Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
Once upon a time in 2004, Anne and I got married and had a honeymoon! A week later, we (and my son) embarked on our fifth annual road trip: a drive northeast from Indianapolis up to see the watery wonders of Niagara Falls and its adjacent tourist traps.
Most of our early road trips ended more or less, “And then we drove all the way home with nothing else interesting happening. The End.” With the exception of the accidental Tennessee detour on our 2001 return from Metropolis, the final day of each vacation had usually been no big deal. Among other lessons, 2004 taught us not to take that final leg for granted.
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DAY SIX: Friday, July 30th.
We enjoyed one final hotel breakfast buffet, packed the car, and headed off. Niagara Falls and the attractions that granted us direct access to it were a spectacular experience. The surrounding elements had varied. For our first major post-honeymoon outing, we generally gave it a thumbs-up.
The cursed mystery light still illuminated the dashboard, but accompanied no noticeable symptoms of any sort of system failure. I shrugged and hoped it could be dealt with on Saturday morning at some garage back home. Hypothesizing that it might be related to something electrical, I turned off both the radio and the A/C to conserve power, just to be on the safe side. Not that I really knew where the safe side might lay in this scenario, but it was better than doing nothing.
Within a couple of hours, New York and Pennsylvania were distant behind us. Anne and my son slept through much of that time — an uncommon occurrence for Anne, who usually prefers to remain awake and alert in the passenger seat just in case I need loud surprise warnings about other drivers’ nerve-wracking shortcomings.
Just inside Cleveland’s eastern city limit, the dashboard light came on in the shape of a circle with the letters “ABS” in the center. Two minutes later, another light came on, then another, then another.
Anne woke up around noon to find that I was driving suspiciously slower than normal. She casually mentioned to me that the dashboard clock was out. I gave her a terse acknowledgement. By this time the power steering was gone and the engine was no longer emitting any sort of combustion-related sounds. I realized our borrowed time was running out.
I veered sharply right with my remaining momentum, which was considerable given the speed I’d managed before too many systems had gone out. We missed every car around us and cruised onto a blessedly convenient exit ramp, coasting the whole way down.
The ramp’s fortuitous steepness lent the dying car another momentum boost, enough that I could steer the car off the ramp, cruise forward another unobstructed block or two, and use up the remaining inertia taking a sharp right turn into a divinely placed parking lot in front of a Home Depot.
I explained the situation to Anne and the boy to the best of my knowledge (“the car won’t go” but in longer words), then surveyed the nearby terrain for ideas. Lo and behold, right across the street from Home Depot was a mechanic’s garage called Smolic Tire. We walked across the street and begged for assistance. Given some hesitant assurance by the local townies that they might be able to help us poor hapless tourists out, the three of us walked back to Home Depot, then pushed my dead car over to the garage. Once again God was good, for the Friday lunchtime traffic was mercifully light.
After several minutes of struggling and testing, the diagnosis was a dead alternator. Repairs would take at least an hour. We decided we should do something about lunch. Surveying the terrain again, we found there was one and only one restaurant within sight.
If you read Part 1 of this series, if you followed along with our 2003 road trip miniseries, or if you know me personally, you can guess what was of course the only restaurant in sight anywhere around us, the one chain I wanted least to see again, let alone be stuck in a situation where they were our only hope.
I. was SO tired. of Subway. But I had no other choice outside starvation, which would’ve only made me even more bitter.
In the typical Chaotic Evil auto repair shops I ran afoul of too often in Indiana, a replacement job of this scale would take hours and cost hundreds. At Cleveland’s own Smolic Tire, we were in and out of the repair shop (including the initial part where we first begged for assistance), in ninety minutes flat, and a surprisingly not-so-harsh $170 lighter. Smolic Tire might be the unheralded saint of all that is right and good in the state of Ohio, or I was a magnet for terrible Indiana mechanics.
With our bill paid and our gratitude lavished upon them, we hit the road once again, eager to get to that part of the story where nothing else happened and we arrived home and lived happily ever after.
Two lousy miles away west of Smolic Tire, we came to a dead stop.
This time, it wasn’t my car’s fault. All lanes on I-90 around us were nigh motionless.
We took over one solid hour to inch our way through the next six miles, at the end of which we saw the cause of our jam: a semi overturned on an embankment in the middle of a construction zone.
We were grateful that my car hadn’t broken down in the middle of this particular scene.
Eventually we navigated our escape route out of Cleveland, spent more hours on big long boring Ohio roads, and got to the capital of Columbus just in time for rush hour. Compared to the semi wreck stoppage, no big deal. We pressed onward, eager to get to that part of the story where nothing else happened and we arrived home and lived happily ever after.
A bit west of Columbus we got off the interstate for a mandatory gas stop…only to discover that the exit I picked was partly under construction. Exiting was permissible, but the westbound ramp that we needed to return to the interstate did not actually exist yet. Part of its foundation had been laid out, but you’d have to have been one of them Duke boys to make that half-road stunt-jump.
We spent several minutes turning around in heavy evening traffic, begrudgingly boarded the eastbound exit ramp, returned to the previous exit, got off, turned around, and got on that exit’s westbound ramp, which had the kindness and foresight to exist just for us.
On Day One, Ohio had taken us four hours to traverse, including a stop for lunch outside Medina. On our return trip home, we wasted seven hours trying to get through. I flatly refused to stop the car for any other reasons whatsoever until and unless we crossed the Indiana border. We finally did so just after 6 p.m. We stopped at the first available town, Richmond, and indulged in a Ryan’s Steakhouse buffet. They kept running out of dinner meats, but otherwise satisfied our needs.
Satiated, we returned to the trail once more, eager to get to that part of the story where nothing else happened and we arrived home and lived happily ever after.
Then came this:
Soon we found ourselves surrounded on all sides by the nastiest, ugliest-colored, lowest-flying thunderclouds one can imagine, more intense and worrying than any of the gray skies that had occluded our first few days’ worth of photos. When Hoosiers like us see clouds this ominous, we’re wondering if it’s time for a tornado watch.
My son once had a bad tornado-related experience when he lived with his mom and was now terrified. Anne did her best to reassure him that clouds this scary don’t always generate tornadoes. I did my part to save the day by driving 80-MPH-plus for those last seventy miles home, rain or no rain, cops or no cops, Anne’s complaints or no complaints. Much of the downpour hit harder and 200% less enjoyably than anything Niagara had thrown at us, but there were no driving complaints, and there were — to our relief — no tornadoes within sight.
Soaking siege notwithstanding, we arrived home after dark. We confirmed our housesitter had kept the dog alive. We dragged our junk in from the car. And we couldn’t go to sleep quickly enough.
Our first stopover in Cleveland wouldn’t be our last road-trip breakdown (see also: Boston), but we’ve carried our takeaways from it ever since. That day is why we rent cars for long road trips and never use our own anymore. That day we spent far too long in Ohio against our will is why we’re sometimes unkind toward it in passing. And that day is the secure lid on the conversational can-of-worms that is “Why I Can’t Stand Subway”.
One awesome postscript, in which Canadian grace manifested itself once more:
After we came home, but before we wrote and shared the original version of these ten chapters and 9000+ words, we’d doled out superficial details to our internet cohorts about our Canadian souvenir debacle and other related sundries. A few weeks later we received a care package in the mail from Stephanie, the friend who’d meant to meet us on the Canadian side of Niagara but couldn’t make it. The box was filled with genuine Canadian goodies and merchandise, more than making up for the unpleasantness at the duty-free shop as well as helping us forget the hard-luck ride home.
We thanked her as profusely as we could. We finally met her in person when she came to Indianapolis the following year for Star Wars Celebration III, at which we bent over backwards to repay the favor in kind, which included waiting in the worst line we’ve ever done in our lives.
We’re the Goldens. This is who we are and what we do.
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Coming soon: our 2005 road trip to Texas…]