Today, August 7th, was a trial run for the road trip I have planned. It started off well enough, as I got everything packed into my car and started my journey to the Sequoias around 9:30 a.m. Traffic on the 57 and 210 Freeways slowed me down, but I was having a great time. I had an audiobook to keep me company, food to snack on, and an open road before me. I transitioned to the I-5 Freeway, and got over a few hills – then my check engine light went on. When I noticed the light, I pulled off at the closest exit, which turned out to be in Santa Clarita. My clock read 11:05 a.m. Only an hour and a half on the road. I turned the engine off, then turned it back on to see if the light would go away.
It didn’t. The light stayed on and the engine barely started, while the engine’s heat gauge suddenly spiked up. I popped the hood and got out of the car to check on the engine. When I saw the green liquid that had spilled on the ground, I knew immediately what was wrong. I must have run over an alien who had been using an invisibility shield, and its acidic blood had eaten through to my engine. Whew, it’s a good thing I was blessed with such excellent deductive skills.
Despite my excitement over the possibility of an alien encounter, I soon realized that the car was simply leaking engine coolant. I started the engine again to see if it would run now after having cooled off for several minutes. It was a little better this time, and the radiator gauge had fallen slightly. The check engine light was still on though, so I was stranded for the moment.
Now for the phone calls. Will Dad’s answer his work phone? Ring… nope. His cell phone? Ring… Nope. Is Mom at home? Ring… and she answered. My call interrupted her talk with a friend, but I made it brief – just telling her where I was, what had happened, and that I was going to call AAA.
But then I sat around for awhile, not wanting to call AAA. This trial run had sounded so fun, it couldn’t just end right now. If I called a tow truck, I’d have to go all the way back to our mechanic in Brea and then my trip would be over. Boring.
After pondering my dire situation with a suitably anguished heart, I tried to reach Dad again. This time he was there. We tried to figure out what the problem was, and I called our mechanic to see if he could help. No luck, I would just have to get it towed. Ten phone calls and thirty minutes later, I was sitting in a parking lot with my car. I had talked to Dad, our mechanic, AAA, and Mom. In the end, I got to the parking lot by moving my car, which had cooled down sufficiently, and was waiting for AAA to come. I still harbored the hope that I could get my car fixed and continue to the Sequoias.
When the truck arrived, a little after noon, the driver got my car hooked up with only a little difficulty. The driver was polite, and I liked getting to talk to him. His name is Pete. Pete drove us to the nearest auto repair shop, so I could get the problem diagnosed and see if it was anything serious. The attendant told me very nicely that they wouldn’t be able to check on my car until tomorrow. Not exactly what I was hoping for.
I rushed back outside, hoping that Pete had not unhooked my car yet. He had not. I told him that I didn’t want to wait a whole day to get my car checked out, and asked if he happened to have an error code reader – the simple device mechanics use to read what problem the engine has reported – so that I wouldn’t have to go all the way back to Brea. He did not have one, but he offered to take me to the central AAA hub for Santa Clarita, where the mechanic could probably help me pretty quickly.
On our drive, I kept talking to Pete and found out that he’s only been towing cars for a few months. Before that, he drove big rigs for twelve years. He went through a driving program right out of high school to gain the qualifications he needed, and after the usual tautology of beginning employment problems (need the experience to get a job, need a job to get experience) was able to keep steadily employed. He said that driving trucks pays better than towing, but he wanted to change jobs so that he could stay in one place and spend time with his wife and three children.
We arrived at the AAA hub, and the quick diagnosis ended up being rather slow. It was certainly better than waiting a day though. I waited from 1:30 p.m. until about 3:30 p.m. for the mechanic to figure out what was wrong. While I waited, I had a wonderful educational experience. I got to learn about the inner workings of AAA (don’t tell anyone what I’m about to tell you, or I’ll be convicted of espionage), and I got to learn about the Middle East from someone who grew there.
First, I found out that the place I was at (Lyon’s Towing) gets extremely busy in the afternoon. I sat in the office, and in the room next door was the “dispatch” station. It sounded just like a superhero movie. The dispatcher got direct calls from clients and assigned clients on a computer system from AAA headquarters. The dispatcher had to keep track of all these clients, assign them to one of the eight drivers who were on the clock, and call the driver to verbally confirm the “target.” Sometimes the drivers would call in and ask for specific directions when a place was hard to find. “Turn left at the light. Right at the next light. Your pickup is in the shopping center ahead of you. Wow, watch out for the machine guns! Spider-man and Iron man are cutting off their escape. Fly out of the sun at them! ” Well that’s how I heard the conversations. Maybe my imagination ran a little past the facts.
I found out that Lyon’s Towing works as an independent contractor with AAA, which didn’t enlighten me too much since I was foggy about how independent contracting works in this industry. I learned that they take care of all business with the client/member – battery service, towing, and sometimes repairs – then send the charge tickets to AAA. So basically they do all the work, and AAA sits around making sure that they maintain high standards of customer service. Their performance is measured by surveys that are sent out randomly to a small percentage of the members that they help. These surveys are essential to them – they mean the difference between survival as a contractor, and getting completely cut out of the system. The survey asks three questions, with one point possible for each question – and thus a perfect score of 3 points. If a member marks anything less than “Totally Satisfied,” they get zero points for that question. Lyon’s towing keeps their average score around 2.72. If it falls below 2.7, they get a severe warning from their regional manager who is suddenly grumpy over losing his pay bonus for the month.
I learned most of this from talking to the manager of the shop. His name is Sam. In addition to talking about business, we also talked about religion and his own life. We started off by talking about my college plans, and he ended up telling me about his experience with college.
Sam grew up in Iran. He watched the Muslim revolution that took down the King of Iran when Sam was 13 and saw them shut down all the universities in the country. He turned 18 at the perfect time, right when the schools were reopened. His entire university class had only 128 students, 20 of whom were girls. The girls and boys sat in separate sections during class and could be suspended if they were seen talking to each other – inside or outside of class. Sam graduated with a degree in chemical engineering, then completed his master’s degree also. He got married, then immigrated to Canada to pursue a Ph.D. program. His plans were interrupted when he went on an emergency visit to his brother in California, who was running a successful towing shop but was experiencing health problems.
His brother ended up in the hospital before Sam arrived, with only two weeks left to live. Sam had planned on making this a short visit and a quick return to Canada, but during the visit, his brother begged him to take over Lyon’s Towing instead. After thinking it over, Sam agreed and set his whole mind to the task of learning how to run an auto shop. He left behind Canada, his Ph.D., and his pursuit of a career in engineering. Now, about twenty-eight years later, he told me that he is happy with his decision. He is married and has an adult son.
I mentioned that I am planning to go to a Christian college, and that got us started talking about faith. Though he came from Iran, Sam is not a Muslim. He believes that there is a God who has designed the world we live in, that we should all treat each other fairly, and that all religious scriptures are wonderful sources of wisdom. But he saw evil in the Muslims who took over the government in Iran and suppressed education, freedom, and opportunity. He does not have a problem with organized religion in general as long as it does not attempt to rule a nation, but he has no personal use for it.
And that was how I spent my time while I waited for the mechanic. I found my second interviewee. When at last the diagnosis was made, I learned that the engine was fine. The only problem was my cooling system. In some way which I don’t understand, the fan and air conditioner that cool the cab off are also connected to the radiator. And in my car, the fans were sending little bubbles of air into the radiator instead of sending them into the cab. That’s what the smart people said. So theoretically, the car was safe to drive, the problem would just have to be taken care of soon.
That was the only permission I needed. I drove around town for a few minutes to ensure that the car was not going to overheat again and then decided to continue my journey. I called Mom and Dad to let them know that I would keep going, then I stopped at Starbucks for a shot of happiness. I ended up paying for one cup of unsweetened iced coffee, and receiving that, along with a free cup of sweetened iced coffee which the barista had made on accident. Sweet! I also got a cup of ice and used that to chill some pure cherry juice and mineral water that I had in my car.
Now armed with enough fluids to… well, *cough. Now resupplied for my journey, I started off again. I drove from 4 p.m. till 8:30 p.m., stopping several times to give the engine a break. Most of the time, I listened to my audiobook – Our Oriental Heritage, book one of the Story of History series, by Will Durant. I’d already gotten past the introduction of the book and its discussion of pre-civilized cultures, so today I listened to the sections on Sumeria, Egypt, and Babylon. I took a few breaks to listen to music when I got tired of hearing about people that lived and died five thousand years ago.
At 6:30 p.m., I pulled off the road to give my engine a break and talk to my family. Past that break, I started going uphill. For awhile my car did well, and I was thrilled that I would actually make it to the campsite for the evening. Then the radiator gauge started rising again, and I pulled off to wait it out. I waited five minutes, then drove for a minute. The gauge rose again, so I decided it would be safest to give the engine a break. 280 miles on a hot day is a lot more work than I usually put it through. Hopefully in the cool of the morning, after it gets to rest for the night, it will feel better and be willing to take me home.
So I found a nice little pullout on the side of highway 180 and spent my evening in bliss. It must have been around 9 pm when I finally settled into my spot and started enjoying the night. I took out the physical copy of Our Oriental Heritage and went back over what I had listened to, highlighting the things that had stuck out to me, and thinking grand thoughts about civilization, people, and adventures.
As the sun disappeared and I started thinking about my situation, I will admit I was a little creeped out. I was stuck on the side of the road, after dark, surrounded by a strange forest. With no cell reception. With coyotes searching the spooky forest for an easy meal, bears lurking behind every tree ready to smash through the thin sheet metal of my car to grab me, and vampires just waiting for the last shaft of sunlight to disappear so that they can drink my blood!
Okay, I was actually about a hundred yards from a farmhouse, surrounded by tame cattle that were safely fenced inside their owner’s property, with cars driving by every two minutes. But it was still a little creepy.
At the present moment, in case you couldn’t figure it out, I am journaling. This has been a crazy day. It’s fun to look back over it and to think about the people I met and the stories I heard. I am still super excited for my trip, even though this day didn’t go exactly – or at all – as planned. It still turned out to be an amazing day, and that’s exactly what I was hoping for.