We Barans have a problem with road trips. Not that we don’t like them — the opposite, really — but whenever we set off on a journey of significant length, a world-threatening disaster somehow befalls us.
To be fair, my sister was the cause of 83% of these disasters. You don’t want to know the amount of smoothies she’s accidentally dumped on the car floor before we made a family rule banning her from smoothie consumption in a moving vehicle. The carpet is permanently scarred.
We figured our traveling problems would cease after Anna got married.
We were so naive.
Mom and I set out early last week for Maryland, to visit family. The journey from Michigan to Maryland takes approximately nine hours, but when asked, I say twelve. I’m subconsciously accounting for any smoothie accidents that might take place. This time, however, I confidently assured my friends that it would be a speedy journey. “Mom and I make great progress when we’re on our own,” I said with pride. “Why, we’ll probably make the journey in eight hours! Get there before dark!”
When I said this, I wasn’t yet aware the highway through Detroit was under massive construction. Our exit ramp was closed. To their credit, the construction crew had marked out a nice little detour for everyone — a detour that went right through the heart of Detroit.
For your sake, I hope you never have to take a detour through Detroit.
“I think we’re going to die,” I told mom as we passed the sixth burnt-down building on the street. The rest of the houses had boarded up windows and collapsed front porches, doors that hung from their hinges and banged in the wind. Graffiti covered everything.
“Nonsense!” (My mother has a great deal of confidence in detours.) “Look, the highway is right there!”
(She had, in fact, no idea where we were going.)
Meanwhile, my attention was fixed on the suspicious red stain covering the side of a nearby house. “I think we’re going to die.”
(For the record, we didn’t die.)
“I actually didn’t know where we were going,” mom confided after we finally found the highway again.
I know, mom. I know.
After this discomfiting experience, I thought we’d suffered the Baran calamity for the day and would be free to enjoy the rest of our (speedy) journey. I thought we’d found the road to Solla Sollew. I thought all our troubles were behind us. We even made it to Ohio. The drive was going swimmingly. But alas, the spirit of Anna and her smoothies had not yet departed from the car. Some part of her ill luck still lingered in the stained, haunted carpet, waiting for a chance to strike.
Halfway through Ohio, the car began vibrating. At first we wrote it off as a random fluke, but the further we went, the louder the vibrating became. Never one to address my problems head-on, I assured mom it would eventually stop.
As it turns out, “ignore the problem until it goes away” doesn’t work with cars.
The vibrating became so bad that mom finally pulled over at a rest station. We clambered out of our car and made predatory circles around it, hoping the sheer force of our glares would intimidate it back into good health. (They didn’t.) I contemplated opening the hood and staring at the complexities within. This would benefit no one, as I haven’t the slightest idea how cars work, so I abandoned that idea.
“Do you think a tire is flat?” mom asked.
We stared at the tires and nodded sagely. Circled the car like predators. Nodded some more. (Sagely, mind you.)
“I think a tire is flat.”
We didn’t have a spare, and, in a desperate hope that it was only a slow leak and could still be driven on, we decided to fill the tire with air and continue on our not-so-merry way. But we encountered a slight problem when we found the rest station’s air pump. The hose was ripped.
“Maybe if I hold it together with my hand, it will work!”
It did not, in fact, work.
Mildly irate and still possessing a deflated tire, we climbed back into the car and considered our next move. I realized the pros of traveling with dad far outway the cons — at the very least, you have an on-hand mechanic to bail you out of your vehicle disasters, regardless of how much 80s Christian music he makes you endure along the way.
We eventually drove (limped) to the nearest town in search of another gas station and air pump, and encountered our next problem. The pump was completely surrounded by cars, all of which were parked snugly without a driver to be seen. Several minutes passed and no one came to move their car. We contemplated Plan B.
Finally, after limping to a third gas station, we found a usable air pump. At this important juncture, we realized we didn’t have an air pressure gauge (I’m fairly certain that’s not what they’re called, so excuse my ignorance of car terms), which is the thing you stick in your tire to make sure you’re not filling it with too much air.
“Great,” I said, “our tire is going to explode.”
Mom, ever the optimist, plunged forward regardless. We filled our tire, put the cap back on, and sat back, immensely satisfied with our cleverness in the face of multiple disasters.
As we reveled in this newly won triumph, we heard the sound of hissing air.
Turns out it wasn’t a slow leak.
And THAT, my friends, is how we eventually ended up in a random Walmart service station in the middle of Ohio, explaining our troubles to an elderly and vaguely concerned mechanic named Lenny.
Lenny was good to us. Lenny said they would change the tire immediately. Lenny said we would be on our way before we knew it.
Lenny also said we had a special kind of tire that needs a key in order to remove it. A key only we have, apparently. A key I didn’t know existed.
“Can you get it for me?” Lenny asked.
In this moment, I realized I was going to be stranded in Ohio forever.
Mom, ever the optimist, began rummaging through the car. She accomplished two things by this — she found the key completely by accident (thought it was a spare bolt in the glove box) and proved to Lenny that we don’t know how to pack lightly. Lenny became particularly aware of this when she pulled a coffee pot out of the back seat to look under it. Why bring a coffee pot when you’re staying with people who already have one? Who knows. Ask mom.
With our car safely in Lenny’s hands, we had nothing left to do but wander Walmart for the next hour. A truly delightful prospect.
There are only so many cheap shoes and low quality craft supplies you can look at before Walmart disappoints you, so we expanded our horizons to the nearby businesses and traipsed about town on foot like a pair of vehicle-deprived hobos.
When in doubt, go to Chili’s.
Mom is a great fan of coupons and point systems, so she signed up for the Chili’s club to obtain a free birthday dessert. Therefore, instead of getting sensible food like sensible adults, we got ice cream, chocolate cake, and chips.
Listen. It was free.
Also, there were geese. So many geese. Baby geese. Adult geese. Every kind of geese. They didn’t like me very much, but that didn’t stop me from chasing them all over the parking lot like a toddler.
After 45 minutes of cake-consumption and geese-chasing, we got a call from Lenny saying our car was ready. We returned to Walmart, admired the new tire, advised Lenny to sign up for the Chili’s club, and waited patiently as he made sure we knew how to get back to the turnpike and lectured us on the dangers of relying too heavily on a GPS. We thanked Lenny. Lenny wished us godspeed. With the calamity finally behind us, we set off for the last leg of our journey and — thankfully — encountered no more disasters.
But I now have an adopted grandfather in Ohio and he works at Walmart.
So, what is the moral of the story? Does this long-winded ramble about air pumps and geese have a point?
The point, my friend, is that disasters happen. Tires betray us. The Road of Life is long, pot-holed, and filled with elderly mechanics named Lenny. I think it’s easy to get fussy when things like this happen, to stress and worry and check the clock every thirty seconds because now we’re going to be late. But bad circumstances make good stories, and sometimes, you get ice cream out of car troubles. Take life as it comes. Find adventure in the disasters. In the end, it’s not as bad as you think.
(Unless it is. In which case, I’m sorry.)