The winter car

We had outfitted the Beetle—Miracle’s ’74 Sunbug—for the Maine winter. Heater boxes and a new blower (and then a new new blower after the plastic one melted). I shored up the floors with sheet metal screws and plugged any gaps with foam. I even lined the boot with reflectix to keep the draft from leaking through the dash. I drove it from Ohio to Maine comfortably, without incident, in December, logging over 1,200 miles. 

But the cruelty of the Maine winter is not the cold, nor the snow. Even the gale-force winds rampaging fresh off the whole of the Atlantic pale in comparison to the corrosiveness of their salt. Whatever sort of salt they use up here, it is chemically altered to eat through any amount of ice and, by the looks of it, pavement as well. Large clumps of salt bond together and can actually auger their path straight to hell. The heat from hell helps melt the snow and the combustion of small vehicles falling into said potholes keeps Satan’s fires roaring at road-melting temperatures. Maine: We partnered with the Devil to keep our roads clear. 

So the real difficulty in driving the Beetle in Maine in the winter is the damage we are doing to our car, which we hope to restore, not destroy. Our local VW mechanic, Andy, said he had a spray that helps stave off the effects of the salt, though his advice was to not drive it at all. “Well, we only have the Beetle and the Bus,” I explained. “And the Beetle does so much better in the snow. And it has heat.”

Andy agreed that yes, the Beetle is a great snow car and yeah the heat in our Beetle is curiously strong, but it also wouldn’t pass inspection. 

Miracle and I like to take calculated risks. We do enough planning to stay out of harm’s way, but then we like the rest of the journey to unfold and navigate the creases and crumples of those folds and unfoldings as they occur. In our cursory research of moving to Maine, we hadn’t heard of this inspection. In our previous and lifelong home state of Ohio, they let you drive any old damn thing down the road. Then again, they also let teachers start carrying handguns, so their sense of what is safe and unsafe is probably not to be trusted.

I digress. Maine has a yearly state vehicle inspection. Apparently most of New England does. They want to make sure your car is road worthy—tires are good, windshield has visibility, lights, brakes, and doors all work. But the undercarriage also needs to be in large part rust-free. And the Beetle is not rust-free. In fact, Andy pointed to one large rust hole and stated definitively that our car would not pass inspection. We should get a winter car and put Antique plates on the Beetle (which exempts us from inspection) while we restore it. 

My love for VWs runs deep, but not so deep as to buy a third one. “Get a Toyota or a Honda,” the locals implored. (Actually they said, “Get a Toyoter or a Hander.”) With the help of a friend in the land of plenty (Portland, Maine), we located a Honda Element in New Hampshire. 

Our plan was something like this: Our friend would inspect the car and see if it would be suitable. If yes, we (Miracle, our dog, Jolene, and myself) would cram into the Beetle and ride down to Portland where we would spend the night. In the morning we would go the rest of the way into New Hampshire and buy the car. Our friend said he noticed a power steering leak he could easily remedy if we stopped by and then we could make it back to our home in the frozen north country by nightfall. 

That was the plan. 

Jolene is scared of the Beetle, but the bus was indisposed (putting in a new ignition). She is terrified of the back seat and because the heat is curiously strong, it’s really not safe for her to lay on the back floor. Our options were: 1. One of us humans rides in the backseat while Jolene rides in the front; or 2. All three of us sit in the front. Not wanting to let the canine believe she is making all the decisions for us, we opted for the latter. We cruised from Lubec to Portland in just under 4 hours—no hiccups or issues. We had dinner with our friend and stayed the night in the okayest hotel in all of Portland. The next morning, the three of us packed back into the Beetle and jaunted down to New Hampshire and the owner of the Element gave me the grand tour. 

It was as our friend had said: a very nice car for being 15 years old. Lots of miles, but also super clean. The inspection sticker for New Hampshire (which is also good for Maine) is valid until November. We were more than satisfied, so we paid in cash, signed the paperwork and jetted back up to our friend’s house to remedy the pesky power steering leak. Miracle and Jolene took the Element; I was by myself in Beetle. But we needed to make good time. The forecast had started calling for snow in the southern part of the state starting around 5. If we could get on the road by 2, we could stay ahead of it. 

Our Element-finding friend has a full shop in his garage and we swapped out the faulty o-rings, no problem. He even caught a bad ground wire and fixed that too. Then, he did it. He said, “Everything is going according to plan.” 

Anyone who has followed this blog and our adventures knows that we have incredible luck—perhaps the best luck of anyone around. It’s like a suit of armor, our luck. But like any suit of armor, like Achilles or the Death Star, we have a chink in our impenetrable luck, a weak spot, the fatal flaw. And saying the words or any variation of, “Man, things are going great!” immediately negates our luck. The tides will turn, sure as shit. I should have called it right then. I should have said, “That’s that. We are going to stay put in Portland until whatever bad luck befalls us has… uh, befallen? Been fallen? Be fell? Been fell? …You get the idea.”

But, no. We were riding the euphoric wave of having a winter car with modulating heat and room for three, an engine in the front so our dog will actually ride in the back (which is also uber spacious). We headed out on the open road, the snow storm yet to blow ashore and enough daylight to get us close to home, if not all the way there. We turned off our friend’s street and I flicked the switch to our heat blower in the Beetle. Nothing happened. As I said, our last plastic blower melted, so we replaced it with a metal one. I haven’t investigated it yet, but my guess is this one, although metal could not withstand the insane heat pumped out by the Beetle. Mind you, the heat still comes out; it just doesn’t blow. It just sort of billows out. In terms of bad luck, I could deal with this. So onward. 

Five miles down the highway, still well within city limits, I watched in my rearview mirror as Miracle peeled off the highway. 

She called a minute later, saying the Element had stopped shifting and she was dead at the bottom of the ramp, at a light. 

Our friends and family, and even some of my remote work colleagues have questioned our sanity, our decision to move to the downeast region of Maine. It’s so far from anything, they say. You’ll be all by yourself. 

In Portland, Maine, my wife was less than one mile from me in a disabled vehicle. I was in an automobile with three stoplights between me and her. It took me ten minutes to get to her. At the height of my running days not so long ago I could have run to her in six minutes. In the downeast, I could have driven there in one minute. Because we don’t have lights up here. Because we don’t have traffic. Because we are far from anything (mostly lights and traffic) and we are blissfully all by ourselves. 

I arrived at the disabled Element and, waved as I was herded through the intersection by the traffic, people honking and flipping their lights. I spied a parking lot on the corner, which naturally was only accessible by going around the block. Because cities. Lights. Traffic. 

I parked the Beetle and jumped out of the car. 

“Now that Beetle really is beautiful,” a voice said. “What year is it?”

Normally I can tolerate this conversation, but not now. I looked at this wistful elderly woman and said as nicely as I could, “Not now. My wife’s stuck,” and I ran. 

In my lifetime I have pushed many cars. I don’t know; I get a kick out of it. Someone’s pushing a disabled car and I jump out, help push them to safety. It usually only takes a minute and it keeps the traffic moving. The person who you just helped is always grateful, usually disproportionately so. And the favor has been returned many times over while we traveled in the bus. As soon as I press my hands on the back of the bus, a second or third set of hands would appear—complete strangers who just want to help. That was not the case in Portland. Portland holds the dubious distinction of the only time I have been the sole pushee of a vehicle. Honking, yelling from car windows, flipping lights. A cop cruised by indifferently, obviously on his way to protect and serve somewhere else from the warmth and safety of the inside of his working car. 

I managed to get the Element to the driveway of the lot where I parked. But there was a slight incline and the Element is much heavier than the Beetle and I can longer crank out six minute miles. Luckily a young man—hood up and earphones on, the blank look of indifference—was walking by. “Need help, man?” he asked. 

“Please.”

We pushed the Element into the spot next to the Beetle and I tried to give him some cash which he turned down before sauntering off. 

Our friend arrived shortly thereafter and we did a quick diagnostic check of the Element before I realized we were, in a word, completely fucked. At this point the Element with a fresh inspection sticker had logged 70 miles. The Beetle—the car that would not pass inspection—had logged 400 miles in two days. 

We called AAA. 

Our history with AAA is not great. Those of you who have followed this blog know they left us stranded in Wisconsin—a debacle where they had us wait for 20 hours with our vehicle in 10 degree weather, promising us every hour or so that a truck was on its way. At the end of filing complaints and asking for reimbursement for trip interruption (which was never honored) and cancelling our membership, we were offered a free year membership. 

“A truck is on the way,” the operator assured us. “We will tow it back to your home—a full 217 miles. You’ll need to pay the overage of 17 miles at $5 per mile.”

“Yeah, I know the recommended route on Google has it as 217,” I said. “But there’s a storm coming in and the coastal route is going to be less treacherous and more direct. It’s 198 miles.”

“Our route says 217.”

“That’s fine. I’m just saying that the 217-mile route is through the mountains and it’s probably safer, faster—and for me—cheaper to stick to the coast.”

“The overage can be paid to the tow truck driver directly when they arrive.”

“Fine,” I said. “When will they arrive?”

“4:30 is their ETA. They’re coming from Massachusetts.”

If you’ve ever dealt with AAA long-distance service you know the exact time is, put generously, a flagrant lie. They have no clue when their truck will arrive. Short tows—yes, they are fine. Great, even. A longer tow? Well, let’s just say that in the strange twists of irony on this planet, the meteorologist was way more accurate than the folks at AAA. 

The snow in Portland started just as the meteorologist predicted, at 6:15. We were still in the parking lot. AAA was still a half hour away, much as they had been for the past two hours. We received a call from the tow truck company that went something like this:

[Warning: This is a watered-down version of the conversation, but still New England in tone. For those of you with Puritanical vocabulary sensibilities, you should skip this section as it is filled with a lot of the fuck word.]

TT: Yeah, this is [tow company]. We’re gonna get to you, but it’s a fucking shitshow out there.

Me: Yeah. AAA said you’d be here at 4:30.

TT: Fucking idiots. We’re still in Mass. Ice an inch thick. They don’t fucking know fuckall about shit. 

Me: Indeed. 

TT: Is it snowing there yet?

Me: Just started. 

TT: It’s gonna get crazy. It’s heading your way. You got a ride or are you gonna be in the tow truck?

Me: We actually have another car with us.

TT: Hope it’s a good snow car. It’s fucking crazy out here.

Me: It’s an old VW Beetle.

TT: …

Me: …

TT: You should get going. 

Me: AAA said I have to be here with the car to get it towed. 

TT: Fucking AAA. Idiots. They only call us because everybody else turned them down. Cheap fucking bastards. You in a good place? 

Me: Like spiritually? 

TT: Like you okay leaving your uh,—what is the vehicle getting towed?

Me: Honda Element. 

TT: Man, Handers are great winter cars!

Me: So I hear. 

TT: You okay leaving it there? Like leaving the key under the gas flap?

Me: Listen, I don’t give a shit about this car really. We’ve owned it for like three hours and it died on us. If something happened to it, I’d shed no tears. …AAA said I’d have to pay an overage because it’s 217 miles and—

TT: Fucking AAA. Cheap bastards. We’ll figure that part out later. Put the key under the gas flap and get the fuck outta there.

So we got the fuck out of town. The three of us piled back into the Beetle, Jolene at Miracle’s feet and the heat billowing out from under the back seat. The snow had started coming down. Hard. New England style. Single file lanes on the highway, except for the guys in the jacked up GMC trucks who fishtailed along in the left lane. I guess that’s a trend across all of America. 

It was dark and the combination of salt spray on the outside of the windshield and the fog-turning-to-ice on the inside of the windshield meant we had a visibility of about 9 feet. Our average speed for the first hour was 35. We turned to the coastal route, where the snow was less. But the roads were still completely coated. Our average speed stayed 35. But the heat inside the vehicle finally saturated the cabin and heated the windshield. Unfortunately, the combination of three breathing things and the constant stream of moisture coming through the rust hole in the floor meant that we were driving a Swedish sauna. If we cracked the window, the inside of the windshield began to ice over. So we shed layers and sweated while I constantly readjusted my sights to find a non-salt-stained section of windshield to peer through. Twice we stopped so I could clean the windshield. After one bout of freezing rain, we had zero visibility and I stuck my head out the window to pull into a gas station where I cleared the windshield. 

“You think we should maybe stay the night somewhere?” Miracle asked. We had been on the road for two-and-a-half hours, so in theory home was only a couple hours away. 

“What is our arrival time according to Google?” I asked. 

“10:55.”

“An hour ago with was 10:10.”

“I know.”

“Let’s press on.”

I turned out of the gas station and the windshield began icing over instantly. Here’s the balancing act: Roll down the window or get out to scrape and all the heat escapes. Don’t attend to the windshield and you can’t see. I opted for the latter. Luckily, an illegally passing GMC splashed salt water on our windshield and it cleared. I corrected the course of the car (which was going to go off the road in a matter of seconds) and I said perhaps we should find a place to stay for the night. 

Miracle found a very nice, cheap hotel in Ellsworth. Brad, the gentleman at the front desk, was thrilled to have us. He pointed through the front window at the Beetle. “You drove that?”

“Yeah,” I said, “from Portland.”

“Jesus. You run into any snow?”

“Snow. Freezing rain. All of it.”

“But the Beetle made it?”

“It did.”

“Those are great winter cars.”

“Sure are.”

“I mean, if it weren’t for the salt. Salt will eat that thing up. You need a winter car.”

We had hit up the Trader Joe’s while we were in the land of plenty. We figured since we had two cars, we’d have plenty of room for groceries. Trader Joe’s has a greater variety of food than our local stores here in the north country and, most importantly, they have a huge selection of affordable, good wines. So we stocked up. 

Which meant that now that we were stopping for the night, all the things that couldn’t be frozen needed to be moved to the hotel room. Brad told us to keep the Beetle parked under the car port while we unloaded and as we schlepped our crate of wine and bags of groceries, our overnight bags, and our dog to our hotel room, he handed us two bags of chocolate chip cookies. 

This hotel? Five stars. Brad is the best. 

The next morning I had to work, which requires I use my secure work laptop. Which I left at home, having uttered the words, “I won’t need it unless we get stuck somewhere.” So we got up early and struck out on the roads from Ellsworth to Machias—the coastal route. 

For much of the route, our only company were the snowplows and the occasional police SUV. We had 73 miles to go and it took us two hours—an average speed of 35. We fishtailed once, for about three seconds. 

We passed Andy’s shop, where the Element will arrive sometime tomorrow. (The tow truck company said they were busy pulling pickup trucks out of the median of the highway and besides the roads are so fucking treacherous only a fucking idiot would be out on them.) Andy said he’d look at the Element, but Handers are good snow cars. 

Then we left Andy’s autoshop. In our 45-year-old, not-suitable-for-the-road, destined-for-Antique plates VW, and completed the final 14 miles of our 650-mile trip without incident, the greatest danger being the salt in the wounds of our car. 

4 thoughts on “The winter car

  1. “Heat” and “VW Bug ” are not two things I associate with each other. My first car, a 1970 Beetle, handled well in snow, but took forever to heat up enough to clear windows of frost. I have a 2016 VW Golf SportWagen now that puts out enough heat to cremate and is much more comfortable than that Beetle back in the early ’70’s!

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    1. Getting the heater boxes working was a feat. We have our trusty Dayton mechanic to thank. I ordered rust-free heater boxes from a junkyard in Idaho. Then we had to put in a whole new exhaust system. The regular channels were rotten, so we forced all the hot air out from under the back seat, which is probably why we keep melting fans…

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      1. Wow! No doubt about it, VW Beetles were a quirky car. I traded mine in for a VW Rabbit, an also fun car to drive but a piece of crap for quality. I drive a VW Golf SportWagen now, a descendent of the Rabbit, and VW got their act together in the year that followed. It’s been a super car…and it puts out sufficient heat, fast, to deal with window ice and cold humans inside it!

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