When our business required extensive Southwest travel, I opted to go along because we had recently suffered “empty nest” syndrome and I didn’t relish staying home alone. We bought a 36 ft. motorhome and 19 ft. trailer to tow my car. Little did I know that I would drive the RV and follow my husband and employees as they drove the equipment.
Our first trip was over the Guadalupe Mountains in the dead of night—we mystery writers try to avoid clichés, but that’s what it was—darker than the inside of a boot and as winding and narrow as the Great Wall of China. The western slope is also extremely steep.
Was I afraid? You bet I was. I honestly didn’t think I would ever reach the top. I made the Lord a lot of promises that night, some of which I was able to keep. It was after midnight when we reached the summit and the road straightened out into a gentle downward slope. My heart still races when I think about that trip, but it actually did wonders for my self-confidence.
It wasn’t long afterward that I was driving down another mountainside, this one nearly as steep as the Guadalupes, when a deer jumped out in front of me. I almost stood the RV on its front wheels. Fortunately, the deer was faster than the motorhome and we avoided a fatal collision.
During another mountainous trip we were engulfed in a Rocky Mountain blizzard and stopping was out of the question. I followed taillights and prayed like I’ve never done before, or since. But even that was topped by a monsoon in the Phoenix area where large sheets of plywood were flying across the highway from a construction site during a torrential rain. It was also in Arizona where I had a flat tire in heavy traffic on the interstate. Not just a flat but an explosion. Major pieces of the tire exploded upward through the bottom of the coach into my underwear drawer, leaving tread marks on my unmentionables. How I managed to pull out of traffic to safety I’ll never know.
A few days later I fell asleep at the wheel while moving from one jobsite to the next. Fortunately, it was in a rural area with groves along the sides of the road—which truckers call “driving by braille.” The noise woke me just before I drove into a ditch, so I held up the equipment parade by insisting on a nap.
When driving into El Paso, the equipment drivers decided to take an off-ramp before I could change lanes with my 55-foot rig. I yelled into my CB mic that traffic wouldn’t allow me to get over, and was told to engage my blinker and begin pulling into the exit lane. I was tempted to close my eyes as I did, but managed to take the ramp at the last second. I’m sure there was a lot of cursing going on in the vehicles behind me.
Speaking of CB radios, truckers were my main source of entertainment, unless their conversations grew less than gentlemanly, which was often. During the months that I drove Matilda, I learned trucker jargon well enough to write a mystery novel with authentic trucker language. Murder on the Interstate, the third novel in my Logan & Cafferty mystery/suspense series, features not only a woman trucker named “Big Ruby” McCurdy—who provides a great deal of humor—but an actual account of driving though heavy road construction that was “necked down” to one lane in a northern Arizona nocturnal downpour. There my two feisty 60-year old amateur women sleuths discover the body of a young woman in her Mercedes convertible. In the previous novel, Diary of Murder, Dana Logan and Sarah Cafferty are surprised by a Rocky Mountain blizzard while driving their motorhome from Colorado to Wyoming.
So my accidental research has been put to good use. Would I do it all again? Not in this lifetime!
Jean Henry Mead is the author of 16 books, nearly half of them novels. The former news reporter and award-winning photojournalist has been published nationally as well as abroad. In addition to her mystery/suspense series, she also writes the Hamilton Kids’ mystery series for middle graders and western historical fiction. She’s currently putting together another book of interviews, titled The Mystery Writers, which includes interviews and articles by well-known authors such as Sue Grafton, Lawrence Block, Julie Garwood, J. A. Jance and James Scott Bell. It’s scheduled for early spring.
Visit her at her website: www.jeanhenrymead.com/