05 October 2010

Fingers Burned, Lessons Learned

My hands tell the story better than words ever could.

They ache, but it’s a good ache, the kind that comes from hard work and not some arthritic disease that makes the fingers twist and bend like old branches, all gnarled and knobby. No, sir; these hands worked this week, by God, and worked hard. There are nicks and scratches aplenty, on both hands and on both sides, all of them scabbed over by now, a couple still flaring slightly red, others healing nicely. The marks are evidence of the aforesaid work, whether it was outdoorsy-manly work such as sawing dead rhododendron trunks into firewood, or knuckle-busting under the hot hood of the Mazda wagon, or just moving branches away from the trail while Jean and I were hiking.

Looking at the backs of both hands, they’re tan, the veins with their bluish tinge standing out in relief against the brown and red skin. There’s black there, too; despite hours of intense scrubbing, what seems like a day’s worth of OPEC production is embedded in my cuticles and under every single fingernail. When I turn my hands over, it’s no better; the blackness is sunk deep into the swirls and whorls of my fingertips, making it look like a bailiff should be handing me a towel before he leads me off for a mug shot. Add the patches of super glue decorating various fingernails, and it may be weeks before I rid myself of this grunge. Last but not least, the remains of three thin blisters cross the pads of my thumb, forefinger and the middle finger of my right hand, the result of grabbing a pot handle from the camp stove. I think the middle finger might have a permanent scar.

When I look at my hands, I can see an encapsulated version of my vacation, the good, the bad, and the ugly. To be honest, it may well have been my best vacation ever. In any case, it was one hell of a good time.

On the Monday following Labor Day, Jean and I took off for the hills of Transylvania County, North Carolina, for a week of car camping at Cascade Lake. The drive was uneventful yet pleasant, with Americana and Bluegrass playlists from the iPod scoring the trip. We sang along with Lucinda, Loretta, Emmylou and Steve Earle as we drove, stopped every couple of hours for some light yoga stretches or a sandwich, and by twilight we were established at camp with tilapia kabobs sizzling on the campfire.

The next day began our vacation proper. We filled our days that week with all kinds of outdoor activities: Floating down the Davidson River on innertubes, hiking mountain trails along the Blue Ridge Parkway, visiting waterfalls and taking photographs. We drove along twisting mountain roads just to enjoy the scenery. And the nights! They were wonderful: Cooking over a campfire, playing music (Jean on guitar, myself on the washtub bass) to an audience of crickets and owls, gazing at the canopy of the Carolina night sky filled to bursting with stars, and cozying up together in our double sleeping bag in the tent. Life, as they say, was good.

And then came Friday.

We slept in that morning, packed leisurely, and finally got on the road toward home sometime around noon. We stopped for a soda and a snack on the outskirts of Brevard, just before we started into the twisty-road mountain proper, and I said something then that would cause Jean to tell me later, “You know, you really should listen to your instincts.”

What I said was this: “Maybe we should just go back the way we came.”

We didn’t.

U.S. Highway 64 wends it way through the mountains of western North Carolina, twisting this way and that before eventually making its way to Chattanooga. It is a beautiful passage through national forest land, and I wanted to drive the winding mountain roads, see the vistas around the crest of every ridge, and enjoy the scenery along our way home. And we did, for the most part.

Except for one thing: The car started acting up somewhat once we got into the mountains. Nothing major, just some engine hesitation which we thought was due to a temporary repair to an air intake. But the farther we drove, the worse the problem became, and the demanding terrain did not help the situation. I finally pulled over in the small town of Cashiers, where I got to work under the hood. Fifteen minutes later we were back on the road, and it seemed like I might have made things better for a little while. But it wasn’t long before the car was herking and jerking again, so I made another stop in Ducktown, Tennessee, with the intention of making a proper repair before we began the last leg home.

So I got to work. When I removed the air intake, intending to fix it, I failed to notice that three water lines were connected beneath it. Removing the air intake caused me to break a small t-shaped plastic valve. Take it from me: Under the hood at a convenience store in the mountains of east Tennessee on a hot afternoon in late summer is the last place you want to hear a loud popping noise followed by hissing and the smell of antifreeze.

I quickly made a brief review of the situation: It is late on Friday afternoon in bumpus Tennessee; there is no Mazda dealer within at least a hundred miles, and probably not even a wrecker service in town; and Jean is on the verge of either tears or cussing me like a road dog. I cannot accurately convey the emotion I felt at that moment of realization. I might have looked like Ralphie in “A Christmas Story” when he dropped the lug nuts into the snow, or perhaps Napoleon on the first day of winter in Russia, or even the Huns on running into the Great Wall of China for the first time. Sort of an “oh-shit-what-now-what-did-I-do-dear-god-what-next-we’re-screwed” look.

Of course, I couldn’t let that happen. With a set jaw and a mind full of determination, I went into the convenience store and returned minutes later with a screwdriver with interchangeable heads, one tube of super glue, a roll of hose wrap, and a gallon of coolant. Twenty sweat-and-grease-stained minutes later, we were back on the road and headed for Atlanta.

For, oh, just about an hour.

To be honest, I thought things were looking pretty good. We were back on four-lane roads and I was babying the car, driving the speed limit and trying not to do anything taxing to the engine or the cooling system. After about 45 minutes, I finally began to relax just the tiniest bit, thinking that we might actually make it home, when I both: a) noticed the temperature gauge swing violently to the hot end of the scale; and b) heard Jean say in my ear, “Oh no… there it goes.”

I pulled over to the side of the road and popped the hood, greeted by a puff of steam. I tried to make the same repair I’d made an hour before, but to no avail. I spent thirty minutes sweating and cussing over the engine before I finally decided to throw in the towel and call a tow truck.

By now it was dark, and a sense of panic was descending on Jean, and with good reason. Our trip home took place on Friday because Jean was scheduled to teach a new kid’s yoga class on Saturday morning in Homewood. Here, sitting in our car in the dark on the side of the road in north Georgia, it began to look like we wouldn’t make it. It was a quiet wait for the two of us.

After about 30 minutes, our tow truck showed up and Jeremy, the driver, had the car on the back of the flatbed in no time. Jean and I piled into the front of the truck with Jeremy and began reviewing our options. Our first choice was to replace the part and get back on the road, so we asked Jeremy to drive us to an AutoZone, which he did. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the part. Neither did O’Reilly’s. Or Advance, the last auto parts store in Jasper, Georgia which stayed open ten minutes late to see if they could help us out.

We brainstormed for a minute, and got the idea that a U-Haul might be in order. If we could get a truck and a tow dolly, we could lug the station wagon home. I know it is hard to understand, but can you believe that there are no U-Haul locations open at 10 o’clock on a Friday night in Jasper, Georgia?

It looked bad. Real bad. So I did what any man would do in such a spot: I called my mom.

As it turned out, we were not far from my Aunt Betty, whom my mom called for us (I know, I’m a bad nephew. I didn’t have her number in my cell phone. I do now). After several back-and-forth calls from the cab of the tow truck, we worked it out so that Betty would pick us up at seven in the morning, then let us use her car for the day. It looked like we might have an answer.

Jeremy dropped us off in the town of Canton, where he deposited us at a Microtel for the night and we tried to get some sleep. I didn’t sleep much, for I couldn’t help worrying about what would happen on Saturday morning.

Turns out I shouldn’t have worried so much. Betty arrived as scheduled, and after we dropped her off at her place in Woodstock (about a 20-minute drive) we were soon on the interstate and headed for Birmingham.

We got home that morning about 10:30, giving Jean just about an hour to shower and leave for class. I also had important work to do. I immediately set about finding the part I needed, locating one at the local Mazda dealership. After a quick bite to eat, I was back on the road to Canton, listening to football and old country music on the radio. It was an uneventful drive, and following a stop at a Wal-Mart for a couple of tools, I was back under the hood of the station wagon in the parking lot of the Microtel.

I was being a good deal more mindful this time while I was working on the car; the thought that I might break the new part I’d just purchased haunted me. I was doing well, however, when I got stuck. A bolt was holding the battery platform in place, keeping me from getting to what I needed to get to, and I didn’t have a socket wrench with which to remove it.

I was just about to walk back across the enormous parking lot to Wal-Mart again, when a man walked out of the hotel exit towards the car.

“I don’t mean to be nosy,” he said, “but could you use some help?”

I looked the man over. I saw “Deliverance”; normally, I’m wary of strangers in small mountain towns. He was burly, with a white bandana on his head, and worn jeans. He looked like a biker; as it turned out, he was a biker. But at that point, with sweat running from every pore and my frustration near the boiling point, I didn’t care.

We swapped introductions; he told me his name was Mike, he was from Texas, and he and his wife were here for a bike rally. I explained my situation, and he motioned for me to follow him over to his bike, where he unlocked a trailer and pulled out a box of tools.

“I don’t know if what you need is in there,” he said, “but you’re welcome to use them.” His wife had come out of the hotel by this point, walking to her own bike parked next to Mike’s. “He’s having car trouble,” he told her as he motioned towards me, then he turned back to me.

“We’re heading out for dinner,” he said. “Can I trust you?”

I nodded dumbly.

“All right then,” he said, and mounted his bike. He called out “good luck!”, and with a rumble, he and his wife were gone.

Turns out there was a socket set in the toolbox, and I was able to quickly get the new valve in place. Once I got some new coolant poured into the system, I tentatively cranked the car and crossed my fingers.

It worked. And it didn’t leak. I literally let out a holler.

I wrote a quick note of thanks to Mike and placed it in his toolbox, which I left for him at the front desk of the Microtel. Then I drove my car back to my aunt’s, turned back around for her to return me to Canton and the station wagon, and finally headed home around six o’clock.

The drive home was tense; I was constantly worried that my repairs would not hold, and I could not get the Auburn – Clemson game on the radio until I was almost back to Oxford. But I persevered and got home just in time to see fourth quarter of the game, and Jean had a cold beer and dinner waiting for me. Not the perfect end to a week of vacation, but definitely a good one.

So what did I take away from all of this? Here are five things:

1) The sense of place has power

At the beginning of our trip, when we left Interstate 20 just outside Greenville, South Carolina on Monday and turned onto highway 25 four the drive into North Carolina, I began grinning like a four-year-old on Christmas morning at the first glimpse of the mountains to the north of us. My grin wasn’t caused only by the knowledge that we would soon be reaching our vacation destination after a long day of driving (which made me quite happy indeed), but also because it almost felt to me like going home after a long visit to a foreign land.

It could be my fondness for rolling green mountains; perhaps it is the little bit of Cherokee blood in me that recognizes these hills and hollows as home; or it could be something else entirely. Whatever the reason (and I don’t think the reason is as important as the feeling), I absolutely love the mountains of western North Carolina. Being there feels right to me. It’s odd, somehow. I’ve never lived in the area, and my family doesn’t come from there (with the exception of my grandparents who lived in northwestern Georgia, but that area is not quite the same), and unless you count infrequent visits to the region for camping trips, I’ve not spent much time in the Blue Ridge. But the place is powerful to me. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to find myself living there within the next decade.

2) Sometimes you just have to unplug

One of the major reasons I enjoy camping is the ability to truly get away from it all. For a full work week, I didn’t touch a computer, I was out of cell phone range unless we drove into Brevard for groceries or on our way somewhere else, and I didn’t even think about turning on a television.

It was wonderful.

I’m no luddite; I like having the internet and cable and constant access to information. It’s necessary in today’s society. But for a week, I didn’t worry about updating my facebook status or checking on a gazillion tweets or any of the other electronic distractions that normally fill my days.

As a result, I’ve returned recharged (as it were) with a re-discovered creative energy and determination that I’ve been missing for months now. It feels great. Getting away from it all made me realize how to better use the tools at my disposal.

3) Teddy Roosevelt was the man

Thank goodness for the foresight Teddy Roosevelt had in creating national parks and national forests. We spent hours in Pisgah National Forest and on the Blue Ridge Parkway, enjoying the pristine beauty of the area.

However, not far from where we camped, there was a mining operation on a small mountain. Where the surrounding mountains were green and beautiful, this one was scarred and ugly. I had to think that if it had not been for President Roosevelt, so much more of the area would look like that mining operation. So I am grateful for his foresight in protecting the natural wonders of our country. I believe that if the stewardship of the land had been left to private hands, the hills would be stripped bare in the name of commerce. As it is, our government has protected these lands for the enjoyment of all Americans and for the preservation of true natural wonders. Thanks, Teddy. A grateful nation enjoys your legacy.

4) Mindfulness doesn’t stay at home

While our vacation was in whole an absolutely wonderful experience, I could have made things even better had I been more mindful at times. For one, I wouldn’t have blisters on three of my fingers from grabbing a hot pot handle off the camp stove. For another, we might have avoided the car trouble that led to our misadventures on the way home.

Peace and relaxation are delightful, but you’ve got to keep being mindful about what you do. Otherwise, you end up with burned fingers and a hefty towing bill. Trust me on this one.

5) There are still good people in the world

When we were having our car troubles at the end of the trip, I learned that not everyone in the world is selfish and out for themselves. Jeremy, the tow truck driver, went above and beyond the call of duty in helping us search for a part for the car and a place to stay for the night. Mike the biker showed more faith in a stranger than many people have in their own families, trusting me enough so that he went on his merry way with nothing more than my word and a handshake that I wouldn’t steal his tools. And of course, there was my Aunt Betty who let us use her car while I worked on getting our vehicle back together. With so much animosity in the world today, it’s nice to see human beings actually acting human.

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