We spent an idyllic night in my cabin in Starrucca, PA, located in the very northeast tip of the state. Part of the reason for this stop was to pick up a few things from the house we would need for trip, and I thought it would be a good test drive - see how the Hippie Mobile would handle three hours on the highway, including some light mountains. With the exception of a few stretches going no more than 40 miles-per-hour, the trip went smoothly.
The next morning, Lisa and I woke to the sounds of birds singing and chipmunks chasing each other. After a breakfast of green tea and cereal on the porch, Lisa and I jumped in the Hippie Mobile. This would be our home for the next four or five days. It was Saturday, Memorial Day weekend, and the first couple hours of our drive had us navigating back roads, passing dozens of garage sales and flea markets. We wanted to stop at every one, but we needed to make good time, not to mention the fact that our van was filled to the pop-top with boxes, bags of groceries, sleeping bags, musical instruments, and camping gear; there wouldn’t have been room for a single antique frame, earthenware vase, or used LP.
The GPS app on my iPhone wasn’t getting reliable reception, so we used a combination of instinct and luck to eventually find ourselves on I-81 going south. This finally connected to I-80 West, the highway we would be on for the entire trip. Now that we were settled in, Lisa searched the AM radio for something, while I adjusted my behind in the seat. “Well, we’re on our way. Quite an adventure, huh?”
A few minutes later we smelled something burning. I looked in the rear view mirror and could see white/blue smoke coming out of the back, presumably from the engine. “Shit“ I said as I downshifted into third gear. “What the hell is going on?” A sign passed informing us the next exit was two miles away.
I put the emergency flashers on and continued driving. The car slowly lost compression, and we were in 2nd gear by the time the exit had reached us.
“There’s a gas station,” Lisa pointed out. When we got to the end of the ramp, the car stalled. We just looked at each other. I turned off the ignition, then back on again. The car was trying to turn over, coughing like an emphysema patient. It finally caught, and we limped to the Sunoco station and pulled into the last parking spot in front of the convenience store.
We got out of the van. The smell was terrible. I opened up the engine compartment. The once relatively clean motor was now slathered in oil. “Looks like you blew a gasket,” a man at the pump offered as he replaced the nozzle. He was joined by his friend who just came out of the store. “I guess,” I replied. “Not sure- it just started smoking a couple miles back on the highway.” “We can look at it for you - we’re actually both mechanics.”
With the two of them bent over, looking into the engine, I started the car. They didn’t need me to keep it running for long. “The case is cracked. Right there, see that area? That’s where the oil is coming out. Bad news my friend. Looks like this is going to need a new engine. Wish we could help. Good luck.” And they pulled off, shaking their heads.
My call to AAA was no more helpful. They can tow the car up to three miles free, after that it is $4 per mile. The two garages in the area were closed for the long weekend.
I noticed a Hampton Inn across the street. “At least we have a place to stay if we need,” I said consolingly to Lisa. When I called, however, they were completely booked up. We decided to grab a few things from the car and head over to the hotel anyway. They would at least have an air conditioned lobby to sit in, and maybe we could get an internet connection and start researching what we were going to do with the rest of our lives.
The woman at the hotel reception desk, Liz, was more than helpful. She gave us a code to the internet, and began calling other hotels in the area to see if there was anything available for the night. I opened up my laptop and began by researching just how far from NYC we actually were. Turns out that we were less than three hours from the city. Lisa suggested looking for trains or busses that could get us back. I did this this while she looked for rental cars on her iPhone. Neither of us had any luck. The only thing I could find was a Susquehanna Trailways bus whose next departure was 7:40 the next morning.
Liz had some news: “Looks like the Comfort Inn in Mifflinville has a few rooms. I told them about your situation and they are willing to give you the room for $89; they are normally $139. What should I tell them? It’s just down the road a bit.”
I told her we may just take them up on their offer, but need to look into a few more options before making a decision. We still didn’t know what to do with the Hippie Mobile. She offered me the business card of a guy named Frank who provides local transportation for one dollar per mile.
Lisa and I munched on veggie chips we brought from the van, while I looked for a tow truck. “Here’s one called Route 80 and 81 towing. Clever name.” I called and talked to Larry, the owner. I described our predicament, and he told me about a shop in the area that does nothing but VWs. I told him I would give them a call and get back to him.
Memorial Day weekend. Late in the day on Saturday. What a time to break down. “I am so sorry, Dad,” Lisa consoled. “This really sucks.”
I have to say Lisa was being so good about all this. She wasn’t freaking out, or complaining. Just being helpful and supportive. I know she must have been wondering how the hell she was going to get to CA.
“You know, Lisa, if we stay the night, that will be at least $100 with tax and everything, and the bus fares are $48 each - that’s well over $200. Maybe this guy Frank could drive us to New York.” Lisa agreed it was probably the best idea.
I called Larry back and said we will probably need a tow, and hopefully to the VW place, but if not, than maybe he could hold on to it until we figure out where to bring it. He said he would charge $125 for the first tow, $10 for storage, and another $35 for a re-hook to get it to the shop. I told him we’d get back to him. Not like we had many options at this point.
I pulled out the business card Liz had given me and called Frank, the transportation guy. I explained the situation and asked if he would be willing to drive us to New York. He said he would come over and talk to us.
Still no word from the VW place. They’re probably at a BBQ somewhere, or a little league game. Or just not returning calls for the next three days. Lisa and I sipped from our water bottles, ate a few more chips, and carried on some small talk with Liz.
Fifteen minutes passed when a mini van pulled up in front of the hotel. A man in his sixties, with a beer-belly, T-shirt and baseball cap got slowly out of the car. “Is that Frank,” I asked Liz. “That’s him” she confirmed as the lobby door electronically slid open and let him in.
I explained the situation to Frank, as he listened without one change of expression. When I finished, asking how much it would cost to get Lisa and I and our stuff to New York, he asked how far it was. “Well, according to Google Maps it’s 153 miles from here to the GW Bridge; we’re right over the bridge.” “Let me go to my calculator in the car. I’ll be back.”
The electronic door slid open and closed again as he went out and got in his van.
“Well, it looks we may have one option, anyway.” Lisa nodded her head. “Hey Liz, can you tell the guy at the Comfort Inn we won’t need the room, and thank him very much for the offer? And thank you so much for doing that!”
Frank was back in the lobby. “Three hundred and eleven dollars. I usually charge fifty cents a mile for the return on longer trips, but I won’t charge you that.” “Oh, okay thanks, but if you normally charge one dollar per mile, and it’s 153 miles, why is it it $311?” “Each,” Frank answered. Quite a talker. “Oh, I see - a dollar per mile for each passenger.” I still wasn’t sure how he got $311 from two times 153, nor why he needed a calculator to arrive at that figure, but either way, I didn’t think we had a choice.
“You gotta deal, Frank. I have to call the towing guy. I’m thinking a little after 6:00. Cool?”
“Okay. Gotta go home and eat my supper, anyway.”
“Great. Thanks. I’ll call you when we’re ready.” The lobby door slid open and closed and Frank pulled away.
We thanked Liz, called Larry the towing guy, gathered our things and headed back across the street to the Hippie Mobile. A middle-aged man was admiring the beloved camper when we got there. Take it, it’s yours, I was thinking. We unloaded everything we needed to take back to NY. I stashed some non-perishables in the icebox, and left all the camping stuff in the back. Just as we got the final box out, Larry pulled up with his flatbed. Glancing at our mountain of stuff on the sidewalk in front of the Sunoco convenience store he warned that he had just passed through a heavy storm. “Three inches of rain in ten minutes!. Headin’ this way. Ya might wanna get your things inside. And soon.” I Iooked up at the dark clouds.
Just as I paid Larry the $160 and he pulled off, Frank’s mini van slipped into the space in front of our belongings.
Lisa and I looked at the mini-van. I hadn’t noticed the missing window with the dark green Hefty bag taped over it. Lisa and I shrugged and approached the car. In addition to Frank there was a woman in the front seat and one in the middle seat. I assumed he was just finishing up one of his local jobs. “Dropping some people off here, huh, Frank?” “No, I need another driver in case I get tired,” he said indicating the woman in the back. “Hmm, but I see three people,” I pointed out. “Oh, that’s my wife; need her for company.” I looked into the van, which wasn’t big to begin with, trying to figure out just how we were going to fit all this stuff, and us, into it. “Oh, it’ll fit. Don’t worry,” Frank insisted, reading the expression on my face.
Lisa and I loaded up the car, starting with the back. When that got full we started piling stuff on the back seat, leaving just enough room for Lisa to slide in among the boxes, pillows and wicker baskets. I said a quick hello to the woman in the middle row as I moved her ashtray over so I could fit my backpack in the floor in-between the two seats. She was actually very helpful, making sure everything got wedged in somewhere.
I slipped into the only remaining space where there wasn’t anything, and Frank backed out of the parking space. The bag over the back window was flopping lightly. I asked Lisa if she was okay back there. She nodded.
“So how do I get to New York?” Frank asked. “Haven’t you ever been to New York?” I asked, surprised. “Nope.” “Wow, really? Well, okay - it’s Route 80 East all the way. Can’t miss it.” Frank got on the highway. I looked around at our passengers. Both woman were obese and wearing shorts. Never could figure that out. The woman in the front, Helen, had enormous flaps of skin hanging from her arms. Looked more like wings. Maybe we could fly to New York.
All right, I gotta stop judging, and just accept the situation. We’re getting home, and that’s all that’s important at the moment. This is a drag, sure, but we have at least two and a half hours with these people. Might as well try to get to know them. Who knows, they may end up being our new best friends.
We had gone about a mile, when Frank got off the highway at a rest stop. I guess he needs to go. I didn’t say anything. I looked back at Lisa, who just shrugged. Near the public toilets were a few tables set up by the Cub Scouts raising money, or something. Frank pulled up and got out, leaving the door wide open. He didn’t say anything, just went over to the tables for a couple minutes. When he came back he had two cups of coffee, handed one to his wife, and asked the woman next to me if she wanted one. “Nope, I got my diet soda here.” He disappeared again to the tables. This time he came back with two hot dogs, handing one to his wife and keeping one in his lap.
We got back on the highway. No thanks, I don’t want a hot dog, but thanks for asking, I thought to myself. I started a conversation with the woman next to me. Her name was Maria, and within about 15 minutes I learned she has type 2 diabetes, emphysema, recently had back surgery, was a recovered drug addict (2 years clean), was on welfare, has a son in Tennessee, lived in a trailer park (not far, in fact, from Frank and Helen), and smoked. This last fact I learned because she lit up several times during our trip.
We crossed into New Jersey, and without notice or discussion, Frank pulled off the highway again, this time to get gas. As soon as we stopped I got out of the car. I needed to pee. And get a minute of space (I have a slight case of claustrophobia). Lisa stayed in the car and said later that Frank told his wife he had forgotten his credit card and didn’t have any cash. Maybe he had wanted me to jump in and offer to pay, but since I was already inside the building there would be no jumping or offering. Apparently Helen found enough cash.
Once back in the car, it was back to the highway. This turned out to be a challenge because everywhere there was an option of where to turn Frank started to choose the wrong one. “No, Frank, left here. Follow the sign to 80 East. That’s it. No, don’t turn just stay straight here. That’s it, Frank, you got it now!” I tried to keep things light and upbeat.
For the entire ride Frank drove as if there were no lines in the road. Every curve had us drifting into the next lane. Frank rarely seemed to notice. He was too busy yelling “Huh?” at his wife. Selective hearing, I think it’s called. Occasionally he would catch himself and swerve back into our lane. It would be a miracle if Lisa and I made back to New York alive.
The signs for New York City became more often. Big clear signs saying 80 East, G Washington Bridge. “You want to keep following in this lane, Frank.” “Huh?” “He said stay in this lane, Frank,” his wife would yell. Then Frank would promptly get in the wrong lane. “No, no Frank, left two lanes. You need to get over one.” “Huh?”
“Just keep following these big signs to the bridge.”
The closer we got to NYC, the slower Frank would drive. Where he was once speeding and out of control, he was now practically crawling, cars whizzing by us on both sides. “You got plenty of time Frank. Few minutes more on this.” Didn’t help. 45 miles an hour and still 15 minutes from the GW.
By the time we got to the bridge, we were doing about thirty-five. “There’s the city, the Empire State building. Looks beautiful doesn’t it?” “Huh?”
Frank couldn’t figure out which lane to be in as we approached the toll. “Any of the ones that say cash, Frank. No, not this one. Cash, See that one - cash. Yeah, get in this one. That’s good. We’re good now, just stay in this lane.” “Stay in this lane,” his wife added.
“I can’t believe you have never been to New York. Hey Frank, while you’re here why don’t you take Helen and Maria to a show, or something,” I teased. “That’s not going to happen,” Maria replied, complacently.
I handed Frank $12 for the toll. He gave it to the collector, and said hi. The collector took it. “Can I go now?” He slowly pulled out of the booth. I’m pretty sure he had never been on a bridge before. He was driving like he thought it might collapse at any moment. He was now driving about 20 miles an hour. Cars were changing lanes angrily to get around us. “You just keep going all the way to the end, Frank. I’ll show you what to do.”
I helped navigate us to the 178th street exit. This was a tough one. “Not in there. Yes, up there. Stay in this lane. Ok, you're doing great. Make a left at the light. No, at the light. Up there where the green, well, now red light is. Yeah, you should stop. Ok, you can go now. Yep, left right here. Un-huh, here. Doing great, Frank.”
Frank was driving about ten miles an hour up Ft. Washington. I assured him we had a few blocks to go. I think old Frank was absolutely petrified to be driving in the city. Probably had heard all sorts of stories.
Finally, we pulled up in front of my building, and all three of them got out of the car and helped unload our things into the lobby. Once everything was out of the car, there was the moment when they all looked at us wondering if we were going to try to pull a fast one. “Here ya go, Frank. $320. I added a little extra to help with that toll you’ll have when you get to that bridge at The Water Gap.
I gave Frank some directions on how to get back on the GW, and said goodbye. The van pulled off.
Lisa and I didn’t say much as we transported everything from the lobby up into my apartment. At least we were home. Safe. I still had to figure out what to do about the Hippie Mobile. But it was time to get something to eat.