We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the vibrations in the van began to take hold. I remember saying something like ‘that doesn’t feel right; maybe you should stop driving…’ And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the van came to a screeching halt on the highway, a huge cloud of dust and smoke as it lurched unevenly, an unexpected and unwanted stop, where previously we’d been a hundred miles an hour on the way to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming, ‘Holy Jesus! What goddamn happened?’
It was with this moment, my phrasing appropriated from Hunter S. Thompson, that a road trip across the United States veered into territory appropriate for the great gonzo journalist himself.
The journey from Los Angeles to Chicago had begun with a chance meeting online, a stranger on a website looking for a travel companion to share costs and experiences on the road for a few days. I had jumped at the chance to not only see some more of America by road, but to ride in a van called ‘Elizabeth Taylor’, for that was to be our vehicle (and, as it turned out, our accommodation) for the journey.
The driver was a man my own age named TJ – a part-time musician, part-time graphic designer, and full-time nomad. He didn’t appear to be running from anything in particular, nor running towards anything. It was just about the running… and the adventures uncovered along the way.
He seemed like the perfect person to spend a few days with. And certainly for the first few hours after leaving the bright lights of a Los Angeles summer night, conversation flowed and stories were exchanged. An instant friendship was born from the road. ‘How could anything stand in our way?’, I thought, referring not only to our route but to the relationship of two travelling mates.
As it turned out, the thought was premature because we were not long out of the town of Barstow, at about 2 o’clock in the morning, when Elizabeth Taylor began to shudder slightly. Now, this Elizabeth Taylor is not as old as her namesake would be and she is just as comfortable with a couple of guys taking her for a ride. But age wearies even the most glamourous movie stars and the most reliable of vehicles. So TJ and I shared first unspoken and then a rather vocal concern at the shuddering.
We thought it might just be the surface of the road causing the vibrations and we let the van run for a while. With no relief, though, we stopped to check things out. It all looked fine from where we stood, which was on the side of a darkened highway approaching the Nevada border. No flat tyres and no smoke from the engine – the only signs of trouble that I would probably recognise.
So we restarted the journey and made it a few more miles down the road before the shaking of the van became more pronounced. The shudders rose from beneath us, through the floor, up the seats and into our bodies where they mixed with our own shudders of fear. Fear and loathing of what was about to happen to us on the way to Las Vegas.
Suddenly, with no new warning signs, Elizabeth Taylor lurched in the wrong direction. TJ yanked on the wheel, pulling her towards the side of the road as she careened onto the shoulder in a cloud of dust and smoke. And, the most terrifying moment of it all, she dropped to the ground at the rear, jerking us backwards in our seats then throwing us forwards as she came to a final stop with a thud.
Then silence. For several seconds neither of us spoke. The engine had cut off and we sat still, too stunned to speak. Then a truck rushed past us and the noise and slight shaking of the van roused us from our shock.
TJ and I turned to each other, mouths agape, and uttered the first words that came to us. ‘What the hell?’, ‘What was that?, ‘Oh my god!’, ‘This will make a great blog post’, that kind of thing…
We rushed out of the vehicle, as much as one can rush when overcome by confusion and hesitancy. It was then the damage was revealed – for an entire wheel of the van had disappeared. This wasn’t a flat tyre, it was a gaping gap of nothingness where the wheel on the rear back of the van should’ve been. The falling sensation shortly before our abrupt stop was explained. How the wheel had fallen off was inexplicable and would remain so for many more hours…
So it became the adventure within the adventure. A derailing of the best-laid plans that ultimately brought us together on a different journey. A tow-truck eventually arrived to take us to Barstow, a small city known more for being halfway between two places than for being a place itself. I slept in the van and TJ slept on top while we waited for the morning and the arrival of a mechanic. We sat at a diner while repairs were done and drank coffee that was hot and bitter, in sharp contrast to the overly-friendly waitress who served it. And eventually, around lunchtime, we turned on the engine of Elizabeth Taylor and set out again on the road. We were about ten hours behind schedule now and still had more than three thousand kilometres ahead of us.