It was a dark and stormy night as we set out from our new apartment in Alhambra. Just kidding, it never rains in southern California. It was night though.
The first several hours of the drive were uneventful: Angie slept in the passenger seat (I don’t remember if that’s true, but it’s a safe bet), I listened to music while sipping on Red Bull to stay awake. The real fun began about 5000 feet up the climb into Sequoia.
We had decided to take my car. It seemed the logical choice in Alhambra. My 1998 slightly dinged up Toyota Camry versus her shiny, new 2012 Camry. If my car got a little dirty, or scratched up, or a giant tree fell on it, not as big a deal; her car still had that new car feel, you can’t just drive a new car 500 miles, into mountains, through dirt. That’s just not kosher. So we elected to go with the 1998 Camry. Little did we know just how poor a decision that was.
We had already made it over 160 miles, and gone almost 1 mile above sea level when, without any pomp or circumstance, the little arrow on my dash that typically sits happily betwixt the “C” and “H” suddenly began creeping towards the “H”. That, in and of itself, is bad, what made it worse was steam began rising out from under the hood. I don’t know the first thing about being a mechanic, but even without any professional experience, I knew that was bad, so we pulled over. Allow me to paint a picture for you: it was 11 pm and pitch black outside save some moonlight and the occasional headlights, we were dozens of miles from the nearest town, at least a dozen miles from our campsite, our cell phones had next to no signal, we could hear bears (not close, but close enough), and we were stuck sitting on the side of a mountain road in an overheated ’98 Camry. S**t.
Luckily, I came prepared! I always carry extra coolant in my trunk, so we popped the hood, filled her up, and let her cool down for a little while. Once the arrow on the dash had dropped to a safe level we started her up and off we went! For about 2 minutes before, once again, that arrow decided to favor the “H”. Pull over, put in more coolant, let her rest a bit longer. This happened at least one more time before we were both sufficiently convinced we weren’t making it to the campsite that night. Options now looked like… sleep in a car full of food with bears around that can smell food for miles and have been known to break into cars. Wonderful. Or quickly come up with something a little more hopeful. Angie’s phone, by some stroke of luck, had just enough signal to make a call to AAA. Suddenly seemed like we had some luck after all. Nope. It turns out that there are not a whole bunch of tow trucks in the Sequoia mountain area at 11:30 pm. In fact, the (very kind) gentleman on the phone, after trying for what seems like hours to figure out where we were, informed us that the nearest truck is 7 miles away, and won’t be available until 7 am. Options looked like they hadn’t changed much.
As we were sitting in the car, shivering from both cold and fear (the bears, I swear, sounded like they were getting closer), Angie suddenly remembered she had seen a hotel some ways back down the mountain. Excellent! I started the car, made a sharp U-turn so we were now facing down the mountain and quickly switched into neutral before the car could overheat again. We began literally rolling down the mountain, all acceleration due solely to gravity pulling us down. Good ol’ gravity, thou aren’t always such a cold heartless bitch. After about 15 minutes we pulled into the “parking lot” (dirt patch with about 3 other cars on it just off the road) of a hotel. It wasn’t the most inviting place we had ever seen but beggars can’t be choosers so we walked into what one might call the lobby of the establishment.
Now, if you’ve ever read a Stephen King novel, just close your eyes and picture any house, hotel, or abandoned anything described in any of his novels. Go ahead, I’ll wait. … Got it? Now remember that your car is broken down, you have no means of communication with the outside world, and it’s pitch black outside in the middle of the night on a mountain hundreds of miles from home. Welcome, you have now imagined yourself into our situation. For those of you who have not read a Stephen King novel, I shall attempt to set the scene. Our hearts were pounding from the mixed fear and relief. We weren’t going to sleep on the side of the road, surrounded by giant creatures that wanted to break into our shelter and steal our sustenance. But as we opened the door to the lobby we both jumped. There was a woman in a red dress lying on the mantle. No, no it was a mannequin. Phew. Looking around, however, we didn’t see anyone… real. Where’s the manager? There was a television set on in an adjacent room so we crept slowly, quietly toward the doorway. As we peered in my heart clenched, Angie jumped. There was a man sitting in a chair, not moving, eyes closed. Asleep, we assumed, of course, asleep. I managed to utter a feeble “excuse me.” No response, the man didn’t move at all. Okay, louder, maybe he’s a heavy sleeper. “Excuse me.” Nothing. I practically yelled this time, “EXCUSE ME.” He didn’t even stir. Angie started whimpering. Desperate and scared, I yelled one more time, “Excuse me sir!” Angie and I jumped. He woke up! Groggily, he explained to us that he had no vacancies. Our hearts dropped. All that, for nothing. Luckily, however, he add there was another hotel about another 10 minutes down the mountain, that, after a brief phone call, confirmed had vacancy. We thanked him, got the hell out of that creepy place, hopped back in the car, and (after a little pushing) got rolling back down the mountain.
As we rolled up to our next stop (the next hotel we came across as we coasted down) and pulled into the “parking lot” (see above description of parking lots), a wave of emotions swept down on us. We were tired, frustrated, sad, maybe still a little scared, but finally truly relieved; this place was well lit, we could see people inside bustling about, could hear music. We were somewhere safe for the night.
We got out and headed into the bar / diner / lobby to check in. The gal behind the bar confirmed we were the people who had just called, gave us our key, and told us we were the last room (in the row of about 9 rooms that stood facing the street). Angie and I went to the car, humped our gear into the room, then collectively decided that we needed a beer, and badly. As we walked back to the bar, I looked down and saw a twenty dollar bill. No one was around who could have dropped it recently, so, picking it up, I thought “alright, luck is changing for this night.” We continued the remaining 10 feet to the bar entrance (seriously it was less than a stone’s throw from the door of our room to the door of the bar, and we were the last room down). Surveying the scene, the bar was pretty empty (not unexpected considering where we were and what time it was) save a small handful of people singing karaoke (poorly). Angie immediately noticed a map on the wall covered in push pins and when we walked up to the bar we asked the bartender what that was about. She told us the pins had been put up by people who stayed there, indicating which corner of the world they hailed from. Angie got excited and asked if the gal had any pins so Ang could mark her little town in China where she was born. Pin in place, it was beer time. But before we could order Angie noticed a sign on the wall regarding the special they were having, cheap moonshine shots! Angie, having never heard of moonshine, insisted we get some so we ordered 2 shots, I put our found $20 bill on the bar, and the bartender came back with $20 change and 3 shots of moonshine. Yes, you read that correctly. Now, a little sidebar about our lovely bartender, she’s smashed. Like drunker than you ever want to be drunk drunk. So, naturally, she can’t do math and wanted to take a shot with us. Beautiful! The three of us took our blueberry flavored moonshine shots (mmm that sweet burn) and I ordered 2 beers to chase it down with. The gal told me that’ll be $10 so I once again hand her the found $20 bill, this time I tell her to keep the change.
Now here, I feel I must apologize. First, for those who haven’t had it, moonshine is strong alcohol, typically in excess of 100 proof (where most strong liquors are about 80). Second, unbeknownst to us when ordering, the blueberry moonshine shot special was a double shot. As you can probably guess now, we got really drunk really fast, but I’ll try my best to recall what details I can. After the beers were safely in our hands, Angie and I wandered over to the karaoke area, listened to a couple of off tune people sing, danced a little by ourselves, then realized we needed another shot (beers were empty by now, don’t ask how, they just were). At the bar we overheard a couple order Fireball shots. We hadn’t heard of Fireball so the girl insisted that we try it with her. So, out came 5 shots (again, mustn’t forget one for our bartender) and we downed them. Fill in a little bit of time with your imagination, but after some period of time spent doing lord knows what we ended up outside on the patio. Here we ran into the remaining awake patrons of the establishment and quickly struck up a conversation. Several minutes later the bartender mosied out carrying 3 or 4 plates of appetizers, good bar-style finger foods. Onion rings, mozzarella sticks, maybe even a few slices of pie (sounds weird I know but I think that happened). Everyone looked at everyone else with this “did you order this? No I didn’t order this” look and after a moment or two of awkward, we realized the bartender wasn’t asking anyone for money, so we all dug in. Drunk, at 12:30 in the morning, free mozzarella sticks, french fries, chicken fingers, and pie might just be the greatest thing in the entire universe. Not sure, scientists are still doing tests, but evidence is pointing that way.
Once the plates were cleaned, the bartender gathered them up and wandered back inside. The group we met outside went to their room, however the Fireball couple, Angie, and I followed the bartender back inside. At first, we couldn’t find her; it wasn’t a big place, she couldn’t have gone far. Then, someone noticed her, passed out, lying on top of the bar. I immediately took out my phone and took a picture. You know, for science. The girls still wanted to drink so they headed behind the bar (yup) and started pouring glasses (red cups) of SoCo which we began passing around, taking swigs, playing a bastardized version of “don’t f- your brother.” All of a sudden, the bartender popped awake, slid down off the bar, and trotted past Angie and the other gal and into the kitchen. We all followed slowly and realized she had started doing the dishes. Feeling bad for taking alcohol we hadn’t paid for, we wandered back and began helping her (in spite of her persistent “no, it’s fine, you don’t need to help”). Dishes done, we stumbled our way back to our rooms and we were asleep before our heads even hit the pillows.
I popped awake. Something was wrong. I looked around, “where the hell is Angie?!” Okay, it was a tiny room, she couldn’t have gotten far. I checked the bathroom. Nope. Closet. Nada. Crap… I checked under the bed, maybe she had rolled off and slipped under? No, not there either. Okay, I was panicking at this point. We were in the middle of nowhere, only a few feet from a road, and a few paces farther there was forest. If she had drunkenly wandered off in the middle of the night, she could have easily gotten hit by a car or wandered somewhere into the forest where she wouldn’t have been able to find her way back. I threw on my shoes and ran into the bar / diner / lobby. “Has anyone in here seen my girlfriend,” I blurted out before I even had time to register if there was anyone in the room. A man to my right looked up at me slowly, gave me an odd half smile, and said “nope, no girlfriends here.” I ran back outside. Looked left up the mountain, looked right, down the mountain, no sign of her. Looked across into the trees, not optimistic but still hopefully, didn’t see her. I sprinted back to the room, hoping against hope she magically reappeared. I combed the tiny room again, checked behind doors and places that didn’t make sense. Out of ideas, I was about to burst back outside shouting her name as loud as possible when “poof” there she was in the doorway. Without saying a word, she drunkenly stumbled over to the bed, lay down, and immediately fell back asleep. Not knowing what else to do, slightly shocked and full of questions I couldn’t ask my now snoozing girlfriend, I followed suit and fell back asleep.
The rest of the day was spent in bed. Around noon housekeeping came by and due to Angie’s inability to move and my lack of desire to try I ended up going to the diner patio and talking to the owner (the bar itself was closed with a sign saying “closed due to illness,” considering how drunk the bartender was the night before we all know what kind of sick that was). He was reasonable, understood our plight, and gave us the room for another night at half price. I gladly and graciously accepted his offer promising we’d be gone before 9 am the next day. I made my way back down to the room to share the good news with Angie but she was asleep once again so I curled up next to her and passed out, again.
Several hours later I awoke, remembering we still had no means of transportation! Leaving Angie to continue her recuperation I headed back to the bar. Finding the bartender (apparently her sickness had passed), I shared my story with her, of how the car overheated, how we had to coast back down the mountain to get where we were. She surprised me by interrupting me and exclaiming she’s handy with cars and would gladly take a look. I followed her outside where we popped the hood and she began poking around. I told her I was going to check on Angie and left her to diagnose the vehicle.
Coming out later, I found the gal with a hose sticking into some component under my car’s hood. Curious, I walked over and asked her what she was doing. She politely explained that the car didn’t just need anti-freeze (which I had been adding the night before) it needed water, and in a different container that, embarrassingly I must admit, I hadn’t noticed before. She informed me that once it was full and had a few hours to rest and fully cool off the car would run as normal. No issues. I thanked her profusely, feeling somehow blessed that we happened to roll into this hotel and find this bartender who happened to know how to diagnose and fix cars (believe it or not, these things happen to me and Ang more often than seems normal, but we’re grateful every time)! I ran back to the room to relay the news to Angie, who was still KO’d.
After a few more hours (a.k.a. near 9 pm), we started getting hungry and although our stomachs had been rebelling all day, we figured we needed to get something in them before we withered away into nothing. So I sauntered over to the diner once again and ordered chicken tenders with french fries (sadly, had to pay for them this time). The place was surprisingly full considering where we were and how few rooms there were. In fact, while I was waiting for the food an older lady (mom age) came over and drunkenly began chatting with me about how I needed to get Jesus in my life and I had to find the Lord, and she was none too pleased when I politely informed her that I had tried that, wasn’t interested and thanked her for her advice. It was all quite amusing I must say. Having retreated back to our room with the food, Angie and I ate reservedly, afraid our stomachs might turn on us again, but it seems that 20 hours in bed had quelled them. So, we decided to do what we had gone to Sequoia to do. We packed up our little room, shoved everything in the car… and then hastily decided “F- that” we still feel like crap so we went back in the room, lay down, and talked until we fell asleep.
As you can probably tell, our adventure is winding down. The next day we did wake up before 9 am. We packed up the car once more and drove up to the park, no issues, the car behaved beautifully. We hiked around, saw some amazingly impressive trees, got low-key lost but found a kind couple with a park map who pointed us in the right direction. Even found an area where babies could hike! Just kidding, it was a heavily touristy (not hiking) area where some of the more impressive trees in the forest were, conveniently located near a shuttle drop off and parking lot. No hiking experience necessary. In fact, we saw sandals and strollers here. After all that you just read, it’s probably no surprise that, in spite of the fact that it’s what we went there for, hiking in Sequoia was not the most memorable part of the weekend.
Glad to say we made it home in one piece and have since retired the old Camry from any road trips (she was actually sold about 5 months after this trip to a friend and replaced by a 2014 Mazda that shouldn’t have issues climbing mountains for many many years).