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Woman on the Road - Part 1

Updated on September 14, 2016

Columbia River Gorge

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Columbia River Gorge

I passed Multnomah Falls and didn’t stop there. I’d been there. I was looking forward to what I hadn’t seen. It was early summer and the Columbia Gorge stretched out before me, a long blue ribbon bordered in green. For the first time in my life, I was flying down the highway solo; no one to rush me to the next town or gasoline station; no watching the gas gauge going down as another driver played chicken with the pit stops. No sleeping in rest stops because it was too late to find lodgings. I allowed myself five days to get to my destination, with a side trip to Yellow Stone. There was time to see things, do things, and with luck meet some interesting people.

Once at my destination, I knew it was going to be a long grueling season of summer stock with long hours and lots of backstage drama. The trip was all mine. It was going to be a sweet pleasure and possibly a once in a life-time road trip.

I love driving with the windows down and a beautiful blue sky ahead of me. I like the scenery, watching the other vehicles going past in both directions and imagining who the people are and where they might be going. Some trips it’s all recreational vehicles and wishing you could see the scenery. Others, it’s mostly you and the truckers and you can pace yourself by whether they are breaking the speed limit or not. When the weather is really good, there are lots of motorcycles and I remember some good trips on winding country roads.

This was the first scenic section of the trip before I had to turn north and drive through eastern Washington, where it would be flat, hot, and dry all the way to Boise. It was gradually uphill and I wasn’t worried about the heat or strain on the engine. Then I saw steam coming out of the hood, heard an explosion, looked down at the thermostat and it was red lining. I pulled over, got out and slowly lifted the hood. When the steam cleared, I found the radiator cap wedged between the back of the engine and the firewall.

Columbia River Gorge Road Map

I should have been watching the gauge more closely. But it hadn’t seemed like a long steep climb. Grapevine Hill is a steep climb, that’s a place where you watch your gauges carefully and carry extra water, just in case. This was a long narrow gorge with a slow climb; unlike Grape Vine Hill, which is a steep 5 mile climb over the Tehachapi Pass on I-5 between the Santa Clara Valley and The San Joaquin Valley. This wasn't like that; it was relaxing, the river on one side and the gorge wall on the other. But in the end, it wouldn’t have mattered if I had watched the gauge, but a lot more happened before I got back on the road again.

Breaking down when you are not near a town is always a sketchy situation. You don’t know how long you will be on the side of the road and whether it’s safe or not. They say you should stay inside the car. That’s if you don’t pass out from heat stroke in the summer. I remember one time, I had a flat in the middle of summer on I-95 in South Carolina. There was no phone signal and it was hotter than hell. So, I got a blanket out of the car and sat on the grassy shoulder until the highway patrol or some good citizen came along. It wasn’t long before a patrol car pulled up. The patrolman got out of his car, took one look at me and with an accent like the warden in Cool Hand Luke said, ”Was you takin’ a sun bath?”

I had a phone signal this time and only had to talk to one flaky hippie before a tow truck came. Now I’m not opposed to hippies in general, and I’ve even been called one myself from time to time. It’s just those certain ones who are all peace ‘n love, dumb as a door knob, and still think they were put on earth to take care of all the women. I politely told him help was on the way and encouraged him to be on his. I think he understood I wasn’t looking for company.

I was just far enough from Portland that there were no major towns close by. I was near an exit, though and the tow truck took me to a wide place in the road that had a tavern, a motel, a grocery store and luckily a service station with a road mechanic. I was hoping to hang out for a couple of hours and be on my way. Bad news comes in threes and this was the second bad news. I had a blown head gasket and it wouldn’t be fixed until the next day.

The mechanic assured me I could drive it down to the motel to unload baggage. It was packed to the gills with suitcases and boxes that accounted for all the worldly possessions I couldn’t bear to part with. So, one of my extra days was used up.

Hells Angels Colors

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I pulled up to my motel room, opened the door and commenced to throw everything into the room. I’d noticed the unusual number of motorcycles in town and recognized the Hells Angels colors. There were a couple of them standing in the doorway of the next roomnwatching my unseemly arrival. They didn’t offer to help, just stared. I recognized one of them from one of the films the Angels had appeared in. The other one said, “ Was it a man?” I stopped for a second and just looked at him.


“No, my car is broke down and I wasn’t planning to stop here.”

An overnight stay turned into two, so I had a chance to get to know my disreputable neighbors before I left. The Angels were having their annual gathering in a state park across the river. I talked to a few of them and they are actually pretty nice to strangers. I wasn’t asking to join up though. They were on their best behavior, given that the Oregon State Police, the Washington State Police, the county sheriffs from both counties and the local police were out in full force. This was a time when the membership was starting to include lawyers and other professionals and the club was seeking to change its image. My neighbors were somewhat discouraged by the public’s unwillingness to accept their new respectability and their continued difficulty finding a place for their annual gathering.

The mechanic turned out to know his business and I kept that car for a couple of years more. That was end of my tourist adventure. I knew I had to drive straight through now. I would have to make only pit stops and rest stops when I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. Now I didn’t just watch the truckers. I followed them. I slowed down when they slowed down sped up when they sped up. I stayed close enough to the last truck in a convoy to hide from radar.

Don't park here

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The truckers knew I was following then and noticed that I respected the unwritten rules; like don’t get in front of them on a hill and don’t get in between trucks that are trying to stay together. Eventually, they got curious about me. And one evening when I stopped for dinner at a truck stop one of them stopped to talk to me.

At first, I thought I was in for it. Not only had I been following them I was stopping in the truckers' areas at the truck stops. They don’t like that, in fact, in rest areas it is against the rules. I didn’t have to worry. They already had it figured out. They could see I was a woman traveling alone and knew I was doing it to feel safe. He asked me where I was going and what my situation was. By the end of the conversation, he’d offered for him and his buddy to look out for me as long as I was headed their way. He told me to stay between his truck and his buddy’s and they would ferry me until they turned south toward Denver. They call this the rocking chair position because you can just relax and drive. The truck in front watches out for trouble up ahead and the truck in back watches for patrol cars coming up from behind. Plus, you are pretty much shielded for radar; you're a small target between those two big diesels.

Don't break down here.

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The rest of this leg of the trip was pit stops, diner food and cattle ranges where there was enough grass to feed them. As I got further east, the grasslands faded and the landscape changed to empty space and buttes rising out of nowhere; the only sign of civilization--the train headed back where I came from.

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