We shouldn’t have tried to drive to Greensboro last night, but it was only snowing lightly in Carrboro, NC, and getting a jump start on the next day’s drive is always nice when you can swing it. But we weren’t too far down the road when the snow started coming down pretty hard. People at the club had said that everyone over-reacts to snow in North Carolina, and that we should probably be OK. We hadn’t planned to go too far, but we soon found ourselves driving blind in the middle of a blizzard. The only way we could tell where we were in the lane was by watching the mailboxes to the right.
I had dozed off in the back of the van. I woke up suddenly when we hit some ice, swerved violently, slid for a while, spun out and finally spun off the road. Time slowed down, as it does in such situations. And as so often in such situations, I was surprised to discover myself contemplating the prospect that these could be my final moments with an oddly acquiescent detachment. So this is how it ends, is it? How interesting.
This easily could have turned into one of those “they all died in a tragic van crash” stories. We could have flipped over. We could have hit something. We could have been hit. In the end, however, the van barreled up an upgrade, almost crashing into a parked, snow-covered car. We just missed it. Then we rolled back into a deep ditch.
We weren’t dead, but we were stuck.
The back end of the van was buried in a snow drift. The snow was coming down harder than ever. We tried everything we could think of, but there was no traction and we couldn’t move. None of our roadside assistance plans would send anyone out. They called 911 for us, and said the highway patrol would be there in “eight hours or less.”
While we were wracking our brains trying to think if there was any trick we hadn’t tried yet, a big, souped-up 4x4 pickup pulled up on the road behind us. The guy stepped out and gestured at our van with his half-empty bottle of Bud Light.
“Looks like you boys are in some trouble. I got a line, and I could pull you right out there, no problem.”
We looked at him dubiously. It seemed unlikely. Our van is really big and really, really heavy when loaded up, and it was stuck between two steep slopes.
“What I’m asking is,” he continued, “how much is it worth to you?”
We didn’t know what to say, and just stared at him dumbly through the near-opaque curtain of falling snow. He ran a finger down his mustache, first on the left side, then on the right.
“I couldn’t do it,” he said carefully, “for less than…” He paused and eyed us challengingly. “…fifty bucks.”
Hah. That wasn’t what I’d expected him to say. I had been anticipating something along the lines of “how much you got?”
We didn’t have any other options. “Dude, if you can pull us out for fifty dollars, you’ve got a deal.”
We heard a loud “hooie!” sound, and another guy stumbled from the truck, Coors Light in hand.
“Don’t worry, boys. We’ll pull that sumbitch out there right quick.”
What followed was pretty hilarious if you took the right attitude. (Which isn’t easy when you’re standing in a blizzard freezing in your Converse All-Stars at 1 am in the middle of nowhere, but still…)
The sumbitch, as we had surmised, wasn’t going to budge easily. And our fate was in the hands of two enterprising, drunken yokels who seemed inordinately excited to be offered $50 for rolling around in the snow and mud, tripping all over each other and slipping and sliding every which way in an elaborate Petticoat Junction slapstick routine. And that was just when they were trying to attach the hook and line to their own truck. It didn’t look too promising.
In fact, the first attempt to tow the van up the hill was worse than a failure. Bud Light’s pickup ended up getting stuck too, wheels spinning, right alongside our van. From within, we heard Bud Light’s voice saying over and over: “God dammit! God dammit!” Coors Light stood by laughing like a maniac. We tried pushing the truck from behind while he gunned it. (I considered asking the guy how much that was worth to him, but thought better of the idea.) No luck. Now we were both stuck.
The silence of the night was broken only by a regular cry of “God dammit!” Like the call of a distant, anguished bird. God dammit! God dammit!
Another truck pulled up, and yet another guy stumbled out, beer in hand. He called out to Bud Light, one drunken good samaritan to another:
“You need me to pull you out? I got a line, I can pull that sumbitch right outta there…”
At this rate, we were going to end up with several sumbitches stuck in the same ditch side by side, everybody owing each other fifty bucks.
Eventually, though, after about thirty minutes of spinning and pushing and rocking, he managed to get his sumbitch out of the ditch.
At this point it was plainly no longer about the $50. Bud Light was proud of his truck and he just wanted to prove he could do it. Plan B was to try to pull it out from behind. Again, it seemed unlikely. It looked like all that would happen was that the back end of the van would get pulled deeper into the snow drift. Coors Light wasn’t too worried about that, though. He rolled in the mud and snow underneath the van’s back end, trying to attach the hook and line to the body of the van, as he couldn’t reach the axle, squirming and grunting, pausing only to utter the obligatory “God dammit” at regular intervals. The whole apparatus slipped off around 10 times. He tripped and rolled down the slope himself a few times. At one point, Bud Light came within inches of backing up over Coors Light’s whoopin’, guffawing, snow- and mud-covered head. God dammit!
To everyone’s amazement, though, eventually it worked. Bud Light’s pickup groaned and stuttered and finally pulled that sumbitch right back on to the road, just as promised. After a brief, exuberant hollering session, they agreed to guide us back to the main road. We followed, going slow, and eventually ended up in the parking lot of a little roadside bar. Roadhouse 54. 5.4 miles from the highway, they said.
“You boys look like you could use a beer.”
Well, maybe so, but what we really wanted was information about where we could find the nearest motel we could reach by a relatively non-treacherous road. “Come on in, we’ll talk about it.” Hmm. With some trepidation we followed Coors Light and Bud Light into the bar. The locals gave us a rundown of the local motels, ranked by the number of bugs we were likely to encounter in each of them. (The word “bugs” was always illustrated by a firm slap on the bar, followed by a scraping of the palm on the edge: the universal sign of squashing bugs with your bare hands.) We paid Bud Light his well-earned $50. We had had our suspicions about him, but he turned out to be a pretty good guy, and we were lucky he came along. If it hadn’t been for him, we might still have been there, trying to dig the sumbitch out. An older, wild eyed guy at the bar was talking to us pleasantly, though I couldn’t make out a word he said. It sounded like he was making jokes and laughing at them. We tried to look neutral, but mildly amused here and there, hoping it would all match up. We must have hit it pretty close, because he stayed happy, all smiles. He finally left with a sixpack to go, just like in the song.
All the people at the bar were very friendly, though it was kind of a weird scene. Good, old, kind of crazy southern hospitality, I guess. As we were leaving, I glanced up at an enlarged xerox copy of a crudely-drawn cartoon that had been posted on the bulletin board. “Did you hear about the Chinese couple that had the black baby? They named him SUM THIN WONG.” I couldn’t help wondering which of these nice folks had found it charming enough to think it would be neat idea to post it publicly so that everyone could enjoy it. Culture clash. Weirdness. A land of many contrasts. Nice people with their vaguely disturbing cartoons. I don’t get it, not really, but then, I’m from California. It’s a different world.
We bade farewell to Bud Light, Coors Light and the entire Roadhouse 54 gang. The bar girl called out: “I surely do hope we meet again under more favorable circumstances.” Right back at ya, babe. And I even almost kind of meant it, too, somehow.
The surreal epilogue: as we were stumbling toward the van at 3 am, still a bit dazed and overwhelmed by the experience, not quite having our bearings yet, my phone rang. It was a phone interview that had been set up earlier, with a commercial radio station in Houston on a red-eye show. I had forgotten all about it in the excitement. The DJ was a really nice guy, eager to help us promote our show at Fitzgerald’s. I did the interview in a daze. I hardly remember what I said. He played several songs, including, to my surprise, “Tomorrow is a Harsh Mistress.” I stood there in the falling snow, hearing the bridge blasting from my cell phone’s tiny speaker. “With each passing day, a world destroyed…” Boy, oh boy.
And so we survived North Carolina and our own foolhardiness to live long enough to play another little show at another little club in another little place in the middle of another great big nowhere. Myrtle Beach, SC, that is. Chances are, it won’t be that great of a show. (And it wasn’t — ed.) But I don’t care. I’m just glad to be alive. (Yeah, it sounds weird to hear myself say it, too.) As for the van, we’re going to be a bit more careful with that sumbitch in the future, I can tell you that.