The accidental tourist

As we got into the car for what was to be Day 2 of a 3,000-mile road odyssey through the Great Northwest, Sean made an exciting observation.

“Hey, look, the odometer just passed 100,” he pointed out, as if it was a momentous occasion.

Of course, the car had not turned 100, but 100,000. Typically, for any owner of a vehicle made, say, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, this would be a happy occurrence. Sort of like a “Sweet 16,” with the party really only beginning.

Unfortunately, the only thing foreign about this 2-ton hunk of Detroit metal was the gas inside its behemoth tank (a topic for another day). And not to diss on any particular automaker, but if memory served correct, it was the same make of car as one I formerly owned that died a swift and expensive death shortly after flipping that magical number.

As I put her into drive and gently eased her tired bones onto the interstate, I thought I heard the funeral march, ever so faintly. Somewhere, around mile 575, in the desolate moonscape of Southern Idaho, the Grim Reaper himself came a knocking – and of course, it had to be while I was driving.

“What was that?” asked Sean, from the back seat where he had a perfect vantage point of mission control.

Cruising at a comfortable 80 mph, give or take a few, I hadn’t been paying particular attention to the gauges. But, as he spoke, I looked down to see the RPMs red-lining like a dragster on Saturday night. Then, as quickly as she flared up, she settled back down again.

“That was odd,” I said, praying it was just a bizarre blip, maybe the result of having the AC and cruise control cranked simultaneously. Just to be safe, I immediately cut the cruise and air and rolled down the windows. We decided to take a pit stop at the next exit, where we could reassess. But as we hit the exit ramp, she began to lose power. Detroit, we had a problem.

As we coasted into the gas station, the unmistakable stench of burning car parts filled the air. “Must be a broken belt,” I offered, refusing to give up hope.

Of course, this was as ludicrous as a blind man offering his expertise during open heart surgery. Truth be told, about the only thing I know about car engines is where to put the washer fluid, and even that’s a stretch.

We exited the car and popped the hood, as if the problem would immediately jump out at us: “Ah yes, the scanafran came loose from the Johnson manifold.” But instead, nothing appeared out of the ordinary – even the washer fluid appeared to be topped off. We closed the hood, hoping that by doing so, the problem would just go away. And that’s when we noticed black fluid, splattered all over the backside of the car like blood at a grisly murder scene. Once again, I offered up my expertly bad advice. “Maybe it’s that shock plug thingy. I mean, there’s nothing in the back of the car that could break, is there?”

Sean was strangely silent, his complexion suddenly a paler shade of green.

As luck would have it, two gents in coveralls, who appeared to be mechanically inclined, happened to be lunching nearby. Using the baby as a prop, we decided to prey upon their paternal sensibilities.

“It’s your tranny,” the first declared as he peered under the car, without so much as missing a bite between Doritos.

Seems that putrid smell and black goop was not the result of a slipping belt or broken shock. It was the granddaddy of all mechanical trauma: a blown transmission (which for the record, happens to be located toward the rear of the vehicle. Who knew?)

The two kind gents offered their condolences and pointed us in the direction of the nearest car dealership, which we agreed would be our best chance to salvage the vacation, or the car, whichever came first. Once there, we anxiously paced the waiting room floor as “the best transmission guy in all of Idaho” surveyed the damage. After what seemed like an eternity, he emerged and pulled Sean aside to break the news: the tranny was a goner. And gone with it was our meticulously timed travel schedule, which called for reaching Portland by nightfall. But, there was a silver lining to the black cloud of smoldering metal – they had a brand new transmission in stock and could have us on the road by the following afternoon.

As the reality of a $2,500-repair set in, our vacation dreams vaporized. Gone were our plans of seeing the Columbia River Gorge at sunset or spending the following day sipping expensive, foofy coffee drinks or scouting out the best sushi in town or just soaking in the ultra hipness of one of America’s hippest cities.

Instead, we were sentenced to hard time in Burley, Idaho, population 9,375, potato capital of Southern Idaho, home of the annual Snake River Drag Boat Regatta, which just so happened to be taking place that weekend. Although the word “regatta” conjures up images of preppies sipping champagne aboard expensive yachts, rest assured it is nothing of the sort. Think the water-based equivalent of our own motorcycle rally, only with bigger engines.

As luck would have it, the racers weren’t scheduled to arrive in full force until the next day, and we scored a room rather handily at the “Burley Convention Center” – a Best Western with a pool and a Perkins. With nothing left to do but hurry up and wait, I cracked open a can of Bud and headed for the pool – as I was on vacation. And despite my previous misgivings, the rest of my day was wiled away quite pleasantly, lounging by an empty pool, tossing the ball around the sand volleyball court and drinking cheap gin and tonics from the hotel bar. Even dinner at Perkins was semi-enjoyable. And later that night, as we sipped our convenience store beer (no annoying 3.2 in Idaho) under the neon glow of the Chevron sign, the mild-mannered town with the gruff name began to grow on me.

The next day, we were back on the road by 11 a.m., just as the racers were beginning to arrive en masse. The family truckster was purring like a kitten as we crossed the Snake River and hung a left back onto the interstate. And as I once again brought her up to a comfortable cruising speed with miles to make, I realized that life in the slow lane isn’t all that bad.

– Missy Votel

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