Prizm Break

Our story so far: I wrecked my car, Progressive is a lousy insurance company, and Auntie Karen offered to give me her 1994 Geo Prizm — if I came to Ohio to get it.

* * *

The plan sounded simple enough. I would fly to Columbus, pick up my free car, and drive back to Portland. It was early January — not the best time of year to be driving cross-country — but I figured if I took a more southern route (I-70 instead of I-80) the weather would be better. Gas should cost about $175 (those Geos get good mileage), I would need a couple nights in a Motel 6 (another $100), and the plane ticket should be reasonable. All told, my free car should cost me about $400.

The first indication of trouble came when I tried to buy a plane ticket: Apparently no one in Portland had ever wanted to go to Columbus before, because none of the airlines flew there. They had to scramble and improvise. “Um, wow, OK, Columbus,” they said. “Um … Let’s see… Um… Well, we can fly you to Newark, and then back to Columbus! How’s that?” It was the best I could do, and the ticket was only $115.

It was a red-eye flight from Portland to Newark. The flight was fine, with the only odd thing being that some woman had brought her cat with her, right there on the plane. Do you know how weird it is to be in an airplane, hearing only the normal airplane noises, and then suddenly to hear a “meow”? Your brain tells you it’s the sound of a cat, but then another part of your brain punches the first part of your brain in the arm and says, “Moron! Why would there be a cat on an airplane?” And the first part rubs its arm and says, “Sorry! Geez! It sounded like a cat!” And then you hear it again, and your ears are like, “Guys, that is definitely a cat,” and the first part of your brain is like, “See! I told you!,” and the second part is all, “What the H? Why would someone bring a cat on an airplane?!” And you look around and see that other passengers’ brains and ears are having similar conversations, and everyone’s glancing about furtively to see where the cat sounds are coming from.

So yeah, some woman brought her cat on the plane. Hooray for kitty! I’m sure he’d always wanted to see the East Coast. And those people in the confined space with the recirculated air who are allergic to cats? Who cares about them! It’s called the “red-eye” flight for a reason. That cat has just as much right to fly as everyone else does!

Oh, and even though it was 1 in the morning, the lady next to me ordered a vodka and tonic from the stewardess, then downed the vodka straight. Then she was out like a light. I liked her style.

The layover in Newark was less than an hour, and then it was on to Columbus. Immediately upon stepping off the plane, I knew I was in Ohio. People looked wholesome and corn-fed. I was definitely in the Midwest — not geographically, perhaps, but anthropologically. (I pointed out last week that Ohio is NOT in the midwestern part of the United States, and it was pointed out in response that while that may be true, it’s definitely part of the Midwest “mindset.” In other words, people in Ohio are nerdy, and hence Midwestern. I can live with that.)

Auntie Karen and Uncle Tom picked me up at the airport then whisked me back to their cozy house in the quaint Ohio town of What’s-It-Called. The town has a memorial library dedicated to Wagnalls, of Funk & Wagnalls, because What’s-It-Called was Wagnalls’ hometown. (Funk, of course, was from Funkytown.) I napped for a few hours, we had lunch, and then I was sent off in my brand-new free 1994 Geo Prizm!

The car had recently had engine work done, so everything was in top shape in that regard. Its only defect was that its four tires were showing the same signs of age that humans do: they’d become bald, wobbly, and prone to expelling their air. Still: free car. Even if I had to replace the tires soon, that’s only a couple hundred bucks. Still a bargain.

I had planned my route using maps I’d found online, and that in itself had been a revelation. My specific knowledge of U.S. geography was shaky at best. If you’d asked me to draw a map of the United States entirely from memory, this is what I’d have come up with:

Alt text

Seeing the interstate maps online, and then flipping through the road atlas Auntie Karen gave me, I was astonished. For example, you know how Cincinnati is in Ohio? Well, guess what’s right next to Cincinnati, just across the Ohio River? Kentucky! KENTUCKY!! What’s Kentucky doing next to Cincinnati? That makes no sense at all.

My route on I-70 would take me west out of Ohio and across the southern portions of Indiana and Illinois, then across the entire widths of Missouri and Kansas, into Colorado. In Denver, I would take I-25 north up to Cheyenne, Wyo., where I’d catch I-80 and proceed west into Utah. From there I’d be on familiar ground, having driven from Salt Lake City to Portland several times in the past.

I’d carefully determined the distances between major cities, approximating how long each leg of the trip would take. On that first day, Thursday, everything was fine. I zipped through Indianapolis and St. Louis, then decided to press on to Kansas City (another 250 miles) before calling it a night. I accomplished that and stopped at the Kansas City EconoLodge at around midnight. Thursday had been a success.

* * *

On Friday, I slept in a bit (I had not fully recovered from the mostly non-restful red-eye flight two nights earlier), then headed west again. I was supposed to meet up with a friend in Ft. Collins, Colo., Friday night. I had 600 miles to cover, but I reasoned that should only take about 8 1/2 hours, factoring in momentary stops for gasoline and food. The weather was clear. Conditions were good. The car was functioning properly.

As I drove across the state of Kansas, one thing I saw in abundance was anti-abortion signs. Not full billboards, but those half-sized or quarter-sized billboards that people put up unofficially on the side of the highway sometimes. I saw no fewer than eight of them on the subject of abortion. They produced these thoughts:

– What, has there been an epidemic of abortions in Kansas lately?! Good grief! I suspect Kansas probably has a rather low abortion rate. So either those signs are unnecessary, or they’re working.

– I assume this is how it’s supposed to work on the average motorist:

MOTORIST: (driving along) La-de-da… Here I am, driving along…. I have no opinion whatsoever regarding abortion…. (sees sign) Hmm. I never thought of that. Now I am opposed to it! (drives steadfastly forward)

Something else crazy about Kansas was that part of the freeway — the only way to traverse the state — is a toll road. A toll road! I guess they figure that if you’re driving across Kansas, you’re probably willing to do whatever it takes to finish the process. Pay a toll? Get out and push? Sever an artery? Yeah, yeah, whatever you want. Just get me out of here.

The maximum toll on this stretch of freeway (though it’s not really a “free” way, is it?) is only $2. When I paid it, I remarked to the woman in the booth that I had never heard of there being tolls on the U.S. interstate highway system before. She said that it was a toll road first, before it became part of the interstate. She seemed a little defensive about it, actually. But I had noticed that the funds were being put to good use: On that stretch of the interstate only, there were three lanes in each direction, the pavement was smooth and well-maintained, and there were barricades on the side of the road to block motorists’ views of any unsightly Kansans who might wander too close to the highway.

I reached the Colorado state line late in the afternoon. You may recall that Colorado was hit with a couple major snowstorms, one right before Christmas and one a couple weeks later. I was there in between them. The skies were clear, but there was evidence all around that Lady Winter had spread her beautiful wrath upon all the land’s inhabitants. Also, it was frakking cold. As the altitude slowly rose, and as it got later in the evening, the temperature steadily dropped.

The roads started getting very slick, too. Slick with ice, that is, which my knowledge of science told me was the byproduct of the sub-freezing temperature. People were driving very, very slowly, myself included, yet even with those precautions, I kept seeing cars that had slid off the road.

So what do you suppose happens to me? A flat tire, obviously.

I was in the middle of nowhere, a couple miles past a rest stop but many miles from any real sign of civilization. No towns nearby, nothing. Luckily, one of the few things I know about cars is how to change a tire. In high school I had a 1978 Ford Granada named Felipe who was the frequent victim of flat tires — not because I drove him over dangerous terrain, particularly, but because each time he did get a flat, we would replace the bad tire with a used one bought for a few dollars at a junkyard. Felipe hadn’t known the touch of brand-new tires since about 1978, I would guess, and you get what you pay for: Each time we put a cheap used tire on him, he’d get a flat a few months later. So I became well-practiced at changing tires.

I had retained this knowledge over the years, and now, though I was loath to leave my warm Prizm, I had no choice but to brave the elements. (I checked later: At this point, 8 p.m., it was close to zero degrees in this part of Colorado.) The Prizm had a temporary “doughnut” spare tire and all the implements necessary to change it. I jacked up the car, took the lug nuts off the faulty tire — and found the tire wouldn’t come off the axle. Wouldn’t budge. The wheel would spin, sure. But actually PULLING the wheel off its mount, no. Not even a fraction of an inch.

I beat on it, kicked it, pried it, swore at it, reasoned with it, read to it from the owner’s manual, cuddled with it, argued with it, insulted it, berated it, apologized to it, bought it flowers, yelled at it, and finally gave up on it. I was Ike, and the tire was Tina. At one point a Good Samaritan stopped to help. (Well, I know he was good; I don’t know that he was from Samaria. Probably not, actually, now that I think about it.) He wasn’t like me. He was a real man, with a pickup truck and a cigarette and everything. He used a 2×4 to whack and pry the tire — real men always have 2x4s handy — but to no avail. He couldn’t make it budge, either, and he was baffled as to the cause. Finally he wished me good luck and departed.

The realization dawned on me that I would have to call a tow truck. I was still hours from Ft. Collins. I was numb with cold. I had enough money for the trip, but I didn’t have enough for unforeseen expenses like tow trucks and hotels and new tires.

Furthermore, and most alarmingly: I had no idea where I was.


Since this entire story will be multi-part anyway, I considered splitting this installment in two. It's long enough, and there's a natural stopping point in the action (arriving at the motel). But I wanted to get to the real "meat" of the story, i.e., when stuff starts going wrong.

The Ohio burg that Auntie Karen calls home is Lithopolis, Ohio, if you must know.

Several helpful readers, after reading last week's column, offered advice for my Ohio-Oregon trip. Evidently I didn't make it clear enough in the column itself that the trip had already taken place. It is over, I'm alive and well, and I appreciate your concern.

I don't think I've mentioned Felipe before, but longtime readers of the column will recall my college-era car, Pedro. Why Mexican names for my cars? No idea.