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Home » Stories, True and Otherwise

Big Country Little Car Tour II, Day 2: Akron OH to Milwaukee WI (sort of)

Submitted by on July 27, 2011 – 10:46 AM39 Comments

In retrospect, I can say with confidence that most of this is my fault — starting with yesterday's playlist tweet, sent just after I'd listened to Junior Brown's "Broke Down South of Dallas." That was the first jinx.

The second jinx: Campbell's odometer flipped to 22,000 miles between Chicago and Milwaukee. "Good job, Cam!" I said out loud. "Lucky!" That was also out loud. I had observed not long before that — out loud, using words, making sounds — that we'd made decent time on the day, and I'd probably have time to do a little work and grab a snack before heading to the Brewers game and meeting up with Reader Gretchen. And we had; things slowed down a bit on the Ryan Expressway, but I got to take in the skyline, and the sign that said "Welcome To Chicago Rahm Emanuel Mayor."

Then one of the seagull-sized bugs that had been splartching onto the windshield all day splatted onto the passenger side in the shape of a pear, but I just ignored that and went to the hotel in Brown Deer, and that's where it all started to go wrong.

See, that hotel didn't have a room for me, because of a flood the previous night; the clerk gave me a bunch of points for my trouble and sent me down the road to the Radisson. Having just camped out in a meh Radisson the night before, I didn't like the sound of that, and I stomped out to the car and flung my shit back in and flopped into the driver's seat, well I never this, what kind of amateur outfit that, watermelon rhubarb dudgeon, I'M JUST GOING TO SIGNAL LEFT OUT OF THIS PARKING LOT LIKE I'M ALVIN AILEY.


"What was — you all right there, Cam?"

"[all warning lights on dash]"

"Whoa whoa whoa, Cam. Cam?" I eased into the parking lot across the street and peered at the dash. Campbell's dashboard thermometer, which moments ago had read a more-or-less correct 77, now spiked up to 110. So, like any reasonable person, I grabbed my phone and wallet, turned the car off, and ran away from it.

A minute later, when she hadn't exploded: "Okay, Cam. Let's just turn you back on and caaaaaalm it down."

"[all warning lights still on, temp still crazy high, now won't shift out of park]"

I checked the manual. This is what this light means, this is what that sound means…nothing under "fugue state" or "WTF." I checked the steering-wheel housing; the bottom panel looked like I'd knocked it loose during my huffy left-turn signal. I wedged it on tighter and tried again. All lights, no shift.

I knew even then that this boded ill, because Smarts sometimes get a wild hair about a minor computer-sensor thing, and then will just lock the shit down Crystal-Palace-in-WarGames-style for your safety, which is nice…except only a certified Smart technician with proprietary tools can reset it, which is fucking annoying. A gas jockey out in Jersey didn't tighten her gas cap enough one time; fast forward to me riding in a tow truck. So I had a feeling Campbell had sensed a breach in the something or other and then shut down the dickalator until the frambus whatever, but maybe, maybe I could get a guy at a local dealership on the phone to help me fix it remotely.

After an eternity with the Smart roadside-assistance phone menu, I reached a real person, who gave me the number of an authorized technician in Milwaukee…except when I phoned the guy, he said that thanks to the change in corporate ownership, Mercedes took all the tech in-house and decertified his station, and he couldn't fix it because they have proprietary diagnostics and tools, and Mercedes took his back. Still, he spent a good 15 minutes looking up phone numbers and commiserating with me, so if you ever break down in Milwaukee, find my man Eric at Penske (?). He's good people.

Then I called Madison Mercedes and got Dain on the phone. Dain agreed that it sounded like a computer-cluster problem — probably caused by the cruise-control installation last week, which, argh, but I will say that the cruise control has been killing it all the way from Brooklyn with no problems — and I should probably bring her in. To Madison. 90 miles away, a factoid I didn't apprehend until it was too late. Oh, and he doesn't have any actual Smart tech appointments available until August 8, so…there's that. But he'll try to fit me in, and here's the number of a Sheraton.

Sheraton: no rooms, call the Hilton. Hilton: no rooms, call Clarion Suites. Called Smart RA back, sat through the menu and the "William Tell Overture" hold music (…right?) again, ordered a tow. Hey, guess who only got a two-year roadside warranty? This brother. So it's $239, we'll text you the ETA when we have it. This was at 5:02 local time.

First text: Kool Breeze Towing (awesome) due to your location at 5:30. Great. Quickly called Clarion and snagged a room.

Second text: Always Towing (for…that time of the month?) due to your location at 7:01.

I ran into a restaurant nearby and said, hi, I broke down, could I please use your ladies'? The maitre d', dry as a bone: "Lupe, get her a plastic bag. …Just kidding, go ahead."

That only killed about 10 minutes; I spent the rest of the time texting, getting mad at missing the Brewers game, and chilling on Campbell's back gate, reading a book. It got chilly, so I dug out a sweatshirt. I drank water. I made a to-do list.

7:15, no Always. 7:30, no Always. I called Smart RA back, seething, and when a luckless lad named Brian finally came live on the line, I all-capsed at him about how it's getting dark and would someone MIND?! Moments later, enter Always, and the driver, whose name I never got but who looked like Bunk Moreland, so I'll call him Bunk. I confirmed with Bunk that he knew he had to drag me and the busted Skittle to Madison; I apologized for this. As it turns out, Bunk has five kids under the age of six, including two-year-old twins, so if it's possible to faze him, it will take more than a Smart and a sunset drive.

We talked a little about the crazy shit he sees working a tow truck at night, and then it got loud in the cab on the freeway, so we sat and waited the miles out. Wisconsin is a beautiful spot at twilight, big fat hills, constellations of lightning bugs twinkling on the shoulder. I got to look and think things instead of focusing on the road; one of the things I thought about is that the PDQ market or bakery or whatever it is needs to articulate the letters better in its signage, because I kept thinking the signs said "POO." Another thing I thought is how well this went for a breakdown. It happened in a parking lot. My phone had a charge. It wasn't pouring rain or blistering hot. I'd thought to pack a granola bar, and I have an "extra water" rule for the car for just this circumstance. Bunk suggested stopping for refreshments just when I was feeling thirsty. As car trouble goes, I thought, this wasn't that much trouble at all.

That was probably the third jinx.

Arriving at the dealership after closing, Bunk wedged Campbell in between two Audis while I located the drop box. I wrote Dain a note and tied it cleverly to the keychain, and then, exhausted, excited to go lie down, I dropped the key through the slot. Did I have anything but my messenger bag out of the car? No, I did not. Had I left it unlocked? No, I had not. Could I Rube Goldberg a plastic bag and a Sharpie cap into a device by which to hook the key back out of the slot and get my shit? No, I could not. Can Smart RA unlock the car remotely? No. No, they sure cannot.

I had my wallet, some water, and could see my hotel from the car lot. I told myself that some people have genuine problems, abandoned the break-in plan, and started walking to the Clarion Suites, which I do not recommend doing unless you really like Frogger, and when I arrived, I turned off the phone (charger: in the car), changed into a towel (pajamas ditto), chewed some gum (toothbrush ditto), and ordered a 6:30 wake-up call so I could hike back to the dealership and ransom my stuff.

That wake-up call did not come thanks to a power outage in the middle of the night, so at 7:10 I was charging through the lobby, sunburned left arm, bedhead, smelling of sweat and Combo crumbs. You know those women on Intervention who, you find out they're hooking and you're like, "…Her? But…that is egg on her sweatshirt, no?" This is what I looked like. Down front, a cab was waiting on a guy named Ned. I showed the guy forty bucks and told him I needed him to drive me to the dealership, wait for me to load in, and drive me back here, at which time I would make it right with this Ned person if need be.

Dain was all, "Hey, crazy, forget something?", and then reminded me not to take the key with me when I left, which: heh, and: seriously. Hucked everything into the cab, back out again 90 seconds later, upstairs and into the room, ran back downstairs for the first real meal I'd had in 36 hours, and here you see me, full of buffet grits, looking out on the kind of convention space Tyra Banks would commandeer for a grand entrance on ANTM. "Comrade Brezhnev urges you to park."

It's kind of rainy out and I have some work to catch up on, but mostly I need to stay close in case Dain has some (good) news for me. Thanks so much to everyone who checked in; stay tuned.

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  • Trasherati says:

    Sweet jesus on a cracker.
    Man, you have fantastic perspective and adaptability.

  • Stephanie says:

    Wow. What I'm taken with mostly is that in the fit of all of this car hoo-ha, you stumble upon Good People. That little ray of sunshine in an otherwise craptastic day is kind of nice to have.

  • Kizz says:

    Your day? Like a scene out of The Sure Thing. Glad you're back on track.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    I was just saying to the Couch Baron that, compared to having my bag stolen in San Francisco, which is much further from home and much harder a spot to punt from since my wallet and phone and everything else was gone, this is not that bad. If you have ID and a credit card, most problems can be solved, or at least ameliorated.

    I mean, I wouldn't say I'm all "this is great!" about it, but: what can I do. The car ain't having it. I'll just catch up on A&E shows and relax.

  • Erin says:

    All of this is frustrating and tragic and all of that, but all I can think of is, "OMG. You're in MADISON and you can't leave the CLARION?!" We lived in Madison for 6 years, and absolutely LOVED it–it's such a fantastic city. I wish you were able to see some of it! If you DO get a chance, here are some food recs:

    *Dinner: The Old Fashioned (awesome Wisconsin-sourced food in Wisconsin style–beer, cheese & sausage feature prominently in a classic-yet-modern way), Cooper's Tavern (awesome beer list, great food–I recommend the pretzels and/or frites), Sardine (fine dining by Lake Monona). All of these are downtown on or near the capitol square.

    *Breakfast (the best meal to get in Madison, IMHO): Plaka (awesome Greek diner/taverna), Lazy Jane's (crunchy hipstery awesome), Batch Bakery (very BEST bakery in town, highly recommend the vanilla swirl–a cinnamon-roll-like concoction made with croissant dough and vanilla), Greenbush Bakery (awesome donuts, if you're craving).

    Have fun! Fingers crossed you get a chance to get out and see some of that wonderful city.

  • Laura in PA says:

    Oh, my. Hope you've used up all your unfortunate luck for the trip all at once, here.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Steph: A whole string of them!

    @Erin: Right? I'm hoping I get good (quick, cheap) news today and then I can noodle around a bit tomorrow…but I was supposed to be at the Field of Dreams field today.

  • Chris says:

    Ditto Trasherati – your perspective is fantastic. Glad you're safe. Good luck on quick repairs.

  • cayenne says:

    Wowza. I hope this isn't like that point in Apollo 13 during the launch when one of the engines cuts out & Hanks says "looks like we just had our glitch for this mission", and everyone watching gives a hollow laugh & thinks "boy, you just jinxed yourself".

    Safe drive!

  • Miss Lucy says:

    Dude! Sorry for the aggro. Let me know if I can help at all. St. Paul is not that far away (at least in Midwestern terms) — have car, will rescue.

  • Julia says:

    Welcome to Madison! I second Erin's comment. Hanging out at the Clarion is such a bummer when there's good stuff going on around town. Summer in Madison is the best thing ever. If your still around tonight, and it isn't raining, there's a Concert on the Square which I would highly recommend. Lots of good food to eat and plenty of people watching opportunities.

  • Dawn says:

    Of course you ran into Good People – it IS Wisconsin after all. Despite the Imperial Walker silliness of late, I love my home state! Hopefully all gets back on track today, Sars.

  • Christina in Madison says:

    Hi, long-time reader in Madison. Can help with local transportation and such if you need it.

  • Amanda says:

    Sars, I got passed by a Smart on the highway on my way home from work today and thought of you. (I might have been offended but for the fact that I drive a 17-year-old hatchback. Vespas made in the last five years accelerate better.) Alas, the Smart in question was mobile. And fluorescent yellow.

    I'm glad to hear you and Campbell are in good hands. Sucks to have your schedule screwed up, but hey: you're safe and things are getting done. Hope you're back on the road soon, though. Big Country Little Paperweight Tour this ain't.

  • Ingrid says:

    Longtime reader and infrequent commenter here who works in Madison and would be happy to help out if I can! I second Erin's restaurant recommendations and Julia's tip about the Concert on the Square. Also, State Street is a great place to wander around and kill time – lots of interesting shops, between the Capitol and the UW campus.

  • JessicaHK says:

    Sarah, email me if you need anything while in town. (You have access to the email I'm entering above, right?) I'm on the north side, but possibly available for whatever you might need — information, advice, a ride, etc.

  • Christina in Madison says:

    The Mallards are in town tonight, too.

  • mspaul says:

    Seriously – if you're going to be stuck there another day, give a holler and I'll be in Madison to cart you around wherever you want to go. Or take the bus down to Chicago for the day. It's no Field of Dreams, but we've got a lot of cool stuff to see here.

  • h-bot says:

    Glad you're OK; still marveling at your awesome perspective on life. Hope you get the chance to do some fun stuff in Mad City!

  • Christina in Madison says:

    And a unicyclist convention.

  • darkBlue says:

    Am I the only one wondering what happened to poor Ned?

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    I believe Ned was already late and couldn't be immediately located. Beyond that, I have no information. He wasn't throwing a fit when I got back to the property or anything.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Totally saw a kid on a unicycle at the hotel earlier.

    Squaring away a rental now.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Man, your levelheadedness was awesome to behold. I would still be kicking the bumper, crying, face red and swollen, hair frizzled out every whichaway…glad so many Good People were in your personal rotation today.

    Rental meaning Cam is demanding a lengthy recuperation? Poor widdle smartcar, get well soon!

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Me, just now, at the Enterprise desk: "But that has FOUR DOORS, dude!"
    Abby Of Enterprise: "…Really, dude?"

    So, yeah. I'm Chevy Aveo'd and ready to rock this bitch. Anyone want to meet up at Plaka for dinner? 7 PM? This day calls for falafel.

  • Leigh in CO says:

    For you to have this kind of day, and still have such an awesome way with the storytelling…your readers are very lucky, is all I'm sayin'.

    Tip for future reference: I learned recently that when you are mired in a phone-menu labyrinth, if you yell something into the phone (I used, "BUT I DON'T HAVE A CUSTOMER NUMBER ARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGHHHH," but I hear "FUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCK" is also quite effective), you are likely to be connected to a live person extremely quickly.

    I hope you get back on the road soon, and wish you safe travels ahead.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Leigh: Oh, did I leave out the part where, during one menu rondelet, I short-cutted to a live person by growling Are you fucking kidding me right now? in response to "Are you with the disabled vehicle?"? Enter Brian, to his detriment. Heh.

    (PS Email me. Boulder leg is now semi-FUBAR, but still happening.)

  • Juju says:

    "watermelon rhubarb dudgeon" is made of awesome.

    Thanks for the chuckle @ PDQ's expense; it's been some years since I've laughed at that.

    Hope the extreme heat stays away for your visit.

  • Tarn says:

    Thanks for sharing the hassles of travel, Sars. I, like many of my fellow posters would be wandering down some Wisconsin highway somewhere, lost and crying and distraught. You and the Good People you met are an inspiration!

    Hope you enjoy the Chevy Aveo! I've had one for about a year now and I love it. Fun little get-up-and-go-and-is-too-simple-to-have-much-go-wrong-with-it car.

  • Sandman says:

    The Sure Thing? I was thinking more along the lines of 2011: A Smart Odyssey, starring S. D. Bunting as Sarah, and Tilda Swinton as the voice of Campbell 9000.

    "Dammit, Campbell, unlock the steering column."
    "I'm afraid I can't let you do that, Sarah."

    Also starring James Van Der Beek as Dain. Special guest appearance by Keir Dullea as Eric.

    You have vastly more patience and presence of mind than I would have, is what I'm saying. Hope the various meet-ups go smoothly.

  • KKB says:

    Damn, you need some happy after all of that. A trip to Fromagination (on the square) before you blow town, maybe? Cheese heaven, and they have Gail Ambrosius chocolates at the counter.

    Also good for a pick-me-up, will your route take you past any of these? No Midwest roadtrip is complete without a trunkful of souvenir coffee cups & lighters from your friendly neighborhood Splash & Dash.

  • MaryS says:

    I'm sorry about all the annoyingness, but have to echo the comments about great perspective, great writing, great storytelling. The tags alone are keeping me in giggles. :)

  • Robin says:

    Trouble is always lurking in the vast wilderness just west of the Hudson. Glad you're handling it so well, and that you are safe.

  • Kat from Jersey says:

    Sars, I love how you always make friends with the "help desk" folks on the other end of the line. Also, I'd normally chime in here with a plug for AAA, but after a disastrous six-hour wait for their tow-truck in May, they're forever dead to me.

  • attica says:

    I will testify to this as a professional in the field: All phone-answer-robot programs are coded to recognize profanity and to reroute callers using it to a human. You don't even have to shout, although shouting is another thing that triggers the transfer-to-human toggle. Save yourself some aggro: start off with a clear "Fuck" and skip the rondelet.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    That's the best thing I've learned today, and it's only 9:30 AM!

  • FloridaErin says:

    Further proof of the level of Awesome your readers have, Sars. Look at how many people were willing to jump in to your rescue!

    The husband and I broke down in his Neon in Jacksonville at dusk in a terrible neighborhood, once, and I clearly remember waiting for the tow, in the dark, hoping we wouldn't be killed. Turns out the bill for the tow home (well over 90 miles away) was the truly scary bit.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    OMG, Jacksonville. I got lost there back in '98 on my U.S. 1 trip, and when an eight-months-pregnant woman pedaled past me on a dirt bike, I was like, I am going to die here and nobody will even know how to find my body for weeks. All due respect to the nice parts of J'ville that I totally didn't get to see, but that was some apocalyptic shit.

  • FloridaErin says:

    My husband just reminded me that he deliberately parked in a church parking lot on this occasion, assuming that would protect us. However, we were within sight of an overpass with people living under it, soooo . . . yeah. Terrifying.

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