Monday, August 23, 2010

Oatus Has Gone So Far and Will Go No More

We were back in traffic, laboring through the early evening rush like a portable oil fire once again. In my rear-view mirror I watched the crowd of spectators vanish behind a spectacular cloud of black smoke deployed by Oatus as Chris floored the gas pedal in a desperate bid for second gear.
In the lead, I tried everything I could to stay directly in front of Oatus while trying to determine our escape route and avoid collisions at the same time. It was hopeless; we kept getting separated no matter what I did.
Dusk became evening and a cold, hard wind began to set in. Not only did Oatus lack a heater, the window on the driver's side couldn't be closed. Chris had been driving for days bundled up to the eyeballs and with a blanket on his lap, freezing.
I at least had a heater in the Family Dog but it also pumped semi-lethal concentrations of engine by-products into the cabin so it was used sparingly and with open windows.
We made it to a major freeway interchange by about 21:30 with a vast shopping center at its hug. Chris indicated by flashing light that this was the end of the line for Oatus. I detached from the traffic pattern and Chris followed suit. Together we spiraled down out of the interchange in tight formation, black smoke marking our glide path as we made for the farthest reaches of the enormous parking lot. The clattering piston was deafening now, each revolution of the crankshaft causing it to batter away at the cylinder with jackhammer force and threatening to blow at any moment.
Chris switched off the key and Oatus shuddered to a dieseling halt, delivering a few last sharp blows to itself before falling silent.
We had a quick conference in the wardroom and put together a plan. Chris and Jeri Ann would stay with the wreckage of Oatus while I struck off for Lou and Rita's to get help.
Temperatures were a little below freezing. There was nothing to burn in the stove and even if there had been, a shopping center would not likely be a good place to do it. I wouldn't have a lot of time to go muster a rescue party but unfortunately it seemed to be our only option. We siphoned off a few remaining gallons of gas from Oatus's tank and transferred it into the Family Dog, hoping it would be enough.
I got back onto the interchange and headed “north on 5.” Or so I thought.

Ghost Freeway

I got back onto the interchange and headed “north on 5,” looking for any offramp labeled 145th Street, but right away, within the first few miles, I could tell that something was wrong. The freeway appeared to be deserted, with poorly marked off ramps that seemed to be still under construction.
I finally passed a lighted off ramp with actual signs of human life. From the freeway I was just able to glimpse a street sign as I shot past the little oasis and plunged back into the gloom of night. It said “135th Street.”
Okay, so the streets weren't marked as well as I thought they'd be but at least they actually existed. Not only that, it seemed that we were suddenly within 10 blocks of our home port, friends, and rescue. A great weight began to fall away from me at the thought of food and rest being so close at last, after being underway for so long. This grand feeling of relief lasted until I passed the next exit, which was unmarked, unlighted, and un-built.
From that point on, the general feelings were:
1. Confusion;
2. Dismay;
3. Frustration;
4. Anger.
As I continued driving endlessly “north on 5” these feelings became my constant companions, accompanied by colorful metaphors at ever-increasing volume as I found absolutely no exits or even a turn-around.
I rolled down the windows and gulped icy air; when snow began hitting my face I found an unfinished median strip, made a U-turn and began racing south again, hoping to outrun the snow while trying to figure out where I really was, besides lost.
Forty minutes later I passed the lighted oasis of 135th Street, but there was no exit for the southbound lane. It was another 10 minutes and a steady stream of curses before I found an offramp to somewhere, finally. Another 10 minutes was spent negotiating the abandoned streets of a deserted industrial park before locating a gravel trail that led under the freeway and up a dirt track to an uncompleted northbound on-ramp which I used anyway by driving around the barricades. At this point I figured I was only a few miles from the freeway interchange I had started out from and the 135th Street oasis seemed like my only hope. At least it looked like an area that might have telephones, and this time I was determined to get there.
The engine coughed and sputtered; I turned on the reserve gas tank and pointed the front end toward the road shoulder, just in case. The engine caught again and I swerved back onto the Ghost Freeway, counting odometer miles.
I spent my last dollar at the gas station/restaurant complex at 135th Street. From there I struck off on a northbound one lane road until I finally came to 145th Street, where I abandoned all hope. No residential area to be seen; gravel roads; darkened farm buildings – and the snow had caught up with me again. I gave up and went back to the 135th Street gas station to use the phone.
Lou was home by then and was able to figure out that I had been running up and down Highway 405, not Interstate 5, for the last hour and a half. He further deduced that Oatus was probably stranded at a Renton shopping center and said that he would meet us there in about 40 minutes. A guy at the gas station showed me a space between the median dividers that I could drive through and get back on the “freeway” headed south, which I did, at top speed.

The End of the Voyage of Oatus

Oatus and friends have arrived in Renton and are waiting in the freezing December night for their friend Lou to come and lead them the rest of the way. Rick has been driving up and down what he thought was Interstate 5, but turned out to be an incomplete 405. We join him as he returns to Oatus, Chris, Jeri Ann, Metoo and Nigel the dogs, and Felix the cat:
I had no idea what may have befallen the crew while I was touring the Ghost Freeway. I guess I expected Oatus to be surrounded by police cruisers and SWAT teams by now. I was debating in my carbon-monoxide influenced brain whether I would just give myself up or remain under cover until Lou arrived and then surrender.
No! If Lou had to come up with ransom money in our behalf, it would probably be cheaper if I stayed out of sight until the payoffs were completed. I remember thinking that I should make a break for it: try to get to friendly lines, hiding and sleeping by day and traveling the back roads by night...
I nearly missed the off-ramp to the shopping center, hypnotized by my day dream, exhaustion, and carbon monoxide poisoning.
Oatus sat undisturbed out beyond the pools of light illuminating the shopping area, a darkened, battered object lost upon a plane of black asphalt. I found Chris in the driver's seat, wrapped in blankets; doing guard duty. Jeri Ann was inside, wrapped in animals, trying to keep warm.
I said that I had called Lou; that he was on his way; that he would arrive soon...if we could just hold out a little longer.
“I'm cold,” was all Chris could say, an understatement for sure since he was actually sinking into hypothermia. We assembled in the wardroom one last time, huddled together in a futile attempt to get warm while we awaited rescue.
Thankfully, it wasn't long in coming. A pair of headlights suddenly brightened Oatus's interior from outside and briefly illuminated the galley bulkhead, now redecorated entirely with the traffic citations we had received during our voyage. Our wallpapering job had made that bulkhead the most valuable surface aboard. All totaled, it must have been worth about $400.
Our reunion with Lou would have been a happier one if we hadn't all been blithering zombies. We offloaded our personal items, musical instruments, tools, Felix my cat and Nigel my collie into the Family Dog and prepared Oatus for mothballing. If we'd had any extra gasoline to spare, I'm sure Chris would have been pleased to perform a spectacular and explosive decommissioning ceremony. As it was, I had to flip the reserve tank on again as we pulled away from the wreckage of the H.M.V. Oatus and headed out finally “north on 5.”
Here endeth the Log of the Voyage of the H.M.V. Oatus.
Next: the Epilogue

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