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Two miles from the on-ramp to Washington DC’s infamous Capital Beltway, Katie and I hit heavy traffic that slowed us to a crawl. The engine then abruptly shut off, which slowed us to a stop. A profound, head throbbing stop. We were in one of the interior of four lanes of traffic, and prolonged cranking of the engine produced no results, just a funny smell I later learned was our starter burning up.
When I finally realized I wasn’t going to get the engine to turn over I tried dialing AAA, but it was 5:15pm and DC’s notoriously congested cell service wouldn’t let me through to an operator. I tried five or six times, then finally ran to a nearby Shell station and borrowed their phone. AAA had me on hold for over ten minutes (all the while Katie sat in the truck, in traffic, valiantly pretending nothing was the matter as car after car of pissed off people honked and sped around her), and I was told a tow truck was in route.
The wrecker showed quickly for once and pulled in front of the stalled rig to hook us up. Now remember, we’re in a 6,000 lb. truck carrying a 1,500 lb. camper and pulling an 8’ trailer full of musical equipment -- I believe we’re in the neighborhood of 10,000 lb. altogether. The tow truck was of the flatbed variety, with some manner of bar in the back allowing the driver to lift a vehicle’s front wheels and tow like a traditional wrecker if desired. Realizing our rig to be too long to fit on the flatbed, I asked the driver if he could simply pull us off the main street so I could detach our trailer, but he said he would just tow us the entire 5 miles to the mechanic, trailer included. A little side note -- when I spoke to the AAA rep, I specifically told him we were driving a diesel truck and needed to go to a diesel shop. I reiterated this to the tow driver.
All went well for the first few miles of the drive, but we heard a loud bang while heading up a hill and turned to see our truck, camper, and trailer drifting away from us back down the hill. The truck’s towing apparatus had apparently broken under the weight. The driver let out an “Oh Shit!” and bolted out the door to try and catch it, while I tried in vain to extricate myself from the backseat and crawl over Katie and out her door to help. By the time I made it outside the truck was stopped, not because of our driver, but by the front bumper of an extremely friendly and understanding Brazilian woman’s minivan. She and her two children were thankfully unhurt, but police were called and our driver hurriedly made to get our truck and camper onto the flatbed and off to their final destination as quickly as possible. That left our trailer sitting in the middle of the road while the police tried to figure out what the hell was going on, and eventually the flatbed returned for the trailer and us. Our Portuguese emergency brake Katia kindly offered us to stay with her and her children, but we gratefully declined. Seriously -- how nice must a person be to get hit by your runaway car and then offer to feed and shelter the owners? That woman must be a saint.
Finally at the garage we settled in for the night, but not before Katie made one last inquiry to the cashiers on duty (the place was one of those garage/gas station combos) making sure that this was in fact a diesel shop, which they again, for the third time, offered confirmation of.
I spoke to the shop owner Rick at 8 the next morning and we waited to be seen. Rick, a super nice guy no matter the tone that I may unconsciously give here, finally moseyed over to take a look after lunch, and promptly declared that his shop does not in fact work on diesels in any way, and that he’d replace my starter and check to make sure there was nothing obvious wrong with the truck, but that’s it. So replace the starter he did (and charged us $453 for the privilege) before declaring he couldn’t fix it and it’d have to be towed somewhere else.
I made call No. 2 to AAA at 4pm and waited until 6:00 for the truck to appear. The driver connected a winch to the truck and camper (Rick kindly offered to house the trailer until our return), and pulled the beast a few feet up the truck’s ramp before the winch gave out, necessitating the summoning of another, beefier truck, the closest of which was roughly an hour away. One hour turned into two, and the medium duty truck arrived around 9:00 only to tell us he didn’t have the right equipment to tow us, at least without ripping off our front bumper, so a third truck was called. No. 3 showed a little after 10pm and refused to transport the camper, so I exasperatedly offered to remove it from the truck, which the driver accepted. Driver No. 3 took the truck to a nearby-ish Ford dealership, and Katie and I (and Chloe too) settled in for a second night of inner city camping.
I haven’t mentioned our “campsite” yet. We were at an Express gas station in Takoma Park, Maryland, exactly one block northeast of the DC border. All of Katie’s family we spoke to seemed very unnerved by our proximity to DC, but our original tow driver assured us we’d be safe there. He said this was his ‘area’. The gas station is on a major road, and though not open 24 hours remained very well-lit throughout the night. A walking path through the empty lot next door (and right next to where we were parked) led to a not so great-looking neighborhood featuring at least one public housing development and steady foot traffic. While obviously a lower income area, we nevertheless didn’t feel in danger or that our safety was in question. I did however suspect we might discover a homeless person sleeping in our camper were we to leave for the night and accept one of our friends and family’s many offers to take us in, so we opted to stay.
Day 3 started with a call from Ford acknowledging the truck they found waiting in their lot that morning, along with the caveat that they might not even look at it for a couple of days thanks to backlog in the shop. I explained our situation though, and they promised to make every effort to speed the process and get us on the road ASAP.
Meanwhile, I had noticed during the night that our propane (and only heat source) seemed to be getting low, a definite concern in the sub-freezing temperatures, so Katie and I set out to fill one of our tanks and make a grocery run with the time off. I found a U-Haul about a mile away and carried the 30-ish lb. tank to be filled, dropping Katie off at a local grocery store along the way. After filling the tank (about 7 gallons), I barely made it the single block back to Katie’s grocery store to meet her for the walk back. We’d jokingly said we would steal a shopping cart to get back to the camper if we needed, but faced with the prospect of lugging an unwieldy, 70-pound, highly explosive canister a mile through hilly and densely-trafficked roads, we grabbed the first cart we could find. Unfortunately the store had one of those theft-deterrent systems in place where one of the cart’s wheels locks up when you reach a certain border, but after testing the system’s limits we realized we could just lift a cart over our heads while crossing the line and we wouldn’t set it off. Ironically, none of the local residents bat an eye when they saw us leaving the grounds with the stolen cart, but the looks of incredulity we got when bringing the cart back a half hour later were priceless.
Night 3 was uneventful, aided by a bottle of cheap champagne procured from a nearby liquor store, and the following day mercifully didn’t offer any surprises either. That is until nightfall, when Ford gave us a surprise call to tell us the truck was fixed and we had two hours to get there if we wanted it that night. Hell yes we wanted it that night! Taking rush hour into account, we figured the fastest way there might be the Metro, so we speed walked a mile to the station, took a 15-minute ride, walked another half-mile, and were there. The entire trip took close to 45 minutes, as least as quick as a cab in rush hour and probably $40 less.
The rest was easy. We drove back, packed up the camper, ate some Popeye’s Chicken (it was f*@#&$% awesome!) and hit the road. Got to St. Augustine Saturday and continued the gastronomical fun (Guinness pie from Prince of Wales one night, Five Guys the next), and tomorrow, Monday, we’ll drive the last 4 hours home, effectively ending our first tour.
Though we were only on the road for not quite two months, the knowledge I gained about music, performing, marriage, and life in general is prodigious and invaluable. I can’t wait for the next stage of the journey, regardless of the expression it ends up taking. For now though, just sleep. Sleepy sleep sleep.