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Psycho-roni, the San Francisco Treat (or “How We Narrowly Escaped Certain Death and Dismemberment on I-40”)

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In 1993, my best friend, Robin, and I were carefree 19-year-olds whose scope of experience didn’t extend very far beyond our quiet, crime-free town on California’s central coast. We had begun to experience a bit of the wandering bug, though, and we decided it would be excellent fun to take a trip, by car, all the way to a small town just outside Dallas to visit a former co-worker who’d moved there. We were eager and excited for the adventure and so, with the sun in our eyes, we went blithely tripping down I-40 without a care in the world, until New Mexico, where everything changed: our trip, our sense of security and our world view. New Mexico was where we met him.

He was a man; this much we know for certain. Many of the other details have been lost to history. We do not remember his name, if he told it to us, nor have we any remembrance of hair color or style, age range, or build. Of one other detail, however, we are both now sure: he drove a light blue Honda Civic. It was parked at the rest stop, thirty miles west of Tucumcari, where we stopped, in the rain, to fix a loose windshield wiper blade.

When we arrived at the rest stop, I surveyed the area and decided it was probably safe. In addition to our car there were several other cars, as well as a few semis. At this point, there is a bit of discrepancy in recollection. Robin will tell you that the blue car was already parked in the lot when we pulled in, a few spaces away. However, the way I remember it, the blue car arrived after we did. But, whatever the sequence of events, the car was there and its lone male occupant got out.

The man approached us, after exiting the restrooms, and inquired as to whether we needed help. Robin, standing outside the car, conversed politely with the man while I, sulky, sat inside the car and pretended he didn’t exist. Now, I must explain my lack of attention starting from this point. You see, in those days it seemed to me that guys paid an inordinate amount of attention to Robin. Whether this was truth or merely my cynical perception, when I saw the man approaching I thought, “Here comes another one.” I assumed he was trying to hit on thin, blonde Robin, out here in the middle of nowhere, and not-thin, not-blonde me didn’t appreciate it. That is why when he walked up and began talking to Robin, I completely tuned out. I didn’t look at the man, I didn’t say anything and I didn’t watch when he walked away and got in his car. Fortunately, Robin was a little more alert than I was that night.

The man seemed eager to engage us in conversation and kept talking long after most people would’ve walked away. He was from San Francisco, he said, after seeing our California license plate. He asked where we were from. (Robin, being appropriately vague, gave him the name of the largest city in our county rather than the towns where we actually lived.) Well! By great coincidence, he’d just driven through there not too long before, on business. I wondered why he wouldn’t just go away.

Even then, annoyingly, the small talk continued; Robin wrestling with the wiper blade and saying, “Mmhmm,” politely, and me refusing to acknowledge his existence. After a few moments, he did start to leave, only to stop. “Are you sure you don’t need any help? I have a screwdriver in my car.” (A screwdriver? For a rubber wiper blade? Sure, and if you’ve got  butcher knife why don’t you go ahead and bring that over, too?) Robin brushed aside the offer and the man returned to his car, sat inside momentarily, then departed. Minutes later, Robin had succeeded in forcing the wiper blade into submission and we were back on the freeway, as well.

There in the slow lane, life was still uncomplicated and innocent. So, when we found ourselves approaching the man and his Honda Civic, a few miles down the road, Robin said, “I’ll honk my horn when we pass him, and you wave, to say thanks.” She did and I did, a grumpy jerk of the hand without even looking at him, our chivalrous fellow Californian. I was glad to be rid of him. But then we weren’t rid of him. Although we had come up fairly quickly behind him, passed, and then continued at that rate of speed, he was now catching up to us again. What occurred next was a bizarre game of leap frog, with the man zooming up to pass us then moving over and slowing down so we would go around him again. Robin, more alarmed than I, made a mental note of the Honda’s license plate and said, “That’s enough of this. I’m getting away from him.” She took off like the proverbial bat exiting Hades. As we sailed down the road, we decided that we would welcome a highway patrol pulling us over so we could tell him what happened. We also began to realize how slowly that blue car must have been driving after leaving the rest area in order for us to catch up to him at all. He’d had about a five minute head start. Creepy? Yes. However, as far as we could see, the man didn’t seem to be pursuing us. Perhaps….perhaps we were only paranoid. Sure, he must have been driving under the speed limit in order for us to catch him on the interstate. Certainly he meant no harm. Things like this didn’t happen to us. It was a movie script. It was a “Dateline” episode.

As the man remained absent from our rearview mirror and we approached Tucumcari, our stop for the night, we began to think that maybe he’d just been playing around. Bored on a long cross-country trip, maybe? All things considered, however, we felt it best to get off I-40, so we took the first available exit. It was a long, curving off-ramp that looped around in a u-shape. As we got halfway around the “U”, I turned in my seat and looked back over my shoulder at the freeway and saw a sight that gives me chills even today, in this moment, 18 years later. The light blue Honda Civic was exiting behind us. We’d left it in the dust on the freeway and yet, somehow, the man had caught us. Robin floored it coming off the exit and we rocketed down Tucumcari’s main street. As we swung into our hotel parking lot, which, providentially, was close at hand, we cut the lights and engine and ducked down. When we peeked above the dash there was the Honda driving, driving so slowly–half the speed allowed on the street–and the man was peering intently out the windows.

Being ducked down as we were, we didn’t see exactly where the car went after he passed. All we knew was that when we popped back up the car had vanished and, relief of reliefs, it wasn’t in the parking lot with us. We decided to run for the office to check in. When we got out of the car I noticed that several blocks away, on the same side of the street, there was some sort of light-colored car parked facing our hotel. It was a gas station parking lot but the car wasn’t anywhere near the pumps. It was too far away to tell exactly what color it was and the glare of the reflecting street lights on the windshield prevented me from seeing if there was anyone sitting in it, so we were never sure if that was our pursuer or not.

Once inside the hotel we informed the manager’s wife, who checked us in, what was going on. She was surprised and disturbed by the story. Thankfully, we had especially chosen hotels to stay in that had access to the rooms only from inside the building. Indeed, the only way to enter the hallways of this particular hotel was by going through the front door and coming in contact with the desk clerk, or by having a key to open the back door. We thought we were being safe when we made those reservations, but we never realized just how crucial such safety measures might be. We went back out to our car, with the manager’s wife keeping an eye out from inside, drove around back, and locked ourselves into the hotel with no further sign of the blue car or its occupant.

The next morning we packed and loaded up the car, still keeping a watchful eye on our surroundings. We drove around the side of the building. Robin went inside to check out and I remained behind, cleaning out the car. After ten minutes, she still hadn’t returned so I went inside to see what was delaying her. I found Robin in conversation with the manager’s wife, and what the woman had to say was chilling.

Fifteen minutes after we’d checked in a man had entered the lobby. The manager’s wife felt he was looking for something and he inquired about rates, even though the rates were on the marquee outside. Strangely, he had approached on foot instead of by car. When he left she shrugged it off and went back to work. A minute later she looked up….the man was back. Where could he get something to eat? She suggested the prominently-marked Denny’s, blazing with lights, just a few doors down. The woman was disturbed enough after his second departure that she encouraged her husband to close and lock the lobby doors and windows, an uncommon procedure for them.

With the now certain, unassailable understanding that the man had come for us, we drove across town to pick up breakfast to go. While at McDonald’s, Robin called her parents back in California and gave them a rundown on the situation. She also gave them the man’s license plate. (They, in turn, passed it on to their next-door-neighbor, a highway patrolman.) With assurances that we would be careful and call them as soon as we reached Oklahoma City, we once again resumed our eastward progress, with its unchanging landscape of tarmac, vehicles, tarmac, vehicles.

Somewhere in Amarillo, a driving lifetime away from Tucumcari, we had been lulled into bored complacency as we hurtled along the freeway in the middle of three lanes of traffic, keeping pace with the car around us. Suddenly we were catching up rapidly to the car ahead of us in our lane, and Robin was slamming on her brakes. “It’s him!” I looked, open-mouthed, incredulous–but not at the car. I was looking at Robin. You see, in my fit of pique at the rest stop and on the dark, rainy freeway, I had wrongly perceived the color of the Honda Civic. My mind recalled it as silver and the car now in front of us was pale blue. Robin, though, knew. She knew that we had dodged a bullet only to be fired upon again. She recognized the license plate number of the car that had been keeping up with traffic until our approach, when its speed dropped to under the posted limit.

Acting on instinct, Robin floored the gas pedal and streaked past the car on the left. We were doing eighty, again praying to be pulled over. We seemed to shake the Honda and then shot down an off-ramp, hiding in a grocery store parking lot until we were sure the man must’ve passed. Cautiously, we crept back onto I-40 and maintained the speed limit. A mile down the road–so far, so good. Had he continued east, assuming we were ahead of him, hunting for us? He must have. Except….he hadn’t. We rounded a curve in the road and our jaws dropped, for there, sitting on the side of the highway, was a light blue Honda Civic. And our stalker, the man, our very own homegrown psycho, was standing by the car watching the passing traffic. No time to think or form a plan; remembering a piece of advice I’d heard regarding being followed, I locked eyes with the man and stared him down as we passed. “I’m not afraid,” the look said. “We’re onto you.”

It was our last encounter with the man in the blue Honda Civic.

Had my brief, drive-by confrontation with the man really worked? Was it serendipitous car trouble that prevented him from following us? We’ll never know. But the lesson we learned, the reality that sucker-punched us in the gut as we looked back over our shoulders and saw the car following us off that Tucumcari off-ramp, was this: be aware. Pay attention to your surroundings. Robin did, those two days in the southwest, and it very well might have saved us.