It was supposed to be a short road trip. Drive 2 kids to Ohio Saturday and be home Monday. Easy peasy.
Ian lined up a job at Marmon Valley Farm this summer. They needed a farm hand, in part because they are so short-handed for camp staff. MVF is a great place that we’ve been associated with for fifteen or more years. We spent most of the summer there back when we were full-timing. They reached out to him and asked him to apply, which made me very proud. MVF expects a lot from their staff, and it thrilled me that they thought enough of another one of my kids to hire him (Erica worked there for three summers).
Olivia also lined up a summer gig working for her aunt in central Ohio, helping her with some filing and office organization that she’s needed to get done for quite a while. All of our plans had included Ian taking Olivia up when he traveled. It’s a longish trip from NE Oklahoma to Central Ohio, taking about eleven hours or so. Ian would drive up Saturday, spend the night at their aunt’s place, then go on up to the farm Sunday.
He needed to be in NW Ohio by Sunday before Memorial Day. We went back and forth for several weeks about how he would travel, since he really wanted to have his motorcycle with him. After several plans fell through (including one just thirty-six hours before departure), we decided that I’d drive him up in our Ford van, towing his bike on a borrowed trailer.
Who doesn’t like a little road trip, right? I didn’t have anything planned between Saturday and Monday.
Somewhere around Indiana, Ian and I noticed a noise in the engine. We couldn’t quite tell what it was though. Most of the time I couldn’t hear it; when I could, it sounded like the exhaust pipe banging against the body. We stopped and checked the engine oil and a couple of other things, and eventually decided it was indeed the exhaust pipe.
We heard it more Sunday as I was taking him up to the Farm but still wrote it off to the exhaust. Monday morning—Memorial Day, remember—I checked the oil before I left. It was low, so I added a quart. The noise started getting louder before I even got out of Ohio, but I pressed on, not really having a plan other than to baby the van home and get it in for service Tuesday.
It’s curious how loud silence can be. Few things are as loud as the click a shooter hears when they’re expecting a bang or the quiet when the power blinks off and the AC shuts off on a sweltering summer Oklahoma day. Or when your rattling engine suddenly dies. I coasted to a stop on a narrow shoulder with about a foot between me and traffic.
I made it as far as mile marker 4 on I-70 in Indiana, about 550 miles from home. I was straned on Memorial Day.
Two hours later, the van sat at a Firestone shop in Terre Haute, and I settled in at the Candlewood Suites in downtown Terre Haute.
The Candlewood is a great place, by the way. It’s an extended-stay hotel, and the room felt very…well, roomy. I had a full-sized fridge (about 18 cubic feet, I’d guess) with an icemaker. There was also a two-burner stove, microwave, and dishwasher! I had pots and pans and cooking utensils, along with place settings for two. Add in amenities like free laundry and loaner gadgets and geegaws (board games, blenders, and I can’t remember what all else) as well as a loaner bicycle, and you’d expect a pretty stiff price for a room. I got that room on Memorial Day weekend for $104 a night. That was a great value and hard to beat.. One note: because it’s an extended-stay place, they don’t offer even a continental breakfast. They do have a deal with the Hilton across the street for a breakfast discount as well as pool privileges. You can also cook your own breakfast obviously.
Tuesday morning, Firestone called me with the news that the van was beyond their capabilities, and they thought I’d need a new engine. They referred me to The Shop and arranged for a local tow. I probably could have called USAA for a tow under roadside assistance, but frankly, I didn’t want to bother with that. USAA farmed out their roadside assistance to Agero several years ago, and I just haven’t been impressed with Agero’s service at all. USAA customer service reps from banking to security to insurance have always sounded cheerful, polite, and happy to serve. I’ve never felt like it was a bother for a USAA rep to help me, and I’ve never felt like “just another customer.” Agero’s reps just can’t meet the standard that USAA has set. They’re not surly or rude or even unprofessional. They’re just not as good as USAA, and almost every time I call, I feel like I’m interrupting something.
That afternoon, I got the dreaded call from The Shop. The thrust bearing, a $10 part, had failed, causing all sorts of internal damage to the engine. Mark quoted me the price for a new Jasper engine, and I gave him the go-ahead. I didn’t really see a good alternative. I was in a strange town with no economical way to tow the van home and get local pricing. I’m getting a brand new engine with a 3-year/100,000 nationwide warranty on parts and labor.
Now it was time to get home.
Mark had said Tuesday that the job could be done by the end of the day Friday, so I briefly considered staying until then. Then he explained that he liked to “run-in” the engine and test-drive it so that they know there aren’t any leaks or other issues. That meant Monday.
The bigger issue though was that I was out of meds by then. I take almost a dozen meds daily for my heart and kidneys, and I ran out of those on Monday night. After all, I’d planned to be home by late Monday evening. I contacted the Terre Haute VA clinic, but they don’t have a pharmacy on site, which meant I’d have to try and get to Indianapolis for meds. There was a shuttle, but it was already mid-afternoon, and I didn’t think I’d be able to get there and back, with medication, in one day.
I started calling car rental agencies intending to do a one-way rental and have someone from home drive me back up Monday. But the drop-off fees were running well over $350! On a hunch, I asked Enterprise about a one-week rental from one of their Terre Haute locations: $148. Renting a car for a week also gave me transportation back up without inconveniencing anyone down here.
Wednesday morning the Enterprise rep picked me up at the hotel, with an ominous warning: he wasn’t sure what they’d be able to give me since they were effectively out of cars. They’d had eight cars returned damaged from the weekend, leaving them with a 15-passenger van, and the Hyundai Santa Fe that they picked me up with. Inside the store, the counter rep repeated the story and asked if the Santa Fe would be okay for me, at the compact price. That SUV runs almost double the cost of the compact price. I said sure!
The Santa Fe has Bluetooth integration with your phone, and the geek in me really enjoyed it. Pairing was painless, and once set up, the system performed well. It displays the contact information from phone calls on the dashboard screen, with control buttons on the steering wheel for easy access. A forward/back button controls the music app of your choice, including Pandora or the native music app on my LG v20. The car includes a SiriusXM receiver as well, so I did not lack for music on the trip home.
So how much did this short road trip end up costing me? Too stinking much. That’s the bad news. But here’s the good news:
- I broke down just outside a city of 60,000 people instead of the middle of nowhere.
- I have roadside assistance, so the tow was free. For the van and the trailer I was hauling.
- There was a shop open that will be able to look at the van first thing in the morning.
- There was an extended-stay hotel 3 blocks from the shop. With a room available. On Memorial Day.
- We have money in the bank to be able to afford the repair bill.
- We have the money in the bank for me to be able to stay at the hotel and eat dinner.
- We have people and vehicles available to pick me up if the van is tied up for an extended period.
- Oh, I outlined a new short story and edited two chapters in Discoveries.
The moral of this whole episode is that there is always good to found in every adventure. Sometimes it’s hard to find. But it’s always there if you’re willing to look for it.
What’s your favorite road trip disaster story?
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