My buddies decided to continue the quest by hitting the northbound on ramp and hitchin’ a ride the rest of the way to Lake Isabella. At this point, I was pretty much over it and told them I figured that they would have a better chance of catching a ride with eight hitchers as opposed to nine and that I was going to head back south to L.A. I sat on that ramp for quite a while, watching one redneck truck driver after the next pass by this long-haired-hippy-type without much more than a disgusted glance. After a few hours, this old tanker truck finally pulled over. I jumped up on the step, opened the door and was greeted by a young Native American dude who said, “Where you headed pal?” and I replied, “L.A. sir.” He just smiled and said, “I’m going right past there, jump on in”.
Right off the bat, he warned me, “That door handle on your side doesn’t work, so if you need to get out, just roll down the window and use the outside handle”. As we headed down the highway, I asked him what he was hauling in the tank and he told me it was crude oil. I said, “Well, at least it’s not something flammable like gasoline.” to which he replied, “Not true my friend. If this truck were to catch on fire, you and I would be nothing more than a wet spot in the road.” With that revelation, I offered to smoke a joint I had with him. He said, “I’d like to, but I’ve been driving for over 72 hours now and that would just put me to sleep.” He then showed me the two log books he was running to keep from getting caught and offered me a couple of bennies.
Between Bakersfield and Los Angeles, there is a portion of I-5 known as the Grapevine. The Grapevine is a treacherous 40-mile stretch of winding road with one of the steepest grades in the interstate highway system. So there we were; chugging up the incline in the far right lane at about 5 MPH in low gear when another truck pulled up on our left hand side and the driver screamed out his passenger window, “YOU’RE ON FIRE!”
Luckily, we were right next to a “watering hole”, a place to pull off the highway and refill the radiator. The truck driver pulled over as quickly as possible and jumped out of the truck. Unfortunately, in the heat of the moment, I completely forgot what the truck driver had told me about the door handle. In what probably was only a minute or two but seemed like forever, I pulled vigorously on the handle while my short life flashed before my eyes. As I watched other truck drivers heroically running with buckets of water towards the truck, I finally remembered what the truck driver had told me, rolled down the window, pulled the handle and jumped out.
It turned out that a mop used to wipe down the stainless steel tank was stored too close to the smoke stack and the heat generated by driving up that steep incline in low gear had set it on fire. What I learned that day is that sometimes it is better to stay the course and follow through with your original plan. It’s like I always say,
“Just Dance in the Rain, Dude”