A Very Rough Draft of Jim Harstad’s Memoir, ON HE RODE — Chapter Forty-Six

By the time I pull into the SHELL station there’s no doubt that the noises coming from under the hood are concerning and need immediate attention. Luckily, it’s a slow day and the young guy running the place gives me the go-ahead to drive up on a portable ramp so I can drop Miss Chevy’s oil pan and take a look inside.

Considering that I could do a complete overhaul of her engine using only  two wrenches — a half-inch and a 9/16th, plus a slotted screwdriver — taking a peek at her crankshaft will not be that difficult. Once the engine cools and I get the tie rods out of the way, it’s just a matter of draining the oil and dropping the pan.

Actually, it’s just a matter of seeing the golden bits of babbitt decorating the sludgy

drained oil that tells me everything I need to know: at least one rod bearing is far beyond adjustment or repair. Put away the Plastigage, no need to look further. Miss Chevy needs a new engine, or at the very least, one new rod, piston, and bearing assembly. Where is my Danish bicycle mechanic when I need him? To give myself time to think, I unscrew the oil pan and lay it aside.

The second cylinder’s bearings are so loose I can rattle it by hand. Even if replaced, it won’t necessarily be “fixed”. What if the crankshaft has flattened? Not good. Replace the engine? With what? At what cost? Better just, what, catch a flight back to Seattle? To Boston? Where’s the closest airport?

Maybe just get out on the road, stick out my thumb, and see what happens. Evers and I did that as kids on quiet two-lane country roads, speed limit 35 mph. We’d stick out our thumbs for every vehicle that  went by, car, truck, or Harley, regardless of which way they were going, just to go somewhere. Talked to some very crazy people but never got into trouble. Thanks, Great Spirit? Maybe. By the way, where is that Great Spirit now that I appear to need Him? What’s up, Big Fella? If I abandon Miss Chevy, will You abandon me?

I wipe my hands and explain the situation to the station guy, who is no more eager to help install a replacement engine than I am to do it. Not being in a strong negotiating position, I try to feel good about the twenty-five bucks he gives me for Miss Chevy, though her tires alone are worth more than that. He’s pleased to get such a good-looking bargain, and I comfort myself by thinking how Pacific Ocean salt is even now eating away at Miss Chevy’s sheet metal, a surprise that should reveal itself in a few quick months or less. Revenge is sweet and mine. If I can’t have her, nobody can. Etc. Fuck You, God. If You’re even there. Oh well. It was a crazy idea.

The selling price covers the cost of mailing the Coleman stove and lantern and my neglected guitar back to Hood Canal. So much for trail amenities. I pick up my suitcase and laundry bag and find my way to the edge of a busy four-lane heading east and stick out my thumb. Cars whiz by, apparently without seeing me. Is hitchhiking legal here? Will I get a ride before I find out?

The highway sits a little above the north end of town, cars coming at me out of a tunnel a quarter-mile west. Plenty of time for them to check me out and make up their minds — and for me to make up mine. Do I want to go through this door and sit beside this stranger? The truth is I’ve never turned down a ride, and only once have I regretted it. Things turned out OK, but it got complicated.

Sometimes you can actually anticipate, foretell, just which one of the oncoming conveyances is likely to stop for you. For example, that sideways-tracking 1952 Ford coming at me from out of the tunnel, no doubt riding on unmatched rubber and probably needing a wheel alignment. I can’t see inside until it’s almost next to me — two young guys who look like they just now saw me and are inclined to stop — the brake lights show brightly momentarily — but there’s too much traffic and they trundle on. Oregon plates. Oh well. They missed their chance. Some other lucky traveller will reap the pleasure of my scintillating personality. More cars whiz by.

Wait. What’s that I see across the medial strip, now heading west into the tunnel? Isn’t that a lopsided 1952 Ford fordor? And just how many of those are still on the road? Does it have Oregon plates? Is it coming back for me? I calculate my chances. 50-50? Naw, it’s gotta be better. 75-25? 90-10? Well, looky here: 100%!

They’re coming slower out of the tunnel this time, and it’s obvious they’re lining themselves up to stop on the generous shoulder and let me in. The back door opens, and I slide my luggage in before settling myself down beside it and pulling the door shut. “Boy am I glad to see you guys. Thanks for coming back.”

“Welcome brother,” says the driver, twisting around to shake my hand. Comfortably heavyset. Friendly looking. “We spotted you too late to stop.”

“Cool hat,” says the wire guy riding shotgun, shaking my hand.

“Keeps my head in place,” I say. I’m wearing my beanie.

“Cool,” he says, giving my hand a little letting-go flourish. “How long you been on the road?”

“‘bout a half-hour. I just ditched my car — or it ditched me.”

Pretty typical woods scruffs, guys who grow up in little communities called Bear Creek or Panther Lake, if they’ve got a name at all. Brush pickers, millhands, road crew workers, loggers, fishermen, drug dealers, underground literati, layabouts. Readers. These guys, my benefactors, are like the guys I was drafted to go to Vietnam with. Since my draft board is in Aberdeen, a grungy coastal town, my fellow recruits would no doubt handle Nam’s rainy season, but could I trust them to have my back and bring it back alive? Thank God, I never had to find out — thank God and the Hawaii Department of Education. Trust me, I make a better English teacher than a soldier.

The friendly Oregonians have told me their names, of course, and of course I’ve already forgotten them. Stan and Ollie? No, I’ve got it: Kesey and Kerouac, Ken and Jack. I’ll tell them I’ve got a bad head for names, which is true, and since we happen to be out here on the open road together because of books by Kerouac and Kesey we happened to read, Jack and Ken they’ll be.

Me? From Hawaii? I’m Kimo. Of course.

Mahalo for reading!

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