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Wildflowers in the sidewalk: How to make the best of being stranded

Our backpacks were full of dehydrated food, trail mix bars, warm clothes, and all the fixins for a weekend away on Mount Tamalpais. We already had our hiking clothes on, and we were looking forward to spending the evening outdoors and falling asleep in my new backpacking tent. We didn't have a campsite reservation, but we figured it would all work out. The weekend was ahead of us in all its unknown adventures.

After driving for about an hour, we got onto Highway 101, excitement setting in because we had just had our first glimpse of Mt. Tam. A few minutes after getting on the highway, though, Green Guy tells me the car has stopped working. It felt unreal to me--we were so close we could see the mountain!

We pulled off to the shoulder and Green Guy checked under the hood. Unsure of what it was that had happened, he got back in the car and started it back up, driving us safely to the next exit. You could feel it as the car died on the off-ramp. Using gravity, we rolled into a nice looking neighborhood right off the highway and found a legal parking spot in front of a well-kept yard and brick home. We were very thankful that the car had gotten us at least off the highway and to a secure location.

Neither of us were incredibly surprised by the car not working--after all, Green Guy's car is a 1975 BMW model 2002. It's red, adorable, and named Rojito. I figured Green Guy would know what to do, and after tinkering around and testing things, he concluded it was the fuel pump that had gone out. It was already almost 7 PM and the sun was starting to set. Not completely sure how safe the area was, and not wanting to wait in the dark for a tow truck, we called our parents and figured that staying at a hotel for the night and towing home tomorrow was the best plan. Not exactly backpacking, but still an adventure!

We called the first hotel, asking for a rate. "Sorry we're sold out for tonight." Same phone call sequence about four times in a row, and finally we started asking, "Do you have any rooms for tonight?" Finally, we found a place that had vacancy, and although Yelp only gave it a two-star rating, we packed up our backpacks and set off into the sunsetting evening to the hotel 1.6 miles away.

Green Guy was pretty bummed--this was supposed to be his first backpacking trip, and now his beloved Rojito was not working. I, on the other hand, thought the setting sun and hiking adventure through suburbia and nearby freeway bridges was fantastic! We crossed a bridge over some water, and I glanced toward Mt. Tam. What a glorious view! The silhoutted mountain, the setting sun, the lovely waterway--I felt incredibly blessed to be stranded there of all places. My spirits were high, and after awhile, Green Guy was able to let go of his stress for the evening and have fun, too.

As we walked down sidwalks past businesses--outdoor stores, fitness centers, offices--I noticed all of the natural aspects of our hike, despite the concrete and stoplights. I think a large part of this is the fact that I am a counselor for a nature day camp this summer, so I've been training my eyes and ears to spot wildlife on the trail and breathe in adventure. I heard geese flying over us and looked up to see them pass us in the evening sky. I was aware of the wildflowers sprouting up through cracks in the sidwalks, well-maintained trees lining the streets, and the beautiful color of the sky. We passed a multi-use trail that had a stunning view of Mt. Tam, and we tucked it into our memories to explore the next day.

We finally made it to the hotel, located right next to a yummy-smelling restaurant and Highway 101. We checked in, put our Gatorade in the refrigerator, and played 20 questions for a couple hours to pass the evening. Despite the two-star Yelp rating, it was pretty comfortable.

The next morning after 11 AM check out, we hiked to the multi-use trail after a double back to find my sandals that had fallen off my pack. This was a weekend of learning from mistakes--I will from now on loop my sandals through a more stable loop so they won't fall off.

The multi-use trail with the view of Mt. Tam was busy with cyclists, runners, walkers, dogs, and children. We walked until we found a place where we couldn't see the road, took our packs off, and set up the camp stove to boil water for instant breakfast and coffee. Passersby did plenty of double takes, and one couple asked if we'd camped there. We played cards, ate dehydrated pad thai, and sipped some instant coffee. All in all, breakfast was lovely, and if you didn't look at the fences and distant buildings, you would have thought we were in the wilderness.

On the walk back to Rojito, we called AAA. The first thing the woman on the phone said was "It will be about two hours." Given that she didn't know where we were or what the situation was, that was a red flag that something was wrong with AAA that day. The ETA was two hours, though, so we got back to the car and got out the deck of cards.

Two hours had gone by, so we called in to check on the tow truck. They couldn't access the record of our first call, so they placed a second service call. ETA was an hour or so. More cards, and more dehydrated backpacking food. The day was warm, so we sat on the sidewalk in the shade of a tree in the neighborhood. People walked by with dogs and children, and most of them were friendly enough to ask if we were okay.

Throughout the day, we called in to check on the tow truck, finally realizing that AAA was having technical difficulties and really had no idea if a truck was on its way or how long we'd be waiting. Frustration started to set in, and the neighbors began asking when we'd be gone. The woman who lived in the house we were parked in front of came outside. She said, "Just want to let you know that we've had some robberies around here, so our neighbors called to see what was up. We told them your situation, but they may very well call the police." Great!

A couple police cars had driven by during the day, and after the woman told us about her suspicious neighbors, a private investigation car parked across the street from us. He left after a few minutes, figuring we were legitimately waiting for a tow truck, I suppose. Neither of us had even been suspected of being troublemakers or people to watch out for, so it was a weird feeling. We definitely wanted to be out of there just as much as the neighbors wanted us to be gone.

Around 6 PM, some kids started selling lemonade on the street corner, and I was their first customer. $1 a cup for overly sour lemonade, but it was worth it to have some variety from the water and trail mix we'd been eating all day.

At some point, I closed my eyes and prayed that we get out of the situation soon and safely. Less than an hour later, a BMW pulled up behind us out of nowhere. A nice-looking couple named Dave and Vanessa got out to ask if we needed help. Dave had owned a 2002 at some point in his life, and though they couldn't help us directly, they called a friend who is a mechanic and also gave us their cell phone number in case we needed a place to stay the night. The friend didn't answer the phone, but we thanked the couple and went back to waiting once they left. We never really learned how they had seen us, given that they don't live in the neighborhood and were on their way to a concert that presumably was not accessed by the street we were on.

More phone calls to AAA, restroom trips to the nearby Chevron, texting our families to give them updates, and all the time hoping my phone wouldn't die before we sorted out the situation. Green Guy owns an iPhone, so we had used up most of the battery on his searching for hotels and other tow companies throughout the past 24 hours. My phone is a pretty old and reliable flip phone that doesn't have Internet, so it was lasting longer than the iPhone and had become our main connection to the world outside the neighborhood that had become our camp for the day.

When we were starting to get desperate and feel like we were stuck in the movie Groundhog Day, Dave and Vanessa returned with a mechanic named Ryan. They told us that they had happened to get ahold of Ryan, their neighbor, and that he was a great mechanic. What a relief to have someone with the skills to fix the car there! He checked out Rojito and determined that it indeed was the fuel pump, and then offered to go pick one up from a nearby auto shop. Since he's a mechanic, he was able to get the wholesale price. Of course we said yes, having no idea if or when AAA would arrive.

It felt to me like angels had been sent to help us out after five or six hours of waiting. It definitely felt like that prayer I'd made earlier was being answered by these really friendly strangers.

Ryan returned with the part after a little while, and just as he was parking, guess who showed up! The tow truck, of course. We felt confident that Ryan could fix the issue, so we sent the tow truck away. Thanks, but no thanks, especially since Ryan had already gone to the store and was confident that the fuel pump was our only issue.

After about fifteen minutes, Ryan had installed the new fuel pump, all the while telling us about his adventures salmon fishing in Alaska. Green Guy watched closely as he worked to learn how to install a fuel pump in the future if this one ever stops working.

Then, the big moment: Green Guy got in the car and turned the ignition on. It turned over a few times, and then it started running again. What a sweet sound that was!

We paid Ryan for the fuel pump and gave him a tip, thanking him a number of times for his generosity. He essentially had dropped whatever he was doing to help us out, and we were extremely grateful.

After stopping by the Chevron for some gas, we hit the road again, and drove home just as the cold fog was rolling in. Boy, did it feel amazing to be moving toward the comfort of home again.

Although the backpacking trip didn't turn out as we'd planned, and we didn't quite get the hiking experiences we were hoping for, we are incrediby grateful that the situation was as fortunate as it was. Safe neighborhood, beautiful views of Mt. Tam, a hotel within walking distance, plenty of food and water and warm clothes, and the miraculous appearance of Dave, Vanessa, and Ryan... Someone was looking out for us, it seems!

The moral of the story is to make the best of the situations that life hands you and to see wildflowers where others might see weeds. People can be really mistrusting or extremely helpful, and you never know what kind of people you'll encounter on difficult journies, but you get to decide how you react. It sometimes takes patience to wait for those who are willing to help you, and it never hurts to have supplies in your car for emergencies. A pack of cards and a good friend to pass the time helps, too.

I just want to send out a huge thank you to Dave, Vanessa, and Ryan, the neighbors who walked by and were friendy enough to say hello, the kids selling lemonade, the sunset, the guy at Chevron who let us fill up a Camelback with water, our families who offered to pick us up if all else failed, AAA for eventually arriving (after 6 hours...), and to Green Guy for making the best of the situation with me and for being a fun person to spend 6 hours on a sidewalk with! What a fun and interesting weekend!

Peace out,
Green Gal


  1. Great post! Thanks for the reminder of how to make the best of things, and to see the flowers instead of weeds!


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