Monday, December 19, 2005
Stranded In Santorum Country

I still can't muster much enthusiasm for the idea of re-living my trip home, so I'm going to give you the digested version of events.

Basically, what happened is this: I had known for a week or two that my car was in declining health. Mostly she was running fine, but she had become sluggish on hills and had started to need frequent coolant top-ups. But you know how these things are -- you try to get through whatever is next, and knowing that I was up against the end of term (meaning I would shortly be homeless in Vermont) and knowing that if I could just get home I could tend to her mechanical problems, I did the best I could with her and hoped for luck. I also had a weather issue to contend with. Wednesday was clear and sunny in Vermont, but a snowstorm was approaching from the west and I had one day to get south of the worst of it before I found myself doing a long drive through mountainous country in ice and snow.

So I left Wednesday morning after having filled all her various reservoirs, through the hilly-but-short route through Bennington and Albany. I figured if she could hack the monster hills on the road to Bennington, she'd be fine the rest of the way -- and she did, though not without some problems. 45 minutes after I left, her "low coolant" light came on; I hopped out and refilled her; 10 minutes after that it came on again. That freaked me out a bit, I have to admit. I checked her, though, and she was still full -- odd behavior. I pressed on.

We got clear of Vermont and crossed New York without further incident. Oh, she was slow up the hills, no question, but she made it. Until, of course, she didn't. Just north of Scranton she started to shudder and lurch; I could barely keep her above 35 mph. Some amount of black smoke was emitting from her tailpipe. I, of course, was stuck on the interstate, and I attempted to get as far as the next exit before stopping. The problem would start and the stop again -- she'd be fine for five or six miles, and then it would start all over. After several episodes of this, I got myself pulled over and called AAA.

I got to sit on the side of I-81 in the cold for about 45 minutes before the tow truck appeared. He loaded my old girl up and took me to some garage out in the middle of nowhere -- Factoryville, to be precise. I can't deny I was getting anxious -- about where he was taking me, about what kind of people I'd find myself entrusted to when we got there, about whether I was going to spend the night and where I would do it if I did, about the approaching bad weather, about whether my car would ever make it back to Mississippi. We got to the garage, he deposited me and my car inside, and several men proceeded to ignore me for the next half hour or so.

There was another woman in the waiting room, though, and she assured me that I was in a good place -- she said she wouldn't take her car anywhere else. They would fix my car right and not overcharge me for it, and they'd make sure I was safe in the meantime. So I relaxed a little and waited for the verdict. The woman offered to let me stay with her overnight, which I politely declined -- it was very nice of her, but even while she seemed perfectly trustworthy, I just didn't want to be stuck in a stranger's house; I needed a little control over something to assuage my anxiety. A bit after 6:30 a mechanic came in and told me cheerfully that they wouldn't be able to fix my car until the morning -- they knew at least that the water pump was shot, but until they replaced it they wouldn't be able to tell whether there was another problem as well, and they couldn't get the part until in the morning. So he said he'd take me to a nearby town with lots of motels -- I ended up spending the night in a chain motel in Clark's Summit, PA.

I was instructed to call not before 11 AM the next day, so I checked out of my room at 10 and went next door to a Krispy Kreme where I loitered over coffee for several hours while I waited for word on the repair. At one point a vanload of nuns came in; one of them wore shiny black boots. I read a book -- Chris Hedges' War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (which is harrowing but jaw-droppingly good, by the way) -- and hung around as long as seemed reasonable, at which point I removed to a Burger King up the road. Just after 2PM I got the call that my car was fixed, which is about the same time the first snowflakes started to fall. The receptionist at the garage came and picked me up; we went back, I paid, and that was it: all fixed. They'd replaced the water pump, a few small gaskets in the radiator, and put in a new catalytic converter. The latter, apparently, was the real cause of my problems --my car had been choking on her own exhaust. By the time I pulled out, the snow had begun to accumulate on the roads, a good deal of ice was predicted, and it was only two hours until sunset. So to hell with it -- I'm not driving through dark and ice and snow. I returned to the motel and checked back in. The next morning -- apart from a brief brush with my own stupidity -- I was back on my way.

There's more to be told, a few side-stories I will reserve for future retellings, but that's the basic gist of the trip -- at the end of the day, it wasn't all that bad, really. The rest of the journey passed without incident, I made it home safely (albeit two days late), and the financial hit wasn't really all that bad. But for a couple of nights the road was a bit rocky. The silver lining is that my car is now running better than it has in years; I wouldn't be surprised if she found another 50K in there somewhere.

So there you go. I could've told it better, but to be honest I can't be bothered. Car trouble just isn't that interesting.
12:02 PM ::
Amy :: permalink
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