The world has a way of taunting me. I Uber from the train station to 91 (you must be) High Street to find a replica of my orange 2009 Jeep Wranger parked next to my house. Apparently this one runs. Another reminder of never having what you want. The weather is beautiful, but the forecast is ugly. Memorial Day weekend throughout New England would be the second coldest on record with heavy precipitation. At least I left all my warm clothes in Arkansas.
Wakefield is a walking town and after opening up the house I make the rounds for provisions. Diana and Kéa are due to arrive the next morning and I need to make sure we have the necessary comforts given the fact I’ve failed my primary mission. Jeep or no Jeep, at least we’ll be together. Misery loves company.
Michelle swings by promptly at 8 am and I load my small duffel into the back of her Honda. It’s a 25-minute drive to the Fayetteville Northwest Arkansas Airport. The place is vacant except for one gate agent behind the American Airlines ticket counter. It seems as if I’ve jumped the gun. I’m presented with three separate old school rectangular tickets complete with codes over misaligned print. I venture farther inside to find the TSA Pre-Check. I’m still the only customer and file through the lone metal detector without incident.
Slowly, Gate B4 fills up with a planeload of travelers and a small Brazilian commuter jet noses into place by the jetway. I observe the people exiting the plane. They must all have a reason to be here and I try to determine a purpose for each passenger as they hurry past the boarding door. I rule out connecting flights.
As for my connections, they are all extremely tight. Choked taxiways and occupied gates further reduce my time on the ground and navigating sky trains across multiple terminals through Dallas and Miami become a track event. I run, even though I know it’s a bad idea with a ravaged left knee. Not making it to my destination tonight is a worse fate than a bottle of Motrin and a week of painful steps. Thunderstorms buck our Airbus A321 on approach to Boston and the Russian woman in the middle seat next to me fills two airsick bags. Thankfully, I can’t smell the rancid ejection and decide to mind my own business as the wheels find the runway.
My trip through Logan is a slow one. I can feel the beating I took sprinting through Miami, but I have what I brought with me and secure a cab to Brookline. Boston is familiar and I roll up to my in-law’s house. I’ll spend the night here before catching a train to Kingston, RI the next morning. It’s great to see my former Brown ski team athlete turned sister-in-law. It’s been over two years and we catch up on the little things you miss when life sprinkled with a pandemic forces you into separate corners of the ring.
The next morning Beth carts me to Boston’s Back Bay Amtrak station and the silver chain of carriages glide to the platform right on time. It’s not difficult to find a seat and I watch the blurred backyards of Massachusetts speed by the window. After stops at Route 128 and Providence, the masts of sailboats moored in Narragansett Bay appear and a permeating sense of calm and relief fill my mind. I’m home.
Torrential rain returns to Northwest Arkansas on Tuesday. I’m beginning to think it was Noah himself who named this state after an ark he saw. The volume of water draining from an aphotic sky is biblical. Gloom is the actual word used in the National Weather Service forecast and I deliberate how I’m going to shuttle all of my contemporaneous possessions three soaking wet miles to Boss Hawg Offroad. It’s too early to start drinking.
My first flight out of XNA on Wednesday is on a Brazilian-made Embraer E-170 regional jet. The overhead storage bins are microscopic. Another fun-fact entering into this equation is that I’ve never successfully flown through Miami without losing at least one checked bag. If you went to the University of American Airlines and majored in geography, you already know that you can’t get from Dallas to Boston without going straight through Miami. Pushing my luck now seems like a very bad idea.
The pile of items to remain in Arkansas grows exponentially as I pair down to only the most essential articles. I’ll be bare bones when I meet the girls in New England, but hopefully the weather will be good and I won’t need much of what I originally brought. I get more or less ready to go and stare out the window. Identical four-bedroom one-story brick homes bathe in a heavy rain. It’s 10 am.
I’m simply not going to get through the day without working in a mountain bike ride. Too many hours separate me from the now to the later. Digging through the “leave in Arkansas” pile, I grab some pre-soiled riding gear and get kitted. It’s going to be slog, but I can’t imagine idling through the day. Whatever doesn’t dry I’ll hang from my bike bag in Bryce’s back closet. There is so much water that the meticulously built singletrack trails become small rivers. I’m saturated clear through the skin, but it’s warm enough that I’m not cold.
I’ve totaled 188 miles of riding dirt in 8 days. Of all the places across this part of the country to be grounded, I could have done a lot worse. It’s a trail-rich cycling-crazed community, I’ve made some new friends, and people here are genuine. I roll back into my driveway and strip down. I pressure wash my bike, my clothes, and my shoes. Brown rivers of mud wash into the lawn and I do my best to wring out as much moisture as possible, but there is no way to get things completely dry before I load them up for the trip across town. It’s 2 pm and I need to make my deposit before the shop closes at 5. I look at the local radar and see a potential break in the weather.
At 4:15 the rain stops and the pavement quickly dries up. I grab my massively overloaded day pack and jump back on my bike. It takes me about 15 minutes to pull the bike apart and reassemble it into my travel bag at Boss Hawg’s. I check in with Bryce, make a tentative plan to return sometime in Late June or early July, and toss him my keys. It’s a leap of faith, but I’m left with no other option. I’m now on foot, nothing on my back, and I’ve got a three-mile return trip. Luckily there is a brewery along my route and I’m able to replenish some fluids. Dinner is whatever I’ve got left in the fridge, meaning a hard-boiled egg, broccoli, and an apple. Tomorrow, I trade Arkansas for points east.
Monday is day seven of my four day stay in Arkansas. I’m dreading my call into Bryce at Boss Hawg and procrastinate with yet another 25-mile mountain bike ride. It’s the only thing keeping my sanity from entering the red zone. The rain seems to be holding off, but the sky thickens with black clouds and drops the ceiling above like a vice closing in on its subject. I keep pedaling.
Hoping isn’t working. I lose focus on a rocky section of crumbled limestone and surrender to the traction gods. I pull my water bottle from its cage, wipe the sweat from my face and squeeze the soft plastic container. While stopped, I check the time and decide I need to reach out for some info. Not more than two minutes after texting Bryce my phone rings. “I don’t have good news buddy.”
The drive shaft is a unicorn. A sasquatch. The fucking Easter Bunny. People claim to have seen one once, but nobody can prove it. I was prepared to have my heart ripped out, and put more force into my foot’s elliptical trajectory. I get back to my dirtbag apartment faster than I left. I need to find flights, figure out where to safely store my bike, and think about how to get the hell out Arkansas.
Getting the hell out of Arkansas is not easy. The closest airport has extremely limited service. Kansas City is a four-hour drive north and Little Rock is a four-hour drive south. Andy and Michelle propose their garage as a storage locker and offer a ride to the airport if I can nail down a flight. Frantically searching my airline mileage partners I find path to Boston that takes me on a world tour including Dallas and Miami. It’s 25,000 miles for a one-way ticket and I bitterly hit the purchase now button. The flight doesn’t leave from Fayetteville’s Northwest Arkansas XNA airstrip until Wednesday morning and I need to throw down another 70 bucks to stay one more night. Time to start packing.
Grateful for friends and options, I decide on putting my treasured Enduro back into its Evoc airplane travel bag and store it in a locked closet inside Bryce’s office at Boss Hawg. I can load another duffel of stuff that won’t fit into my carry-on inside the Jeep. I still need a ride to the airport and I reach out to Michelle and bring her up to speed. Michelle agrees to pick me up at 8 am on Wednesday morning. With a plan in place, I feel accomplished and defeated all at the same time. I look around my apartment and start deciding what can stay and what will go.
The longshot was coming from Illinois. Not confirmed, but perhaps an actual completely built driveshaft in a box ready to go was being shipped as of Friday night. If it arrived Monday the Jeep would be ready one hour after delivery. My leg with Kéa was long shot, but the longshot could still provide a shot of going long. I pumped the brakes on buying a plane ticket, looked for another cheap Airbnb, and made three trips on my bike across town to move everything I took out of the Jeep on Tuesday.
I moved into the new place two and half miles down the street. It’s not as nice. No washer or dryer which could be a problem with Arkansas weather, but there was a pressure hose in the yard. Arkansas is muddy. My bike started each day at 31 pounds and returned from the trail caked with wet pasty soil weighing in at 37. My kit suffered the same fate. At least I could spray everything off. I had this place until Tuesday morning. If I’m still stranded by then, I pull the rip cord.
The sun made a rare appearance on Saturday and with nothing better to do, I loaded up with water and a couple Clif Bars. I have no plan, which is congruent with my life’s current predicament. I leave the house and ride into a confluence of trails named Coler. Three hours later I find myself in Bella Vista on the Back 40, a forty-mile singletrack loop that braids the Missouri border. It’s hot and I’m down to my last splash of water. The phone rings.
I don’t recognize the number. The area code is 616. Western Michigan. I pick up the call. “Sparky! It’s Andy. Kohler’s friend. Come over for dinner tonight.” Various random connections were provided to me by friends before I set out on this ill-advised junket, and I remember Ben telling me about a guy in Bentonville. I don’t have to think about my riposte. “Sure! Where’s your place and what can I bring?” Andy tells me he’s in Bella Vista, the town just north of Bentonville. I give Andy my coordinates and he texts me his address. “You’re super close to my house right now. Just ride on up.” Four point two miles up a moderately steep country road, I find Andy under the hood of his 1971 Chevy C10 pickup.
I’m approaching a reasonably distressed state of dehydration and Andy greets me with a question. “What kind of beer do you like?” The answer is obvious. “Cold,” I say. He slams the hood, introduces himself, and we bump fists. Sitting on the back of the Chevy’s lowered tailgate we get acquainted. Andy is a 33-year-old professional mountain bike trail designer and builder. I had no idea this was an occupation until arriving in Arkansas, and the interrogation began. I’m fascinated with the process and risk asking too many annoying questions. An hour goes by and Andy’s wife Michelle returns with a car-load of groceries.
“Which Walmart did you go to?” Andy quips. Needless to say, Walmart has cornered the market of markets in this region. “The one in Missouri,” says Michelle. “It’s definitely cheaper.” I help bring the bags inside to an empty house. And I mean empty. No furniture, no photos, no floor. “We’re in the middle of a re-model,” says Andy. Now the tailgate made sense. These guys are one month into their marriage and their new home. Michelle is an exec for SRAM, a bicycle component manufacturer based out of Chicago, and other than being fun and cute, I understand Andy’s attraction. SRAM makes some high-quality stuff and the discount must be killer.
We grill some burgers and have a great night. I’m invited to join them on a Sunday ride to inspect a new trail system called Keystone that Andy recently helped design and build. The trails aren’t open to the public, so it helps to have an inside line. Later that night I’m given a ride home in the ’71 Chevy. “It’s my daily driver!” Andy says as I reach around for a seatbelt. “Don’t bother looking for a seatbelt,” he says after watching my eyes hunt around the normal connection points. “The bench seat isn’t even attached to the floor.”
I’m successfully deposited at my dirtbag mountain biker Airbnb only to be picked up the very next morning. The sun makes another cameo on Sunday and I load my black Specialized Enduro onto the tailgate pad of the Chevy. The three of us slide around on the bench seat as we bounce our way to the trailhead. The riding was all-time. Andy is a master at his trade and we session a series of six downhill tracks. Michelle and Andy are both amazing riders and I learn a lot just by following them off ramps, tabletops, and gap jumps. For at least a few hours, I forget why I’m still here.
Settling quick into a rhythm, my routine revolves around streaming NPR from Anchorage based KSKA over morning coffee, browsing Trailforks to plan the day’s two-wheel route, and the occasional check in with work and family. Thursday is a bit wet, so I find the canopied singletrack loops with the best drainage. I roll 30 miles of dirt and on a particularly slick section of limestone near the end of my ride I get another call from Bryce. “Wow, he’s fast,” I think. He’s probably already wrapped up the job and ready for me to free up his lot.
Thursday was the last panic-free day I would get. The job wasn’t complete. Bryce was having issues finding the driveshaft. He called a supplier in Nevada and had one overnighted. If it shows up by close of business Friday he could still have me on the road by Saturday morning. The shipping was $200, but I was heavily invested in hotel and Airbnb reservations for the final leg. The opportunity cost made sense and an unease began to gnaw deep in my soul.
I had to call home and leak the news. Nothing was a done deal. Not by a long shot. But the potential impact of not being in Nashville when Kéa boards a flight to Tennessee is catastrophic. At a minimum we’d have to adjust flights and itineraries. I don’t sleep well. I’m working the details of this trip in seven different directions and none of them come anywhere close to an acceptable outcome. Thursday turns to Friday and I try to distract myself with NPR, coffee, and the day’s ride. I’m unsuccessful.
I tell myself that I’ll wait until 2 pm to text Bryce. It’s raining at least an inch an hour and even this seasoned Alaskan is not excited about recreating outside. My Airbnb is equipped with a hot shower, washer, and dryer. The only way to stay sane is to get kitted and hit the mud. Twenty-eight soggy miles later gets me to my 2 pm target, I type a question into my iPhone, and hit the little blue arrow.
What I like about Bryce is that he’s a caller. He’d rather give it to me straight up than hide behind a texted reply. I appreciate this. The news is bad. This particular drive shaft doesn’t exist. At least not a built one. There was one other supplier he had a phone call into, but it was a longshot. The driveshaft requires assembly and the entire process takes ten days. Once the part is completed it goes out for shipping which can take another week or ten days. This issue wasn’t likely to resolve for a solid month at the earliest. I could still hold out hope for the one lifeline, but the writing was on the wall.
I’m so sad. I talk to Kéa and she’s even deeper in despair. The walls with their writing on them are closing in. Time to circle back to contingencies. Staying in Arkansas can’t happen. I cancel Kéa’s flight to Nashville and look at ways to bail out of Bentonville. No matter what, I’ll have to leave the Jeep, my bike, and all my gear someplace. The lodging I’ve booked Kéa and I for the following week? Forget about it. I’m well past seeing a dime with current cancellation policies. I look at flights and there are no good options. One-way tickets from the closest airport in Fayetteville are all over $500 and they only go to Dallas or Atlanta. Taking stock of my current reality, I give Bryce another call to talk about longshots. Leg three day four, and no end in sight.
Another unfamiliar room appears when I my eyes open. Light spills through a small east facing rectangular window above the shower and pours across my bed. The alarm never sounded. Crap. Am I late for the Jeep doctor? No. I’m early. I roll on my side and try to get comfortable enough to reverse my conscious state, but no dice. A little before seven I surrender and make the coffee. It’s a two-mile drive to Boss Hawg Offroad and I have just over an hour to get there. The coffee tastes good.
I pull the U-Haul and trailer out of the cul de sac at a quarter of eight and make it to Bryce’s shop at ten til. He’s another tall guy with a manageable accent and we make the cursory introductions. As advertised by my parent’s friends, he’s a “stand-up guy” and I immediately trust his intention to fix what’s broke and get me back on my way. I untether the two-inch ten-foot tie-downs and back the Jeep into Boss Hawg’s lot. We exchange information and I head back the way I came, unwilling to relinquish the U-Haul set up until I know I won’t need it again.
With a little time to kill, I decide to head out for a morning pedal. The riding is fun, even if it feels like I’m spinning from Tomorrowland to Frontierland. The soil is a little wet from yesterday’s rain, and I learn quickly that limestone is frictionless when damp. My cell phone comes to life in the side pocket of my shorts and I pull off the trail to pick up the call. It’s Bryce with some news.
The Jeep’s current driveshaft is the wrong size. It was installed by a hack, probably the former owner, and will continue to plague my life until the correct sized part is installed. It was never going to fly let along drive. Amazing I’ve made it this far. The front-end needs a standard 60,000-mile maintenance which he adds to the list. Other than that, I was in pretty good shape. Bryce ordered the parts and expected to have me out the door on schedule. My warranty doesn’t cover the aftermarket driveshaft, and I can expect to pay about $700 for the correct component.
Absorbing the new information, I decide this is a good thing and venture farther north into the trail system. I can still get home before five, clean up, return the U-Haul and see what the town of Bentonville has to offer. It’s good to be under self-propulsion for a few days. I’m smiling inside at the thought of getting back on the road over the weekend as planned and acquiring Kéa in Nashville for our father-daughter leg. Game on.
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.
The road from Sedona to Flagstaff is 29 miles long and climbs 2,681 feet through Oak Creek Canyon. Most of the vertical is gained in two miles of switchback halfway between towering red rock pillars and the mostly flat conifer pine forests surrounding the south rim of the Grand Canyon. The Jeep was still squawking, but otherwise made the heavy lift up to Interstate 40. Other than a detour around a rolled minivan, our trip to Santa Fe was long and uneventful.
Pulling into the Sage Inn just outside the main adobe village, I could hear a distinct clanking from behind the transfer case. It would also explain a significant change in hum-tone at speed. I knew it wasn’t good. We did what Bill said and drove the hell out of it, but I was pretty certain that this chirp turned rattle and hum was going to need attention sooner than later.
It was our only night in Santa Fe before John escaped from Albuquerque to cap off leg two, so I tried to sweep the feeling of impending doom under the rug. I’d never been to Santa Fe and felt compelled to explore the narrow streets lined with a mix of art galleries and cantinas. We found some authentic Mexican food, a lively rooftop cantina, and made a night of it. Tequila provides a nice mask on reality, however temporary.
The next day’s drive to ABQ – most locals refer to A L B U Q U E R Q U E as ABQ – was loud and unnerving. I knew I had a problem. The question was what to do about it. The Jeep did ok at speed. Cruising at 65 was fine, but accelerating or anything requiring gears one through four was tenuous. We made it to the ABQ Sunport Best Western. John had a flight to catch in the morning and I had to make a critical decision. Should I stay or should I go.
I love New Mexico. It is one of the most different, authentic, and true-to-self States in our Union. I’m lucky to have friends and family in ABQ. Upon arrival I reached out to my friend and former colleague along with my cousin, to see about making some plans and maybe getting some auto-repair advice. Joe, a former head ski coach at the University of New Mexico, came right over to check on the Jeep. We drove it in a few circles and determined that yes, I do in fact have an issue. My cousin Owen, probably one of the smartest human beings on the planet, had a lot of fantastic things to say, but came up empty on car advice. Entertaining none-the-less.
Joe looked at the drive shaft. A lot of play in the connection to the transfer case. Would it make it to Rhode Island? Maybe. I called a few shops in ABQ and it was going to be a week to even get an appointment at any garage. Everyone was backed up. I decided to phone another friend. Rather, I called my parents and had them phone another friend. “Remember when your friend offered some help in Bentonville, Arkansas? Yeah. Well, I might need to take him up on that…” I called my new contact in Arkansas. If I can just get there, he’d fit me in and get me back out on the road. I had planned four nights in North West Arkansas anyway and decide to roll the dice.
We still have the evening ahead. Joe heads home and Owen, John, and I have an incredible dinner in old town ABQ. It cost Owen his brand new Volkswagen Golf which was sideswiped on Highway 25 while attempting to pick us up, but exquisite New Mexican food, a margarita on the rocks, and solid car insurance put him at ease. Owen and John are fast friends and we have a great night. The next morning, I set out for Canyon, Texas. My first stop after John abandons ship for Pasadena.
Let’s just say I managed the solo six-hour crawl in stiff wind through Amarillo and limped into Canyon. Massive thunderstorms and tornado warnings put the lid on my plan to ride Palo Duro Canyon. My sole reason for the 30 mile detour. I manage to find my hotel, cover the hood of the Jeep with a sleeping bag and a tarp to protect against the forecast baseball sized hail, and spin around town on my bike before the twisters. I hit a grocery store – again to learn about the locals – and picked up a pre-made salad for dinner. The town is on lock-down with tornado warnings. Not more than 10 minutes after rolling into my room, Armageddon strikes Canyon with a wrath not seen since Katrina.
The atmosphere out my third story window turns violent. Wind blows everything sideways. The light show battles on stage with the sound, and I don’t ese any funnel clouds. Golf ball sized hail, not the advertised baseball variety, pounds everything in the parking lot below. By 11 pm it was all over. Feeling like I got my money’s worth, I looked at NOAA satellite weather forecasts, plotted my 8 hour course to Arkansas, and hit the hay. The Jeep wasn’t any better or worse that it was in ABQ, and I was looking forward to a planned four-day rest-stop in Bentonville, AR. Leg three day one in the books.
Joshua Tree to Sedona was supposed to be a fairly easy five-hour cruise on open highway. We were up with the sun and got an early start, so we decided to take the long way through the park. I’d never seen Joshua Tree and John was keen to travel the extra miles. On a map it looked to be only a 20-minute detour, but 90 minutes later I was still navigating a thin strip of road through incredible rock formations and shrubby high desert flora. The Park Road eventually deposited us on The 10 and we turned left.
The travel was smooth, but The 10 was a grind. We cleared the Arizona border and decided to take another detour to cut a corner into Sedona. We picked up some gusty wind over a shallow pass into Wickenburg about two hours southwest our destination. The orange cube feels every slight breeze, especially any crosswind, and a big gust blew us clear across the center double yellow divide. My dashboard lit up like a Christmas tree.
Yellow warning lights buzzed and flashed between the speedometer and the tach. Apparently, the Jeep thought I was trying to kill it. I said something to the effect of “aw f-@#” and John finally reacted in a way commensurate with the situation. Riding beside the boy who cried wolf had desensitized him to the point of blowing off my incessant panic warranted or not. I corrected for the wind, found the proper lane, and crested the pass. The Jeep drove fine, but the dashboard was still illuminated. As luck would have it, we passed an Auto Zone on the way into town and decided to investigate the issue.
The light gave an EPS and BAS notation. We were able to borrow a diagnostic tool from the shop and plugged it in to see if we could speak Jeep. After a bit of research, we found that we likely tripped a steering sensor when we got blown off course. There was an odd reset method that required us to turn the steering wheel a few times in each direction to reset the sensor. This seemed hokey to me. I took out a vial of De-Jinxer a friend provided prior to the trip, and sprayed it over the hood for good measure. It worked on our 1987 Volkswagen Westfalia. Might as well give it a go.
There is no way of knowing if the De-Jinxer or the steering wheel reset method was the correct remedy, but the dashboard returned to normal and we climbed 3000 feet into Northern Arizona. The air outside was hot, but we decided to shut off the AC and roll down the windows as we passed Sedona’s city limits. I love the scent of the high plateau and I could hear the noisy chirping of birds. Strange to hear so many birds, but it was spring and I gathered they were excited about the heat.
The interesting thing about these birds, is that they only exercised their vocal cords when the Jeep was accelerating in gears one through three. They would effectively stop singing while coasting or when I wasn’t applying my foot to the gas pedal. These must be really smart birds. I also found it odd that the birds were omnipresent. As I pulled into the Sedona Springs Resort parking lot and opened the driver side door, I looked everywhere for these winged harlequins. Strangely, the birds had vanished.
We checked into our studio and flipped a coin for who got the bed and who got the couch. John called heads and the coin landed tails. Seems dumb to waste my luck on a bed, but I took the better of two options without guilt. Little did I know what a waste of luck that would be. Regardless to the quality of mattress, we both awoke the next morning and set out to find a mountain bike trailhead five miles out of town. Bikes loaded into the Kuat Rack, the Jeep motored up a back road. And the birds were back.
The birds were definitely coming from the rear driveshaft. An incessant squeak just behind the transfer case. I made note of it and went about our business. We had an amazing ride through cactus and sage on red rock trails. Stunning scenery and fantastic terrain for riding. I almost forgot about the new sound my cool Jeep can now make. As soon as we got off the trail, I drove to an auto shop that had good Yelp reviews. They said they would take a look, and three days later, they said they would take a look. It was at least a free parking space and eventually I bullied the shop owner to test drive it.
Bill from Red Rock Auto in Sedona talked about a small bearing in the front of the drive shaft that gets dry. He put some lube into it and said “Screw it. Drive it. Drive the hell out of it!” He never charged me and after three days of killer mountain biking that’s exactly what we did. Saturday morning, I checked the oil, loaded the bags, and we set course for Santa Fe. Birds and all.