This report is filed from Tucumcari, N.M., as I try to catch up on some stale tales from the western road.
We spent most of Wednesday in the desert kingdom of Kingman, Ariz., after experiencing the thrilling pop and wobble of tire disintegration for the second time in two weeks.
It’s just our good fortune to have bought the recreational vehicle with the magic exploding tires.
We were feeling good, having traversed nearly the entire width of California from Paso Robles to Needles, roughly 380 miles. As far-off destinations go, Needles was a disastrous flop. The whole place was closed down as if it had been visited by a neutron bomb, even though it was the only oasis along I-40 in eastern California in 100 miles.
I was a little annoyed we’d had to pay $4.44 a gallon for gas, especially when I discovered it was going for a dollar less just across the border in Arizona. If I had known what was coming, maybe I woulda kept things in better perspective.
It was nearly midnight as we approached Kingman. I was going to pull over and pick up some of those deliciously nasty, refrigerated Starbucks espresso drinks so I would be suitably wired to drive through the desert darkness for a few more hours, and Becky was going to hit the rack.
Then came the disheartening pop, more violent this time than it had been going up Stage Road Pass in Southern Oregon. Not again.
I called the always-helpful American Automobile Club, and the genial telephone representative promised to dispatch some unlucky bastard to the scene of our discontent within the hour.
The commotion awoke Max, so the three of us exited the behemoth and waited for help on the gravel shoulder. We figured the farther away we were from the 18-wheel leviathans screaming past us at 80 mph on I-40, the less were our chances of getting squashed like a family of wretched bugs.
Of course, we had to leave poor Lester inside, and I’m sure he was thrilled to no end as the RV shuddered each time one of those big monsters flew past.
Bill Sowers of Mike’s Power Towing showed shortly after 1 a.m., almost right on time. He turned out to be the most reassuring of all possible rescuers. I turned out to be the asshole without any cash for a tip in my pocket, so all he got for his trouble was a feeling of universal goodwill and the roughly $11 he’ll get of his employer’s take for the job.
Bill is a former contractor who saw his booming business plunge through the floor when the recession, depression, precursor to economic Armageddon, whatever it is, fell on him like a heavenly anvil.
Then his marriage fell apart, leaving him on his own to raise four sons, ages 11, 12, 16 and 18.
“I shoulda been a millionaire,” he said matter of factly as he wrestled a lugnut into submission. “I was a millionaire. But I had all my eggs in one basket. I can’t drive around this town without seeing something I built.”
He had, he says, plowed his considerable profits back into the growing business, loading up for the big kill. Instead, the big kill got him.
He’s nonetheless as affable and helpful as you can expect a guy to be when he’s summoned at midnight to change your flat tire under the desert sky as semi trucks roar by angrily a few feet away on the interstate.
He didn’t seem to mind Max’s enthusiasm for his job. As he slid under the behemoth, Max got down on his knees and tried to get in there with him. Bill had a flashlight. Max had a flashlight.
Max offered Bill an unsolicited list of his future dream professions. Suddenly, tow-truck engineer topped of the list.
“I want to be a tow-truck driver,” Max offered, “and the tow truck and the lights and a fireman and a farmer.”
Well, the lights, flashing amber in the early-morning gloom, were cool.
Bill said he knew a thing or two about blowouts, even before economic misfortune led him into the tow-truck racket.
He said he bought a 40-foot Georgie Boy luxury RV when business was booming. He learned then that, no matter how good the tread is on your tires, they’ll blow up on you if they’re more than a few years old.
I had no idea. Turns out most of the tires we had left were manufactured in 1999. He experienced a series of blowout episodes in the Georgie Boy.
“You learn the hard way,” he said. “Everybody learns the hard way.”
Of course, he knew enough to know his way around a motor home, inside and out. Nearing 40, he grew up with an old-school ethos that candy-ass kids like me who grew up in the sheltering banality of the suburbs missed out on entirely.
“I was born with a wrench in my hand,” he said. “My father said if you can’t fix your car, you shouldn’t be driving it.”
When his business and his dreams of financial ease went up in flames, he picked up his wrench and took to working for his buddy Mike. He fields all the late-night, early-morning, pain-in-the-ass calls. Mike takes 80 percent, and he walks away with 20. AAA calls pay particularly poorly.
Of course, if he gets an independent call to tow a tractor trailer, the starting fee is $400. Maybe that’s why my trucker pal Jun calls roadside assistance companies “thieves with licenses.”
But not Bill. Not our Bill. He’s the man.
And now you can find him after midnight on dark Arizona interstates, sliding under behemoths which tremble above him as semi trucks roll past on the way to Kingman, Flagstaff, Winslow, Gallup, Albuquerque and beyond.
He is Bill Sowers, friendly knight of the late-night highway.