Road trip unexpectedly turns south

The old stock market adage “sell in May and go away” applies to commercial photography as well. Most commercial photographers that I know that shoot for similar ad agencies and brands as me are usually slow during the summer months. It seems that many ad agency folks and corporate execs take their vacations during this time and not much work gets done. Many large corporations also have fiscal years that begin on July 1st which puts a lot of budgets in limbo around that time. During this time, for a photographer, a lot of personal work gets shot, websites get updated or revamped, portfolios get some fresh pages and photographers themselves take some vacation time. Once the middle of August rolls around, we usually start ramping up pre-production and then hit the ground running by September.

This summer has been no exception as the website and portfolios were revamped and I took a little road trip with the family last week. I usually bring a camera along for a road trip as many opportunities present themselves to create work for the portfolio and add to the stock collection. The road trip vacation is very different from the fly-to-a-destination-and-stay-at-a-resort vacation. I wouldn’t say the latter is boring but it is very predictable which sometimes is exactly what you need. But a road trip creates unexpected adventures and for a photographer is an endless blank canvas. There are many images in my portfolio that were conceived on road trips. My kids got to experience everything from being dragged through Hearst Castle to picking fresh blueberries on a farm to seeing sea lions in their natural habitat. My son even learned to pee in a bottle this trip.

On the final leg of our trip, our car took a turn for the worst. Just before the Grapevine, our temperature gauge suddenly jumped into the red and the coolant level light lit up. We coasted off the next exit and into a gas station. I popped the hood and could see signs of dried up coolant fluid. I did a once over of the coolant system but couldn’t find any obvious holes or ruptures. My wife bought a gallon of water which I dumped into the radiator which then nearly instantly poured onto the concrete below. I could see that it was gushing through a large crack in the expansion tank. Some duct tape, another gallon of water, a gallon of coolant and 20 minutes later we were back on the road. We just needed it to hold long enough to get home—another 180 miles.

The temperature gauge was still in the red and I expected the engine to still be hot but with the topped off coolant and some air flowing over the radiator, I figured it would cool down shortly. I figured wrong. In hindsight, I’m pretty sure when the car initially overheated it probably blew the head gasket and I was now slowly depriving my engine of oil as it burned up with every revolution of the engine. Within a 20 second span, we went from cruising speed to limp mode to a huge black cloud pluming (the final quart of oil burning away) from the back of the car to the car completely shutting down and the dashboard lighting up like a Christmas tree. The smoke billowing from the hood was so picture perfect it looked like it was done by my favorite production designer, Arnd Stockhausen, who has done plenty of car destroying for me. And it all couldn’t have happened in a worse spot.

If you know the Grapevine, it is basically a parade of semi-trucks doing about 80 miles an hour. The shoulder we pulled over on was just wide enough to contain the car. My wife’s and my first instinct was to get the kids and the Chiweenie out of the car and as quickly and as far off the road as possible. As we exited the car, the other side of the guardrail was met with a hillside so steep and high that it might as well have been a cliff. Our only option was to run back down the highway about 100 yards to a spot with an area that was safe, habitable and setback from the road. It also happened to have a call box right in front of it. It was about 8PM and the sun was setting. We called the CHP from the call box who patched us in with AAA.

While we waited for the tow truck, there was an epic sunset and landscapes all around me. My camera was in the car but I figured if a semi didn’t run me over while fetching it, it would have been marital suicide to come back and setup a camera and tripod on this hillside while my family shuddered every time a semi rumbled by. Instead we just huddled up in the tall grass 30 feet off the road and waited. The tow truck didn’t arrive until after 10PM. The tow back to San Diego ran 3 hours and $650.

I certainly would have never chosen for our road trip to end that way but my kids will probably remember this trip for the rest of their lives. Whether or not they realize it yet, they learned a lot in the last seven days. I’m pretty sure none of their friends have slept on the side of Highway 5 on the Grapevine. They even learned about junk food instead of just having to take our word for it—being on a road trip we overindulged on Gatorade, sweets and In-N-Out burgers. By the last day, my six-year-old was begging for carrots and apples—he said all this “food” was making him sick. They found out what ticks are. They saw that people work very hard in the hot sun to pick fruit and vegetables for the food on our table and those people probably don’t enjoy doing it. They learned that William Randolph Hearst had too much money. They learned that Sarah Winchester (Winchester Rifles) was a little crazy. They learned what personal space is. They learned that Highway 1 is very winding. They learned that there are zebras on Highway 1. They learned to not add commentary when the front of the car is billowing smoke. They learned their family will do whatever it takes to keep them safe.

Some images from the trip: