On the Kindness of Strangers

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7/19/19  The Old Town Copper Center Inn, Copper Center, Alaska

We saw some beautiful scenery yesterday, driving for an hour or so down the Nabesna Road in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.  But I’m going to wait and talk about that a bit later.  Today I just have to talk about the rest of yesterday.  It is one of those stories that just couldn’t be made up.

Readers are already aware that we rented a beater pickup for the road trip portion of our Odyssey.  We didn’t do that just to save some money – in fact, I really don’t like pickup trucks and would have gladly paid extra for a nice, late model Camry sedan or something like it.  But the problem is that no respectable rental agency (I use that adjective loosely) allows their cars to be driven on the McCarthy Road.  McCarthy Road is dirt for about 90 miles and is notorious for defeating lots of vehicles, and drivers.  It takes you out to McCarthy which is next to the old Kennicott Copper Mine in the middle of Wrangell St. Elias National Park.  If you want to see that park, you pretty much have to spend some time in McCarthy and, unless you fly, you have to drive the McCarthy Road.

Now it is my understanding that lots of people defy the car rental companies and drive the road anyway.  But there is a huge risk in doing so because if you should suffer any kind of breakdown while on that road, you are entirely on your own and the rental company can potentially sue you for breach of contract (whether they would or not probably depends on how big their loss is).  Since my luck usually runs to the bad side, I decided something bad would happen so I shouldn’t tempt the fates.  And hence, the rent-a-wreck pickup truck.  We have already reported on how we had to replace the alternator on a Sunday morning in Fairbanks.

Well ‘something bad’ did happen, just not on the McCarthy Road, but rather on the Nabesna Road.  Somewhere on our trip out the thirty miles on the dirt road, we managed to run over a strange looking surgical instrument that, I was informed later, is used by fishermen to tie flys.  When we ran over it, I don’t know, but we are almost all the way back to the beginning of the Nabesna Road (on the Tok Cutoff) when the car starts making strange noises.  It took us a few seconds to realize that the noise was coming from a flat tire flopping on the pavement.  (Yes, we heard it before we felt it.) 

It took me a few feet to stop the truck and maneuver it mostly off the road and into a driveway.  I get out and, sure enough, the tire isn’t just flat, it is completely shredded.  There is no driving this somewhere to get it fixed – it will have to be done right there.  I kick the tire – why, I don’t really know, maybe I hoped it would fix itself.  When I did that, out popped a strange looking instrument.  When I bent down to pick it up, it was extremely hot to the touch.  Clearly, though, this thing was what had caused the damage because it came from inside the tire.  (I was told later, by Ollie, what it was – I’ll explain Ollie in a minute.)

Although I kept thinking of who I was going to call to get the thing fixed, Joan had already answered that question and was unloading the car so we could get to the jack and tools.  Although I wasn’t real interested in fixing a flat that wasn’t mine, Joan had already figured out that we were going to have to do it or it wasn’t getting done.  I reluctantly joined in.

But first I pulled out my phone and, realizing we had phone service, I determined that we were barely a half-mile from the ranger station.  So I called them and spoke to the nice lady ranger who had given us a roll of paper towels so we could have our picnic out on Nabesna Road.  I explained that we had a flat and asked if she knew anyone who could help us fix it.  She said that yes, she thought so, and that I should call back in ten minutes.

Meanwhile, Joan had located the jack and the related tools under the crew cab seats.  We pulled everything out and I figured out how stuff was supposed to work.  The first problem was to lower the spare tire which required assembling a long rod from pieces, threading it through a tube and a hole in the bumper, and catching the end of it on a screw mechanism that would lower the tire.  I managed to get all that done, but the next part got me.  I was supposed to actually turn the rod so that the screw mechanism could lower the spare tire.  But there wasn’t anything to turn it with.  The rod ended with a square tip that obviously needed something to grab it so it could be rotated.  The problem was that particular tool in the toolset was nowhere to be found.  I tried to rotate it with my hand but it wasn’t budging.

After about ten minutes of that, I remembered that I was supposed to call the ranger back.  I did that and she graciously told me that she had contacted Ollie, someone who lived right off of Nabesna Road right near where we were parked.  She said he was a bit gruff, but had a kind heart, and he was coming to give us a hand.

Meanwhile a small lady, without any teeth, and her daughter came down the road and they were riding their bicycles.  When they got to us, she asked if we needed any help.  I explained that it was a rental truck and we were missing a tool.  She looked things over and instantly said, I see what you mean.  ‘We’ll go home and see if we have that piece and bring it back for you.”  I thanked her, but figured we’d never see her again.

Shortly after she left, we hear a noisy truck coming down the driveway we were blocking.  I was prepared to be yelled at for blocking his damn driveway, but was hoping he might be able to help us.  Sure enough, he hits the brakes and sort of slides to a stop next to us.  He gets out and says, ‘So what exactly do you need?’  I show him the useless rod sticking out of the bumper and explained that we were missing the piece that actually turns the thing and lowers the spare.  He nods and says a pair of vice grips might work and I said yep that would do.  He asked if I had a jack and I showed him what we had.  He groaned a bit and said that a floor jack would be better – I didn’t argue.

As he is getting back into his truck, I noted that I had called the Ranger and she had sent some help.  I asked if he was ‘Ollie’.  Without missing a beat, he kind of licked his chops and said, ‘Well, what’s left of him, anyway!’  In a stroke of luck, we had found refuge at the bottom of  Ollies driveway.  He sped back up towards his house.  Joan and I looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders.  I continued, fruitlessly to look for something to turn the damn rod.

Soon, Ollie comes speeding down the driveway again and slides the truck around.  Joan had to move quickly out of the way and he blurts out, ‘It’s OK, I won’t hit you too hard at least’.  He gets out and pulls out the floor jack and starts to position it under the axle.  Meanwhile, I spy the vice grips, grab them, and start turning the rod.  Sure enough, the tire is coming down – great. 

Finally the tire hits the ground and I get down on my knees to try and get the mechanism through the hole to release it.  But this is an old GM car, and it doesn’t work like my late model Toyota, so my efforts are frustrated – I can’t get it.  Despite everything I can think of, the damn thing won’t release.

Meanwhile, not only had Ollie gotten the jack under the axle, but he had also loosened all the lug nuts.  He was waiting for my part of the show, and I was holding things up.  So, down he gets, and sticking his hands in where mine were, I give up.  As I’m backing out, he makes a jerking movement and hits his head on the tow hitch.  Thinking that it probably hurt quite a bit, I asked him if he was OK.  Again, without missing a beat, he blurts out ‘I wasn’t OK when I woke up this morning!’.  Joan and I looked at each other and tried not to laugh.

But he got the spare released, and while he looked at the spare, I rolled up the release mechanism and dismantled the rod assembly.  After kicking the spare, he declared that it didn’t have enough pressure.  I said I had a compressor that plugged into the cigarette lighter.  He grumbled a bit and threw the tire into his truck and sped back up the driveway.  Joan and I looked at each other again not knowing what really to expect.

He returned with the spare and said that even though the tire specified 80 lbs, he only filled it to 60, especially with the load I was carrying (the truck bed was empty.). He pulled out the spare and began jacking up the truck.  I worked the lug nuts and pulled off the wheel with the shredded tire.  With his help, we loaded up the spare tire, but as we did so, he ran his fingers across a huge plug in the tire, about the size of a golf ball.  He said that wasn’t good and when I told him we wanted to drive the McCarthy road, he said he didn’t recommend we do that with a plug that size.  He said we needed to get new tires soon.  I asked if he thought we could get to Copper Center, about 80 miles further on south.  He grinned and said, ‘Maybe!’

We finished the tire, and I offered Ollie some money for his time.  He said the amount I gave him was too much and returned a twenty.  He got back in his truck and, one last time, sped off.

We packed everything back up and drove, gingerly, down to Copper Center.   We are headed out this morning back to GlennAllen to see if we can get some tires.  I’ve explained everything to Stan, the rental man, and he’s ‘good for’ two more tires.  So one more story on the road trip.  There is another story to tell about the Old Town Copper Center Inn, but I think I’m going to let Joan tell that one.  What a trip this has been!