DARK DESERT HIGHWAY
18 May 2015 | SAN CARLOS
Carla and I abandoned the kids here in San Carlos at our borrowed seaside villa for a day, only after receiving many promises of fervent application to home school work and that, furthermore, frivolous computer time would be kept somewhere in the single digits hour-wise. We left at first light, 5 am, to drive north to our Arizona mail box in Nogales to pick up her monthly ration of gene blocking Cancer pills. This is about a 5 hour drive one way, barring major road construction or deconstruction or semi truck head-on collisions. The drive was uneventful except for a couple mysterious traffic stops where in whomever the military was looking for, was not, evidently, a middle-aged gringo couple in a faded red minivan. Easy border crossing, except they confiscated the avocado Carla was going to eat for lunch. We were instructed that 'You can bring them in, but you have to remove the seed first!' All rules get a little funny near the edges. Anyway, we got our mail and then Carla wanted to singlehandedly maintain the American Economic Recovery, by driving up to Tucson, and filling every square inch of the van with specialty food items from Costco, Trader Joe's, Target, Pet Smart, Tucson Tamales, etc. My concern, leaving aside the monetary devastation, was to get back south early enough that we didn't have to drive the unlit Mexican highway at night (cue Hotel California: 'On a dark desert highway, Cool wind in my hair...' one of the most ominous and creepy songs that ever made you want to sing along) and as you recall The Eagles warn us it could be Heaven or it could be Hell, and the odds seem tipped toward the latter if something were to go wrong, and say, it were, night.
After getting up the highway to Tucson (this time getting waved thru the extra American customs roadblock, by again being who we are and what we were driving) we tour nearly every road in Pima County distributing largesse and gaining in return various astronomically priced tidbits of Organic grass fed non-GMO unpreserved no sugar substances. Apparently all the un-weed and fed grass clippings from the old Ferndale house could have been the foundation to a Super-Healthy Diet. And to think I just cut it and left it lying in the wake of my old rickety Craftsman mower.
I manage to get the Target stop nixed and we finally start heading south, not quite able to get all the way back before dark, but not too bad. Through a series of reasons, mostly her doing the store location navigating, I keep driving and am probably around the 8 or 9 hour mark at the wheel. Carla takes over once for about five minutes, but then decides she needs to make phone calls (on our only works in America phone), so I retake the wheel.
The border crossing back into Mexico was basically unmanned in the car lane at the truck crossing, which feels a bit peculiar. I feel like I'm getting away with something, but I can never think what it might be. As always, I'm surprised how much more relaxed the border is in both directions here, than it is at the US-Canada border (blame the Canadian Stanley Cup Drought?), but I digress.
So we race south against the dying light, trying to get past the labyrinth of Hermosillo and it's amazing road construction detour (four lanes abruptly down to one without warning, back to three, down to two, huge busses trying short cuts, on and off pavement, pedestrians, traffic lights, no lights, traffic cops, turn only, no turns permitted, etc), before crescent sliver moon dark. We make it through the bulk of town, and we stop for Carla to use a bathroom, while I get out of the car to stretch and get nailed by a couple badass desert mosquitos. She takes over driving, it's about 7;30pm. and I can finally relax and do a little minor whining about why my inherent sweetness makes me so popular with blood sucking insects.
So then after about twenty minutes of driving, that's when the tire blows...
Crap.On the good side, we weren't passing a truck or being tailgated by one of the many massive white pickup trucks who can't believe anyone would dawdle at 75mph in the near dark on mediocre four lane desert road. Carla gets the heavily vibrating minivan from the slow lane, across the fast lane and on to the end of a short, but providential, little turnout on the far left. Otherwise there was no margin, and we would have been blocking a lane or tumbled off into the desert.
Crap. Bad, but we are able to put on the flashers and not get rear ended and die immediately. The front left tire had exploded out the sidewall to the point of leaving behind debris on the roadway behind us. I lie down on the highway to see how the spare is attached, grab it with my hand and discover that I either have Herculean hand strength, or it is not fully inflated. Little panicky thoughts begin to circle around my head (not to mention an increasing number of bats) and the light is going out of the sky now like an old tv tube thats been unplugged. Across the wide and weedy median, a Mexican official of some sort, is stopping northbound trucks for some obscure reason. I think, perhaps he has a tire pump and we can get the tiny spare tire installed, provided it doesn't have some puncture. I don't know where the tire tools are kept in the van we have had for less than a year, and have to find the car manual and search out the location. They are said to be sequestered in a hanging bag under the third row seats. Our five hundred pounds of groceries in their various iced, and some not so iced (think two giant Costco pizzas), packages, are all Tetris'd on to that very same seat and need to be entirely shifted. The backrest hits me on the top of the head twice folding forward, before I find the right lever to cause the seat to flip up and hit me under the chin. I spot the bag, and discover it to be just as empty as the spare tire. The panicky thoughts give way to a general feeling of horror now.
Okay, Crap, as an expressive qualifier, doesn't quite cover it now. A few stronger expletives emerge, but then a few deep breaths later, I am able to reassess without a total feeling of vertigo. Alright, so without the tire changing tools, I can't get the old tire off, and I can't even get the spare out from under the van, which spare tire, is flat anyway. Dark. Desert. Highway. I do recall all those many months ago when I bought Mexican car insurance, that it came with free roadside assistance. Call the number, and they come and rescue you. We have our Mexican cell phone with us and it's even charged! Except, I bought the insurance in Mexico on the same day Carla was buying the van in Arizona. I have copies of the insurance and the magic phone number, but evidently not anywhere in the van. Crap (let us say that's the word I'm using). Okay, but we can call the kids, they can find the paperwork, get the numbers, and get us some Help. Thing is, once the time expires on a Mexican track phone, you have to reinitialize it. We haven't done that, and you can't do it with a phone call, but need to do it in person while visiting a Telcel Officina in a major city. We have a phone, but it isn't going to make any calls.
Now we are stuck, twenty miles from civilization (by that I mean Hermosillo on a night when it was relatively extra-gridlocked by the arrival of a Carnival), with an exploded tire, a flat spare, no tools of any kind, no sunlight/moonlight/flashlight, no insurance info, and no mobile phone. That's about the moment when the right side rear flasher went dark, leaving us with only the port side flasher to keep the van from being rear ended by any Mexican truck that wandered ten inches from his lane. I have to keep reminding Carla and myself not to stand in front of the one working taillight as we pace and fret.
At this point, Mexico being Mexico, a Mexican arrived unasked offering help. It was the official who for some unknown reason, and we never did get an understandable explanation, was stopping every truck that tried to go north on the highway. I didn't see the drivers show him any papers, and he never looked in back of any rig, so far as I saw (though I couldn't see much), so he may have been warning them about something ahead. We had noticed the truck and bus cargo search zone south of the border had a miles long back up, so it might have had something to do with that. In any case, he was conducting some sort of general and friendly obfuscatory operation across on the other side of the wide desert median. The traffic slow down provided what light there was by way of headlights, and he, nombre de Diego, suspended his part in the teamster directed slow down of commerce in Western Mexico, to offer his help.
We pointed to the blasted remnants of our front left tire, and then attempted to explain the flat spare and missing jack and tools. It isn't easy to explain a situation you can't quite believe has happened yourself, let alone using pantomime and language scraps. In general I find the good citizens of Mexico to be far less surprised by bad news than I am. While an American upon hearing our plight would have let slip some catch phrase enveloping the word 'idiot', Diego merely nodded his understanding. He reached under the car to touch the flaccid spare to confirm the predicament.
Diego came up with a plan. As often happens, when one person who speaks just a little Spanish, converses with a person who speaks just a little English, much less gets understood than they all realize, until it's far too late. Diego's plan, as he explained it, seemed to consist of his asking northbound truckers if they were mechanicos and if they would mind helping us, over here, on the dark south bound side of the world. From our Norte Americano and stuck in the desert perspectives, Carla and I were not wildly confident in this approach.
We asked if he had a phone, which he did, and he kindly offered to let us use it. Okay, we knew one number, or thought we did, and it was to the house the kids were in, where the insurance info, and the roadside assistance number, were all located. There's always a way out you know, and Carla dialed away to solve our problem! Time after time we tried, and it rang, but no one would pick up. The kids not picking up a ringing phone, the one time we needed them to, seemed typical somehow, and I resisted, more or less, blaming Carla's poor parenting skills. I envisioned them all wearing headphones and watching inappropriate youtube videos, oblivious to not only ringing telephones, but also the prowler on the second floor balcony who was himself momentarily taken aback due to the ignored fire in the frying pan on the stove and the cat swinging from the ceiling fan. We asked Diego if he knew a tow truck or garage phone number in Hermosillo. He didn't, and had to wander back across the dark, weedy, bottle filled desert median to resume truncating Latin American trucking.
Carla and I were left to contemplate our situation. Denial, depression, de-swooping bats. Walk 20 miles back to Hermosillo, hitchhike North, or perhaps South. Sleep in the airless van and wait to die when rear ended by a bus. None of those plans seemed quite right somehow. I had time to realize that wanting to be cruising on our sailboat, was no excuse to just ignore the preparation for minivan trips, just because I didn't really want to be making them to begin with. There was plenty of blame to go around, and with me blaming me, and Carla blaming me, most of the bases were pretty well covered. Well, she didn't actually blame me, at least not outloud.
At this low point, Diego gave us some good news. He had, it seemed gotten thru to somebody, and they were going to send a truck out from Hermosillo to help us. 'Twenty minutes' or so, he beamed. This was great news, and the end was in sight. I figured it was at least twenty minutes from Hermosillo, so I allotted half an hour before I started looking expectantly at any and all headlights coming down our ribbon of highway. We chatted, I picked up a couple rocks and tapped them together in increasingly complicated patterns. Carla tried calling our apparently agoraphobic children a few more times on Diego's phone. Thirty minutes came and went. Then 40, 45, and 50. You know how sometimes you just feel like you 'know' things? We 'knew', that no one was coming. We stumbled across the dark median again to confer with Diego, and discovered upon another round of inter language audio semaphore, that he hadn't actually 'called' anyone, as in, using his phone, but had asked a passing driver to send a tow truck back this way, and had been answered with words to the effect of 'sure thing boss' as the driver peeled out. We slunk back to our car with its single flashing rear light and contemplated existential philosophy.
Minutes later Diego shouts something unintelligible our way. Sound carries in the abyss. We watched him motion a couple in a big white pickup over to the side of the road. 'He mechanico. Fix. No problem'. We stumble back through the brush. The man gets out and comes our way, and then somewhat to our horror, his wife, in a nice summer dress gets out as well. They all begin making their way across the desert through the bushes, weeds and tossed bottles. I explain the situation. He speaks English, and he understands (though he too reaches down under the car to confirm the airless spare) and disappears. He returns with a tire iron and we spin the flat spare down and I crawl under and unhook it. The man evaporates again, and I undo the lug nuts on the exploded tire. He returns out of the dark with a jack and after a couple attempts on the uneven ground, we get the car raised. He picks up the tire and disappears into the desert night. Carla and his wife are having a happy chat off in the sage brush. As fast as it takes to type this, the man returns to corporeal form and holding the spare tire, now taut with air pressure. 'All Mexican trucks carry compressors,' his wife explained to Carla. He had just went to the first stopped truck and they happily expanded the tire for him. It became like a pit stop. Lug nuts back on, jack down and out. 'Okay keep it below 55 and you'll make San Carlos no problem.' With that, he and Diego were turned and walking away into the night. 'Hold up,' I said, 'will you take something for all your help?' When they shrugged, I quickly grabbed the hundred bucks I had with me and split it between them. The man, whose name I never did get, apparently worked at a Pep Boys near Tuscon and they were returning from a vacation far to the south. I praise his unknown name. Diego, bless him, had been right all along with his original plan. Sixty seconds later we were back on the road, doing a cruise controlled 52mph and never so happy to be driving on a dark desert highway, no matter how many hours I had now been behind the wheel.
I think I heard a mission bell ring.
THE FUNNY CANCER BLOG
17 May 2015 | SAN CARLOS
This morning, Carla and I went for a run through the bumpy streets of San Carlos. We were up and out of the house and on the road by 7:30. Just a tick before the Mexican sun had time to really get its back into producing the day's heat. There was nothing remarkable about our 4K or so distance or our pace. I felt good, so I assume the Kenyans and the Tarahumara fuel their runs on a small coffee and a chocolate covered biscotti too. I can tell you that cobblestones look picturesque, but are painfulesque to run on. The momentous part of our jog, was that after nine months away, my wife and I were back in Mexico, feeling happy, healthy and energetic.
At the end of last July we had returned from a glorious month of sailing in the Bay of LA to put our boat on the hard preparatory to a month long trip back to Washington State. We bought a 2000 Nissan minivan, and our plan was to drive up North, visit family and friends, but mostly to celebrate Carla's mother's 90th birthday. In September we would return to the boat, sell the minivan, and head south toward Central America and the Panama Canal.
Visits to the doctor in Bellingham and Seattle in regard to hip pain and a small lump led Carla through a variety of doctors, therapists, scans, and misdiagnosis'. It took us months, a few biopsies, and even a surgery, before the correct diagnosis was apparently reached. Stage IV non small cell lung cancer which had spread from one lung to under her arm to half a dozen bone sites, in particular her hip. That Carla, an athlete and tennis instructor who would never stay in the same room as anyone smoking a cigarette, should end up with any form of lung cancer was a Job-reminiscent reminder of the idiotic, blind and gibbering nature of Fate.
I like to write blog posts about my family's sailing and traveling. It is in particular the misadventures and my own infinite string of errors, which I find the most amusing to write about. In the corporate world it is nearly axiomatic for upwardly mobile managers to never admit errors, but in the Cruising community, that attitude would either get you killed (if you can't recognize your errors you can't learn) or at least make you dull company at the Cocktail Hour. As any extended cruising sailor knows, when you talk to the people back home, they assume your days are spent lying on the beach and drinking rum from coconuts. When you try to explain that those things never really happen, they neither listen nor care. What they want to know about are Storms. For the modern cruising sailor, talking about being in a storm is like talking about clogging a toilet and having it overflow: you probably did something embarrassing and regrettable. Bad weather is like a massive traffic jam for a commuter: that's why you have a radio. You go around the problem or wait it out, and if stuck in it you just react calmly and with common sense. This is why I assume all sail-blogs, storm free as they generally are, will be exclusively read by other sailors. I mean picture the farm couple in West Virginia:
Clem: Come quick Honey Pot, they're havin' engine trouble agin!
Mabel: It's prolly the fuel system. It's always the fuel system.
Clem: Yup. You'd think it would be more 'electrical, what with all the corrosion possibilities in moist marine air.
Mabel: Yup. Leastways they cleared up their IT prollems, so's they can keep postin'. I'd hate fer to miss out on the next time one o'their young 'uns overflows a public el banyo!
Chronic breakdowns and shopping problems really are the grist for the sail-bloggers mill, and the real stuff of sailors talk at Happy Hour. Seldom are the problems health related, since cruising on a boat seems to keep everyone pretty darn healthy and fit. So, the medical misadventures seemed like it would provide fodder for lots of blog posts as we struggled to get Carla in better health.
As we sat in waiting rooms for doctors, and for tests, and for long hours of chemotherapy treatments, I would envision writing 'The Funny Cancer Blog'. The more things go wrong, the more I normally, eventually, see the funny side. If bad news can make you laugh, then cancer should have been a comedic gold mine.
An hilarious cancer blog. How great would that be! Cancer patients would love it. Cancer patient spouses, family and friends would love it. Laughter is the best medicine, well, maybe it is a half step behind Tarceva. But talk about trending! It would get so popular that I would have to get my own domain name like 4CancerYuks.org. I would be bribed into putting out a book, 'Cancer Cutups!' Then I would effortlessly merge with the Inter-web's legion of cancer 'authorities' who, like me, have no discernible science background other than the ability to operate a keyboard. As I looked out from the chemo ward at Swedish Hospital and across the downtown Seattle skyline toward Puget Sound, I could almost feel the social media world coming to embrace me like a warm bubblebath. I would tweet things to my numberless followers. Follow Me! #Tumorjokes. I would learn to stop spelling words completely. I would put out glossy hardbound sequels, like 'More Laughing at Cancer', 'Christmas with Cancer', and inevitably, 'The Comedy Cancer Cookbook.' I could then expand my whole new genre of disease shocked humor: 'Funny as a Heart Attack' and 'It Stroke Me Funny'.
And yet, months rolled by and I couldn't write a word. Cancer comedy must have the minute atomic life span of some nano particle in a research collider. It all quickly reverts to the insidious, self-mutilating, poison that is the essence of the disease. I could see the funny side of moments such as when Carla, her head lolling a bit on the drugged up ride home from Chemo, would come to enough to slurrily criticize my driving or my route choice before her chin dropped down again to her chest, but it never quite formed into anything actually, funny. Cancer drowns fun, chokes wise perspective, empties economies, and kills people.
At the Corinthian Yacht Club in Seattle over drink specials and five dollar dinner plates, Carla and I talked with another sailor, he back from Mexico to deal with a pernicious form of rectal cancer. We exchanged stories of the astounding kindness of people, and the selfless gifts of love and help we received, often from old friends, but occasionally from near strangers. We agreed that it sometimes seemed in the face of this terrible misfortune, that the Universe appeared to be busy working behind the scenes to repair and soften the tear in reality that is a cancer cell. He talked about the amazing positive changes in the way he looked at life, at other people, at his own body, and the world around him. 'I've heard it said and written that cancer can be a gift.' He paused. 'I know what they mean, and I get it, but I can't go that far. ' He paused. 'No, Cancer is not a gift. It's shit.'
I told him the story of Carla going to a pharmacy at some supermarket to pick up a prescription that she needed to have before her first chemo treatment. They were mostly antihistamines and other things which ultimately worked perfectly to keep away any nausea during the chemo, unlike the old days of constant vomiting. Carla handed the prescription to the pharmacist, a middle-aged East Indian woman, who read it and then paused, realizing what it was for. 'Oh' she said looking up, 'you have cancer.' She then reached across the counter, hugged Carla's arm, looked her in the eyes and said, 'I love you.'
Tears burst out of the sailors eyes. After a brief moment he was back to normal, and he waived a damp napkin towards his eyes. 'This happens now. Stories like that set it off.'
'To me too' I say.
We confer. Neither of us were historically much for crying. Not a macho or emotionally stunted way, (we assured each other) it was just that tears weren't something we were particularly wired for. But something about the nature of cancer and the way it snakes in and violates our emotional circulatory system had left some exposed and broken piping. Something about these exposed places snapped open our tear ducts like a mouse trap during certain moments of human connection. I told him how I tried to thank my friends Ed and Jo who had literally given my family a beautiful home to live in for free while we were in Seattle getting Carla treatment. I simply was unable to get out two sentences of gratitude before instantly switching to a crying and having my throat constrict to the point that within five seconds I was blind and gasping. He nods and we both sip our drinks and let a little air back in our lungs. It occurred strange to me to be having this conversation in a room where over the years I have spent so many hours pounding post sailboat race beers.
'It is like some witch's curse,' I say finally, 'that I am unable to thank people for all their tremendous kindness toward my family.' I think of my friends Dan and Susan who took Carla and I out to monthly dinners at a nice restaurant we could not have afforded, just so we could get away for awhile to have a sublime break from the daily grind of the war on cancer. I think of all the emails, calls, visits, gifts, offers of work and fundraisers. 'They must go home and think what an ungrateful jerk I am.'
'No they don't' he said. 'It's like with the pharmacist and your wife. You don't think to thank your kids for being who the are. There is something about Cancer, that makes us all family.' He paused and grimaced. 'But I still won't call it a Gift.'
None of us know how many runs we have left together in the sunshine. Or how many opportunities we have to express love or to help others. As my tennis friend Grant, who beat another very difficult kind of cancer, never fails to say with feeling, 'Today is a great day!' So I am thankful and grateful for each days chance to run. That is the gift.