I didn't get much sleep on Saturday night. We played the whole day in Cherry Hill and hit the sack early, but at about 10:30pm our tent suddenly lit up like Times Square. A multigenerational extended family had pulled into the site behind us and began assembling their camp, flashlights sweeping across our tent like searchlights. They were loud, spoke Spanish, and seemed to be all around us. We had no idea what was happening and before long Quimby implored me to go outside and see what the hell was going on. By the time I got my pants on, grabbed a flashlight and emerged from my tent, the site behind us already had about twelve tents, a general store, two restaurants and a saloon. To make matters worse, they had even erected a tent between our tent and the one the kids were sleeping in. I stood there, watching the action in disbelief at this gross breach of camping etiquette, but I lacked the energy and the language skills to intervene, so I simply shook my head and grabbed my computer and went off in search of an outlet to plug in my macbook to write the Cherry Hill blog entry. At least if I got hungry for a burrito, I knew where to go.
The morning air was cool as we broke down our campsite the next morning, but the sky had an early September clarity that promised a mean heat by afternoon. After a quick stop for breakfast at Pig & a Jelly Jar in central Salt Lake, we hit the I-15 for the penultimate leg of Man vs Machine V. We started with the windows up, but as we pressed south, the windows inched lower as the sun rose and the mercury climbed toward 100. That's been the achilles heel of every Man vs Machine--at some point you have to cross the desert in a ride without air conditioning and it's brutal. I won't lie. Vinyl seat sweat is a form of torture that is specifically called out in the Geneva Convention.
As if to register her discomfort, the old Pontiac began to growl in the early afternoon, soft at first, but it grew louder as the day dragged on. When we pulled off for fuel in St. George and slowed down for the first time in two hours, I began to worry. Not only was it turning into a howl, it was also making a scraping sound that could only be heard at slow speeds. We planned to stay overnight on Sunday in North Las Vegas at our friend Shauna's house, which was only about 100 miles away, so I figured we'd just limp it the rest of the way and I'd have a look when we got there. I suspected that my brake adjuster had come loose in the brake drum, which was unfortunate but not critical.
When we got to Vegas, we unpacked and took a quick shower. Shauna had an amazing tri-tip on the grill already and before we knew it, we were several bottles of wine into the evening and my plan to pull the now-constantly-suspect left rear wheel would have to wait until morning.
We got up around nine on Monday morning and I pulled the Pontiac out of her driveway and into the cul-de-sac to jack it up and remove the wheel to see what was going on. It was then that I noticed the puddle under the wheel and upon closer inspection, it was gear oil mixed with millions of tiny metallic flakes. I knew immediately I had a more serious problem.
With the wheel removed, the entire brake drum was full of gear oil and when I tugged on the wheel hub, the entire axle was loose. The tire that had caused me so much trouble had done more damage than I had anticipated. For hundreds of miles, it had hammered on the axle bearings like a tomahawk, and the death blow had been delivered well before I had replaced the tire in Utah. The old girl was bleeding out, and she needed more help than I could render in a cul-de-sac in Las Vegas. She needed surgery. If I drove her home, I'd likely do real damage, and even though I could probably pull the axle and replace the bearing right there, I really needed to flush the differential case to remove all the metal. I also had a host of secondary problems--I had a flight to catch at 8:10pm, the I-15 had already backed up with Labor Day traffic and the temperature was again inching over the century mark.
I slipped the brake drum back on the hub and bolted the wheel and took a moment to consider the import of my diagnosis. Man vs Machine V was over. It wasn't about winning--the old Pontiac had already won. It was now about something else. The victor was also the vanquished, and the least I could do to repay her for 16,000 heroic miles on Man vs Machine III through V was to carry her off the field of battle parade-style on the the back of a flatbed. To push her any further just wouldn't be right. So I did what the day before would have been unthinkable: I pulled out my AAA card, swallowed my pride, and for the first time ever... I called a tow truck.
* * *
For years now I've paid for the premium towing package through AAA, and in my mind I had decided that the towing range was 300 miles. In fact, on every Man vs Machine, I've done an air-high-five every time I've crossed the 300 mile radius. Turns out, I was wrong. It's only 200 miles and since I was 278 miles from Pasadena, with the holiday weekend, the extra miles came in at $10 per mile. It stung, but it didn't change my mind. Conscious of the clock, Quimby and Shauna sped down to McCarran Airport and got us a rental car while I waited for the tow truck. He finally appeared at 1pm and after half an hour of old-car shop talk, he winched her on the trailer. Because I was paying by the mile, he was obligated to take the shortest route. We had no such restriction, so we pulled up Waze and tried to thread the needle to get me to the airport in time for my flight to San Francisco. It was one of the more insane drives I've ever taken, speeding down desolate desert roads that I barely knew existed, past a rolled-over SUV as a life-flight helicopter touched down, and into LA through Palmdale (of all places). We were sierra hotel all the way and made the airport at 7:30pm, just a few minutes before my flight boarded. The flatbed finally pulled in at 10:30pm and the driver was weary. He'd spent nine straight hours in jammed-up traffic on the I-15. If proof was needed, this was it--there was simply no way the wounded old Indian would have made it under her own power. Sometimes you have to know when to hold 'em, and know when to fold 'em.