Liz on the road

I fret more for my wonderful nearly-perfect-in-every-way children than I ever did for my own welfare. So when Eldest Child set out to leave grad school in Boston and move home for the summer, I felt entitled to offer a word of caution.

Finding that a small 10-foot rental truck would cost her $780 and a car $200 MORE than that (wow, one-way fees are breathtaking) she chose a third alternative -- and quickly found a junker for sale. A lovely, immaculate-looking 1997 Volvo, to be exact, for less than $3,000. Wow, eh? Her little brother flew out from Minneapolis to help her pack and move. And I warned them that a car that cheap had to have some hideous flaw, which they’d discover sooner or later.

With her permission, here’s her account of what ensued, filed from the home of her old freshman-year roommate we’ll call “J.”

Liz writes:

The first day of the actual road trip, we made it to Niagara Falls. ... The second night, we drove through Ontario's isthmuses (isthmi?) formed from several of the great lakes, and got in to Michigan. We had a harrowing hour waiting to cross the bridge into Detroit when we realized that the car's temperature gauge was worrisomely high. After pulling off, however, the oil and coolant checked out just fine, so we finished the drive to J's place in Ann Arbor while blasting the heat. With the help of friend D, we secured some tasty Thai food and entered food bliss for the rest of the night.

The next day we headed out around 10:00 from J's place. The car was running a little hot, but we put the heat on high, and the temperature gauge settled at a perfect mid range. We made it till 10:30 - or at least, that's where my watch stopped - before we realized that the car was losing speed. In fact, smoke seemed to be creeping from underneath the hood. We immediately pulled off, popped the hood, but saw LOTS of smoke creeping from around its frame and didn't go up to completely open it. So, standing a good distance away, we first called AAA, and then, when droplets of fire fell from under the hood to the ground, 911.

A few minutes later, when flames engulfed the hood and the windshield appeared to have imploded, we called again. Trouble was, we were in a "dead zone" in which there were no U-turns from the opposing direction for six miles total. We saw one, then two fire trucks drive by going eastbound on 94, but it was a good 10 minutes before the first truck pulled astride our billowing baby.

The next hour was more or less a cycle of talking to fellows in uniforms, and remembering "Oh crap, (noun) was in the car!" followed by a few minutes of blubbering. We watched as RuPaul Nguyen, the blue pirate car, was hoisted onto a tow truck and driven to Jimmie's auto shop in nearby Jackson, MI. Charred bits of books and other papers blew from the busted-out back window as the truck picked up speed on the highway. I tried not to look. Benjamin was a saint and put up with me.

At the junkyard, the car was lowered and we got a good look at the inside. Some kind fellow (the son of the man who bought the shop from Jimmie) gave us a pair of gloves (one pair) and a few plastic bags so that we could sift through what was inside. The next hour I didn't say much other than "Oh, my (noun)!"

I found my journals and a few photos. The box of food was almost unscathed, but the spices were nowhere to be found. We found the neck of my guitar, and my flute case almost melted shut, with flute intact. Benjamin's Nintendo DS and MP3 player seem to have completely combusted - they were nowhere to be found. Never did find my backpack and glasses, but once we came upon the real buried treasure - our computers - we decided we had dug far enough. Mine, after we peeled the cloth case from the melted plastic body, yielded encouraging booty - the hard drive. Benjamin's, barely a month old, didn't fare as well. See the photos.

So an hour and three plastic Jimmie's bags later, we called it quits. J was a saint - she left work early to drive out to Jackson and pick us up, and proceeded to haul us all over Ann Arbor where we pieced together what we lost and attempted to replace it: prescriptions, toiletries, glasses, clothes, phone chargers. Every ten minutes or so we still have an "I'll just go get my (noun) out of the car" moment, and pause to sigh.

We escaped with nothing more than sunburns and sooty fingernails. And we are so grateful for every kind driver who stopped on the highway while the car was flaming to offer help, and the police chief who offered to get us a hotel in Jackson, and the fellow at Jimmie's who suggested I buy a used car off him to finish the trip (even though his offer was met with a savage desire to plant a kick in his kidneys), and to everyone word of this adventure and called to offer frantic but furtive condolences, and particularly to J, who extended hospitality above and beyond the call of duty. Their car will smell like flame retardant for weeks, but they insist they don't mind. I don't believe them, but it's awfully nice..

June 3, 2008