I still remember the scariest night of my life driving through a desert

Back in 1983 I had a girlfriend who lived in Southern California.  Being smitten and a gentleman, I agreed to drive her home from Utah after the end of the school semester.  The only problem was I owned a Fiat X1/9, one of the worst sports cars ever made and prone to overheating and fan belt related breakdowns.   I knew the car would never survive a drive across the Nevada deserts during the day, especially with the air conditioner running.   So an all night drive (about 10+ hours) was proposed.

Here’s the car, here’s the girl, and here’s the idiot who decided to drive said girl with said car across said desert at night.

So we set out.  Normally I carried a spare fan belt or two with me at all times because they broke constantly.   But this time I didn’t have one.   Changing a belt in this mid engine monstrosity of Italian engineering was an ordeal.  45 minutes of grunting from UNDERNEATH the jacked up car.   Only a mechanic could do it using a jack that raised the car high enough to gain access.

Sure enough, the main belt driving the water pump broke around 2 am somewhere between Barstow and Baker in the most god-forsaken stretch of deserted interstate in the entire West, where there are few exits and even fewer services.  The Mohave Desert, land of the infamous Zzyzx Road and similar abandoned haunts and ghost towns.  It is not a place to stop, let alone break down.   They make horror movies about this stretch of road.   It’s close to Death Valley where travelers have been collapsing and dying for 160 years.

I’m not exactly sure where the car broke down because this was the days before GPS and before cell phones and it was raining and a little foggy and to be honest I was more than a little dozy when it broke.   But somewhere in here (see map below).   Those of you who know this stretch of highway know that it’s about the worst possible place to breakdown.   No services, no people and about 45 minute drive to the nearest town.   And it’s 2 am on a SUNDAY, no less.   We were screwed.

When you break a belt in the Fiat you have only about 3 minutes of driving before the radiator erupts in an steamy geyser.  You simply must stop.   So I pull over just AFTER the off ramp to a “no services” exit.   Just missed it, but we decide to get out and walk back along the side of the freeway a couple of hundred yards to the exit ramp because in the distance we can see a lights off, closed gas station.   At least it was something and I was not about to leave the girl in the car alone because, wouldn’t you know it, this was the era just after the infamous I-5 serial killer.

As we walked back up the freeway, the lights of the oncoming traffic illuminated the roadway and it seemed to us that something on the road was moving….wriggling to be more precise.  We couldn’t exactly make out what these wriggling things were until we got close to one just as another semi truck roared by.

Yup, you guessed it.   Desert rattlesnakes were coming out of the sand and on to the warm asphalt in the aftermath of a rare summer shower.

We immediately jumped back in the car and radiator-be-damned I drove it in reverse back up the freeway ramp and to the closed gas station, right over the tops of any slithering snakes in our way, pulling in under the large gas station overhang just as it began to rain again and the radiator began to boil over.  A rainstorm in the early summer in the Mohave desert.   Do you have any idea how unlikely that is?

But our night of weirdness had just begun.   The abandoned gas station was straight out of a Fifties movie.   It had a timeless, but closed many years, feel to it — it was almost Hitchcockian, to be frank.   I remember a large, formerly neon-lit roadsign that said simply “Eats” on it.  As to who ate what, I didn’t want to think about.  Dust was on the countertops and the naugahyde booths inside the cafe portion of the place, but it was not run-down.  It looked great, just closed and dusty.   It looked sorta like this:

In any event, we approach the front door and try it, but it had been locked and out of service for years.   But there, right next to the front door, is a payphone.   Scratched into the metal enamel paint of the payphone housing is a phone number.   It said “Broke down?   Call 555-1111 (etc.)”    We pick up the phone and we call.   A sleepy man answers.   We tell him that we don’t know where we are on I-15 but we saw his scratched message on the phone and called.   He says, “Nevermind, I know where you are, I’ll be right out.”

45 minutes later, as we drift in and out of sleep huddled in the car under the gas station awning,  it begins to rain again.  We are trying to keep warm against the chill of the wet desert night, when a bearded guy pulls up in a wrecker truck.   Imagine a Zack Galifianakis type, only less weird.   He sees the Fiat and says, “Lemmee guess, broken fan belt?”
“How did you know?” I answered.

“Because I just did another of these last week.   They are a bitch to fix, but at least I know what I’m doing now.   The only trouble is that I don’t have a spare fan belt on me, I’ll have to go into Barstow to get it.   It’ll take an hour and a half.”

Which is what he proceeds to do.   We get back in the car to wait the hour and a half for him to come back.   Only then do we think about how we’re going to pay him.   We’re college kids, we don’t have a credit card.   We check our wallets and purses and between the two of us we find two twenties.   That’s it, nothing more.   $40.   We realize that this is not NEARLY enough for a middle of the night service call with fan belt included, not even in 1983.   We decide to say nothing to the mechanic and only cross that bridge when we come to it.

We drift in and out of sleep again while we wait.  He returns at just after 4:00 AM with the belt and jacks up the car.  He struggles with the installation for about 30 minutes (a new record), finishes and drops the car.   It’s still pitch black and he has a 45 minute drive home again.  We ask him what we owed him for this service call that has lasted 3 and half hours in the middle of a Sunday night.

He scratches his beard, thinks for a moment and says, “$40 should cover it.

Thunderstruck at our good fortune, we pay him and drive off.
We get to the girl’s house about 7 am and I drop her off.   After a rest, I turn around and drive back.  I stop at my uncle’s house in Victorville where I borrow money and tell him the story.   He insists that I look up the mechanic again and send him more money.   I tell him that I didn’t write down the number, but it was scratched in the paint at the gas station.   He says, “No problem, just stop at the same gas station on the way back, and look up his number again.”

So this is what I set out to do.   In the daylight this time and well rested, I pull off every exit between Barstow and Baker on I-15, cross to the north side and look for the gas station where I had just spent the night and had my car fixed by the mysterious bearded mechanic.

The trouble is… I never find it.   I didn’t even find anything that looked close to it.
Oh sure, there were a few gas stations there, some abandoned and some operating… some of these are still there…  but NONE of them resembled the 1950’s shop with the “Eats” sign swaying in the breeze that I remembered.    When the exit seemed like it might be the right one, I would pull off and there would be nothing there.  And when I could see buildings off an exit they wouldn’t turn out to be the right buildings.   And even though they may not have felt like the same buildings, I still checked for a payphone by the front door and there was NEVER ANY PAYPHONE WITH THE NUMBERS SCRATCHED IN THE PAINT.

Trust me.  I checked all the possible buildings that whole stretch of road because the thing started to weird me out.  I may have been wrong about many of memories of that night because I was tired and probably scared and visibility was poor, but the one thing I was sure of was that I had called a mechanic from a payphone and he had come and fixed me.

In fact, I still check those exits to this day every time I drive between Vegas and LA.   I just checked them all AGAIN on Google street view.   That gas station is simply not there.

I don’t know what’s weirder… the fact that the gas station isn’t there or the thought of a bearded mechanic who would work through the night on a weekend for just $40.
You decide.
Meanwhile, if you should ever happen to breakdown in the middle of the night in the Mohave Desert near Zzyzx Road, don’t worry so much.
Somebody will be along by and by.

Mark Blanchard

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