Have you ever had one of those life experiences that, upon reflection, seems like it was ripped straight from the headlines fiction pages? I have one that could have easily been from an episode of Breaking Bad. One of those, Mr. White and Jesse keep making one bad decision after another until they get themselves jammed up in the middle of the Arizona desert. Yeah, this is like that, only without the meth.

Like many stories, this one starts long before the event. I mean, if you’re gonna get an episode of Breaking Stoney, you might as get the cold open.


Not long after college, I was in need of a vehicle. A buddy of mine heard about a car auction, so we decided to go check it out. Granted, I know nothing about cars, so I really had no means of “checking out” any vehicle I might have been interested in, but none of that mattered. Mostly because, on the day of the auction, I was sick.

No, it wasn’t COVID, or Ebola, or a tumor. It was worse: Man-Flu! Needless to say, I was down and out. Getting out of bed to walk the five steps to the bathroom was one thing. Hanging out at a car auction all day was decidedly off the table. So, I did the next best thing: I gave my buddy a blank check and told him to come back with my new car.

Don’t worry, that was not the dumbest thing I did in this story. It get’s better.

$2500 POS

After spending all day at the auction, my buddy comes back with one of those mini-SUVs. At this point, I forget what kind of car it was. I only remember it was white. And cost me $2500. And if memory serves, a complete POS.

Off the bat, the SUV needed work. I had to take get the transmission rebuilt, immediately dropping another $1500 into it. And that was just the beginning. My $2500 investment turned into a money pit. And money was something I didn’t own.

After a month or so, the SUV acquired a radiator leak. Now, I could get away with short-distance driving just by filling up the radiator fluids every few days. Not a problem. Totally manageable. At least until my sister called me up on Christmas Eve to ask me to chauffeur her to Los Angeles. At the time, I was living in northern California, making that around an 8-hour drive. I could manage that. Just remember to fill the radiator when I gas up, and everything would be okay.

Or so I assumed.

Trouble Brews

About four hours into our journey, we had already had to refill the radiator a couple of times, and my sister and I realized the truck wasn’t gonna make it. I suppose I didn’t factor in the speed differential on the radiator refill calculations. My sister called my Uncle to meet us, and she sent me on my way back home.

Now, if you don’t know anything about the stretch of highway between northern and southern California, let me just describe it as the place Nowhere goes to get lost. Getting stranded out here was not an option. So I did what any 20-year old in my position would do… I raced home before the SUV conked out for good.

In retrospect, racing home may not have been the best idea. The more I drove, the more frequently I had to stop. It wasn’t long before I was refilling the radiator every EXIT! Soon, I was praying just to make it to the next exit.

Thar She Blows

And then it happened. I saw the next exit a quarter-mile ahead. I take it and… wait for it… the SUV dies on the offramp. Gone. Kaput. It’s done. There I am, in the middle of podunk nowhere.

Luckily, this exit sported a gas station, two small hotels, and a payphone. This, of course, was before the cell phone.

I call my sister; she’s already in LA and ain’t coming back for me. I call my friend who bought the POS; he’s not home. I called a tow truck; success!

Mr. Tow Truck Driver said he’d take my truck to his garage and work on it the next day. He arrives an hour later, and it’s starting to get dark. Mr. TTD picks me up and hauls me and my little truck to… Mendota.

Lost and Alone

Now, if I’m completely honest, I really have no idea where I was when I broke down. I think it’s Marker 1 on the map below. (We’ll get to marker 2 later.) If memory serves, Marker 1 feels right. That’s about a 25-minute drive from Mendota, which I know is how much time I spent with a stranger in the tow in the middle of nowhere as night was falling. Yeah, I was counting every second.

Mendota, CA

So, I’m in Mendota, 25 minutes off the freeway, which already is in the middle of nowhere, just outside of Fresno. I asked Mr. TTD if there was a hotel in town, and he told me no. Information that would have been helpful before I got in the truck with him. Though to be fair, he may have told me, and I promptly ignored him. He did, however, point me in the direction of a… I don’t know, you might call it a motel, but that’s being generous.

I walked through town, found the motel, and checked in. And then promptly checked out.

When I opened the door to my room, the first thing I noticed was the lack of a TV. Hell no. I’m not spending Christmas Eve in a run-down motel in the middle of nowhere without a TV. Oh, and no heat, either. I’m out. (Yes, I know it’s California and all, but it still gets cold in the winter at night. Once the sun set, it was definitely heater weather. Especially since I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt!

I immediately began trying to hitch a ride back to the freeway. That wasn’t as easy as I would have thought. It was close to 9 pm by then most everything was closed. One grocery store was still open and began asking begging bribing anyone I came across to take me back to the hotel on I-5. I couldn’t give my last $40 away no matter how hardI tried.

Worst Free Ride Ever

Finally, one of the store employees agreed to take me to the hotel, but I’d have to wait until they closed around 10. So I waited. And wandered. And waited. And wandered. 10pm came and went, as did 10:30, then 10:45. Still, no signs of him leaving. Finally, 11pm rolled around, and he (along with his family) were ready to go.

Little did I know that you could pack six adults into a 5-seat car. I wish I could say it was hot and stuffy, but, for whatever reason, this family cranked the AC. So here I am, shivering the entire 30-minute drive. Except it wasn’t a 30-minute drive. Why? Did I enter the Twilight Zone? Did the city of Mendota suddenly move further away?

It was only later that I realized they didn’t take me back to where I started but instead took me to another exit, further away (Marker 2 on the map above). And instead of the recognized hotel chains that I saw at the previous exit, this exit only had ONE option and, well, it wasn’t offering a night of poor-boy-luxury that I had hoped.

But at least it had heat and a TV.

Christmas Day

I called the repair shop early in the morning to make sure he was working on it and get an ETA. Bad news. It’s going to take him three days to get the parts needed to fix my SUV. I don’t really have three days.

I called my buddy and asked him to come pick me up. He finally shows up mid-day. I’ve arranged a U-Haul truck with a car trailer, but it’s all the way in Fresno. So we head over, sign all the paperwork, and drive the U-Haul to Mendota. And this is where I get my bright idea.

We’re four hours from home, and I don’t want to drive the U-Haul truck alone. It’s Christmas, after all. I suggested we load the SUV into the back of the U-Haul, and then we can carry his car on the trailer. Brilliant!

Now, if you’re reading that and not seeing the problem, I appreciate it. Because I didn’t see it either.

When we arrived at the repair shop, I figured out the best way to get the SUV into the back of the U-Haul. It would work like this:

  1. Lower the trailer ramps and drive SUV onto the trailer backward.
  2. Unhook the trailer from U-Haul and spin it around.
  3. Raise trailer ramps onto the bed of the U-Haul.
  4. Drive SUV into the back of U-Haul truck.
  5. Drive home.

Again, if you’re reading that and not seeing the problem, I appreciate it. Because I didn’t see it either.

What I failed to realize is that a trailer, unconnected to a hitch, is really nothing more than an expensive see-saw. The moment I tried to drive my SUV into the back of the U-Haul, the tail end of the trailer collapsed under the weight of the SUV.

But don’t worry, I managed to gett the front wheels of the SUV onto the bed of the U-Haul. Yeah, at this point, I saw the problem.

What Was I Thinking?

Here we are, front wheels in the bed of the U-Haul, back wheels on the trailer. Driving it into the U-Haul certainly isn’t an option. Driving it back out, well, that wasn’t really an option either. So we did the next best thing. We got out the forklift.

Of course, no one wanted to be responsible for lifting the SUV up and out of the U-Haul, mind you. Liability issues, I guess. We finally convinced someone after promising to release hold them blameless of the consequences. So then we just debated whether or not to put the SUV into the back of the U-Haul or on the ground. I bet you can figure out which side I was on. No, I still did not see the problem with that.

While the debate waged, the sun went down, and the cops showed up. We had a talk. They asked about my brilliant plan and found it somewhat amusing, albeit incredulous. “How did you plan to secure the SUV and keep it from sliding around in the back of the U-Haul?” Uh… I hadn’t thought of that.

But what really concerned them is what a white boy like me was doing in Mendota at night. Apparently, it wasn’t safe. Information that would have been helpful yesterday.

I took this new information as my cue to leave.

We hastened Operation: Forklift, secured the truck ONTO the trailer, hitched the trailer back up, and hightailed it out of Mendota.

Fun times.

I never did get the truck repaired. I ended up selling it to a junkyard for a few hundred dollars. Only after the fact did I realize I left a $400 stereo amplifier in the vehicle. That itself was worth more than I got for the whole vehicle. Sigh.

I bet you’re wondering if I learned my lesson from that escapade. I most definitely did. Never again did I attempt to put an SUV into the back of a U-Haul truck.

But I thought about it.