Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Road Trip Part 1, Monterey or Bust

In 1984, I went on Active duty in the Army on a 4/2 contract, which is Four years active duty, two reserve. I had signed up on what's called delayed entry, so even though I went to basic in June, my contract expired in April 1990. I had gone back home to Minnesota and served my almost two years of reserve time in an Intelligence unit holding an analyst slot.  I had no intention of re-enlisting. I was happy to be out and even let my hair grow long. As far as I know, there isn't any photographic evidence of my brief mullet experiment in the summer of 1990.

Desert Shield began later that summer and despite my adoration for my growing curly locks, I felt the call. We anticipated going into Iraq and were convinced it would be a quagmire. It became clear very quickly in the fall of 1990 that we were going to war. I wanted to rejoin my EOD unit when they got deployed, but I didn’t want to join back as an active duty soldier. I was told it was possible, but that I had to get in the system. In September, 1990, less than a year after receiving my freedom, I signed an 8 year Army Reserve contract and joined the 19th Psychological Operations (PSYOP) Company under the 13th PSYOP Battalion.
I needed a job, so I was put in an Interrogation slot and started attending drill. I waited for my orders to be deployed as an EOD tech, but they never came and I couldn’t be deployed with the 19th because I had no Military Occupational Specially (MOS) in the Reserve.  In February, 1991, the war ended and I had 7.5 years of reserve contract left to serve. 

A few months later, orders came to send me to the Presidio of Monterey California for Russian language school. It was a one year course and I'd been given two weeks warning to report No Later Than (NLT), Close of Business (COB) Sunday, April 14th. On Friday morning, April 12th I hopped into my 1970 Chevy Camaro with big 60's on the back and started my 2,200 mile journey. The red Camaro had acquired the nickname Camaro of Death, which is another story. Let's just say for now that it had some attitude and had served me well.
My first day was any easy 875 mile trek to Cheyenne, Wyoming. I'd book a room at the Motel 6, where they may leave the light on for ya, but they also bought mattresses built entirely from solid rock. After a less than restful night, I got back in my car with the goal of making Reno, Nevada by nightfall. I had been to most of these states before, though Nevada and Wyoming were new, but I'd been to California and many other states. I’d gotten to all most of those paces by plane. I'd even driven in the opposite direction between Minnesota and the East coast four times. So what was the big deal about driving to Cali?

In April.

In a Camaro.

With big ass tires in the back made for street racing.

I found out about two hours into my journey on Saturday morning. You see my friends, there are these little bumps in the road that start in Wyoming and end over in Salt Lake City, Utah called the ROCKY FUCKING MOUNTAINS! There was a winter storm advisory and the local radio station announced the highway was going to be closed. I thought about it and decided that a little snow didn't scare me. I got to the place where the road starts to get really steep and there were no police blocking it, so I rolled on. A few hours later, I was on top of the world, or at least North America and I was starting to wonder the big hairy deal was. There was some snow, sure, but for a man raised in northern Minnesota? Please. 

There was a gas station up there and I pulled in to use the bathroom and fill up. A man came out after I'd honked a few times because it said there was no self service. He looked at me like I was an alien. True, I hadn’t seen any other cars coming or going that day on I-80, but I didn't think I was doing anything odd. He walked all the way around my car until he got to the license plate.

"Uh huh," was all he said and he filled up my tank. He waved me off and he looked very sad, as if I had just told him I was dying of terminal cancer. Creepy. But, I was on the road again and looking forward to seeing the Great Salt Lake that I'd read about in McCammon's Swan Song. Ten minutes later, I started seeing tractor trailers pulled off to the side of the road, followed by a couple of SUV's. I noticed that I could no longer see the actual road, just a flat section of snow and ice that extended from one rock wall to the other.
It was about that time I got hit by the first crosswind. I have no idea how many miles per hour it was blowing, but it slammed the Camaro of Death thirty feet sideways and I could have touched the rock wall to my right if the window had been down. I could see the storm form behind me. It grew in strength until it threatened to overtake my car. I got slapped both ways and almost spun completely around, but refused to slow down below 40 for fear of being buried alive and not found for days. My ass cheeks were clamped so tight, I could have converted anthracite into diamonds. I had a death grip on the steering wheel and briefly wondered if it could be bent.

Finally, I hit a stretch of road without any gusts and I while it still looked like an ice age was hot on my ass, I could see the sun break through ahead of me. I was out of the worst of it, I was safe. Then the road started slanting down. By down I don’t mean a gentle grade, but to me it appeared to be a flume ride at Six Flags, except this one was frozen solid. Oh, and here's the really cool part for those of you that have never driven on this section of I-80, it's curvy. It's a road cut into the side of a mountain, so it keeps switching back. I didn't touch the breaks for fear I would lose the illusion of friction that somehow kept me from shooting off the road and out into the air. My hands and jaws and yes, even my ass cheeks, went from uncomfortable to painful to numb and I have to admit I don’t remember the last fifteen minutes.

One instant I was anticipating how death would feel, and the next I was riding through a residential area on the outskirts of Salt Lake City. I was suddenly overcome with the urgent need to empty my bowels and bladder and pulled into the first convenience store I saw. I was still wearing my gloves and winter jacket. Hell, the inside of my car was still around 50 degrees. When I step out of my Camaro, I judged the temperature to in Salt Lake be around 75. People were looking from me to my car and then up to the mountain and back to me again. I walked around the front of my chariot just in time to see a solid block of ice at least three inches thick that covered the entire bumper and grill, fall off in one piece onto the parking lot. 

Later, with a completely empty digestive track and a liter of ice cold Mountain Dew, I stood beside the Great Salt Lake. It was salty. It was great. After five minutes, I got back in my car and continued on toward Reno where another rock solid Motel 6 bed was waiting to cause me pain. 

Tune in this Friday, for the exiting conclusion in Part 2.


  1. Damn, how could you do that to a Camaro!? That's just plain heartless. Can't wait for the next installment? You crazy.

  2. Yer crazy but I guess that runs int the family.