Tag Archives: Austin

The Road Back to Houston

I hung up the phone with my mother (I was using a headset) and stretched. Glanced at the gas gauge. And then I did a double-take: the low fuel light was on. On my 2005 Pontiac Vibe’s gas gauge the low fuel light goes on with an arrow indicating the percentage of gas left. This time it was at the very bottom. And I could feel the lightness of the car; it was handling strangely, and accelerating hesitantly. Shit. I was stuck in traffic between Austin and Houston, on I-10 E. That stretch of the road where there’s just nothing but ranches.

I picked up my iPhone, and asked Siri for directions to the closest gas station. Siri said behind me 5 miles. The second closest one was more than 20 minutes away. So, reluctantly, I eased out of traffic and onto the Frontage road and crossed over I-10 to head back West. As I lurched down the highway, I fixated on that light and mumbled a few prayers. Just brush and cows, and me, and the landscape that I’d been admiring almost moments before. 4 miles. 3.8. I imagined walking those miles, there and back, with no shade in the 95 degree Texas summer heat.

As I gratefully approached that exit, I did a double-take at the GPS. Glanced up, and down. I pulled around to one side of the highway and then the other, but saw nothing apart from a chipped and rusted abandon building. Panic rising in my throat, I continued to drive, before pulling into the lot of a farming supplies shop right behind two impatient pickup trucks. I shut the car down and sat for a moment, smiling.

Sigh.

A little conversation with myself (out loud) later, and I called up Google this time to check for a nearby gas station (seriously, Siri, this is the second time you’ve screwed me on the gas thing…) 25 minutes away. No… I hadn’t thought I’d make it 5 miles. I hadn’t thought I’d make it into this farm shop’s driveway. And I-10 was barely moving. After an “are you fucking kidding me?” directed skyward, I shrugged and banged a U-turn out of that gravel driveway and headed back to I-10. My new plan was to get as far as I could before I had to pull to the shoulder and call someone.

Stopped behind a Kia on that blasted I-10 E, I narrowed my eyes. Then I swerved and took my little car over the grassy divider back onto the Frontage road. If I was going to run out of gas, I wasn’t going to do it passively.

“Siri?” I asked “If you’re about to run out of gas, is it better to drive fast or slow?”

Siri answered: “I wish you wouldn’t.”

Thanks. Fast it was. I turned on some music and began to sing along. No point in dwelling on it. 24 miles. I played through my current favorite song twice (it captures some of… what catches up with me when I’m still these days). 20 miles. I pulled around a turn and up a hill, and I could feel that the car didn’t want to move. Would barely accelerate. I prayed some more.

I could see the exit. And as I pulled into that Exxon station, the car ran out of fuel, and coasted gently to a stop right in front of the pump. I climbed out, and the man in the pink cowboy hat with the muttonchop sideburns stared as I laughed until tears came to my eyes.

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I was still smiling even while using that bathroom, in a part of Texas where the graffiti said that Obama is the anti-christ, and a woman with a pronounced Texas twang told her kids “don’t you touch nothin’. this place is nasty” in the other stall. As often as I want to get out of my car and scream until I fall to my knees these days, I am lucky. I am so often so very lucky.Image

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My Spooky, Scary Halloween Misadventure.

the silver part of the grill coming off.

Roadside portrait, with foot.

First, I want to note that I am writing this within line of site of a couple of witches, monsters, a zombie or two, and a group of graduate students from India. I’m downing chamomile tea by the bucketload at one of Austin’s most comforting vegetarian restaurants, as I try to recover from the day I’ve had. Let me say first that last night I did something stupid and drunken, and this morning I was busily/traumatically updating my sense of self to include “person who does stupid shit”.

***
On the way to Austin, my car started acting up; the route between Houston and Austin has these odd places where you pass from completely rural (ranches) to tiny communities and suddenly encounter a stop light.

At the first of these, my car began to shake and vibrate dramatically. The “low oil” light flicked on and off. The “external light system failure” light flicked on. And off. And I started swearing under my breath, because I’d just taken the car to the shop on Monday to make absolutely sure I wouldn’t have problems while driving this route. They replaced the car battery, and deemed the rest of my complaints “a symptom of the dying battery”.

As I puttered along … slowly, cautiously…. my eyes were suddenly drawn to a piece of shiny metal poking out from the front of my hood. Alarmed, I glanced at the side of the road. Not really anywhere to pull over. I eased myself half into and half out of a ditch filled with reeds and bog (from the monsoon that had befallen us until about 4pm today), and gingerly slid from the driver’s seat.

I hadn’t noticed it before, because I’d been rushing from building to car in the pouring rain, but someone had clearly hit the front of my car HARD. It must have happened when I was at the yoga studio earlier today. I’d backed into a spot at the edge of the lot, with the car’s right-front side facing the parking lot entrance and a narrow street. There was a huge scrape up the front of my hood, and the grill was hanging on narrowly. As I went to touch it, a piece snapped off. Lovely.

I climbed back into the car, and wound up on the phone with J. We agreed that I’d drive slowly, look for a place to buy duct tape, and call in an insurance claim when I got to Austin. Slower now, I puttered along Route-something-or-other, listening to my audiobook about perfume and grumbling to myself about yogis who don’t leave notes when they hit someone’s car.

I hadn’t gone much further when the piece of grill that was loose snapped free and hurled backwards in the wind, disappearing from my view almost as quickly as I could pull onto an even narrower shoulder. I moved quickly to reverse the car (not another car in sight, only damp brown grasses and the occasional gnarled tree. Flat, Texas ranch land). As I reversed my car, it suddenly turned off. Just… shut down. No sad, whining sound. Nothing.

And then it was eerily silent. I got out of the car to look for my grill, and though I searched frantically in the dimming light, it was seemingly nowhere. I could hear the wind rustling the grass as I trudged back to my car. I sat back down. I tried the car. Nothing. Nothing.

I reached for my phone to tell someone that I was in the middle of rural Texas, and my car wouldn’t start, to call my insurance’s towing company– but the phone was dead. My phone, which had been at 80% battery charge only moments before, simply lay there. A dark, electronic brick.

This is when I started laughing; as my sister would later put it, the “unhinged laugh”, not a .. healthy laugh, not a good laugh. Still no sign of anyone else on the road. I had no particular sense that anyone good or helpful would come along, but that it would of course be someone who would drag me out into the field and kill me there. With my phone dead, my whereabouts would be a mystery. I’d die in my Halloween-themed mummy socks, somewhere between Austin and Houston, on a straight, flat road that seemed to stretch from one end of the world to another. I sat back down.

I don’t know that it was particularly long that I sat there on the seat, with the wind blowing in my face. Eventually, I wrenched my eyes away from the sky and tried the car again. It started with as little fanfare as it had turned off! But the phone was still dead.

No matter. I’d charge it.
That’s when I realized I’d left my suitcase by the back door of my house in Houston. No clothes. No medication. No toiletries. No charger. No directions to Austin if I couldn’t get the phone on.

I looked down at the mummy socks and the t-shirt I’d gotten from the yoga studio with “Go with the Flow!”  printed on it. I imagined how progressively weirder it would get to be wearing that at an academic conference. Day 1: “Okay, she’s a little odd.” Day 2: “And… dirty” Day 3: MENTAL ILLNESS.

I’d dressed for a combination of comfort, and with awareness that I was going to Austin and could parade around half-yoga geared, half Halloweeny with no qualms. Presenting a research paper like that? Not.. the plan.

The laugh came back.

It was the mummy socks that pushed me over the edge. Why had I worn the mummy socks? Because it’s fun to drive in novelty socks on Halloween, that’s why.

Epilogue:
I stopped at the nearest gas station and got an iPhone car charger, so I did make it safely to my hotel in Austin (and it’s lovely). But the clothes problem? Let’s just say I need to figure out when during this conference I can escape to find a Target. To buy passable clothes with money I don’t have.

My hotel is also across the street from a Haunted House. When I pulled up a troupe of zombie girls were doing a choreographed girl-band-esque routine. Two guys regarded me drunkenly from their hotel room balcony. But will they like my mummy socks tomorrow, I wonder?