Friday, November 23, 2012

Snow Falling on the Volvo

I'm currently in a town called Beckley, West Virginia. It's a small town, but seems nice enough, and one that, up until a few minutes ago, I had forgotten I'd been to before.

It was February, in 2003 and I was living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was a weekend that started with Valentine's Day and ended in a disastrous snowstorm. A memorable weekend for sure, one that inspired the following bit of prose. Enjoy!

Snow Falling On the Volvo (Feb, 2003)

Lisa looked beautiful, as she always does, with her face illuminated by the soft light of the fire against the blackness of the cold West Virginia night. She wore a solemn expression, as we watched the Summersville volunteer fire department proceed to break into the burning car, formerly her car, to rescue a family of dummies. I watched the procedure with intense fascination as I stood there by her side, holding her hand. I remembered hearing somewhere that Volvos last an average of eighteen years. At seventeen and half, I guessed that Lisa’s car had led a good life, although I understood the sense of loss that I could see in her eyes. Lisa loved that car.

Just two weeks before, we were happily driving it southbound on interstate 79 from Pittsburgh. It was Valentine’s Day, a Friday, and I had planned what I thought was going to be the perfect romantic weekend getaway. Two nights in a remote mountain cabin deep in the heart of the New River Gorge, complete with a fireplace and hot tub. After a bit of searching, I found a location for us directly on the bank of the river, near an old rail depot and scenic waterfalls. Lisa had prepared a menu for the weekend and the trunk of the Volvo was filled with an assortment of fresh foods and wine. With the food, our luggage, and Lisa’s dog Seminole, we still managed to fit comfortably in the old car as we drove through northern West Virginia. I couldn't wait to get to the cabin. It was going to be perfect.

Three hours on the road and the final stretch of our trip was a fifty-mile section of route 19, a mountain highway full of steep hills and sharp curves that quickly proved to be too much for the old Volvo. On a particularly nasty incline, it finally gave up and with a loud bang from under the hood, as if cursing us for pushing it so far, the car suddenly died . Using the little bit of momentum that was left, we  managed to steer onto the side of the road before being trampled by a convoy of trucks. Lisa and I sat there for a moment, dumbfounded and completely at a loss to explain what just happened and what to do about it. Eventually, we went outside to look under the hood as if either of us had any mechanical knowledge or even the proper tools that would allow us to diagnose and repair whatever it was that killed the Volvo. Right away I noticed a broken cable and an oil spill over one half of the engine . Additional attempts to restart the car were unsuccessful. Yep, it was broke. To add insult to injury, it began to rain.

Seminole was getting anxious thinking that we had stopped because we had reached our final destination, so I took him out for a walk on the snow banks jetting out of the mountainside while Lisa attempted to find a cellular signal and call for help. As I was out in the freezing rain, I noticed a light snow begin to fall. Lisa got in touch with AAA and let me know that a West Virginia “courtesy patrol unit” was on its way . I don’t understand why they just didn't send us a tow-truck because an hour later when the courtesy patrol arrived, all he did for us was look under the hood, try in vain to re-start the car, and call a tow-truck. Another thirty minutes later the tow-truck arrived. Alan, the driver, considered himself something of a mechanic and attempted to give us a quick fix solution that, despite his best efforts, didn't work. With Seminole back in the car, Lisa and I stood in the falling combination of snow and rain and watched as Alan chained up the Volvo and raised it onto the bed of his truck.

For the next half hour or so, the three of us made small talk about classic cars , West Virginia, dogs, and whatever else we could think to talk about on the way to Summersville, the nearest town and home base of Alan’s towing operation. It occurred to me that, if we were to salvage any of the remaining weekend and make it to the cabin, we would need to get a rental car in Summersville to continue our journey south. According to Alan there were two rental agencies in town, and he was nice enough to drive us by them on the way to his body shop. The first had nothing available; the second had only one car left. Lucky us.

Now, in the driver’s seat of a brand new Ford Explorer, I followed Alan and Lisa to the body shop. There I quickly transferred the all of the contents of Lisa’s Volvo, including Seminole , to the rental while Lisa talked with the mechanics about the snowball’s chance of them being able to repair her car by the end of the weekend. “We’ll probably get a chance to look at it tomorrow” said Joe, the head mechanic and owner of the shop, in a thick but amicable West Virginia accent. Funny thing about that accent: like a lot of rural or southern drawls damn near everything spoken with it sounds endearing. Joe could have said something like, “well tomorrow me and the boys’ll take turns pissing in the radiator, then we’ll strip down and rub our naked asses all over the inside of the car…see if that don’t fix her up for you, you stupid uppity foreign-car-driving city folk”, and it would have sounded like he was our best friend . Thankfully, he seemed sincere and respectable enough.

With the Volvo in Joe’s seemingly capable hands, Lisa, Seminole, and I piled into the Explorer and continued on our way. After about a four-hour delay, we were back on track to our cabin destination, which was only about thirty miles down the road. All we had to do was make a quick stop at the rental agency’s office near the famous New River Gorge Bridge (world’s longest steel arch!) to pick up keys and a map and we were set. The office was closed, but thankfully Peggy, the cabin’s owner, tacked an envelope to the front door for us. From that point, it was a fairly simple matter of following her directions that led us through winding mountain back roads and deep into the heart of the gorge. On the way, we passed the most amazing scenery: frozen over creek beds and rapids, icicled waterfalls, the quaint little town of Thurmond, and a seemingly ancient railroad line that ran parallel and crisscrossed with our back road route to the cabin.

The cabin itself was immediately recognizable from the picture I had seen in Peggy’s brochure; it was a one-story cedar cabin with a deck on the banks of the New River. The light snow I observed earlier had since turned to back into freezing rain and I pulled the Explorer up close to the front porch so that we could unload without getting any more wet. Barely able to contain my excitement, I jumped out of the car, opened the door to the cabin, and followed Lisa in. It was beautiful and spacious. The living room opened into a full sized kitchen that came complete with a wood-burning stove. The master bedroom was off to the side, with another living space and bathroom as well. Sliding glass doors opened out onto the patio, which offered an amazing view of the area and contained our hot tub. We had a hell of a time getting there, but damn was it worth it.

Suddenly a house alarm went off and a loud siren echoed throughout the cabin. Seminole squealed and ran from room to room trying to escape the painful noise as I frantically fumbled through my pockets looking for Peggy’s information. The alarm’s electronic voice repeatedly shouted, “INTRUDER, EXIT IMMEDIATELY”, at a deafening volume as I found a handwritten to-disable-alarm note on the bottom of Peggy’s map. (Funny how I failed to notice that before.) With the alarm disabled and our ears still ringing, we continued to settle in and took a moment to relax in our new surroundings. The rain continued to pour.

Other than the rain, the next twelve hours were perfect. Lisa did a tremendous job of gathering supplies and planning for the weekend. That evening we cooked a salmon dinner together and had a wonderfully romantic evening of sipping wine by candlelight and enjoying each other’s company. We laughed, we talked, and we gazed for hours into each other’s eyes. For the moment it seemed that all our problems had disappeared and all that really mattered in the world was the fact that we were there together. We exchanged valentine’s gifts and eventually fell asleep to the rhythmic sound of heavy raindrops beating on the cedar roof .

We awoke Saturday morning, had a leisurely breakfast, and continued to relax as we took the dog out for a brief freezing rain-soaked walk. Afterwards, we figured that a call to Joe about the car was in order. We knew our cell phones wouldn't work in the remote location but we didn't anticipate the cabin phone failing us as well. Actually, we could make local calls but Joe’s garage was long distance. We tried to charge calls to credit cards or to our home phone accounts but for some reason nothing seemed to work for us. Finally, I made a collect call to my parents  and borrowed their calling card information. With help from my parents, Lisa and I were now able to contact the garage only to hear the devastating news that there was no way that the Volvo could be fixed by the end of the weekend. Our worst-case scenario had been realized: the car needed a new engine, and we needed to find a new way home.

We were limited in our rental agreement for the Explorer as it was a limited mileage, local rental that needed to be returned to the same location. For the next hour or so, my parents proved to be an enormous help in finding us transportation back to Pittsburgh. They made some calls to national rental companies, searched the Internet a bit, and finally found us a car in the nearby (30 miles south) town of Beckley that was available for a one-way rental to Pittsburgh. A small rental franchise, so small that its only hours of business were from eleven to three, at the regional airport had exactly one car available. They couldn't guarantee it over the phone, but the manager, Juanita, took pity on our situation and said that she would hold it for us. In the meantime, Lisa and I packed into the Explorer for a return trip to Joe’s garage to gather up the rest of her belongings, well everything but a bag of rock salt, from the Volvo.

Juanita, not Wauneta  and not at all Spanish, was one of the nicest, most friendly people that we encountered that weekend. She assured us that, even though the car could not be guaranteed, she would hold on to it for us until we got there. After leaving Joe’s, we made it to her office slightly before her three o’clock quitting time and began completing the necessary paperwork for the rental. Still planning on spending another night at the cabin, we would be returning the car in Pittsburgh by Monday morning. Juanita informed us that because one-way rental rates are more than double the price of local rentals, at about $130 a day, it would be more economical for us to wait until Sunday morning to rent from her. Of course, we knew this but Lisa and I were both concerned about the lack of available cars and their reluctance to guarantee our reservation. Again, Juanita assured us that she would hold the car and would be the only one on duty that morning anyway so we took her advice and decided to save a little money.

Back at the cabin, the rain was incessant. Radio weather forecasts warned of a great storm system heading into most of the northeast that was to result in freezing rain and snow in our area throughout the rest of the weekend. However, we were feeling good about securing a ride home and didn’t want to let a minor inconvenience like the weather interfere with the rest of our time in the gorge. We bundled up and decided to take the dog for a nice walk in the downpour, followed by a scenic drive and a quick shopping excursion for more supplies. We finished the evening much as we had the previous night, with a romantic candlelight dinner, although we also kept a close watch on the rain. Just as we were getting ready for bed, the rain stopped falling long enough for us to enjoy a brief soak in the patio hot tub.

We slept in Sunday morning. Relaxed and well rested, we gathered up our belongings and prepared for the day. The rain had run its course and, for the first time, we experienced the West Virginia outdoors without getting wet. Over night, the sky managed to drop an inch-thick layer of ice over the entire world that was as beautiful as it was difficult to walk on. I had to chip away the ice on the Explorer to open the doors and I let the engine warm up as Lisa and I loaded the back with our things. Fortunately I took Lisa’s ice scraper from the Volvo because the layer on the windshield proved to be too difficult for the puny one supplied by the rental company . Ten minutes of chopping and scraping ice made the Explorer drive-able. We packed into it along with Seminole and said our final goodbye to the cabin.

If there was anything positive to the Volvo’s death it had to be that it put us into the seat of that Explorer. A lesser vehicle would have had an extremely difficult time navigating the route to and from the cabin, even under normal road conditions, and driving on ice would have been out of the question. The Explorer easily handled terrain that would have made any other car cry out for its mother. Steep, ice-covered roads narrowly winding through a mountain gorge were exactly what that machine was designed for; its purpose for existence. I felt as if we were driving through the middle of an SUV commercial . It continued to handle well as we climbed out of the gorge and onto the highway, where the layer of ice was covered with a few inches of unplowed fresh snow. Our plan was simple enough, we had to drive about thirty miles south to Beckley, pick up our one-way rental, drive both cars back north to Summersville, return the Explorer, and continue the drive north to Pittsburgh, arriving in time for work Monday morning. Lisa would decide what to do about the Volvo once we were back home. Everything was going smoothly except for the snowfall, which wasn’t at all a problem for the mighty Explorer. Plowed or not, we were going to make it down that highway.

Of course there was only minimal traffic on the drive down as few people were desperate or crazy enough to test fate that morning. From the radio, we learned that the entire northeast had been hit hard with snow and that it continued to fall in record amounts. Forty inches dropped on D.C. and New York City was covered in almost twenty. Pittsburgh itself was struggling to crawl out beneath its own record of twenty-four inches. Many places were in a declared state of emergency, including one area in West Virginia that seemed to have gotten hit the hardest: Raleigh County. Emergency broadcasts stressed that in these areas, there was to be no non-essential traffic on the roads, only emergency and service vehicles. Government offices in Raleigh, as well as most businesses, were all closed that day by order of the governor. Apparently the storm had been much more severe in the Raleigh region than where we spent the night. Thankfully, we were on our way to Beckley, not Raleigh County.

It may not have been an officially declared state of emergency, but the road to Beckley was in very rough shape. The layer of unplowed snow was thick, and growing thicker as the snow continued to fall. I drove slowly  to compensate for this, knowing that, even if the rental office closed at three, we had plenty of time to play it safe. No other drivers were on the road, although we passed a few that had slid nose-first into snow banks on the shoulder. After an hour or so we turned off the highway onto the road leading to the Beckley airport. It was in even worse shape than the highway, it looked as if no one had driven on it for hours. Finally approaching the small airport itself, I noticed a sign that I somehow failed to observe the day before: “Welcome to Beckley/Raleigh County Memorial Airport”. Oh fuck.

Needless to say, Juanita was not there. The airport was closed down under the state of emergency. Two security guards and a tow-truck driver were the only people other than Lisa and I in the entire building. We were definitely not going to be renting our car. In an instant, our plan suddenly got substantially less simple. The electricity kept bouncing on and off, wreaking havoc with the automatic doors and causing me to have a difficult time in the restroom. I kept expecting security alarms to go off and baggage carousels to suddenly turn themselves on, but no such luck. As I saw it, we had a decision to make: stay the night in Beckley and hope that the city, including Juanita, is able to return to work in the morning and proceed with the original plan a day late; or drive to Charleston and rent a car. As there was no guarantee that Beckley would be in business or that our car would still be there for us, the choice was easy. After making a few calls, we reserved  a car available for one-way travel to Pittsburgh from Charleston with an agent that must have gotten fairly annoyed at my constant need for reassurance that they were open and would continue to be open.

Again navigating the unplowed streets leading from the airport, we made it back to the highway and began our journey to Charleston with a quick pit stop at a turnpike travel plaza. At this point, the snow had turned to hail and pelted us relentlessly in the face as soon as we stepped out of the Explorer. Lisa had to let the dog out for a bit so I volunteered to go inside and get our order; a slice of vegetarian pizza for Lisa and a latte for me . Inside, it didn't surprise me that the pizza place and coffee shop were both closed. The only thing open for business that day was a Burger King, and the line was tremendous. I got in line and began sharing weather war stories with people who seemed more like refugees than travelers. It didn't matter what direction they were coming from, everyone talked about the horrors they had just survived: massive accidents, cars sliding off roads, collapsed trees, and treacherous conditions. Record storms, mountain highways, and cars just don’t mix. As I stood in line Lisa entered the plaza and found me. “I was going to order you a veggie burger,” I said. “No, that’s okay. Just get me some French fries.”

Forty minutes later I finally have our food and sit down at the table with Lisa, who had been on the phone the entire time. I was so hungry that I ate my veggie burger in about four bites. Lisa snacked on her fries. We both decided that it would be a good idea not to rush the trip to Charleston and then back to Summersville so we made plans to spend the night. We starting calling hotels in the area, and almost all of them were already full. Fortunately, we managed to find the last available room at a Red Roof Inn, just outside of Charleston and only about ten miles from the airport where our rental car was located. From talking with refugees from the north, it sounded as if the road to Charleston wasn't as bad as Beckley, so I figured it would be okay. Besides, it was only about sixty miles away, and even at half speed it wouldn't take us too long. Not a problem but for some reason Lisa had an expression of concern on her face, “I really want one of those veggie burgers.”

The rest of our day went as smoothly as it could have. The road to Charleston had been plowed somewhat and there had been plenty of traffic before us to clear a path in the remaining snow. However, it still took us about three hours to drive the sixty miles to our hotel. Along the way, we passed a host of accidents and emergency situations including one that involved a jack-knifed truck and a few cars. We learned from the radio that the storm, now dubbed the president’s day storm for the Monday holiday, continued to cause problems all over the northeast. In the comfort of our hotel room, we snacked on the remaining food from the weekend and popped open our last bottle of wine .

Monday morning, everything went as planned. We picked up the one-way rental at the Charleston airport and drove both cars through the mountains over to Summersville. Other than a few detours due to road closures on account of storm damage, we were fine. Summersville, and most of eastern West Virginia, was dealing with a major power outage and we had some trouble locating a working gas station to fill up the Explorer, but we managed. Trees had fallen over much of the route to Joe’s garage making it extremely difficult to navigate, but again we managed. After another brief discussion over the Volvo’s fate Lisa, Seminole, and I were back on the long and icy road to Pittsburgh.

Looking back on that weekend now, I am amazed. Not because we made it home or anything, as I’ve survived worse experiences, but because no matter what had happened, Lisa and I were always happy just to be together. The romantic weekend getaway that I had planned may have gone to shit: Lisa was now out of a car, and our credit cards were put to some unexpected work .  However, I can’t remember a single moment when the stress of the situation got to us. We made the most of our time together, from walking the dog in the freezing rain to sipping wine from plastic cups at the Red Roof Inn, and we loved every minute of it. It was both the worst and greatest Valentine’s weekend ever and definitely the most memorable.

Two weeks later and Lisa and I had returned to where it all began. Now that the Summersville fire department had “rescued” the dummies from Lisa’s fiery Volvo, it was time for us to be on our way. She had already signed over the car’s title and received her charity receipt for taxes . We left the fire and walked back to the parking lot where Seminole was waiting in the backseat of Lisa’s brand new Honda Accord. She unlocked the doors for us with a press of a button on her key, something the Volvo couldn't do, and we hopped back in the car. Only thirty miles left until the cabin on our second trip to the New River Gorge.

It’s funny that such a disastrous weekend should be remembered so fondly.

End.