Thursday, May 26, 2011

Loren's KIA: A Fateful Road Trip



Loren and me with his new KIA, 2001; West Virginia mountains and wild flowers; Elissa on the phone; me saying goodbye to the KIA (below right) but not to the happy memories surrounding it.


My brother Loren’s cranberry red ’98 KIA died on 22 May, the very day Loren died exactly one year ago, and also at the same time of day, about 2:30 pm. A one-year anniversary coincidence?

The KIA didn’t make it from Tallahassee to Toledo, our destination.

It had sat in my sister Andy’s driveway for two years, awaiting my return from the Peace Corps in Ukraine so my daughter Elissa and I could drive it up to Ohio. It was to be her car. Elissa flew down and met me in St. Pete and we drove up to Tallahassee together in a rental car, oblivious to the difficulties we were to confront on this road trip home.

Loren didn’t make it to his destination on 22 May 2010, the end of a difficult hike along the Aucilla river in northern Florida. Loren's car didn't make it to its destination either, a year later.

I was beside myself. Loren and I had bought that car together 10 years ago, at a Saturn dealership in St. Pete (photo above). It was his pride and joy.

After great visits in St. Petersburg and Tallahassee and a lovely stop in Charlotte, NC to visit cousins, here we were in the mountain town of..."What's the name of it again?" Elissa kept asking...Princeton, honey, Princeton, West Virginia. The car refused to go up and down the mountains. After a mighty struggle ("what the heck?"), Elissa wisely decided to stop. "Mom, we're getting off the road." We came to a precarious and sloppy stop, barely, in a hot Walmart’s parking lot, surrounded by the beauty of the Blue Ridge mountains, sweating it out, with a dying car.

Five hours later, and lots of diagnosing and fixin’ by Danny (recommended by Walmart's Oil Change and Tires shop), we watched the car die a slow, painful death. Nothing worked; no matter what Danny did (new fuel pump, new spark plugs, cleaning and wiping) it only got worse, and worse. The car grew noiser, hotter, sicker; it muttered and sputtered and refused to move forward. Elissa and I, on a road trip from hell, far from our destination, without transportation, aware my movers were coming the next day, had no choice. We had to have it towed to the nearest motel, a Best Western, where we spent the night, pondering. No option there.

Next morning Elissa, an angel, made dozens of phone calls to see if towing the KIA to Toledo was an option. She did it for me, because her mom was teary-eyed and maudlin, struggling to keep a positive attitude. Elissa was kind and patient. She understood my emotional attachment to that car, to anything that once belonged to Loren. I couldn't let it go.

Everyone we talked to, including car experts in Tallahassee, West Virginia, and Toledo, said it sounded like the car had probably blown a head gasket, needed a new engine (very expensive), and was not worth fixing, or towing. It was over 10 years old and had over 102,000 miles on it. It had served Loren well. It was worn out.

The guy from AAA who towed it (thank God for Elissa’s membership), Oakley was his name, offered me $200 for it. "For the scrap heap," he added, making it sound even more forlorn and wretched, a death knell.

I sat on that offer over night, tossing and turning on it. But the options grew slim and dim, like the car itself. Elissa found out that towing was expensive and difficult: a 14-foot U-Haul truck that would cost over $800 and get 10 miles to the gallon, costing us more than the car was worth, simply as a compromise so I could hang onto it and not send it to the scrap heap of West Virginia. Okay. I see. Maybe it WAS better to bury it in the mountains? Let it go.

“Loren would like to have the car die in the mountains,” my sister said. Elissa agreed. Calls went back and forth like this. The timing was just too incredible. It was meant to be. Something magical and mysterious was touching us, something cosmic and spiritual. It was Loren speaking to us, they thought. The car was meant to go, everyone assured me. Loren wanted it in the mountains.

I had a hard time of it, succumbing to voices they heard but I didn't; there was no way we could get the car to Toledo by driving (impossible) or by towing (which proved ridiculously cumbersome and expensive). We called Oakley and said he could have it. I couldn't stay in Princeton, WVA, hugging that car forever. We had to get back to Sylvania and meet my movers, rescheduled for the next day. Something practical as well as magical motivated us.

We finally (many more calls later) rented a truck from Enterprise, the ONLY rental dealer available in Princeton, who informed us that's all they had left, no cars, and also that they would charge a “drop-off” fee of $300 in Toledo, because we were only going one-way. Good Lord! No way. I won't even go into the challenges required to rent this truck, including "proof of residency."

Thus Elissa began another series of calls, which continued almost non-stop until we got to Charleston, W. VA, where in fatigue and desperation we backtracked to the Charleston airport (suggested and aided by the AAA lady in Toledo), so we could rent a real car from Hertz, get rid of the Enterprise rental truck and avoid that drop-off fee.

I forgot to say that each time we changed cars, we had to pack and unpack the huge load of stuff I had left in Tallahassee two years ago, which my sister had piled in the KIA, happy to be rid of it. Lots of loading and unloading, of physical as well as emotional baggage.

Elissa and I made it home, a day late and a dollar short. I had said goodbye to my life in St. Petersburg, to Florida, to my sister, to cousins in North Carolina, and to my brother’s KIA. It was an emotional road trip.

We kept telling ourselves it could be worse. That was our mantra.We came up with worst-case scenarios that comforted us, among them the tragic tornadoes in Missouri.

Somewhere over the West VA/Ohio line, John Denver's “Country Roads” came on the radio. Unbelievable! Our song. The song of the KIA, and Loren, of our road trip. Elissa turned it up.

"Almost heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River.... Country roads, take me home, to the place, I belong, West Virginia, mountain mama, take me home, country roads."

We sang along, belted it out, off and on all the way to Toledo, even through a great thunderstorm in Michigan that was loaded with tornado potential. We stopped under bridges when rain fell too hard, prayed and sang, and avoided asking each other how much longer we had to go.

We were blown away, but not by a tornado. We felt blessed to make it home safe and sound around midnight on a stormy Monday night. Loren and his KIA were re-united in the mountains, and we were back home to remember it, forever.
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