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  • Craig Messenger

A Flat Tire

I knew.


For weeks I knew. I had had, around this time, an unsettling feeling whenever I was behind the wheel. Especially when I was on the freeway – which, nearing the end of winter, was often. March is a time for commutes. Call it a paranoia, an inkling, a mother’s intuition, but it was real. I’d drive for long stretches in cosmic harmony, music polishing life’s edges, my mind considering our generation’s luxury in trading frontiersman's modes of transport for cars and motorcycles. And then I’d remember that I was due for a flat tire, and all notions of present day opulence would deflate.

 

I had never had a flat tire on the road. The most enthusiastic lesson my mother had ever relayed to me, originating from her father, was to never sit in the back seat of a Ford Pinto. But the second most was to never change a tire on the side of the road.


“You’ll never change a tire on the side of the freeway! I don’t care what you have to do!! You’ll drive on the rim!!! You’ll drive to an exit while the wheel falls off!!!! You’ll never change a tire on the freeway!”

Meanwhile there I sat, drool pouring down my bib, in 1999’s best high chair. My mom apparently nearly had her tubes tied at age 25 to ensure that none of her would-be children would ever succumb to the devilish temptation to play hunky AAA man on the side of the 91. But I guess we all take our risks.


Aside from her boogieman stories, changing a tire in the field did still seem like a real chore, and doing it while dodging bullets on the freeway would only make matters worse. Luckily, I knew that my Goodyear number wasn’t going to be called until The Absolutely Most Inconvenient Time Conceivable, and clocks hadn’t quite struck that hour yet.


 

So it’s March, like I said. I’m set to drive to Tulare, a pretty hicky farm town just a bit south of Fresno. One of the farms is just all cherry blossoms, the whole square of it, and on Sundays this time of year cherry blossoms wear their best outfits. But I’m voyaging to Tulare not solely in search of botanical gardens but also accreditation – a qualifying ticket to June’s Mammoth Motocross race. Mammoth is the biggest amateur race on the West Coast, but qualifying for it at Tulare’s track is usually pretty easy. The city’s remote grunginess wards off all but the most devout hobbyists. Racing starts at 6am in Tulare, so I begin the three hour trek the night before, with obvious rubber trepidation.


Everything goes smoothly for a while. 405 traffic is bearable, the van isn’t making any violently irritating interior noises. Two hours in and I haven’t even fully gotten sick of my music. I leave the tunes on while I make a brief pitstop to finish my soggy sandwich outside of Fort Tejon. It was really soggy. The bread had taken on a yogurt-like consistency. I opted to eat it protein style. With the Sun getting ready for bed, winds picking up, my 4:30am alarm set, and nothing in between me and my hotel except a 100 mile stretch of The Grapes of Wrath, I realized that these characters formed an ensemble cast for my mind’s best approximation of The Absolutely Most Inconvenient Time Conceivable. Alas, with the last of the slippery stack of ham and swiss down the hatch, and tire pressure sensors reading Just Fine, I pressed forward toward destiny.


The night is extra black in the sticks. Like there’s a viscosity to it. Something stirrable. These are trucking highways now, with the potholes to prove it, and threading the van port and starboard through them is, I suppose, good practice for tomorrow. The asphalt, where unfractured, assumes an aged heather gray. When roads lay out in the sun for summer, it’s to lighten. On the edges, billboards illuminate the imagination, eyeglasses cut out taillights’ glare. Odometer miles count up like loading percentiles, progress markers of a journey that I may finish after all. I make note of the highway construction headway that has been made since last year’s qualifying race, outlined by floppy orange cones in slightly new positions. There were no cones around these parts when I first met the cherry blossoms, three years ago.


I made a fuel stop 10 miles outside of Tulare, gave the car’s four corners a preflight inspection worthy of Top Gun marks, plastered up some blankets around the windows to shield my steed from naked crimes, and did some quick computations that yielded this final stretch statistically irrelevant.


 

And it was. Against the clock ticks of the inevitable, I arrived at the hotel, completely un-inconvenienced. Completely convenienced.


But the early evening only held half the horrors. The front desk lady obligingly checked me in and told me about the wonders of the complimentary 6:30am breakfast, and I nodded along, wistfully fantasizing of sleeping in so late, of sleeping at all. Because I don’t sleep.


Now – this truth is softened by the years of data authenticating it. I’m very experienced in the department of insomnia.


Caffeine after 1pm? Burn the midnight oil.

Europe trip? My jet lag lives in infamy.

Motorcycle race? It’s futile to even lie down.


I’m not really an anxious person. I am quite calm. But sometimes I just can’t sleep. So it’s hour after hour, drowsily unsedated, thinking hard on whether my past few thoughts were crafted or dreamed, convincing myself they were dreamed, thrilling myself on this vision of rest, fulfilled, until I check the clock again and see that it’s been 6 minutes since I last checked. And then some arithmetic is done, and the 4 hours left turns to 3, and when 3 turns to 2 really what’s the point, and I’m up, and we’re just gonna have to emerge from this insomnia and do a bunch of motorcycle races and gather up our things and make the lulling drive back home droopy eyed – again. Oh and this time, we’re gonna have to change a flat tire.


So I’m up, and I hop in the shower to feel like a human, and I make the 10 minute drive to the track, but by the 12th minute I realize I’ve driven past the entrance for the third year in a row. I fashion a svelte 5 or 7 point turn between road shoulders flooded in irrigation runoff (I told you it’s farmland) and arrive. It’s 5:30am. I can’t see anything. Flashlights signal me through the entry gate and I find a place to park. I race all day long. My last gate (#6 of 6) dropped at 4:30pm.


It was a long, long day. I rode decently, and qualified indeed for my divisions. My arms and hands didn’t cramp up, which was a welcome surprise. Being at a racetrack for 11 hours, by myself, was a very lonely pursuit. Everyone else has their teams, family, spouses, kids, their trucking pitbull that won’t shut the truck up. I was just by myself, which seemed to get more and more claustrophobic the longer the day dragged on. I’m usually content, entertained, to be alone.


I loaded up to leave the track at around 5pm, sun slowly arresting its daily descent. As I was driving out, I saw that one of the water trucks was under maintenance for a blown out left front tire, and at this point the sight of it wasn’t even novel, or creepy, or anything like that. I was resigned to my fate. Twenty minutes after I discovered that lame truck, firmly now on the road home, my own left front tire sensor changed its reading from Just Fine to Misery Loves Company. I told you.


I pulled over to the nearest gas station. It was a Shell and the lot was packed, but the air compressor spot was open to give me indications of intelligent design. And that old tire was low, air pressure wise, bulging at the rim like a woman with a short shirt and tight pants and an unshakable self-image. I killed the ignition and heard the hissing of doom, the song of a razor blade or broken bottle or like-really-aggressive-earring here just to ruin my day. Hour 36 of insomnia, arms deeming now an appropriate time to cramp, citrus sun hanging in paused contemplation over the horizon like a timid swimmer sitting on the edge of the pool. It was time to get busy. We were blocks away from the freeway, but I figured that I should still move the van to a more fitting workshop, perhaps to fulfill mom’s hopes of my being particular when this occasion did arise. D&S Fine Tire Services next door seemed a fitting arena and yet another one of this story’s rebuttals of the concept of free will. D&S is closed on Sundays, but the concrete pad in front of their roll up doors was the best approximation of a level surface that I was going to find.


While a soundless, leathery man walked by dual wielding brown paper bags from Shell’s minimart, I jacked the front end up and assumed the criss-cross applesauce position to pull that condemned sucker off – my body now transforming from an amalgam of dirt and sweat to a solution with a distinct base of charcoaled brake dust that would make Chilean miners think of me as initiated. I fiddled with that spare tire for seemingly a few hours trying to get the holes to line up and used a Pantheon of Lords’ names in vain – triceps convulsing intermittently, sun now diving exponentially, mind singing Murphy’s best line over and over again. I got the thing lined up and bolted down and dropped back to Earth while the sky still had a Halloweeny orange streak beside night’s eternal black, because that’s what I do.


But this bout of hubris was particularly fleeting, as just after I finished signing the final of my audience’s autographs outside of D&S I realized that I had forgotten my credit card back at the track – the most forsaken place on Earth to me at this moment – race administrators holding it as collateral for my timing transponder, which I had apparently forgotten to return. At this point, I got closer to weeping myself silly than I have in many years. I felt, for maybe the first time in my life, that there was not enough of me.


I meandered back to the track to collect my thoughts and financial tools, sizing up a drowsy and introspective drive into the night ahead of me. Wallet full again, I bid the cherry blossoms adieu for the second time in as many hours and reassured myself that most of the consequential days of my life, which in the grand scheme of high performance humans are really nonconsequential, but I reassured myself that most of those locally consequential days, for me, have been preceded by tossy turny insomnia, and I got through all of those too.


So Taylor Swift soothed me into automotive autopilot, this time free of motorcycle daydreams, as I gently cruised from farmland back to civilization, building myself back up.