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The Afterburn

September 4/Day 49. The chaotic mass of vehicles heading toward the exit is forced to funnel down into a single file before it enters the county road that leads away from Black Rock City. Dust rises so thick it’s nearly impossible to see the tail lights of the vehicle in front of me. Slowly we merge from eight, to four, to two, then finally to one lane; it takes an hour; it’s 1 :00 a.m. Sunday.

Once on the road, an unbroken line of tail lights extends in front of me to a disappearing point, and likewise a line of headlights in my rearview mirror.

I travel about 40 miles when suddenly a large metallic object appears to bounce from under the car ahead of me. With no time to react, it slams into the undercarriage of my truck with a sickening clatter, then passes under the trailer knocking a large cloud of playa dust loose from the wheel well. I think it’s caused a blowout but after a few seconds I can feel that the tires are all intact.

A half mile down the road, however, my engine dies. I panic because the road has no shoulder, only soft sand and sagebrush. Heading uphill, I coast for as long as I can before finding a likely place to pull off the highway. When I hit the sand I stop almost instantly, with the rear of my trailer still blocking half the traffic lane.

This is a dangerous situation. To pass me, my lane of southbound traffic is crossing into the oncoming lane near the crest of the hill. Though sparse, northbound traffic is primed for a headon collision. Think! Think!

I turn on my four-way flashers and grab the strobe flashlight Jane insists that I carry in the truck. I ease myself out of the driver’s seat and onto the highway, waving the strobe at oncoming traffic. Luckily, I bought a set of three hazard triangles before I left on the trip. Where are they? Ah, I find them in the basement of the trailer. Hurriedly I set them out, then step away from the road into the sagebrush a safe distance.

My cell phone says, “No Service.” After all, this is practically the definition of “middle of nowhere.” There is absolutely nothing I can do but rely on the kindness of strangers. Hundreds of cars pass me by. I wait for an hour, helpless, until finally a Nevada Highway Patrol officer pulls up behind the trailer and turns his flashers on. I’ve never been happier to see a cop in my life. He calls in another patrol to set up a warning over the crest of the hill. I talk to him.

“Yeah,” he says, “You hit a bicycle that fell off the back of a car.” (Almost all the cars are carrying bikes.) “I pulled what was left of it off the road.”

Officer Jorgenson is his name. He radios the dispatcher to send a heavy wrecker out to haul my rig. We wait an hour and a half before it finally arrives from Reno, long enough that we get to be pretty good friends.

After a lengthy process of properly hitching my rig to the wrecker and removing my truck’s driveshaft so it can be towed without damage to the transmission, we’re on the road. It’s about 70 miles and $500 to Reno. Before we get there, I’m pretty good friends with Dwayne, too.

We arrive at a Ford dealership about 5:00 a.m. Sunday morning. Dwayne drops my rig and me off behind a warehouse next to the dealer. During the long ride, I learn that Monday is Labor Day (I’ve been pretty out of touch) so I’m thinking it will be Tuesday at the earliest before a mechanic can look at my truck. That’s when Dwayne tells me the dealer has an 11 day backup in the diesel department. It’s still dark when he drives away. Not having any idea where I am, or what kind of neighborhood surrounds me, for the second time on my trip I slide a clip into the Glock and lay it within easy reach. By daybreak I’m fully depressed, nearly in tears, and sick to my stomach.

Later in the day I venture out, carefully checking my surroundings like a mouse watching for the cat. Graffiti.  Overgrown weeds. Faded “for rent” signs. I am not comfortable with this.

Immobilized, I wait for dark and the blessing of sleep, which I’ve had none of for 36 hours.

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