Texas is flat. I’m up at dawn, shower, pound a coffee and load my bike onto the rack behind the Jeep’s spare. If I can just build up a head of steam, a moderate tail wind could take me all the way across the panhandle. The Jeep starts up, I let the moisture on the windshield evaporate, and pull onto the highway. We’re running a bit grindy getting up to speed, but nothing too troubling as I make the only right turn of the day back onto US 40.
Thunderstorms gave way to pockets of thick fog. At times I only see a few seconds of road in front of the grill. I gassed up in Canyon the night before and had about three and half hours of fuel on board. With a quarter tank showing I found a suitable truck stop just over the Oklahoma border. Looping under the highway I hear a horrible knocking as I roll up to the pump. Not good. I’m having serious doubts about this rig making the next five hours into Northwest Arkansas.
I crawl under the Jeep to see if anything incredibly obvious can punch me in the face. Finding nothing, I top off the tank and ponder my options. I’m in the middle of nowhere. Effectively without a net. I could call AAA but I can’t comprehend where I could be possibly ask to be taken. I decide to give it one last go. One thing Joe told me back in ABQ was that if the front of driveshaft failed at the forward coupling, the potential to rupture the transfer case, the gas tank, and other critical internal organs was high. This is my final thought as I rattle and shake back on to US 40. The needle moves to the right of 60, and things get worse.
It’s loud. US 101 73 miles out of Crescent City loud. I pull out my phone and punch in ”U-Haul Near Me.” Twenty-two miles farther east is the small town of Elk City. There are no elk and it is not a city, but they did have a U-Haul office. I hit send and hear a familiar accent. A guy sounding like our last tow truck driver answers the phone and confirms that he has a truck and car dolly. I just need to make it 21 more miles.
I also need to put as little torque on the drive train as possible. I need to coast. I find my resolve and put my foot into the gas pedal one last time. I catch the nearest tractor-trailer and slide as close as I can get to the rear bay door. The Jeep finds the semi’s slip-stream and I back off the gas. 20 miles to go. My exit is an odd left-hander and I count the miles on my odometer. In 19 of them I’ll need to break clean across two lanes of a major trucking route without loosing momentum.
I hang on to the semi, hold my breath, and beg that my opportunity to exit stage left comes quickly. Four miles to go. Signs for Elk City immerge but I’m too close to the back of the semi to read them. One mile. I count down from sixty and break off with 10 seconds remaining. The timing is good and I traverse two lanes into the exit and put the Jeep into neutral. It’s slightly downhill to the first and only stoplight. Just past the traffic signal is the Wrecker company doubling as a U-Haul franchise. The light shows red, but flips to green and I roll powerless into the gravel parking lot.
The Quonset hut office is about what you’d expect. Inside the rusted metal half-shell are pictures of Ronald Regan, These Colors Don’t Run signs, and a lot of stuff about God – who at this moment I’m thanking to be standing in one piece between the Jeep and the service counter. Even though I’m the only guy in the shop and there are three people behind the desk, it takes a while to get anyone’s attention. I patiently wait for an occasion to explain myself.
Upon telling my sad story, the guys at the shop decide to help me out. We find a truck and a car dolly only to note that the Jeep’s wheel base is too wide to fit into the trailer’s harness. So much for my great idea of entering into the self-tow business. The three of us scratch our heads and the taller of the two nice gentlemen says that he thought he saw a larger car carrier “down the road somewheres,” and jumps into his pickup. Fifteen minutes later he returns with a larger trailer and we push the Jeep up onto the double axel platform. All that’s needed now is to chain it up and secure the tie-downs.
The Jeep has 35-inch tires, and the tie-downs reach all the way around a full two thirds of the wheel. Once again, close won’t cut it. It’s the shorter gentlemen’s turn to speak this time. I’m informed that while against standard U-Haul procedure I could go to the tractor supply company down the road, purchase my very own two-inch ten-foot tie-downs, and rig it. I saw the Two Inch Ten Foot Tie Downs play the Greek Amphitheatre once in Berkeley. I think they opened for Green Day. I think twice about making this joke to my new friends and silently pull my bike off the rack. It was a two-mile ride to the tractor store.
Two-inch ten-foot tie-downs are heavy. I was in a flustered rush leaving the U-Haul Boys – another great band name – and neglected to bring a backpack or any means to ride back with 30 pounds of straps. Doing the best I could is becoming a thing. I fashioned two double wrapped plastic bags on either side of my handlebars and made the return two-mile trek against a warm stiff headwind. The set-up would prove sufficient. I found my portable bluetooth JBL speaker, climbed into the cab of an empty massive box truck, and found the way back to US 40.
There were no welcome signs at the border. I couldn’t define what was different between Eastern Oklahoma and Northwest Arkansas, but the billboards for medical weed tipped me off. My ETA in Bentonville was no longer 3 pm. I called Bryce at Boss Hawg Offroad to let him know I wouldn’t be dropping the Jeep off before they pulled the drapes at 5. No problem. We made an agreement to link up at 8 am the following day. If it was just the drive train he’d have me out the door Friday night and I’d be on my way to collect my 14-year-old daughter flying unaccompanied to Nashville for the final leg of the trip.
Arkansas is the land of Clinton. It’s flipped between blue and red more times than my adopted home state of Alaska which has flipped…never. If the most qualified Democrat ran against an actual zoo animal or even a real insect cockroach with wings that identified Republican, the creature would win. It’s maddening. I had read a lot of good press on Bentonville that didn’t center on it being the national seat of Walmart. The Walton family of Walmart fame has pumped over $90M into building mountain bike trails in the region. In 2019 Outside Magazine listed Northwest Arkansas as America’s top mountain bike destination. An avid rider, I couldn’t possibly pass this up. In planning this leg, I had four nights booked at an Airbnb. I wasn’t happy about spotting $300 for the U-Haul assist, but at least I was where I was supposed to be.
I pulled my massive tow-rig into a quaint cul de sac harboring my in-law apartment. After negotiating parking details, I efficiently unloaded all the necessary cargo into the garage loft, changed into my riding gear, and went for a rip. The trails were unlike anything I’d ever experienced. One hundred percent man-made. The web of banked turns, jumps, bridges, and metal structures flowed through what locals call Urban Wilderness. There are statues, sculptures, industrial art, paintings, and even cafes wedged into the maze of fabricated geography. Wild, but not.
My place is a short walk into town, which is convenient as I’ll be without a vehicle until Friday night. The Main Square reminds me of Main Street in Disneyland and I half expect Mickey Mouse to lead an Electric Light Parade. I find a tavern that sells what I need and take a seat at the bar. You’d never know there was a Pandemic raging, but the CDC had just advised fully vaccinated people like me to chill the eff out. Chill the eff out is exactly what I did. For the first time since leaving Bellingham for Bentonville, I felt a sense of relief. Bryce was taking care of the Jeep, I had a few days of pounding trail, and life was good. Leg three day two in the books.