charleston, an elderly man whom I don’t even think was waiting to board or waiting for anyone to disembark rattled off the street names that the train was crossing as its bright lights came into view beyond highway underpasses. He told me he was moving to Kentucky to be closer to the race track. He had no family there, and the closest thing to a horse race he had ever witnessed was chasing his five dogs around his yard.

When train 89 arrived, family members gathered around the train to meet loved ones. A toothless man waited for his two grandsons. A lesbian couple embraced, fighting back tears for several minutes. Two black men exclaimed in surprise as they hugged a petite woman in a blue sundress with dyed fiery red hair, saying that they were expecting a blonde. A college-aged girl was videotaped stepping off the train by a friend, before the two laughed and hugged. Others reunited with friends and family marveled out loud about how they hadn’t seen each other in so long.

Traveling long distances by train often feels like an archaic idea. The plane is faster and usually costs just as much. Many of the train stations outside of major cities like New York or DC appear old and forgotten. Amtrak loses money every year, and Trump’s proposed budget threatens to shut down routes and eliminate service from many communities in the Midwest and South, the places that rely on it the most. But the experience of traveling by train, even a short distance, cannot be found anywhere else. Though my train does not go any further than Savannah, the city’s name spelled out in block letters over the awning that was built several generations ago, I want to ride on.