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Even novels have out-takes, scenes that do not make it into the final version. I had to shorten my novel, Memphis 7.9, but I had too much fun with this scene to discard it.
“No wonder they call US-50 the Loneliest Highway in the country,” Tom Fox said to his wife, Judy, as he guided their truck-camper eastward down the third long grade of the morning. “You climb a range of mountains, go over a pass, drop into a long north-south valley, cross the valley, climb a range of mountains, and do it again. You don’t get to see much traffic and it’s really boring.”
Judy raised her left eyebrow as only she could. “Tell me about it.”
After the fourth valley, Tom craved excitement while Judy dozed in defense of the boredom. Music from a CD serenaded the miles rolling by.
Checking the odometer and his watch, Tom saw they had indeed driven far enough that they could stop any time. He glanced down at the laptop on the center console to see what excitement the GPS mapping program reported ahead.
"Guess what, another pass," he murmured to himself. "Wonder if there's a different way around." Tom knew the arguments for not operating the computer and the truck at the same time, but sometimes he just did crazy things. Dividing his attention between the computer keyboard and the road ahead, he selected a higher level of map detail and zoomed in on the map to look at the secondary roads in the upcoming area.
He selected the button on the screen to ask the GPS program for an alternate route. After processing a moment, the computer drew a new path going over the crest of the mountain range south of the highway. It calculated an alternate route only seven miles longer in distance, a route that should be an interesting drive. Tom glanced towards his sleeping wife and made a unilateral decision: no need to bother Judy.
Four miles down the road Tom slowed the truck as he approached the turnoff for the new route. “Gravel, well maybe not.” But confident his rig could manage it, he decided, “Now’s a good time to put our survival rig to its test.”
The gravel road headed into the mountain range then switched back and forth as it climbed out of the valley. Tom drove at a slow speed, just keeping out of the dust rising to the rear. He rationalized that it was obvious someone traveled this road a lot, probably going to one or more ranches in the hills.
The road split. Tom glanced down. “My route goes to the right.” He steered right and noticed a lessening in the road quality, but the GPS map showed he should continue up the side of the mountain and over the top. Tom persevered.
Then came another split. Again Tom checked which way he should go. “I don’t see a split, but the road veers a little to the left here.” Selecting the left side of the split he continued to climb the side of the mountain.
"Where are we?" Judy roused from her sleep and looked out the window to see dry grass and rocks whipping by and a dirt road disappearing ahead over the next rise. "What's going on, Tom? What are you doing?" She sat upright, now fully awake.
"Everything's okay, Judy. I'm just taking an alternate route over this range of mountains. I got a new route from the GPS program and it's only seven miles further and we have plenty of time. Great chance to try out the GPS, don't you think, and see some new country?" The truck bounced over a large rock in the road, throwing them both into the air above their seats.
Judy looked out the side of the truck down a steep slope to the valley already several hundred feet below. "Tom, I really don't think this is wise. You just turn around right now and go right back to the highway . . . Tom. Do you hear me?"
Tom looked at his wife out of the corner of his eye like a child with his hand in the cookie jar. "There's nothing to worry about, Judy. The GPS tells us exactly where we are. We can't get lost. Quit worrying." Tom set his jaw and continued up the road. It became rougher and rougher. Judy sulked on her side of the truck.
The road turned left and started climbing at a greater incline. A moment later the computer spoke a warning, "You are off the planned track. Return immediately to your last turn."
"Damn." Tom glanced down to the laptop screen showing the path of the truck and saw that though the dirt road had turned, the line tracing his alternate route had continued straight a quarter mile back. “I don’t remember seeing another split back there. Judy, zoom in and see what road we’re on now. The program doesn't think we’re on track."
Judy stared at him for a moment then adjusted the computer so she could control the mouse. Adding detail to the limit, she declared in a triumphant voice, "Tom, there is no road where the GPS says we are."
"What do you mean there’s no road? Of course there's a road. I'm driving on it." The road proved its existence with another large bounce as the truck ran over more rocks. The ruts dipped into a wash and switched back to the right to climb even further.
"I said there's no road showing on the screen at the place where the GPS says we are. It's not my fault. Maybe the map is wrong."
Tom wrinkled his brow. "I guess I do remember how the program warned us back when I installed it that maps might not be accurate and the driver of the vehicle was responsible for his actions.” He peered ahead. “Well, this road goes somewhere," he said with resolve. "It's going in the right direction, I think. Where are we relative to the alternate route it suggested in the first place."
"Oh, we just passed over the alternate path back in that wash. It was headed the other way."
"What? I didn't see us cross any road. Where did they get these maps anyway, from the stagecoach drivers?" He continued on the road he had chosen but slowed. "Maybe you're right. I should turn around. I'll do that at the next place I can find room." The road climbed, but with ruts only seven feet wide every potential turnaround was too narrow for the nineteen feet of truck and camper.
By now the road had become intermittent bare strips in the tall grass, precipitate walls and drop-offs on either side of the path, almost narrower than the truck.
At last, the road leveled as it came to another switchback. The road was a little wider at the turn, and Tom knew the truck’s turning radius was too large to complete the turn without backing up, but that would give him the opportunity he needed. “Judy, once I’ve made it around the turn, I can back into the switchback and then head back down the mountain.”
Swinging wide to the right, Tom heard Judy gasp as the wheels of the truck came close to slipping off the roadway down the side of the embankment. Easing the truck around, Tom ran up into the turn until the truck’s front bumper touched the upside of the road. He eased into reverse and backed until he could turn the front wheels towards the upward part of the road. Putting the truck back into low, he started forward and straightened out on the top leg of the switchback.
Tom boasted. "Well, we made it. That was quite a turn." Judy looked ill, as if she had lost her lunch. "It's okay, Honey. Now we can go back." Judy responded with a bleak smile.
Tom put the truck into reverse and backed into the space of the switchback, trying to clear his front wheels so he could point them back downhill. But as he rolled the front wheels onto the downward leg, he felt the rig lurch to the rear.
Engaging the four-wheel drive and putting the transmission in low, Tom eased out the clutch. The truck did not move. Looking out the window, he saw the front wheels of the truck spin in the middle of the only mud puddle they had seen all day, and the rear seemed to have no traction.
"Now what?" Tom opened the door and stepped down, taking care that he did not fall over the edge of the embankment. Going around the puddle at the front of the truck, he walked back to see that both rear wheels had dropped over the embankment, resting the spare tire and differential case on the dirt mound. Until he got a tow or built a ramp the tires could climb, the truck was impaled on the side of the mountain. He kicked a tire in disgust.
Judy sidled up his side and perused the scene. "So?"
"We need to get a tow."
"Tom, it's almost dark. We just came off the Loneliest Highway in the World. We're stuck on the side of a mountain on some dirt road that doesn't even exist. No one knows we're here. We're going to die before someone comes here and gives us a tow." Judy stamped her foot and burst into tears.
Three hours later Tom rubbed his back against the cushion of the camper. The movie had ended and his shoulders ached. “Comes from getting old, I guess. Want to see the news?" Tom looked to Judy for directions.
Judy glanced up from her knitting. "Sure, do you think they'll advertise a towing service for the Nevada wasteland?"
"Come on, Judy. Here we are with all the comforts of home, watching satellite TV movies and next the world news with one of the most splendid views you can imagine. And there is simply no noise of civilization to bother us. If you want to call anyone, just lift the cell-phone. We have everything we need to boondock here for days on end. If the batteries run low during the night, the solar panels will recharge them tomorrow. This is the way to live."
Judy glared. "Yes, we just watched a movie about the last person alive on the face of the earth. We have a great view because we are up on the side of a remote, lost mountain all by ourselves. There is no noise of civilization, but if one of those wolves out there yelps any closer I'm going' to scream. I can use the phone, but I can't tell anyone where we are so help can come. And yes, we may have to boondock here until we die. You may think this is the way to live, but I'd like to have someone next door to visit."
Tom decided to forget the news. Maybe Judy would feel better after a night’s sleep.
The next morning Tom stood outside the camper looking under the truck where the rear axle rested on a pile of dirt. Both rear wheels were over depressions, giving him no traction from the rear to push the truck out of its predicament. The front wheels rested in a mud puddle that he assumed must cover a flat rock made of grease. Tom admitted to himself that his plans for how to extract the truck from this predicament were nil. He wondered if a towing service even existed within a hundred miles.
Judy pushed the sliding window back on the side of the camper. "Tom, I think those cows up the hill are going to attack you. They look awful fierce." One of the steers flicked its tail to ward off a buzzing fly and shifted its cud to the other side of its mouth.
"What do you mean? They haven't had this much excitement all spring. They're just enjoying the spectacle." But just in case, he stamped his foot and made a huffing noise, throwing a hand into the air towards them. Startled, the two steers threw up their tails and ran back up the hill, then turned and stared at the strange contraption in their pasture.
As Tom walked toward the front of the truck, he spied another vehicle coming up the road towards them. "Hey, we’re not alone. Here comes somebody."
Waving his hand as the bright new sports utility vehicle drove up, Tom saw two grizzled cowboys inside, both wearing large hats against the sun that would be shining later in the day.
The bewhiskered passenger with a half-smoked cigarette hanging from the side of his mouth rolled down his window and poked his head out. "Look's like ya'll really stuck that truck, mister. Need a tow?" he asked.
"I’d sure appreciate it. I have a 4 by 4 but I high-centered the back wheels and the front wheels get no traction in that mud puddle."
The passenger stepped out of the SUV. His legs looked as if he should be on a horse, and his jeans and boots looked like they had spent most of their time in the mounted position. "Sure thing, let me get a cable." Going to the back of the SUV, he rummaged in a box and found a twenty-foot steel cable. "This should do it."
The two vehicles faced each other. He attached the cable to the towing mounts on each and told Tom, "You get your truck started and in gear to come forward in low. We'll pull you off that old bump and then you should drive out of the puddle without trouble."
"Judy, get ready. I'm moving the truck." Tom climbed into the cab and started the engine. As the SUV backed down the road and tightened the cable, he put the truck in four-wheel low and let out on the clutch. With painful grinding sounds from the suspension of both vehicles, the SUV pulled the truck a mere six inches before the truck's spinning wheels found traction, and with a lurch it jumped back onto the road of its own accord. The cowboy held up his hat to signal stop and let out a stereotypical, "HEE HAW!"
Tom pulled forward so the cowboy could remove the cable then drove the truck onto the uphill side of the road so the other vehicle could get by. Stepping out of the truck he held out his hand. "I sure thank you guys"
The cowboy shook it and grinned. "You're welcome, fella. But next time watch out you don't go the wrong way. This here road stops up the mountain where it was cut off by a big slide twenty years ago. You ought to ask around before you go out on these old roads around here. The locals'll tell you what's open and what's not." He climbed into the SUV and the pair drove by and on up the mountain.
Tom walked to the back of the camper and asked through the swinging rear door, "Judy, you about ready to travel?"
"Tom, you didn't give me any warning, and I spilled coffee all over the table when you started forward. You'll just have to wait while I clean it up."
Tom felt relief. He had survived. Judy’s concern now focused on spilled coffee.
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"Out-Take: Survival On The Side Of A Mountain"