The Dalles, Oregon

Is an alternator really an alternator if it doesn’t alternate?

I don’t know squat about cars, but I know this: The Mazda has seen its last long-distance road trip. We might take a drive up to Battle Ground or down to Eugene, but that’s about the furthest I’m willing to travel in this car (other than, of course, trying to get home from The Dalles). I’ve put over $1k into the thing in the last three weeks, and for a car with 141,000 miles on it, it should be doing a whole heckuva lot better given that we’ve had it serviced and maintained regularly. The bottom line is that I don’t trust it, and that’s a fatal stain as far as I’m concerned.

But let me back up to tell you about today’s disasterous turn of events. We picked up the Mazda from the mechanic in the late morning and were all packed up and buzzing down I-84 westbound when it crapped out again by Exit 40 near Bonneville. I don’t know what sort of voodoo curse this car is under, but the 626 went dead just like before. We’ve had the ignition coil, distributor, and alternator replaced and still it goes dead. What you bet that everything we spent money repairing was fine and that the problem is something like a $5 wire? At this point it wouldn’t surprise me at all.

With Erin driving along the shoulder, I pushed the car to a turnout at the base of Exit 40. Then I walked to the fish hatchery and borrowed a cell phone from the security guard. A terrifically nice fellow (also named Ty), he let us use his T-Mobile phone for the multiple calls it took to get “un-stranded.”

The place we had the car serviced in The Dalles gave us some NAPA guarantee paperwork that says if we take the car to a NAPA service center—not a parts store, mind you—they’ll fix the problem for free. They’ll even tow up to 25 miles for free (using some bizarre reimbursement system that requires me to pay for the tow to begin with). Well, if the Yellow Pages are any guide—and I hope they are—there is no NAPA service center within 25 miles of Bonneville. I called the mechanic in The Dalles; he didn’t know of another NAPA mechanic. I called the NAPA emergency roadside assistance 800 number. Unbelievably, they didn’t know of another NAPA dealer either. So that proved a big waste of time.

Finally, I called USAA’s roadside assist service again, and they set up a tow from a company out of The Dalles. After 90 minutes of waiting (at this point the fish hatchery had closed), I borrowed another cell phone—this one from a movie caterer whose truck had a flat—and called USAA back. They said a truck was on the way. The caterer was very kind, and gave me some apple juice from his truck to take back to Erin. He also mentioned, when I asked about what stars he’s worked with, that Cuba Gooding Jr. is a classy, funny, down-to-earth guy. So props to Cuba.

After a couple hours of waiting the tow truck showed up. The best news of it all was that we got to ride in the car while it sat on the bed of the tow truck as it took us back to The Dalles, sort of a low budget carnival ride. That didn’t make up for the wait (again in 90 plus degree weather), but at that point we were trying to salvage what meager happiness we could from the experience. I forgot to mention it but we also briefly toured the Bonneville fish hatchery while we were waiting. Big sturgeon, lots of trout. Too bad Jonah’s not just a little older. I think he would’ve dug it.

Anyway, after breaking down at 3:25 PM, we got back to Howard and Dorothy’s around 9 PM. They’ve been very hospitable and gracious in our time of need. Jonah continues to be terrific about the whole thing, and Erin’s positive demeanor is a godsend. I think we handled the day as well as it could be handled, really.

It’s just that I’m getting tired of having mechanics tell me the car will run yet needing a tow truck to return to their shop. We’d already planned to buy another car at the end of the summer; we’ll be accelerating those plans. I’m sure we’ll keep the Mazda for bopping around the Salem area, but, as I’ve said, I don’t trust it for much longer distances. Like it or not, tomorrow or the next day, I’m gonna have to trust it again to get us home.