My phone hadn’t charged at all overnight. Cool. Looks like I was going to have like a 25% battery until we got the car rolling later on. At least I had enough charge to check the forecast and see if my car was going to be safe –

20211010 1300 UTC Day 1 Outlook Graphic
20211010 1300 UTC Day 1 Tornado Probabilities Graphic

Oh. That was foreboding. The HRRR kept streaking big old UH tracks right through central Cleveland County. My poor Mariner. It was only 7:00 at a chilly Great Sand Dunes National Park, but I couldn’t get back to sleep. I sat up and, at the minor protest that Scipio gave me, I petted him back to sleep in my lap to warm both of us. Then I sat there in the tent, deciding when was an appropriate time to wake Elizabeth. Eventually, I worked out an ingenious plan – if I fed Scipio right outside of the tent, maybe the zipper and the sound of the food and the shlorping noises and the cold air filtering in would wake her up. Scipio was happy to be a pawn in my plan, and soon the brisk morning air was filled with the sounds of ravenous dog. Jackpot – Elizabeth rolled over and woke up.

From there, the next step in getting everyone up early and beginning the operation to save my car was easy. I walked over to the Harding campsite a few spots over and pulled out the stove. Nothing to get things going quite like some eggs and bacon, right? Soon, the three of them emerged to the sounds of crackling bacon and the renewed attempts from Scipio to intimidate poor Tucker. I wasted no time in beginning to put stuff away even as our breakfast heated up. There was a lot to put away in a campsite that sort of looked as if the Great Sand Dunes winds had scattered everything all over it – or maybe as if a bomb had gone off at the site. NPS rangers usually don’t take too kindly to that, so I got to work cleaning up.

And that’s when disaster struck. Elizabeth’s car had spent a chilly pair of nights parked at the Harding site. She got in to get ready to pack up our site and turned the key… only to have the car not start. Much to my disgust, this is how I discovered that Elizabeth hadn’t bothered to mention her battery to the dealership when she got her car serviced. For those who have read this blog before, this would mark her 3rd battery death in a little over a year (there would be a 4th 2 months later that finally prompted her to take action). With a resigned sigh, I went to the back of her car to pull out the jumper kit. By now, I was pretty sure I knew how to do it – just needed to find some sort of refresher online to remind me the order that the cables went onto the engine. Unfortunately, Elizabeth’s cousins decided to get intrepid and insisted they didn’t need any guidance in jumping a car. They pulled the rental right alongside while Irene took over cooking the eggs. We got the positive sides connected, then Charlie connected the negative terminal on the live car. Alright, now we just needed to ground the cables on Elizabeth’s car. I’d done this before, and distinctly recalled just putting the clamp down on an unpainted bolt somewhere on the engine block. Michael insisted that that couldn’t be the case, so we researched a little longer until I convinced them that that was the case. I handed the clamp over to Michael and told Elizabeth to get ready to fire up the car. All of a sudden, a giant spark erupted from her engine block. Apparently Michael grounding the cables caused that? Either way, we waited a second and I told Elizabeth to try to rev the engine. Nothing happened other than a cranking sound and more crackling in the engine. We waited a few minutes longer. Still nothing other than the grinding and sparks. Sparks in the engine block aren’t normal, are they?

It was this thought that led me to inspect the hook-up of the jumper cables and realize that Charlie had connected them wrong on the other side. Which meant… “Oh shit”. Now we needed to disconnect the battery without killing ourselves. In hindsight, this may not be easy, considering that the grounded cable was literally beginning to melt. Michael put on an oven mitt and flicked the cable off of the bolt. Then, with the circuit disconnected, we fixed the mistake. I loudly prayed that we hadn’t fried Elizabeth’s engine like an egg in the meantime while we waited for her battery to charge up. And…

My prayers were answered. Elizabeth’s car coughed to life. Any nightmares of calling in AAA to tow us all the way to Alamosa would narrowly go unlived today. And, just as importantly, perhaps we could still save my car. We went back to cleaning up while Michael and Charlie set a small campfire for reasons unknown. With two tents and a bunch of food to pack up at this campsite alone, it took us a little while, but as the sun rose above the mountains and brought the promise of a clear day to the park, we finished up. Elizabeth and I subsequently started cleaning up our site, taking care not to let Scipio wander into the road or terrorize the campsite right next to us. Packing the car back up was like putting together a sandy jigsaw puzzle – there may only be a few alignments that gave us any view on our drive back to Oklahoma and also allowed us fit Scipio’s bed in the back. In some things went, out came others, until finally I felt like I had a pretty decent fit. If nothing else, it would all make it back with us. We were behind my preferred leaving time but still at a reasonable 9:00. With an 8-hour drive, we might just be able to beat the storms to our apartment. I eased the car out of the campsite’s parking spot (we had not turned it off since jumping it), and we headed over to the visitor’s center so that Elizabeth, Michael, and Charlie could get some sort of souvenir sticker. First, though, we needed to get the dumpster to drop off the trash riding precariously on the hood of our car. Along the way, I heard a noise on the roof of the car. Elizabeth asked me what it was. I had no idea and tried to go slow. A few seconds later, though, something thunked off the roof of our car.

“Nolan!” Elizabeth screeched. I was befuddled until I saw something bouncing behind us. What had I left on the roof? From the rearview mirror, I looked closer, and identified it as Scipio’s food dish that Elizabeth had left up there. That stopped her screeching right in its tracks. We drove the remaining 50 yards to the dumpster, which gave Elizabeth a chance to get the food dish. To her eternal mortification, a park ranger had already retrieved it from the road, so she had to go get it from the park ranger themself. It was not a happy mood when she got back in the car.

The unhappy mood transferred to me from there, because I was informed that I would be staying out near the (still-running) car while Elizabeth joined everyone else in the visitor’s center. I understood why I was the one guarding the car, but as the quick trip inside dragged on past 15, then 20 minutes the two of us started getting bored. In fact, I felt pretty safe in walking around the corner from the car and saying a quick good-bye to Great Sand Dunes.

Eventually, Elizabeth returned with Charlie, Michael, and Irene. We thanked the three of them for a fun, memorable trip and said good-bye to them and Tucker*. I was ready to lose my mind with how slow we had been in leaving, but we could still beat the storms to Norman if I stepped on it. So of course we left right behind an RV. I stewed until I was able to get out from behind them, and then started setting a zippy course for home.

The sun disappeared not long after we turned around the corner of the Sangre de Cristos and set a course back for I-25. Angry dark clouds scudded to our southeast, bringing with them the threat of rain. We would not see the sun for the rest of the day. A small sprinkle started falling as I rolled into Trinidad, in search of some coffee to help Elizabeth get through what promised to be a very long drive. Safeway didn’t work, but she got what she needed at a coffeehouse downtown. Then we switched off drivers and I sat down to the nerve-wracking task of calculating if we could beat the clock.

The drizzle erupted into showers by the time Elizabeth got off of I-25 in Raton. In fact, it just looked entirely like a miserable day. Scipio must have concurred, or else the trip had wiped him out, since he was pretty content to sleep on my wrist in his bed. Elizabeth and I listened to the Cover 3 recap podcast that was her first knowledge that everything had gone insane the day before in college football. It was like, “huh?”

We got hungry shortly after entering Texas, and decided to make a McDonald’s and gas stop in Dalhart. By now, it was raining even harder, but to streamline the process of getting back, I pumped gas and let Scipio do his business while Elizabeth went inside and ordered our food. It was professionally done by us, but not by McDonald’s. My chicken sandwich may have rivaled anything I’ve ever eaten for “least edible meal of all time”. Seriously, it was awful. But with a single-minded determination not to lose the race to the as-yet-undeveloped storm, I scarfed down some much-more-edible fries and set cruise control at 87 mph through the Texas panhandle. The rain showers continued to get more convective as we approached the warm(er?) sector, and we even had some loud rumbles of thunder to scare Scipio near Dumas. He was an incredibly good boy the entire day, and really only acted up once, near Pampa. That combined with my “aggressive” driving combined to drive Elizabeth to an episode of carsickness, thus terminating my driving privileges for the day. That’s fine, though. I would rather sit in the back with Scipio instead of having to drive through rain, whereas Elizabeth will do anything in her power to avoid him. Even more to her annoyance, as soon as she headed south out of Pampa toward I-40, he fell back asleep.

It was late afternoon by this point and the first blobby storms were going up in far southwest Oklahoma. To my way of thinking, that was a good sign. If we were just now approaching McLean and the storm was near Altus, how could we fail to win? Elizabeth shot eastward among high spirits as the storm to our southeast went tornado warned.

Elizabeth gave it everything she had, but the storm was just moving too fast.

We conceded defeat and pulled off west of El Reno in a blinding rain. There was nothing left to do but watch as the supercell bore right down on Norman. Was I going to be mad at Elizabeth if I lost a windshield, or just accept it as one of those things? I’d been mulling that question all day, and found myself relieved that by the narrowest of margins, I wouldn’t have to answer my own question.

We got home at a pretty reasonable time, with enough to spare to eat dinner and start to go through some of the beautiful pictures and videos we had taken. A lot had happened since the three of us had left Norman three days ago, and a lot of sand needed to be cleaned off of us. On the whole, it was easily one of the best trips of 2021.

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