Today when an exclamation point illuminated on my dashboard, I had to look it up to see what it meant. Not surprisingly given the dirt roads of the Joshua Tree Highlands and the gravel-ridden slopes of Afton Canyon, it was the tire pressure indicator. I'd spent so much time on this trip pressuring myself to be productive and see everything I possibly can in four weeks that I'd stripped my own tires of the pressure necessary to move me from place to place.
As soon as I saw the symbol in the manual matching the one on my dashboard this morning, I remembered seeing it once before: in Death Valley. I had driven down many a gravelly road to get to slot canyons and ghost towns and various other wonders that abused my barely hardy Toyota Prius to the point that nearly every warning indicator lit. With only one gas station nearby and most of my rough driving completed, I just ignored them and kept driving, returning the car with all its twinkly lights blazing, hoping that no one would notice.
I've never owned a car. I love driving but it's a different car every time: rented, new, borrowed, blue. And I rarely hold on to a car for longer than a weekend or a week, returning it safely to its rental company who are none the wiser about what I've put the poor machine through, especially in the California desert. Usually nothing happens to the car to require any action on my part: no flat tires, oil changes, or other repairs necessary. When I drove to Mohegan Sun after a snowstorm for an Irish Tenors concert (for work) and the windshield wiper fluid was out, I bought a jug of it at a grocery store in Whitestone and proceeded to dump it on the windshield when I couldn't figure out how to pop the hood.
This time, I had too much more driving to do to ignore the warning or fix it haphazardly. Adding air to tires seemed easy enough. I owned a bicycle pump as a kid.
Still, I called Maria for advice. Next to my dad, I hold Maria up to the highest standard of driving - not only because she's often been my personal chauffeur (bringing me to my parents' house, to my first boyfriend's house, to school dances, and all over an hour's radius outside of Syracuse) but because she drives for work and for pleasure, seeking solace in the open road as I do, whether alone or accompanied by me pointing and chatting beside her.
Maria didn't answer the phone. I left a voicemail that attempted not to instill panic in her. "Uh...just wondering how to add air to my tires...? No need to call me back...."
Next I called Edith. Until recently, Edith owned a Jeep that she almost never drove herself. So although she's not the most experienced car mechanic, she's a calm, rational person who is good at figuring things out. If she didn't know, she'd look it up online and report her findings to me.
Edith was at work, so not surprisingly, she didn't answer either.
I started to feel silly, convinced that I should be able to figure this out myself. I'd seen coin-operated air machines at gas stations before. I assumed that I should find one of those. But I was already at a 7-Eleven gas station and there was no air pump to be seen.
I called Eric, the primary driver of Edith's Jeep. He's owned at least a couple of cars in his life. He would know.
When I reached Eric, his advice was put simply: "Find a gas station and have the guy help you." When I protested, "But all the stations here are self-service...", Eric responded with, "Just find a machine and put 50 cents in it. I gotta go."
So I drove down to the Chevron in Morongo Valley. Air machine! Out of order!
Across the street to Circle K. Air machine! Working! Empty spot next to it! Unscrew caps from four mushy-looking tires. Discover one missing hubcap and imagine it rusting somewhere in the Mojave Preserve. Choice of two skinny black hoses, one for air and one for water. Push handle on one and get water dribble. Select other.
One quarter, two quarters, three...Whirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr psssssssst....
Push silver pin cap into tire opening, and the pressure immediately pushes my hand away. Is this thing supposed to screw on? After a couple more attempts, I drop the hose to the ground, walk into the convenience store, and declare to the clerk, "I don't know how to properly operate the air."
He looked up at me with his hollow eyes, glaring bright white from a brown face, and said, "It should just turn on when you put the money in."
I said, "Yeah, I got that. It's the tire part I can't figure out."
One of the customers in the store - a black-haired woman wearing what looked like midnight blue scrubs - offered to come out and take a look. She started kicking my tires and rattling off PSIs and telling me not to fill them, they looked fine. "But the indicator light..." I pleaded.
She retorted with more numbers and said, "I used to do this for a living. You got a tire pressure gauge?"
"Go on inside and ask the guy if he's got one."
I walk back in the convenience store, sheepish. "Do...you...have...a...tire...pressure...gauge?" as though I might use the wrong vocabulary.
I think he tried not cracking a smile. "Well I got one in my car. I can't fill your tires for ya but I can check the pressure!"
So the three of us marched back to the car, which was sitting silent and cooling in the shade of the Circle K. The air machine was quiet too, having used up its 75 cents worth of three minutes.
My companions began muttering to each other, arguing whether to fill or not to fill. I crawled on the ground to read the raised lettering on the back left tire that instructed its max fill: 44 PSI. All of the tires clocked in at about 30 PSI except the first one I'd been fiddling with, which was at 40. Apparently I did know how to get air in there. I just didn't know how much.
A quick zap to each tire and a double-check of the gauge and tragedy averted, mission accomplished, now break. We all went our separate ways as I called out "Thank you...!" like a naive city mouse visiting the desert for the first time.
Thank God for the kindness of strangers.
Maybe it was my imagination, but as I turned out of the Circle K back onto Twentynine Palms Highway, I felt a little lighter on the road. I'd been slowly sinking over the last three weeks and I was upright again, bounce anew, shock absorbent. And ready for another right turn onto the gravel-laden Mission Creek Road....
Post Script: Maria's advice, which arrived later via voicemail after I completed two hikes without cell service, was perfect, as predicted. For the sake of my knowledge and safety and her nerve, we have scheduled a lesson in vehicular maintenance for my next visit home...