The Dalles, Oregon

Our journey gets funky, and it’s not the good kind of funk either. We adapt. We change. We grow.

With deep gratitude for Brian and Tracey’s kind hospitality, we departed Spokane for my uncle Howard and Aunt Dorothy’s place in The Dalles. It’s usually a five hour trip if you drive it straight. If you stop for lunch you can add another hour to that. If you stop for lunch with a baby, you can add two hours. If the car you just spent a $1000 getting fixed up for the trip breaks down at Mile post 153 by Oregon’s Three Mile Canyon Exit, you can add another five hours plus the time you stopped for lunch with a baby. So it turns out that the terrifically sub-par Denny’s in Kennewick where we lunched, and about which I was at one point prepared to write so much, is a very minor plot point in today’s adventure.

I’ve not mentioned it in this space, but we’ve dumped a bundle of money into the Mazda in recent weeks. You’d be driving along and the car would shut down with the tachometer dropping from somewhere around 3000 RPMs to zero. If you waited a bit it you could start it back up, but obviously this was less than ideal automotive behavior. The instructions I gave the mechanic were clear: We’re going to Montana in a few weeks, and this car needs to make it through. He replaced the ignition coil and the distributor (and passenger side front wheel bearing, but that’s irrelevant here). The 626 seemed to work like a charm and up until about 65 miles outside The Dalles we buzzed right along.

Out around Boardman, the Mazda shut down again. Previously this meant a wait of a minute or two before restarting the engine. This time it took at least 10 minutes before we were able to restart the car. We drove another mile or so, then the engine died again. We waited 20 minutes the second time before the engine returned to life. Again, we forged ahead another mile before the 626 hung out its tongue and collapsed just shy of the aforementioned Mile Post 153 by Three Mile Canyon.

We’d been charging a cell phone this entire time, but for whatever reason, we couldn’t get enough juice into it to bring it to life. That was a disturbing find, since a call to 911 was our first backup plan. I’m not sure if this will prompt me to actually acquire a full-use cell phone or not, since we otherwise have no desire to carry one regularly. But you can bet your bottom dollar that I’m going to figure out what went wrong here.

I’ve not, by the way, set the stage properly because I’ve omitted one salient fact: It was about 100 degrees out. Erin and I can soldier through just about anything, but we felt badly about subjecting Jonah to this level of discomfort. We kept him hydrated, moved him out of the sun, and frequently wiped him with wet paper towels. I suppose everyone already knows this but maybe it’s worth repeating: Always carry drinkable water in your car. If we’d not had a what we did, an extremely annoying experience could have turned dangerous.

As I walked up to the Three Mile Canyon exit, a good samaritan stopped to let me use his cell phone. I owe a big debt of gratitude to Brent, a motherboard design engineer at Intel, for taking 10 minutes out of his windsurfing vacation just to help out when he saw the need. He had USAA’s roadside assist on speed dial—another important point being always have a roadside assistance service—so I talked with USAA, and they arranged for a tow truck to be there in about an hour. (An aside: Turns out that Brent’s grandfather was a pilot in both World War II and the Korean War, and that’s how Brent has USAA membership.) With my thanks, Brent departed to catch some waves, while Erin, Jonah, and I began our wait for the tow truck.

Richard Schaffer of Bishop’s towing showed up almost exactly one hour after my call. We hopped in the cab, he hooked up the Mazda, and off we went. We stopped at a food mart in Arlington so that we could stock up on water and Gatorade. I tried to call my uncle Howard, but for whatever reason, the call would not go through from the payphone. I’m not sure if this is a problem with my calling card or if it was an issue with the payphone, but I was able to reach Uncle Howard from a payphone in The Dalles, so I’m guessing the latter.

We dropped the car off at K & H Specialties in The Dalles, and Uncle Howard and Aunt Dorothy came down to pick us up. So we ended up at our destination for the night, but not nearly how or when we thought we’d get there. We ate a late but delicious dinner, cleaned up Jonah and ourselves, and went to bed.

Obviously, it would be easy to look at the fortunes of the day and complain. Three things that should have worked didn’t: The car, the cell phone, and the calling card. I’ll get these sorted out. At the same time, we have so many reasons to be grateful that it’s almost overwhelming. We got our Montana trip; if the car had broken on the way there we’d have perhaps canceled the vacation altogether. We received the kindness of strangers; I hate to think how much worse it would have been without Brent’s assistance. We subjected Jonah to a really lousy afternoon, and he issued nary a complaint. We still made it to The Dalles and the sanctuary of family.

Most importantly, though, Erin and I passed the test of this trial and together became the stronger for it. The dirty secret of parenthood is that it strains your spousal relations. This might be because your expectations of how to raise a kid differ from your partner’s. Or it might be that you’re both sleep deprived, because, you know, kids will do that to you. Or you might not be getting enough time together, because time with baby is not, strictly speaking, time with each other. For these and a myriad of other reasons, parenthood isn’t for the faint of heart.

Erin’s and my relationship has suffered because of Jonah’s arrival. I’m not talking about having big fights or throwing plates or anything ridiculous like that. We’ve just been a bit testy, because, well, frankly, we’ve never needed to work at our relationship before. Loving and living with Erin has always been the most natural, effortless thing for me. Even Jonah, the world’s most docile and lovable child (said the dad), couldn’t help but throw a monkey wrench into the works. Having kids changes everything.

But if properly met, shared adventure—today’s set of calamities certainly qualifying as such—brings together those who live the experience. Of all that we’ve seen and done on this trip, how we dealt with today’s events will undoubtedly have the most significant and positive long-term impact on me, on Erin, and on our family. It may seem strange to think of harrowing experiences as beneficial, but most great truths belong to the realm of the paradoxical. Which why the worst day of our journey may have also been the best.