We pulled into the U-Haul on the edge of Las Vegas and spat out our thinly rehearsed lie to the kid at the counter, and at first it seemed to stick. He ran the info through his computer, but eventually we hit the same dead end. Unsafe, they couldn't get a truck, they couldn't rent a trailer, we were fucked. Again. Outside the sun was slowly falling and the darkness began to come creep over the desert. I could feel the world pulling us in, trying as best as it could to hold us in this god-forsaken Valley of Fire. The kid behind the counter had a devilish smirk on his face, and you could tell that he was the type of guy that gets off on the tiny sliver of authority they grant him there. Josie and I stepped away from the counter, defeated and tired. Josie, unable and unwilling to succumb to defeat, suddenly saw something that made her jump.
''What about that? That could work!'' she yelled. I turned my exhausted and sun burnt face to see the object of her attention: a bumper-mounted tow bar. When I saw the tow-bar she was pointing at, our eyes met, we both nodded at each other, and we made a silent pact there on the floor of the Las Vegas U-Haul: We were going to flat tow the van home. The look on the face of the kid behind the counter was priceless when we walked up and set our tow-bar, magnetic lights, and safety chain on the counter. He stuttered about for a minute dumbfounded, but finally, failing to find a reason to do otherwise, he clumsily took our money and we ran back to the truck, our spirits refreshed with our new plans. I was exhausted, but our new plans made me catch my second wind, and we drove off into the desert with a new hope and impetus towards success.
The creeping darkness over the desert had stirred some primal feeling inside me to run, I had a knot in my throat and a cold sweat took over me as a tired adrenal gland dripped cold pure liquid energy down my neck and into my soul. This fight to escape had become much bigger inside me; it was no longer just about a van in the desert, this was the ultimate struggle, this was pure survival. I felt with every iota of my being that failing to make it out this night was certain death, and there was no way I'd leave my van behind. The surrounding mountains became the gates of hell themselves, and I knew that one more night would damn me forever to stay and writhe for eternity in the Valley of Fire. I was going to make my escape from hell and steal one lost soul from the clutches of the Devil himself. I could feel the lines of Raoul Duke coming from my mouth, ''There was no turning back. Fuck no, not today thank you kindly.''
On the way back to Walt's, it occurred to us that we didn't have the right tools to properly install this already unsafe apparatus (i.e.: something to put a hole in the bumper to mount the tow-bar to), so I hopped on the next exit towards a place I was sure would have some tools, a Las Vegas Super Wal-Mart.
Now, there are few things in the world that can convince you that modern society might have been a mistake better than the fluorescent-lit interior of a Super Wal-Mart at sundown. It is, without a doubt- proof enough that mankind is willing to destroy itself to save a buck on bulk mayo and cheap beer. The store reeked of cancer, every synthetic and lead-coated plastic that you could imagine was on display, and the faceless mass of people that occupied the store moved as one slow, thoughtless body. Josie and I had thought that maybe we might be able to get something to eat, something we had neglected to do since California, but the shelves of the store offered us nothing of the non-chili cheese variety. We bought a cheap battery-powered red drill, and hit the road back towards the van. A bloated red sun fell completely behind the mountains on the horizon in our rear-view as Josie and I treaded on into the quickly darkening desert. During the drive I mentioned briefly that if Josie wanted, we could stay another night at some dive in Vegas and get started again in the morning, but Josie reminded me of a few key facts:
1. Flat towing a car is dangerous. To make a daytime trip through traffic and commuters would be dangerous for everyone on the road. All it would take to roll the whole rig would be one random mini-van cutting us off.
2. Flat towing is illegal on the freeway. The tow-bar itself expressly stated this fact in bold red letters on a sticker. The van would get impounded for sure and there was no way in hell that we would drive back, much less have the means with which to get it out.
3. The van had no plates, and without being registered was also illegal to be on the highway.
4. Waiting one more night was probably what caught most of the people in the trailer park there in the first place.
Josie made a strong case, as she often does, and so we were set. We would drive all night and flat tow our van home, sleep be damned. I pushed on towards the trailer park.
We got to the trailer park to meet a half-cocked Walt and his girlfriend Brenda, whom we were meeting for the first time. Apparently our small exchange of money for the van earlier was being put to work quickly towards flooding the desert with booze and cigarettes. Brenda had spent her whole life in the desert, you could tell by every crack and wrinkle in her dried out and tanned face. We all drove down the road to the storage yard to get my van; Josie and I in my Dad's truck, and Walt and Brenda in hers. For some reason that now escapes me, we decided to pull the van out of the yard with a towrope and Brenda's truck, I think because we weren't supposed to work in the yard or something along those lines. Walt and I tied the rope between the bumpers of the two vehicles, Walt hopped in the driver’s seat of my van and Brenda jerked away in her truck. I tried to switch places with Walt but he ignored me; this was still “his” van in his mind. The first time the van moved, Brenda slammed on the brakes to poke her head out the window and see what was going on. Predictably, the van smashed into the truck, cracking the turn signal and denting the otherwise relatively straight front-end of my van. Walt let out a laugh that confirmed to me his inebriated state, and I tried to interject, but it was no use. Eventually, we got my now slightly damaged but free-rolling Van on the street, and it was time to both literally and figuratively put the rubber to the road.
With the van out of the lot, I pulled the tow bar out of its box and fumbled with the bracketry. Admittedly, I had never hooked up a tow-bar, and what seemed so simple in the store suddenly seemed tough and confusing. Josie, being the quick thinker that she is, pointed to the bumper braces and muttered something. She pointed out that we could just drill one hole next to the existing bumper hole and be done and on the road, and she was partially correct. When I got up to go to our truck to get our newly purchased drill, a single bat circled the street light above us, adding to the anathemic and dreary ambiance of the desert at night. I shuddered, grabbed the drill and the brackets. Upon trying to use the drill, once more Josie proved her wisdom, as she had been correct in thinking that a place like Wal-Mart wouldn't sell drills with charged batteries. Brenda, watching over the end of a Kool 100 from her truck assured us she had a drill back at the trailer park, as her ex-husband had been an electrician, and had ''left all sorts uh that shit'' in her trailer when he left. Reluctantly, we secured the van to my truck with rope, and drug it down the street to the trailer park.
The sky was completely black when we pulled through the chain link gate on the trailer park. Denny had started a fire, and welcomed us to a beer. Josie and I declined, but Walt and Brenda obliged. A new character had emerged, a man whose name I never got, who looked like Jack Black's fatter cousin, with his largeness actuated by his largeness of presence and half-eaten box of pizza in his lap. He, Walt, Brenda, and Denny all took a seat to watch me struggle with the tow rig, peppering their conversation with jabs at California and my effort to return there. By this point, I was worn-out but determined, I had all the drive to finish but hardly the strength.
While I worked on securing the tow-bar, I overheard Denny and the Pizza guy talking:
“Denny- I want to move my trailer to the spot that Jeff left. That one’s got a tree.”
“Dammit, no! I gave you a tree, you never watered it, and you killed it. Nope, you’re gonna stay in that spot until you die! I ain’t gonna waste a tree on you.”
I got the hitch attached, and backed up my truck to it. As I locked the ball hitch in place, I realized I had neglected to check the plug on the trailer lights. Fuck me; it was the wrong goddamn plug. I decided to do the next best thing, which at the time made sense to be to cut off the plug all together and strip down the wires and splice them with electrical tape. While I was taping the growingly hideous ''adapter'' together, something got the Pizza guy's attention, and he started in:
''Well god damn. Y'all sure as shit ain't making it to Californ'ee.''
Busy trying to get the turn signals to work, I ignored him.
''Nope. I reckon you ain't even gunna make it to the freeway.''
Josie finally started in, ''Oh yeah? I'll be home tomorrow.''
I taped the rest of the wires to the tongue of the trailer and ran the magnetic lights back to the end of the van. Not only was the plug wrong, but the cord was too short. I extended them with whatever wire I could find, and after about an hour it looked like hell, but it was together. All of the lights worked. I checked the lug nuts, they were tight.
The pizza guy continued: ''You ain't never seen the cops we got out here. Hell, they'll stop you just for fun.'' Walt sat by the fire and smirked, but said nothing. Denny joined in, eager to get in a few last jabs.
''You'll be lucky just to have that piece of shit hold together. You get a flat, all three of you are rolling over.'' I knew he was right, so I said nothing. Brenda must have taken this as a sign of yielding, because she offered, ''If you want, you guys could stay the night in my trailer, I got a couch.'' Feeling a strong sense of attachment to my kidneys, checking account, and car keys, I declined. This was it; we were set. The van was coming with us to it’s new home in California, and nothing could stop us.
I started the truck at about ten at night, walked the perimeter of our pathetic rig one more time, and shook hands with our hosts one last time. Josie hopped in the truck beside me, and I squeezed her hand as I threw the truck into gear. A half second later I felt the tug of the van behind us, and we rolled out of the trailer park gates.
After making the first turn onto the main drag, I began to get a feel for how the ride was going to be; the van pulled unlike anything else I had ever towed. When I made a turn, I would watch the van follow behind me, except when the van made the turn it would bump from side to side, barely staying in my lane. That meant no sudden movements for me, hopefully that'd be enough. I met eyes with a traffic cop at the edge of town, and did my best to play it cool. Sure as the pizza guy had warned, this guy looked mean as hell, so I made sure I came to a complete stop at the stop sign. When I did, something in the back of the van came loose, and I could hear it roll to the front of the van and crash. I could feel my heart beating up in my throat; if this guy flipped on his lights this whole thing would be fucked. The cop looked up, he must have heard it, but luckily he decided to let it go, and we rolled on towards the freeway.
There were no cars on the freeway, which is a strange thing for someone born and raised in the Bay Area where traffic never stops. I got the truck up to 50 mph, and things felt ok, but when I pushed 60 the whole thing felt unstable. I let it back to 50 and slowly rolled on; quickly doing the math in my head I realized what a long night it was going to be driving home to the Bay.
We hit traffic for the first time on the edge of Las Vegas. Other motorists gave us incredulous and terrified looks as they passed us, but I looked ahead from the slow lane. We made it through Vegas without event, and we pulled on towards the empty desert towards the California border. I kept the needle pegged at 50 while semi trucks passed me uphill. Right at the edge of Vegas, the fuel light came on, and I pulled into one of the last gas stations on the edge of town to refuel.
I pulled in, navigating our rig through cars full of twenty-something college kids and Asian tourists heading in while we were fighting to get out. I squeezed the truck to a vacant pump, and ran inside to fill up and grab some provisions for the road. Now, in Las Vegas, there are slot machines everywhere, but there’s something beautifully pathetic about the ones that are in gas stations. When I entered, there were a few people at the end of their rope wasting their last few dollars, still hanging on to a sliver of hope that they might win big despite the glowing monument over the hill that should prove otherwise. The guy behind the counter was having some cracked-out conversation with the drunks at the machines, egging them on, when I set my armful of energy drinks and bag of pretzels on the counter. He turned to me, apparently drunk and high on any number of illicit drugs and household cleaners.
“Weeel- you guys next to hit it big? How many days you guys staying?” I stood, trying to be as diplomatic as possible, and replied:
“No sir. We’ve had our fun. It’s time to go now.” Something about that changed him, the smile dropped off his face, and it seemed that the mask he had been wearing was suddenly lifted:
“Go now, then. Go quick, before they get you.” If I had been there myself, I might brush this conversation off as imagined, but luckily Josie was at my side and saw it too. Horrified, we ran back to the truck, filled the tank, and pulled away from the pump towards the freeway.
For as insane as the last 24 hours had been, the drive was surprisingly uneventful. We got some strange looks from weekday commuters in Bakersfield when the sun came up, and each stop for gas took a lot of quick judgment, since our tow-bar rig wouldn't allow us to use Reverse. At one point I had to back away from a spot, which required me to unhook the van, Josie hopped in behind the wheel, I pushed it into position, then ran back to the truck, re-attached the tow-bar, and pulled away with the truck.
We pushed like hell up I-5 towards home. The sun was bright upon us; I was on the verge of insanity because of the lack of sleep and my diet of energy drinks and anything else I could grab without slowing down from the counter of the few gas stations we stopped at along I-5. My eyes were dry and tired, and I almost missed the sign for 580 through Tracy. Amazingly, we pulled onto the home stretch down the Altamont at close to noon, and we pulled into Josie's mom's house at about 12:30. I didn’t have a spot for it at our house, so we’d leave it there for now to re-shuffle the cars. The goddamn thing held together, and we were home. I dropped the hitch, ran my dad's truck over to a gas station, topped it off, scrubbed the bugs off the grill with the windshield squeegee, and rolled the truck through the auto car wash. I dropped the truck back at my dad's, Josie and I loaded our bags in the 57 and drove home. I woke up at about 9 at night on my couch to a frantic call from Josie's mom, shouting, ''What the hell is this Van doing in my yard!?!''