Or decide not to travel at all. But first, congratulations to Laura S. and Jerri Lynn H. for winning the audio copies of Tougher in Texas, and thanks to everyone who played along.
Let me preface this story by saying that for twenty years I lived outside of Montana--Texas, South Dakota and Oregon--and one of the best parts of being back on the ranch is that the trip home to my parents' house for Christmas is a twenty-yard stroll across the backyard.
I was reminded of this particular story as I was standing in line at the grocery store this week and heard the obviously pregnant checker explaining to a friend that she wouldn't mind if the baby came a little early because he'd kicked so hard that he'd dislocated one of her ribs and they couldn't get it back into place until after she gave birth.
Ah, the joys of impending motherhood. And long road trips. And cheap cars.
In 2004, we owned two vehicles: a 1990 Ford one ton, two door dually pickup and a 1995 Ford one ton, four door dually pickup. I commuted to and from work in the ‘little’ pickup. It occurred to us, though, as I started to swell and we realized we were going to have an actual baby, that it might not be the best Mom car.
As luck would have it, a girl from Sweden had been working for my parents as part of a farm worker exchange program. She’d recently finished her term and gone home, leaving behind the cute little 1985 Jeep Cherokee she’d bought for transportation while in the States. Dad had driven it a few times and figured it would be a dandy car for us.
Plus it was cheap.
We’dridden out to the ranch from Oregon with my sister for Christmas. My brother was already there. All of us had to get back to Oregon after the holiday. For reasons that escape me now, my sister wasn’t going back at the same time as the rest us. We decided to take the Jeep home, because hey, it was only five hundred and ninety-five miles across three mountains passes in the dead of winter. What cheap used car couldn’t handle that?
We did take it for a test drive first. We aren’t total fools. It seemed to run fine, and my husband was pretty sure the overpowering stench of gasoline was just a leaky fitting. It should fade once we got out on the highway. The lack of a functional radio wasn't so great, but we’d be driving through the mountains most of the time and there’s not much for stations, anyway.
Off we went, with my brother riding shotgun. When we hit cruising speed, we realized two things. First, the gas fumes, if anything, were getting stronger. And the fabric on the ceiling was coming unglued. The warmer it got in the interior of the car, the farther it sagged. This was especially annoying to my brother who, at six three, didn’t have a whole lot of clearance to begin with.
We toodled over Marias Pass, only slightly dizzy from the gas fumes when we rolled into Columbia Falls. The car ran great…right up until it overheated ten miles from Kalispell.
Steam rolled from under the hood as we pulled off on the side of the highway. When it cleared, we discovered the radiator was half empty. My brother fought free of the saggy ceiling and hiked to the nearest house. He came back with two plastic milk jugs of water. Radiator replenished, we did a U-turn and went back to the Towne Pump at Columbia Falls. With the engine idling, they scrutinized the hoses, the water pump, the radiator. Not a leak in sight. They checked the fluid level. Hadn’t dropped a millimeter.
Either the leak had repaired itself, or there wasn’t any water in the stupid radiator when we started.
We refilled the milk jugs, stashed them in the back seat, and set off again. The sun came out and the day warmed to the point where I could crack a window for fresh air without risking frostbite, which diminished the fumes significantly. Now if I could just get rid of that backache.
My pregnancy had been disgustingly easy to that point. No morning sickness, no weird food cravings. Then came the backache. The pain started on the trip out, while we were trapped on the interstate in Spokane. By the time we got to the ranch, it felt like someone stuck a hot poker under my right shoulder blade. I quickly figured out that it only bothered me when I sat for long periods of time.
Like in a car on a twelve-hour road trip.
The longer we drove, the worse the pain got, until it radiated clear around to my ribcage. When we stopped at a convenience store to refuel and switch drivers, I bought a pack of frozen peas, climbed behind the wheel and stuffed the peas down the back of my shirt. I pointed the Jeep straight down the road.
It headed for the ditch.
“Steering’s a little loose,” my husband said from the back seat.
Uh, yeah. Just a little. Keeping the thing between the ditches required constant correction. Veer right, veer left, veer right, veer left. The gas fumes seemed to have tripled in intensity with the fill-up. I hunched over the wheel to duck the sagging ceiling--knuckles white, shoulder frozen, melting pea juice trickling down the back of my pants--and tried not to inhale.
We reached the interstate at dusk. The sun had melted the snowpack, and a semi drenched my windows with mud splatter as I merged onto I-90. Imagine my surprise when the windshield wiper left a wide opaque streak directly in my line of vision. I hunched lower and flipped on the headlights.
The left headlight shone straight down on the yellow center line. The right one did a fantastic job of illuminating the tops of the fifty foot pine trees lining the ditch. The road in front of me remained dark--what I could see of it through the muddy windshield. I couldn’t see out of the side or rear windows at all.
Somehow, we got to Spokane in one piece. At the first convenience store, my husband bought a screwdriver and adjusted the headlights while my brother worked on the windshield wipers. I tossed my soggy bag of smushed peas into the nearest trash can, crawled in the back seat and stretched out flat. I could practically see the gasoline vapors near the floor, but I had reached the point where I was willing to sacrifice consciousness for comfort.
Lying down did the trick. I was feeling no pain when we rolled into Hermiston. Or maybe it was just the fumes. We never did find the source. A month later the Jeep mysteriously died--just stopped running as if I'd turned off the key while driving down the highway.
We towed it home and traded it in on a Cadillac--which stars in the next installment of Christmas Tripping, along with more presents for you, my faithful readers, so keep an eye on that inbox.