The Mother of All Throwback Thursdays

My Throwback Thursday entry today carries a bit more weight than usual. It was exactly thirty years ago today that I loaded my 1958 VW Bug with as much of my worldly possessions as possible, gave the rest away or entrusted it to my girlfriend’s care, and drove out of Colorado Springs to take a two-year assignment in Emeryville, California.

The itinerary I’d planned called for me to head south on I-25 to I-40, then west to I-5, then north to the Bay Area. The first leg of this trip would be critical, because a major winter storm was expected by the evening of the 29th; I needed to get south on schedule, no matter what. And, in fact, that part worked out properly — but after that, things degraded fast.

I expected to complete the trip in no more than three days. It actually took me five. Here’s how things worked out:

1/29/85: I deposited the last paycheck from my old job at an ATM at Boulder and Union streets, Colorado Springs (11:35 AM). I drove to the downtown office of Colorado Springs Public Utilities, paid my last utility bill, then headed onto southbound I-25. After stopping for lunch in Pueblo, I pushed through to Albuquerque and spent the night there, expecting to head west early the next morning.

1/30: During a rest stop in Flagstaff, AZ, I noticed that oil was dripping from the engine (the snow on the pavement made it much easier to see). I spent the night in Kingman, amid much worry about whether my engine was falling apart and how I would get out of the desert if it was.

1/31: I attempted to continue onward. However, the clutch had become saturated with motor oil and finally lost its grip as I was crossing the California state line. I spent the night in Needles.

The winter storm had caught up with me at this point and the motel room where I was staying was very cold. If you haven’t ever been to Needles, you might not know that this is an extremely rare occurrence — so much so, in fact, that no heaters had ever been installed in that motel. But the thoughtful, solicitous staff provided extra blankets as needed.

2/1: Fortunately, a mechanic in Needles was able to drop the motor out of the Bug, pop in a new crankcase seal, and clean the clutch. Thanks to his concerted efforts, I was back on the road by afternoon. I spent the night in Bakersfield after a genuinely terrifying descent of Tehachapi Pass late at night with weak headlights. (Note: I don’t recommend this. Either make sure your headlights are powerful enough to give you a good, long look ahead, or cross the pass while it’s still light out.)

2/2: Heading across the Central Valley to I-5, the Bug developed a loose brake drum. (My fault — I’d replaced them myself.) I fixed it on the shoulder of a rural road, then continued on. When I approached Pleasanton that evening, I found myself in the midst of more cars than I had ever had around me in my life; when I went to Disneyland with Mom and the other kids a few years earlier, we’d managed to miss the really bad traffic in LA. I had arranged to stay with my new co-worker in Point Richmond, CA, when I arrived — which I did later in the evening.

My original plan was to meet my two-year commitment, picking up new job skills along the way, and return home to get an improved job. It didn’t work out that way, though. I married my girlfriend and brought her to Oakland, and the two of us became further and further ensconced until I finally took a job in Seattle and we moved north. We have never moved back to Colorado, even though we have always wanted to.

I realize that my occasional protestations along these lines must sound appallingly ungrateful at this point. After all, my time in Northern California has opened doors for me; I’ve worked with brilliant minds, traveled the world, and enjoyed all kinds of amazing experiences. I now live in a small town surrounded by dramatic mountain scenery and waterfalls hundreds of feet high. But every so often, I’ll see a photograph of Ouray in winter, or Trail Ridge Road, or even the old cliché shot of Pikes Peak and the Garden of the Gods, and it can get painful. The only way I can explain this is to say that it’s like turning your back on a loved one; no matter how many fish there are in the sea, the one that got away is still the one that got away.

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