What happens when you take an old car, throw in a dash of distance, a measure of miles, and a pinch of planning and place it in the middle of nowhere? It dies. That’s what happens; the car dies. It doesn’t care that you have to be 200 miles further north the next day because that’s the only part of your 2-week trip that had to be planned thanks to a meeting in said place 200 miles north. It just dies, in the middle of Mount Hood National Forest, and leaves you hanging on a road where you’ve seen about three cars throughout the day and where you’ve got zero cell service.
Well, that sucks, you might think, and that’s exactly what I thought when, out of nowhere, the car engine stopped completely and I was able to get to a good spot to pull over only thanks to the fact that the road was slightly downhill.
I might have dropped a “damn” or even a bit spicier version of that, who knows? But I popped it open and checked everything I could check myself; oil, coolant, and such. All these basic things looked well; it must have been something I had no business trying to repair. I needed to get it towed.
But how? I had no way of calling triple-A to come and get me. A mini freak-out later, I noticed that, just behind the curve of the road, there was a tiny car, probably about ten years older than mine. And there was also a person in said car. Ladies, gentlemen, and everyone in between, I present to you Doug, my high-as-kite, drunk-on-iced-tea-and-liquor savior.
“You sure you just didn’t run out of gas?” he asked, but after a few more remarks that were thrown around just because I was a girl, and checking all the basics I’ve already checked, he agreed that the car needed to be towed. He was, generally, friendly and very keen to help.
“I’m just gonna drive to get my son’s truck, be back in an hour.”
He left to drive somewhere, presumably half-hour away just to help out someone he didn’t know. And as he promised, he came back with a truck—but neither of us had proper towing rope, so he just threw something together and fastened it to my car, half of his butt falling out of his pants when he was working, the bottle of spiced-up ice tea never leaving his side.
He lectured me on how to properly get towed and we were off, my car way to close to his truck. But it worked. We stopped half-hour later, on the top of a hill where I had service, and tried to find nearby garages where they could help me. All of them were busy but he chose one that had “only” two-week waiting time, a small place in Estacada that didn’t even look like an official business.
“Just last week, I towed a girl on a dog leash,” he told me before we got back in our respective cars and continued down the hill into Estacada. “It snapped halfway through but held up well after we tied it back together.”
We made it. (It was slightly nerve-wracking but Doug drove better high and drunk than many sober people I’ve seen.) Doug went in to talk to the guys at the garage, took over explaining my situation, and when they said I’d have to wait two weeks to get it fixed, offered to pay them off with some of his home-grown green goodness. They didn’t take it but after a bit of talking, and without me really knowing what went down, they just took my car and got down to work.
While they were trying to figure out what went south, Doug took me down to Estacada and bought tacos and beer. He asked if I’d like to come help him out with his plants, and what I was doing in Oregon, and how long I’ve lived in America. (Yes, my accent gave me away, but that was a plus because that apparently meant I wasn’t “one of the rich California snobs,” although I bet my shoes Doug would help literally anyone.)
After tacos and beer, we drove back up to the garage, and then back down to Estacada to buy a new water pump, as that was the first (and I hoped only) diagnostic.
After Doug dropped me off back at the garage, he had to go. We said goodbyes, there were a thousand thanks, and then dear Doug, my saviour and one damn kind person, was gone while I was left there, sitting on the ground, eating cereal in front of the garage, and wondering if I was going to have to buy a new used car right there in Estacada to get back home.
When I was on my third bowl of pathetic cereal, and after I helped push my Camry into the garage and onto a lift because water pump replacement didn’t do much, the new diagnosis came from one of the guys: the timing belt was a goner.
My car is, generally, supposed to be a very reliable car—and it, generally, was. I’ve never had trouble that I didn’t cause myself (forgetting the lights on when I slept in a Walmart parking lot). But the previous owner wasn’t that great about taking care of it, even though I was reassured that they did.
One of the guys took me in to look at it.
“When did you buy this car? What mileage?”
“See this?” he asked, pointing to a torn-up belt. “This is a timing belt. It’s supposed to be changed every 80,000 miles.”
“This timing belt HAS NEVER BEEN CHANGED.” He said, his voice and expression exasperated.
And that’s how I learned that the Camry is generally a reliable car, but not when the previous owner swears the timing belt has been changed when, in fact, it most likely hasn’t. I do feel inclined to trust that mechanic more than the previous owner. That didn’t matter, however; it was clear I wasn’t going to make it to my Seattle meeting the next day, as evening drew close and the garage was closing.
I collected a few things from the car and one of the mechanics drove me down to Estacada to get a motel room. I did consider just sleeping outside the shop as it was in an open field but was advised against it.
Misery loves company, and the great thing about this is that I did have a companion. The next day, besides spending half of the morning at the garage, we went swimming in the Clackamas River. The weather was beautiful, and the river was gorgeous, and for that afternoon, all the worries simply went away. It remains one of my favourite memories of the trip, and it wouldn’t have existed had my car not given up on life there.
Two nights later, I was back at the garage, eating cereal on the ground once more. The sun was high up in the sky, and the fields looked gorgeous. The deep blue sky was clear of any clouds and instead of anxiety, I only felt simple gratefulness for the beautiful day, for Doug, for the mechanics who, for no other reason than kindness (they refused Doug’s offer), took my car in, for my companion, for having swum in the river, and for just being alive.
Just when I started to think I was going to have to accept a ride to Portland and take the train back home, they brought my car back to life. The breaking of the timing belt did a little extra damage. Apparently, they just so happened to have the one part that needed replacing laying around in the garage, so they just threw it in, asking nothing for it.
I paid them in $20 bills because that’s how I got paid back then—mostly in cash—and they didn’t even bat an eye. I was thankful that I brought so much cash with me, including this what-if in my calculations.
Now, two and a half years later, I remember those times fondly. Who ever needs to be afraid of getting stuck in the middle of nowhere if there’s a Doug waiting to help? And, well, if this experience taught me anything, it’s that there are more Dougs in this world than one would think, and that, even though our opinions on things might differ, most people are good in their nature.
Another thing that this experience had only confirmed for me is that misadventures are a part of it all. We might not reach the top of a mountain but the story of how we had to hide out in a shelter and then get back down, wet and cold and miserable, without having reached the top is a great story to tell and learn from nonetheless.
I didn’t make it to the meeting, lost money on the hotel room, and missed out on some network building, but I learned an important lesson about people, a lesson that got me through the next few years, and which I still refer to nowadays.
Misadventures are good.
People are good.
It’s all good.
Thank you for coming to my TED talk. 😀