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101 things to do in the middle of nowhere

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JUNE 01, 2017

It all started off as a pretty good idea.

My friend had invited me to visit her at UCLA so we could go to Disneyland together. I didn’t want to drive from Berkeley to Los Angeles all by my lonesome, so I posted on Facebook, offering a ride to anyone who was looking to head down to Los Angeles the same day I was.

Within a few days, I had my passengers. Riding down with me would be Emily, a friend from high school; Rocio, a friend I had met staying in the Foothill residence hall and Kyle, a friend I had made working at this very newspaper.

Cut to Friday, May 12, 9:30 a.m. Rocio, Kyle and Emily load their belongings into the back of my red 2008 Ford Focus. The first three hours cruising along Highway 5 are uneventful.

At 1 p.m., the accelerator cuts out — without notice. I keep my foot on the gas pedal, but I can see the speedometer make the slow decline from 90 mph (sorry) all the way down to zero. I flick on my hazard lights, pull to the side and turn off the car. When I switch on the ignition once again, the accelerator comes back on with it. I’m sure it’s nothing.

Twenty-five miles later, the accelerator cuts out again. I call my dad and he directs me to the nearest mechanic so we can resolve the issue quickly and get back on the road within the hour.

We pull into Oasis Auto Shop in Avenal at 2 p.m. The mechanic greets us and runs diagnostics on the car.

“It’s the throttle body actuator,” he explains. I nod even though I have no idea what he’s talking about. “You need to replace the part, but we can’t get it here until Monday. You will not be getting to Los Angeles tonight.”

I couldn’t bring myself to tell my friends we would be stuck in Avenal for at least the night, so my dad agrees to pick us up and drive us to Los Angeles (thanks again, dad). It would take him roughly 4.5 hours to reach us.

Hour one. According to Google, there’s a movie theater just a few blocks away, so we walk to it. I round the corner and approach the figure occupying the vintage box office.

“Hi th — oh shit,” I say.

It’s a plastic mannequin, fully clothed and sporting a chic brown wig. The theater doors are locked. I throw my sunglasses down to the pavement and cry out in disappointment. We go next door to Subway and order sandwiches and peanut butter cookies. It’s 4 p.m.

Hour two. The Subway employees recommend a park a short distance away, so we wander aimlessly, like a band of restless nomads, hoping to stumble upon it.

“You guys, we were a stylish red car from the city that broke down in a small town,” I say. “We’re literally living the plot of the movie ‘Cars.’ ” Nobody laughs.

We can’t find the park. We sit on a bench outside a mini mart for 20 minutes. Time is just flying by.

With the sun going down and nowhere else to go, we head back to Subway. Luckily, Kyle has a dozen movies downloaded onto his laptop, so we put on “The Martian” to kill time while we wait.

Hour three. Kyle and Rocio order more cookies. My dad calls and tells me that traffic is absolutely horrific.

Suddenly, Emily bursts into an almost maniacal laugh. She’s been conducting in-depth research on Avenal. Apparently, Avenal is the “self-proclaimed pistachio capital of the world.”

“We’re not sure if we qualify for that, but there sure are a lot of pistachios around,” she reads a quote from her phone.

Aside from its thriving pistachio industry, Avenal’s only other significant economy is the prison industry. In fact, inmates make up a big portion of the city’s census.

Hour four. Matt Damon is still stuck on Mars. There are now no cookies left in Subway. Emily has a theory that Avenal transcends time and space, and when a person dies, they just replace them with a plastic mannequin and go on pretending it never happened.

Hour five. Imagine a little girl waking up on Christmas morning or a parent watching their baby take its first steps. Think of a family of four that’s just won the Powerball jackpot and you still wouldn’t come close to capturing the joy I felt when my dad finally arrived in Avenal at 8:53 p.m.

We finish the last three-hour leg of the drive down, and I arrive at UCLA at 1:15 a.m., exactly 15 hours and 45 minutes since my departure from Berkeley.

“How was the drive?” my friend asks me as she helps unload my stuff from the car.

“Fine. Do you have ice cream?”

Contact Shannon O'Hara at [email protected].

JUNE 01, 2017