1 Last Blast of Winter Trip – April 1999 Part II

It’s always a blessing to see that “Welcome to New Mexico” sign just past Texline. It never ceased to amaze me how a seemingly arbitrary state line could have been drawn where the pancake Panhandle ends, and the prelude to the Rockies begins. The demarcation is uncanny. As quickly as the terrain changed, so did the weather pattern…an unrelenting western sun finally gave way to a welcomed cloud cover and a light spring shower. I was in the super high plains where the unpredictable is predictable. I never knew what to expect…the wild and wonderful west starts at Clayton, New Mexico. I stopped at my favorite Midway Rest Area near Capulin, intending to spend the night under the stars as I usually do. But, something wasn’t ringing right with Ol’Baleau. The “choke” light had been on for quite a few miles, and the engine was racing at an abnormally high rpm in neutral. Something told me to high-tail it on to Raton, which I fortuitously did.

Yep, there was Big Trouble in Raton (Ra-‘ton)…better there than in the middle of nowhere. As it turned out, a very propitious move on my part, if I do say so myself. After a peaceful night behind the Holiday Inn, I trucked over to a Texaco station for some petrol, and that’s when things began to unravel. For starters (or non-starters, as it were), Ol’ Baleau decided she wasn’t going to ignite or combust, or whatever. It was an all too-familiar scenario – the choke valve was stuck in the closed position. The bummer was having to remove the center console and the “doghouse” in order to get to the carburetor. As I’m fingering the choke valve with the right hand, I reached over with the other hand to turn the ignition on. After several tries, I miraculously got combustion, considering it was physically impossible for me to foot-feed the gas pedal. Then, like a beacon of hope, I noticed a sign next door reading: “Raton Truck Repair and Salvage Yard”. I roll her old bones over to the adjacent shop, and, after making friends with the junk yard dog, I find the proprietor. Good ol’ boy Don, with a gap-toothed smile like a moonshiner out of Georgia (remember the movie “Deliverance”?), graciously spent a free hour of his time, tinkering with the valve mechanism. Well, he wasn’t exactly Mr. Goodwrench, but he did all he could mentally do, and that was to assure me that I could get over the pass and find a more reliable mechanic in Trinidad or Pueblo, or somewhere. I thanked him for his time and trouble.

I pulled on to I-25, and that’s when the fun really started. Helplessness was an understatement when describing one’s feeling as my motor vehicle slowly and steadily became immobile right there on the Interstate. The utter loss of acceleration was tantamount to having a bunch of bananas stuffed up the tail pipe (Believe me, that ploy really works when getting even with an adversary). While I was checking out the rear-view mirror for any 18-wheelers that might be plowing me under at 70 mph, I was desperately urging Ol’ Baleau to make it to the shoulder at the exit ramp, which we finally did. Wow, that was a relief. “Now what?”, I thought. Heck, “now what” meant unstrapping the bike, and pedaling back a mile to civilization. Fortunately, the bike ride was slightly downhill, with a wind at my back. When I’m biking, I don’t care where it is, I find it a perfect time just to think. As the cars were whizzing by, I thought how much we took for granted that automobiles run efficiently 99 per-cent of the time. Then the cerebral membranes really kicked in: I was 580 miles from home, leaving my abandoned home-on-wheels with a bunch of my valued possessions inside. Was I despondent? Surely not. I had two things going for me: a beautiful bicycle and a Triple-A emergency card. What more could I ask for? Things weren’t so bad.

I pedaled into the Texaco station and used the outside payphone to call AAA. Son-of-a-gun, if the local affiliate wasn’t right next door at good ol’ boy Don’s Raton Truck Repair Shop. While waiting for the boys to get back from lunch, I took a welcomed respite on a picnic bench just outside the station. It was a rather brutal day (a hard day, as I refer to it), with a gusty north wind under an intense sun…my least favorite kind of day. I was weathering things just fine mentally, but physically, the high-altitude rays were beginning to take their toll on my unprotected cranium. I had been bushwhacked by my own forgetfulness – no sunscreen or Detroit Tiger baseball cap to prevent that “flushed face” feeling. Oh well, it wasn’t intolerable…just a sensation of warmth.

Shortly thereafter, the shop reopened, and I hop aboard the tow-truck with good ol’ Rick (the bike was secured on the back). A feeling of helplessness came over me as we rattled right down the main street of Raton. I was at the complete mercy of my tow-truck driver. I tried emancipating myself from those feelings of futility with a spontaneous rhetoric about how well preserved (or rehabilitated, whatever the case was) downtown Raton appeared to me. Rick said “Yep, we’re mighty proud how we kept this town goin’. Most all those stores are doin’ a good business.” I thought that was very efficacious commentary on his part, considering that Raton, like thousands of other towns the same size, have been circumvented by the Interstates. It was heartening to see Raton alive and well. Now, wasn’t that something…a trip that started out so grim, ended up being a pleasant tour through a town I had forgotten. Thanks, Rick.

We pulled into John’s Muffler Shop, because there was a plausible possibility that the catalytic converter might have blown, especially since the “banana-in-the-tailpipe” reaction was so reminiscent of a similar “blow-out” back in January of ’92 (on a Maryland turnpike just outside of Rockville, after spending Christmas with “The Kids”). The thing was, the original converter lasted exactly 120,000 miles, but the replacement had only 55,000 miles on it. So, we were a little skeptical about the exhaust system being the problem. Seems as though good ol’ Don had called good ol’ John, giving him an advanced warning of my predicament. It turned out John was a jack-of-all-trades mechanic, and it was quite obvious, since he was restoring a 1934 Chevrolet right there in his garage. He was a burly, surly, no-nonsense man in his mid-50s, who wasted no time in trying to be Mister Fixit. After an hour of gasping, choking, and throttling, we got Ol’ Baleau suckin’ gas, but she was still “runnin’ rich” (idling too high). Ol’ John had one more ace up his sleeve. He called his other shop three blocks down Main Street, and told his head honcho, in so many words, “Drop everything. I’m sending this guy down with a messed up carb. See what you can do with it.” He waived any charge (so far, that was two free hours of tinkering), and gave me directions to John’s Alignment & Brake Center.