Stranded in North Dakota — Part 3 (the junkyard)

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“Ohh, sick.”

My first conscious thought of the day as I lift my head from the uncovered, yellowed mattress, blanketed with black and gray splotches. Looking down, I see that my head had been resting on a particularly dark, black circle. I pray it is just a water spot. My noises of disgust wake Rick and he sits up, blinking the sleep from his eyes. I glance over and see the look of horror appear on his face as he looks down, realizing that his face had also been resting on the disgusting mattress.

I had made sure to fall asleep with my head inside the sleeping bag but, to my regret, I had wiggled out in the night. I had not slept very well, and despite my drowsiness, I climb out of the sleeping bag to ensure I’m ready when Jeff leaves for work. I wander in the back door and find Jeff sitting at the kitchen table eating his breakfast of cold garlic bread from the night before.

“I’m taking off right now. If you two want to stay and sleep the shop is only a few blocks away.”

“No, I think that we’re ready to go,” I reply. He shrugs and I go to grab my bag and hurry Rick along.

We put our things into Jeff’s trunk and drive the mile to the shop. It’s interesting that everyone I meet in the town keep giving distances in terms of “blocks” but I have yet to see anything other than a single road with no side streets.

It’s even colder than the day before and the sick feeling of being trapped, not knowing what to do next, quickly returns.

We sit in the shop, saying little, while Jeff tries to track down the part we need. After a few hours, Jeff tells us that he has called all of the part stores in Bozeman, including the Subaru dealer, and none of them carry a replacement damper.

“I did get in touch with a Subaru supplier in Colorado and they said that they can ship the part and it will be here in three to four days.”

He must have seen the look on our faces because he quickly adds, “But there is still a chance that a junkyard between here and Bismarck will have the part.”

“Can we walk to any of the junk yards and take a look?” Rick asks.

He laughs. “You can walk but it would be faster if you drove my car,” he says, tossing me his keys.

The directions are simple: turn right out of the Farmer’s Union and drive 30 miles down a road so perfectly straight I barely have to touch the wheel.

Jeff’s old white Plymouth handles like I imagine the land speeder from Star Wars might, hovering above the road, bouncing slightly up and down as we go over bumps.

We get to the junkyard and pull up to a large pole barn with a section of it divided off to be an office. We walk in to find an extremely heavy man sitting behind a long wooden counter which spans the far wall of the room. There are two large double doors behind him which lead to the rest of the garage. The man is working on an ancient computer, I guess its old enough to be one of the first desktops. The room has a concrete floor, exposed two by fours along the walls and is so poorly lit I have to look down to make sure I don’t trip over the vehicle parts which are scattered throughout the room.

I describe the part I need to the man and he responds without looking up from the black screen with orange pixilated letters which he is so intently staring at.

“Nope, we don’t have it,” He says gruffly. “Someone already called asking for that part and I said the same thing. We lost over half our cars in the fire,” he continues, still refusing to look up from his computer.

A little frustrated that the man has given up so easily, I growl back, “Well do you think that I could look around to see if I can find something that might work?”

“No, you’re not allowed to go into the yard.”

“Can someone go with us?” I plead, becoming desperate.

He keeps looking at the screen, seeming to consider my plea, but I’m sure he is going to tell us to go away, but instead, he groans, lifting his mass from the stool. “I’ll go see if there is someone available to take you out.”

He leaves the desk and vanishes into the garage. A few minutes later, the huge man returns with a kid in his early twenties. He’s wearing a flannel shirt and sporting a short bushy blond beard which matches the long blond hair which nearly touches his shoulders. He’s big, with broad shoulders and is full of energy, practically bounding into the room. He’s the kind of guy I imagine owning an ox and ax, a modern day Paul Bunyan.

“I hear you’re looking for a part!” he booms enthusiastically with a smile on his face.

“Yeah, a damper for an older Subaru!” I say, getting caught in his excitement.

“Let’s go see if we can’t find one for ya!”

We follow him out of the office and into the garage where there’s a pair of pickups on lifts and a few men under them draining the fuel and other liquids from the truck’s undercarriages.

“Damn, my truck’s blocked in. Let’s take this junker instead.” He says, pointing to a dilapidated truck.

We pile into an old GMC, which seems to be in good enough shape despite the cracked windshield. When he turns the ignition, the truck roars to life. It has a flat front tire and more than 200,000 miles on it, but that doesn’t stop him from flooring it into reverse. Slamming on the brakes, he yanks the shifter into drive instantaneously and pushed the gas pedal all the way to the floor. We accelerate down the mud covered two-track, throwing a dirt tail up behind us in a rainbow of sludge. We barrel between caverns of stacked cars piled five-high on both sides, mud flying in our wake.

Swinging the wheel back and forth, he dodges between the piles of cars, traveling as fast as the truck can possibly take the turns. After a couple of these neck-breaking turns, he loses control of the truck and it starts to slide, barely missing a bulldozer carrying decrepit cars; we had heard it long before it appeared in front of us, yet we narrowly miss running into it head on.

“Oops, forgot it has a flat,” he says, but continues to pick up speed around the next turn. I wonder if he always drives like this or if he was just trying to impress us.

I’ve never been in a junkyard before and am amazed by the thirty-foot-piles of mangled car remains lining the two-track. We’re speeding along so fast I can hardly tell what kinds of cars they are. Suddenly he throws on the brakes, causing me to nearly fly out of the cracked windshield.

“This is where we keep all the foreign cars.”

We get out and the dark, oil-filled mud sticks to my shoes like wet cement. I feel like I’m walking around with a pair of bricks on my feet; with every step my feet increase in size.

We search through the stacks and find only two ancient Subaru’s among the dead cars. We pry open their hoods. Both have dampers, but neither of them resemble mine.

“Is this all you have?” I ask.

“I’m afraid so, all the other ones burned up in a fire a few weeks ago. A couple of kids snuck in here at night and started it. If it hadn’t started raining we never would’ve been able to put it out….” He lets out a long sigh and has fire in his eyes. “The cops said that there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute ’em. But if I ever get my hands on ‘em….” He begins wringing his hands together, demonstrating how he would tear them apart, and from the look on his face, I know that the threat is not made lightly.

“I wouldn’t mind trying to take out one of these old dampers just in case, even if it’s not the right size. Do you mind?”

“Not at all, but I’m not allowed to help you.”

Jeff had let us bring some tools from the garage and we got to work.

“How long do you think it will take you?” he asks.

“About 15 minutes,” I guess, having no real idea how long it would take.

“Alright, I’ll see you then,” he says, and peels out, the tires pushing mud fifteen feet into the air.

It takes Rick and me a little while to figure out how to get the damper off, but after a few minutes of jamming screw drivers between the pulleys and belts, we’re able to loosen the damper enough to remove it. We compare the ancient-looking damper wheel to the one out of my car. It’s similar in shape but is slightly smaller and has a hollow middle while mine is filled with rubber.

Since our junkyard guide hadn’t returned yet, we look around, peering into the other wrecked cars and seeing all kinds of interesting things. We see people’s belongings left behind from when they wrecked their cars. Most of them are a complete mess with papers, clothing, and a lot of trash thrown around on the inside.

Looking over, I see Rick staring out over the acres of scorched earth and I try to see what he is so interested in. He’s standing on the crest of a hill a ways off, looking very intently at something I can’t see. As I waddle up to him, my tennis shoes covered in ten pounds of oil and mud, he whispers: “I imagine this is what Nazi Germany would have looked like.” Confused by what he was talking about, I stare at the now empty field below us where the fire had been, and I understand.

Almost all the cars had been moved away, but a few lonely charred vehicles remain, still smoldering. The earth is completely black. Smoke rises from the ground, and small fires burn where leftover oil and gas haven’t fully been burned up or absorbed by the earth. There aren’t many trees on the barren ground but the few remaining are black. The sound of bulldozers and heavy equipment make it seem like tanks could be rolling away from the recent battle. The smell of smoke and burning oil completes the scene. The scarred earth is a gloomy sight to behold. Rick’s brother is fighting in Iraq and I wonder if that isn’t where Rick’s mind is as he continues to stare sadly at the empty field.

Our junkyard guide returns and notices us looking out over the acres of empty landscape. “Want a tour of the rest of our yard?” he asks.

We gladly accept.

He takes us deeper into the caverns of cars, heading straight for a hill, which looks like it’s too steep for any vehicle, much less our damaged truck. With a running start the truck roars up the hill, but near the top of the hill the truck’s cabin fills with the sound of an explosion.

We hit a cinder block and a second tire blows out. Amazingly, even with two tires gone, we make it to the top of the hill and into what can only been categorized as the “miscellaneous” section of the junkyard. We pass quickly by many interesting things. My favorite is a Fed-Ex truck with a huge hole ripped in its side, I imagine a meteor had struck it while it was out delivering packages or maybe where it was shot with the ray gun like the scene in the first Men in Black.

The road is obviously not used often and is covered in scrap metal and car parts. Our driver powers along the road not bothering to dodge these obstacles. The truck splashes through puddles that engulf the truck and make waves of murky water rise up over the hood. We come out of one of these puddles and the truck starts to wobble back and forth. Our guide sticks his head out the window to examine the vehicle, returning a few seconds later. “Looks like we have at least three flats, we’re riding on the rims now. Not sure we’ll make it back.” He says with an excited grin, giving off an air of insanity.

“Are we going to have to walk back?” I asked, not looking forward to wading through all of that mud in my already caked tennis shoes.

He laughs, at my absurd naivety. “No we’d have someone come pick us up.”

The three flat tires don’t seem to faze him and he guns the truck over hills, taking turns like he’s driving a stock car. He must have the place memorized; I can’t believe how fast we zip around piles and how easily he handles the wobbling vehicle. To my amazement, we make it back and I considered kissing the oil-covered ground. Examining our truck, I think it looks terribly tired, hugging much closer to the ground than when we had gotten in, finally ready to be scrapped. Giving the old GMC’s tires a closer inspection, I discover that indeed only one tire is left inflated and mud flows from the sides. It had given us one heck of a last ride.

We walk back into the office of the junkyard after thanking our guide for the ride of our lives. I take the damper up to the counter.

“Find what you were looking for?” The bulbous man on the stool asks.

“I’m not sure, this one looks pretty close to mine but there are a few things different about it.” He reached for a large book on the shelf behind him.

“What year is your Subaru?”

“It’s a 1999 Outback.”

He looks at the part I have and back at his book. “Hmm, says those two parts aren’t compatible.”

My heart sinks a little lower into my stomach. I can’t be stuck here another four days! I am determined to give it a try.

“I’ll buy it anyway,” I say. “Maybe Jeff will be able to make it fit.”

“Do what you want,” he says skeptically, and then runs my debit card, charging me forty dollars for a rusty piece of wrong-sized metal.

We get back to the Farmer’s Union at the same time as Jeff who pulls up next to us in one of the garage’s trucks. “Find the right part?”

“It’s not the exact same but we bought it anyway,” I say.

“I’ll see what I can do,” he says, taking the part from me and walking over to my car. As Jeff is buried under the hood, I go to fill up the gas tank of his Plymouth to thank him for letting us use his car. The car still has a quarter tank. What I don’t know is that Plymouths have 30-gallon tanks and at $3.40 a gallon, I put nearly $100 worth of gas into his car. It hurts my limited finances but I figure it was worth it.

After parking Jeff’s car, I walk back to where Jeff and Rick are staring into the hood of my Subaru. Rick looks up to see me coming, he sticks out his lower lip and shakes his head back and forth.

Shit, I think. Knowing that rusty, used part had been our last chance of getting out of here today, we are for sure going to be stuck here another four days.

“It doesn’t work?” I ask demoralized as I walk up to Rick and Jeff.

Jeff has his head buried in the engine, “No, looks like it’s going to work just fine,” he says as he looks up, the lines on his face move to form a yellow toothy grin.

I look at Rick’s now-smiling face and I have an urge to both hit and hug him. “You had me thinking that it wasn’t going to work!”

“Just playing with you,” Rick replies.

Jeff chuckles. “You won’t really know until you turn the car on, though.” I get in and turn the key, still ready to turn it off if I have to. The car’s engine roars to life and I get out to see all the belts spinning just the way they are supposed to around our junkyard damper.

“You still probably want to get the right part when you can,” Jeff counsels. “This one doesn’t fit perfectly but it will get you there.”

“Thanks a ton, Jeff, you’ve been such a great help. How much do I owe you?”

“Nothing,” he replies. “Just make sure that you send me a postcard once you get to Yellowstone.”

“Thanks so much, I will definitely do that!”

“You had better get on the road if you want to try to make it all the way to Yellowstone tonight.”

“Thanks, Jeff!” Rick and I yell as we pile into the car.

I glance at the clock to see that it was a little past one. It feels like we have been in New Salem so much longer than twenty-four hours.

Rick falls asleep and I realize how tired I am, too. Neither of us had gotten much sleep the night before. The view out the window isn’t helping, endless rolling hills and farms make the drive stretch on. Exhaustion is overwhelming me but my determination to make it to Yellowstone keeps me going.

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Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one. — Albert Einstein

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