A Scouting Life: Something Burning

April 27, 2010 | Sam Hutchins

We picked up Rte 431 south of Reno and headed towards Lake Tahoe. Usually by midday I had some clue as to where we were heading. This time it wasn’t about where we were going, it was about what we were leaving behind. Reno was full of bad vibes and we wanted nothing to do with it. The high point of our time there was our discovery of the National Bowling Stadium. Even that was better as idea than reality. Seeing the sign and considering the idea of such a place was amusing; seeing that it was just a giant tattered bowling alley was sad. None of us ever needed to set foot in that town again.

Living on the East Coast you don’t know mountains. The elevations in the West are wildly more dramatic. A series of sharp switchbacks carried us higher and higher. The truck seemed to strain as we climbed the sharp grades. Even though this was the only road from Reno to Tahoe it occurred to me that it must close in inclement weather. Sure enough, road signs confirmed this, as well as carrying warnings of rock slides and wildlife crossings. The West is still wild, in its own way.

Crossing through the pass and into California was like entering a different country. You leave behind a dusty, high plain desert and descend to a pristine blue lake. Reno is full of sad, gray gamblers and the ghosts of thousands of divorces. Tahoe is like Crested Butte or any number of small Colorado towns where everyone is young and active. Pickup trucks and dogs are mandatory and you are as likely to bump into a pal climbing a rock face as at the supermarket. I don’t think you could buy a used car without a ski or bike rack on it.

It became apparent that the truck was laboring pretty heavily. I could feel it in the steering wheel first. Then the burning smell started. It wasn’t overly troubling to me. Most likely we were just low on fluids. I hadn’t given a thought to checking the oil, power steering fluid, radiator levels or anything more than the gas tank. To be fair, it was a new rental with very few miles on it when we started. Also, I had so many other things to worry about. Still, I had dropped the ball on this one. Normally it would only be a matter of hitting an auto supply store and topping things off. The fact that we were currently in heavy traffic on a steep downgrade with no turnoffs to be seen made it a bit more worrisome. I didn’t think the brakes were the source of the traces of smoke but if they were we were screwed.

I’m by nature a calm guy, and am at my best in moments of stress. Panic serves no one’s best interests. My M.O. in a situation like that is to keep quiet about it first and foremost. The situation was tense enough without the added burden of passengers freaking out. You hold on and do your best to keep the wheel steady. Think about all the different ways things could break. Look for an exit strategy. Feel the adrenaline rush and use it for the positive. One’s body gets so torqued up in situations like this that it’s like doing great drugs. Perverse as it sounds, I was actually enjoying the tension.

Darius, being the intensely creative type, spent much of the trip oblivious to his surroundings. He was similar to Kar Wai in this respect, though not as extreme. Darius would not notice you had stopped to resupply. You would get off the highway, find a gas station, fill the tank, go inside to pay and buy a sack of drinks and snacks and he would not register it. Only when you were buckling up and pulling out would he tell you to stop so he could run in for a bottle of water. Kar Wai would wait til you were a half hour down the road before realizing you had stopped. Unfortunately Darius chose this moment to engage with reality.

“Sam, something is burning.”

“Yes, Darius, I smell that.”

“What is causing it?”

“I think it’s just the oil. We’ll be fine.”

He was on the verge of panic, and the distraction wasn’t helping me.

“We should pull over. You must take this seriously. It could be dangerous.”

We were driving down a steep decline with rock wall on our right and cliffs plunging down to the lake on our left.

“Tell you what, pal, if you see a safe place to pull over that I don’t, feel free to point it out, alright?”

Then of course his feelings were hurt. So now in addition to a rapidly failing truck on a dangerous road I was dealing with a sullen and scared passenger. Stephane and I had grown close like brothers, but also learned to torture each other as siblings do. He proceeded to tweak me.

“Darius is right, you should pull over.”

Thank God for Kar Wai, who just sat there grinning and screwing around with the iPod. At least we had good music going. Norah’s character was to end her journey at the Pacific Ocean; we couldn’t get there soon enough.

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