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    On the Road
    by Jack Kerouac
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    Blue Highways: A Journey into America
    by William Least Heat-Moon

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Blue Highways: Cavalier, North Dakota

Unfolding the Map

Engine malfunctions and car repairs in Cavalier, North Dakota.  How LHM has made it 9000 miles without a major engine mishap in an old van with a leaky water pump is pretty amazing.  His luck with engines runs out here, but luckily, the fixes aren't too bad.  If you want to know where to find an honest mechanic in North Dakota, nurse your engine over to the map.

Book Quote

"...I started back to the highway when the smell of gasoline stopped me.  I lifted the hood.  The fuel line below the gas filter had split and was arcing a fine jet of no-lead into the sunlight....

"I made for Cavalier, the nearest town.  Had I not gone to Backoo, the line would have ruptured in Cavalier instead of miles up the road.  So logic would dictate.  The fact is, engine malfunctions happen only in places like Backoo, North Dakota.  Axiom of the blue road....

"At Cavalier I pulled into the first garage I saw, and a teenaged boy with the belly of a man came out and stared.  People don't just throw words around in the North.  I lifted the hood to show him the line.  I didn't speak either.

"'Sumbitch's likely to catch fire!' he said."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 9

Downtown Cavalier, North Dakota. Photo at "afiler's" photostream in Flickr. Click on photo to go host page.

Cavalier, North Dakota

I wondered when it might happen.  LHM complained about a knocking water pump even as he pulled out of Columbia, Missouri so many stops and posts ago.  He seemed to be magically gifted, despite all the miles he put on, with very few mechanical problems in old Ghost Dancing.  But you have to love his axiom of the road..."engine malfunctions happen only in places like Backoo, North Dakota."

I also have been blessed with very few problems like this in my driving history.   Of course, like everyone I've had my share of flats to fix, batteries that have worn down, alternators that have died and starters that went bad.  I've had an occasional radiator problem, and once, when I was a teenager, I think an axle broke while I was driving my mom's car and went over a very hard bump.  But these incidents all occurred in populated areas where I could easily get to repair services.  It might have been a hassle or a headache, and it may have cost me some money, but within hours or at the most a day or two, the car was fixed and I could get back to my normal life.

When it comes to long-distance driving mishaps, I can think of only two incidents.  The first occurred when I lived in Milwaukee and made the occasional long driving trip out toward the East Coast.  Even then, the malfunction happened only at the end of the trip, when I was about 40 miles from home.  It was late afternoon and I was driving a Chevy Cavalier that belonged to my place of employment.  I was looking forward to getting home, having a hot meal and relaxing after a long trip.  South of Kenosha, Wisconsin I had settled in behind a car that was doing a good speed and was fiddling with the radio - I can't remember what time of year it was but I might have been trying to catch the last of a Brewers afternoon game or find some interesting music.  The car ahead of me suddenly swerved to avoid something in the road, and I couldn't react fast enough.  I drove right over a large piece of sidewall that had shed itself from a semi.  There was a loud thump in the front of the car, but it seemed everything was all right.  However, as I got to Kenosha, the oil light came on, and then the car started losing power.  I pulled over to the side of the freeway and walked to the next exit.  Luckily, I was near a gas station with some pay phones (yes, this was pre-cell phone days).  I called a road service and then called my girlfriend.  The tow service arrived and would only tow me up to three miles without charge, so he took it to a nearby dealer.  My girlfriend found me there, and took me home.  The dealer looked the car over, told me that there was a puncture in my oil pan and wanted to literally replace the whole engine.  I called my mechanic and he told me to pay for the tow up to Milwaukee.  He ended up replacing the oil pan for a lot less money.

LHM worries, in this chapter, about getting screwed by unscrupulous mechanics that know that you are in a tough spot and figure they can charge you just about anything.  My experience with mechanics has been that if you get a good one, hold on to him or her like gold because many of them are more than willing to tell you a few more things need to be fixed in order to squeeze more out of you.  Luckily for LHM, he found an honest teenager who fixed a dangerous fuel line leak and charged him a couple of bucks for it, and also gave him some honest advice about his water pump.

These kinds of trepidations, about what kind of service I'd find in a small town on the road, are what kept me from seeking weekend service in Kingman, Arizona as my wife and I were driving back to Albuquerque from a two-week visit to my mom in California.  We had stopped in Kingman to get some fast food and continue our drive.  We pulled into a parking lot for some reason and I found that I couldn't get my car, a G20 Infiniti with a standard transmission, into first gear.  Second gear wouldn't work either.  I had to coax it from third gear.  We briefly thought about trying to find a place, but it was late afternoon on a weekend and we didn't want to stay in Kingman.  We decided to try to make it to Albuquerque instead, and decided not to stop except for gas in case the whole gear system decided to go out.  We made it, though I was clenching my buttocks the entire way like LHM described when he thought he might run out of gas.  We did end up having to replace the entire transmission, but it was better and easier to do it at home.  I always felt we got pretty lucky.

The passage that describes what happens with LHM and his car is a long one so I didn't put it all in.  Essentially, he pulls Ghost Dancing into the bay and shuts it down.  He and the mechanic replace the hose and the mechanic charges him $2.10 for hose and labor, probably a $15 repair today.  The mechanic tells him that the water pump needs to be replaced, and is astounded when LHM tells him he's driven it 9000 miles.  He tells LHM that he wouldn't even drive it to Hoople, 18 miles down the road, and that he should take it to the Ford dealer.  LHM does, but the dealer says he doesn't have the part and that he'll need to go to Grand Forks.  So, LHM sets out for Grand Forks, hoping he'll make it but not sure that he'll even get to Hoople.

I like the metaphor that's implied.  When someone asks me from now on how I'm doing, I'll say "I'm just trying to make it past Hoople."

Musical Interlude

I'm not a big fan of the modern Nashville-influenced country genre, preferring pre-Nashville country instead, but I found this song by Alan Jackson, Talkin' Song Repair Blues, to be very humorous and witty.  As he says at the end of the song, "I like might be a hit."

If you want to know more about Cavalier

Cavalier, North Dakota official page
Wikipedia: Cavalier

Next up: Grand Forks, North Dakota