Road-trip Calamities: A History

Here, for your amusement: a brief history of my calamities.

I write to you now from a small-town midwestern Econo Lodge, perhaps the most American of places to be on a patriotic holiday weekend. The sum total of what I know about this town so far is this: car repair places are currently closed till Monday.

When our dashboard lights and sounds suddenly came on at 70mph on the interstate, and Jeep systems began to fail, the boy looked out the window to the green sign we were passing at high speed and exclaimed, “Oh no, Lick Creek Rd! It’s a *creek* road! We’re doomed.”

Thirty seconds later, we rolled to a stop on an exit ramp, the sound of coolant boiling under the hood.

The other creek road he had in mind was Stinking Creek Road of calamity #2 fame. (This is calamity #5, if you’re wondering.)

My car luck is dismal. Even now, I’m questioning whether this is serious incident number five or number six, but suffice to say, I seem to be caught in some unfortunate feedback loop in the universe which causes this to keep happening to me. Or if I were a connoisseur of bad theology, I would say perhaps God is trying to teach me something – though the refresher course is beginning to feel exhaustive.

Calamity  #1:

I am a newly single parent. My kid is seven years old, and we are traveling in a small older model silver sedan from east Tennessee to Michigan, when my engine throws a rod an hour south of Lexington, KY.

I call my parents. Little do they know that this is the first in a series of misfortunes. I explain to my kid that we are on an adventure, and strap on our backpacks, him carrying his teddy bear down the interstate as we walk a mile to the last exit, where we find a Denny’s to get out of the heat.

My dad in a stroke of brilliance picks up the denominational directory for my home church and finds a church in Lexington, which luckily has a secretary in the office. Her mother lives near where we’ve broken down, as it turns out, and so her mother comes to get us and host us until my brother and mom can fetch us in a few hours. Back at her place, we wander around the yard, swing on the swing, and then to pass the time, we sit on her couch looking at photos of recent tornado damage from a devastating string a few days ago in Joplin, MO, where her son lives. She cries, and I sit, and say I’m so sorry this happened to them.

My family arrives a little before midnight, my brother in a mini-van with my mom, with a car-hauler on the back. We thank our emergency host profusely, I hug her, and we head back out into the night.

Around 1am under a starry sky with sleepy semi trucks flying past at 80mph, my brother and I strap my car onto the car-hauler trailer, and off we go to drive through the night back to Michigan.

Except that ten minutes down the road, we hit a deer. In the flash of a second, we see her, scream, and hit her, waking my mom out of a dead sleep in the backseat. We spend the rest of the night waiting on cops to come for a police report and wandering the aisles of Walmart looking for food at 3am before checking into the motel.

Calamity #2:

It’s the following summer. My mother has come to visit. I can’t remember why this is the case, but we are headed north in her car, a Pontiac Bonneville which I have been borrowing since the last incident, and we have two baskets of peaches to take back to my dad.

Three hours into the trip, the car breaks down on the interstate north of Knoxville. We get out and walk back past Stinking Creek Road to an exit where we can be safer, get better cell reception, and pee in the woods with some measure of privacy. We wait for a tow truck for over two hours, the evening darkening, as we wait in a Dept. of Transportation dirt lot at the end of the exit. Finally we’re gathered from the roadside by a guy named Boone who wants my mom to just sell him the car. We’re then taken to a motel, where we settle in and then walk to Waffle House for dinner.

The next day we decide to rent a car, but the nearest rental place is an hour away, so we call a taxi service (before the days of Uber and Lyft) to come get us. The woman who comes for us is a hot mess and has her two babies strapped in the backseat of her mini-van eating gummy worms which are scattered across the back bench, her boyfriend in the passenger seat up front. Between their seats is a basket of six cellphones which they juggle between them, intermittently answering various ones as they ring and she drives at 90mph toward Knoxville to get us to the rental place before it closes. My mom sits politely making small talk while we fly down the interstate like a bat out of hell.

At the rental place, they don’t have a car for us, so we stand outside waiting with our two baskets of peaches. Something about my saintly mother and her peaches and her bewildered quiet-under-stress demeanor says they better get her a car fast. Somehow they do, with great apology. We return to my place to make tons of jam.

Calamity #3

I am driving around Nashville on my way back to east Tennessee, talking on the phone with a dear friend who has given me the car I’m driving, a turquoise Ford Escort I affectionately call “the Blue Gill,” when suddenly there’s a pop and the car loses all power. I drift to the side of the road in the pouring rain, and inform her what has happened. How can this possibly be happening to me again?

She has an aunt and uncle, she says, who live in Nashville. She’ll call them, she says.

Her uncle comes to retrieve me from the side of yet another interstate, and waits with me while the tow truck comes. As we wait, I tell him my sordid history of road trips, and he tells me that with my luck, I should never be without roadside assistance ever again, young lady, advice which I still live by to this day.

I stay in their guest room for four days, three nights, reporting to the kitchen during mealtimes, watching afternoon soap operas and Dr. Phil with my friend’s aunt, studying for classes in spurts, and making small talk. I’m ridiculously grateful but also very perturbed about my luck.

Calamity #4

It’s the weekend of the fourth of July, 6pm on a Saturday night, and we’re outside of Maysville, Kentucky on a road I’m very familiar with, the boy and I and our two dogs. The fuel pump on my little red Chevy Cavalier goes, landing us on the side of the AA highway in the exact spot I saw a streaker once, meandering buck-naked across both lanes between corn fields. We call roadside assistance and the tow truck comes. With the dogs still in my car and barking, he tows us the 45 minutes into town to the Days Inn since all the local repair places are closed because of the holiday, which is the following Monday. We’ll be stranded until at least Tuesday.

We rent a room and settle in.

The next day, my mom decides to come to our rescue and bring us home, so she borrows a mini-van from a friend to come and get us. But as she gets into town, the axle on their mini-van breaks right as she pulls into the Enterprise rental car place across from the Days Inn, which is also, as it turns out, closed until after the holiday. She’s effectively stranded with us, three humans and two crazy dogs in a Days Inn while it rains and we watch cooking shows.

Calamity #5

And here we are, this time with the Jeep, the most reliable vehicle I have ever owned, which was fine yesterday morning when we left. I was diligent to check fluids, and I had an oil change before I left. I did the right things.

There had been an odd sound last night – just louder than normal under the hood, but all systems seemed to be working fine. I thought maybe it was simply that we never drive much with the windows open. And yet, my gut told me something bad was about to happen.

After 9 hours of Texas and Arkansas without air conditioning, which gave out an hour into the trip, we stopped for the night and I stood in the Days Inn shower washing away the sweat and being angry with God (because in moments like these, I tend to revert to horrible theology). I’m beside myself with disgust as the anxiety about the under-hood sound rises in me. Surely this isn’t happening again? The half an hour before turning out the lights, I check my bank account and we swat an entire colony of mosquitoes roosting on the walls and swarming us stealthily in our beds. It’s weirdly cathartic, given my frustrations. The sense that we’re in trouble buzzes annoyingly in my head and all I want to do is smack it.

This morning, all prayed up and reassuring ourselves that everything will be fine and I’m merely a vehicular hypochondriac, we hit the road Jack. I test out the Jeep on the highway feeder road, and also the Burger King drive-thru. All seems fine. But two hours into travels, we’re on the side of the interstate again, my once seven year old now fifteen with his head under the hood pointing to the serpentine belt and googling on his phone.

It’s shitty luck.

. . .

All talk of fate and bad theology aside, I have to be honest that I have learned from this repeated experience.

It’s something about humility, about providence, but most of all, about people. The tow driver today told us not to go to the shop my insurance had recommended; instead he took me to the local place he gets his car repair done. When he dropped us off at the hotel, he ran in first, and got us a dirt-cheap rate for the night.

And this has always been my experience of people when car hell breaks loose on random interstates. It’s such a vulnerable feeling, to be broken down and alone, cars flying past, and who knows who might try to pick you up. Plus the shame of inconveniencing others, the worry about the cost, the sense that surely by now, I should have my life together and does this mean I don’t?

But time and time again, I’ve been the recipient of radical hospitality, kindness, generosity, and especially the patience of parents I have made saints purely by creating messes they’ve gotten me out of.

To be honest, there’s so much about this political moment that’s polarizing, so many reasons to doubt the goodness of humanity, or to make our disagreements the defining terms of our relationships.

I think – I fear – that we forget the goodness of others. We forget that we can be good to one another, that deep inside, most of us are bent toward kindness. And without saying something unhelpful like God caused this for a reason, I have to acknowledge that learning about the goodness of strangers has been valuable to me, and being reminded of my interdependence on others is forming me into a certain kind of person.

My mom is on her way to us, a six hour drive to retrieve us back home. I’m hopeful she’ll get here fine and all will be well. And I’m sure we’ll figure out the Jeep mess sometime this week. I’m trying hard not to say things like “I’m never traveling ever again” – or not too often at least.


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