U-Turn Or U-Joint

The length of US Highway 101 from Seattle to San Francisco is 913 miles, none of which runs in a straight line. Winding along the coastline of three western states, the road climbs 24,669 feet. Many of the highest points along the route are narrow with sheer thousand-foot drops into the Pacific Ocean. What better road to put an unfamiliar sketchy vehicle through the paces.

Diana bravely enlisted for the first leg. We had four days to make the trip from Seattle to San Francisco. Kéa would stay home to hold down the fort, take care of the dog, and not miss any school. It’s our first attempt at leaving our 14-year-old daughter at home alone, and I’m admittedly uneasy with the plan. Not because Kéa isn’t capable of taking care of herself, but the image of a Jeep carrying both parents careening off a high cliff onto wave swept rocks kept invading my thoughts. 

An alarm went off early Sunday morning, Diana and I grabbed a coffee to go, and we set off to catch a direct flight to Seattle. I was prepping for the longer legs later in the spring, so I needed to check a bag that would stay with the Jeep. With no connections, I didn’t give a second thought to tagging my duffel and watching it disappear on the conveyor belt behind the check-in kiosk. The flight left on time and landed early.

Seventy-five minutes. This is how long it took to get the bag in Seattle. We needed to get all the way to Cannon Beach, OR. A roughly five-hour drive, and already we are off schedule. We decided to cut our losses. I left to retrieve the Jeep while Diana stayed behind to wait for the bag. The only real reason for checking the bag in the first place was to bring a battery pack that doubles as a jump box in the event the Jeep is dead.

Eighteen days after parking the Jeep at the airport, I arrive to find it happily occupying the same space. I pulled the key from my pocket, opened the door, and made the required cursory inspections. After rolling the window open, I inserted the key into the ignition, closed my eyes and held my breath. Success. The Jeep starts. I let it run for a minute, pull the seatbelt across my chest, and set out to find Diana and a bag.

The Port Authority of Seattle-Tacoma has been flawed for decades. SEA-TAC is a perennial junk show, but we finally collect our one bag and set off for points south. Things go reasonably smooth, but that nagging vibration is still present. I can feel it through the floorboards. We start off on I-5, find the Washington Oregon border, and make a right turn. 

The world is different. Crazier. Maybe more accepting. We stop for gas and a thin middle-aged man in very rough shape writhes on a wheel chair in the entry way of the gas station mini market. No mask. He wasn’t shouting, but the words he spoke at full volume were random and nonsensical. At least five or six locals walked by and were kind enough to say hello. If they didn’t know the man, he was certainly familiar to them. I followed a young couple through the door, paid for the gas, and we wandered away toward the Pacific.

Arriving in Cannon Beach feels euphoric. The magnificent intertidal rocks rising hundreds of feet from the beach separate the forest from the sea. We find our hotel and park the Jeep. Both Diana and I are fully vaccinated and we’re looking forward to our first dinner out together in well over a year. Tired from the journey, we decide to set out on foot. The main town is four miles from where we’re staying, but we find a small grocery market and a few closed restaurants. Needing some milk for the next morning’s coffee, we drift into the store.

It wasn’t a hard sell, but in the back of the market was a pizza oven and three beer taps. The owner was convincing about the quality of the pizza and our first dinner out in over 15 months happened in the back of a small grocery store. Fitting. The beer was cold, the food tasted great, and we didn’t get back into the Jeep until morning. Day one in the books. 

Day two was always designed to be the most grueling. Cannon Beach to Crescent City. Roughly seven or eight hours of white-knuckle road threading an undulating strip of pavement though the coastal mountains. Somewhere before exactly 73 miles from Crescent City, the steady vibration became a violent shake. A sickening deep rattle preceded an even more violent shaking and the already short-coupled Jeep became difficult to handle. Diana and I looked at each other calmly and I said “this isn’t….”

Downshifting from 5th to 4th, a deafening whine from underneath the back seat crescendos to a sudden blast. The Jeep loses power on a steep climb approaching a blind corner. There’s no shoulder on our southbound lane, only a thin guardrail to defend against a thousand-foot drop. The image I feared before boarding the airplane ricochets in my head. US 101 is a busy trucking route, and semis push the speed limit on every inch of the highway. I see a Peterbuilt round the bend and I have a few precious seconds to cross its path to the shoulder of the northbound lane. It’s more reaction than plan. I see the window, have exactly enough speed, and get the Jeep off the road. 

It only took eight calls to AAA to get a confirmed tow. I had half a bar of cell service. Without fail, every time I was at the final step, the call would drop. Eventually we were picked up by a very nice but unintelligible truck driver who loaded our Jeep and us onto a flatbed tow rig. After four hours of standing on the side of a dangerous section of road, the small cab of the truck was a welcome change. 

Originally from Oklahoma, our driver was extremely chatty. We conversed the entire 90-minute drive. I had to guess at most of what he said, but I kept the banter up with polite ambiguity. The tactic paid off. He agreed to take us all the way to Crescent City, drop our Jeep at a garage, and deposit us at the hotel. We checked in at 9:50 pm, and were immediately informed that nothing in Crescent City stays open past 10. Across the street from our room at the Lighthouse Inn was a liquor store. With little time to spare, we jogged across US 101 as hunter gatherers.

Hungry and tired, our options were expectedly limited. The best we could do was a stack of Pringles and a bottle of Jameson’s. It would have to do. Diana and I have experience contingency planning, and we spent the night listing options from best to worst. I set my alarm for 7:15 am to be Joe Wilson’s first phone call when Wilson’s Auto Repair opens at 7:30, and tried to get a few hours of sleep. Day two in the books.

The tow truck driver had warned us that Joe was a grandpa-type guy and often took mid-day naps, but did good work and would take care of us. I called the shop at exactly 7:30 and someone other than Joe picked up. I learned that Joe wasn’t at the shop yet, but the Jeep was, and I could expect a call from Joe when he got in. With this information, Diana and I called an Uber which dropped me at the auto shop and Diana at the Airport. One hour later I had a work order and Diana had a rental car. Joe said he’d have us out by mid-afternoon. Preferably before a nap. 

Trying to make the best of it, we toured the area around Crescent City. Giant redwoods and sweeping coastline softened the gritty and depressed urban center, but not enough to remotely entertain this town as a destination. One important piece of information we were able to translate from Oklahoman to Alaskan the previous night was that US 101 was closed south of Crescent City, except from 9 am to 10 am and from 2 pm to 3 pm. If you didn’t hit either window, you are effectively stranded. With 2 pm closing in and no communication from the shop, we decided to drive by and check on the Jeep. Sure enough the rear drive shaft was again connected to the rear axle. 

Diana and I looked at each other and then at the clock. Without speaking I jumped out of the rental car to pay Joe while Diana sped off to get gas and return the vehicle. When I found Joe climbing into his truck, all I got was “I’ll be right back.” It’s now 2:15. We have only 45 minutes to successfully pass the closure 9 miles south of town. I still have to drive to the airport, collect Diana, and make 13 stoplights. Ten minutes later Joe turns up with his bag lunch and my bill. $112.

I happily trade my cash for the keys and jump back into the Jeep. 2:30 pm. The Jeep drives like a dream, which is good news because I’m pushing it as hard as it can go. I find the airport and pick up Diana. 2:40. I hit the first set of lights and make three of them. 2:44. It’s 2:49 when we clear downtown and head for the closure. Nine miles took eight minutes and we pull into a line of about a dozen cars stopped in front of a flagger. Did we miss it? I squint through my aviators and see the sign flip from red to orange. 2:58. I high five Diana as we push past the slow sign and we make our way up a steep dirt road that used to be US 101. Day three in the books. 

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