It isn’t quite Death Valley. But it’s July in the Imperial Valley of California. The sun has baked everything into the same pale dusty beige, except for the almost-alien bright green patches of land served by irrigation rigs. We’re barreling westward in our matching pale tan van, beach gear tucked in behind suitcases in the back.

Highway sign to El Centro, CA

I’ve got my eyes fixed on the barely perceptible outline of mountains far across the valley. I love road trips and adventures and driving through the mountains that guard the Pacific coast. I live for that first glimpse of ocean blue on the far side, for the unique California-style spaghetti of highways, for the kiss of salt and seaweed on my lips.

But all of that is still almost three hours away. We have yet to cross the vast below-sea-level valley “where the sun spends the winter.”

My sisters and I are reading on our vinyl bench seat in the middle, the home-made curtains drawn to keep the one by the south-facing window from baking. For the moment, we aren’t bickering over who got stuck with the middle seat this leg of the drive. I’m pleased because I have the seat nearest the door. I can swing my legs to the side, into the gap between the bench and the door, and stretch a little without invading anyone else’s precious space.

A strange clanging sound breaks into the relative peace. The van begins to shudder. My dad slows a little, listening for any change with the RPMs.

The shaking worsens and suddenly something huge is crashing and banging under my feet. I can feel it. I stare at the van’s black rubber floor in terror. I expect an explosion, fire, and metal shrapnel any second. I’m coiled like a cat ready to leap, hand on the sliding door lever. Dad wrangles the van to the shoulder, slowing as fast as he can without sending everything loose in the van flying. As soon as the van stops, I wrench the sliding door open as I yell, “GET OUT!!!!” I hurl myself through the opening, run across the sand to the barbed wire fence bordering the dusty field, and turn to look at the van, expecting it to explode at any second. (Have I mentioned my wild imagination before?)

My sisters tumble out behind me, puzzled and alarmed at my panic, but not ready to hit the dirt the way I am.

I notice smoke behind the van. Something had set some of the brown bits of grass on fire.

Dad crouched down and peered under the van. I’m still standing back, ready to dive for cover when the shrapnel started flying, when he straightens up.

“The drive shaft dropped out of the engine… from the front. Looks like it bounced around and beat up a bunch of stuff around it under there. We aren’t going anywhere.”

He looks at me. “Relax, Joy. It isn’t going to blow up.”

I keep an eye on the van and on the smoldering grasses while we wait. A man in a faded blue van pulls up behind ours and offers us a ride to El Centro. All five of us squeeze in with our bags of books, sitting on laps and mashed into corners. We spend the afternoon camped out in an air-conditioned Carl’s Jr while dad finds a tow truck and books us a room at the Motel 6 next door. It’s late on a Saturday in small-town America. The auto mechanics are all home for the weekend, and the car rental places are shuttered. Dad can only get the van to the motel parking lot. He briefly considers renting a U-haul truck to drive us the rest of the way to San Diego. I try not to panic at the mental image of pulling up to the beach in a U-haul. I haven’t seen much TV, but even I know that is the opposite of cool. What if my future husband is there? What if he sees? (Yes, these are the ravings of a hormonal early-adolescent girl.)

We spend the rest of the weekend trying to stay cool in the bathwater-warm pool and reading our Nancy Drew mysteries. My parents call a local church and ask if anyone might be willing to pick up a stranded family to attend the service. Someone actually answers the phone, and someone else actually comes to get us, and someone else takes us to lunch after. I decide that El Centro is not the end of the world, even though it looks like it. I reconcile with the Uhaul idea. At least we would be on our vacation.

Fortunately, early on Monday morning, my dad secures a sedan. He spends the next hour trying to fit everything we need into less than half the space. One of us sits between our parents in the front seat, the other two tuck in next to a pile of suitcases, one hand on top of the pile to keep them from crashing down on us.

Our big vacation souvenir that year is a new transmission for the van. But at least we don’t arrive at the beach in a Uhaul.

On Thursdays, I’m writing stories. This week I shared one of my most memorable vehicle breakdown stories (though I have many many more I could share). What’s your best breakdown story? Share it or a link to it in the comments!

If you want to join me, here are the fiction or memoir stories I’ll be writing in February:

  • first kiss 
  • running away
  • tales of a new driver
  • earliest childhood memory