Readers who’ve been following this journey will remember that in my last post I was driving along an unmarked, unpaved, under-populated road somewhere in the middle of Nowhere, OR, USA, when my car began alerting me to all the oil it was leaking. The timing of its notification was disconcerting, as was its format—a blaring, red-lighted ding! ding! ding! scolding me like an upset schoolteacher—and I was reminded of that old adage that it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

(Engineers at Volkswagen: kindly take note. Would it kill you to have a kind voice offer a friendly Achtung??)

Eventually, and with the aid of a couple cold Coors, I waited it out: the engine cooled and I added more oil. Though this procedure required multiple repetitions, eventually everything seemed peachy: the bell stopped dinging! its terrible clang and the lights stopped flashing, and soon north out of Nowhere I continued through the gloaming until I arrived at a big river named Columbia, where I turned left.

Outside The Dalles, night finally pulled down its curtains and I stopped at a Burger King. I washed my face, refilled my water bottle, and ate a cheeseburger. Detail-oriented readers will realize that this was my second fast food stop of the day, and to your raised eyebrows I can only shrug and say, Back off, I was on vacation.

It was getting late and I started to look for a campsite, but curiously there are none along the Gorge—it’s all RV sites and cheap hotels. My blood was still jazzed from the anxiety of my earlier adventure and it rolled through my veins like some bee-bopping sax solo. Rather than stop I kept on going: east on 84, up around Portland, across the bridge into Vancouver, WA, and north up I-5.

About thirty miles into Washington the oil light ding!-ed and the warning light flashed again. I pulled off the highway and found a lamp under the overpass and added a little more oil. After a few minutes I got back on the road, only to find that ding! ding! ding!, something was still amiss.

I pulled to the side of I-5 and popped the hood. If you’re the sort who likes to feel a rush of terror, let me recommend standing in complete darkness along the side of an Interstate while semi-trucks scream past at 75mph: that’ll satisfy your cravings. In the dark I added the last of the oil I had, confused and increasingly concerned that the car was consuming so much, and waited a few minutes before I fired her back up.

Ten miles later the bell chimed again and I pulled off near Lexington, convinced that the leak was only growing worse. I drove across the Cowlitz River and found a gas station. The clock said 11:12PM and the station was closed, but two women were still inside. One was counting the till while the other was vacuuming.

I knocked on the locked double-glass doors. One of the girls turned off her vacuum and approached me warily. Through the crack in the doors I explained that my car was leaking oil and asked if I could buy a quart. She told me they were closed. I asked if there was another station nearby and she shook her head No. I explained that I really needed some oil and asked if I could please give her cash for a quart? She eyed me and walked over to her friend at the register. The two talked for a minute and then she approached the doors.

“I’m going to let you in,” she said through the doors, “but no crazy stuff.”

I realize that the situation was a tough proposition for her—some strange man shows up late at night, knocks on the door and asks to buy a quart of oil—and I understood her hesitancy. I straightened my back and smiled and tried to look as decent and reasonable as I could. As she unlocked the door I assured her that I was up to “no crazy stuff,” all the while thinking that if I was the type inclined to crazy stuff that’s exactly what I would’ve said anyway. Sometimes that’s just how it goes.

Anxiously she opened one door and let me in. She looked at me and boldly lifted up her chin.

“I know karate,” she said. I presume she was attempting to sound authoritative, but when her voice warbled and she avoided my eyes, she only cast herself as even easier prey.

This is how my mind organized what she told me:

Girl Knows Karate Girl Doesn’t Know Karate
Girl Tells Potential Assailant
Girl Doesn’t Tell Potential Assailant

(I would like to pause and thank my college stats teacher, Professor Snyder, for impressing upon me the importance of analyzing information via rubrics. I pray that somewhere he is proud.)

Now either it was true that she knew karate or it was false; at that point I didn’t have enough information to answer the validity of her assertion. However, by telling me that she knew karate, which I reckoned she did in order to intimidate me and ward off any potential attacks I might make, she presented me with the unique opportunity to test if she actually did know karate or if she was just bullshitting me out of fear.

Determining her knowledge on this subject was going to require some aggressive act from me, and was likely going to end in one of two ways—either she really knew karate, and thus would kick my ass, or she didn’t know karate, at which point I, by virtue of being physically larger, would kick her ass.

In the interest of expanding humankind’s knowledge I felt compelled to do something.

Girl Knows Karate Girl Doesn’t Know Karate
Aaron Does Something Aggressive to Test Girl’s Knowledge of Karate Ass-kicking for Aaron Ass-kicking for Girl
Aaron Does Nothing to Test Girl’s Knowledge of Karate Ongoing Uncertainty for the Future Ongoing Uncertainty for the Future

I looked at this poor young woman—nervous, shy, diminutive, dressed in ill-fitting black slacks and clunky shoes—and then looked about the room, which was your typical gas station/convenience store, with rows of canned foods and air fresheners, coolers of soda and sliced cheese and sealed tins of salted nuts.

And then, fully aware that something needed to happen, my mind went very Ang Lee. Not Brokeback Mountain Ang Lee, and not the Ang Lee who directed Sense and Sensibility or The Ice Storm or Eat Drink Man Woman. No, the Ang Lee my mind went was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

I began to imagine this young woman and I entering into a frantic but highly choreographed fight sequence, one in which we leapt across the aisles of sunflower seeds and Slim Jims, chased one another up and over the coolers of Mountain Dew, and did battle while circling the slushy machine with sleeves of Pringles and windshield wipers serving as our sabers. Through the air we would fly to meet in terrifying but glorious combat; wounded, we would retreat to our respective corners to apply duct tape to our lesions and find succor in Muscle Milk and turkey-jerkey.

Though such ideas flaunted the laws of physics they made for great cinema, at least as far as it was running in my mind. The downside of this thinking was that I never did test this girl’s knowledge of karate, and if you’re thinking of holding up that gas station but are hesitating out of concern that the girl inside knows karate, sadly I’m of no use to you.

For a moment I thought about sharing these thoughts with her—both the Ang Lee imaginings as well as the rubric formatting my mind had undertaken—but refrained out of fear that doing so would only increase my late-night Creep Factor exponentially.

Instead I looked at her and said, “Well I don’t know karate.”

Then I paused and shrugged my shoulders, pursed my lips and cocked my head, and finished with what I thought was a playful flourish:

“So you’ve got that going for you. Which is nice.”

Apparently she wasn’t a big Bill Murray fan, and she ignored the Caddyshack reference and led me over to the aisle of oil. Since she hadn’t seemed interested in cinema I keep the movie suggestions to myself, gave her $10 for a quart and told her to keep the change. Outside, I poured the oil into car and continued into the night, where more adventures would soon find me only a few miles up the road.