Part II: This Trip is a Gas
Apple’s map-app says that a non-stop trip from west-central Indiana to the Outer Banks takes 13 hours. It took us four days.
Sunday Afternoon: Central West VirginiaInterstate 77 carves a narrow asphalt canal through West Virginia’s parcel of the Appalachian Mountains. From above, the highway disappears into the rippling folds of green, lost in the pockets of vegetation which stack upon one cleft of mountainside after another. It makes for a sort of pixelated array of would-be fern leaves blanketing the state. At eye level, the green trades itself in for shades of brown and gray. Here, all we can see are the remnants of earth and rock tossed aside by the corps of engineers who long ago cut their way through hills once so immovable they practically birthed a new state at the outbreak of the Civil War.
Some five or six hours earlier we had packed away the last of our sleeping gear and settled into Dad’s 1986 Itasca Windcruiser for the next leg of our trip to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. We had planned on a late Friday afternoon departure from our home town in Indiana, but after one of Dad’s small interior fixes mushroomed into major repair work, the best we could do was a midday Saturday launch followed by a late night stop at our great aunt’s house some three hours away. Thinking the worst of our luck behind us, we were eager to log a productive Sunday on the road, maybe even catching a glimpse of the Atlantic’s surf before settling in for our first night’s sleep by the sea.
“Are we going to see the ocean today?” My seven-year-old son, Jim, asked my mom.
“Yes, honey,” mom answered. “Today, we’re going to see the ocean.”
“Here,” Dad said handing over the red gas tank, [with an] inch of fuel sloshing around the bottom. His hand free of the can, he balled it up and extended his index finger to the exposed carburetor.
“Pour,” he commanded.
About three hours later, I knew we were not going to see the ocean that day. During a quick lunch at some West Virginia rest-stop, the old man puttered around with the fuel tank knob on the RV’s dashboard. Like many late-model motorhomes at the time, Dad’s Itasca carried two fuel tanks. And like most of those RV’s, the trigger switching the valve from one tank to the next was electric. Dad let forth a quiet sigh as he continued to fiddle with the knob. It wasn’t the “we’ve just hit an iceberg” kind of sigh, it was more of the “man, there sure are a lot of icebergs between us and New York” type. Steeling himself, he pulled out of his seat, stepped outside, and wiggled halfway under the chassis. We heard a couple metallic taps as he rapped the dull edge of a crescent wrench against what we presumed to be the fuel line valve, and we didn’t worry that much when he crawled out, shrugged, and herded us on board for the second half of the trip.
I don’t remember the time of day when the Itasca began its violent lurching along the southbound stretch of I-77. When I think about it, it felt like 2:00. What I do recall were the shuddering heaves as the RV wobbled…then coasted…then caught a snurgle of gasoline and shuddered some more. It was the electric fuel valve. Moments earlier, Dad had flipped the switch, but rather than draw from the half-load of gas in the second tank, the RV emptied what was left in the first. From the driver’s seat, the old man uttered all the code language I needed to know we were in trouble.
“Goddammit…” he muttered. Unless he was specifically angry with you because…say…you ran the lawn mower over the crossbeams of his scaffolding set…or you emptied a half-dozen rounds of bb’s into the front grillwork of one of the old Winnebagos…Dad didn’t cuss explosively. The old man’s profanity usually dribbled out with the soft, quiet steam of lukewarm coffee. For Dad, cussing was therapeutic, and honestly who could blame him? Dad’s road-trip chronology was peppered with a litany of breakdowns in nowhere parts of the world, always leading to drawn out haggling session with one Cooter Davenport or another out make an extra hundred off of his misfortune. To the untrained ear, he sounded crude and unsophisticated. The experienced traveler knew better. The seasoned roadster understood that Dad was simply asking the fates why calamities such as this always happened.
“Why does this always happen?” He said, climbing out of the seat.
The day before, when we hitched Mom’s ’88 Honda to the back of the Itasca, we had no idea we would bringing along a lifeboat of sorts. But stranded under the shadows of the mountain walls, the 5-speed turned mild panic into a more throbbing form of long-term irritation. And it was an irritation exacerbated because of the day of the week: the sun sinking over the cliffs was a Sunday afternoon sun. We knew that we wouldn’t find an open NAPA. We further knew that the RV’s malady went way beyond the shelves of any Walmart. Nonetheless, we trundled the car off the dolly and sped away for help. An hour later we returned to the motorhome (where Dad and I had abandoned two women and two children). We had secured no magic parts; however, we did return with a five-gallon drum of gas. But as we stood by the two gas caps, the old man paused.
“Okay,” he whispered to himself, “let’s see…” He crept under the chassis again, and I could tell he was eyeing the paths of the two fuel lines, both of which blended into the blackness under the motorhome on their way to the engine. Once back on his feet, he hovered his hand over right cap, hesitated for a moment, then abruptly flipped his wrist in a counterclockwise jerk, snapping the cap open.
We dumped all but a one-inch layer of fuel into the empty tank, got back on the road, filled up at the next exit, and resumed our journey south. Later, Dad said, he’d fix the switch. For now, we could make it on one tank.
Sunday Evening: Southern West Virginia
Two hours later the RV heaved and shuddered again, once more making its spasmodic gasp for fuel. Ahead of us, a football field away, an exit ramp’s pavement curled off the interstate. Dad tried to massage the pedal, feeding enough fuel to keep the Itasca lugging to the ramp, but every time he pressed the accelerator the shaking grew. Wearing a mixture of fatigue and anger on his face, the old man coasted the RV onto the shoulder, dropped it into park, and left the motor idling.
Bending from his seat, he flipped the flat-grey clips holding the carpeted engine cover in place between the two front seats. Tossing it aside, he thumbed open the wing-nut holding the enormous old-school air-filter, and yanked it off the mounting bolt. I stared at the exposed carburetor, the gentle spray of fuel cascading along the inside of the bowl under the air flaps. Somewhere down there, those trickles of gasoline dripped into the engines cylinders were charged sparkplugs waited for the chance to light them up into tiny, explosive bursts of flame.
“Here,” Dad said handing over the red gas tank, that inch of fuel sloshing around the bottom. His hand free of the can, he balled it up and extended his index finger to the exposed carburetor.
“Pour,” he commanded. As if reinforcing his order the RV shuddered again. Carefully I led with a trickle of fuel, trying to steady the spout about six inches above the carb’s air flaps. The gas hissed in the bowl, and small sprays of hot spittle jumped out, spat out by the pressure as if from a boiling cauldron. Gradually I increased the stream, and in a few seconds, a pencil-lead-sized rivulet rolled out of the spigot and into the carburetor. Ahead the exit neared. In the can the gasoline dribbled away.
Whether it happened because I looked up or because the motorhome hit a bump in the shoulder, I lost my rhythm and dumped a glut of fuel into the flaps. The carburetor choked for a moment, gagging on the excess gasoline, threating to shut down about a hundred yards from the off-ramp.
“Goddammit!” the old man exclaimed. “Keep it steady!”
“Goddammit!” I answered. “I’m not a damn fuel-injector!”
Slowly…inexorably…the Itasca limped off I-77, snaked its way down the off-ramp and coasted into a rough, gravel side lot nestled into the elbow of the ramp’s turn. When we trundled out of the RV, we unconsciously stretched, letting the tension fall from our bodies. But we also hovered around the side of the motorhome, staring at as if we were the Gilligan castaways despairing over the S.S. Minnow. It was here we were stuck. It was here we would spend a long night sleeping to the sound of luckier, unencumbered travelers getting to their beach seats within normal driving times.
And then my ex-wife asked everyone the question: “Are we staying here tonight?”
Twenty minutes later, after the deep gray Chevrolet pulled away, taking its silver revolver with it, we once more unloaded the Honda from the tow-dolly, loaded all six of us into the car’s five-seat arrangement, and drove to the nearest hotel.
We also hovered around the side of the motorhome, staring at as if we were the Gilligan castaways despairing over the S.S. Minnow.
Late Sunday Night: Southern West Virginia
While standing in line at a nearby Wendy’s, we watched as a lobby full of happy NASCAR fans milled about. While we had spent the day limping Dad’s RV across West Virginia, these people had been watching the race at Bristol, Tennessee’s strange little short track.
While I loaded up an armful of ketchup cups, a race fan sporting a Dale Jarrett shirt turned to the Mark Martin fan beside him.
“Boy,” the Jarrett fan declared, “Mark sure had a rough day.”
“He had the right day,” the Martin fan replied. “He just didn’t have the right car.”
Sighing, I walked past them, selfishly thankful that, at the very least, someone else had been let down by their ride as well.
Coming Soon: Part three answers the question: What else could go wrong?
Featured Image Photo Credit:
The Sideling Hill syncline as exposed in the Interstate 68 roadcut to the west of Hancock, Maryland, USA, from the en:Victor Cushwa Memorial Bridge by Acroterion is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.