Car trouble

the end of the road

A few weeks ago, I started driving west along the I-40 for my fourth cross-country trip this year, back to California. It was mid-April, and the mountains were blooming sage and purple. I was driving away from an emotionally intense month and looking forward to a few meditative days on the road. 

Somewhere in Tennessee, after I’d pulled off the interstate for gas, my car began making a light rattling sound. It was mildly concerning, but I figured I could keep driving and check it out once I stopped for the night. I planned to stay in a small town in the Ozarks, so I could take a walk in the woods the following morning. 

An hour outside of Little Rock, I pulled over so I could close out a story I’d been working on for a few months (which you can read on the New Yorker’s website here!). The rattling, I noticed, had gotten louder. Then, the sky darkened and the radio warned of flash flooding. I decided I’d stop in a Little Rock suburb instead of the Ozarks so I could bring my car to a mechanic in the morning — just in case. 

The Google search “rattling sound car” elicited a variety of results, ranging from a dislodged air compressor clutch (very fixable) to impending engine failure (very much not fixable — or, at least, not worth the cost of replacement). This was all overwhelming. As a new car owner, I’ve encountered dozens of strange words this year — brake pads, filters, rotations, rims — and, during my Internet search that evening, I encountered even more. Pistons, cylinders, rods, timing chains. All of those pieces had existed under the hood of my car for the 21,000 miles I’d driven with it, but, until I had problems with them, I’d never known they existed.

(side note: photos are from recent travels)

Though I talk about my car all the time, I am not a car person, per se. When possible, I prefer walking, or taking the train. I got my driver’s license when I was seventeen, just after graduating high school. My parents were commuters and didn’t have an extra vehicle, so I didn’t see much reason to learn to drive earlier. My grandma drove me to school, my mom brought me to soccer practice, and my only two friends who did have their licenses picked me up to work on projects. Like most suburban teenagers I knew, I was vaguely dissatisfied with life in my hometown, where our most interesting locales were the movie theater and the community pool. But for me, college was the path toward a freer, richer life. Not a car. 

Up until last year, I’d managed life just fine without one. During college, I lived in the Northeast, the only region in this country where several major cities are connected to one another by convenient public transit. After graduating, I found in Europe a public transportation dream. In Spain, I could catch a bus in a village of 2,000 people and get almost anywhere in the country. Spain’s high speed trains could bring me from Barcelona to Madrid, a drive that would normally take six hours, in just two. And in the rare case that neither the train nor the bus was an option, I could arrange for a rideshare called Blablacar, a French carpooling service that matched drivers with passengers and took me to many villages in rural Spain. 

After I returned to California mid-pandemic, buying a car seemed necessary if I wanted to retain the ease of movement I’d enjoyed in Europe. I didn’t know where I was going to live or what I was going to do with this new life, but the car would at least be able to bring me closer to figuring it out. 

So that’s why I bought a car. And now, in central Arkansas, that car was giving me trouble. The morning after I arrived in North Little Rock, a suburb outside the capital, I went to Pep Boys — the only appointment I could find — to get my car checked out. I figured I’d spend a couple hundred dollars reattaching a loose part and be back on the road by the late afternoon. I was eager to get started again, to move, to think. 

“I’ve got good news and bad news,” the Pep Boys clerk told me after I’d waited in their parking lot for two hours. “Which do you want first?” I wanted the bad news. “The bad news is you need a new car,” he told me. Apparently, there was some existential problem with the engine — the beginnings of rod knock, or some piece fallen into the motor. He brought me over to the mechanic. Both were speaking quickly and using words I could hardly understand. Maybe I’d fallen behind on my oil changes (I had not); maybe the car had overheated (to my knowledge, it had not). Ultimately, something had caused too much stress on the motor, leading to its gradual demise at only 81,000 miles. 

(What on earth was good news?? The clerk told me: “We found the problem.”) 

He and the mechanic advised me to stop driving immediately. After they left, I sat in the driver’s seat with the window open. I’d last gotten my car checked in Massachusetts, and, after replacing my brake pads, the mechanic there had told me it was fit for another cross country drive. And yet here I was, 1,600 miles from home, in a city where I knew no one, carrying all of my belongings in the back seat. That car had taken me to friends in Minneapolis, Chicago, Ann Arbor, Princeton, New Paltz, and Houston. It had taken me to small town Maine and across Manhattan. It had taken me to my grandfather’s nursing home two days before he died, and back home when I brought his ashes to my family. I’d slept in my car during bad weather, and to social distance when visiting friends. In this terrible year of movement and uncertainty, that 2014 Nissan Versa was my most treasured possession. It was reliable. It could take me anywhere. It was home. 

Forgive my veering toward cliche. I feel like I’ve been traveling nonstop for nearly four years, never really settling anywhere, always moving. And yet, this was the most complex and emotional logistical problem I had ever encountered. At the same time I was feeling grief for an inanimate object, I was also trying to figure out how to get myself from Arkansas to California with all of my belongings, and how to dispose of my vehicle before then. I drove around the block to the nearest hotel, horrified that the car would give out in the middle of the street, and started making a plan. 

After talking with friends and family, I decided I should get a second opinion on the car’s fate. Mechanics weren’t open until Monday, so I had at least two more days in North Little Rock. If, indeed, the car was doomed, it would make most sense to ditch the majority of my belongings and fly home. In my hotel room, I sorted through all of my stuff: what would stay with me and what would go. I walked three miles on busy (read: not pedestrian friendly) roads to a Goodwill, where I bought two suitcases, and walked back with them rolling in tow, attracting stares from motorists. 

Crockpot, propane stove, electric kettle, camp chairs, sleeping bag, tent — these would all go. Books and journals, I would ship. Clothes, I’d pack. While I walked back and forth across the hotel lobby, dragging my stuff to the elevator and avoiding the anti-masker guests, I made friends with one of the front desk clerks. She had lost her job as a hotel manager during the pandemic, and, after months searching, had finally landed this one — a demotion and a major salary cut, but a job nonetheless. Her daughter, who went to college in Oregon, had gotten sick with Covid last fall, and her roommates tried to force her out of their flat. As we spoke, I overheard an unmasked guest complaining about Democrats’ spending and how the pandemic was over. Another large group of unmasked guests had a pizza party in the lobby that evening. In my room, with a view of a Walmart parking lot, I made myself guacamole and tried to sleep. 

Early on Monday, I drove to a Nissan dealership. After a few hours of waiting, the bad news was confirmed: imminent motor failure. But, the mechanic said, I might be able to make it to California. A Nissan saleswoman told me I should do it. “How will I know if the motor is about to fail?” I asked. “Oh, you’ll know,” she said. “Just pull over to the shoulder when it does happen.” I thanked her, and she advised me to buy a Honda next time (lol). “Us girls have to stick together,” she said. I cringed. 

A kind dealership shuttle driver brought me back to the hotel and helped me bring all of my stuff back to my car. The mechanic said that driving for longer stretches and on flat ground would probably help me get farther, since I wouldn’t be turning on and off the engine as frequently, or making it exert extra effort to climb a mountain. I decided I’d keep driving the 40 West. And so, after a three day hiatus, the drive continued. 

That day, I drove eight hours to Amarillo, anxiously monitoring the dash for the engine’s RPM — or the frequency with which the car’s engine crankshaft makes a rotation per minute. I didn’t want the number to get too high, lest I strain the engine. The next day, I left before sunrise and planned to drive more than a thousand miles, or sixteen hours straight, so I could make it to Southern California in the evening. 

“You know, there’s a job where people get paid to drive this much,” a friend told me last summer during one of my cross-country drives. “It’s called trucking.” My sixteen hour drive was about as close as I got to understanding that work. I stopped only to refill my gas tank. I tried to drink as little water as possible so I wouldn’t need to pee. To stay awake, I ate chocolate bars, listened to Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Klara and the Sun,” and blared top 40 songs on the radio. My back and shoulders cramped up, and, at times, my vision blurred. But I had to keep going. The rattling sound was very loud by the time I got to Flagstaff. I could tell the car was faltering. I knew I could break down at any moment. The vast and unpopulated California desert was ahead of me. If I broke down there, hundreds of miles from home and very literally in the middle of nowhere, what would I do? 

I tried not to think about this. I made it through the desert, in the dark, and over the Cajon Pass, which was foggy and rainy, making it hard to see. By 10 p.m., as I drove down the I-15, thirty minutes from home, I was feeling hopeful. 

Then, suddenly, the RPM gauge shot up to the highest level. The car screeched. I stepped on the gas, and it happened again. I pulled over to the shoulder and tapped the gas, but this time, the car moved backward. When I tried again, it didn’t move at all. 

Of all the places to break down, 30 minutes from home was not so bad. Even better — my grandmother had a house ten miles away, so my parents picked me up and we got the car towed there. Then, yesterday, after two weeks agonizing about what to do, I sold my car to an amateur mechanic for a very paltry sum, signing away the vehicle that had shaped my life for ten months. 

It was upsetting that a man like him could purchase my car for so little and fix it up relatively cheaply, while, if I wanted to do the same, I’d have to spend thousands on someone else’s labor. I suppose, though, we do this all the time — spending money to have experts fix problems that we lay people cannot. We pay for surgeries, home renovations. And in many cases, we spend very little for the products of someone else’s labor (I’m thinking primarily of food systems). 

Cars feel different, somehow. Maybe it’s because in all of my experiences with car maintenance — when I got towed in Nebraska last June, when I’ve needed oil changes and tire rotations and brake fixes, when my car broke down and when I sold it — I’ve dealt exclusively with men. They’ve told me what my problems are and how to fix them — or not. They’ve told me what to buy now and what to worry about later. Whenever I’m having car trouble, I reach out to male friends for advice, and they usually tell me to push through whatever is going on. (My female friends, on the other hand, have almost always told me to stop and get my problem checked out/fixed immediately.)

At the first mechanic in North Little Rock, men told me I shouldn’t drive another mile in my car. (Then I drove another 1,600.) When I sold my car to the amateur mechanic, he diagnosed the problem as involving the timing chain, not engine failure (even though two professional mechanics, including one from a Nissan dealership, had examined my car). To these statements, I have no way to respond. I have no language. I feel incapable of articulating problems with my car, beyond a basic word like “rattling.” In being inarticulate – and ignorant —  I cede power to the people who speak this language. In my case, those people are always men. 

“I’m sorry you have to do this,” my mom told me over the phone when I was in North Little Rock, “but I think you should get dad on the phone so he can speak to the mechanic.” The implication being: a male mechanic might not attempt to mislead or brush off another man, as he might a (seemingly) ignorant woman — even though my dad’s no car expert, either! 

(Caveat to all of this: Obviously there are many women who know cars very well. But those are not the car people of my life.) 

I can go on for this way for a while, but I won’t because these thoughts aren’t new and they’re half-formed. Another half-formed consideration: I’ve thought a lot recently about an organization, where a friend volunteers, that helps immigrants with car upkeep so they can avoid citations and encounters with the police. Such encounters could complicate immigration proceedings or, in the worst case scenario, lead to deportation. And, on April 11, while I was waiting for a mechanic in Arkansas, Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, was shot and killed after a police officer pulled him over for expired vehicle registration tags. So much violence can occur with the pretext of a traffic stop for a broken tail light or a missed stop sign. I’ve driven with one burnt-out brake light for much of this year (many mechanics said they had fixed it but they hadn’t), but I, a white woman, have never been pulled over. 

As I’ve complained ad nauseam to friends about my car saga, one offered a nice way to reframe my negative thoughts. “What if,” he wrote me, “instead of a symbol of male domination, a car is actually a tool of independence, ensuring that you never need to rely on someone else for a ride to a hard to reach place and that you can come and go on your own terms — not anybody else’s. Could a car really be a safe haven?” 

Wise and true words, though I am still bitter. 

Anyway. That’s that. I thought maybe I could spin all these thoughts into an op-ed about Biden’s American Jobs Plan and America’s conception of liberty through driving vs. the wonderfully communal and environmentally healthier experience of sharing rides on public transportation. But then I thought better of that idea — I am not an op-ed writer — so you get this cathartic email instead. Thanks for reading. 

I’ll need a car in Las Vegas, sadly, but I’ll live without one for a few months before I start searching again. Maybe this time, after my crash course in engine failure, I’ll have a few more words to help me out.