Survival Mechanisms

The noises emanating from the Land Cruiser’s transmission were grim. There was the uneasy whine of a transfer case that couldn’t quite disengage, the sickening spinning sound of a slipping transmission, the engine revving way beyond its comfort zone trying to convert all that heat and noise to forward progress. I limped along on the shoulder for all of a mile before calling defeat. There was no hope of  advancing to Las Vegas or on to Los Angeles early the next morning. There wasn’t even hope of backtracking the 28 miles to the town of Moab where I could find shade and water and a Motel 6. I wasn’t quite stuck at the bottom of the White Rim Trail, but I was stranded in the heart of the desert nevertheless. I prayed these symptoms were an exaggeration of what I’d noticed a few days prior—a simple kickdown cable adjustment—and not something more crippling and sinister. I dug around under the scorching hot hood, searching for slack in a cable or an obvious leak in a vacuum line that might be fixed with a 12mm wrench and duct tape. When no such issue presented itself, I called my trusted Land Cruiser mechanic in Austin to see if he had any thoughts. His line of thinking was the same as mine, and nothing we could prod seemed to reveal an answer. He suggested opening the transmission pan, but on the side of Utah 339 as the thermometer tickled 107 degrees, that seemed unlikely and even if I did, I had no way to remedy whatever I might find.

And to be perfectly clear, most all of my mechanical experience comes from two places: gratuitous tinkering and utter necessity. I could understand dropping the transmission pan, though I’d never done such a thing. And I didn’t have a receptacle for all the fluid that would come pouring out, nor anything more than my beloved Twister beach towel to insulate my back from the scorching pavement. The prospect of calling a tow truck was grim indeed—time and space separated me from any flatbed capable of hauling a three-and-a-half-ton truck by at least a couple of hours. Still, I tried every trick in the book, including the notorious “party trick” for salvaging almost-dead automatic transmissions (look it up if you have a macabre mechanical sensibility), before admitting defeat. I was virtually certain I’d lost some gears, and even the remaining ones sounded to have bits of metal in them.

I walked back down the highway to the spot where I could find cell service and called AAA. A tow truck was dispatched from Moab, and soon the driver called me to better understand where in the Middle of Nowhere I was. I did my best to describe it, and he assured me he’d be there within an hour and a half.

Then Hank and I sat in the dry, searing heat. Between the two of us, we drained four of the six emergency waters in my cooler while sitting in waiting. In the absence of cell service, it was hard to be hyper-aware of the passage of time. The occasional car passed, and the more-occasional car slowed to reluctantly ask if they could help. It was funny to observe these offers from folks who felt a vague moral obligation to not leave a man and his dog roasting on the grill, though they could tell there wasn’t much they could really do. I assured them a tow truck was on its way and went back to contemplating the shimmering horizon and the scrub brush and the knowledge that somewhere just beyond my line of sight the high desert floor plummeted thousands of feet downward towards the Colorado River. I was left with my thoughts ringing in my head: the harried sense before leaving Austin that I should be making this trip in a modern vehicle with no imminent mechanical failures and extensive dealership support and manufacturer’s warranty, the futility of roaming around without explicit purpose, the sense that all time and energy and money should be poured into the traditional trappings of a successful life. Down payments and lease payments and external-facing facsimiles of ‘stability.’ When you are burning your fingertips on hot, greasy cable housings, it’s easy to wish you were sitting in a cubicle frittering away time in exchange for currency. When you’re sitting in a cubicle, it’s easier to wish you were slowly burning your fingertips and running out of water in the middle of a hot damn desert. Einstein’s true theory of relativity says something to this effect[1]. And indeed, even as I wished for a bit more predictability and boredom in my life, I could feel the ensuing sense of dread creeping in. No part of me wants rote normalcy, nor would I actually exchange experiences for a cache of cash. There was a civil war waging in my mind even as I felt placid and blank. The desert is a place of silent life and silent death. Creatures that prowl at night and those that imperviously shrug off the blazing heat of the day; indeed, many of them prefer it.

Scientists call reptiles exotherms, because they derive their body heat from outside sources. We humans are endotherms, and indeed we source our heat and energy from within. Sitting there with a fraction of a bar of cell signal, shading myself and Hank from the late afternoon sun under the cover of the Land Cruiser, I was leaning heavily on my endotherm origins in order to figure out just how I would go on. Utah is an early pit stop on a trek from Texas to Alaska, and such a speed bump violently threatened my sense of tenuous purpose.

Being a writer is an exercise in being an exotherm. You must place yourself in the elements in hopes that they will provide favorable conditions for a story, that the things you see and hear along the way will somehow lend themselves a narrative that supports your hypothesis. This is terrifying on multiple levels. For one, the heat of Utah in the summertime is staggering. In seeking the truth of the desert, you must subject yourself to the type of elements that make headlines every year or two, where hapless hikers from some mild European country brazenly set out for a 2 PM two-mile hike and turn up dead right along the trail within plain sight of the parking lot. This is always hard for internet commenters to believe from their respective air-conditioned cubicles in Chicago and Seattle. After feeling the heat, I can now believe that people meet such a senseless fate on what was supposed to be a happy vacation.

And for another, relying on happenstance for your vocation is daunting. I happen to believe that taking the risk of actively seeking stories is a hugely proactive move for a writer to make, and yet, the chances are far higher that you’ll return with nothing but a few good dinner party stories than that you’ll return with any sort of grand summation that may become a minor book deal. Then again, stranding oneself in the desert is far better than renting a pricey, secluded cabin as far as forced contemplation time is concerned.

Sitting in the shadow of a Toyota Land Cruiser watching the wind blow through the tenacious foot-tall shrubs was an eerily peaceful time. We have become so adept at ignoring the passage of time with any number of stimuli and distractions, so it was a gift to be forced to stare it in the face. It is easy to deem the heinous situations you voluntarily place yourself in as reckless or pointless, to long for the mundane and simple comforts of a life made easy by modern advancements. In moments of agony, we always tend toward the times in our rose-colored past that seem safe. The path of least resistance is a tempting siren song when the alternative involves momentary discomfort, and so I could feel any poetic thoughts about Potash Road and the White Rim Trail receding into the desert sand as I longed to be somewhere air conditioned and predictable. Even so, I felt glad for these thoughts and for the unchangeable circumstance I found myself in.

These times in which we feel near breaking, not because of any elaborate social mechanisms but for the sheer struggle of time and space and climate and scenario are times which validate life itself. To be insulated entirely from the true proceedings of the planet gives us excess time to wallow in self awareness and gossip. To spend time toiling over a means of propulsion, over setting up and taking down camp, seeking out meals and a safe place to sleep, is to actively engage in the act of survival. And so, as Hank and I chugged down four half-liter bottles of Fiji water I stole from a cabinet in our uncomfortably upscale accommodations back in Aspen, I couldn’t help but laugh a little at the cognitive dissonance before me. I had to wonder if anyone had ever consumed Fiji in such grand quantities for the act of survival, all while feeling pangs of guilt for the amount of ensuing plastic waste.

The tow truck finally arrived and interrupted my reverie, and it was at this point that I felt the survival mechanism switch from staying calm and cool in the heat to staying resourceful and alert on what would inevitably be a long evening of figuring out who would even be willing to examine my transmission fluid with me, much less where I could source an A440 transmission in an area prized for its remoteness. For all of the Jeep tours and Visitor Centers, Southern Utah is still a ferociously isolated place. In a way, it makes you feel silly for tinkering with old and uncommon cars. In another, it reminds you that it’s still possible to get into a bind that a smartphone and a credit card can’t easily fix. We hooked the lame truck into the tow truck’s winch system and hoisted it up. Then Hank hopped into the cab with unperturbed confidence, which inspired me to do the same. We loaded up  and the driver, a fellow markedly younger than myself, climbed in and asked “So, what happened?” with an enormous grin and an even bigger handshake. He was one of those people who is visibly young yet larger than 99% of the human race, and his features had the vague Aryan Mormon-ness that seems to implacably mark many native Utahans.