Friday, February 21, 2020

Rescued in Iceland

My recent rescue by kind strangers has naturally brought to mind the last time a family trip was saved by a stranger.

It all started with a trip to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.  We took my Mom there one Christmas vacation day in 2006. As we were enjoying an exhibit about geysers and volcanoes, my Mom said she’d always wanted to visit Iceland.  We had no plans for Spring Break that year, so we decided to take Mom to Iceland.

Iceland is fantastic.  We had a cozy rental house in Reykjavik and a nine-passenger diesel van to drive around the country.  There is one major road in Iceland, the Ring Road, that goes around the edge of the island and connects the few settled parts. The interior is left to the volcanoes and icebergs and geysers.

Iceland is cold on the top but hot underneath.  There are geysers and steam vents and boiling hot streams all over the place.  The Icelanders are practical, and they know better than to step into boiling hot water, so there is rarely any signage or fencing at these spots.  At some of the more popular geysers there is occasionally a small sign that says “Haetta” (hot).

Perhaps the most popular tourist attraction in Iceland is the Blue Lagoon.  It is a large outdoor hot pool in a lava field formed by the runoff from a geothermal power plant.  You can swim around in it, but you have to shower first. When we were there, we had to be inspected by a firm Icelandic matron before we were allowed in the pool.  That was weird.

Iceland has its own breed of small very hairy horses.  We took five-year-old horse-crazy Amy to a riding stable, and the owner made us all put on full-body waterproof coveralls before we could ride.  We were puzzled by this as it seemed to be a pretty nice day for Iceland.  As soon as we got on the horses, however, it began to sleet sideways, and we understood.

One day as we were heading to a waterfall on the Ring Road we saw an amazing rainbow.  We all wanted to take pictures of it, so Larry did what he would have done in America, and pulled off onto a gravel patch by the side of the road.

The van promptly sank up to its axles in gravelly mud.

There was a brief moment of silence followed by a lot of bad words.

Larry got out and tried to do something with rocks to get some traction.  There was no wood or anything to use because Iceland has no trees.  We were not near anything except some scattered farms, and they were all set way back off the road.  From where we were, we could see one tiny farmhouse far away across a snowy field. 

We hadn’t seen another car in an hour or so.  In retrospect, we should have just stopped right on the road to take our pictures.

As Larry was stomping around outside and swearing and my mom was analyzing how much food and water we had, I pulled out my cell phone.  I had FIVE BARS of coverage!  You can’t get five bars of coverage in Silicon Valley!!

There was a big sign on the dashboard of our rental van that said, “Dial 112 in Emergency”, so I did.  A nice man answered the call and I explained our situation.  “What farm are you near?” he asked.  And I actually knew!  I had been following our road map of the Ring Road which listed all the farms.

The operator said, “I will call the farmer and he will bring his tractor.”  We sat in the van and watched as a tiny tractor pulled away from the tiny farm and slowly chugged up to the road and then around the road to us.

The farmer had no English, intensely dirty overalls and boots, and two or three yapping farm dogs with him.  He put a hook under our rear axle, started his tractor, and popped us up out of the mud and onto the road.

I was ecstatically happy.  I tried to offer him some money, but he waved it away, so I kissed him on the cheek to show my gratitude.  He seemed surprised but not entirely displeased, and he loaded up his dogs, waved goodbye, and chugged back to his farm.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

A Road Trip During Which We Are Rescued By Mormons

Before the start of her sophomore year at UT Austin, Ellen and I road-tripped her Nissan Stanza the 1500 miles from Los Altos, California to Austin, Texas because you can’t live in Texas without a car.  It was a lot of driving, but I remember the trip fondly, especially an afternoon spent at the Roswell International UFO Museum and Research Center.

One afternoon as I drove Ellen read aloud an entire book from the UFO Museum about how Marilyn Monroe was killed because she knew the true story about the 1947 alien landing.

Last week I flew to Austin to accompany Ellen on the reverse trip back to Los Altos.  The night I arrived I got to see Ellen perform some improv with friends.  Ellen was quite believable in the role of an exchange student in Rome who was accidentally dating the pope.  Afterwards, I treated some of the troupe to Snowball cocktails at LaLa’s Little Nugget, a Christmas-all-year bar.  I’m going to miss Austin; it’s so weird.

Ellen had packed the Nissan so full that there was no room for me, so we had to donate some bed linens and pointless platform shoes to Goodwill before we could hit the road.  On the way out of town we stopped for a Thundercloud turkey sub (Ellen’s primary source of nutrition during her college years).

West Texas is vast, dry, and sparsely populated.  The string of towns along Interstate 10 are about an hour apart, and there’s nothing in between.  We pulled off in Balmorhea, Texas (population 479) and rolled up to Jo’s Bar and Grill at about 8:30 pm.  We were the only customers; in fact, for a few minutes we were the only people in the restaurant, but after we hollered the waitress materialized from somewhere and took our order.

As we got back on the interstate, the moon dipped below the horizon and the stars were amazing.  We pulled off at the next exit (an unnamed dirt road going who knows where), parked the car, and got out and marveled at the bowl of stars above us.  We saw the milky way! 

The next morning over flip-and-turn waffles at the Hampton Inn East El Paso breakfast buffet, we decided to push through to Flagstaff, Arizona in one day.  This fit of hubris might have worked out had we not also decided to take the scenic route through the Gila National Forest.

We really enjoyed the beautiful high desert scenery and balmy mild weather on Route 180 North from Deming, New Mexico right up until twilight.  As darkness fell, things took a decided turn for the worse.  We had to go over a mountain, the temperature plummeted, and it began to snow.  A lot. 

Ellen and I and the Nissan Stanza were not meant to drive in a snowstorm.  After we crested the mountain, we began fishtailing all over the two-lane, twisting, forested road so I pulled into a fire road entrance where we sat in mounting realization of the stupid situation we had gotten ourselves into.  There hadn’t been cell service for hours, and we hadn’t passed a town in 45 minutes.

Eventually a pickup truck came into view, driving slowly down from the mountaintop.  I waved it down and explained to the three young men inside that we were dumb stranded Californians and asked if there was a town down the road where they could send us up a ride or a tow or something.  Ellen and I were not enthused about spending the night in our car in the forest, surrounded by bears or whatever, with no Netflix and only our bad decisions for company.

The cheerful driver of the truck said, “I’ll ask the Bishop” and continued down the mountain.  Hmm, I thought, is that his gang leader?  The fun name he calls his dad?  Ellen was worried that I had consulted young men who might want to rape and murder us, but I figured the odds were in our favor, as no one intent on finding defenseless females would try trolling the Gila National Forest.

As we sat in sad silence, a pickup truck came up the road and pulled over.  I jumped out, and the man at the wheel said, “Are you the stranded Californians? The Bishop sent us to help you.” They introduced themselves as Bill and Crystal McKinney of Luna, New Mexico, a very small Mormon town a few miles down the mountain.

They explained that the young men we had stopped earlier were Mormon missionaries, who had called their bishop, who had called the McKinneys, who had come to rescue us.

We decided that Bill would drive me down in the Nissan, and Crystal would drive Ellen down in the pickup.  Bill grew up in Montana, so he knew how to drive in the snow, including the crucial knowledge of how to use the traction control system.

We caravanned down, avoiding the crepuscular grazing elk, until we were below snow level.  Crystal and Bill told us that Luna did not have a restaurant or hotel but that Alpine, Arizona a few miles down the road was popular with elk hunters and had some amenities.  We thanked them profusely and they drove off into the night. 

When we arrived in Alpine (population 145), we discovered that the charming Alpine Grill and Still was not only open but had a potbellied stove and a bluegrass band.  We asked the one and only waitress if there was a place to stay in town, and she said “Sure, the Sportsman’s Lodge is open in the winter and I’m sure they have a room.  Turn right at the corner.”

The Sportsman’s Lodge is the sort of motel you pass and wonder, “Who stays in those tiny motels?”  Elk hunters and stranded motorists, I guess.  Frank and Phyllis Barnes have been living in and running the motel for many years.  Frank told us that he and Phyllis first stayed at the Lodge one night when they were on a motorcycling trip and got caught in a violent rainstorm.  Years later when Frank was laid off from his job, they came back to vacation in Alpine, discovered that the Lodge’s owners were selling, and decided to buy it and move there.

After the dismal start to our evening, things just kept getting better.  We had a great meal and some beers at the Grill and Still (clearly not everyone is Mormon), enjoyed the band, and passed a warm and comfortable night at the Sportsman’s Lodge.

The next day we said goodbye to Frank and headed to Springerville for breakfast.  We enjoyed another day of high desert driving through some beautiful, empty country and made it to Meteor Crater in time for the afternoon tour.

An enormous meteor smacked into northern Arizona fifty thousand years ago and left a great big hole in the ground.  The crater has been privately owned by the Barringer family for over a hundred years.  For twenty-six years the family mined the crater hoping to find valuable minerals, but eventually scientists realized that meteors vaporize on impact.  Disappointing!

The Barringers gave up on the mining enterprise, built a visitor center, and started charging admission.  It’s an interesting place to visit if you find yourself near Winslow, Arizona.

We stopped in Kingman, Arizona to have dinner at a Chili’s.  We had intended to push on to Needles before stopping for the night, but the blue margaritas were just too tempting, so we had a couple and spent the night in the Kingman Holiday Inn.

Our final day of driving took us through the Mojave Desert.  We stopped in some ghost towns along old Route 66 and had a fun lunch at Peggy Sue's 50's Diner in Yermo.  Then through the Tehachapi pass and on up California to Silicon Valley.

And now I am back in California and Ellen has moved on to New York, where I hope she does not have to rely too heavily on the kindness of strangers.