The Things She Carried—and How
PART TWO: (Read Part One here)
I headed west once again about a year later, this time for graduate school just south of Los Angeles. I had the same truck, same no-boyfriend, but had upgraded my dog and rack system. This rack was custom made and mounted a steel frame around the top of the cap, with a wooden platform on the back for tying down boxes. It didn’t get in the way of the 2x4 and pipe boat rack—which I could still pop on and off.
On the driver’s side, a vice clamp stuck out from the steel frame and a gutter wide enough for mountain bike tires was attached to the fiberglass cap. When I moved cross-country, my rolled up futon wrapped in plastic, footlocker, kayak & paddle were tied on top, with my bike on the side (easily accessible) and everything else inside. I finally knew how some women felt when they got a new purse or diaper bag that carried everything they wanted with the just the right compartments and style.
I headed to CA early because I thought finding a place to rent with a dog might be hard. Turns out another student in the English Department was losing her roommate and had a pet rental. I was set, except I couldn’t get in till August. It was a great excuse to visit a favorite cousin and her husband in northern California. They graciously let me descend on them for many weeks. During that time, her husband, Marc, invited me to join him on a vacation in the Columbia River Gorge where he was meeting several friends who were also doctors and now lived all over the country. They were going to wind surf, but I could camp, bike, hike, and kayak—since I already knew windsurfing was not my thing.
This was how I found myself crossing the state line back into Oregon, my dog on the bench seat next to me, following Marc in his van. I’d left the futon behind and had the truck set up for camping, my bike and kayak on the rack. Just before we got to Hood River and the campground, Marc pulled into a gas station and hell followed with him. That is, I followed him. And, for a coach bus driver, I embodied a level of accidental chaos neither of us could have anticipated.
The bus did not need gas, but the passengers, on tour of the Cascades or gorge, needed a real restroom and snacks so he’d pulled over by the left curb. The only pump available was parallel the bus, with enough room for me to pull in and a person to walk between. I was pulling as close to the pump as possible, watching my passenger side mirror, when I heard the screech of metal. The fact that I was going no more than 5 mph and hadn’t felt a jolt meant I was pretty surprised to see, when I stopped the pick up and looked out my window, the bus door hanging by the bottom hinge and resting against the side of my truck.
I don’t believe one should use the word flabbergasted lightly, but that is the only way to describe the demeanor of the bus driver who was now standing on the step peering out.
Apparently, just as I’d been pulling in, he opened the door, which took up the gap. The few inches my bike handlebar stuck out from the side of the truck was enough to catch the door’s edge. Those door hinges were no match for the vice clamp holding my Specialized Hardrock, though the bike frame had definitely been bent.
There was nothing to do but call the cops who arrived quickly, but one can never be quick enough for a bus driver with people who have paid to go somewhere by a certain time and are suddenly detained. Marc came over, shook his head, and left to use the restroom. The cop walked up and took in the scene. I was 21 and looked more like a river rat than a responsible member of society, an impression my bestickered truck did nothing to quell.
Shaking his head over the bike rack I prepared myself for the lecture, recalling the officer who’d given me a similar lecture over my previous bike rack. Would I never win? Definitely not that day, I realized, as the cop went to write down my license plate number and looked at the front of my truck rather than the back.
“Uh, that’s not the right one,” I told him, remembering I still had the rare version of my former Oregon plate on the front because North Carolina only used a rear plate. It never occurred to me to remove my old one on front when I left NC. It was special, issued only July 1988 to November 1989. It had pale lavender mountains against a light khaki sky, with a pale green Douglas fir in the center. It was so distinctive that in 1988 it’d been awarded “Plate of the Year” for best new license plate by the Automobile License Plate Collector’s Association. This was a first for Oregon, but if you look at their previous plates it’s clear why they never came close before.
Now the lecturing began again as I showed him my insurance information. I didn’t really listen. I was trying to figure out what it was about his tone that had me feeling like he didn’t think this would’ve happened if I hadn’t been a female traveling alone. The person who made the rack, and the friend who’d had one and given me the idea, were both males. I wondered if they really wouldn’t have pulled into that pump. The guys I knew seemed to love maneuvering their much bigger trucks into much smaller spaces. Something I tried not to read too much into.
Pictures were taken, and my dog watched good-naturedly from the open windows as strangers milled around her home-on-wheels. I don’t remember how long we stayed, but I know I left before the bus did as they waited on a new door. I was not given a ticket. Maybe writing it up was more than the officer could face. After all, if the bus driver had been paying more attention he might’ve waited till my vehicle stopped before opening the door. But I didn’t see that either of us was truly at fault.
At the campground, I examined my bike. I wouldn’t be doing any riding this trip. I called the accident in to my insurance, but wouldn’t be able to complete my claim till back at Marc’s. I sat around the campfire, drinking beer generously provided by one of the doctors who had already decided my name was too difficult and he’d call me Lolita. The four men, about ten years older than me, told story after story of their adventures together and alone, laughing at all their mishaps and gloating over proud feats. Most of them sounded like things I’d love to do. Why, I wondered, was it so hard to feel like I could belong out here?
Sometimes you do nothing wrong and there are things beyond your control that take over. I’m sure the folks who designed the award-winning Oregon plate felt that way when the colors were changed in response to public criticism.
I’m pretty sure the bus driver knew the feeling too.
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I write, read, recreate, and raise kids in rural Pennsylvania. I teach part-time in Outdoor Recreation Leadership, Creative Writing, and Women's Studies at Mansfield University.