Old Blue gasps, wheezes and rattles as we wind along the country road, lined by dark forests on one side, and a dry stunted corn field on the other. I am not attentive and caring like a hospice nurse tending a terminal patient; instead, like a child putting his fingers in his ears and humming loudly to drown out a scary sound, I turn up the radio. My fingers clutch the steering wheel and my stomach clutches in on itself as I do my own version of mindless humming, chanting under my breath, “Don’t die, don’t die, don’t die.”
Old Blue is old, but not ancient. But as the saying goes, it’s not the years, baby; it’s the miles. Blue has over 176,000 of them, including some hard long-haul miles: a trip from Florida to California with its original owner, several trips between California and Colorado with us and now, the latest and seemingly most detrimental long journey, from California to Indiana. And it’s not just age, and mileage, but maintenance – or lack thereof – that makes up the equation that appears to add up to a serious automotive illness.
Note I don’t say terminal illness. This is because I have no idea what is wrong with our minivan. In the several months before we left California on our likely futile quest for a new and improved life, I poured every penny I could into fixing and replacing parts and bringing maintenance up to date. I thought we were good to go but we sputtered to a halt in the 104 degree desert outside of Barstow, the “No Services for the Next 70 Miles” sign and the frantically blinking ‘check engine’ light convincing me to head for the nearest mechanic.
Delays and dollars, we paid our dues in both and resumed our journey, but the mechanic’s assurances did nothing to alleviate my heightened anxiety about Old Blue’s health. The unexplained demise of our air conditioning (‘nothing to do with us, nowhere near where we were working’) certainly fed my concern. Was Old Blue falling to pieces, one bit at a time? I drove with one eye on the road and one on the instrument panel ready to respond in a moment to any indication of a new problem.
Blue labored on, straining under the load of the U-haul trailer and the oppressive heat and despite my fears we made it safely to Indiana. Relief washed over me as the U-haul assistant uncoupled the empty trailer from Blue’s hitch – home free, I thought to myself, more than ready to focus on other matters – housing, job, school. I think I had all of 5 minutes of peace of mind as far as Old Blue was concerned, it took me about that long to reach the roundabout where without warning Blue died.
Or perhaps I should say passed out rather than died as I was able to resuscitate the van and started off with new fears occupying my mind. Since then Old Blue passes out with regularity – at the first start of the day, and when sitting too long at stoplights or other halts. The engine just shuts off. I’ve gotten the routine down – hit the emergency blinkers, put the car in neutral or park, restart the engine, put it in drive and gun it while shutting off blinkers. We don’t delay other drivers more than a few seconds.
But in addition to the fainting routine Blue sounds bad. It growls and wheezes and sputters. And, alarmingly, it has taken to jerking forward inexplicably regardless of the pressure of my foot on the gas pedal. Then there are the glitch-free days that get my hopes up – perhaps it has recovered on its own? However, I suspect it needs rest and the attention of a mechanic. And probably considerable financial investment – health care is so expensive! The mechanic is beyond our reach at the moment but it looks like Old Blue might just get some well deserved rest as our auto insurance is due for renewal and we can’t afford that either! Now where’s that horse and buggy?