Late one summer, back when I was 21, I decided to take a road trip to
visit some friends in Prescott, Ariz. It was one of those
spur-of-the-moment travel decisions, and I had told no one I was
going. It’s taken me most of my life to figure out that the biggest
troubles I get myself into often involve the least amount of advance
I left Los Angeles about 10 p.m. in my beat-up Oldsmobile Cutlass,
a twitchy, temperamental old war horse that was prone to dying on me
without a moment’s notice. The brakes were bad and one headlight was
out, but I gave no consideration to that whatsoever. The only thing
working in my brain was the thought of flying down the open highway
in my big, comfortable ride, stopping by roadside diners for hot
apple pie, just like Kerouac in “On the Road.” As I said, I was 21 --
the closest we’ll ever come to immortality in this lifetime.
It was 3 a.m. and 200 miles past the California-Arizona border
when I decided to pull over to the side of the road to check my AAA
map. Having been run at high speeds nonstop for hours, the
Oldsmobile’s engine had trouble believing it was being turned off. It
sputtered, coughed, fired up again, and finally shuddered to a stop.
I checked the map for the next big turn-off, folded it and turned
the ignition switch the start the car. In hindsight, this was like
asking an old man who had just run the New York Marathon to get up
and start sprinting again. Nothing happened.
I stared at the unmoving arrow on the tachometer and turned the
key again. Nothing happened. I pounded the dashboard once hard,
revealing for none to see my absolute ignorance of automotive repair.
Stepping out of a car onto the desert highway at 3 a.m. is like
stepping out onto the surface of the moon. My tennis shoes crunched
on the dark pavement, and it was only then that I became aware of the
inhospitable nature of my surroundings. The air was hot and dry. The
only illumination around me came from my car’s sole headlight, the
only sound the occasional flap and flutter of wind. What I found most
unnerving wasn’t the darkness or the flapping wind. It was the
silence -- the lifeless, motionless silence behind the sound of the
I popped open the hood of the car just for show. Given that I knew
nothing about cars, the only way I would spot the source of the
problem was if a wooden stake was protruding from it, and even then I
wouldn’t have known how to fix it. My only hope was that some good
sport driving by would see the hood propped open and stop to help,
which is why I propped it open in the first place.
I leaned against the back of my car, stared down the highway and
waited. Forty-five minutes passed before a pair of headlights
appeared in the distance, and a few moments later the headlights and
the big rig attached to them blew by me without so much as a tap of
the brakes. I waited and waited. Another 30 minutes went by before
another vehicle appeared, flew by me and disappeared over the
“Well, Dave, this is a pretty pickle,” I muttered to myself. I
hopped onto the trunk of the Oldsmobile and leaned back against the
Truly, I was in a pickle. It had been a hot summer, and I knew
that in a few short hours the ambient temperature would be 110
degrees, easy. Of course I hadn’t thought to bring any water with me.
I looked up at the night sky, the gray-blue dust of the Milky Way
streaked across the center, and was suddenly overwhelmed by the
isolation, the remoteness of my predicament. I closed my eyes and
imagined what I would look like to the team of archeologists who
years from now would stumble across my bleached-white bones. They
would stare into the hollow sockets that were once my eyes and wonder
what kind of fool would have driven waterless out into the desert in
a malfunctioning car.
Since I hadn’t told anyone about my road trip, my family and
friends would by then have assumed I’d met with foul play, or was
meditating in some ashram in San Francisco.
Wrapped up in these increasingly depressing thoughts, I didn’t see
the RV pulling over to the side of the road in front of my car until
I heard the sound of a car door opening and turned around. An old man
in a red flannel shirt stepped out of the driver’s side and walked
over to me.
“Got yourself in a bit of a pickle, eh?” he asked, smiling.
“Mister, you have no idea!” I said. I was so relieved to see him
that I didn’t notice he had used the same word to describe my
situation as I had. Or that I had been resting right beside the
highway and hadn’t seen him pull up.
I explained how my car had died, and the old man nodded. “Sounds
like vapor lock,” he said. “Let me have a look.” And with that he
dropped to his knees and crawled under my car.
I looked over to the RV and noticed a matronly woman sitting in
the passenger seat. She sat looking forward, as if utterly
unconcerned that her husband was out helping a perfect stranger on a
darkened desert highway.
“Let’s see if this works,” I heard the man grunt from under the
car. Suddenly the pavement beneath the car lighted up and I heard the
crackle of an electric spark. “Go ahead and try it now.”
I got behind the steering wheel and turned the ignition. The
engine roared gloriously to life, and relief poured over me like
water from a cool spring. I sat staring at all the wonderful lights
and gauges in the dashboard telling me all was well, that I wouldn’t
have to die a miserable, lonely death in the desert after all. Then
it occurred to me to thank the old man, to thank him and his wife
profusely and to tell them that if they were ever in L.A., to come by
The man was gone. The RV that just moments earlier was idling by
the side of the road was gone. I looked down the open highway in both
directions and saw not a sign of life anywhere. The only sound I
heard was the occasional flap and flutter of the desert wind.
The rational mind moves in logical steps, each step predicated on
the one before it being made in orderly fashion. When confronted with
a patch of ground that makes no sense, the mind more often than not
will simply step over it and proceed to the next logical step, will
pretend that crazy patch never existed. That’s why it often takes us
days, sometimes years, after something truly odd happens before we
finally remark to ourselves, “Wow, that was really weird.”
So it was that years passed before I finally began to seriously
think about what really happened that August night in the desert. And
it was only then that I came to believe, with great conviction, that
we share this world with angels.
Sometimes they make their presence known in dramatic fashion, as
in stepping out of the desert air to rescue a stranded traveler. More
often than not they work with great subtlety. But you can see them if
you pay attention. They’re the single smiling face in a sea of
frowning faces. They’re the compassionate words of a stranger that
comfort you in sickness. They’re the gentle hand that lifts you when
you fall to your knees in grief.
They exist, and they’re everywhere -- perhaps as a balm for all
the world’s sadness, perhaps because God doesn’t like to give us more
than we can handle. But they exist -- I know this because I’ve met
My guardian angel drives an RV.
* DAVID SILVA, a Burbank resident and former Leader city editor,
is an editor for Times Community News. Reach him at (909) 484-7019,
or by e-mail at david.silva@ latimes.com.