Monday, December 11, 2017

Three birds and a truck, part 1

Early in our travels to the southwest, we spent a night in the parking lot of a gas station convenience store in Hinton, Oklahoma. This was not a planned stop, so don’t bother Googling Hinton to see if it’s got some amazing place for tacos or the childhood home of someone famous who got the hell out of there as fast as they could. As far as I know, Hinton has none of that, though it is the nearest town to Red Rock Canyon State Park, where we had stopped briefly to stretch our legs (and our wings, in the case of our macaws). It was a weekday, so the park was nearly empty, though our birds did make quite an impression on the handful of people we saw there, including a young couple in prim, formal clothing that suggested they might be Amish, who stopped to watch Phoenix descend gracefully down from a tree to K’s arm. They smiled with delight. This happened a lot, not always with Amish people, but always with our birds, because even though everyone has an idea of what a parrot is, surprisingly few people have ever seen one up close and personal. One week, three states, and hundreds of miles later, at least a few more people can say they have.

We’d stopped at the Hinton convenience store after the park because we needed a roadmap. That’s right, a good old-fashioned paper map to unfurl awkwardly and try to refold even more awkwardly so that it’s a little less cumbersome to read. This was not out of nostalgia. K’s phone was dying and the DC converter wasn’t working and he had brought the wrong charger for the inverter (and I have no idea what I just said, as electronics are not my area of expertise at all). We had to go retro to get ourselves to New Mexico, where we intended to camp, hike, and fly our birds in as secluded a spot as we could find. The tricky part, or so we thought, would be the finding. When K came back out of the store empty-handed and tried to start up our moving-truck-turned-camper, we realized that the even trickier part would be avoiding spending our entire vacation in Hinton.

The truck has had a number of mechanical issues in the past, all of them loud and smelly. Parts screeched. Smoke wafted out from the engine. Yet the most frustrating indicator of something gone terribly wrong was nothing. When K turned the key in the ignition, nothing happened. No sound, no smoke, just silence and stillness. It was 4:30pm on a Friday and we had no real idea where we were, other than that it wasn’t where we wanted to be.

K walked up the street to an auto dealership and luckily found a couple of mechanics. They were jovial, jokey, chain-smoking guys who didn’t seem at all put-out that we’d caught them right before quitting time. They checked it out. “The starter,” they said, and one of them drove to the next town 45 minutes away to get a new one because they didn’t have such things in Hinton. An hour and a half, a new starter, and $300 for parts and labor later, still nothing. They shrugged. They told us they’d left a message for their boss, who would get back to us tomorrow morning to see what he could do.

Of all the terrible things that can happen to a person, being stuck in a truck in a small town can’t be considered more than a minor irritation. At the time, however, I can tell you it felt a great deal worse than that. We’d been hankering to see the southwest for over a year, since we’d had to postpone this trip when we bought our old farmhouse. Back then we’d figured the time would be better spent on fixer-upper work than gallivanting around the desert. A year later, the farmhouse remained a fixer-upper, we had yet to gallivant, and we might be spending the whole weekend here, possibly much of the week if the truck needed some special parts that were a lot more than 45 minutes away. We couldn’t stay in a hotel, if Hinton even had one, because of our birds, and the manager of the gas station didn’t seem terribly pleased that we’d be spending the night in their parking lot. I suppose it might have been different if our truck were a normal-looking camper, tan with brown swirls instead of white with white blobs where we’d painted over old graffiti. I suppose it might also have been different if we were from around there, which we clearly weren’t, or if we otherwise fit in some easily relatable or graspable category, which we didn’t. We’d sought escape in the vastness of the desert and instead we were crammed into 200 square feet with three restless birds and the suspicious eyes of small-town Oklahoma upon us. What were we doing here? What were we thinking? That question quickly became an accusatory, resentful what were you thinking in each of our respective heads as our nerves frayed and our hopes of being able to salvage the week dwindled. We had been driving a long time. We were dirty and tired. If we ever got the truck moving again, it might be too late for us to do anything but turn back around and go home to our miserable old farmhouse and wonder how two people could fail at so many things at once.

The next morning, K went back up the street to the dealership to see if the boss was in yet. A few minutes after he’d gone, I heard someone knocking on a window in the cab of the truck. A displeased-looking woman was peering suspiciously into the truck. “Nobody is supposed to park here overnight. Did you break down?” she asked. She was probably the morning shift for the convenience store and the night shift had forgotten to let her know we’d be there, like they’d said they would. Yes, I told her, our truck broke down, we were here overnight—wasn’t that fun!—and her manager was supposed to have been told. “Well, no one told me,” she frowned.

I apologized like mad, explained our unique situation, how we couldn’t go to a hotel because of our macaws. “What’s that?” she asked, frowning again. Parrots, I explained, instantly realizing this wasn’t going to make us seem any less like nutjobs. I kept apologizing and she seemed to relax a bit. “It’s OK, I understand, but you know, I came in this morning and saw this unmarked truck here and, well,” she leaned in and lowered her voice, “you know how things are these days.” I nodded. I did, though I suspected my perspective on these days was likely very different from hers. There’s an ugly, snobby side of me that threatens to take over in times like this, when I start to think about how incredibly little I have in common with the people around me, when I become hyper aware that I don’t look like them or do the kinds of things they did. Yet, because I did the things I did, I was there.

K returned and the boss mechanic soon followed, along with the boss mechanic’s son. The boy was maybe only nine or ten and looked a great deal like Bobby from King of the Hill; he was a little shy around us but competently assisted his dad, bringing various tools as requested. “They may be at it a while,” K said to me grimly. “How are the boys?” They were restless, rattling their beaks against the cage walls like prisoners with tin cups. K shook his head. “I don’t blame them. Let’s take them out for some air.”

I did not like this idea at all; we hardly needed to attract more attention to ourselves, plus all we’d need was for Boston to get up in a tree and decide to camp out there for a while, as he was wont to do, while we cajoled and coaxed and begged him to come down, as hours went by, to make this experience truly special. But K had a point; we had not enjoyed being confined to a small space for a long time ourselves, and our birds were not normally kept in small cages; their habitat at home was so big we could have parked the entire truck within it. If this experience was frustrating for us, it was likely even more so for them. Out they came.

And out came everyone else. The woman I’d talked to earlier from the store reemerged wide-eyed and mouth agape, then ran back in to grab her phone. A young couple who had just pulled in to the parking lot in a car that was more wreck than car (and yet the engine was running, which was one up on us) got out and walked right over to us, as though we and not cigarettes were why they’d stopped. The Bobby look-alike was transfixed. K gave him a piece of walnut and instructed the boy how to hold the treat so that Fred would have to stretch a little to take it, which the big red bird did, gently and gratefully. The traveling parrot show was suddenly the hit of the town.

“I’ve never seen one before, only on TV,” the boy said excitedly. “I want to get one someday.”

Macaws were pretty much the reason we’d spent the night at the gas station, the reason we were traveling in a rickety moving truck instead of a car or a plane, the reason we couldn’t stay at hotels or camp any place where their raucousness might disturb other people or visit anywhere that didn’t allow pets. They were largely the reason the place we called home was a town far smaller and more depressing than this one and a house that barely qualified as having indoor plumbing. In short I was not feeling too especially fond of our critters at the moment, but I do have at least a little bit of a heart, and seeing the kid’s beaming face, all I said was, “They’re a lot of work, though they can be a lot of fun too.”

And then the truck engine suddenly roared back to life. As it turned out, the problem was a fuse—that’s right, a cheap, postage-stamp-sized piece of equipment (so cheap and such an easy fix that the guy refused to charge us). The boss mechanic had smartly taken an existing fuse from the truck—one for the blower, which we knew worked—and moved it to the starter to see if that was the problem. It was.

For want of a fuse the kingdom was very nearly lost, but now we could get on our way. The question was, which way. This time a fuse; what would it be next? The truck had been one minor disaster after another (full disclosure: this was not the first time we’d spent the night at a gas station parking lot, and I can tell you that these would be two more times than anyone who isn’t a trucker getting paid for it needs to spend in a gas station parking lot). As bad as the night was, it could easily have been so much worse. The gas station had a restroom, after all, and all the junk food one could want. If we stalled in the middle of the desert, no one around for miles, which had sounded so appealing when we planned this trip and so very problematic now, what would we do? Did it really make sense to keep going?

You know full well we kept going.

I have never believed in simplistic solutions to complicated problems, so I can’t be completely satisfied in gushing about how wonderful it was to spread some joy and bring different people together through our birds. We’d gone on this trip in part to escape humanity for a while, after all, so bringing people together was not at all on our agenda. But humanity will never be escaped for long; we always come back to it, by plan or by accident, in the small spaces we inhabit in the brief time we’re here.