Corky and the Headlights

“The dash light just went out,” said Uncle Corky, grimly pointing at the little pickup’s now-black instrumentation. “All we have left now are the headlights.”

We were headed home to Southern California after an amazing trail-riding trip to Silverton, Colorado, my Mazda SE5 loaded down with our Honda XRs and camping equipment, and towing a tent trailer. The mini truck's heavy burden made for slow going, so the sun had long since set when we trundled past Four Corners, which was right around the time I noticed the trailer’s lights flicker off in my rear-view mirror.

Following a pause for a fruitless investigation and a change of drivers, we once again hit forlorn Route 160 west, only to be plagued, one by one, with a series of additional electrical failures, starting with the taillights and proceeding to the horn, cab lights, turn signals and now the dash. Our concern was mounting, and as midnight ticked by, it seemed that we were all alone in the dark Arizona desert.

Our plan had been to stop at a rest area to spend the night, but with the Mazda’s headlights still gamely brightening a sliver of the Navajo Indian Reservation, Corky wisely pointed out that the situation dictated a change of plans.

The starter’s probably out of commission too,” he said. “If we turn off the motor, we might be stranded.”

Pointing a flashlight at the AAA map in my lap, I did some calculations and determined that about an hour and a half separated us from Flagstaff—if the headlights would hold out that long.

Since I was in grade school, my dad’s older brother had taken it upon himself to ensure that I had a full appreciation of the American Southwest, his irregular work schedule and lifelong bachelorhood enabling us to make the best of my vacations. From fishing at Convict Lake in the Sierras to dirt biking at Dove Springs in the Mojave Desert, my youth had been seasoned with adventures with Corky, and this was one of the best—or at least it had been until the return trip.

It was 2:30 a.m. when we finally approached Flagstaff, breathing a sigh of relief as Corky downshifted so that he could seek out a suitable stopping point. He found what he was looking for in a wide, graded dirt road that descended from the left side of the highway, and we parked to one side and drifted off for a few hours’ uncomfortable slumber in the Mazda’s cramped cab.

Uncle Corky aboard his BSA in Silverton during an earlier trip to Colorado. (Gail Shannon photo)

After being jolted awake at sunrise by a convoy of trucks lumbering by (it turns out our impromptu lodging area was also a logging area by day), we rubbed the sleep out of our eyes, bump-started the Mazda on the dirt downhill, found a turnout to reverse direction and—being careful not to stall—headed into town. In the daylight and civilization, our predicament didn't seem nearly as dire, and some crawling around in a Pep Boys parking lot resulted in a successful diagnosis: the trailer connector harness had been damaged (we both now recalled I’d run over a retread just before Four Corners), and the exposed wires had occasionally touched the trailer’s metal tongue, popping electrical fuses one at a time. Thanks to the headlights using a separate circuit, they had been spared the fate of the other electrical functions, and after taping up the harness and replacing the blown fuses, the remainder of our drive home was relatively uneventful.

Although I didn't realize it at the time, my impending move away to college—and then a career, then marriage and a kid—would significantly curtail my camping and riding trips with Corky, but he was frequently in my thoughts last year as he struggled with poor health. Last month, Uncle Corky’s name was added to the long list of those who succumbed to 2016’s ruthless toll, and while he wasn’t as high-profile as many, I’m feeling his loss acutely as I peer down the unknown road of a New Year.

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