The Trip From Hell

By J.A. Hitchcock

The following letter, sent to one of my best friends, details my "trip from hell". I was on a road trip from Annapolis, Maryland to Dover, New Hampshire. My husband was getting out of the military, so we were finally able to settle down in New England. I left a week earlier than him, packed his 1991 Isuzu Trooper with our personal belongings (the furniture and other items had already been packed up by the movers) and left Maryland on the morning of Thursday, August 30, 1998. I planned on splitting up the 12-hour drive with a stopover in Long Island at a friend's house. Well, I got my stopover. . .and a lot more.

August 12, 1998


You want the good news or the bad news? Well, first the good news - I am here. I am fine. So are the dogs. Now the bad news - getting here was hell. I drove Chris' Isuzu Trooper, you know - the truck I just looove. Well, everything had been fixed on the darned thing except the transmission.

Yep. The transmission went. On the Jersey Turnpike. The drive from Maryland had gone well - the air conditioning was blasting, I had one of my books on tape in the cassette player, the dogs were snoozing on the passenger seat and I was on my way to New England!

So there I was, ready to pull into the Joyce Kilmer Rest Stop to walk the dogs and get something to drink. I was making my way across the highway to the exit lane when the stick shift suddenly popped out of 5th gear, made awful grinding noises, then all the lights on the dashboard lit up. I pulled over to the side of the road (right at the exit, but not close enough to walk to the rest stop), picked up the cell phone and dialed 911. Buying that cell phone for this trip was the best thing I could have ever done.

Within about five minutes, an emergency road van pulled up behind us. The driver, an older man with a beat-up yellow baseball hat, made sure the dogs and I were okay, then said the tow truck was on its way. He left and I rolled down the windows. Remember how hot it was? Well, now I know how it feels to be a dog in a parked car in the noon sun. I sat there and began to sweat.

Thankfully, I had a Thermos filled with water for the dogs, but they knew something was wrong and wouldn't drink any of it. Sure enough, about 10-15 minutes later, the tow truck arrived. The driver looked just like Harry Dean Stanton, told me to sit tight, then hooked the Trooper up to his truck. He left me and the dogs in the Trooper and towed us off the pike into Brunswick, New Jersey. It was kind of odd being up in the air and watching the traffic while being towed. It was even weirder was when we pulled through the toll booth - I still had to pay the toll. The tow truck driver paid his fare, then pulled up so that I was at the toll booth window. I gave the tolltaker the fare.

I quickly learned that tow truck operators in New Jersey have their own "sections." Since this guy had the Jersey Turnpike contract, he couldn't take us to a garage. No kidding. So he dropped us off in the parking lot of a diner in a dubious section of town. Thank goodness it was daytime. I got out of the Trooper and took the dogs to the pay phone to call AAA. It was hot and humid and we were absolutely miserable. The AAA operator was wonderful and said she'd send a tow truck out right away. I told her I had to call my friend in Long Island. I must've sounded pretty upset, because she put the call through for me at no charge.

When Stan answered the phone, I almost lost it. He calmed me down and told me to call him from the garage I would be towed to and he'd come and get me. The dogs and I got back in the Trooper to wait for the tow truck. I gave them some water and this time they drank it. We sat there with the windows rolled down. I prayed for a breeze. There was none. I watched people walk by and believe me, I had 911 punched into the cell phone, my finger ready to hit the "call" button, just in case. One truck driver walked by, whistled at me and said, "Hey, doll." Oh, I'm sure I looked so gorgeous with my hair sticking to my face and sweat pouring down my face. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

The tow truck finally arrived. This time the guy hooked the Trooper up and let the dogs and I sit in the cab with him. We got to the auto repair garage in minutes and drove by the first tow truck company in the process. It turns out they were only a block away. The service guy at the garage got me a soda, filled up the Thermos for the dogs and settled us in the waiting room (yes, the dogs, too). I waited for about an hour and he came back to tell me they had to take the transmission apart to find out what's really wrong with it. I asked how long it would take. He said they would have an answer the next day. So I call Stan. He claims he'd be there in a couple of hours. He is.

Stan brought his daughters with him, Katie and Laura, who promptly take the dogs off my hands. We got in Stan's van and he handed me an ice-cold beer from his cooler. I tell him I love him. We ride in air-conditioned comfort to Stan's home in Long Island. I'm treated to a steak barbecue, then bleu cheese and sliced fruit for dessert (really, it's good). We drank beer, relaxed and talked until about 10 p.m. Then I went to bed with the dogs (who have been walked about a zillion times by Laura). The three of us crashed and slept well.

The next day the garage called and I'm given four options: A new transmission ($4500), rebuilt ($3600) - both of these would take 10 days; a used one with 96,000 miles ($1500) or one with 59,000 miles ($2500) - these would take five days. I tell them I can't impose on my friend for that long (although Stan said it'd be no problem). So I got off the phone to think.

It came down to staying in Jersey or trading the Trooper in at one of the dealerships next to the garage for a new or used car. I call Chris. He said get rid of the darned truck. He calls his parents, who offer to help out by cosigning the loan. I feel better.

On the way to the garage, I saw a U-haul go by with a car towed behind it. I suggested to Stan that maybe I should do that - rent a truck and tow the Trooper to New Hampshire. What the heck? I made some phone calls when we got to the garage. I'd have to wait until Monday - all the trucks were gone for the weekend, but it would cost me $700 to drive myself, plus two nights in a hotel. Better than being stuck in Jersey for a week or two or losing money on a trade-in. The guys at the garage say they know someone who tows cars for them to various places.

They call this guy and begin to haggle on the price. He started off wanting $1700 for the trip, went down to $1400, then we settled on $900 plus tolls for Jay to flatbed tow the Trooper to New Hampshire.

The dogs and I say good-bye to Stan and check into the EconoLodge down the street. I feed the dogs, walk to Fuddrucker's for a burger and a well-deserved beer. We got to bed early, then were up bright and early the next morning. Jay picked us up at 6 a.m. on the dot. The Trooper was already on the flatbed. I hated that Trooper with a passion and almost gave it the finger. The dogs had to ride in the Trooper, so I made sure they had a tranquilizer to keep them calm and put them in the front seat.

I got in the cab with Jay, a very friendly fellow in his early 30s. He then proceeded to tell me his entire life story for the next seven hours. Now I know everything about this guy, probably more than his mother and girlfriend. I even know where he hides his money when he drives into New York City (in his shoes). He also has a very large and heavy flashlight under the front seat. . .just in case.

We stopped at a rest area in Massachusetts to let the dogs out. They were doing fine. Guin was a bit loopy but Bandit was wide awake. He sat in the drivers seat the entire time, his head peeking up over the steering wheel. It looked like he was driving. I expect he'll want me to take him in for his driver's license now.

It was actually pretty amusing - people would drive by and point up at the Trooper. Kids would wave at Bandit. I think he enjoyed the ride very much. More than me, anyway.

We arrived at Chris' parents house at 1:30 in the afternoon. Chris' mom came out first and we hug and I burst into tears. It had been a helluva couple of days. Chris' dad tipped the driver and off Jay went. I think he'll miss me.

So I'm here. I'm alive. . .barely. . .but I'm alive. And I still hate that Trooper.

(Postscript - We got the transmission rebuilt for $1700 in New Hampshire and finally traded in the Trooper in January of 1999. We now lease a 1999 Jeep Cherokee - no muss, no fuss, all major repairs and service taken care of in one monthly payment - which is only $45 more than what we were paying on the Trooper)