Our car had broken down on our way to the airport, and we were panicking on pueblo land.
The woman at the gas station said the closest taxis were idling 40 miles south in Albuquerque. My daughter Poppy was on hold with Southwest Airlines while my son London sat glumly on a pile of suitcases like a forgotten orphan at a train depot.
In the midst of our pre-vacation madness, I immediately thought of one of our favorite television shows, The Amazing Race, and how the winning contestants never waited for a better offer to come along; they always took the first opportunity, even if that opportunity was unseemly, dangerous or both.
While Lala was busy hustling at the truck stop, I finagled later flights, postponed rental cars and hired a tow truck.
“He said he’d do it for 30 bucks,” Lala said, huffing and puffing and pointing to a pickup truck with its hood open like a gaping mouth. An older man was pouring oil into the engine; this didn’t seem like a good omen.
“Do you trust him?”
“Hell, I don’t know. I offered $20 and we settled on $30.”
I looked at my watch. “Let’s do it,” I said, as if the $10 raise was some kind of sign.
In a flash, we emptied any valuables from our vehicle, left the keys in the glove box for the tow truck guy and rolled our bags over to our soon-to-be-driver, who was moving debris from the back seat to the truck’s bed. When he turned, his unshaven, slightly sunken face reminded me of Walter Brennan, John Wayne’s famous sidekick who uttered things like “Dagnabbit!”— only this man was not as amusing and hopefully more sober.
“Come on, buckle up,” I said to my terrified kids and threw the bags in the back. Shuddering to think what kind of behavior we were modeling, I chanted, “Amazing Race, Amazing Race,” as I climbed into the unfamiliar vehicle where I’d spend the next 40 white-knuckled minutes.
After Lala thanked him and I’d introduced the family, things got terribly quiet. I knew we all were wondering if this man with his cowboy hat on the dash would leave us stranded in an arroyo somewhere or on the off-ramp to the Sunport like the family of hitchhikers we now were.
“Have you lived in New Mexico long?” I asked.
“Fourth generation,” he said proudly.
“Wow!” seemed like the kind of response that might win over a guy thinking about ditching a family by the side of the frontage road.
“My family owned land from the university all the way up the mountains. I tried to buy it back from the city for $37 million dollars back in the ’70s, but they wouldn’t sell it.”
The mention of currency must have reminded Lala that there ain’t no free rides west of the Mississippi because she said, “Here’s your $30,” and dropped the money in a nearby cup holder. He just nodded, and I wondered why a guy who once had enough dough to buy a good portion of Albuquerque would be shuttling folks for the amount an oil change would cost at Jiffy Lube.
We had miles to go before we breathed, and the kids still seemed like frightened extras in a horror film, so I asked Walter about his current occupation.
“I’m building a water pipeline from Mexico to San Diego,” he said.
“Bullshit,” I coughed into my elbow and turned back to the two limp bills languishing in the cup holder. Lala gave me a steely I-think-I-might-be-a-hostage smile. Our own car was probably back in Santa Fe by now and, with any luck, we could make the next flight out if I kept him talking.
“Tell me more,” I said, my eyes fixed straight ahead.
Robert Wilder’s most recent book is Tales from the Teachers’ Lounge. Daddy Needs a Drink appears the first Wednesday of each month in the Santa Fe Reporter.