My vehicle and vacation comedy of errors

I just completed a weekend trip with my mother and my sons. Visiting her cabin on the North Carolina/Georgia border has become an annual tradition for us. Another tradition that seems to repeat, though not purposely, is for everything to go dead wrong.

It was recently suggested that where I aim to inspire, I instead come across as complaining. While that opinion has merit, I hope that many others see that when I tell these tales of frustration, they are meant to demonstrate that it is possible to find humor in the face of ridiculous challenges.

In a backwards sort of way, I cannot stand movies where everything goes wrong. I simply cringe helplessly while I watch situations fall apart in the name of comedy. When it’s my own life, I take a very different approach in an attempt to stay positive while I struggle my way through.

In an attempt to amuse you, and continue to assuage my negative car situation, I thought I would share with you some of what happened this week. Now keep in mind, I actually have a decent car. A family crossover purchased about 6 years ago and still in pretty good condition.

Day 1:

I loaded my car up Thursday morning with the kids and all our stuff. When I arrived to my mother’s and she climbed into the driver’s seat, I warned her that my vehicle registration had still not arrived in the mail, but that it was fine because I had the emailed proof of purchase in case we got pulled over. She looked skeptical and suggested we take her truck, but we didn’t want to take the time to reload or crush all the kids and belongings too tightly together.

I also reminded her that my car doesn’t shift out of park without having to use a long, thin object to push an internal level next to the gears. “No, I haven’t fixed that since the last time we took this trip.” Whenever I do this, my mind flashes to a NatGeo episode saying, “Monkeys often use sticks as crude tools…” We haven’t come too far, really.

We set out at a fast pace and she warned me, “I really like to gun it when I hit the road!” I ignored the bravado with a chuckle and said, “That’s why you’re driving and I’m not. We’ll get there a lot faster.”

One hour into the ten-hour drive, she mentioned she felt hot. “Is the air even on?” Turns out, no, it was not blowing cold air anymore. If I haven’t mentioned previously, we live in Orlando, Florida. It’s a bit hot in June.

We continued to drive through the sweltering heat as temperatures reached 103*F/39*C, giving new meaning as we drove through “Hotlanta.” It really was quite miserable, feeling like we were melting into the seat, worried that when the boys slumped out of sight that they may have passed out from heat stroke. On the bright side, having the windows down meant none of us could hear if the boys started arguing. Also, sweating out all the liquids meant there were very few bathroom breaks.

She told me that she preferred to ride down the middle of both lanes on our side of the highway so that the sharp mountain curves could be navigated a bit easier, but as there was no traffic on a Thursday afternoon, I let it go. We arrived, somehow.

Day 2:

My parents’ cabin is located in an extremely small town. There aren’t really car mechanics. I told her that when I was getting married near there this time last year, many people seemed skeptical that North Carolina and Georgia even bordered each other. Finding vendors was near impossible, leading me to the realization that booking important events in a place no one believes exists is a very bad plan. She found one mechanic, but decided that now we were in our more northern climate, we could tolerate the lack of air conditioning on our car trips. They likely wouldn’t get parts in on time anyway.

We start noticing odd things about the sensors around the gas tank. The miles-per-gallon average calculator starts going wonky and spitting out extreme numbers, which shouldn’t be happening if it is averaging over the lifetime of the car’s driving history. That has only happened when the battery has died or had to be disconnected. It also signals that we are low on fuel much earlier than it typically would notify us, but on the next startup, the indicator doesn’t appear. We think little of it, though I have a growing concern about the electrical system.

Day 3:

One of our ventures for the day is to load up the kayaks and haul them down to the lake. I’m not sure how she rigged them into my open trunk hatch, but there they were, so we hit the road. Still within her neighborhood, she floored it up a hill, having forgotten they were there until I yelled and she excused, “Sorry, when I get headed out, I just forget what I’m carrying in my excitement to get there.” My eldest son reached back to hold on to one of the two kayaks as a precaution.

(At this point, I hope you’re starting to see the great need for comic relief.)

While kayaking, two of my boys learned the hard lesson of why communication is necessary to navigating watercraft when they both tried to exit the kayak first and flipped it into the cold mountain water. They didn’t quite appreciate my lesson that you can always choose to laugh off situations right then.

Day 4:

The vehicle system started showing a loose gas cap indicator. I tried to tighten and check it multiple times, but that had no effect. Later on, it went off again. I texted my husband that there seemed to be more electrical issues, but we didn’t go too far that day.

A pet peeve of mine is turn-signal usage. I think it’s wise to signal your intentions, and she did like to choose her lanes at whim or casually overstep their bounds. However, she was driving and doing me a great service, so I bit my tongue.

As she drifted and slowed around curves, I heard a strange whining sound, but couldn’t pinpoint what it was coming from. It wasn’t the brakes, but I thought might be a belt wearing out.

Day 5:

Monday again and the one local shop we might use was open. I informed my mom that I really didn’t want to take the car in to have it diagnosed, only to pay the same fee back in Orlando, but she couldn’t help wanting peace of mind. She took the boys to a park and the car to the shop while I worked. When she returned, though, she had to admit, “Your husband was right. It’s the compressor, not freon.” I just shrugged and laughed, thinking that probably killed her to say. I thanked her for caring enough to try and for her help.

Part of the reason my mom was doing all the driving was that I work what-feels-like-24/7. Most of what I do is based in Europe and I put in my eight hours very early on, so that by midday, I’m done and ready to play. However, there are always lingering activities and they seem quite endless. I like to do something productive when I’m on a long drive and frankly, driving isn’t it.

We set out to go white water rafting in the afternoon and after an hour-plus drive and safety training and bus ride with our gear, we arrive to the top of the river to find that the dam that controls the flow has been shut because a transformer blew up at the substation that powers it. Now, I happen to know a bit about these things and think we can wait a bit to see if their service team can get it going, but she doesn’t agree. I guess the river folk are more trustworthy on these matters than her daughter who works for the engineering company that likely made the transformer. But I just write stories, so admittedly could easily be wrong.

So we departed and drove into Cherokee to tour the Native American museum and chose dinner afterward at a place the museum guide suggested. The parking lot was full, so we circled around the back of the restaurant, which looked like a mobile home lot. My mother, thinking this was a mistake, floored the car in reverse while I shrieked that there was another car behind us who had been attempting the same thing. We lived; so did the car.

After dinner, we went to a show about the history of the Cherokee people from origin to the Trail of Tears, then took the hour-long drive back, grateful that it was cool out at night. During the drive, my mother ran over some sort of mid-sized, loping, brown creature that tried desperately to correct its mistaken dash across the road, while my mom swerved into the oncoming lane to avoid it and wound up crushing it instead. Luckily, there were no other cars on the road. I’m certain that crossed her mind before she swerved. “You never swerve,” I tried to tell her.

On the way back, we debated trying to white-water-raft again the next day before we left town. “I’m pretty sure fate is trying to teach us something right now, between the car and the rafting and my crazy work load,” I said. She agreed, but couldn’t get past how close we had come to taking the boys rafting, even after I reminded her that they needed to see that it was okay to get past your disappointments and move on. We arrived home near midnight, and the second I laid down for bed, I knew I would wake up to her changed mind and a renewed attempt. I really wanted to be back home.

Day 6 and final:

After an hour of back-and-forth discussion, I persuaded her that rafting should not be part of our plan for the day. We did a bit more between work and town and cleaning the cabin before we hit the road, hoping we had delayed enough that we wouldn’t feel as much of the heat on the road, since it might be a cooler time of day. Part of that included kayaking, and she took her mug of coffee into the car since my youngest son had knocked over her first cup. The second cup didn’t last long on the floor of my car either. I laughed it off, knowing the kids had done far worse to the vehicle and not wanting to yell at her about what was clearly an accident.

On the drive back, when we stopped for dinner, she asked which direction the restaurant at our exit was. The signs hadn’t said and Google wasn’t finding it, so I suggested turning one direction and if we didn’t find it, making a U-turn. We were in the left lane. Well, I guess that meant gun it into the right-hand lane, and luckily I shrieked again and the other car stopped in time. We stayed in the left lane, which was good, because that was the correct choice.

She dropped me at the door of the restaurant to check in while she parked. I wondered what took her so long until she walked in, clearly frazzled. “The car door won’t open now; I was locked in!” she shared. “The boys had to open it from the outside while I had a panic attack that I would be stuck in the heat.”

Oh, gosh – now this is getting bad. I went to check it out and, sure enough, the driver’s-side door would only open from the exterior. It was also clearly mechanical, as if the handle had been snapped on the inside where whatever pieces pivot to unlatch it should have tugged at something. I texted my husband who scoffingly said that he fully expected the car to arrive home looking like the truckster from Family Vacation. I teased my mom about pulling on the handle too hard at every stop instead of unlocking the door first, but told her I hoped she knew I was kidding.

I really, really wanted to be home. As we drew close, a torrential downpour began, and we had to close the windows that were providing our only source of “fresh” highway air. It was raining so hard that we couldn’t see the lines. I suggested pulling off the road, but as we couldn’t make out where it was, chose not to. The next glimpse I got was of the side rail ending and a rolling hill to our right, so we were fortunate that we didn’t make that mistake. I tried wiping at the windshield with our only remaining napkin to see if it was just foggy, but I couldn’t tell.

Then I realized that the defrost button might still work. While my husband had told me that running the fan could cause the compressor to lock up even further, this was now a life-or-death situation and I figured our lives were worth more than the compressor. Within three minutes, we could make out the road at least and within eight, it had stopped altogether. That’s Florida for you.


In all, that’s an AC unit, a whining belt, gas sensors throughout the entire system, and a door handle, all on top of the registration that hadn’t arrived and historical shifting problem. Then you add the mysterious road animal, two near accidents, and coffee spill. Next time, I’ll just push the thing off one of those North Carolina cliffs!

And with that, I hope you found a few more reasons to feel grateful for your own life, while laughing at my misfortunes. I know having survived it, I’m a little more grateful for the blessings in mine! And mom’s already texted to ask if we can head up at the end of summer again, and perhaps fly up instead.

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