Dear Tom and Ray,
I've been meaning to write you a thank you note for, well, a very long time: almost 20 years to the day, actually. I've always been a slow writer, and that's part of my excuse. But the bigger and more legit part of the excuse in this case is this incident is so strange, it took me nearly two decades to realize that Car Talk very likely saved my friend and I, and her dog, from serious injury on our drive across America. So thank you, and let me explain:
This week in 1994, my friend and I set out in her '90 Volkswagon Golf on our first cross-country drive. I had graduated college and miraculously secured a job amid the mid-90s recession, a feat that I felt earned me one last hurrah. This took the form of the college grad's ultimate rite of passage: the cross-country journey.
With the car packed to the hilt for my friend's move to Oregon, but for a tiny bit of space in the backseat for her Siberian Husky, we took a rambling ride that lasted nearly three weeks through the south (yes, in July). Thelma and Louise had come out a few years earlier, but I hadn't seen it. I waited tables in a west side Manhattan jazz club most weekend nights, and since I was opposed to chick flicks on principle I opted for Barton Fink when movie night finally did roll around. I say this to say I had no idea what it meant to travel through the United States by car, from north to south to west, with just a map and some saved cash and a female friend who had a great eye for the weird roadside motel. I had no real idea of peril, or maybe I just felt impervious to it. I had no car savvy, and no sense of the highs and the lows that are bound to come one's way on a long drive. If I had, I probably wouldn't have gone.
But we went. We pitched tents and found cheap beds in Nashville, Memphis, Little Rock, the Texas panhandle (just because), Albuquerque, Flagstaff, and even Las Vegas before tiring of driving in a dirty car through brutal heat. Very suddenly, we were in a big hurry to get to California to good burritos and friends with futons.
According to the map, the snow capped Sierra Nevadas lay not too far away. In just 3.5 hours from our current location, we would be basking in the mountain side town of Mamouth Lake. Ahead of us, I determined, was midday drive through Death Valley National Park which, with a full tank of gas and a half bottle of water, seemed like a fine and totally doable idea. Previous days on our journey we drove for 5 or 6 hours without stopping, so 3.5 would be a cinch. If the landscape was boring, we would sing to the radio. If the radio reception stunk, we would bask in the silence. I had learned in the prior days that so much of travel is about accepting the good parts as well as the bad, the crappy sandwiches at truck stops, the amazing weirdo who gives you a hand carved giraffe. We had made it out of Vegas with only one incident involving an old woman with a shotgun. "Maybe we can actually spend some time in the desert, " I remember saying as we shot down the empty highway into the below-sea-level blue.
I'm sure you can guess at this point why our car overheated. We had been "changing" the oil pretty regularly (read: dumping in a quart here and there), but otherwise running the car pretty constantly without any high heat precautions. The record heat in Death Valley in July is 134 degrees. The temperature likely didn't get upwards of 120, but it was hot, and there was no shelter for our very crowded, hot, dead car to recover. I have a clear memory of my friend, who had driven most of the way at this point (I was a skittish stick shift driver), opening her window and bending her arm on the sill, too pissed to care that the sun was purpling her tan. You can see far ahead and behind you on this part of 190 -- it's a valley after all -- and as we sat baking we saw nothing.
At a certain point we got out and walked around. We gave the dog half of our remaining water, watching her lap at it out of a hot steel bowl. Then we got back in the car. In hope, my friend kept turning the ignition key. The lights would go on, the digital clock would flash 12:02, then 12:20, then 12:45, then 1:15. We didn't want to run out the battery, but being able to at least turn on some part of the car was important for our sanity, even if it wasn't the part that made it run. I felt responsible for this tactical error; I had been in charge of the map. Although my friend didn't say as much, I knew she held me responsible, too.
I turned on the radio and searched for a station in an act of sheer poseur-dom. I needed to do something redeeming, and tried to act unsurprised when a radio station actually came in. It was a public radio station, but the people talking didn't sound like your typical public radio types. They had Boston accents, and were talking about cars. Of course, the voices belonged to the two of you.
You were taking calls, and the gentleman on the line had asked a question about, of all things, overheated cars.
"What can you do?" he had asked. My friend and I didn't say anything for fear of jinxing the already ludicrous moment. She turned the volume up.
I don't remember your exact wording dear brothers, but it was something along the lines of, "You know, it's a funny thing. You wouldn't expect this to work, but if your battery is still alive, turn the heat on, and turn it on high. In a sense, you trick the car into thinking it's cold, and so it starts to cool down internally."
I'm certain your explanation was funnier and more technically sound than I remember, but I never forgot the gist of your answer because it totally worked. On that 120- degree July day, we turned on the heat. Full blast. We ran it for 20 minutes and even when the car turned over, we kept running it the whole drive out.
When we reached the snow capped Sierra Nevadas, we took the dog for a hike. I remember her dancing like crazy once her feet touched the snow. It was the very same dance I felt like doing when I heard your voices speak the answer we desperately needed, a wild dance of disbelief and elation.
Without you, we'd have been cooked, which would have been almost as bad as driving over the edge of the Grand Canyon. On behalf of myself, my friend, her dog, and all foolish drivers, I belatedly thank you.
P.S This experience has largely influenced my current research and The Extraordinary Project, an online collection of people's most meaningful coincidences. Thanks for that, too.