Academic journal article MELUS

Moments in the Wilderness: Becoming a Filipino American Writer

Academic journal article MELUS

Moments in the Wilderness: Becoming a Filipino American Writer

Article excerpt

I knew I was in trouble then. When I saw snow flurries streaming over the sand dune next to the highway. I was in the freaking Utah desert (well, "freezing" more than "freaking") in my little sky-blue Karmann Ghia. The sun had just about finished setting. Something like three hours to midnight. Probably 30 degrees outside. And surely wind chill too, with me in cut-off jeans and a T-shirt. I mean, really--the Utah desert in mid--May wouldn't you think 80 or 90 degrees?

Earlier that morning, I had been tooling through Steamboat Springs, Colorado, on US 40, with Santana's "Black Magic Woman" rolling through the speakers. I was sure I had bypassed that late snowstorm that hit Denver last night, when I stayed over at my cousin's. The Weather Channel had shown the storm moving eastward. I was going westward, halfway from Indiana University to my father's house in San Francisco: summer break, summer job between school years doing my literature PhD in the early 80s. Steamboat Springs. Open road. Sunshine. Blue sky. A dab here, a daub there of cirrus streakiness.

When the sun began to fall and fade some time after I went by Salt Lake City on I-80, I switched on the headlights. A short while later a little red light came on: alternator. I guessed I wasn't far from Wendover, on the border between Utah and Nevada. I thought I could make a run for it. But it was getting dark, in that swift way night falls in the desert. I was basically driving into deep red sun, and I needed the lights to see the road. But I also knew my lights were sapping the battery, now.

So, there I was. The Ghia limping to the side of the road, headlights dimming, then off. Wendover's city glow peeking over the horizon. Car after car, semi after semi whooshed by, buffeting my car, awash in their wake, as they nosed toward the faraway lights of Wendover. Violet sheen smoothing out darkening sky. Snow flurries. Cold. Damn cold.

When it got a little darker, I began to crack open the driver's side door every time a vehicle zoomed by to wave my two-D-cell flashlight. Maybe ten or twenty or a hundred cars and trucks passed, ignoring or not seeing my small beacon. Might as well have been a buoy lantern in the middle of San Francisco Bay. I could almost hear the two-tone foghorns knelling my demise.

Another semi. Crack the door. Blink the flashlight. As the rig barrelled by and the car shook, I heard the unmistakeable whine of air brakes mixing with backwash. The semi started to buck, practically jackknifing as it wrestled itself onto the shoulder, coming to a stop maybe a hundred yards down. Then backup lights shone like two eyes as the semi backed up to within twenty yards.

I jumped out of the car, overjoyed, a Crusoe finding his Friday. The driver got out of his truck: even in the dark I could see he was a barrel-chested man of medium height, jeans and cowboy boots, big-silver-buckle cowboy belt that glimmered like a sheriff's badge, what looked like a lumberjack shirt under a poplin down vest--nothing like Friday at all.

"Hey, name's Merlin. Almost didn't see your light."

Merlin! By God, either he was a country-music god, a la Merle Haggard, or a medieval wizard incognito. Interesting how one's literary instincts refuse to knuckle under, even while freezing in the desert by an interstate. I told Merlin what the trouble was.

"Well, I bet we can bump-start that baby." Merlin mused. "Then you keep your lights off, and I'll follow you with my high beams, light the road up in front of you, and we'll ride like that, all the way to Wendover. Okay?"

Merlin got behind the car and I poised myself behind the open driver's door. I reached in and released the emergency brake. We began to push and then I jumped in, crammed it into gear, and popped the clutch. The engine coughed and sputtered but caught. Merlin huffed up into his cab, fired up the tractor, then stuck his left arm out to wave me around. …

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