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Baker, California, Repairs

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

I bought this motorhome in 1987. As the years and the miles piled up, I knew this day was getting closer. Now that it’s come and gone — and hopefully it won’t come again — it wasn’t all that bad. It just goes to prove one more time: Anxiety is always worse than the worst reality. Leaving the Mojave Desert town of Baker this morning, I felt the steering wheel pulling to the left. I stopped to see if the left front tire was going flat. The tire was fine. So without checking further, I took the on ramp, committing myself to Interstate 15, the populous stretch between Los Angeles, California, and Las Vegas, Nevada. I wasn’t more than a mile down the interstate when I could smell something burning. I pulled on to the shoulder and got out to see smoke swirling around the inside of the left front wheel.

Oh, to still be in Baker. An emergency call box was right there, which turned out to be useless because no one answered the phone — hardly reassuring. My cell phone worked, and the lady at the emergency road service answered my call immediately. A few minutes later a helpful guy called back to say that he had called Goodman’s Garage in Baker; they were expecting me. And the flatbed truck would be here in 30 minutes, which it was. But those were long minutes. Each passing truck dragged a whirlwind behind it that rocked the motorhome, emphasizing the fact that they were ominously close. Rusty knew something was wrong; her eyes never left me. This is what I have dreaded — I guess we all do — a breakdown on the road. I knew that my problem could be much worse, but it was the unsettling feeling of being helplessly stranded on this raceway to Vegas.

Rather than let my imagination run wild, I got out a can of wax and concentrated on polishing countertops. It is amazing how good the smile of a tow-truck driver can look. Winching my 35-foot motorhome onto the flatbed was as fast and looked easier than hooking up a Mazda to a tow truck. In fact, they don’t use conventional tow trucks around here anymore. Towing vehicles off the interstate is big business in Baker, especially in the summer, when the temperatures reach more than 100 degrees F. Flatbeds are used for everything, the driver told me. The ride into Baker on the back of that truck — as if I were a load of gravel — was interesting, but not enough so that I recommend it.

Running a one-man shop, Bruce Goodman has a monopoly on the vehicle-repair business in Baker — more significantly, a
good stretch of I-15 between Barstow and Las Vegas. Bruce pulled off my wheel immediately. The problem was the caliper. It was not releasing the brake pads as it should. It would be an easy fix with a new caliper. The closest one, however, was 60 miles away in Barstow. His wife, Leslie, would get it, but that would be tomorrow, immediately after their kids left for school. Fine! I was in no hurry, and my life was again on track. I parked my motorhome under the canopy that once sheltered gas pumps, and Bruce plugged the coach into an electric outlet. I set up the satellite dish, made lunch, and Rusty and I settled in to hang out for 24 hours.

What I was to witness for the rest of my stay in Baker, however, was clearly depressing — real-world dramas of life on the road, after the mechanic explains that the repair will probably cost more than the car is worth. Bruce likes to talk, so
Rusty and I followed him around to listen. “We love it here, love the desert. We get the kids in the fifth-wheel whenever we can, and out we go.” But this desert town is not on everyone’s list of favorite places. “All I hear, 8 to 5, is ‘just get me out of Baker.’ This is definitely not where Vegas-bound motorists want to be.” Bruce turned toward a line of dusty cars parked against his chain-link fence. “Those are abandoned. The owners just walk away. Oh, they say they’ll get some money, like tomorrow, and come back and get them.

I think they mean it, but I know they won’t. They won’t, because they can’t. The cars are junk anyway.” Just as Bruce was closing for the day, a sad-looking Nissan was trucked in off the interstate with a broken timing chain. The owner and his son went to a motel for the night after Bruce determined that when the timing mechanism went, it took the engine with it. It was obvious the car was not worth fixing. “They live in Vegas. Tomorrow they’ll take the car back there,” he predicted. “But they talked about renting a car,” I said.

“Well, there are none to rent here. They’ll discover that soon enough … they all do.” Bruce was right. The next day the Nissan was loaded on a truck with an auto club sign on the door. The man and his son climbed in with the driver and they headed off to Las Vegas, 92 miles away. “What you just saw is what we call the Triple-A ticket to Vegas,” Bruce said laughing. “He’s got the extended tow policy that covers 100 miles free towing. That car with a dead engine is worth something after all — a free ride home.”

Bill’s e-mail address: [email protected].

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