Monday, June 9, 2014

Dispatch #23: At Off-Ramp's End

by Lupe Fernandez

Exiting 580 Westbound at W. Grant Line Road exit, there is a gravel shoulder at the end of the off-ramp. The shoulder curves around a cut in the hill composed of sedimentary rock eons old. A sun-blasted beer bottle, a torn black iPhone cover, a rumpled blue sweatshirt, dead grass, green weeds and a post with a broken wire. Across the road are more brown hills, a row of power lines, the rumble of high traffic, the smell of dust and asphalt. Miles and miles of gray asphalt, filled cracks like tar veins.

How did this stuff get here? Who stops at a place like this?

I am here to help my nephew with his broken-down car. The alternator on his Datsun had failed and the car could not make the drive over the Altamont Pass - most famous for its infamous 1969 Altamont Speedway Free Festival. He calls AAA and we wait for the tow truck.

Two black SUVs roar down the ramp and pull onto the shoulder, kicking up dust and keeping their engines idling. In the back seat of the second SUV three young men wait, sitting straight up, feed-caps on their heads, the collars of their plaid shirts crisp. Their faces are brown from their birth and from working, perhaps in the fields or more likely construction or laying brick and mortar, installing drywall, digging ditches for sprinklers, landscaping earth into gardens.

A black car shows up and pauses by shoulder, and then lead the two SUVs north on Grant Line Road, following the faded yellow and black ribbon that divided the two lanes, a civil demarcation of traffic law, of you stay there and I stay here, for if we collide, we die.

A blue truck skids to a stop where the off-ramp bleeds into the shoulder. A woman gets out and collects debris that had fallen out of the truck bed.

The AAA tow truck arrives, the driver sitting high in his cab. As my nephew fills out paperwork with the driver, I sit in the shadow of my car, out of the 95 degree heat. A black strip of rubber, a sliver of tire tread lays in the gutter of the shoulder. A shoulder has a gutter? For even an oil-stained, barren shoulder has a place were it puts its trash. How long has the discarded strip lay there? When did the truck with its nameless drive have a blow-out?

Perhaps at 2am on a long haul from Los Angeles or some parts east, the truck traveled up the grade, the driver tuned to a distance frequency of an broadcast Evangelist or the thumping beat of Banda music, when one of the tires blew. This sliver of tire thread flew across several lanes, tumbled down the embankment and crashed into the shoulder of W. Grant Land Road exit. A blown tire cost the driver time and money as he proceeded to the nearest truck stop or pulled to the side of the lane and called a tow truck.

The AAA tow truck hooks up my nephew's car. More paper work. The tow truck's engine shuts off. Did the tow truck fail? Will the tow truck call another tow truck to get towed? Is there a line a tow trucks to tow tow trucks? How far does the line go? Around the world? To infinity?

Sweat. Fumes. Asphalt.

Paper work complete, the AAA tow truck with my nephew in the cab circle off the shoulder, cross the road and head up the on-ramp back to 580.

I climb in my car, crank up the air-conditioner and head for the bright green sign that reads Freeway Entrance. A blue and red interstate shield has 580 WEST printed in white.

An arrow points to the on-ramp and home.


  1. Where did that discarded iphone cover come from, and why? Murder, breakup? quarrel between to beer fueled teenagers on their way to . . .?
    You stimulate my mind, friend.

    1. Thanks Sue. My nephew Chris had a bad day. He got stranded in beautiful Manteca. I drove out there with my mom to pay for the repairs. Alas, the car didn't make it back.
      Roadside Uncle

  2. Hi Lupe, Nice images. I've driven that road many a time and my mind has wandered elsewhere. You've painted engrossing pictures in our minds, and some story ideas, too. I especially liked the image of a line of tow trucks waiting to tow tow trucks. (When a bus broke down, and they sent a bus tow truck, I had similar thoughts: lines of bus tow trucks and buses to replace broken down buses.) Keep up the good work! Hugs and blessings, Penny

    1. Dear Penelope,
      Thanks for patronizing Pen & Ink.
      Wandering Fifth Gear


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