Breakdown at the End of the World

Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink… So, here I am, like some kind of comic superhero in his special costume as I peddle the bicycle over the bridge which connects the island with the mainland. It’s a major highway with four lanes of heavy traffic and no bike lane.  I have no helmet or backpack or any biking accessories whatsoever.  Socks and flip flops cover my feet, my long crazy hair blows in the wind and the blue jeans and flannel shirt are far from fashionable.  I am completely unprepared for this journey I am on because it’s not a journey that I intended to take.  But we are broken down at the ends of the earth.  Humans need water to live so I am on a quest to find some.  And it is that quest for water that has led me to my present predicament.

Seriously, I could stay at Perdido Key for weeks.  I have a couple of books to read, a notebook to write in, a beach to walk on, sand to sculpt with and colorful shells to collect.  We will have to venture back to reality to collect supplies every few days, but that will only be a minor inconvenience.  For my purposes, the circumstances of the universe here on Perdido are pretty gosh darn wonderful.  Ms. B. however, is not quite as thrilled as I. She does like it here.  She too is impressed by the imagery and atmosphere.  But she wants our journey to continue after a brief stopover.  Theoretically, even better vistas and more wonderful locations are waiting for us just a little further down the road.   Thus we are faced with the typical ongoing controversy of compulsive travelers.  When you find a place you like, how long do you stay?  We agree on four days.

On the morning of the third day, however, we have to make a trip to reality in order to get provisions.  It’s not a big deal.  It shouldn’t take long.  The only thing we really need is more water.  Yeah sure, a bottle of wine and a few treats to supplement our food would be nice but they are certainly not necessary.  I only wish we could beam there instead of driving but that technology hasn’t been invented yet.  Oh well, it will only take an hour or so.  We leave almost everything in the tent and hike the mile along the beach back to the car.  I don’t even bring my shoes for such a short excursion.  No doubt, flip flops are all I will need.

But the car won’t start when we get there.  Can you believe it?  It cranks a little but won’t turn over.  Of all the places on the planet earth for the car to break down, why does it have to happen here…at the end of the world?  It’s like some kind of karmic slap.  The universe is teaching me a lesson about the goodness of civilization.  Think you don’t need a car superman?  We’ll show you…  But it’s a lesson that I refuse to learn.  We are dependent upon the automobile.  We need it to take us to the grocery store so we can get water and food.  But why does that have to be the case?  Our society is organized to make automobiles necessary.  But we could just as easily organize things differently.  Why don’t we?

Fortunately, I have my bicycle on the back of the car.  The shoes are in the tent so I will have to ride in flip flops but it can’t be that far.  There’s probably a store of some kind right outside the park entrance.  We have enough food.  So all we really need is water.  I can strap a couple jugs to the bike rack with a bungee chord.  “Don’t worry about a thing Ms. B.  You wait here.  I’ll be back in a flash with all of life’s necessities.”  I hop upon my faithful mechanical steed and the water quest begins.

The three mile ride through the park is pleasant enough. There’s a little head wind but no traffic.  I put some socks on because my toes are cold and it looks kind of goofy but the pedaling is not awkward.  About half way to the entrance, I see a peculiar sight.  Five or six people dressed in fluorescent green and orange outfits are mulling about down by the shoreline.  They look like unpaid extras on a low budget sci fi movie set.  I wonder what they are up to but don’t get a chance to ask.   I pass no vehicles or other visitors as I peddle happily along.

I stop at the park entrance to talk with the ranger.  I explain our vehicle problems and ask about the dark spots I saw on the beach the other day.  He tells me that the spots are probably oil related and mentions the colorful crews of people who are out collecting tar balls.   Okay…so they weren’t actors in a sci fi flick, they were real people in a sci fi reality show.   Oil Spill Survivor… coming soon to a television near you.  The ranger also informs me that there are not any stores close to the park.  I will have to cross back over the bridge to the mainland if I want to get supplies.   If I remember correctly, the bridge is a major highway.  Damn. This little journey just keeps getting more complicated.

The bike ride beyond the park is a nightmare. The narrow untraveled road tees into a major congested highway.  Go left or right, it makes no difference.  There are four lanes of fast moving traffic with no bike path and very little shoulder.  This right here is problem number one with the American transportation reality.   People don’t count only cars do.  This road was obviously not designed with cyclists in mind.  I’d have to be crazy to go forward upon it.  It’s dangerous and stupid all rolled into one.  Hercules had it easier on his jaunt through Hades.  Nevertheless, I persevere.  Don’t worry Ms. B., I will get you some water.  Zoom, zoom, rumble, rumble.  Small cars zip and big trucks lumber as they crowd me towards the curb.  But I keep on peddling forward.   Onwards and upwards, I will make it to the destination.  A steep arch of concrete rises up in front of me like a monument to the madness of civilization.  The bridge must have been built that way to allow tall ships to pass beneath.  It spans a half a mile or so of distance from the island to the mainland.  Am I really going to do this?  I feel like a character in a new age performance piece.  The gas powered monsters crowd around me spewing their filthy exhaust.  Here I am the crazy man with long snarly hair, a big fluffy beard and flip flops peddling amongst them on a human powered contraption…one of these things is not like the other ones…  Am I some kind of bizarre metaphorical throwback to an earlier time (Primitive Pat from the stone age)?  Or perhaps I am more of a bizarre throw forward to an inevitable future.  The fact of the matter is, we live in a country that has a transportation infrastructure designed to accommodate automobiles rather than humans.  That does not have to be the case.  We could very easily design our transportation system around mass transit trains and bike paths.  Passenger vehicles could be demoted to the more realistic position of luxury item rather than serving as an everyday necessity for survival.  But such a transformation of our infrastructure would require a massive government investment in a useful project that would employ lots of people.  It would be the single best thing they could do to promote a real human economy.  So of course they will not do it.  Instead, I have to deal with this, live with this.  Put up with this.  It really is an unfair universe.

Anyway, I do make it over the bridge and I manage to cross the highway and reach the grocery store.  I lock my bike to a street sign because there is no bike rack and I go inside.  As I walk the brightly lit aisles that are stacked neatly with mountains of corporate food product, my brain flashes back to the cynical kid in my junior high school class.  “Just you wait,” he used to say, “it’s only a matter of time.  In a few more years, the corporations will be selling us water.”  We laughed at the kid back then because the idea was so far fetched and ridiculous.  You can’t own water.  You can’t sell water.  Water belongs to the earth.  Water belongs to everyone…  Yeah right.  Now I’m in the water aisle trying to decide which corporate brand of water in a jug I will choose. It’s amazing how much the world “evolves”.  How long do you think it will be, before the corporations start selling us air?

The journey back is as comical and crazy as the journey there.  Only now I have three gallons of water tied to my bicycle as I weave my way through the congested clusterfuck of pollution spewing engines.  The metaphors are dense and the symbolism almost overwhelming.  Water versus energy will be the war of the coming century.  And here I am on a bicycle peddling water through a traffic jam.  Sometimes I feel like a character in an epic story rather than a real person.  This is one of those times.

Ms. B. is relieved by my safe return.  I was gone a surprisingly long time and she grew thirsty and anxious in the hot sun.  All is good now.  We have enough water for several days and plenty of food.  Let’s go back to camp and enjoy our sublime location.  Maybe the car will get better on its own; or we can just deal with it later.  Let’s live now and forget the complications.

But of course we can’t.  Ms. B. tried the ignition a few more times while I was gone and now it won’t even turn over.  The car is dead.  It needs a tow or a jump or something.  We can’t just put it off until we run out of provisions because the lurking problem will ruin our good time.  Damn!  Damn!  It’s an unfair universe…

Fortunately, Ms. B. has triple A.

We go back to camp and pack up our stuff.  We lug it all to the car and then she calls triple A.  Two thumbs up for road side service that works.  Here we are at the ends of the earth.  She makes the call and smiling, friendly, southern accented Don Sheffield and his big rig super truck show up in less than an hour.  The whole scene is perfect…like a scripted television commercial.  “Don’t you folks worry about a thing.”  He attaches the cables and Ms. B. tries the ignition.  It won’t turn over.  He reaches inside the engine and jiggles something.  She tries again and it almost works.  He reaches in and jiggles again.  She tries it a third time and it still doesn’t work.  He asks her to get out and let him do it.  Sure enough, when Don turns the ignition, it starts right up.  He emerges from the vehicle with a triumphant I saved the day smile and advises us to run the car for a long time before shutting it off.  He also says that we should get the battery checked as soon as possible.  Then he climbs back into his big rig and drives off into the sunset… Roll the credits…triple A roadside service…

We follow Don’s advice and commence driving.  We drive and drive and drive some more.  We leave Perdido behind and head to Alabama.  Once again we find ourselves on the never ending road of corporate sameness.  Oz has yellow bricks, America has golden arches and lots of Auto Parts Stores.  At the first place we stop, a dodgy guy with a deceitful snicker tells us we need a new alternator.  He offers to do the job for us at a discount at his brother’s garage if we go there after working hours.  I’m all in favor of the alternative economy but this guy just seems like a scoundrel.  We take his card politely but continue on our way.  At the second place we stop, they replace the battery and tell us that the alternator is fine.  Who can you trust in this cold cruel world?

With the automobile fully functional, we continue onward to the next destination.  But where shall we go?  What shall we do?  We can’t go back to Perdido.  A news bulletin on the radio makes sure of that.  There’s a severe weather advisory for the entire gulf coast.  A low pressure system will be passing through the area tonight bringing high winds, heavy rain, intense lightening and possible tornados.  It’s definitely not a good night for camping in the dunes.  Indeed, Ms. B. now makes the outrageous claim that her Subaru broke down on purpose in order to protect us from the weather.   Yeah yeah, I know, bad luck is good luck if you look at it from the proper perspective.  If not for the mishap, we’d be sitting naively in our campsite and not know anything about the approaching tempest.  Instead, we are safe and sound driving a heavy vehicle through strip mall landia looking for a good place to hunker down for the night.

We end up in the town Fairhope, Alabama.   Oddly enough, a few days ago in Pensacola, a couple of artists we met recommended Fairhope as a pleasant place to visit with an awesome Mardi Gras party.  We did not plan on attending Mardi Gras but that is how our story unfolds.  The first day of the parade is the evening we arrive.  How strange is this universe in which I live?  Yesterday, we were all alone on a forgotten empty beach.  Tonight we are in a crowd of revelers reaching to catch Mardi Gras beads that are being tossed from a colorful float.  And the only reason we are here and not there is that the car broke down.

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