It’s dark. It’s been raining. We’re on the side of a highway. Somewhere in Maine. Something is smoldering under the hood of our car. Waves of smoke waft up, an invisible cloud of heat is felt whenever we approach the source. The acrid smell of burning metal and steel fills our noses. This stench had caused us to pull over onto this gloomy stretch of highway in the first place.
We don’t know where we are. We’re outside a campground. Outside of Bangor, Maine. How far? We check our phones, both are nearly dead. No roaming data, no Google. Panic. Maggie pulls out her CAA card. I call the number provided and, thankfully, get a signal. And a dispatcher. Who breaks up every second word. We soon get transferred to a US agent and then wait. Each minute will cost $1.50 at some future date.
Our car continues to smolder, the smoke actually seems to intensify. We find what looks to be an ember, some super-heated steel below the engine. Should we douse it with water? I don’t know shit about cars. Would we crack a casing if everything around it is too hot? Maggie asks me this while I’m on the phone, now trying to tell the agent where we are, not knowing at all where we are. “We’re outside a Koa Kampground,” I say. “There’s a sign that says Camp Lane.” Is this sign real or kitsch, I wonder.
The trailer across the road is alive and a curious, shirtless teenaged kid wanders over. Maggie asks about dumping water on the smoldering steel. He says he’ll ask his dad. “He’s good with cars.” I tell the agent that there’s a trailer across the street. The kid returns home, where there’s been yelling and swearing since we arrived.
The agent says we’re in Canaan, Maine, but we only have an 11-kilometre tow radius coverage under Maggie’s plan. The nearest town that has a AAA-approved shop is 18 miles away. This will cost us $18. American dollars. I don’t have any American dollars. This is a problem. I ask her, “Don’t we have 100-kilometre coverage?” She says we don’t. I ask her to call up the Canadian dispatcher that I was talking to originally to confirm this. She complies and puts me on hold, at $1.50 per minute.
The kid returns, with two girls his age, and says he’s not sure whether to hit that spot with water. But his dad did tell him that he had something like this happen to him before. His dad kept driving with it though and then one day, it blew up and his car caught fire on the highway. “If he was wearing a seatbelt, he’d be dead,” the kid says. We thank him for his help. He heads home.
An SUV screams by and honks at us.
We don’t have the extended coverage. The agent says the tow-truck driver will take us to an ATM before dropping off the car at a shop. “Fine,” I say. She says the tow truck will be here within 45 minutes and she will text or call with a better estimate when she has one. I opt for the $1 text. She sends four.
We wait. The car continues to smolder and smoke. Maggie pokes a hole in a water bottle cap, turning it into an improvised fire extinguisher. I love her. We attack it from the wheel well, to no avail. Then we move on, taking precise shots at it through a small gap beside the engine. On the second try, we get it.
Then we wait. With phones dying. Without knowing what happened. Did the exhaust finally quit on us? Is this engine related? How much this will cost? Where are we? Where are we heading? Will there be a motel or a hotel or at least somewhere to set up our tent?
We stand by the car – or more accurately, a hot, smelly immobile hunk of steel in its current condition – having completely ceded control of our fate to fate. We listen to the cussing and fighting and crassness from the trailer across the street. I don’t want to meet that kid’s dad. I start sweating about money. We were on our way home, the second last day of our five-week trip. Bank account has looked better. Our $1,200 car has so far cost us nearly as much in repairs over the last six months. If this is an engine problem, we’re not pouring any more into this thing. But then what do we do? How do we get home with all of our bags and boxes and camping gear, crammed into the car? How will we get to Yellowknife, where I start work in two weeks? And how do we make any plans when our phones are dying, we don’t know where we are and we can’t Google? I miss the ability to Google car questions right now, even when the answer will definitely not provide any tangible benefit, and likely lead to more questions, wilder speculation and greater anxiety.
The tow truck driver arrives and he’s all business. After a few frustrating minutes, he manages to lug the Passat up onto his rig and we’re off. He speaks slowly with a slur, like someone who has put back 16 drinks. It takes me a few minutes beside him to conclude that he hasn’t had 16 drinks. He’s an ally. He says he’ll take us to Skowhegan, rather than Fairfield, because there are hotels near the mechanic shop.
We rumble through the darkness, our driver ignoring the prompts from the oddly impatient GPS lady-automaton. But then we turn down an illuminated main street and its lights bring us our first rush of familiarity and comfort. The driver, Guy, takes us to the drive-thru ATM and, thankfully, my card lets me take out money.
Guy drops us off at the shop and tells us where the two hotels in town are. We walk down to the coziest looking of the two, about three blocks away, and ring the bell. A grey-haired woman, eyes half open, answers and apologizes for not having any vacancies. “It’s all booked up with the fair in town,” she says, referring us to the hotel down the street. We head that way, down the deserted main street.
What are we going to do if there are no vacancies there? Where will we stay? How will we pay for all of this? What if they can’t find the part, like when we were in PEI and stuck for five days? We actually catch a lift with the tow-truck driver’s friend, on our way to the next hotel. We arrive and no lights are on and no one is home. The driver shrugs and takes us back to the shop. Where we go to sleep. In the parking lot. In our car. Which may or may not be making the trip home with us.